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An Interview with Obbo Bulcha Demeksa of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM, Warraqsa Federaalisti Democratawaa Oromoo)

Source: Ethiopian Reporter

Read More about the Program of OFDM from Kaawo Gadaa


People know him for being the man behind the relative success of one of the private banks in the forbidding environment of Ethiopia's financial sector. But Bulcha Demkesa is more than a simple banker. An engaged and engaging man, Bulcha says he has always been interested "in things that affect the people at large." As a young man, he was a member of the now defunct Ethnological Society of Ethiopia. Educated here and in the United States, he served as a Deputy Minister of Finance during the time of Emperor Haile-Selassie and has worked at the World Bank. He was also known as a contributor to the magazine called Ethiopian Review, which used to be published in the U.S. Bulcha represented the Ethiopian National Democratic Organization (ENDO) at the 1991 conference that established the Transitional Government of Ethiopia. But the interview Zerihun Taddesse conducted with him concerns the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM), which he helped establish and is now leading. Excerpts:-

What prompted you to set up this new political organization?

Ever since my youth, I've always believed that the Oromo people as a people have always had a raw deal. They've always been the underdogs in Ethiopia. They still are. The ruling party or class always took advantage of the Oromo people. They are always seen as subjects who don't know much, who should be and do everything the government tells them to. As a result, they were made almost like draught animals, carrying the fruits of their land to the land owners in Addis Ababa, doing the most difficult of physical labors, carrying wood for the construction of houses, paying unduly heavy taxes, being thrown in jails without proper legal procedure and so on and so forth. The Oromos were always at the bottom of the Ethiopian society, and this has always been in my mind. So I thought about it for a long time and came to the conclusion that the Oromos need only to organize themselves. After all, they vote, which means that they can say, "I will only vote only for a good government, a government that takes me seriously and protects my interest," Then, all you need is to organize them to say and do that. I waited for thirteen years for someone to do this. A lot of people talk and complain about it, but nobody has stepped forward to do anything.

But what about the other Oromo political organizations? Weren't they doing that? Why didn't you join them rather than creating a new one? Aren't we supposed to be tired of the duplicity of political parties here in Ethiopia?

If you look at the problem from my perspective, I'm sure you agree with me that this new party is indispensable. Today in Ethiopia, the Oromo people are not represented by a free voice. That means there is no party which is independent of EPRDF and which can speak on behalf of the Oromo people. So I wanted to establish a political party that can speak independently of the government for the Oromo people.

With regard to the other parties outside the ruling coalition, our political program is different from theirs. If the existing Oromo parties agree with our program, we will certainly work together. Even now, this is not beyond possibility. But because they have a different program...

But in what sense is your program different from theirs?

For example, my party says the Oromo language, like Amharic, has to be an official language of Ethiopia. In many countries throughout the world, where there is a large group of people like the Oromo in Ethiopia, their language is made official by constitution. I can cite you many examples. The Oromo people are large in number, their language is spoken widely, how come this language is not official? The Oromo people think that they are 40 to 45% of the Ethiopian population. How can a language spoken by such a people be forgotten? So my party says the Oromo language, Affaan Oromoo, must be a national language. We are Ethiopians, we are part and parcel of this nation. We constitute a very important part of Ethiopia, and our language should not be rejected. We think that our language deserves the same treatment that Amharic receives. However, this principled stand that we have is not endorsed by everybody. I mean they have not presented it as a principle like we have.

Secondly, my party regrets very much that we are following the parliamentary system rather than the presidential system. I know that this was debated during the drafting of the current Constitution. But we still feel that we should have adopted the presidential system and not the parliamentary system.

Why is that?

The reason is that the people of Ethiopia have always wanted a government that they vote for, meaning that every Ethiopian must vote for our president like they do in the U.S. The way parliamentary system works is that parties organize themselves and elect their leaders. The prime minister comes out of parliament, out of the parties. The party that has the largest number of seats can pick out of its ranks the leader of the country. In my opinion, this system is not good for our people. Our people for the first time in their lives must express directly whether they want this or that leader not leaders. Parties negotiate. They give and take. Parties do all kinds of tricks to control power so that someone not known to the population at large may emerge as a prime minister. The system that my party proposes does not allow someone who is not known to Ethiopians to emerge as their leader, president or prime minister. This is a strong belief of our party. Nobody else says that.

The Oromo People's Democratic Organization (OPDO) has been in power is Oromia for the last ten or more years. But most its time and effort seems to have gone to strides in the promotion of the Oromo culture and language. As you've said, your party is also concerned about the language issue. Is this really necessary? Don't the Oromo people have much more pressing problems like underdevelopment, getting their rights respected, being enabled economically and politically?

I'm talking about the Oromo language being a national language, you are talking about cultural and linguistic development. That's good, but not good enough. I want to take it to a higher level, i.e it should be the language of the Ethiopian government.

