The OLF: Ideological or Leadership Bankruptcy?

Messay KebedeBy Messay Kebede (Ph.D.) 7 September 2009 — I am reacting to Jawar Siraj Mohammed’s article, titled “The Failed Journey of the OLF,” in which he mercilessly dissects the inner impediments of the organization and declares it dead for all practical purposes (see The article delivers the deep disappointments of a committed member forced to admit that “the OLF has been damaged beyond repair.” It argues that the present shabby state of the organization, mainly manifested by internal divisions, originates from the lack of tangible results both in the military and political fields, which lack reflects the incompetence and irresolution of its leadership.

While Jawar’s criticisms are both surprising and refreshing, yet they are not bold and insightful enough to bring about new directions of thought. The main reason for this lack of boldness and insight is that Jawar criticizes everything except the most important issue, namely, the ideological guidance of the OLF. Nowhere does he connect the political and military failures of the organization with the ideology that it is pursuing. Still less does he suggest that the failures could result from the insolvency of the ideology whose core demand, we know, is the right to self-determination, including secession.

The lack of a bold analysis of the inadequacies of the OLF leads the author to suggest solutions that fall short of tackling the main issue. He thus wants to contain the political influence of the Oromo Diaspora; he also appeals for a renewed faith in the cause. But because he never questions the ideological goal, these suggestions are hardly up to the depth of the problem. Aware of their inefficiency, but also reluctant to challenge the ideology, the author prefers to pronounce the OLF dead in a desperate attempt to salvage the secessionist agenda by convincing himself and others that the failures originate from the leadership, not from the ideology. I contend that an approach focusing on ideology better explains the failures by showing that the incompetence and irresolution of the leadership are simply products of a crippling thinking.

The Legacy of Radicalism

To begin with, Jawar criticizes some members for weakening the organization by creating factions while he himself could be accused of doing just that. Such a criticism would be unfair, however, for the fact that he has given up the project of reforming the organization proves that the criticisms are not meant to create another faction. Since he is convinced that the organization can no longer be repaired, his intention is to awaken the Oromo to its demise.

What is definitely untenable is a critique of the leadership that stops short of challenging the ideology. Yet, in several places, Jawar comes close to the ideological issue but only to back down by diverting his attention to effects rather than causes. For instance, he assertively shows how the OLF originated from the Ethiopian student movement and inherited the undemocratic and conspiratory mindset inherent in the movement. He writes: “OLF is a foster child of the student movement that brought the revolution; as such it shares some common organizational behaviors and characteristics with all other organizations that came out that era, such as the EPRP, TPLF and EPLF.” Further, he adds: “The political forces that emerged from the student movement were led by individuals who worshiped Mao Zedong and Stalin, so they embraced such undemocratic, rigid and control freak organizational model.”

Seeing the nauseating state of Ethiopia and Eritrea under the TPLF and EPLF, it is inconsistent to expect that an organization born of the same root would disseminate anything other than hatred, war, and famine. What else could worshippers of Stalin come up with but ideas suppressing democracy and spreading national disunity? If what the TPLF and EPLF realized is wrong for Ethiopia as well as for the ethnic groups that they claim to represent, then it is naive to assume that their brother, that is, the OLF, would bring about a better result. What needs to be questioned here is the culture of hatred and disunity that Stalin veiled under the morally loaded language of self-determination up to secession.

In denouncing the undemocratic nature of the leadership, Jawar forgets that the behavior is only part and parcel of an ideological package inherited from the radicalization of the 60s. Unless the whole package is thrown away, there is no way of implanting a new democratic behavior. Since the undemocratic nature of the organization is inseparable from its ideology, the inescapable conclusion is that an ideology fomented by worshippers of Stalin cannot be good for the Oromo. If a new organization is indeed desired, changing the people without changing the ideology will get you nowhere.

Far from focusing on the ideological issue, Jawar dismisses it by stressing the unity of purpose within the OLF. Speaking of the faction that argues for the democratization of Ethiopia rather than secession, he notes that said ideological difference “was never really big enough to split the organization,” as the support for “independent Oromia” was “a more popular position.” Why is secession more popular than democratization? The question makes sense because what appears obvious is actually derived from a Stalinist analysis that the author should have denounced.

Armed Struggle and Secession

The truth is that the lack of democracy is closely linked with the secessionist agenda. The latter leads to the choice of armed struggle as the only feasible method, with the consequence that the subsequent militarization of the struggle becomes incompatible with the maintenance of democracy. Military priorities and leaders take the upper hand over democratic concerns. Contrary to a peaceful form of struggle, the condition of military successes becomes the sacrifices of democracy so that it is inconsistent to want military gains and democracy at the same time. Witness: it is the emphasis on military efficiency that progressively divested the EPLF and TPLF of their original democratic intent.
The secessionist goal is inconsistent with the complaint about the lack of democracy for another reason. When an organization that claims to represent the largest ethnic group opts for secession, clearly it is empowering extremists to the detriment of moderates. So that, militarization and ideological extremism combine to make democratic practices anything but relevant to the ongoing struggle.

