The Morning After: The Oromo Option(s) and the Imperative of Agonistic Engagement


(Remarks prepared for Delivery at the 3rd Oromo Leadership Convention, Houston, TX, 1-3 December 2017)
Tsegaye R Ararssa


The time has come for us to start thinking about reconstruction after the resistance. The work of resistance has been done well, and it has done its job. It has heightened the political awakening of our people. It has brought a government to a standstill. It has rendered a people ungovernable. It has brought us and the entire country to a crossroads once again. The hope of beginning anew, the prospect of starting afresh, is in the horizon. Above all, it has broadened our imagination of what can be accomplished politically.

In the wake of the Oromo protest, particularly starting from late 2015, we sought to build a consensus among the Oromo public and the Oromo political parties and political activists. We went on a quest for principles and values based on which that consensus can be built. We tried to codify the set of Oromo demands around which we all rally during the struggle and beyond. We thus went on an unseemly adventure of laying down the ground work for what became the Oromo Charter of Freedom, Justice, Peace, and Dignity.

As we, in the diaspora, were doing that, at home, the Qeerroo won the government of Oromia to its side. It wooed OPDO away from TPLF and set it on a course that has hitherto remained untraveled, a course the ending of which is still uncertain for now. Nonetheless, it is a course that exposed the decay of the system. It is a course that reminded the wider country that its modern state has been in crisis for far too long and has now come to a dead end. The Oromo protest has spelt out in unequivocal terms that the only way out of this quagmire is to democratize the political process and to transform the polity by transforming the state society-relations for good.

This imposes upon us the burden of imagining the beyond. It beckons us to the imperative of (re)construction and (re)building beyond, and after, resistance. In the post-resistance moment of engaging in (re)building, we will be confronted with the challenge of making choices about the future of the Oromo nation. In making such choices, we will have to reckon with diversity of thoughts and plurality of opinions. The fact that there are such diversities cannot be gainsaid. Some of the diversity within is rooted in the diverse ways we, as a people, experienced our shared oppression. Different ways of experiencing life in Ethiopia produces different modes of reacting, engaging with, and resisting domination, exclusion, and alienation. Needless to say, our lived experiences shape our politics and our general way of being in the world. The fact that there are many political parties vying for our attention is already an indication of this plurality. Engaging with our (political) pluralism—within and without–agonistically is a must. It is in the light of this fact—and the fact that Oromia and Ethiopia in general are at crossroads–that we are forced to wonder, and to ask questions, about the morning after.
In this talk, as we reflect on the morning after the resistance, I like us to consider the question regarding what awaits us after the inevitable collapse of the regime in power. What do we do with the state after the regime is gone? Do Oromos have a clear political project for the larger Ethiopian polity? If so, what does that project look like? If not, should they have one? If they should, what kind of project should they have for Ethiopia? The answers to these questions points us in various directions depending on our political orientation and the specific perspective we have about the way our problems are characterized and the solutions are put forward. My objective in this talk, more than anything else, is to raise as many provocative questions as possible for all of us, across party lines, to think about carefully and systematically. My point of departure is that it is the Oromo protest that brought about the dramatic changes I have identified above. Any contemplation of the morning after therefore should start by putting the Oromo protest and its demands in proper perspective.

The Oromo Protests and the Morning After in Ethiopia: The Qerroo Demands in Perspective

