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By Ali Belew
As Ethiopia plows its way out of two years of debilitating war in the North, it is now confronted with another slowly developing insurgency that is diffused, decentralized, and increasingly more lethal. The political issues behind the wars in the North and now in Oromia are different, but they harken back to the issue of Ethiopia’s existence as a “Nation of Nations,” according to the Ethiopian Constitution. How do you create a viable, strong country that could defend its sovereignty, grow, and prosper out of the multitude of ethnic communities organized as states? Wishful thinking aside, the “national question” which was supposed to have been resolved through the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution and Ethnic Federalism remains a force that we must deal with. It has morphed into a more intractable political problem resulting in endless internal border disputes, displacements and generalized conflict that pits communities against each other.
The war between forces led by TPLF and the Federal Government was not about the national question or the Constitution per se, though TPLF saw political advantage in depicting it as such. It was a war imposed on Ethiopia to restore TPLF to its predominant position prior to the change of government. Portraying the struggle as a heroic fight by a small minority not to be swallowed and subjugated by its numerically larger ethnic groups created a powerful narrative that animated the West and the gullible Western media. More perniciously, other ethnic elites who strive to see the end of Ethiopia as a state saw it as a struggle to assert “the right of nations.” Falsely, they accused the government of engaging to recreate a unitarian state. This massive confusion deliberately promoted by Oromo intellectuals who soured on Abiy because of his incessant talk about Ethiopian unity, won supporters in Oromia. Hence the disgruntlement of OLF, OFC and others who endured the harsh TPLF-led oppression in the past. This suited TPLF’s ideologues who have one foot in the Ethiopian State and one foot in the future Tigray nation. Ethiopia is important to them only if it is under their domination. Short of that, the preference is to leave it for a “more cohesive, better organized Tigray nation” with international borders. This is a case of TPLF national liberation ideology trumping historical reality. Their approach to Ethiopia is transactional.
Confusion about the nature and the origin of the war aside, it has clarified one issue: An ethnic state can’t be allowed to build its military strength to such an extent that it could extort political concessions from the central government. The country demonstrated with blood and treasure that it will not tolerate competing security forces that would challenge the National Defense Forces of Ethiopia. This situation, a legacy of the distortion left by TPLF’s victory over the Ethiopian military, was unclarified from day one. Having destroyed what was clearly a national military (dubbed Derg Military, a clever political ploy), the TPLF changed the character and the doctrine of the national army to reflect its political objectives: The domination of Ethiopia by Tigray elites politically, militarily and economically. The 2018 change in leadership threatened this statuesque and TPLF resorted to military means to restore it. The war was fought to establish the primacy of Ethiopian defense forces over a local and ethnic force that saw itself as the predominant military power in the Horn. If the Pretoria Agreement is successfully implemented, TPLF as a military force that could challenge Ethiopia would have ended for good. That itself would be a worthwhile achievement despite the lack of accountability for starting a horrific war that has killed hundreds of thousands in Tigray, Amhara and Afar areas.
However, the other political issues that may have led to the war are left to be resolved in the future through peaceful dialogue. The territorial claim of Tigray over areas that were part of Wollo and Begemider but incorporated into Tigray by force remains to be resolved. In that sense, the war was concluded inconclusively. The Ethiopian military’s decisive edge was instead used to promote political dialogue with TPLF as a local interlocutor in a more open democratic space in Tigray. The GOE, under enormous pressure from the international community, realized that TPLF as a political force can’t be just militarily destroyed if it has support in Tigray. TPLF also came to the realization that its national political dominance is unsupportable by other ethnic groups. Its historical position of being first among equals had to come to an end.
The situation in the North is far from where it should be and is not irreversible yet. But the end of the active war and the restoration of humanitarian aid, and services has eased the acute shortage of food and medicine for the average person. The hope is that the peace momentum will propel the situation to a more sustainable life for the people who had lost so much in this war.
The problem in the North is one piece of the myriad of political issues (leaving the economy aside for now) facing Ethiopia. The extraordinary complex problem the country faces is manifested in all its complexity and ugliness in the Oromia state. Here, a conflict that pits Oromo against Oromo, Oromo against Amhara, Amhara against Oromo is raging outside the purview of the rest of the country. There is no credible information coming from the area. The scale and the nature of this brutal conflict is masked by obtuse statements made by the warring groups. The GOE is opaque about this situation. The Oromia state government, for its part, seems to have lost control of the situation in parts of Wollega and border areas adjacent to Amhara, Beni Shangul and Gambella. To the extent it can be described, the conflict involves fighters of Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a loosely organized franchise of local fighters against groups aligned with local, state and the Federal Government.
OLA (Shene) wants to overthrow the government and establish an Oromo country outside the current federal arrangement.
On the surface, the Oromo Liberation Front, wants to separate itself from the excesses of OLA, but for it, the conflict is a demonstration of the unresolved “national question” – the paramount political problem in Ethiopia. Only “self-determination including and up to secession” would solve the problem” according to the often-repeated statement available in its website and espoused by the most prominent Oromo intellectuals now opposed to the government. The OLF’s political success, as measured by Dawood Ibsa, was making the national question the Holy Grail that forces Oromo political leaders to take sides. Despite its chronic lack of military success, OLF believes that it has won the hearts and the minds of Oromo society with this issue that no political organization in Ethiopia will be able to survive it without addressing it one way or another.