Worst yet, the military option induced by the ideology of secession brought the movement under the tutelage of the Eritrean regime. Jawar speaks of the OLF as a “hostage” and attributes many of its faults to the intervention of the Eritrean regime. Put otherwise, the OLF has lost its independence and has become a pawn in the Eritrean pursuit of regional hegemony. The sad thing, Jawar admits, is that the subordination has no appreciable military gains, since Eritrea does not neighbor Oromia and so cannot provide sanctuaries for Oromo fighters.

The subordination to a regime that has regional ambition is fraught with deep adverse consequences. A good example is the TPLF: its support for the Eritrean struggle for independence, in the name of military necessity, empowered a pro-Eritrean and anti-Ethiopian leadership. As a result, not only the original goal of the movement was diverted, but also the empowered anti-Ethiopian clique is working hard to set Tigreans against Ethiopians through favored treatments whose outcome can only be the spread of suspicion and animosity. The price for military victory through an abnormal alliance was thus the empowerment of a clique that does not even represent Tigray, given that the best and long term interest of Tigray is its full integration into a prosperous Ethiopia.

The drive for secession through military means actually intensifies internal divisions, since together with the demise of democratic practices it raises the question of knowing which faction will become the dominant force in independent Oromia. The more the Oromo elite aspires to create a monoethnic state, the more its internal divisions, especially the religious ones, will stand out. One of the positive qualities of large multiethnic countries is the propensity to diffuse differences by displaying diversity as a normal feature of social life. By contrast, in monoethnic countries differences are perceived as abnormal and quickly generate battling factions, as shown by the example of Lebanon and Somalia.
Jawar knows that the absence of environmental conditions appropriate for guerrilla warfare, such as mountainous areas and helpful neighboring countries, contributes to the dearth of military success. In the face of this formidable obstacle one would expect that the OLF is actively seeking an alternative strategy compensating the inappropriateness of the environment by vast alliances with other ethnic groups, some of whom even possess the required geographical conditions. Unfortunately, the policy of dispersing the TPLF military machine by multiplying centers of military resistance cannot be considered as it comes up against the secessionist agenda.

Let us go further: what prevents the OLF from seeing that military struggle is not the only way to get rid of the regime is the secessionist goal. If unity of purpose could join the Oromo with other ethnic groups, especially the Amhara, then peaceful means of struggle would be enough to topple the Woyanne regime. I do not see how a clique with such a narrow base could suppress for long an overwhelming majority using the strategy of noncooperation. Let us not forget that what brought down the imperial regime was unity, and not military means. In a word, in undermining unity, the secessionist agenda greatly reduces the power of peaceful struggle and, by the same token, remove a much greater prospect of generating a democratic government.

Secession and Self-Mutilation

For Jawar, independent Oromia “shall play the leading role in democratizing, stabilizing and developing the entire East Africa.” This thought overlooks that the secession of an ethnic group that claims to be the largest group both in terms of territory and population is a much more complicated process than the secession of Eritrea and that it is fraught with unpredictable consequences. The secession of Oromia is not a mere amputation; it is a major dismemberment that adversely affects all ethnic groups in Ethiopia as well as neighboring countries. Who can stay that the secession will result in a peaceful outcome? In light of the recent horrible carnage caused by the border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea, one can confidently states that the secession will create such a chaotic and highly explosive situation that the whole region will turn into a battlefield.

In addition to nurturing a reckless thought, the secessionist goal induces a self-mutilating culture. When the largest ethnic group decides to split, it is behaving as a minority group. In so doing, it degrades itself and loses sight of what it can be. What cripples the OLF is thus the secessionist goal: the latter limits its horizon, the means at its disposal and, therefore, its will. Jawar begins his article by asking the Oromo to “think big”; secession, however, is to think small, and hence to be small. Organizations grow and become efficient when they espouse challenging goals, not when they fail to be what they can be. One should seriously reflect on the possibility that the political and military failures of the OLF may be connected with the self-demeaning image enshrined in the secessionist ideology.

Oromo leaders claim to uplift the Oromo people by defending secession. They are actually doing the opposite, given that the Oromo could become the force that democratizes and consolidates Ethiopia instead of dismembering it. The distorting impact of the secessionist ideology is such that Oromo elites do not even recognize greatness. Take the case of Ras Gobena: though in alliance with Menelik he created a formidable empire that even colonial powers feared, he is seen as a sellout and secessionists as authentic Oromo.

To say that a large ethnic group curtails itself when it stoops to the level of a minority group by opting for secession means that the discrepancy between the great potential of the Oromo people and the narrow goal of its elite explains the failures of the OLF. Since the leadership is not up to the potential of the people it claims to represent, like a big load led into a narrow path, the movement naturally goes nowhere. I thus say to the Oromo elite: think big indeed, that is, become what you can be, builder and not wrecker.

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

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Posted by on September 7, 2009. Filed under NEWS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.