By Mekuria Bulcha, PhD*
This is the third in a series of debate articles I have written this year concerning the on-going Oromo struggle for freedom from Abyssinian domination. Two of the articles were published on this website on February 1 and March 23, 2012, respectively. A version of the present article was presented at the Oromo Studies Association (OSA) annual conference on 14-15 July 2012 at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
It is no news to Oromo readers of this article that there are controversies among the different factions of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) over the objective which the front was organized to achieve, and the methods and strategies to be used to fulfill that mission. The road to freedom is never smooth. In most cases, it is very rough. Difficult terrains have to be traversed and tantalizing problems courageously surmounted by those who struggle for freedom. Therefore, at some junctures, the journey can become, not only slow or come to a standstill and stagnate, but the goal of a struggle for freedom is also questioned and abandoned by some. Our struggle has gone through such junctures and has suffered many setbacks in the course of the last ten years. The viability of an independent Oromo state is even being questioned.
However, taking into account the voices we hear through the channels that express popular aspirations, it is possible to argue that, at large, the demand of the Oromo people is consistent, and their aspiration for “the blessing and security of self-government” is increasing, to borrow words from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, U.S. President 1801-1809, on June 24, 1826 to be read at the 50th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence, which took place on July 4, 1826. In the letter, Jefferson explained that it was the aspiration for the blessings and security of self-government that stirred him and the other founding fathers of the United States of America to struggle for independence, and make the famous Declaration of Independence on the historic date of July 4, 1776.
More than a hundred nations have declared their independence from foreign domination since Jefferson wrote the lines I have quoted above, not because they heard or read what he wrote, but because there is, as Dr. Martin Luther King famously expressed, a throbbing “desire for freedom within the soul of every man [and woman],” and I should add, in the “soul” of every nation on earth.
Obviously, since the occupation of their country at the end of the nineteenth century, the desire for freedom has been throbbing in the “souls” of our people; and as we all know, they rose up many times in many places to throw out those who took it from them. But, since the Oromo struggle was sporadic and un-coordinated, it failed to give tangible results before the 1960s. Therefore, expressing the collective aspiration of the Oromo nation, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) issued a political program in 1976, declaring the fundamental objective of its struggle as the “the realization of national self-determination for the Oromo people, and their liberation from oppression and exploitation in all its forms.” The young men who wrote the political program stated also boldly that the declared objectives can only be realized “by the establishment of the People’s Democratic Republic of Oromia.” Despite the sacrifices it demands, it is this goal which we are now striving to achieve together as a nation.
That the declaration of the OLF is accepted by, and is reflecting the collective aspiration of the Oromo people, is expressed clearly by the support which the front is receiving from the Oromo masses. It is also indicated by the deeds of numerous men and women, who sacrificed their lives during the last four decades. The popular manifestoes issued at the great pan-Oromo meetings, which took place in 1991 and 1992 – bringing together tens of thousands of Oromos from all walks of life and from all over the Oromo territory – manifested the depth of the popular support the front’s political program is enjoying. This is reflected particularly in the manifestoes issued by the two historical pan-Oromo meetings held at Odaa Bultum, the ancient seat of gadaa assembly of the Ittu Oromo Federation in east Oromia and Odaa Bulluq, the seat of the gadaa assembly of the Horroo-Guduruu Oromo Federation in Horro Guduruu in western Oromia in 1992 – where a program for the realization of the independence of Oromia was adopted. The spirit has not only survived the difficult time in which our struggle found itself during the last twenty years, but has grown robust and is strongly expressed in every song that Oromo poets and artists compose and perform, in every meeting our people hold, on Oromo websites across the world, and in every debate article penned by Oromo politicians and scholars, and above all by a variety of symbolic garbs and ornaments our men, women and children wear. As an Oromo, one has to be deaf or blind not to hear or see this.
Thus, because of the struggle we have waged collectively during last forty years, the Oromo nation is a reality, and the Oromo state is in the making today. I believe there is a widespread awareness about that, at least among the Oromo people. As a political sociologist and historian I study processes rather than only discrete events. Therefore, based on my observation of chains of perceptible and imperceptible developments which stirred Oromo political consciousness overtime, I will argue that the struggle for an independent Oromo state has passed the point of no return. Having adopted the objectives inscribed in the political program of the OLF of 1976, the Oromo people will move forward to achieve the goal for which tens of thousands of their compatriots sacrificed their lives. Having lived under atrocious regimes of injustice for over a century, they are aspiring eagerly for the security of self-government. Ironically, however, there are some Oromos who will cling to the irredeemably hostile anti-Oromo fold of the Ethiopia state, arguing that an independent Oromo state is unviable.
Arguments Against an Independent Oromo State
Most of the arguments against the idea of an independent Oromo state are well known. The arguments are shared by both non-Oromo and Oromo critics. What is lacking is a critical assessment of these arguments. In an attempt to fill the critical gap, I will present a brief appraisal of the arguments in this article. To dispel the distortions and doubts which the opponents of an independent Oromo state create in the minds of the public, I will compare the Oromo situation with the experiences of other peoples in different parts of the world – who have defeated obstacles similar to the Oromo, and have attained freedom from foreign domination and formed their own states in modern times. I will categorize the arguments and discuss the factors presented against the formation of an independent Oromo state under the following four themes: (a) views about “megenxel” or secession, (b) impact of Oromo independence on their neighbors, (c) globalization, and (d) the discourse about Oromo demography and geography. In the article, I will also critique the idea of forging alliance with Amhara political organizations to depose the present regime and build another Ethiopian regime instead of uniting the Oromo to solve the century-old problem with the Ethiopian empire state by building an independent Oromo state as declared in the OLF political program.