What about the 1995 Constitution which had OLF’s imprimatur that created self-governing ethnic states? OLF’s demands even exceeded what was offered under the constitution that it helped devise. As it did in the recent past, it wanted to maintain a military presence in areas it considered its domain (Oromia State) in 1995. TPLF saw the imminent danger in this and swiftly disarmed the OLF military garrison. Following this debacle, OLF bolted out of the coalition government in which it had relatively more seats to influence politics and chose to labor in political wilderness without tangible result for nearly 30 years.
OPDO now baptized as PP Oromia accepts, in theory, that the 1995 Constitution had created the constitutional and political framework to resolve “ethnic (read Amhara) or national oppression” and put Ethiopia on a path of equality of all ethnic groups. What was lacking during TPLF’s domination was the full expression of the constitution and its democratic application, argues the Oromia PP. TPLF used the constitution not to promote all ethnic interests, but to propel Tigray on a trajectory of economic and political dominance in Ethiopia at the expense of others who were numerically bigger. Hence the change of 2018 which was spearheaded by Oromo and Amhara political activists.
Today’s Ethiopia with PP in power looks more like Oromia than any other time in Ethiopia’s history. Its economies, cities and bureaucracies are bustling with Oromo energy. There is visible cultural, linguistic, and social dynamism that should infuse its society with pride and jubilation. Just when Oromia seems to have acquired power, it’s experiencing political upheaval on an unprecedented scale. The current political situation in Oromia, if unresolved, could plunge Ethiopia into a darker period than what we have gone through over the last 2 years.
Ideology over Realpolitik – the Case of OLF
There is something deceptively simple about ideology. It attempts to explain highly complicated reality with a catchy, powerful, and sensible narrative that the masses can muster. The communist utopia that Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao developed dominated much of the developing world for so long until people realize there is no utopia to be had. The Soviet Union was a monstrosity. Nazism captured German society and triggered a world war that destroyed much of the world and Germany. One can explain the current destructive war in Ukraine as an ideologically driven war by Russia.
We in Ethiopia are not immune to the seduction of ideological explanation to complicated phenomena. Witness how the 60s generation became completely enamored with Marxism so fast that a writer has described the situation akin to being “a prisoner.” Following Stalin, we declared Ethiopia is a prison of nation states and that each of these nations, nationalities, etc. must have the right to self-determination including and up to cessation. To make this reality, the Eritreans, the Tigrayans, the Oromos, the Somalis, etc. picked up arms to assault the Ethiopian State. The State fell to these forces in 1992.
The 1995 constitution enshrined “the right of nations.” For nearly 30 years Ethiopia operated with this constitution bringing dramatic changes to “groups rights.” For the ideologues of national liberation, however, this experiment has been a failure. The right of nations to self-determination was not intended to democratize politics or give people self-government; the purpose was to bring about the dissolution of Ethiopia into mini-states and that has not been achieved yet.
A powerful example of this situation is the case of OLF which has developed a narrative that depicted the “Oromo State” as a victim of the “Ethiopian Empire.” The expansion of Ethiopia into the adjacent territories in the South is a highly complicated story that is not amenable to a simple narrative as the historian Taye Bogale often explains. Emperor Menelik’s army moved South, brought other societies through conquest is not so easy to tell. Except that 19th century Ethiopia was also a place where wars happened frequently. Emperor Theodoros brought wars to Gojjam, Wollo and Shoa and destroyed his rivals. Emperor Yohannes slaughtered Wollo Muslims. Other societies experienced the same violence in a violent era. One can say similar things happened in Kaffa, Sidama, etc. To make this a singularly Menelik story is a distortion of history. It also has no value to our current predicament. People who look back and feel victimhood can’t move forward or progress. But that has not deterred the development of a very effective, propaganda tool to roil the youth of the Oromo to rage against the “historical injustice committed” against them.
That is what one gets from reading Izkeal Gabissa, Tsegay Ararsa, Awol Allo, Dawood Ibsa, Abate Wurgessa, etc. After the PM turned off the Oromo intelligentsia with his talk of Medemer, Ethiopian unity and sovereignty, it has become clearer that the “national question” is a smock screen to end the Ethiopian State as we know it.
“The prime minister is promoting divisive imperial nationalism and laying the groundwork for his centralizing and assimilationist vision of the future,” rages Awol Allo in a revealing essay on Aljazeera. Imperial nationalism is meant to say Ethiopian Nationalism. What is the leader of Ethiopia supposed to do other than strengthen the state of Ethiopia? In Allo’s vision, the prime minister should not promote Ethiopian Nationalism, but preside over the dissolution of the country into its constituent “nations and nationalities.” Centralizing, assimilations are invoked for their negative connotation to imply infringement on the culture and language of ethnic groups in Ethiopia. How could one make this claim when the constitution allows these states to use their language in their domain? In his understanding “Ethiopian nationalism is a variant of Amhara ethnic nationalism.” Allo makes this sweeping conclusion with all the political distortions it could entail with little or no historical justification.
