By Tedla Woldeyohannes
In response to my most recent article, “Can the Ethiopian Government Save Itself and Ethiopia Too”?, a number of readers emailed me to ask me for my views on the future of Ethiopia, how a peaceful transition can be achieved, the role of opposition parties in a transitional government, etc. While thinking about these questions yesterday (October 5, 2016) I posted on my Facebook wall the following thought that is future-oriented with a lesson from the past regarding the problem of leadership in Ethiopia. “A memo to the next leaders of Ethiopia: In the event the regime collapses sooner or later, those of you who are preparing yourselves to take leadership roles, you must take an active note of what people are telling the regime in power: No group of people can rule the people with a complete disregard to the will and dignity of the people. If the next leaders of Ethiopia are not *already* learning enduring lessons from the catastrophic mistakes of the current regime in the deathbed, your fate will also be the fate of the regime in power now and those that preceded it. My concern is not only as to how this regime will go away, but also who will replace it and how different the future of Ethiopia will be from its past. When it comes to the governments of Ethiopia, our futures [in the past] and our past have been one and the same—we only had terrible governments. The world is watching along with the people of Ethiopia as to how significantly different [=better] the next leader of Ethiopia will be.”
Hours later, the same day (October 5, 2016), I read a statement from the leadership of the Oromo Protest regarding Oromo Leadership Convention to be held in Atlanta, Georgia, November 11-13, 2016. The main objective of this article is to ask some questions that call for clarity from the Oromo leaders who composed the document that calls for an Oromo leadership convention. Much of what I raise below is based on what has actually been said in the document that is a call for a convention, and the rest will be drawing out some implications from what is said.
A Plea for Clarity
I will quote the document which is the call for an Oromo leadership convention to situate my clarification-seeking questions with an intention that the desired clarity will add to national conversation and debate about the immediate future of Ethiopia as a nation. To begin from the very beginning, the document reads, “The #OromoProtests of 2015-16 constitute a milestone in the recent history of the Oromo nation. More importantly, they are a continuation of a century of resistance the Oromo have mounted against a succession of ruling elites in Ethiopia who have denied Oromo nationhood, dismissed Oromo nationalism as an elite conspiracy and denigrated the Oromo people’s capacity for self-government.”Question #1: What does it mean to say “Oromo nationhood” was denied for centuries? Does it mean that there was a distinctly independent Oromo nation at some point in the past that has been denied that independent nationhood? Where was that independent Oromo nation in a contemporary geo-political map? What does the term “Oromo self-governance” mean in relation to the rest of Ethiopia that constitutes one nation, at least as presently understood?
In Paragraph 2 the document states, “They [the Oromo Protests] have earned respect within and without for the young generation of Oromo and reaffirmed the longstanding observation that Oromo is a great African nation.” Question # 2: This preceding statement assumes that there was/is an African nation named “Oromo.” Is that is the case, in what sense is the Oromo a nation? Wat is a “nation” according to this document? What is the relation of “Oromo” as an African nation to “Ethiopia” as an African nation? Are these two nations two sovereign African nations? What is the relation between “Oromo” as an African nation to “Oromia” as one of the regions in Ethiopia? Also, Ethiopia is obviously an African nation, but is it true that Oromo is an African nation in the same sense? Or is the meaning of the “Oromo is an African nation” only aspirational in the sense that Oromo will be an independent African nation like the rest of independent, sovereign African nations. All these questions cry out for clear answers.
A paragraph or so later, the document reads, “The foundation of Oromo nationhood has been reestablished and the struggle for national liberation has advanced onto a higher plane.”Question # 3: A clarification of the claim that “the struggle for national liberation has advanced onto a higher plane” would be helpful particularly in reference to the term “national liberation.” Is there any similarity between the objectives of the Oromo Liberation Front and the “national liberation” that appears in the document which is going to be discussed at the convention? What is the relationship and the difference, if there is a difference, between the old-style OLF “liberation” and the new proposal?
Later on, the document states, “This document will articulate the principles that have held the Oromo nation together in the face of colonial tyranny and a century of concerted effort to divide the Oromo along lines of region, religion and lineage.” Question # 4: This statement seems to suggest that the Oromo nation was colonized for a century and that there was an Oromo nation which predates its falling under colonialism. It would be helpful to clarify what form of “colonialism” is suggested here and how long the Oromo nation had existed as a distinct nation before colonialism divided “the Oromo along lines of region, religion and lineage.” Since the language here suggests that Oromo as a nation had been colonized for a century, it would be helpful to be clear which country or nation has colonized the Oromo nation and what form of relationship the Oromo nation will have to its former colonial empire, to use a term that belongs to the colonial period, if the former colonial power exists as a nation.
Why an Oromo National Charter?
I hope that the above set of questions will receive sufficient attention at the Oromo leadership convention. Now let us take moments to seek a plausible rationale for a need for an Oromo national Charter at this moment in Ethiopian history. Those who have been paying close attention to what appeared to be an emergence and a growing solidarity between the Amharas and the Oromos in the most recent protests against the common enemy, i.e., the tyrannical Ethiopian regime, would want to ask, why do the Oromos need their own national Charter now? To answer this question I quote a whole paragraph from the document that seems to answer this question; that is, there is need for an Oromo national Charter to,
[Affirm] gadaa values as a guide for a common future, the second document will restate the core demands expressed in the Oromo protest movement. In effect, it will operationalize the consensus of the Declaration in light of the current demands of the#OromoProtests. These demands include restoration of the practice of popular sovereignty, equality of individual and group rights, freedom of participation in work, industry and development, equal and unencumbered access to resources, equality before the law, freedom from oppressive rule by arbitrary decree, entitlement to personal security, protection of cultural rights and symbols, and adequate access to land, housing, education and standard of living.
