The Way Forward for the Oromo Struggle

Lifting the Veil, Exposing the Truth: Abiy Notwithstanding

There are times when the best preachers are the worst offenders. Now is such a time in Ethiopia and Dr. Abyi is, perhaps, the best example of such a preacher. His kind words and hollow promises proved to be lies to disarm the public so that he could launch his naked attack unexpectedly. His claim that he struggled for thirty years for the cause of the Oromo is a gross misrepresentation; gross in that his struggle was to squash Oromo struggle and defeat the Oromo cause. His words lack sincerity, his actions are injurious, and his intentions are deadly for the Oromo cause. Truth is his worst enemy.

The role that Oromo protest played in forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn is clear and incontestable. What was not clear was whether team Lema was authentic or some sinister design of some other force. For those who thought it was a design by some other source, the primary suspect was the TPLF as no other group was strong enough to employ this young and bright group (Team Lema) for yet another nefarious design against the Oromo. As soon as Dr. Abyi was appointed to the office of the Prime Minister, I wrote an article, “Dr. Abiy Ahmed Will Soon Be the Prime Minister of Ethiopia” detailing the three choices he has, two of them bad and one of them good. It is obvious which one he chose, and that is why we are where we are today.

I also wrote of him as the new preacher in town at the time. He talked about the previous government, of which he was a part. He talked about the wrongs that were committed and the need for forgiveness. The problem is that we did not know what we were to forgive, who was being forgiven and for what wrongs. We were duped and bought into the belief that good feelings suffice and truths matter not!

How far can an assailant and the assaulted walk together if neither one can talk about the assault. Can the assaulted really feel safe in the presence of his assailant not knowing what the assailant thinks of his action? Worse yet, if the assailant expresses that it was not as big of a deal as the assaulted makes it sound, is there any more reason to even travel together?

The actions Dr. Abyi took, the sermons he preached to the Oromo since taking office, and the way he tries to lead are just that.

There is no harm done. I am in charge and I am Oromo. Victory is won and all our problems are solved. The only thing that is preventing us from having the well-deserved love fest is Oromo nationalism. Oromo nationalism is bad, and it is backward. Ethiopia can now go back to the golden days of divine kings and famous emperors as soon as we extinguish Oromo nationalism.

The “thirty years of struggle” Dr. Abyi boasts about included no demands on behalf of the Oromo. He heard none of the demands of the Oromo protest for which 1500 young and promising Oromo youth were slaughtered in the hands of his government, his former partners in crime. He presents himself as the true fighter for the Oromo cause maligning all those who sacrificed their lives and livelihoods to bring the Oromo from complete obscurity into legitimate existence. He calls for the complete eradication of the Oromo Liberation Army as if a people should not have a defense force. His partners are those who would bring the Oromo situation back to the days when the Naftagna enjoyed superiority over the inferior “Galla.” We thought we crossed that bridge thirty years ago. Thanks to Abyi, we must fight that war again.

At the conclusion of the article I referred to above, I wrote, “If the future of Ethiopia lies in its past, be it distant or recent past, as some would suggest, the current conflicts would continue with varying degree of intensity. If the future of Ethiopia is to be imagined anew, then a major reconstruction is required. Dr. Abiy has his job cut out for him. I wish him luck.” Since then, the prime minister has not only chosen his course of action but also undertaken a relentless pursuit of squashing Oromo resistance and ensuring a perpetual subjugation of the Oromo. I no more wish him good luck. Instead, I wish him gone.

The Relevance of Truth

It is normal for truths to be contested in the face diverging perspectives. People of good sense can examine each perspective, point out the differences and commonalities, and arrive at a consensus. The case of Ethiopia is different. There is an official disdain for truth consistently practiced from year to year and from regime to regime. As Dr. Gemechu Megersa recently asserted, where there is no regard for truth, there is no sense in discussion or entering into an agreement (I am not quoting him but capturing the essence of his argument). Let us consider the infamous interview Hacaalu gave on tv. According to the president of Oromia, the station invited Hacaalu and handed him over to be slaughtered. What he is talking about was supposed to be a solemn affair. A human life (Hacaalu’s) is at the center of the discussion. A murder took place. Justice is sought. And words matter. And words uttered by people in a position of authority matters even more. How much regard did president Shimelis Abdisa give the matter as he made those statements? The truth was far from his mind.