(A) Megenxel — an Amharic term that distorts the Oromo quest for freedom
“Megenxel” is a distorting term, which politicians and scholars, both Oromos and Abyssinians, who basically oppose the idea of an independent Oromo state, have introduced into the debate on Oromo struggle. It is used to denote both independence and secession. It connotes negative consequences: as if a branch falls off from a tree and dies. Representing the Oromo quest for independence as megenxel – “break- or torn-off, fall and destruction” – confuses many people. There are even some Oromos who tend to see the aspiration for an independent state as negative, and the action being taken to realize it as harmful. To see the Oromo quest for freedom as megenxel and to question the legitimacy of the struggle for an independent state are to agree with those Ethiopianist scholars and politicians who argue that the Oromo did not have a state in the past and cannot have it now or in the future. As I have shown in detail based on evidence in my book – Contours of the Emergent and Ancient Oromo Nation – it is important to recognize that Oromo history and national identity pre-date the Abyssinian conquest of the late nineteenth century. The Oromo had lived in their own states, which were destroyed by the conquest. They are not “tearing” themselves from anything of which they were an organic part or moving anywhere: they are fighting for bilisummaa (freedom), not megenxel (fall and destruction). What will take place is not some sort of organic rapture or displacement of population, but the termination of an oppressive relationship created through conquest and maintained by force, in a hierarchical political structure, which has relegated our people to a subordinate, exploited and disadvantaged collective category. That is to say, we are not going to take anything from anybody that does not belong to us, or we are not looking for something which was not ours in the past. We will reclaim what was taken from us: restore our human rights and ascertain control over resources that belong to our people. Oromia will remain a homeland to its inhabitants as it has always been, and all its inhabitants whether they are Oromo by blood or are immigrants or descendants of the conqueror-settlers have full right to remain citizens and stay at home. In other words, Oromia, now a state in the (re-)making, like any other modern state is a multi-ethnic entity, and will remain as such even when it achieves its independence. But, after independence, the bureaucratic structure of the Ethiopian state, which has been its instrument of oppression, will be removed from the Oromo country and replaced by an Oromo state system, which will reflect the democratic gadaa tradition of our nation.
Forty-three years ago in 1971, after describing the plight of the Oromo people under the Ethiopian rule in the well-known article titled “Oromo Voice against Tyranny,” a group of Oromo intellectuals argued that “An Oromo has no empire to build but a mission to break an imperial yoke.” The primary purpose of the struggle for an independent Oromo state is to secure the basic rights and opportunities, which are required for descent human life. The imperial policies of the Ethiopian regimes have denied the Oromo people these rights for too long. Therefore, in general, the aim of bilisummaa, the OLF strives to achieve, is to mend the harms done by the Abyssinian conquest, restore our national pride, which was hurt by institutionalized humiliation, and eventually, uplift our people from the miserable social, economic and psychological conditions into which they were thrown and are kept by a colonial structure for more than a century. Since our people’s demands for the acknowledgement of their grievances and reinstitution of their human rights were repeatedly denied by Ethiopian regimes, it is logical that we struggle to establish an independent Oromo state to protect our rights. I believe, this ought to be clear to those who demonize the aspirations of our people for bilisummaa instead of characterizing their struggle as megenxel. They should also stop labeling those who struggle for their liberation as tegenxaay, by which they often mean, not only “separatists” in the literal meaning of the term, but also “racists,” “criminals” or “agents of foreign powers scheming to destroy the Ethiopian state” (Lt. Ayalsew Dessie, ESAT TV, August 9, 2011) depending on the audience they are addressing.
What must be clear, particularly to us Oromos, is also that freedom is not given to a people for free, but is taken by force. Therewith, freedom necessitates also a struggle, which often involves violence. Regrettably, therefore, the cost of freedom can be very high; it claims human lives. However, this does not mean that freedom is a fruit of a violent, “immoral” act. Politically or morally, self-defense against atrocities committed against oneself is legitimate and often necessary. It is our right and moral duty to defend ourselves against forces that impair our liberty and challenge our national integrity, deny our right to life, and dispossess our individual and collective rights to property. Simply stated, it is our right to live as a free people; build our institutions; and protect our individual and collective heritage. It is also our moral duty to let others live as such. This is what the Oromo moral ethics, known broadly as safuu, is about. As a moral and social code of conduct, the safuu ethics prescribe mutual recognition and respect among humans. It is needless to go into more details to defend the objective of the Oromo national struggle for liberation. It suffices to state here that the purpose of our struggle is not to dispossess others, or hurt the integrity and self-esteem of others, as it is often connoted by the demonizing Amharic word megenxel used by those who are opposed to Oromo freedom: it is to break an imperial yoke, to borrow the words of the authors of “Oromo Voice against Tyranny” once again, that has been “breaking the backs” of the Oromo people for over a century and to establish an independent state that protects our rights. As I have repeatedly pointed out, the goal of the Oromo national liberation struggle is to realize the aspiration of the Oromo people for the blessings and security of self-government. As I will discuss briefly below, our pursuit for self-determination is supported by international law, by political philosophy and theory, and by developments in the Ethiopian politics of the last forty years.
The support we can find in international law is expressed, inter alia, in the UN Resolutions 1514 and 1541 of 1960, which declare the right of peoples, promulgate the rights of nations to self-determination. Needless to say that it depends on us to gainfully exploit the spirit of these resolutions and argue our case in public. Here, it is interesting to note that secession has been a process through which most the current UN member states were formed, historically. To mention just some examples, Norway seceded from Sweden in 1905, Finland from Russia in 1917, Pakistan from India in 1947, Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971, Ukraine, Belo-Russia, and the Baltic States from Russia in the 1990s, and Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993. The latest cases of secession are East Timor from Indonesia in 2002, Kosovo, which became an independent state in 2008 after years of armed conflict with Serbia, and South Sudan, which won its independence in 2011 after decades of a bloody war. There were also many states which seceded peacefully. The separation of Norway from Sweden 1905, and the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993 into the states of Slovakia and the Czech Republic in 1993 are cases in point here. Many counties became independent after conflicts that took many years causing loss of lives and material damage. Regrettably, that is also affecting our national struggle for liberation. The resolution of Oromia-Ethiopia conflict can follow the South Sudan example. Obviously, since the Oromo political organizations will welcome a peaceful resolution, ending the conflict between our people and the Ethiopia state depends upon those who wield power in Finfinnee (Addis Ababa).