My question is: Is that really a major problem to the Oromo people? Aren't the Oromo people more interested in having the economic power to avoid poverty and being politically enabled to rule themselves in proper manner?

What you're saying is also part of our program. But, please, do not forget that a people need to be stimulated. The people must believe in themselves. People must have confidence and go with their heads up, not down. I told you the history of the Oromo people, they have always been the dregs of the society. They have always been disadvantaged.

Isn't that more a political and economic problem?

Economic, political, social, cultural,... everything. Oromos were even not allowed to speak their language in public in Addis Ababa or at the court of the rulers. They were made not to believe in themselves, made to look down on themselves and made to think that their language is not good enough. I hope you don't fail to see the importance of this psychological situation whereby the Oromos must be proud of themselves and their language. Unless they are, everything, including political and economic development, will not work. The Oromos must first of all believe that they are as good as anybody else and that their language is also as good as anybody else's. That's why it is so important to also include the question of language.

I did not say that that's the only program we have. The third difference between us and others concerns the issue of land. We believe the present constitutional arrangement in which the government and the people own the land is not right. It discourages development because when people think that land belongs to the government, they have no confidence They do not work hard on it to sustain it. When the government owns the land, the farmer thinks that his land, his farm could be taken away from him any time and be given to somebody else. It has happened. It's happening. Therefore, my party wants the constitution to say that land belongs to the people and not to the government.

What does that mean? Are you proposing public ownership of land or private ownership?

We are proposing communal ownership. That means that people of a region together own the land. In the past, in Gondar, Gojjam, Tigray and some parts of Wollo, the land was never sold. It was owned by the community. Land was never for sale. That's the kind of ownership we want. The only difference is that every Ethiopian farmer will have his own farm, massa. This he will have for perpetuity. He would always own this farm, borrow money by using it as a mortgage. He can collateralize and borrow money from a bank. It he can't pay that money, the bank will auction it in the same community. We also propose to establish what we call Land Administration Commission at the Woreda level. This commission will buy the land if nobody else can't buy it to allocate it to young men who did not inherit land from their fathers. In other words, the administration, allocation, development of land will belong to the people and not to the government. The government can provide technology, extension packages and teach the people how to modernize their farming methods. But the government does not need to own land to do that. In fact, The government can do a lot without owning the land. The best way to develop the land is to let the community and individuals together own the land.

Can that address all the problems related land and development in Ethiopia? For instance, economists argue that one of the factors that complicate the process of development in Ethiopia is the fact that its agriculture is based on small-scale farming. Why do we need to complicate things by insisting on something which may or may not work? Why don't we just go to private ownership?

What I said does not mean investors can not go to the countryside and invest in land. Whenever an investor identifies land that is suitable for investment, then the Land Administration Commission at the Woreda level or even the regional government can sign an agreement with him. The Land Administration Commission at the Woreda level has the authority to invite investors, deal with them and make land available to them. In fact, borrowing money by using land as collateral is the best way of developing land. If a person can do that, then development is right on his hands. He can develop his land.

But you don't need to sell, to use land as a commodity for commerce. Land is so vital to the life of the people that you should not allow the farmers to use it as commodity. If the farmers are allowed to sell their lands, the consequence is very clear. The consequence will be that smart people from cities like Addis Ababa will go and buy out the farmer. The farmer is desperate for cash. They'll give him cash and they'll take his land. That's what my party and myself do not support.

What about the demographic aspect of the land issue? The growth rate of the population in Ethiopia is more than 2% and there's always pressure on the land. And this government hasn't ruled out the possibility of redistribution and has even done it in some regions to allay that pressure that is said to be the cause to land insecurity. How does your proposition address this issue?

If you look at the history of western countries and even some in east Asia, it is not through agriculture alone that they achieved development. People moved from rural areas to urban centers. Land was freed like that. Young men went to cities to work, to go to school, to be employed in the professions. As Ethiopia develops, normally people should be going to cities and, therefore, the pressure on land is going to ease. As people get education, get enlightened, they will bear less and less number of children. That will also reduce the pressure on land. So we can not continuously expand land because land is a limited resource. Therefore, you have only the population to play with. Then, the end problem of accommodating them in urban areas arises, and that you have to take care of.

At the start of this interview, you described the Oromo people as part and parcel of the Ethiopian nation.


In that case, why do we need a separate solution to the Oromos? Why don't we just have a national, an Ethiopian solution or set of solutions to the all the people of Ethiopia?

After the Oromos have come up to the level of the rest of the Ethiopian people, particularly the level occupied by the inhabitants of the northern part of Ethiopia, then we may be able to have a national solution that can work. Now I'm telling you that the Oromos had been down there and they're still down there. Successive governments have exploited and disadvantaged the Oromo people. The Oromo people materially and psychologically are way down there. I need to work on them separately.

