It is a mistake to ignore the emancipatory potential of the Oromo movement
By: AYANTU AYANA·THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 2, 2017
A post written by someone named Wond Wossen about what’s currently transpiring in Ethiopia has been circulating on my social media sphere (find the link to his post at the bottom of this page). Upon seeing it I could not help but write another perspective because the points raised by Wond Wossen are not only problematic but also commonly expressed. I find many problems with his analysis.
Let me just mention a few:
Like most political analyses on Ethiopia, Wond Wossen makes the grave mistake of centering elites at the expense of ordinary people’s movement for justice. He frames what’s happening in Ethiopia today as a simple struggle between two factions of the same ruling elite. In doing so, he has completely erased the struggle that the Oromo people have been waging for decades. For the past 50 years, Oromos have been articulating and demanding for a transformation of Ethiopia’s political, social and economic and cultural space. More recently, the Oromo protests from 2014 onwards has brought to the fore the most pressing issues not only in Oromia but across Ethiopia—issues of land grab, unjust imprisonment, economic marginalization, denial of civil liberties, repression of all sorts, lack of political representation, nepotism and corruption and so on. For three consecutive years, Oromo people have been demonstrating against a violent regime and forcing it to contend with their demands. Remember, the cancellation of the Master plan?
Wond Wossen, like so many Ethiopian analysts, fails to recognize the emancipatory potential the Oromo movement has not only for the region but also for Ethiopia at large. Not only does he completely dismiss the just Oromo movement, he also reduces the Oromo public to mere cheerleaders for power. He seems to suggest that the only thing the wider Oromo public—whether in the diaspora or in Ethiopia – are interested in is to see some Oromo faces in what he considers to be “powerful positions” in the federal government. He could not be more wrong. Oromo people have not been dying en masse so that some Oromo person will hold an important position within the current system. They continue to risk their lives to transform the social, political and economic culture of Ethiopia. They have been risking their lives to end economic, political and social marginalization. He does not seem to know much about the historical relationship between OPDO and the Oromo public. In so far as Oromo people are rallying behind the new OPDO leadership, it is cautiously, as artist Jambo Jote told top ranking members of OPDO at a gathering last week. Unlike what Wond Wossen suggests, the Oromo public is not going to settle for mere cosmetic changes. They have not been dying on the streets to see some OPDO faces in power while they are ripped from their lands, their family, friends and comrades languishing in prison and their political life reduced to rubber stamping 100% wins for EPRDF. Whatever new rhetoric and project OPDO has developed it can be understood only in the context of the Oromo movement. OPDO leaders did not wake up one morning and thought, “today, we have to challenge the TPLF for federal power”.
Sadly, Wond Wossen is not alone in erasing the potential of Oromo movements to transform Ethiopia’s long-standing authoritarian political culture and establishment. This is actually part and parcel of the problem Oromo people have with the Ethiopian state infrastructure—which dismisses Oromo aspirations, contributions, values, institutions, and political traditions. What is even sadder is this erasure is happening at a time when the Oromo people’s movement, and others that for now go unnoticed, may well be in the process of transforming the country right before our eyes.
Many analysts on Ethiopia seem to think that these lofty principles such as democracy, equality and justice will come about when supposed political parties from Ethiopia and the diaspora get together and “negotiate” on how to put the country “on the path of democracy and stability.” Wond Wossen mistakenly assumes that democracy is a top down process, arrived at after a meeting or series of meetings in American or European capitals. Isn’t that exactly how we got into the mess we are in right now? Democracy is not something that is given from above; it is the product of a balance of social forces and comes about in a given society through particular processes. Democracy, contrary to what Wond Wossen suggests, doesn’t come about because TPLF or OPDO gathers a crowd and tells them they are now free. Or because TPLF sits down with OLF and G7 and whoever else and decides to share a piece of the pie.
Wond Wossen also completely misses the fact that competition between various elites has the potential to open up space for democratic processes to emerge. The best example is when the OPDO started standing up for itself; it opened up all sorts of spaces and possibilities. Make no mistake; this is not because the OPDO has overnight transformed itself into a beacon of democracy and justice. For example, the relationship between Oromia Police and the citizens have changed dramatically. Whereas the police used to unleash violence on protesters, now they take pictures with them and there is an expectation that they will protect protesters, not shoot at them. This is something unheard of in the entirety of the EPRDF rule. Wond Wossen suggests that the Oromia Regional government returned grabbed land to its rightful owners to score points against the TPLF. In reality, one of the major demands of the Oromo protests was the issue of land grab. If OPDO is returning stolen land back to the people, it is because that is what the people have been demanding. If he thinks this is all about scoring a point, he should ask himself why the regional government could not return land in 2006 or 2012. In the same vein, he also misconstrues the actions the regional government is taking against the vast network of contraband trades in the region as mere retaliation against TPLF. However, the heart of the matter is that the contraband trade is the manifestation of the economic marginalization the people are fighting in the region. For example, Oromo Khat farmers have been impoverished while there is a flourishing multimillion-dollar Khat trade in the region. Same thing can be said about Coffee and other commodities. So, targeting the contraband trade is ensuring that the region’s people benefit from their labor. Whether or not OPDO also manages to score a point against TPLF is secondary. The point here is that political elites don’t do things out of the kindness of their hearts; they take decisive actions when there is a demand from below requiring them to act. Political situations create conditions for particular kinds of policies or actions to be taken. In doing so, they determine what is politically advantageous for them in the changing context and what is not.
Another very good example of what I am talking about can be seen in the arena of freedom of expression. On OBN, the regional State controlled media; viewers are now consuming content that would have been considered taboo just a year ago. The Oromo Federalist Congress recently held a press conference on OBN; the network is creating space for Oromo intellectuals and activists to hold hours long discussions on the most sensitive political questions. In an unprecedented gathering with top OPDO officials, some of the most critical Oromo artists expressed their opinions freely on the draconian censorship of their art. In response, Lemma Megerssa declared that the era of censorship of Oromo art has come to an end. Within days, songs that were hitherto banned from the regional TV network were on air to the delight of millions. The point here is not that certain songs were played or that interviews were held and etc. I am also not here to glorify the regional government. I am merely trying to underscore the fact that certain political conditions create space for democracy and freedom of expression among other things. This is not a gift the ‘elite’ give to the people. To think so is a huge mistake. We must see these things in light of the protests and the demands that the Oromo people continue to place upon the system. We also have to appreciate the domino effect and emancipatory potential that this will have for the rest of Ethiopia.
Needless to say, to reduce the entirety of what is happening in Ethiopia today, as a struggle between TPLF and OPDO is not only to miss the point but also to be incredibly shortsighted and miss major developments that are happening right below the surface. Unfortunately, for people who are used to viewing political change only coming from Addis and radiating to the “periphery” it must be unfathomable that Oromos, and others in the margins are transforming Ethiopia from the ‘regions’.
Here’s Wond Wossen’s post https://www.facebook.com/wondwosenn/posts/10155866422299324