The nearly two-months-old protests in Ethiopia’s Oromia state, home to close to half of the country’s 100 million population, has entered a critical juncture. On Jan. 12, the Central Committee of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) announced scrapping the Addis Ababa and Surrounding Oromia Special Zone Integrated Development Plan, which triggered the protests.
The OPDO, a member of the ruling the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), made the declaration following three days of emergency meeting in Adama, which doubles as the regional state government’s unofficial but de facto capital. More than 150 protesters have been killed in the widespread protests that began on November 12 and thousands have been injured and tens of thousands arrested.
Here is a brief analysis of the statement, broadcast on the state-run Oromiya TV, which serves as the regional state’s mouthpiece.
First, emergency meetings are a rarity within the EPRDF in general and OPDO in particular. To my knowledge (rather memory), one has to go back a decade and a half to find such a meeting. However, unlike the emergency Central Committee session of 2001, which took place following a major shakeup and breakup within the Central Committee of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the dominant party in the EPRDF coalition, this meeting did not take place to rubber stamp a decision made by prior meetings of the TPLF and/or the Amhara National Democratic Movement. In that sense, OPDO’s extraordinary meeting is indeed unprecedented and perhaps a major historical marker.
Second, the statement weighed heavily on extolling OPDO’s self-attributed achievements and contributions. It talked at length about how OPDO’s policies have made a concrete and fundamental difference in people’s lives. The robust self-defense was a measure of the degree of popular rejection expressed by the sustained and widespread protests.
Third, for the first time, a member of EPRDF (that is not TPLF) publicly expressed condolence to the families of those killed by the security forces and suggested it would work to rehabilitate those affected by the disturbances. This is by no means an assumption of responsibility but rather an attempt to make the organization spruce up its credentials as part and parcel of the Oromo society who is deeply aggrieved and irreparably alienated from the ruling party following the killing, maiming, and arrest of peaceful protesters demanding legitimate rights enshrined in the state’s and country’s constitutions.
Fourth, for the first time, the OPDO tried to directly address not only other peoples of the country but also members of the EPRDF calling on them to stand and rally behind it. This is made to indicate the protests raging in Oromia pose a mortal threat to the very survival of OPDO and hence alert members to the gravity of the situation.
Fifth, for the first time, a non-TPLF member of the EPRDF made promises and uttered the word “without any preconditions.” TPLF is known to oscillate between two opposite pendulums—absolute arrogance and total panic. This unmistakably smacks of panic.
Finally, by saying that it was acting in response to the legitimate expression of the will of the Oromo people, a member of the EPRDF, for the very first time, was made to openly acknowledge public protests as a legitimate expression of popular will. Previously, EPRDF, OPDO included, insisted on asking people to “follow constitutional order” while practically making it impossible for people to do so.
That said, the substance of the statement covered no much new ground:
For one, it stated that the Master Plan has been halted. A slew of OPDO high officialdom has danced around this issue and individuals such as Abba Dula Gamada had come close to indicating so — even if contradicted by federal officials and the federal communications office and pro-TPLF media (state and non-state). The only departure from past statements was that the dependent clause from “if the people do not support it, we will abandon the plan” is expunged. The truth is in its 25-year history EPRDF has never genuinely reversed course because of public grievances and dissent or following consultations with the public. All consultations with the public have been one-directional and did not allow a genuine exchange of opinions and led to a readjustment of policy.
Second, the recommendation to reconsider the Oromia urban development law passed late last year by the regional parliament (Caffee), a body in which no single opposition member is represented, is a new position — albeit inconsequential. Previously, Muktar Kedir, the state president, was adamant that the law had nothing to do with the Master Plan and that those hinting at some sinister motives behind its passage were deluded or doing so to meet what he called the intentions of “anti-peace and anti-development” elements. However, the Committee fell short of annulling the controversial proclamation. Neither did it even recommend scrapping it. It only recommended a reconsideration and creating better “awareness” with the public—which rather opens bare the group’s credulity as this smells of another round of the endless and vacuous indoctrination campaigns that have come to naught in persuading and rallying the public behind OPDO.
