Editor’s note: A reader of HornAffairs submitted a lengthy commentary on Jawar Mohammed of Oromia Media Network (OMN). For the sake of convenience, we have published it in four parts with the consent of the writer. The following text is the first part.
Rebuttals, from Jawar or anyone interested, are welcome.
Rich in historical and cultural heritage, the Oromo, the single largest nation in Ethiopia, has experienced complex political, economic and social life for millennia. Some of these experiences are obviously exclusive to the Oromo and some others are shared ones with the neighboring societies, nations and states. Given the huge population magnitude, the territorial size and diverse modes of economic and political activities, its multilayered historical and cultural heritage can never be a bizarre phenomenon. With regard to this, any academic endeavor to comprehend the history of the Oromo is almost equally challenging as to figure out the history of the rest of Ethiopia.
For decades, scholarly and political debates on the history of the Oromo essentially revolve around two fundamental issues: periodization and the nature of interaction the Oromo has had with other peoples in Ethiopia. In the case of the former, both ancient and medieval times (16th century) have become defining moments. An argument that claims the remote origin of Oromo history and culture stresses the fact that the Oromo have been part and parcel of the celebrated Cushitic civilization to which ancient Egypt, Nubia and Axum itself belong. To this thesis, scholars refer to linguistic and anthropological evidences chiefly. Contrary to this, there is a widely disseminated narrative that gives emphasis to the advent of the Oromo into the region in the 16th century in the form of pastoral invasion, expansion and assimilation. Again, linguistic, oral as well as written sources and anthropological evidences are offered to strengthen this argument. The debate is still going and seems to be a researchable subject matter for anyone interested in it.
The other issue that has become the source of political conflict, not to mention the scholarly debate with its heavy dosage of dogmatic presumption, in the recent history of Ethiopia in general and Oromiya in particular is the very nature of the Oromo interaction with the rest of Ethiopian peoples. Here, we have three ideological perspectives and, thus, political positions. The first propagates the notion of “Abyssinian” conquest against the free Oromiya at the last quarter of nineteenth century during the reign of Emperor Menilek II and that resulted in the introduction of Amhara colonial system. The overall historical place of the Oromo in Ethiopian politics is perceived in this framework. In this thesis, much more emphases are given to narratives of invasion and subjugation in some provinces of Oromiya (e.g.Arsi and Harerge) and, subsequently, any account on the history of positive interaction and integration of the Oromo (both from below and from above) with the rest of Ethiopian societies and states, for instance, in Wallo, Gondar, Shawa and Finfine/Addis Ababa is either ignored or alleged as an act of collaboration and infidelity. According to this thesis, the Ethiopia imperial state is equated with European colonial countries, and consequently independence is stipulated as a logical outcome. Among Oromo political organizations, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), is known for its rudimentary propagation of this thesis among its followers for decades. Some of the organization’s ideologues among scholars are also disseminating the thesis, in the name of academia, with no inquiry on the sensibleness of the concept of colonialism in the Ethiopian context.
Seen from historical context, however, in which the OLF’s colonial thesis emerged (1960s and 1970s) the Ethiopian Empire and its ruling class (not the state) was disgraced at home and decolonization became the fashion of the day, accordingly, the thesis seems to be viable especially for ambitious Oromo political elites. However, rushing into the colonial thesis without proper assessment of Oromo history (especially its role in empire building at Gondar and Shawa) and culture (the eminent accommodating values such as mogafechaa, gudifecha, ilma Miti, ilma burchuma, Ilma Boju) in the provinces of Oromiya as well as without the critical evaluation of the geopolitical factors that do affect politics led the OLF into ideological and strategic rumple. However, when this intolerant ideological stand of OLF was transformed into administrative practices during the transitional period in 1990s, the result was clear. Being non-Oromo and even being an Oromo but supporting other Oromo political organizations other than OLF had grave consequences. People lost their lives in an atrocious manner in Harargee, Arsi, Bale and Wallagaa.