OLF’s struggle is for “independence, not secession,” according to Abate Wurgessa, its political director. OLF wants to achieve independence by peaceful means using the provisions allowed by the constitution. Oromia will exercise its right under Article 39 of the Constitution. That means holding a referendum for secession. If it is approved, it will become the newest country in Africa.
Before Menelik expanded to the South, there was an Oromia republic with a Geda system of government according to Wurgessa. This “Oromia republic” was then incorporated into the “Abyssinian Empire.” This made-up history, taught to children and accepted at face value, is the historical justification for independence.
The Oromo question as expressed by Abate Wurgessa is all about the Oromo people. It sees the Oromo as a people who live in an Oromo oasis. Scant attention is paid as to its impact on other ethnic groups who could be existentially affected if an Oromia country is to emerge in the Horn. “We are like Kenyans, Eritreans and South Sudanese; we deserve to have our “independence.” That this changes the whole history of the region and negates a political entity called Ethiopia that the World has acknowledged is beyond consideration. His vision would bring a bold new world with unknown and unknowable consequences for those who live within Ethiopia’s border.
Those of us who see the Oromo issue as part and parcel of Ethiopia’s political existence find the OLF position not just troublesome but frightening. Ethiopia’s dissolution as envisioned by OLF is dystopian where each ethnic group is pitied against another in an unending cycle of perpetual conflict. Contrary to what the OLF ideologues propose, there is no neat way of severing Oromia from Ethiopia short of a cataclysmic disorder that would set the country back to the dark ages.
This fear of the unknown should give pause to any Oromo nationalist. Jewar Mohammed repeatedly expressed his fear of this maximalist position, if not for the rest of Ethiopia, for Oromia itself.
If the position of OLF which ostensibly has chosen to fight by “peaceful means’ ‘ has this much real-world consequences, what can be made of OLA which is engaged in brutal armed struggle?
The clearest indication that the more conventional parties like OLF or OFC may or may not be ideologically different is their reluctance to condemn the use of violence to achieve political objectives. Instead, they hide behind the political innocuous position that both sides (meaning the government and OLA) should sit down and discuss their differences under “international mediators.” If the government could sit down with a group that it once declared “terrorist”, goes the argument, that it should be able to negotiate with OLA as well.
OLA does not have a centralized leadership; nor does it have a political program that it wants to advance in the cause of Oromo people. Its goal is the overthrow of a government that was legitimately elected with irregularities for sure, but not any worse than before. The consensus view is that the Election Board conducted the most democratic election in the country under the most difficult conditions.
To achieve its goal of weakening GOE, OLA attacks soft targets with impunity to create a deep sense of insecurity among Oromos, Amharas, and other ethnic groups who live in areas impacted by OLA. How do you negotiate with a group that is trying to overthrow the constitutionally instituted government and establish a separate state in the heart of Ethiopia?
You don’t. But what if OLA enjoys the support of members of PP Oromia either for political reasons or because they are afraid of it? Amhara activists allege that elements of PP are either in cahoots with OLA giving security cover or follow hands-off policy toward the organization that has enabled it to grow and become a powerful, albeit decentralized group.
It is hard to delve into OLA and OLF issues in Oromia without credible information. What is clear is that the political divisions within Oromia political parties are not very easy to delineate. They are not just military and political struggles for power. That is what leads non-Oromo political groups to resort to conspiracy theories to explain Oromia politics.
It is obvious Ethiopian Unity has a fundamental Oromo problem. If Oromo elites see the Constitution and Ethnic Federalism as a stepping stone to create an Oromia country, the so-called National Question was never a struggle for equality of ethnic groups, but for the end of Ethiopia as we know it with all the attendant costs. So, the debate about whether the Constitution serves Ethiopia or not does not address the problem of groups that are hell-bent on forming a separate country. They accept the constitution in so far as it facilitates this eventual outcome. The self-rule period under the Constitution is to be used to develop separate national languages, separate national history and narrative, separate culture, and separate identity. Once the political infrastructure of a new country has been developed, the next step is to exercise Article 39, and achieve independence. Thus, the argument whether this constitution serves Ethiopia misses the point in so far as OLF is concerned.
Why hasn’t Oromia or another state exercised this right before then? The main reason is the strength of the Central Government under TPLF. TPLF would not allow this in a country where it has political dominance. For TPLF, article 39 is to be invoked only as a last resort, when TPLF itself has ceased to be the predominant political power in Ethiopia.
PP Oromia (PP) has a decision to make? 1, Does it want to cede political power to Oromo Nationalists whose end goal is the formation of Oromia country? 2, Does it want to replace TPLF as a political dominant force (ተረኛ) and rule Ethiopia like its predecessor? We know how this story ended before. Or 3, does it want to lead a strong unified Ethiopia and share equitable power with other Ethnic groups?
Does Oromia PP envision an Ethiopia where members of all ethnic groups have a stake in its preservation as a state? How it approaches this issue will determine whether the political crisis we are in now will improve in the future.
Ali Belew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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