By Messay Kebede (Ph.D.) 24 September 2009 — I would like to thank Jawar Siraj Mohammed for the civility with which he engaged my article, “The OLF: Ideological or Leadership Bankruptcy?” Many Oromo responded to the article with emotional outcries and personal attacks, thereby displaying not only their alarming deficiency in sound arguments, but also their refusal to even discuss the issue. Some even went to the extent of saying that the Oromo issue is none of my business, as though Oromia had already become a foreign country. The happy contrast is that Jawar argues and wants to show that what failed the Oromo is not the ideology but the leadership. Since his sober and argued reply denotes an opening to dialogue, I reciprocate with an even higher longing for a rapprochement.
Jawar’s arguments are as follows: (1) there is no ideological bankruptcy since the large majority of the Oromo people supports the nationalist agenda of the OLF. (2) It is not true to say that the OLF operates in geographical conditions that are inimical to armed insurgency. (3) The success of the TPLF and EPLF highlights the importance of leadership. (4) The failure of the EPRP was due less to ideology than to strategic mistakes of its leadership.
What we get from these factual arguments is that “ideology does not play much role in determining the failure and success of an insurgency.” Jawar adds that, so long as an insurgency is not strong enough, it cannot consider reformist options, for it is suicidal for an organization to give up its mobilizing ideology. In other words, the Oromo nationalist or secessionist agenda should be preserved until the movement is strong enough to reform itself. Let me examine one by one these arguments.
Who Wants Secession?
Is it true to say that the Oromo people supports the secessionist agenda of the OLF? For that matter, let us extend the issue and ask whether the Eritrean people has supported the secessionist goal of the EPLF and whether the Tigrean people has agreed to the secession of Eritrea and the fragmentation of Ethiopia along ethnic lines. If both movements led to dictatorial regimes, is it not because the so-called popular support was actually imposed on the people they claim to represent? True, both Eritreans and Tigreans wanted self-rule, but it is one thing to fight against centralization and quite another to advocate secession. The latter is none other than a resurgence of the elitism of the 60s when Western-educated Ethiopians usurped the right to speak in the name of the people.
The only way by which Jawar can convince himself and other Ethiopians about the popular support for secession is through the implementation of a free and fair democratic process that begins by making serious reforms. If, after a time of power-sharing and democratic relationships, the Oromo people still expresses the desire to secede, only then can we speak of popular support. But all theoreticians, including ethnonationalists, know that in a truly democratic setup secession is unlikely. Put otherwise, what Jawar presents as a fact is not yet a fact; it is an elitist manipulation that uses past mistreatments to justify partition.
I add that if the Oromo had really wanted to separate from the rest of the country, no force on earth could have stopped them. Then, what is Jawar’s hurry? Let democracy sets in and you will have what you want if the grievances are still real. Incidentally, Jawar accepts that the OLF does not own the monopoly of representing the Oromo people, since he accuses me of “categorizing all Oromos under one ideology and under one organization.” Another mishap is when he calls my position “centrist,” even though all the books and articles I have written on Ethiopia unravel centralization as the main reason for Ethiopia’s failure to modernize.
Comparing Apples with Oranges
I leave out Jawar’s assumption that the OLF operates in conditions conducive for insurgency because it cannot be decided by people who write from America. However, there remains the issue of finding a neighboring country that provides political and military assistances, especially, that can serve as a shelter. In his reply, Jawar completely overlooked a detrimental outcome that he had vigorously and correctly denounced in his first article, to wit, the growing subordination of the OLF to the Eritrean regime. Yet the ideology of secession which, of course, leads to the choice of armed struggle, is responsible for the subordination.
Once it is said that the OLF has appropriate geographical conditions, the question is why it is still failing. Jawar’s answer is unequivocal: the severe shortcomings of the leadership. He uses a comparative approach to prove his point, namely, the military success of the TPLF and EPLF against the Derg. Unfortunately, the comparison is defective from various angels. One cannot compare the secession of Eritrea with that of Oromia. Not only different historical and geographical reasons intervene, but also minority groups, as was the case with Eritrea, have often no other option that the threat of secession.
When it comes to Oromia, we are presented with the unheard case of a group that wants to secede, even though it claims to be the largest ethnic group of the country. It is the unfeasibility of the case that derives me to speak of ideological bankruptcy. In the records of history, majority groups have defended the nation so that secession has always been the ideology of overpowered peoples. That is why I spoke of “self-mutilation” in that a group is degraded into thinking and acting like a desperate minority group. The Oromo need an ideology that is commensurate with their potential. Only then can they emerge victorious.
Who is the Winner?
