Ideology or organizational inefficiency?

A response to Professor Messay Kebede – Reacting to one of my recent articles that assessed the last two decades of the OLF, Professor Messay Kebede argued that I avoided addressing the principal cause of OLF’s failure. In his view, the major obstacle to OLF’s success has been its ideology, namely its insistence upon self-determination. I disagree with him.

I think Professor Messay is mistaken in attributing the “inappropriateness” of the ideology to failure of the OLF to advance the Oromo cause in the last two decades. This argument would have been valid had the ideology advocated by the front failed to attract or been rejected by the people it claims to fight for. His arguments, lead us to believe that OLF failed due to lack of support amongst the Oromo nation. As people who suffered a century of cultural, political and economic discrimination, dehumanization and repression, the vast majority of the Oromo accepted and overwhelmingly supported the question of self determination as a means of overcoming the system imposed on them by successive oppressive regimes.

Whether the leaders were right in rallying the people around this particular ideology is a different issue, however, it is immaterial in determining the success and failure of the OLF, as the ideology did not prevent the organization from receiving incredible level of support for nearly four decades. This is exactly the reason why I dismissed ideology as a factor, and rather focused on analyzing why the front failed to capitalize on such popular support. I have come to conclude that failure to deliver tangible result due to faulty strategic choices and internal party dynamics have brought the organizations to the crisis it has found it self in.

It is also important to note that the OLF had all the necessary conditions believed to help an insurgency. These include low GDP per capita (proxy for weak state), rough terrain (distance from the center and rural, nd dense forest), and large population that has grievance towards the center.

Efficiency of an Insurgency: Choice of Strategy and Commitment of Leadership or Ideology?

As long as an insurgency’s ideology and minimal program is accepted by its core support base, much of the success that follows depends on strategy and commitment of the leadership. If we follow Professor Messay’s argument we would end up saying that it was their ideology that helped TPLF and EPLF to defeat Mengistu’s regime. That means we have to believe that TPLF was able to take central power because its ideology was accepted by the vast majority of the Ethiopian people. We know that was not the case. All TPLF needed at the initial stage was to sell its minimal program of liberating Tigrayans from the yoke of repression. In the presence of widespread grievance against the central government, the peasants cared less about ideological debate and more about ending their immediate suffering.

TPLF’s rapid military success, which was largely due to the committed leadership, organizational discipline,and their shroud strategic and political maneuvering, helped the front to maintain the level of support it needed to achieve its goal of capturing state power.

Actually here it can be argued that the TPLF leadership was adamant at copying the extreme form of Stalinism, which is Albania’s Enver Hoxha thought, in its leadership style and organizing principle and succeeded in winning and holding power for the last 18 years. Hence the fact that the OLF was unable to lead the struggle to success cannot be attributed to Stalinism. In fact one can argue, next to the EDU, most probably the OLF must have been the least leftist organization among the multitude of ‘Ethiopian’ ethnic and ‘class’ based organizations. OLF is not known for a leftist ideological bent beyond its nationalist agenda.

Let me add one more example to stress how ideology does not play much role in determining the failure and success of an insurgency. If we take EPRP, an organization which the professor mysteriously forgets to mention along others who originated from the radical left movement,I do not believe its ideology is the prime factor in its failure to achieve its stated goals. EPRP’s political programs were positively received and supported by its core support base,the bureaucratic elites and the Amhara population. In fact, it can be argued that, on paper, EPRP had the most inclusive political program relative to other parties of the time. EPRP’s failure to me primarily resulted from strategic mistakes, particularly the decision to declare premature urban guerilla war at a time when a military government was still popular, that cost the party its most capable leaders, strategists and urban structure. As a party that emerged from the grievance of the “middle class” and bureaucratic elites, the party also failed to anticipate that it cannot simply transform itself into a peasant-based revolutionary force.

The dismantlement of the urban structure was a major blow which brought disappointment, disorientation and demoralization within the rank and file – being a leftist radical organization, the leaders, instead of acknowledging their collective mistakes, went on the blame game and punished dissenting views.