A true democratic transition in Ethiopia can only be viable if it addresses the demands of the Oromo protests. It is therefore necessary to put the demands in proper perspective. The demands of the Oromo protests as we all remember is encapsulated in the demand for abbaa biyyummaa, the right to have a full say on, and control over, the resources, the governance, and the ownership of our land and our country. It can be seen as a demand for sovereignty over land, resources, and politics of our country. This demand is an all-encompassing demand and, as such, it has other smaller demands under it. The specific demands spelt out in the course of the Oromo Protests, as can be gathered from the slogans and protest chants, the placards held in demonstrations, the statements of the organizers (mainly gleaned from online sources), and questions submitted to the Oromia National Regional State and the party presiding over it, the OPDO, include, but not limited to, the following:
Self-rule in Oromia (governing Oromia without interference from external forces);
Shared rule in the Ethiopian federation (having a deserved share in the role of co-governing the larger country with other groups in the polity);
Protection of farmers and other urban dwellers from eviction from their own land
Peace (i.e., removal of the military and the federal security forces from the civilian lives of the population and a call for ending the war of aggression on the borders; removal of the rule by command post;)
Justice (i.e., release of political prisoners);
Respect for human rights (equal treatment of Oromos, their identity, their language, and their human dignity in all spheres of life including in the federal government bodies, security institutions, and government mass media institutions);
Linguistic justice (equality of Afaan Oromoo as one of the federal working languages and respect for the integrity of the language by respecting the chosen script and sequence of alphabets, A-B-C-D);
Repeal of the so called “Addis Ababa Master Plan” in all its forms and full recognition of Finfinnee as an Oromo city, as Oromia’s capital city, and as the seat of the Federal Government, the African Union, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA);
Implementation of the constitutional ‘special interest of Oromia over Addis Ababa’ (art 49(5)) unconditionally;
Bringing land grab schemes to an immediate halt;
Expropriation of illegal investments, trades, and constructions in Oromia;
Legality (the respect for laws and regulations including the constitutions both of the State of Oromia and of the Federal Government);
Civil liberties (freedom of Oromos to associate, assemble and organize themselves freely into associations, political parties, or self-help organizations); and freedom of all Oromo political parties to operate in the country without proscriptions as terrorists or threats and intimidation otherwise as long as they operate within a the ambits of the constitution and the relevant (constitutional) law thereof;
Freedom from fear (of all Oromos living, working, or studying in other regions of the country);
Social justice (arresting tax and price hikes on goods and services, provision of basic social services—housing, basic health, and means of subsistence—attention to vulnerable persons such as the disabled, children, and women—protection of natural resources, forests, and the wellbeing of the environment in general); and
Arresting the wide-spread corruption in Oromia and beyond, and implementing principles of good governance at all levels of administration.

The above list of demands of the Oromo protest can be summarized in one sentence as the demand for the enforcement of the rule of law, implementation of the constitution, and the delivery of the promises of the federal constitution. As a demand for principled legality irrespective of the questionable legitimacy of some of the laws or specific provisions thereof, these demands should be relatively easy to address if there is a political will to hearken unto the people as required in a democracy. As a quest for a compassionate governance, it may demand the placeholders of government (OPDO) or the parties who seek to take power in Oromia to look into their own political-moral compass and the ethical commitment to ensure social justice as per the policy objectives and directive principles of the constitutions of both Oromia and Ethiopia.

Beyond these relatively simple and uncomplicated questions, the morning after confronts us, as Oromos, with the unavoidable question of “what do we do with Ethiopia?” This in turn demands a clarity of vision from all Oromo political organizations, civic, political, and professional alike. This question of ‘what to do with the State’ is more a question of whether the Oromo has a clearly articulated project for Ethiopia than it is a question of how to dispose of it as the wording here suggests. In other words, if there is going to come a post-EPRDF moment, what should be the Oromo responsibility vis-à-vis the Ethiopian State? Can the Oromo choose to ignore issues pertaining to the Ethiopian state and yet achieve the goals of the Oromo resistance struggle? Can it pursue its own destiny without due regard for the Ethiopian State and for the other peoples in the country? Is it possible? Is it probable? Is it desirable?

For example, can the Oromo people proceed to the exercise of the right to self-determination directly without engaging the Ethiopian State and others who have stakes in it? If, for example, the Oromo choose to do so and seek to conduct a referendum on self-determination (to decide on whether to separate from, or to remain within, Ethiopia), how does it go about it without engaging the Ethiopian state? If, eventually (by a long long shot!), the referendum leads to a vote for independence, what do Oromos do with the rump state? What is the roadmap for statehood when the work of constitutional law (self-determination and secession) ends and the work of international law (the law on recognition) begins? Obviously, one can’t just shrug off the international responsibility that now comes to fall on one’s shoulders. International debts, international treaty obligations, international borders, citizenship (ending the old and bestowing the new), protecting new minorities in the new state and in the rump state, resource issues, investments, currencies, etc are some of the outstanding issues that one needs to think thoroughly about and to negotiate realistically and resolve genuinely. Thinking in this direction enables the Oromo public to engage with the issues of self-determination beyond sloganeering and vacuous political pronouncements.