Third, a week or so earlier the regional communication office indicated that OPDO was working toward the realization of Oromia’s “special interest” clause in the constitution. What is different is that they now made this an organizational stand. Even if only a promise, this is also a not too minor departure from previous positions. Previously, this was just an idea entertained in narrow circles and one they kept secret from each other for fear of earning the wrath of the dreaded and dreadful national security apparatus. Still, it does not mark a major departure, as the enabling law was overdue by more than two decades—and a constitutional stipulation at that.
Fourth, in the statement, OPDO promised to address issues related to “good governance.” Here again, OPDO did not break new ground—it just towed the official line. There is nothing new there and in fact, the stand echoed Hailemariam and the head of the government’s communication office’s Getachew Reda.
Rather than charting a new path, OPDO’s statement has plenty of indications that nothing has changed with respect to EPRDF’s modus operandi and it is business as usual.
First, the statement is full of self-congratulations for the party’s grandiose achievements in building democracy, genuine federalism, equality, respect for human rights, and the rule of law. If such a system were in place, there would have been no protests and no need for protesters to chant “where is your democracy? Where is your federation? Where is your development” and no need for people to be killed for asking the government to respect and implement its own constitution. To be fair, the statement made no mention of the need to chart a new course but rather reiterated the party’s commitment to EPRDF’s path of 25 years.
Furthermore, while recognizing the legitimacy of the demands of the protesters, the Committee continued to blame the debacle on the same enemies of old—“anti -peace and anti-development” forces allegedly bent on destroying the country’s promising future. Here again, the Committee talked ad nauseam how the party’s actions have been guided by its loyalty to the interests of the people and how the actions of these supposedly nefarious forces were motivated by the desire to destroy rather than build. The only difference is that they made no mention of one enemy; archival Eritrea was not named as one of the culprits—which is also a rarity in EPRDF double-talk.
That’s not all. The Committee made lofty lectures on the need for peace and stability to continue with the country’s “meteoric economic rise” but failed to give any indication that peace and stability require tolerance for divergent and opposing ideas.
Most laughably, the statement alleged that the OPDO was given a unanimous electoral mandate in last year’s elections. Apparently, they believe that the Oromo elected the party on account of its “extraordinary commitment to the welfare and wellbeing of the people and its record of extraordinary achievement in building democracy, genuine federalism, equality, respect for human rights, and the rule of law as well as shepherding the country into an economic powerhouse and strong security state capable of not only keeping its peace but also the peace of other countries.” Since the Committee has already taken the protests as an expression of popular will, the logical step would have been to also take the protests as an expression of the public’s withdrawal of that mandate and hold fresh elections. Otherwise, talk of its being on the side of the Oromo people will ring hollow and fall on deaf ears. Moreover, it casts serious doubt as to whether the organization has genuinely accepted the protests as the legitimate expression of popular will—hence undercutting their claim to legitimacy.
Despite efforts to convey that the OPDO has shed its subservient role, the statement suffers from two tactical errors that belie such confidence:
First, it was issued from Adama rather than Finfinne reinforcing the perception that OPDO’s claims about asserting Oromia’s “special interest” in the capital is half-hearted at best and duplicitous at worst.
Second, the Committee labored to package its decisions as a victory for their embattled organization. Given the scale and scope of the anti-government demonstrations, many will have a hard time swallowing the logic that this is not a position forced upon by the protester’s resilience and refusal to back down in the face of unprecedented brutality by federal security organs. If anything this can be construed as a tactical gain for the putative nationalist wing of the OPDO, which has been systematically weakened and denied platform by the real power wielders in the country, the hardline Tigrean oligarchy.
In all, the rumbling 15-minute long announcement raises more questions than it answers.
First, does this serve as evidence for OPDO’s ascendance in EPRDF? Not on its own. Is it a departure from the past? Not necessarily! In fact, many would find it incredulous that the OPDO made the statement without the permission and some may add the order of their Tigrean handlers in the background.