The internal turmoil obviously was a major obstacle to regrouping and reemerging. This coupled with the fact that the party had to compete for peasant support and territorial control against TPLF was a crucial problem that hindered the organization from showing any tangible results. The last stroke is the abandonment of the field by the leadership which made any remaining possibility obsolete. Therefore, just like the OLF, the core issue behind EPRP’s demise is its failure to deliver a tangible action, which was the result of faulty strategic decisions and internal turmoil.

It is also worth noting that the EPRP reformed its leftist agenda as early as 1980, and formed a front with a traditional party called the EDU (Ethiopian Democratic Union) led by Prince Ras Mengesha Seyoum, yet the alliance did not bring the party any strength in the past 29 years. Hence changing one’s ideological garb cannot guarantee success as the EPRP experience attests.

Reform Requires Moral and Political Capital

It is true that an ideology does affect an insurgency’s external relations. It is also obvious that OLF’s quest of self-determination has helped its opponents to label the movement as secessionist and arouse fear and opposition among other Ethiopians and some international actors. But OLF never really reached the level where it needed the alliance of external groups as it was not able to effectively utilize the support and resources of its own base and make it self a viable force. Once an insurgency is strong enough and proved its efficiency to its core support base, the leaderships has enough moral and political capital that makes it easy to reshape and reform its program in order to attract external support. But an organization that suffers from inefficiency and internal turmoil cannot change or reform its ideology even if it sees it necessary.

It is no secret that over the last decade the OLF leadership has been dancing around dropping the goal of establishing an independent state but have been unable to do so. The leadership does not have the political capital to reshape the belief that the “original” goal has more support and hence they fear that an opposing faction might purge the reformers by accusing them of revisionism. In contrast, a successful leadership would have more moral capital to silence opponents of reform. TPLF’s military success gave it enough room to reform its agenda of liberating Tigray and go for the bigger prize of dominating the larger Ethiopia. Although such change did obviously face opposition within the organization, the revisionists did not loose as their supporters were satisfied with their performance and achievements during the previous years.

Peaceful Struggle?

Another point Professor Messay raised is that OLF should have chosen “peaceful” struggle. This is quite confusing. No struggle against authoritarianism can be “peaceful”, as peace is the absence or active prevention of conflict, but as an opposition you are asking a dictator to give up all its privileges and power, and face the consequences of his past crimes – this cannot happen without fighting.

If the professor is talking about nonviolent struggle, it is completely different from “peaceful”. Nonviolent struggleitself is a conflict, because it is an active form of resistance filled with real fighting and sacrifice. Nonviolent struggle is a choice of method to fight a dictator and does not necessarily depend on what kind of ideology activists want to advance. It is chosen not out of some religious or passive belief but because it’s considered to have a better strategic and tactical advantage over armed struggle. One can use either nonviolent or armed methods towards the same end, say establishment of democracy or an independent state. Most importantly, whether a party chooses nonviolent or violent methods, its success ultimately depends on the strength of the organization, commitment and determination of the leadership and the sophistication and compatibility of the strategies. I am baffled that professor Messay believes OLF is wrong to choose armed struggle, but failed to say the same about other organizations, for example Ginbot 7, which recently, after trying electoral revolution, have come to conclude that the regime should be removed by all means necessary?

Wrong Assumption or Paternalism?

Let me acknowledge that Professor Messay is one of the few “centralist”1 scholars who have been making seasoned and rational case against the politics of self-determination and secessionist ideology. Even in his recent article, he has made a fair argument about the “self-degrading” aspect of a majority demanding to secede.

However, unfortunately just like many centralist scholars, Professor Messay writes his essay by assuming that I am a secessionist simply because I am an Oromo who advocates for the Oromo cause. This assumption seems to have clouded him from understanding the core message of my article, particularly my conclusion.