If we say the Oromo program should apply to everybody, that would be unfair. The Oromo program should apply only to the Oromos because they have had a special history, a special experience. One day, when we are all at par, definitely the same national program can serve everybody. But for some years to come, the Oromos need a special attention. You know that in America, the same program did not apply to all people. Because black people are so far below the rest, they needed a special program to bring them equal to the rest of the society. They have what they call Affirmative Action policy so that, for example, every company there is forced to have 10% of its employees drawn from the African American society because the black people constitute 10% of the American population. The same thing was done for women. This is done because the American society needed to be fair and to bring women and black people up to the level of the white man. Every society has its own policies and program of like manner. Ethiopia must have a special program for the Oromo people because the Oromo people have been down there and they're still down there. Any sensible Ethiopian, in my opinion, must be sorry for people who are at the bottom.

Ok. Let's agree that the Oromos haven't had it and are still not having it as good as, say, the Amharas and the Tigrayans. But then such is also the fate of the peoples in the South, Gambella, Gumuz etc. Doesn't this justify having a national, an Ethiopian solution rather than having separate ones to rectify isolated wrongs here and there?

You are right that there were and still are people who had exactly the same experience as the Oromo people. But I'm not excluding them when I say special program needs to be worked out for the Oromos. But I am not leading a Gambella or a Gumuz party, I'm leading an Oromo party. Therefore, I speak for the party that I lead. I expect the leaders of these other underdogs to feel the same way and to demand the same thing. And I will be absolutely ready to work with such people any time.

The party's name includes the world Federalist. What kind of federalism does that indicate? Is it ethnic federalism as is practiced now or a federalism with no connections to ethnicism?

That's the fourth main principle of our party's program. You know in Ethiopia there are people who are against federalism as it is today. They think it should not be based on linguistic and ethnic distinctions. We think, on the contrary, that it is the only way to organize this society - federalism based on linguistic and ethnic differences or identities. This is simply because there is no other way. What else is there for federalism to take shape? You can not find another way of defining a people. Ethnicity is a way of defining a people. It concerns a people that speak the same language, that occupy the same region, that have more or less the same culture and the same psychological make-up. You call this an ethnic group, an ethnic group within a national, within Ethiopia. This ethnic group can rule itself, administer itself, manage all its local problems. Nobody needs to come from Addis Ababa to tell them what to do with their lives.
If you remember during the Dergue and the Emperor's regimes, people were sent from Addis Ababa to tell them what to do and what not. I say, in that respect, the present system, although not perfect, is better. If you ask these people who have been slaving for the ruling class for so long, they will be loud and clear in telling you that they want federalism. And I share their feelings. Federalism is extremely good if you make it work. If you don't make it work, it will not work. But I say federalism in its true sense is good for our people. People manage their own local affairs. When it comes to foreign matters, foreign policy, external aggression, we leave it to the federal government. When it comes to health, making local roads, making our schools the way we like it, to controlling local crime (not international crime), we want to take care of that. That's what the people say. We want to manage our internal affairs. But when it comes to Ethiopia as a country, let the federal government handle it.

Let me ask you about the upcoming elections. Are you going to compete in it? If so, what is your strategy to be successful in it?

Probably my answers on this point will be the weakest. The thought of forming a party was on our mind for a long time. And it took us time to apply for certification. We were working for about five months to form our party. As you know, Oromiya is a huge region with a lot of zones. And it took us time to collect people from all these zones and make them agree on a program. Therefore, and it's going to be hard for us to field candidates in every electoral district. We may not be able field in all, but we will try to field as many as we can. But that will not discourage our party because we view our task in term which are much more broader than fielding candidates and competing in the next elections. The task we have given ourselves is the more demanding one of stimulating the mentality of the Oromo people to rise up to the 20th century. We want to teach our people. After all, they can only help themselves. Nobody is going to help them. So for us it is important to be organized as a political party. We have to make our people aware of their rights and their obligations. So if we can not do well in this election, we are not going to be discouraged because we are going to do a big job, that is, educating our people.

Finally, do you reckon you'll be successful in turning the widespread sympathy the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) is said to have among the Oromos into your advantage?

First of all, we have only been active for a few weeks formally. We are not like other parties who have been around for many years. It takes time to be introduced to the people. So I know that our program will be easily accepted by everybody. I have seen it as a test in regions and Addis Ababa. People like our program. But it will take us time to be popular and to be endorsed. And so we do not expect this to be done in a short period of time.

What about what can be called the OLF factor, which is opting out of Ethiopia, will that make the task difficult for you in Oromia?

We have a program, which is different from anybody else's. We believe in our program and we want people to believe in our program. We are a peaceful constitutional movement. We operate within the Ethiopian constitutional framework. Sure, there are certain things which we will struggle for to be introduced in the constitution in the future such as, as I said, making Oromiffa the national language and the land issue. We will struggle to include these matters in the constitution to be amended in the future. But, for now, we are law-abiding people, we will move according to the Ethiopian constitution.


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