Even more consequential are the statements given by the Attorney general, Adanech Abebe. She knew that she was spreading falsehood. She was not sure of all that she was supposed to say. Her looks, her presentation, and the constant background sound feed correcting her words made her look guilty. But she was only guilty of following orders to spread lies that she knows is false when the situation required, and her position demanded truths.

I am not hopeful that we will ever know the killer of Hacaalu or that the killer will ever face justice. We know that there are many suspects, those who have probable cause, those who had the opportunity, and those who would benefit from the crime committed. On that list, those whom the attorney general identified will appear last, if at all, for sound investigations start with motives and opportunities. But this is Ethiopia, the land of “What authorities say goes, truth be damned!”

Suffice it to say that it is only in the land where utter disdain for truths prevail that it is normal to see a party whose member is murdered faces mass arrest, 240 more deaths, collective sanctions, and also be accused of being behind the murder plot.

The Problem of Nationalities in Ethiopia did not start with the TPLF

Those who know me closely know that I have never trusted the TPLF since the aborted London Conference. But I will be the first one to recognize that the TPLF did not introduce the nationalities question in Ethiopia. Neither was it their agenda from the outset. The regime of emperor Haile Selassie went down fighting the nationalities question. The regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam bowed to the nationalities question disgracefully. The TPLF is only guilty of negotiating an acceptable compromise by which nationalities were recognized in a federated state. Of course, they moved on to live the lie, as it is Ethiopia’s tradition. Tigre hegemony became the modus operandi instead of what the Constitution mandated. To make that lie stick the TPLF went relentlessly after the OLF. Only time and the recovery of truth will tell how many Oromo fighters the TPLF killed in cold blood. History also records that the current crew of “reformers” were part and parcel of that wholesale massacre of Oromo fighters. In addition to alienating the Oromo, the TPLF was guilty of sabotaging the federal system.

Hence, the accusation that all our current ills arise from ethnic federalism is based on the original lie, namely, that there are no other worthy people in Ethiopia other than Amhara. All others have either ceased to exist or became Ethiopianized/Amharized. This was a popular sentiment among the so-called intellectual Amhara when I was in school in Ethiopia. They could not imagine different people co-existing in Ethiopia accepting and respecting their separate identities. They still cannot.

What if we had started back then recognizing and accepting our differences and negotiating terms of our co-existence? We would never know.

Such a discussion would be predicated on accepting how we came to be together in this geographical entity known as Ethiopia and the nature of our conflict. Therein lies the truth that no one has the courage to face, the truth disdained, denied, tarnished, and forever scorned. The truth of Menelik as a slave trader and murderer is harder to face than the pure lie that he was an enlightened anti-colonial and anti-slavery leader. Hacaalu expressed the truth that is in the hearts and minds of all self-respecting and truth-seeking Oromos about Menelik. His words outraged the adherents of the persistent lies including Prime Minister Abyi. Hordes of Abyssinians, offended by Hacaalu’s comments, started calling for his murder. And there were many, both inside and outside of the ruling party, who wanted Hacaalu silenced for good. And, if truth matters, all those who wanted the death of this beloved Oromo nationalist have nothing to do with Oromo nationalism. They are all anti-Oromo, opponents of the nationality’s movements, opponents of ethnic federalism. They would be the primary suspects. The facts do not reflect kindly on the prime minister and his party. That is why there is no investigation of the murder. Not even a faint attempt to make-believe. Dr. Gemechu was correct in saying that there is no sense in entering into discussion where there is no attempt to be truthful. But even as we fight, for fight, we must, we must contemplate a future we are fighting for.