Professor Messay also labeled me of being secessionist simply because I advocate for the rights of the Oromo. For instance, although I said “We, Oromos, have the culture, resources and determination not only to solve our problem, but also we can and we shall play the leading role in democratizing, stabilizing and developing the entire East Africa.,” he concluded saying, for Jawar, independent Oromia “ have the culture, resources and determination not only to solve our problem, but also we can and we shall play the leading role in democratizing, stabilizing and developing the entire East Africa. .” How did my statement become a secessionist one, while in fact it is quite similar to his own assertion that says “the Oromo could become the force that democratizes and consolidates Ethiopia.” I found this to be the classic paternalistic behavior of centralist individuals who harbor deep rooted suspicion and disrespect for persons of Oromo and other Southern origin.

This reminds me that the core leaders of the “Mela Amhara Movement” like Professor Asrat Woldeyes and Hailu Shawel were never suspected and criticized by “Centralist” scholars, including Professor Messay, even though they openly espoused slogans about defending the Amhara settlers in the South, East, and West of the country. But whenever an Oromo or Southerner raises his/her voice in defense of their people, there is a rush to suspect, neutralize, and condemn; before listening to his/her argument. Professor Messay could have sent me a private email to facilitate communication and understanding, but he chose condemnation instead. Categorizing all Oromos under one ideology and under one organization has been the weakness of ‘Centralist’ intellectuals, and I feel sorry to find Professor Messay in that same fold. If Ethiopia is to be democratic, Oromo intellectuals need to be heard, respected, and set free from apriori judgment by Ethiopian ‘Centralist’ agenda setters. We do not need to throw away just Stalinism alone as Professor Messay suggests, but more importantly we need to throw away old thoughts, judgments, suspicion, and embrace openness and fresh thinking. It is in that mold that I have undertaken to engage in Ethiopian politics. I have neither the political baggage, nor the old culture of the Ethiopian left; I just do not know it. I wasn’t there.
Professor Messay also thinks that I am trying to “salvage” the movement. How wrong he is! The Oromo movement for political, economic justice and equality, and cultural emancipation does not need salvaging as it already has achieved a milestone. By paying the ultimate price, the Oromo movement has regained the right to land, the right to develop our language and even if only on paper, the right to self rule. I my self am a proud product of the movement, so are millions young Oromos who have been proudly educated in our language without being subjected to ridicule of the ‘foreign’ language that traumatized our predecessors. These gains are irreversible, the movement is unstoppable and we are marching forward. The debate right now is how to complete the journey in a constructive, sustainable and productive manner.

It is true that I have declared the OLF irreparably damaged, however the good professor needs to know that the movement is and has always been bigger than the OLF, which was an organization formed to serve as a vehicle. When a vehicle is too old or too weak to carry on, it has to be retired not to slow down the movement. Even if OLF as a vehicle of the movement has outlived its purposefulness, its historic role and the legacy of the martyrs who fought for the cause under the front’s banner, will never been diminished. The OLF will remain the most revered and sacred organization of the Oromo people.


When I wrote my article on OLF, I was aware that some Oromos and many non-Oromos believe that OLF’s crisis is caused by its ideology. Some blame the departure from the “original” goal of establishing an independent state for dividing the organization and weakening it. Others, like Professor Messay, assume that OLF’s refusal to completely drop the ideology is to be blamed for its weakness. Both of these assumptions miss the point by mixing two important but different issues: a) Whether, the ideology was the cause for the organization’s weakness b) Whether the ideology befits the Oromo struggle and its short and long term interest. As I have discussed above, I have come to conclude that as far as an insurgency’s primary goal of defeating a regime is concerned, the ideology of self determination does not cause significant hindrance. In fact, a strong argument can be made that it plays a positive role in helping rebels turn grievances into nationalism which can be the most effective revolutionary force.

But 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. Hence, the argument that self determination or secessionist agenda does not benefit Oromo or other nations in the long run is a sound one, but to blame ideology for organizational weakness is a fallacy.

Jawar Siraj Mohammed
September 19, 2009

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