As to the TPLF, its success should be taken with a grain of salt in light of the fact that Tigray is historically and culturally one of the cornerstones of Ethiopia. As such, any ideology that supports the breakup of Ethiopia is contrary to the historical role and identity of Tigrean people. That is why every time I hear about the victory of the TPLF’s insurgency, I cannot contain my perplexity. If the success of the TPLF depended on the secession of Eritrea, then I do not see where the victory is. Mengistu Haile Mariam could have also stayed in power by letting Eritrea go. Such an outcome would have been considered, not as a victory, but as a defeat. Moreover, how is the fragmentation of Ethiopia along ethnic lines an expression of victory? When Ethiopia is diminished and put in a condition close to disintegration––which is the only way by which an anti-Ethiopian Tigrean clique can dominate the country––I do not shout victory for the Tigrean people.
In place of victory, I see defeat, as no amount of military prowess will remove the bare fact of Ethiopia as a landlocked country. What was the main source of Ethiopia’s weakness and isolation in the past, that is, since the control of the Red Sea by Muslim forces, is back again thanks to the TPLF. Some years ago I posted an article in which I asked Ethiopians to let Assab go because it would only mean continuous war against Eritrea. I argued that the best option is to work toward the return of Eritrea through some form of federal arrangement. The TPLF government is now fully experiencing the huge impediment of being landlocked. The ethnic paradigm and victory at all costs, even by sacrificing Eritrea, combined to bring disaster and despair on Ethiopia. In light of these monstrous costs, is “victory” really a proper term?
Ideology and the Choice of Means
I am confused by Jawar’s statement that “ideology does not determine the failure and success of an insurgency.” How can it be so when we know that strategic choices are dependent on ideological inspirations? The OLF and EPLF opted for guerrilla warfare because of their secessionist ideology. Consequently, they allied with forces opposed to Ethiopia and refused to work with Ethiopia’s progressive forces. Likewise, to associate with the EPLF, the TPLF had to invent the ideology of Tigray as a nation and adopt ethnic references as the highest norms of political struggle. This ideological orientation explains why it could not ally with the EPRP and other progressive forces. Instead, it went in the direction of helping Eritrea to become independent in exchange for military and political support. You cannot explain the TPLF’s “victory” without its alliance with, nay, its subordination to the EPLF. In short, vision commands strategy as well as the degree of commitment.
To explain the defeat of the EPRP by the failure of its leadership is correct, provided it is added that the leadership failed because of ideological extremism. The choice of urban guerrilla struggle, which is believed to be the main blunder of the organization, is not separable from the slogans demanding a people’s government and socialism. If the EPRP had focused on democratic struggles for freedom of association and expression and for the establishment of a national government of reconciliation, etc., it would not have embarked on the wrong path of urban guerrilla. Contrary to Jawar’s statement, at that time, people, including the bureaucratic elites, the peasantry, the workers, and the Amhara population, expressed democratic demands as opposed to the socialist ideology of students and intellectuals. The EPRP and other leftist movements fought for the control of the state in order to impose their vision on the society. The Derg foiled the project and adopted socialism, not because it was forced to do so by the civilian left, as some authors claim, but because socialism exactly fitted its dictatorial interests.
The debate over the primacy of the national question over class interest in the Ethiopian student movement is the typical ideological battle that led to the formation of the TPLF and the OLF. According to the Stalinist vision, the liberation of the ethnic group has precedence over the consideration of unity with other groups. The detrimental consequence of this reasoning fully transpires in today’s Ethiopia, since the vibrant student movement in Ethiopia is now practically dead, undermined as it is by the dividing impact of ethnic ideology. This death is a palpable proof of how deeply ideology can be paralyzing. My message to Jawar is thus clear: what keeps you in chains is the diatribe against Amhara, Abyssinians and the correlated discourse on the Ethiopian colonization of the Oromo, which discourse undermines the gestation of common goals and actions.
Here and there Jawar’s reply seems to suggest that self-determination and secession are used for their mobilizing power rather than their intrinsic merit. He writes: “just because an ideology makes it simple to mobilize support, it does not mean it should be adapted without careful and rational evaluation of its short term and long term impact after liberation.” A merely tactical purpose diminishes the mobilizing power: not only does the secessionist ideology divide people, but also a tactical usage means that the leaders do not really believe in the ideology they are preaching. If that is the case, weigh the for and against, and it becomes clear that the best option is to simply drop the ideology.
But neither Jawar nor the leaders of the OLF are willing to drop the ideology. Why? Because it would allow extremist groups to rise and marginalize the present leadership. This is the inevitable price for cultivating and spreading for such a long time a divisive ideology. At one point a situation is created where it becomes impossible to reverse course. All the more reason for allying now with Ethiopia’s moderate and progressive forces, for only the engagement of the country in the path of resolute democratization can block the rise of extremist groups.
The writer, Messay Kebede is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton, Ohio. He previously taught philosophy at Addis Ababa University. He is the author of Meaning and Development (Rodopi, 1994) and Survival and Modernization (Red Sea Press, 1999). For comments, he can be reached at Messay.Kebede@notes.udayton.edu.