The theoretical support for the independence of nations under alien domination is also found in the works of both liberal and Marxist scholars. The political scientist Arend Lijphart (1977), for example, suggests that when a genuine federation is impractical, partition is a correct and final solution. Writing along the same line, another political scientist Adelman (1992) also argued that the desire for nations to realize the expression of their identities through a sovereign state, is not the road to ruin, but the path to a new international order built on the rule of law and the protection of the freedom of individuals, the equality of groups, and the full realization of each unique nation. Taking up the same issue even more broadly, the Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka (2001), in his Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and Citizenship, states that “the desire of national minorities to form a separate state is often morally legitimate, and it is unjust to force them to remain within a large state against their will.” He recommends that the conditions under which a group has a right of secession, and “the procedures by which that right can be exercised” should be defined by international law. It is important to note here that, although the works of the last two scholars are from relatively recent dates, they say nowhere that the claims of oppressed nations to form their own states are contradicted by globalization. As I will discuss later on, in fact, the majority of the UN member states became independent in the age globalization.
The third important point, which both the supporters and opponents of the idea of an independent Oromo state should note, concerns developments in Ethiopian politics since the 1960s. In Ethiopia, the contentious issue of self-determination, including secession, was discussed extensively during the last four decades. The discussions, and particularly, the struggle of the oppressed peoples for freedom, have created a reality that the Abyssinian ruling elites are unable to ignore. The debate about self-determination led, not only to a theoretical support by scholars, including former members of the Ethiopian Student Movement, but also the official acknowledgement of the rights of nations and nationalities in Ethiopia to “self-determination, including the rights to secession.”
The first official acknowledgement came in 1976, when the Dergue issued its Program of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR). Article 5 (Section II) of the Program declared unequivocally that “The right to self-determination of all nationalities will be recognized and fully respected.” This, as we all know, was an unfulfilled promise. It was used as time-buying ploy. The Dergue was opposed fiercely and overthrown. Those who overthrew the regime, including the OLF, formed a coalition and proclaimed the Transitional Charter (TC) of 1991 promising the restoration of individual and people’s rights through a peaceful process. The coalition Transitional Government had a short life. The promise was also broken by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which, led by Meles Zenawi, dominated the government for the last two decades. Yet, at least on paper, Meles Zenawi and his colleagues adopted a Constitution in 1994, which declared “Every nation, nationality or people in Ethiopia shall have the unrestricted right to self-determination up to secession” (Article 39 (1)). The content of the Article is not a gift from the present regime, but unavoidable acknowledgment of the goal for which the conquered peoples, such as the Oromo have been struggling against the Ethiopian state. Once again, the declaration was made to buy time, not to change the authoritarian political system the regime has inherited from its predecessors.
It is very important to note this: the fact that Article 39 of the EPRDF constitution was not put into practice does not mean the essence of its contents is baseless or that the constitutional acknowledgement of the rights of the Oromo and other oppressed peoples in Ethiopia is not legitimate, as the Amhara political organizations posit. The constitution acknowledges an existing reality. The recognitions of the claims of the colonized and oppressed peoples’ to independent nation- and statehood was a bitter truth, which both the leaders of the military regime and the TPLF had to acknowledge, even if it was intended to consolidate their political power and not genuinely ready to allow the oppressed peoples exercise their rights to self-determination. And, that is why the Oromo struggle should continue and not abandoned as those who question the idea of building an independent Oromo state suggest.
(B) Impact of Oromo Independence on Our Neighbors
There are Oromos and non-Oromos who rightly link the question of independence to the interests of our neighbors, but often come to mistaken conclusions that distort the reality. For example, it is argued that
1. The Oromo have a responsibility for their neighbors
2. Oromo independence is impossible unless our neighbors are democratic
3. We must take into consideration all peoples of the Horn of Africa rather than focusing only on Oromo independence
To start with the first argument, those who posit that the Oromo have a responsibility for their neighbors and should not struggle for an independent Oromo state seem to assume that the Oromo people are created to guarantee Ethiopia’s existence as a state. They argue that: “We cannot imagine Ethiopia without the Oromo territory,” or “It is madness to talk about Oromo secession from Ethiopia; that will be disastrous!” The argument makes the Oromo people hostages of the Ethiopian state. The opposite side of the coin is that those who are saying these alarming things do not mention what had happened in the past or what is happening today to these hostages. They do not even want to hear about them. If at all acknowledged, the usual comment is “the Oromo are not the only people who are oppressed in Ethiopia.” There are Ethiopianist politicians and scholars who use this as a method to silence the Oromo voice and hide the atrocities committed by the Abyssinian rulers.
There are even some Oromos who tell us that we are not the only people who are colonized, but also our neighbors in the south. There is no doubt that our people share the bitter taste of colonial oppression and exploitation with the other non-Abyssinian peoples. Obviously, we must take that into consideration. But that does not mean we must force them to join us in our struggle against Abyssinian oppression or take the responsibility to fight on their behalf. Such approach is paternalistic, which neither the Oromo nor their neighbors should entertain. It does not also mean that we should change our goal of independence if it is not acceptable to some or even all of them. The point I want to make here is that we should neither try to impose on anyone of them the type of state we want to have, nor abandon our goal of forming an independent Oromo state, because some of them do not accept it, or even will join the Abyssinian camp to prevent us from realizing it.
The Oromo have not been indifferent to the plight of others, particularly, that of their neighbors with whom they share the experience of conquest and colonization. There is plenty of evidence from the last three decades which indicate the concern of Oromo political organizations, including the OLF, about the oppressed peoples who are under the rule of Ethiopian regimes. It is important to note here that many attempts were made by Oromo organizations in the past to cooperate with non-Abyssinian organizations. In the 1960s, the Macca Tuulama Association (MTA) was open to members of the southern peoples, such as Walaita, Sidama and Kambata, who attended many of its meetings. The effort of ECHAT in the mid-1970s to unite the oppressed non-Abyssinian peoples is also well known to most of the readers of this article. What is perhaps less known is the OLF’s attempt in the 1980s to cooperate with the liberation fronts of the oppressed peoples, such as the Sidama, Benishangul, Afar and Gambella. Needless to say that the attempt should continue; but it should not be our major political and organizational task.
