Oromo,on the move
When the EPRDF came to power I was an elementary school student. Since then I have completed my education and became a lawyer. I grew up in an interesting time – in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Oromo student movement was still active and was openly anti-EPRDF and very much pro-OLF, which I was part of. Even though I dodged imprisonment, I saw friends imprisoned, tortured, expelled from school or flee their country and become refugees.
During the same period I have also seen dramatic changes happening with my own eyes in the country. I started my education in Amharic. When I was in junior high school the medium of instruction changed to Oromo. Government functions also started to be conducted, at least in my area, in Afaan Oromo. Therefore, I believe I am a semi-Qubee generation Oromo.
Although at the initial stage in Oromia we used to see a lot of Tigrean soldiers in our areas and we felt we were living under an occupation force, it has been awhile since this occured – now their visibility has drastically diminished, and their direct interference ceased. Almost all the bureaucracy in Oromia is currently manned by Oromos. If there is any interference it is behind the scenes or only at a higher level.
On the contrary, Oromo independent newspapers, publications and media that cropped up after the fall of the Dergue are slowly but surely disappearing. I have also seen the best Oromo minds and artists fleeing the country and being wasted in foreign countries. At the same time I have seen Oromo culture reviving, Oromo music flourishing and state TV transmitting Oromo programs, and the exiled artists coming back. I have also witnessed thousands and thousands of Oromos graduating in a variety of fields from different universities at a level not ever seen in the past.
There is no question that mainly Oromia’s resources and tax revenue by and large, along with the resource of other regional states, subsidizes the spectacular development in Tigrai and the meteoric rise of Tigrean millionaires. It is a indisputable that in proportion to their population and even in absolute terms, the number of nouveau riche Tigreans created under EPRDF rule exceeds by far the number of new members added to the business class from other ethnic groups. However, compared to our population size, even though the number of rich Oromos is still pitiful, it is undeniable that today there are more Oromo businessmen than ever in our history. There are clear indications that the Oromo middle class is in the process of being formed. If things continue the way they are, there is no question that within a short period of time the Oromo middle class will attain a critical mass with a greater influence.
The moral of the story is that the last twenty years of EPRDF rule is the most paradoxical, enigmatic and even schizophrenic era, with mixed bag results. It is an era characterized by the coexistence of conflicting and contradictory results happening at the same time. On the one hand politically it was a shameful period for Oromos in that we were totally dominated and defeated by a minority population that makes up one tenth of our population size. It was a time in which even an organization that was representing Oromos in parliament was an organization made for us by an alien force. It was a time when even though the Oromos had the plurality in the parliament they were acting under the command of the TPLF.
However, on the other hand, this is a period that saw the colonial structure that put the Oromos under bondage being dismantled. This is the first time in recent history that Oromos started to administer themselves in their areas on this scale, and presented to the world as such. As a result, even though there are still inequities, currently it’s very hard to consider the Oromos as a subaltern society. Some of these fundamental changes happened, however, not because of the TPLF’s wishes, but in spite of them.
The Ethiopian constitution, in spite of all its weaknesses, by recognizing the rights of nations and nationalities has established the foundations on which the Oromo as a nation could make, at least on paper, and even more, a claim to political power – not only in local self-administration, but also a claim to federal power. The politico-administrative structure that for the first time recognized Oromia, and the associated thinking behind it, created a fundamental change with far-reaching consequences. The death of Meles Zenawi clearly accentuates the undercurrent changes that had been occurring in the country without many taking note of it.
These changes did not occur or are not occurring through an abrupt reversal the of political system accompanied by social, cultural, and economic unrest. Instead, incremental yet slow changes, even after the OLF was defeated, are steadily taking place, subtly altering the structure beneath the surface and eventually shaking things upside down. I don’t think that many Oromos are sufficiently appreciative or even understanding of the nature of the changes that are taking place. These changes are happening in ways that are too subtle for the average person to perceive. Unless Oromo politicians recognize the changes that have occurred in Ethiopia and chart their policies based on that, they will commit a grave error that could affect our people for generations to come.
The EPRDF unleashed ethnic politics as official state policy with the hope of controlling Oromo issues when possible through the tactic of preemption, by answering legitimate Oromo questions before they become more serious, and when this was not possible by quashing them through using state coercive forces. It had been remarkably successful on both fronts.
However, unbeknownst to the TPLF, in the undercurrent, changes that will bring to an end to TPLF dominance as we know it have been brewing. Despite the suppression of Oromo nationalism, despite the defeat of the OLF at the hands of the EPRDF, and despite the relegation of the OPDO to second fiddle, the Oromo educated professionals and technocrats within and outside the OPDO were able to successfully carve out a space for themselves and widen the scope of their influence and power in Oromia. This happened as a result of the three factors briefly mentioned above. First, the number of educated Oromos has increased tremendously over the last 10-15 years. Second, these are the people who are now exclusively dominating the middle and higher level bureaucracy in Oromia. And third, these are the Qubee generation who grew up under the EPRDF rule, believing in Oromia. A new Qubee generation has come of age and attitudinal change has settled in Oromia.