The second thesis on the nature of Oromo interaction with the rest of Ethiopian societies publicizes the story of peaceful and affectionate bond which can be explicated and exemplified mostly in marriage relationship. Ancestral genealogies and political marriages, not the reality on the ground as they were witnessed in administrative and ideological practices, are provided as evidences. Consequently, developed in response to the colonial thesis with traumatic paranoia of Ethiopia’s disintegration, this narrative of unity and mutual love ignores any violent atrocities, economic exploitation and cultural intimidation inflicted against the peoples in the course of the conquest and during a century long oppressive rule. As ideologues of the colonial thesis prefer to downplay the historical and cultural role of the Oromo in Ethiopian history, correspondingly, the unionist thesis also ignores the agony of the Oromo people under the harsh rule of the Ethiopian feudal empire. Except some half-educated, but parvenu, artistic and narrow minded literary clique in Addis Ababa and some opposition political activists within the Ethiopian Diaspora, no institutional body urged to materialize this cause overtly. The fallacy that the proponents of the two theses i.e., the colonial and unionist theses, commit in common (in fact unconsciously) is that both select a single aspect of Oromo experience and omit the other. This led both to a reductionist interpretation of the Oromo history and its historical role in Ethiopian politics.
The last thesis on the essence of Oromo relationship with the rest of Ethiopian societies and political entities underlines the fact that the issue at hand is not as simple as it seems to be. This thesis deems the unspeakable misery that the Oromo had experienced at the course and consequence of imperial conquest since the last quarter of 19th century. Equally, it considers the role of the Oromo elites in the subjugation of dozens of other nations and nationalities as instrumental force at all echelons. As a victimized people, nevertheless, the thesis understands the domination of the Oromo by others at two levels, i.e., ethnic and class. However, in the conquest and subjugation of the Oromo and other peoples in the south, the Oromo itself is not blameless either. The thesis understands the fact that the historical role of the Oromo nation in the process of Ethiopian empire building has been, thus, Janus-faced. The role of the Oromo both in the process of nation building and defending the independence of the country in major battle fields against foreign invaders. It is really impossible think, for instance, the victory of Adwa without the decisive role of the Oromo both as war leaders and as soldiers. Undoubtedly, the Oromo contributed to the freedom of the peoples of African and the world at large. Similarly, the patriotic struggle of the Oromo people during the period of Italian Fascist Occupation is without parallel.
This thesis on Oromo’s relation with others seems to have taken a middle ground between the colonial and the unionist theses. To put it in the language of dialectics, it is the synthesis of the unionist thesis and the colonial antithesis. OPDO/EPRDF is branded for this position, in fact, with a conspicuous ideological bent towards the decisiveness of the ethnic factor. As this ideological position is put into governmental practice, it has manifested itself in the establishment of the National Regional State of Oromiya within the federal arrangement. The regional government of Oromiya has trying hard to address the political, economic and cultural questions in accordance with the parameter of its own thesis on the Oromo issue. Though far from its ideal goal, the achievement so far is momentous.
However, evaluating the condition of OPDO and the Oromiya National Regional State in reference to the impractical target of the colonial thesis is the common mistake of some negligent commentators. These commentators demean the ongoing achievements by the Regional State comparing them with the political position of colonial thesis. The tendency to make the colonial thesis the standard bearer for overall cause of the Oromo does not emanate from the objective realities of the Oromo history and culture. But, this inclination did throw some Oromo politicians into confusion. Rather, critical are those who evaluate the validity of the colonial thesis in comparison with the modest thesis.
Either failing to understand the apt nature of the place of the Oromo nation in the Ethiopian history and politics or selecting one aspect and omitting the other deliberately, not few political activists, historians and commentators, have been taking reductionist views and utilized them for their political goals. These reductionists, at times, drew the attention of the local as well as the international media and, sadly, some politically active social groups. Jawar Mohammed, a noisy young Oromo political activist, is one of these personalities. Here, few words are pertinent on the reason why he has secured transient media acceptance, no matter how his analysis and commentaries are far from scholastic quality. Since Jawar’s reputation is directly correlated with the failure story of OLF in Oromo politics, let me begin with my reflection on Jawar’s views, “political analysis” and, political aspiration with the following contextual background.