Our neighbors are not a homogenous group: they differ in many ways. Some of them are politically better organized; others are not. Some will build their own independent states, others may or may not. Therefore, our approach to them should vary according to their interests. We can build a federation with those who wish that form of co-existence with our people. We can cooperate with others in different ways. When a federal arrangement or other forms of co-operation we make with some of them proves democratic, mutually beneficial and successful, others may follow suit. In that manner, we can contribute to peaceful co-existence with our neighbors.
It is absolutely necessary, particularly at this crucial juncture in our history, to consolidate our own resources, strengthen our unity, and make concrete short- and long-term plans to achieve our goal of liberation. We have to put our house in order before we rush to join our neighbors. That the Oromo are the most populous nation in the Horn of Africa does not make us automatically strong. In other words, it is real strength, and not just the potential strength inherent in our demographic size, which decides whether our neighbors will form a durable political alliance with us vis-à-vis the fate of the Ethiopian state. As I have argued in my previous article, we have to translate our demographic strength into a military and political force in order to gain from or make meaningful contributions to any alliance we wish to enter with others. I do not mean that we should close our doors to potential allies, but that we should, as I have suggested above, spend more time on the consolidation of our unity than on alliance making with others.
Having said this, there is no reason for the Oromo to change their kaayyoo (goal) and focus on staying within the Ethiopian state system “because they have to take the interests of our neighbors into consideration.” In my view, it is absurd to play the role of good Samaritans arguing that we have responsibility for our neighbors while our own home is in a predicament and demands our undivided attention. I will pose the following questions to the reader to test the rationality or irrationality of the argument I am critiquing here. Did the conditions in Darfur and the rest of the Sudan prevent the South Sudanese from declaring their independence? Did the people of East Timor wait for the people of Aceh and other ethnic groups, who were and are fighting against the Indonesian government, when they declared their independence in 2007? Why should the Oromo case be different?
Related to the above, one of the flimsiest arguments against Oromo’s right to self-determination is that, since Oromia is located in the center of the Ethiopian empire state, its independence will lead to the disintegration of Ethiopia. Indeed, the Oromo territory is located in the middle of Ethiopia, but that should not make our people hostages of the Ethiopian state. The Oromo are where they are, not because of a social contract they had entered with the Ethiopian state, but through the fact of conquest. The nature of conquest, on which the relationship between the Oromo people and the Ethiopian state was established, was and remains to be the opposite of social contract, which is based on mutual respect and benefit. It is widely known that the colonial relationship between the Oromo people and their Abyssinian rulers has been extremely harmful to Oromo identity, culture, language, history humanity, and even to the natural environment that sustains human survival.
To argue that the Oromo bear the responsibility for maintaining the Ethiopian state, which was built and maintained by force, intact, or to suggest that we should abandon the goal of independence and join others to build a new “democratic Ethiopia,” is to say the Oromo people are wretched beasts of burden – who must continue a journey carrying a load that is breaking their backs. It should be clear to the reader that I am not against democracy as a system of government. I am for it. But, I am indicating that, first, as many scholars have indicated for decades, democracy is at odds with the political culture of the Abyssinian ruling elites; Ethiopia cannot be democratized as quickly, if at all, as suggested by some Oromo politicians, who are trying to persuade our people to abandon their aspiration for an independent state and join them in the holy crusade of democratizing an empire. Will the Abyssinian elite welcome such a crusade? I have my doubts. Second, as every Oromo knows, the goal of the Oromo struggle is not to democratize Ethiopia. It is to liberate Oromia. There is no reason why our people should, and start a new struggle for a different cause, and sacrifice their human and material resources.
The second argument is a speculative “if-not” argument. It is speculated that, unless our neighbors become democratic, it will be difficult for Oromia to be an independent state and for Oromo democracy to function. The fear is that they will gang up against the Oromo and make the existence of an Oromo state impossible, and the life of Oromo masses miserable. Which are the factors that will originate from those societies to prevent the Oromo from exercising democratic rule in their own state? How do they make Oromo democracy dysfunctional: through subversion and aggressive intervention? Shouldn’t the Oromo have a strategy for self-defense militarily and diplomatically? We know that the present regime has been creating numerous conflicts between the Oromo and their neighbors during the last two decades to divide and rule them. Recently, it was with the Gumuz against the Oromo in the west; just now it is with the Garri against the Borana Oromo in the south. We and our neighbors know that the Oromo people have an accommodating culture. We should keep on reassuring them that we are for co-existence as always.
The third argument is also speculative. It says that unless the peoples of the Horn of Africa become democratic, it is doubtful that the Oromo can achieve freedom and exercise democracy in their own independent state. This argument makes the democratization of the Horn of Africa, not only a precondition for the establishment of peace and justice in Oromia, but also seems to suggest that something great in which the Oromo are going to be leading actors will happen if we prioritize regional integration over an independent state of Oromia. Regrettably, however, given the many conflicts in the region, the wish that is reflected in a theory about the Horn of Africa as “common homeland” is nothing more than figments of imagination. The project is even less achievable than the working-class paradise the theory of class-struggle promised, and which had confused many Oromos and others in the past. The proponents of class-struggle argued that nationalism must be abandoned and socialism be adopted for the workers of the world to live in peace and prosperity. Likewise, albeit on a small regional scale, there are Oromos who argue today that it is pointless to think about Oromo democracy and independence unless the Horn of Africa is democratized. I do not have any problem with the idea as a theory. My worry is that it may make the uninformed masses, and even intellectuals who pay little attention to politics of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, believe that it is more sensible and practical if we follow that path and focus on uniting the peoples of the Horn rather than aiming for an independent Oromo state. As such, it is a source of confusion and can become an obstacle to the creation of an independent Oromo state.