It is therefore important for all of us to start reflecting on what this project for Ethiopia may, and should, look like. In the section to follow, I discuss the possible options we have in this regard. The options we have mirror, more or less, the political posture of the various Oromo political parties inside and outside the country.

The Oromo Project for Ethiopia: Options

The articulation of the Oromo project for Ethiopia follows tack of the trajectories of commitments among the diverse Oromo political parties. Accordingly, one can identify three major directions that the Oromo political formations may take in articulating their vision for Ethiopia. These directions include those seeking ‘democratic unity in Ethiopia’ emphasizing equality and non-discrimination on the ground of one’s ethno-national identity; those seeking a ‘democratic multinational federalism’ that is more substantive and genuine than the façade of federalism TPLF put forward; and those seeking self-determination for all national groups including the Oromo. I now turn to identifying some of the contents of each option.

Democratic Unity

The category of Oromo political formations working within the framework of ‘pan-Ethiopianism’—be it in collaboration with the ‘Ethiopianist’ parties or as integral to such parties—emphasize the direction of ‘democratic unity’. This direction stresses the question of democracy as the all-important question within the framework of which issues of equality rights (group-differentiated individual rights as well as group rights per se) are respected, human rights of all citizens are respected, protected, and fulfilled without any discrimination, and the right of all persons to political participation is guaranteed. This direction is mindful of the ethno-national diversity in the country. However, it seeks to stress the unity of peoples as atomized individuals that voluntarily form a politically relevant collectivity through their own choice. It tends to soft-pedal—or outrightly deemphasize–the differences among people.

Consequently, it focuses on building unity among various peoples through a model of nation-building geared towards creating one strong Ethiopian nation. It is indifferent to federalism because it assumes that federalism emboldens factors that threaten “the unity and territorial integrity” of the country. If decentralization and local autonomy must be given political expression (also as the imperative of the principle of good governance), they argue, then it can be done through establishing non-ethnic provinces. It rejects ‘ethnic federalism’ as an appropriate mode of nation-building for Ethiopia because it is divisive, it causes conflicts, and pauses a threat to regional peace. This position does concede the importance of recognizing diversity and past oppression. However, it considers democracy (and its enabling linings such as human and minority rights, rule of law, good governance, etc) as effective ways of addressing the challenge of diversity and providing adequate redress for the injustices perpetrated on group-differentiated individual rights and collective rights, be it in the past or in contemporary times.

Democratic Federalism

The category of Oromo political groups that seek the implementation of democratic federalism tends to stress the democratic deficit in the formation and operation of current federal system. But they consider the multinational federal option as a step in the right direction. Their primary criticism against the status quo is its non-application, misapplication, and/or subversion of its better promises by the TPLF-EPRDF party machine. They resent the perverse use of federalism or nationalism or both to create horizontal conflicts among groups with a view to weakening the regional elites who will then co-opted as loyal collaborators of TPLF. They consider the task of democratizing and federalizing the country urgent as the FDRE as it stands now is neither democratic nor federal, and as such may implode into a civil war among forces demanding democratic self-expression as citizens and groups seeking equality, autonomy, self-rule, or self-determination rights broadly. This option sees multinational federal democracy as the only option left unto us if we want to preserve the State, to bring about peace among groups, and to bring about lasting peace and stability in the horn of Africa region.