It is apparent that the period of the momentous advent of OLF in Ethiopian politics is during the historic transitional interlude of the early 1990s after the demise of the Darg government. Surprisingly enough, OLF was not ready even for this opportune situation that this intermission offered. Leenco Leta, one of the top leaders of the organization at that time clearly narrates the circumstances in which the Front had been just prior to the transitional period. Since the paragraphs are extremely essential for their empirical value, I deliberately quote them at length.
The OLF was facing a number of new conditions that it could not easily overlook. The beginning of the collapse of the Somali state eliminated the major traditional ally of those fighting Ethiopian colonialism. Although the Oromo struggle benefited the least from the Somali’s opposition to Ethiopian colonialism there are always been an objective alliance between the struggles of the Somali and Oromo peoples. After the disintegration of Somalia, a situation was created in which whoever would come to power in Ethiopia had no more worries of confrontations coming from the East and the Southeast.
The stand of Ethiopia’s Western neighbor also suddenly turned against anyone trying to fight the group that was coming to power. The Sudanese government, at that time, was working closely with both the TPLF and EPLF to speed up the end of the Derg regime. The obvious immediate dividend for the Sudanese government was the end of the threat that the Southern based Sudan Peoples Liberation Army posed by operating from inside Ethiopia with the support of the Derg. Possible long term regional economic, political and security cooperation among the countries of the region was also being alluded to. The era in which neighboring countries were subverting each other by supporting each other’s armed opposition groups was beginning to be considered a thing of the past. Under these circumstances, the OLF was emphatically informed by the Sudanese government that any continued relation would hinge on its agreement with the emerging new government. Presidential guarantees of continued support were relayed to the OLF leaders only in case the TPLF would renege on its promise.
In the 1980s the OLF’s operation in Western Oromia, like that of EPLF and TPLF, was dependent on territorial access to the Sudan. The OLF’s important rear installations including grain stores, hospitals and orphanages were situated inside the Sudan or close to the border. The possible loss of the Sudanese government’s cooperation overnight meant not only the loss of much-needed resources but also endangering many children and other dependent civilians.
The Western powers, especially the US Government, and many of their agencies, also insisted that the OLF would exhaust all possibilities of peacefully reforming Ethiopia by addressing Oromo political grievances. The then US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Herman Cohen, who was the top US official trying to facilitate the London conference, emphatically told the OLF leaders that their only option was to work within the new Ethiopian government. His public assurance was the declaration that he made at the time linking US economic assistant with the commitment to and actually affecting the democratization of the remainder of the empire. Western governments were pulling strings to persuade the OLF to enter into a coalition with the TPLF/EPRDF. Further, humanitarian organizations involved in the cross-border operations made it clear that continued cooperation with its relief wing-the Oromo Relief Association (ORA)-would depend on the OLF reaching an agreement with the TPLF/EPRDF.
Finally, and much more important, the EPLF leaders were assuring the OLF that they would resist the emergence of any new forms of domination in Ethiopia. They repeatedly told the OLF leadership that the EPLF had a vested interest in a new pluralist Ethiopia as a neighbor. A vision of regional cooperation,, in which all communities would become direct and equal partners, was held up to entice the OLF to think of new possibilities. All these and other factors influenced the OLF to join the drafting of the Transitional Period Charter, which was supposed to be the beginning of a cooperative effort that was to culminate in the birth of new democratic polity ( 54-56) .
Two, nonetheless interconnected, key facts can be drawn from this very extended, yet crucial, quotation. The first is that OLF was absolutely at the mercy of others and unbelievably inept throughout its history and, second, the Oromo people had no say in OLF’s major decisions. Rather than listening to the voice of the Oromo people, OLF relied on the guidance of Sudanese leaders, US diplomats and Eritrean chiefs. To uninformed Oromo political activist, this institutional incapacity of OLF, lack of farsightedness even to examine the regional developments in advance and adjust its strategy in line with the new dynamics, its dependency on foreigners (not on the Oromo people), and the Front’s enthusiastic love of externalizing every weakness its leadership has had, are disgusting.