The argument is bothersome even as a theoretical issue. How do you democratize the peoples of the Horn of Africa? Who has responsibility to do that? Democracy has no roots in most the societies of the Horn of Africa. What will be the channels to be used to spread democracy to the rest of the peoples of the region even if the Oromo were to do it? Is it through PDOs á la TPLF? Or is it kadires á la Dergue. Who will organize the PDOs or the kadires, and how? Those who advise us to give up the notion of an independent state and bequeath Oromo democracy to our neighbors and live democratically together with them in a “common homeland” called Ethiopia or the Horn of Africa have not given us any clue about the process to achieve that.
I do not want to be misunderstood here. I am not saying that the fate of the peoples of the Horn of Africa does not concern Oromos. I mean solving the region’s democracy and stability deficit should not be the primary issue of our struggle at the moment. It is an enormous task even if we were to shoulder the responsibility. To begin with, it requires a lot of time and energy to find out if there are organizations that represent the other peoples in the region – which are interested to cooperate with us to bring about such a change. In any event, democracy is inherent in our tradition, but it must be put first to experimentation as a pan-Oromo ideology and policy through a pan-Oromo government before passing it over to other peoples for adoption. However, it is simply unthinkable to reconcile traditions, such as the Abyssinian political culture, which is fundamentally at odds with democracy, the equally undemocratic and non-secular fundamentalist trends growing in Somalia, and the other cultures and traditions of the other peoples of the region to create homeland that is democratic and common to all. It is a theoretical project that cannot be realized at least in the foreseeable future.
In my opinion an Oromia-centered scenario is more reasonable to consider. The idea of staying in the framework of the Ethiopian state and imparting democracy to our neighbors is not conceivable. One needs a base in which to consolidate democracy and from which to spread it to others. Once it is independent and democratic, a large Oromo nation and state can influence its neighbors in the right direction. The stability in the Horn of Africa will benefit from an independent Oromo state than from an Oromo nation that is divided and oppressed in Ethiopia. Oromo independence can promote food and water security in the entire region of northeast Africa. Oromo independence can help in securing peace and stability in the region. It can also facilitate the protection of the environment. It is widely known among Oromos and is acknowledged by many scholars that the Oromo culture protects the natural environment. That culture, and the indigenous Oromo knowledge, which protected the natural environment for centuries, are disappearing rapidly. The Oromo culture can be revived only by a state and an administration that understand its worth, and is interested in its survival. The Abyssinian regimes have done the opposite. It is recorded abundantly by travelers and scholars that the forests of Oromia have been ravaged by the Abyssinian conquerors together with the indigenous culture that sustained it.
It important to note in this connection that the destruction of the environment in Oromia has consequences, not only for the Oromo people in particular, but also for their neighbors and the other peoples of northeast Africa. As the Oromo reader may know, Oromia is the “water tower” of northeast Africa. The Awash that provides the Afar lowlanders with the water they need for survival; the Wabi Shabelle and the Ganale Rivers, which flow into the Somali territories; the Omo River, which flows into Lake Turkana; the Baro River, which flows through Gambella and joins the White Nile in South Sudan; the Dabus, Dhidheessaa, Muger, Guder and other rivers, which together contribute over three quarters of the waters of the Blue Nile, and the thousands of small rivers that feed into them have their sources in Oromia. One can guess the consequences of the ongoing destruction of the natural environment in Oromia if we take the following into consideration: without the waters of the Awash River, the Afar and the livestock have no future. The Ogaden territory and Somalia, which depend on the Wabi Shabelle and Ganale Rivers, will lose much of the water that sustains their survival. The situations in the Sudan and, particularly, in Egypt will be even more precarious. In his book The Nile, Robert Collins (2002) notes that 85 percent of the Nile waters that reach Egypt originate in Ethiopia, of which more than three quarters is from Oromia. According to Collins, the Baro River alone carries 10 percent of all the water to reach Aswan in Egypt. Needless to stress that the destruction of the environment Oromia is the destruction of the future lives of the peoples of northeast Africa – who depend upon these rivers.
We all know the alarming rate at which the environment is being destroyed, and the water sources are poisoned and drying up in Oromia because of the scale of land-grab policy of the present regime. I believe that the creation of a situation, which enables the Oromo to take care of their resources will be the best solution to the environmental destruction, which is being caused by the reckless policies of the present regime. In other words, a peaceful and democratic Oromo state will contribute greatly, not only to regional peace, but even prosperity. It will protect its environment and water sources that are crucial to most of the peoples of northeast Africa. I would argue, therefore, that it would have been reasonable had those Oromos, who argue for the democratization of Ethiopia, worked first to strengthen the Oromo camp, and then for the democratization of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, from a base in democratic Oromia. To form an alliance with the Abyssinian political elites and organizations, that will ride into Finfinnee on our backs and will assume political power, is naïve and damaging to the aspirations of our people.
(C) Globalization versus an Independent Oromo State
One of the arguments raised constantly by those who directly or indirectly oppose the idea of an independent Oromo state and promote the politics of democratization of Ethiopia is change in the international political climate. They advise us to conform to the global trends in order to advance Oromo interests. They maintain that an independent Oromo state is a project that is not in tune with the time; because, according to their argument, the role of the state has become irrelevant now. But, this argument is contradicted by evidence.
To start with, the argument is not reflective as it should be: it misses two important realities. First, it overlooks that the human desire for freedom is a timeless phenomenon throbbing in the heart of every man and woman. The rhythms of the throbs respond to constrictions on human freedom. Globalization does not affect that reality. The argument also fails to notice the current development of the political consciousness of the Oromo masses, and their growing desire for the blessings and security of self-government.
Second, seen historically, globalization and economic integration do not work against political self-determination: it seems that the quest for independence among indigenous peoples and national minorities all over the world has accelerated in tandem with the pace of globalization. Before 1900, there were only 53 independent states in the world. Between 1900-1920, elven states became independent as a consequence of World War I and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. The next two decades witnessed the independence of six states. Thus, at the outbreak of World War II, there were 70 independent states. The period between the end of World War II and 1960, the number of sovereign states increased to 92.