The change in the thinking that occurred in the last few years is not only confined to Oromos. Unlike Ethiopians who left the country 10 or more years ago, the young generation that grew up under EPRDF rule does not have much of a problem with the existence of Oromia. Therefore, irrespective of whatever happened under EPRDF rule, when it comes to ethnic equality, there has been a tremendous change in the attitude of the so-called Abyssinians, particularly in the urban population.
In fact even the middle-aged Abyssinian educated class living in Ethiopia has grudgingly come to terms with the idea of ethnic federalism. There has been not only acceptance of the idea that each ethnic group should manage their affairs in their own regional state, but there is also acceptance that real power should be equitably shared between ethnic groups for Ethiopia to continue existing as a country. Undoubtedly we are in a new age where a new consciousness is emerging. Unlike the diaspora Ethiopians, the people living in Ethiopia have realized the choice is no longer between ethnic federalism and unitary Ethiopia, but between ethnic federalism and no Ethiopia.
This brings me to the succession melodrama that followed the death of the “great leader” and the direction that the country needs to take. Ethiopia is a very complex society. It is also unique in many ways, and so demands a commensurable distinct solution to the intricate problems that have baffled and eluded us up to now. It has now become a hackneyed phrase to say that Ethiopia is at a crossroads. But this time, it is the real deal, we are at THE crossroads. This country has reached a crossroads many times in the past, but unfortunately has a knack of always taking the wrong turn at each opportunity.
There is now a consensus that Dessalegn Hailemariam was made a premier replacing Meles Zenawi not because the constitution requires it, or because he excels due to his personal qualifications, but because he was found to be a person who could stave off any power struggle within the EPRDF.
Since the EPRDF’s ascendance to power, the country has had only one prime minister and two or three deputy prime ministers. The prime minister was from Tigrai, and deputies have been either Amhara or from the Southern people. No one from the OPDO, an organization that has the most representatives of any in the parliament and represents the most populated region in the country, has been prime minister or deputy prime minister. The only position that appears reserved for the Oromos are the useless symbolic positions such as the presidency. This is an insult not only to the OPDO as an organization, but also to the Oromo people as a nation. This is also one more clear piece of evidence that Oromos are still living under a system of domination.
The Oromo, the largest national group in Ethiopia, have been without power since occupation for the last hundred and plus years. Unless there is a conspiracy to maintain the imperial nature of the Ethiopian state, and thus disqualify an Oromo from holding the highest position in the country, there is no any other rational explanation or justification, even following EPRDF thinking, why an Oromo has yet to be named prime minister in this day and age. A Tigrean was prime minister and head of the state for the last 21 years. The Amharas had been in power prior to that for almost a century. This is the most perplexing and vexing question – why the Oromo have been jumped over and positions given to those from other minority groups. Wouldn’t simple fairness have dictated that an Oromo prime minister would have been appointed by now?
This is a legitimate question that everyone should ask. And not only is this a question of fairness, but also a question of great political value. Making an Oromo a prime minister has tangible political and symbolic value for the whole country and thus should be a demand for all. From an Oromo angle, if an Oromo is made a prime minister and acquires real power, this goes a long way in eliminating once and for all the imperial nature of the Ethiopian state, whether perceived or real. Once we have an Oromo prime minister with real power, and Oromia administering itself, it would no longer be possible to claim that Oromia is still a colonized state.
For Tigreans, who want to cling to power at any cost for fear that the Amharas would come to power and centralize everything and take away the rights Tigreans have come to enjoy, this move of making an Oromo a prime minister should allay the fear, because Oromos believe equally in federalism, if not more, and are against the unitary form of government. Besides, Oromos have no claim to any territory of Tigrai, and the most robust exercise of Oromo rights short of independence would not affect or infringe on the rights and interests of Tigreans.
For Amharas who are very much concerned about the unity of the country, this is a great opportunity because the making of an Oromo a prime minister would take the wind out of the independence sail, as advocated by a substantial section of the Oromo intellectuals. Moreover, for the Amhara urban intellectuals, who are concerned about freedom of speech and other individual liberty rights, the ascendance of an Oromo to a premiership position creates a great opportunity to establish liberty through rational deliberation and procedural fairness. Making an Oromo a prime minster creates an opportunity to establish a democratic society, because unlike the TPLF, the Oromos have nothing to lose from democracy and are not afraid of free and fair elections, and therefore will not resort to all kinds of political shenanigans and machinations à la TPLF.
Compared to the Amhara and Tigreans, the Oromos share with the southern nations, Somalis, Afar and people in Gambela more wealth of historical and cultural references that accumulated throughout centuries as a result of linguistic, cultural, environmental and geographical affinities. With all the southern peoples of this region we also share a history of military occupation and its consequent cultural, social and economic ailments. Thus, the making of an Oromo a prime minister with real power will be a giant step forward towards reversing northerners’ domination and establishing a just society.
In short, for the country to continue existing as one entity, it is high time that the center of political gravity shifts from north to south. “There are numerous historical examples that support an objective political law – the oppression can exist and “men of the day” can exercise their authority for a long period of time, but this state of monolith strength cannot last forever” (T.S. Tsonchev). Oromos taking executive leadership of the ountry and the making of Oromia as the center of political power will create not only an opportunity to keep the country intact, but most importantly it will play a crucial role in establishing an inclusive, democratic and stable multicultural federal country.