Oromo political parties that insist on this direction (OFC, ODF, and the ‘renewed’ OPDO) all emphasize the fact that the Oromo demands can be met within the framework of democratic multi-national federalism. In such a federation, the Oromo people will be able to exercise self-rule within its own state and to exert shared rule of the larger country in concert with other groups in the country. All of them make the point that, in a genuinely federal and democratic Ethiopia, Oromos will be primary beneficiaries as they can be in the position of directing the political wheels of the country in the direction they want while also governing their own state. Above all, they envisage the possibility for the Oromo public to effectively express its national aspirations in a democratized Ethiopian state thereby transforming the polity and the state-society relations thereof.

Self-determination: Democratic Dissolution?

The third direction is one flagged by political grouping that explicitly seek Oromo self-determination as the primary task and goal of their struggle. They stress the right to national self-determination of the Oromo people and of the other peoples in the wider South of Ethiopia. They insist that the Oromo people should be given the right to choose to be (or not to be) with the Ethiopian polity. This direction, they argue, is the only proper direction that undoes, and redresses for, past injustices (of colonial occupation, military subjugation, political domination and exclusion, economic exploitation, and cultural denigration). This direction, they insist, is the one that ensures that the Oromo people fully express their national aspiration by determining their destiny (political, economic, and cultural).
Political parties such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF-Shanee), Kallacha Walabumma Oromo (KWO), OLF–Qaama Ce’umsa (ABO-QC), FIDO, ULFO, etc, are all groups that have long struggled for empowering the Oromo public to exercise its right of self-determination. Some of these groups (OLF-Shanee, judging by its program) seek outright secession from Ethiopia. Others (like KWO) are sovereigntists with, so far as I can tell, little clarity about the modality of bringing about this sovereignty. Some of them demand popular referendum as a way forward. But there is no gainsaying that all of them demand a form of self-determination for the Oromo people.
Of all the three category of Oromo political groupings, this last one is least concerned with Ethiopia. This latter group’s primary focus is Oromia and Oromos. Ethiopia comes to the picture only as the adversary to defeat. Proponents of this direction don’t often reflect on what they will do with Ethiopia after defeating its state. In their vision of the post-EPRDF moment, their politics is either merely self-regarding or too indifferent to develop a plan for the larger country. One can imagine their default position as one that prefers to make a unilateral declaration of independence or staging a referendum immediately on the aftermath of the defeat of EPRDF.

This group also does not seem to have a definite plan for their envisioned independence to come. They are hardly seen taking measures in the direction of preparing for building statehood in the event that Oromia becomes, or is unilaterally declared, independent. What we all need to remember is that independence does not automatically bestow statehood on the newly independent state. Statehood, beyond the mechanical task of building government and effective administration, etc–as we all know, is something that is the result of formal and informal negotiation with the international community. Recognition by other states—through piecemeal bilateral process or through gestures of multilateral recognition, for example, by the United Nations Organization (UNO)—is what makes independence legally valid and morally legitimate in the community of nations in the world. We have yet to see what plans these groups have put in place for achieving statehood in the post-EPRDF moment, especially in the event that declaration of independence is secured. But more importantly, although this is the group that has the larger responsibility to engage with what may be the rump state, ironically, this is the group that is least prepared to do so. To date, we have yet to see their plans for what to do—and how to deal with—the rump Ethiopian state.
The Democratic Imperative: the Point of Convergence
The directions I have described above have one thing in common: the emphasis on democracy. This makes it clear that the post-EPRDF moment cannot be anything other than democratic. Directly or indirectly—explicitly or implicitly–the democratic imperative is espoused by all of the Oromo political groupings. More interesting to me is that democracy is the point of convergence of all the three options.

The commitment to a democratic dispensation obliges all of the Oromo groupings to have a clear political roadmap to the future. In effect, this roadmap will be a manifestation of their vision for the post-EPRDF Ethiopia. In order to prepare themselves for governing and for them to empower the public to make an informed choice in the democracy to come, the parties should make an intentional effort to articulate their own vision, and draw an explicit project, for Ethiopia. Admittedly, the task of drawing a comprehensive project for Ethiopia is no easy task. Nor is it an option for Oromo parties any more. It is an obligation that has fallen on the shoulders of all Oromo parties. In fact, it is now a responsibility all Oromos should take with humility and awe “as the people of redemption.” This responsibility emanates from the demographic strength Oromia has in Ethiopia and the fact that it lies right at the intersection point of the highland and the lowland peripheries. This obligation to consciously draw a political program becomes urgent, especially among the groupings that have so far not conducted themselves in other-regarding manner to engage more responsibly with the Ethiopian state and its other peoples.