The largest number of states became independent between 1960 and 1980 in tact with increased globalization and de-colonization of Africa. In the twenty-year period, 67 new states were added to the list of the UN member states. Decolonization was followed by the fall of the Communist system and the end of the so-called Cold War. In its turn, that led to the birth of 32 new states. The first decade of the new millennium saw the birth of five states, which were recognized by the UN raising the number of its member-states to 193. All in all, 70 per cent of the UN member states became independent in the aftermath of the World War II, a period which also has witnessed an accelerated pace of globalization. Besides the Oromo, today, there are many peoples, who are struggling to achieve independence and become members of the community of nations. Here, the Scots, Catalonians, Quebecois, Kurds are some of the examples.
Globalization is a complex process: its acceleration is affecting national minorities more negatively than ever before. Driven by the market and monopolized by a new global capitalist class, economic globalization is affecting the poor adversely in almost every country. It tends, not only to exacerbate poverty, but also to diminish the civil and political rights of marginalized population groups. This is occurring because local power holders are colluding with multinational companies, and eroding the security of indigenous national minorities, in whose homelands valuable natural resources, such as timber, precious minerals, metals and oil deposits are located.
The widely reported auctioning of Oromo farm- and pasture-lands on the international market by the present Ethiopian government is a scandalous example of such collusion of local and global interests, which intensifies the suppression of national minorities. In Oromia and Gambella, for example, the rights of global capitalists, who have leased vast tracts of land and water for decades from the Ethiopian regime, are protected while the Oromo, the Anuak and the Nuer are persecuted, killed, and displaced as their villages are burned down by the security forces of the Ethiopian state. That shows democracy and globalization are not coterminous, but, that the opposite often is the case.
There is plenty of evidence that indicates, today, the collusion of the interests of local ruling elites and global capital owners is a major source of conflict in many countries. This is a trend that may not change even in the foreseeable future. The first line of self-defense against this is a responsible, democratic national state. Those Oromos, who question the wisdom of Oromo demand for their own state, have overlooked this fact.
As I have briefly discussed above, as a process, globalization per se does not hinder the independence of any nation. It is not for or against life under dictators. Oromo independence is not opposed to globalization. Seeking independence does not mean closing one’s doors to others; it is making decisions about own affairs, living under laws that are made by own representatives. That is what we desire, and are struggling to achieve.
Indeed, changes have occurred with a hurricane speed during the last forty years, and the world of the 1970s, during which the OLF political program was written, is markedly different from the world we know today. Great changes have occurred in international relations; and the Cold War, which divided the world into two opposing power blocks, is history now. Even if the Oromo people’s national liberation movement was not the direct beneficiary of that division, as national liberation movements of other peoples in the Horn and elsewhere in the world were in the past, it will be wrong to say that we are not affected by the radical changes in international relations and the speed of globalization in its aftermath. I can agree only that much with Oromos who talk repeatedly about haala ammaa (“current world situation”) to persuade us to change the course of our struggle. I will argue that we should not be overwhelmed totally by these changes and become victims of globalisation by giving up our aspirations for freedom. Globalization has, in fact, much to offer, and we can make it work for us. We are already doing that, but not sufficiently. Let me explain.
Like many other oppressed peoples around the world, we are using the communication technology of the globalising world in order to voice our claims and defend our rights. The internet, a technology of the globalizing world, has made long-distance political activism possible. Thus, we are linked to the struggle of our people at home. We are making our contributions in shaping the dynamics of their national struggle for justice. We could scatter around the world, and even establish contacts with governments and international human rights organizations to garner moral, material and diplomatic support for the struggle which our people are waging at home, because globalization has made it possible. This was not possible forty or fifty years ago. We have been key providers of some of the services that are unavailable or prohibited at home. These services include intellectual activities, such as writing the supressed history of our nation and developing the Oromo language. Using global networks, the Oromo in the diaspora are challenging the Ethiopian regime that denied them the freedom to stay at home. What the regime has denied us to do at home, we are now doing trans-nationally using the cyberspace. Take, for example, Oromo poets and singers, who were harassed, imprisoned, tortured and were forced into exile to silence their voice. They are now available at home over the cyberspace. Thanks to radio stations and, particularly, Voice of Oromiyaa Radio, which is transmitted from Minneapolis in the U.S., we hear, among others, the agonies of Oromo refugees in the Horn of Africa and Yemen. Their plight touches us and enhances our resolve to fight for justice: as an Oromo, unless one is morally numb, it is impossible to forget the agonized voices of the women refugees who live in the open with small children they are unable to feed or protect against the harsh weather conditions.
Although its scale may be limited, we are mobilising different kinds of support for the national struggle at home. Our websites display the territorial map of our homeland and the national symbols of our people. Oromo radio stations in the diaspora express in words and music the natural beauty of Oromia, and expose the injustices perpetrated against our people by the state. Information about Oromia and the Oromo people, and the claims they make to culture and identity, are defined discursively. We must understand that the Oromo Studies Association (OSA), the Oromo Relief Association (ORA), the International Oromo Youth Association (IOYA), the Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa (HRLHA) and the different Oromo religious organizations in the diaspora, which are engaged precisely in such activities are also products of the globalizing world. The point is, globalization is also working for us, not only against us. Let us make the maximum use of the opportunities it offers to bring about the end of Abyssinian political domination in Oromia, and establish an independent state of our own.
(D) Distortions about Oromia’s Demography and Geography
Demography was/is often used to argue against Oromo independence. For example, Christopher Clapham (1988) posited in his Transformation and Continuity in Revolutionary Ethiopia that “while many Ethiopian Nationalities do live predominantly in one geographical area, geography operates against the Oromo interest in self-determination, as they are the most widely dispersed of all the Ethiopian peoples,” and that Oromo nationalism, unlike Eritrea or Tigray, “cannot draw claims for the autonomy of any existing administrative unit” because, according to him, the “Oromo are spread across twelve of Ethiopia’s administrative regions.” This totally wrong perception of Oromo geography is recycled by journalists, commentators and others ad infinitum even today. But, anybody who is informed about the federal map of Ethiopia which is drawn using ethno-linguistic criteria knows that the regional state of Oromia is a contiguous territory. Clapham, for example, is talking about the political geography of the Ethiopian provinces, which were created by the Ethiopian administration under Haile Selassie, and not about the actual geography of the Oromo territory. In the 1940s, the Oromo territory was divided into provinces, and parts of the Oromo territory were sliced off on every corner and were attached to the different provinces of the empire that are inhabited by other peoples. The Dergue regime followed a similar policy. My point is that the Oromo homeland is a contiguous territory: Oromos do not live in scattered enclaves among non-Oromos as some misinformed Ethiopianist scholars think, or Abyssinian politicians and scholars will make us believe.