Though the Front did not have any liberation record in Oromia unlike its bragging rhetoric, it is during the transitional period that this organization could reach the Oromo people at home openly, in mass and, in relative terms, freely. During this interlude, thanks not to OLF’s achievement, but to the power vacuum created, the Front could become functional in almost all provinces and towns of Oromia via its amorphous and unruly army as well as demagogic cadres. Contrary to the reality, it is sad to witness the fact that the euphoric psyche of its followers during the transitional period gave a faulty image to OLF. Transitions are odd in breeding a feeling of honeymoon or trauma. Otherwise, no one can deny the bare fact that OLF’s influence before 1991 was limited to remote Ethio-Sudanese border areas and in the Diaspora. In a nutshell, OLF’s fleeting populist acceptance was unintentional, consequently, incidental. However, it took years, if not decades, the real image of OLF to be uncovered.
While the image of OLF was fading drastically from the euphoric mind of its followers in Diaspora and at home, Jawar Mohammed appeared mainly with his criticism against the strategic crumple of OLF. Being a young activist, in fact, he posed a generational challenge. For those Oromo opposition activists who used to live in a state of morbid atmosphere due to OLF’s ideological and organizational decay, Jawar seems to be a biological incarnation of the aging leadership. As the “founding fathers” are aging fast without meaningful achievement, OLF followers became impatient with the out of reach promise and liked to hear the new old voice. This being, like his ideological forefathers, Jawar perceived the politics of Oromo and the place of Oromo in Ethiopian history only from a single perspective and recurrently made the famous sin of reductionism. To the extent that observers suspect his academic record as a student of political science at Colombia University, he repeatedly made grave conceptual and factual mistakes as a “political commentator” and “Ethiopian affairs specialist”. What are these mistakes? Why did he do those academic blunders? Is he struggling to the cause of the Oromo or has his own personal ambition? Is he really a political analyst? How? In the following few pages, I will try to address these and other questions meticulously.
Jawar Mohammed has written a number “articles” on the Ethiopian politics in general and the Oromo politics in particular. His insatiable desire to give a comment on every political development is perceptible. His quick response to every political dynamics in Ethiopia and abroad in the form of interview, commentary and “analysis” via mass and social media has attracted the attention of casual observers. For them, he is a prolific writer and energetic orator. If truth be told, for critical experts on the Oromo politics, nevertheless, his remarks are amateurish and reductionist.
[Read the second Part: Jawar’s views on Oromo Politics]
Leenco Lata, 1998. “The Making and Unmaking of Ethiopia’s Transitional Charter” in Asafa Jalata(ed), Oromo Nationalism and the Ethiopian Discourse: The Search for Freedom and Democracy, The Red See Press.
 See his “articles” on OLF, OPDO/EPRDF, Ethiopian Muslims as well as his opportune interviews on various issues. The following are the major ones: “Failure to Deliver: The Journey of the Oromo Liberation Front in the Last Two Decades”, On July 27, 2009; “Meles Zenawi’s new foreign policy” August 17, 2010; “Jawar Mohammed: Oromo movement has achieved its objectives, but not concluded its journey” Interview, March 12 , 2010; “Meles’ Recycled Old tactics being rendered obsolete by a new shrewd Adversary”, May 25, 2012; “The ‘new’ OLF: Much do about nothing” January 6, 2012:March 16, 2011; “Ethiopian Muslim stick to nonviolence to overcome the regime’s divisive and repressive tactics” August 20, 2012; “Growing Muslim Activism and the Ethiopian State: Accommodation or Repression?” April 04, 2012; “Tigrean Nationalism: From Revolutionary Force to Weapon of Repression” Not dated; “Jawar Mohammed Opinion after Scotland Votes NO”, September, 2014.