Second, did the protesters achieve victory? Definitely! Is it a resounding victory? Certainly not, far from it! Is it a landmark achievement? Without doubt! It will be a victory only if the OPDO truly reformed itself and genuinely stood for advancing Oromo rights, for example by bringing forward credible faces and ditching those dangerously associated with the botched Master Plan and whose hands are drenched with the innocent lives of many a promising Oromo youth. Chances are this will not happen and protesters will be unimpressed and activists have already called on protesters to press for more concessions. Why? The move is vacuous and meaningless as long as tens of thousands continue to languish in detention for a cause which the ruling party itself has admitted to be legitimate.
Third, will this put an end to the protests? Its impact is uncertain at best. The only area in which the statement could have an impact, a minor one at that, is if its lofty appeal was enough to sway the rank and file members of the party, the vast majority of whom are unhappy and have been actively involved in the protests. If anything, this turnabout face may actually serve to increase the appetite of the protesters emboldening them to press for more concessions.
Fourth, will this hand EPRDF the initiative? It depends. Besides, it could be too little too late. On the flip side, it signals an important change in government strategy against the protesters. During the last two months, EPRDF’s sole weapon to contain the protests was the heavy-handed use of the security forces alone. Now that EPRDF has added politics to its toolbox, the question is: Will it work? On this, we just have to wait to see but chances are it won’t.
Finally, what form will the realization of the “special interest clause” take? At this point nothing is clear. The ruling party could decide to exercise what is often called the nuclear option—taking the extraordinary step of instituting Afaan Oromo as Finfinne’s second official (working) language. Such a move will have the double effect of energizing OPDO rank and file while preempting any rapprochement between the Amhara with the Oromo protests—talk of which has already made the regime nervous. However, the steps outlined in the statement were largely too timid, not to mention tentative, and thus it is unlikely that the federal government will take such a bold move (overcoming resistance from TPLF’s stalwarts). Unless and until the ruling party’s grip on power is terminally threatened, which will greatly depend not only on continuing resilience of #OromoProtrests but also on whether and how long Ethiopia’s non-Oromo population sits on the fence as protests engulf the vast Oromia region.
Still, the elephant in the room is whether the EPRDF and the federal government would make similar announcements. Reportedly, an urgent meeting of the rubber-stamp parliament is called and it will convene in a couple days. However, the higher ups may choose silence rather than weighing in on the sensitive issue, a position that could very well change in response to changes on the ground.
Two developments are worth watching in the coming days and weeks.
One, how would people in two key regions, the Oromia Special Zone and Western Shoa, in particular, and Oromia in general respond to the announcement? Will people in the capital Addis Ababa, the Amhara region and the Southern Nations continue to sit on the sidelines or join the protests? The answer to the first one is clear: without proper accounting for the hundreds killed and the thousands wounded and the release of the tens of thousands detained, protesters are unlikely to call it quits. Unless the underlying reasons for the protests, the political, social, and economic marginalization of the Oromo in the Ethiopian state, the Oromo issue is a ticking bomb ready to explode at any time.
Second, indications are that the Amhara are unlikely to join the protests at this juncture. While the show of solidarity is unprecedented, many are expressing, if not openly, deep misgivings about the protesters’ Oromia and Oromo-centered demands. This too could change if Oromo protesters, overcoming the heavy security presence and crackdown, which have already made collective action difficult and costly, persist in their demands for genuine change rather than window dressing, the height of which the OPDO Central Committee statement represents. Thus far the protesters have proven resilient beyond any expectation. After the historical and yet ineffectual statement by the OPDO, the political winds are clearly behind the protesters. The only question is will they be able to break many more new grounds and build on OPDO’s tactical retreat. Should the winds grow into a hurricane-grade popular tsunami, the number of fence sitters will quickly dwindle —making the two-month-long protests a force to reckon with. And boy, is EPRDF due for a reckoning?
*Hassen Hussein, a writer, teaches Leadership and Management courses at the Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and can be reached at email@example.com.