The political or administrative maps, prepared by previous Ethiopian regimes, or the multi-ethnic composition of Oromo urban centers are not plausible as arguments against Oromo autonomy. It is natural that, as in any part of the world, Oromo cities and towns are multi-ethnic. In the age of migration and globalization, it is difficult to find a state in the world of which the population is entirely indigenous. Since Oromia is of central importance in its economy, most of its constituent nationalities of the Ethiopian empire state have some members working in the regional state. They have migrated from their homelands, such as the Amhara and Tigrayan regional states, or are descendants of migrants from there. Many came also as involuntary migrants during in the 1970s and 1980s as part of the much-criticized resettlement program of the Dergue regime. However, the population of Oromia is more homogenous than most of the states that had achieved their independence in recent years.
For example, compared to the Baltic States and Ukraine, the population of Oromia is more homogenous. According to the official 1994 census, 85 percent of the inhabitants of the Regional State of Oromia are Oromo; the rest are mainly Amhara, who constitute 9 percent, and the Gurage, who are 3.1 per cent, and live in the urban areas. The Ukrainians, who were part of the Russian Empire for more than 250 years, got their independence in 1991. In 2001 the Russians constituted 22 percent of the population of Ukraine. In Latvia, the Russians constituted nearly 29 percent of the total population while together the non-Latvians were 41 percent. Estonia has also 28 per cent Russians, and 7 percent others. Native Estonians constitute 65 percent.
I do not want to be misinterpreted here: by Oromo independence I do not mean an ethnically homogenous Oromo state. Nobody says that among the Oromo nationalists I know. What the Oromo people are seeking is control over their affairs and resources. Like in any modern state, the doors will be open to anybody who wishes to live and work in Oromia respecting Oromo laws.
‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ – The fallacy of Oromo alliance with all anti-EPRDF political organizations
As I have discussed above, one can ally with the political organizations of the non-Abyssinian peoples. But, when it comes to the Amhara-Tigrayan organizations, the decision to avoid alliance and go it alone has to be chosen by Oromo organizations, because forming alliances with the Abyssinian elites has ended in countless betrayals in the past. One of the mistakes the pro-Ethiopia Oromo organizations are making today is the assumption that whoever is opposing the regime of Meles Zenawi is an ally. I have voiced my criticism against the Jijjiirama-Ginbot7 alliance in my previous two articles published on this website, and need not repeat it here. Here, I will pay more attention to other Oromo organizations, such as the former Oromo People Congress (OPC) and Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM), which have merged recently to become Oromo Federalist Congres (OFC), and are member of the coalition known as Medrek. We know that the other members of Medrek are political organizations, such as Andnet (Unity), whose leaders, such as Lt. Ayalsew Dessie, have nothing, but contempt for Oromo nationalists (ESAT TV, August 9, 2011), and their organizations and individuals, such as the former Minister of Defense in Meles Zenawi’s government, Siye Abraha, who, in the 1990s, was responsible for the incarceration of tens of thousands of Oromo men, women and children in concentration camps, where many died from contagious diseases. I question the value of making alliance with these organizations and individuals, and the moral and political implications for Oromo organizations, which build such alliances with them.
In her keynote speech at the OSA conference in July 2012, the veteran of the Oromo struggle for national liberation Asli said that Araaraa hinqabnu yoo harree taane malee. In English, that means “we are not a flock of donkeys to comply with the wishes of our enemies.” It is difficult to disagree with her. She knows what she is talking about. She has struggled against the forces of the Dergue. She has been in the prisons of Meles Zenawi’s regime. She survived death sentences several times, thanks to the intervention of Amnesty International. What is the answer of the leaders of Oromo organizations that work for the democratization of Ethiopia to veterans of the Oromo national struggle for independence – such as Aadde Asli, who have struggled for decades, were imprisoned and tortured by the past and present regimes of Ethiopia, and still continue the struggle for freedom and condemn Oromo organizations which make alliances with the aforementioned non-Oromo individuals and organizations? That they were wrong to raise arms? That it is morally right to ally with those who were responsible for the imprisonment and death of thousands of Oromos or those who have nothing, but disrespect for Oromo nationalists?
Indeed, one of the issues that make the struggle for freedom an urgent collective task is the brutality and terrorism of the present regime against our people. However, I will argue here, that the translation of the dictum “the enemy of my enemy is a friend” into action to stop state-terrorism against our people is questionable strategy: some of the “enemies of our enemies” are not different from what they were twenty or forty years ago. Their hostile position on the rights, of the Oromo and other peoples in Ethiopia, to self-determination shows no change. As I have mentioned in my previous articles, some of the leaders and members of the Amhara elites, who have formed coalition with Oromo organizations, have a hard time to hide their unarticulated dream which seems to say as “I will ride on your back to Finfinnee and then tell you to forget your dreams about Oromia: whether you call it the independent state Oromia or an autonomous state in a federation; it is anti-Ethiopia.” While some of them are aspiring for the return of the imperial past, there are also the so-called liberal groups, which suggest the adoption a territorially restructured federal system, different from the EPRDF regional state, but more or less a mild form of the old imperial system based on provinces. Where is the space for democracy or the guarantee for the Oromo to even retain what they have achieved so far in terms cultural autonomy and live in peace? Then what? Go into another cycle of conflict with the Amhara political elites? Start the Oromo struggle for justice from the very beginning once again? Pro-Ethiopia Oromo politicians and scholars do not raise or answer these perturbing questions.