In this regard, the groups seeking democratic unity should outline the ways in which they can secure the demands of the Oromo people in general and the of the Oromo protests in particular. They need to develop a clear direction on how to ensure democratic elf-rule, or autonomy, in Ethiopia while building a robust system of equality, non-discrimination, equalization, and a just social order in a plural polity. Given the fact that unitary systems tried before have not been able to accommodate diversity—given the fact that to stop, or turn the federalist wheels back, is generally nigh impossible—this option is a toll order for its proponents. Sooner or later, this group is going to be confronted with the issue of democratic expression of Oromo aspirations to determine their destiny. When this happens, the democratic imperative demands that they consider the limits of their options and be willing to negotiate with other parties.

The group seeking democratic federalism can start working with the existing federal constitution but needs to consider serious revisions in the interest of democratization of the state and transformation of the polity. In particular, it needs to develop sophisticated plans for outgrowing TPLF’s democratic centralism and ‘upward delegation of powers’ to the executive and strengthening independent institutions of democracy, human rights, and public accountability. It should also workout its plans for engaging people in direct democracy (through referendums) that can help transformation of the Ethiopian polity as a genuinely renewed consensual construct.
The group seeking self-determination needs to resolve first that it is the people, the Oromo demos—and not the parties–that should decide on their future. They need to understand that their task will be empowering the populace so that they can be masters of their destiny. Their task should be limited to the work of facilitating popular referenda and to argue for the choices they prefer the people to take. The people need to be offered clear choices based on which they make a rational, calculated choice after doing a ‘cost-benefit analysis’ of separating from, or remaining with, Ethiopia. The group that seeks outright separation in particular must draw out a comprehensive plan for engaging what would be the rump Ethiopian state, the general populace, and the political parties that have (or claim to have) stakes just as they must draw plans for engaging the international community. They need to think through the aftermath of secession by considering issues such as those pertaining to international debts, treaty obligations, borders, citizenship (whether Oromos who choose to live in the rump state will be de-nationalized as Oromos or they can keep their Ethiopian citizenship), protection of (new) minorities (in both states), division of assets (including those in Oromia as well as the ones in the rump states), currencies, use of transboundary resources (e.g., rivers, lakes), and others.

The Imperative of Agonic Engagement with Pluralism
Today’s Oromia has many political parties. Political party pluralism is already here, and it is here to stay. Needless to say, there is enough diversity of political opinions, religious convictions, regional (or sub-national) identities, local dialects and cultures, etc to warrant political party pluralism. Today’s Oromia is also home to diverse populations, especially in its cities. It is also a region bounded by seven of the nine States in the Ethiopian Federation. Consequently, Oromia is as enveloped by diversity from without as it is teeming with diversity from within. Without exaggeration, one can say that Oromia dwells in and with diversity. The options that shape our future direction (as outlined above) reflect, and add to, the diversity Oromia dwells in and with. This diversity must be accepted and engaged with even when some of them do not sit well with each other. The vexed question of self-determination, especially of secession, may create friction among politicians of different orientations. The Oromo tradition of deliberation in good faith should be a resource to hark back on in order to handle a radical pluralism of values, political or otherwise.

In preparing for the exercise of the right to self-determination, we need to remember that it requires an elaborate technical procedure to realize it. There needs to be negotiations to arrive at an agreeable set of procedures for popular self-determination. Planning is key to the articulation of the choices (by political parties, activists, and civil societies), the process (by the parties and the legislature if any or the ad hoc assembly as the case may be), and the consequences (by the parties, the government/legislature or assembly, the government of the rump state, and all in cooperation with the international community).