This seems be fair and fine, but consider the opening paragraph of the document which provides the background why Oromo leadership convention is needed:
The #OromoProtests of 2015-16 constitute a milestone in the recent history of the Oromo nation. More importantly, they are a continuation of a century of resistance the Oromo have mounted against a succession of ruling elites in Ethiopia who have denied Oromo nationhood, dismissed Oromo nationalism as an elite conspiracy and denigrated the Oromo people’s capacity for self-government. The #OromoProtests have proved that the Oromo are a nation unified in a common national purpose and able to pursue political goals through sophisticated civil action against a heavily armed military.
It seems to me that the opening paragraph offers a perspective on the need for the Oromo national Charter. That is, the Oromo national Charter is needed because it will codify and perfect the recent Oromo Protest since the recent Oromo Protest is a continuation of a century of resistance the Oromo have mounted against a succession of ruling elites in Ethiopian. On this reading, what appears to be an innocent reading of the Charter as quoted above takes on a much deeper meaning. The much deeper meaning seems to have been captured in the document I have been quoting to raise questions above that frames the issue of Oromo Protest as a culmination of resistance to colonialism by the Oromo nation as a distinct African nation. This leads one to wonder if the Oromo leadership Convention is gathering to formulate a Charter for Oromo as an independent African nation. One can now hopefully see the importance of clarity and my plea for clarity as to what the Oromo leadership Convention is aiming to accomplish. If the Convention aims at formulating a Charter for a distinct African nation, i.e., an Oromo nation, then one can’t help wondering how that Charter would relate to the future of Ethiopia in the event the regime in power collapses or goes away from power.
One corollary of the preceding concern for clarity can be expressed as follows: The Oromo leadership convention is forward-looking and as such its objective is to formulate a Charter for the Oromo people so that when other ethnic groups in Ethiopia come to a table to discuss a peaceful transition to the new Ethiopia, the Oromos will have their Charter ready. That sounds right. But here is a concern one might raise with the implication of this for the rest of the country. Suppose that about 80 ethnic groups come to a table with their distinct Charters to discuss and determine the future of Ethiopia on the basis of their respective Charters along with the Oromo national Charter. How can this be done? What could possibly go wrong with such a scenario? The following problem comes to mind: One of the central premises of the Oromo Protest has been the fact that the Oromos, even though the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, have been marginalized both economically and politically. Granted. Now at the envisaged table where 80 ethnic groups are gathered to determine the future of Ethiopia, there is no reason to doubt that the same premise of the Oromo Protest, i.e., the Oromos are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia will come up to negotiate a deal. So what to do? Note that given the premise in question it looks like the Oromos are raising a fair issue. But note the following consequence: Now the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia will have to get to determine the fate of the other, including, minority ethnic groups’ destiny in Ethiopia. How will that work? That question must be answered clearly in the Oromo leadership Convention. It has to be noted that the fate of Ethiopia, given the scenario under consideration, will change the power structure from the minority ethnic group, the TPLF, to the largest ethnic group, the Oromos. The TPLF has apparently tried to distribute power forming a coalition, i.e., EPRDF. If the Oromos replace the TPLF, what would be the equivalent of the “EPRDF” for the future Ethiopia if the largest ethnic group replaces the minority ethnic group? One important fact to bear in mind in this connection is this: It is not only the minority ethnic groups whose fate will be determined by the decision of the largest ethnic group, the Oromos, but the whole fate of Ethiopia as a nation now will likewise be determined by the scenario under consideration.
One potential solution to address the issues raised above is to form a coalition of non-Oromo Ethiopians as a platform to produce their own shared Charter to bargain and determine the future of Ethiopia. In this scenario, the premise that the Oromos are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia will not hold since the coalition of non-Oromo Ethiopians will certainly be the largest coalition without the common bond of ethnicity. Interestingly, this coalition of non-Oromo Ethiopians, if real, will dissolve and hence transcend the current regime’s ethnic-based arrangement of political structure. There is no logical ground that will prevent such a coalition of non-Oromo Ethiopians to come together to contend for the future of Ethiopia together with the Oromos. Perhaps, the scenario I am suggesting can solve the problem of a peaceful transition since it does not stand against the interests of the Oromos because they will be fairly treated as the second largest group compared to the coalition of non-Oromos in Ethiopia. It would be helpful to know what the Oromo leadership convention would think of such a scenario for the future of Ethiopia. It is also interesting to know what non-Oromo Ethiopians would think of this proposal to work with the Oromos to forge a new Ethiopia in which all members of any group will be treated equal, fairly, and with dignity.
*The writer, Tedla Woldeyohannes, holds a PhD in Philosophy from St. Louis University. He has taught Philosophy at Western Michigan University and at St. Louis University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org