The Abyssinian elites have a unique attitude that makes them unsuitable political partners for a self-respecting Oromo. First, they have a problem with telling the truth about Oromo history and Oromo-Ethiopia relations. They deny that the Oromo people have history, if at all, different from Ethiopian history, or had a country. Those who aspire to replace Mr. Meles Zenawi’s regime constitute a coterie of individuals and groups that do not recognize Oromo identity, but vilify Oromo organizations which promote that identity. They demonize the OLF as an organization created to commit genocide against the Amhara; they speak about sending the Oromo to Kenya and Madagascar based on the fairy tales of the Orthodox dabtras (clergy), who had posited in the past that the Oromo “came from there in the sixteenth century” (see for example the anti-Oromo hysteria caused by an Oromo Cultural Exhibition in connection to African Day in Dublin Ireland, Gadaa.com). They deny the sufferings of the Oromo and other peoples under Abyssinian rule.
An alliance with organizations, whose leaders and members entertain perverted views about Oromo identity and history, and deny the atrocities committed by the Abyssinian regimes against our people and others, is not only morally unjustifiable, but also gross disrespect for the concerns of the Oromo people. What is the meaning of co-operating with politicians and scholars, who regret nothing, who acknowledge no historical mistakes, and who do not recognize the other peoples’ rights? The Amhara scholars and politicians love to talk about Ethiopiawinet — being Ethiopian. As the late Walleligne Mekonnen had enlightened us forty years ago, being an Ethiopia means nothing, but being an Abyssinian, particularly an Amhara. Why should an Oromo accept Ethiopiawinet that rejects his/her identity and his/her people’s history. Is Ethiopia and being Ethiopian more valuable to an Oromo than his/her culture, language, heritage and humanity? What is it that Ethiopia can afford him/her that can be more important than his/her identity and heritage?
The second problem of the Abyssinian elites is their impregnability to dialogue. Dialogue requires commitment to reason. That means give and take in order to solve conflicts of interest and values through discussions and mutual accommodation. It means willingness to recognize and respect the legitimate claims of others. Historically, efforts to build a shared Ethiopian home have invariably been defeated by a zero-sum game that dominates the politics of the Abyssinian ruling elites. At every turn of the game, they want to be the only winners at the expense of the Oromo people. It is needless to remind the reader that, most recently, this was what happened to the spirit of the 1991 Transitional Charter.
We must stop state-terrorism against our people; no doubt about that, but, cooperation with those who were perpetrating terror against our people when they were agents of the present regime, or with political organizations that do not conceal their opposition to Oromo rights in public even now, is not a plausible strategy for the purpose. When your home is being robbed by a group of thieves, you do not seek help from another group that had robbed you yesterday or is scheming to rob you as they get the opportunity. You have to muster you courage, and defend your life and property. Needless to argue here that the unity of Oromo organizations will make a great difference, not only by protecting the achievements made through the struggle waged and sacrifices paid during the last forty years, but also will take us additional miles on the path toward an independent Oromo state.
Even the security and interests of the members of the OPDO can be served better if they support such a unity. They have much to lose in a state of crisis, which can shake the Ethiopian state and its administration unless they cooperate with Oromo political organizations. Cooperating with incoming Oromo forces to keep law and order in the vast Oromo territory, protect human lives, and to guard Oromo resources is not only their responsibility, but can also be a salvation in many ways.
In short, as I have indicated in my previous article (March 23, 2012), it is wrong to subscribe to the idea that our journey to freedom will be short, and the situation of our people will be better if we ally with Abyssinian political organizations that are in opposition to the present regime. To shorten that journey and improve our situation as a people, we must free ourselves from a state system which is pervaded by an incorrigible political culture. The enemy is not the Amhara or Tigrayan elites or people per se, but the system, the political culture, and the mind-set, which all of them had inherited from the past, and which will be there when Meles Zenawi and his regime are gone. We cannot change overnight the Abyssinian authoritarian political culture to a democratic one as some pro-Ethiopia Oromo politicians and scholars tend to believe. In the first place, it is not our culture to be manipulated by us. Even if it were, cultural change is a slow process; it takes decades or generations for such a change to have impact. But, we can and should distance ourselves from allying with political elites, be it Amhara or Tigrayan, who are immersed in the intrigues of this oppressive political culture. We can defeat the debilitating political intrigues of the Abyssinian elites by prioritizing Oromo unity over alliances with them and working in unison to create an independent Oromo state for which tens and thousands of our brothers and sisters sacrificed their lives during the last forty years.
To conclude, I will repeat a few points pertaining to the essence of the issues I have raised in this article. Freedom is a basic human need, and is crucial in consolidating what the Oromo have achieved so far and will achieve in the future in order to live in peace and dignity. The Oromo desire to be free from the Ethiopian state and transform the present Regional State of Oromia into a full-fledged independent republic is strong. Self-rule is a cause which only oppressors will oppose. In general, the pro-Ethiopia argument makes the Oromo people instruments for the preservation of the Ethiopian state. It takes the Ethiopian state as a matrix in which the life of the Oromo people is formed and fixed; it seems to say that the Oromo exist, not for themselves, but for Ethiopia. It suggests that we will be more secure if we stay within the framework of the Ethiopian state than outside it. The implication is: “we cannot manage on our own outside the system.” The argument hides the merits of an independent Oromo state and tries to persuade us to prefer the prison house of Ethiopia over the unknown freedom in the yet to be won state of Oromia. It makes the Oromo people the hostages of the Ethiopian state.
What the pro-Ethiopia Oromo politicians seem not to realize is that the option they are suggesting will keep the Oromo people away from democracy indefinitely. To call on the Oromo people to stay within the framework of the Ethiopian state is inviting them to an unending struggle to exercise their human and political rights. That will make freedom uncertain and Oromo misery permanent. In my view the liberation of the Oromo people from the shackles of the Ethiopian state is not only a desirable and just goal, but building an independent state of Oromia is also an achievable objective.
* Mekuria Bulcha, PhD and Professor of Sociology, is an author of widely read books and articles. His new book, Contours of the Emergent and Ancient Oromo Nation, is published by CASAS (Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society), Cape Town, South Africa, in 2011. He was also the founder and publisher of The Oromo Commentary (1990-1999). He is an active member of the OLF and has served in the different branches of the national movement since the 1970s.