Oromo political parties must start to clearly articulate the choices to be presented to the Oromo public in the event that the issue of self-determination is to be tabled for referendum. They should also have a sense of a timeframe within which the people should be prepared for the referendum. They should also consider the modes and time frame within which the public is engaged in deliberation through political parties’ debates and campaigns for this or that option. Parties must have a clear plan for engaging with the response of the government and various other pressure groups from the rump state in the event that referendum is to be conducted. Oromo parties must also be resolved as to whether they should, or should not, use the existing constitutional procedure for the exercise of the right.

Above all, they should have a clear list of plans (plans A, B, and C) for the consequences of the projected popular referendum. If the decision is to stay within Ethiopia, then they should articulate the terms of staying in. If the decision is to leave, then they should plan for how to engage with the rump state as of that moment and ought to prepare optimal set of terms for negotiating the ‘separation.’ They should develop a plan for seeking recognition from the UN and/or other regional and sub-regional organizations as well as from ‘individual’ states on a bilateral basis. Seeking and securing recognition is a necessity. Leaving aside the arcane debate in international law on whether it is constitutive of statehood or declaratory, it is well established that recognition must be sought and secured in order for any emergent entity to operate as a state in the international plane.
At a more concrete level, they need to develop a comprehensive plan for a smooth separation by reaching a negotiated settlement on ‘inherited’ international obligations, debts, benefits, borders, etc. a comprehensive plan for demonstrated economic viability and for the capability to cope with security challenges in a geo-politically volatile horn of Africa region.


The Oromo struggle has come a long way. Along the way, it has gradually come to articulate and refine the claims and aspirations of the Oromo people. (The Declaration of Values and Affirmation of Aspirations cum the Charter of Freedom, Justice, Dignity, and Peace are part of the effort at articulation and refinement.) The recent wave of Oromo protests has brought the Oromo to the center of the Ethiopian politics. The figure of the Oromo is fast changing along with the changing ‘nature’ of the Ethiopian state.
The Oromo was once represented as a ‘pagan savage’ (or/and a Muslim barbarian) waiting to be saved and civilized in a Christian empire. It then evolved into an underdeveloped ‘primitive tribal horde’ waiting to be developed in a socialist republic. In the 1990s, it came to be (mis)represented as one of the “oppressed marginal groups” (alias “nations, nationalities, and peoples”) waiting to be liberated, centered, and equalized in a post-socialist ethno-federal dispensation. Since mid-1990s, the Oromo has come to be seen in Ethiopian laws as an insoluble irritant, a ‘narrow nationalist” group with terrorist predilection, whose identity is securitized in a developmentalist state that acts as a “strategic ally” of neo-liberal global forces.

The Oromo protest has now reversed this statist gaze on the Oromo and has turned the Ethiopian State into the object of the Oromo gaze. It has transformed the Oromo into a speaking and looking subject that is asserting its presence not just in the territory but also in the polity that modern Ethiopia is. Consequently, its historic position as the 'present-absent’ in the Ethiopian polity seems to be fading in the wake of the Oromo protests. More importantly, the protest has forced on us the need to move from resistance to (re)building.

This in turn has made it necessary for the Oromo political parties, activists, and professionals to think about the morning after. In particular, it has confronted us with the responsibility to draw a comprehensive but self-conscious and reflexive project for Ethiopia. In this talk, I have outlined the three options or directions one may consider in drawing such a project. By looking at the general orientation of various Oromo political groupings, I identified three trajectories that the Oromo project for Ethiopian can take, namely that of democratic unity, democratic multinational federalism, and of democratic dissolution and/or self-determination. I also pointed out the fact that all the three directions converge on democracy as the only way forward. After stressing the fecundity of this point of convergence for yielding transformation, I insisted on the imperative of all Oromo political parties to articulate a detailed plan for a sustained engagement with the Ethiopian State the ‘morning after.’ It is my hope that these thoughts (and the questions I raised above) are provocative enough to help us begin thinking about the post-EPRDF moment.