When the Conflict is Over

Despite his own prediction of ten years, the rise and fall of Dr. Abyi is like that of a falling star. It is neither long nor real. But his short appearance on the scene and his announcement that the struggle is over gave us an insight as to what not to do when we get nearer to the end of the conflict. The instance of our enemies on return to the old days Amhara hegemony on genocidal war, the fury of their propaganda to incite such a war, and their total denial of historical and continuing injustice towards the Oromo and other subjugated nations of Ethiopia, makes it imperative that we handle our conflicts wisely and lead it to the right conclusion.

When the struggle is over, truth will have triumphed. How do we deal with that ruth? We cannot do what the prime minister tried to do and declare, that there were wrongs done. We cannot just say “let us forgive and forget.” We must deal with past harms truthfully if we are not to repeat them. We must find ways to deal with horrific historical wrongs. Deal with protracted dehumanization. Somehow, find a remedy.

Those who have suffered protracted oppression, dehumanization, generational expropriation, like the Africans in South Africa during Apartheid and African Americans under slavery and Jim Craw, have wrestled with these questions. Their struggles are over because the systems they were fighting have been dismantled. But the truth? There are still many questions.

As I mentioned above, there is no official acceptance of the truth about what happened between the different peoples in Ethiopia. But in South Africa and the United States of America, there is a general understanding of the truth of what happened. The problem is, even then, those truths evoke different emotional responses in the different groups. There are those who associate those truths with festering wounds and ugly scars. There are others who associate the same truths with declining privileges and loss of absolute power. The same group that violently objects to the memorial statue of Anole is fiercely defending Menelik’s statue and calls for its renewal. Truth is important, but it is not enough for healing.

The goal of any national struggle must be healing. Healing of both the aggrieved and offending parties.

Wole Soyinka, the Prolific Nigerian writer, in his book, The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness, talks about this very question. Pointing out the impracticality of reparation that is sought by some in the African American community, and the meaninglessness of the Truth and Reconciliation, South Africa’s solution to resolving past conflicts by the admission of wrongdoing, Soyinka disregards them both. Instead, he argues

“Now, it is possible that there is something about the magnitude of some wrongs that transcends the feelings of vengeance, even of redress in any form. A kind of crimino-critical mass after which wrongs and suffering are transmuted into a totally different stage of sensibility from which one can only drive a sense of peace, a space of Truth that overawes all else and chastens the human moral dimension. It is not a condoning of wrongs; perhaps it is akin to a balm that comes after a cataclysm of Nature, even when clearly of man’s making. It overrides grief and despair, diffuses rage, infuses one with a sense of purgation, the aftermath of true tragic apprehension.” (page 68).

The Oromo struggle is, to borrow Wole Soyinka’s phrase, a quest for “self-retrieval” or to regain our humanity. There is no recompense that is sufficient to make up for what we lost. Going for vengeance will only further degrade our humanity. Our enemies fear that we will retaliate. They know what they have done and expected retaliation. That is why they project their own barbarity on us and accuse us of mass murders. But the Oromo have a tradition, well-known and practical. I wish Dr. Abiyi had borrowed that instead of his Madamar, that he touts as homegrown, but as with everything else he has attempted, lacks sincerity, originality, and coherence. The Oromo concept of Araara is not a form of punishment that fits the crime. It is not a measure of guilt or innocence. It is the meeting of the minds over the facts of the matter, the crime. It is the ability of both parties to be willing to move forward despite what happened. It is the agreement over the recompence knowing that it is well short of making up for the actual damages.

No matter how much they want to erase us, we are going to be around. We do not want to engage in trying to erase them; we cannot do to others what we do not want to be done to us. We are going to have to live with our Abyssinian neighbors. Time and circumstances will tell how we will live together, as neighbors, or as fellow citizens. But before that happens, the Oromo will have to form a strong defense force. Be able to gain and protect our freedom. Only then can we truly gain the love and respect of our friends. Our enemies must know that it is costly to try and enslave us again. Our survival is at stake and this is the TRUTH.

Teferi Fufa

August 2020