By Gumaa Guddaa
This article was first published on Oromo Affairs blog site on September 10, 2010 and now republished on Oromia Today to honour the Oromo revolutionaries martyred for the liberation of Oromia since the November 2015 uprise.
Oromia was forcefully annexed by a neighboring country called Abyssinia at the end of the 19th century during the scramble for Africa. It was once an independent sovereign nation which has, since the annexation, been occupied by foreign powers and inevitably needs to regain its freedom.
Abyssinia itself is an artificial and rickety creation which later on changed its name officially to Ethiopia in 1948. It is important to distinguish Abyssinia proper (Tigray and Amhara) from the Ethiopia we have come to conceptualize today. There is no consensus on what really Ethiopia means. There are those who believe in the myth that has been perpetuated for the best part of the 20th century that Ethiopia is the oldest independent African nation. Others are much more in touch with reality and dismiss this, rightly so, and explain that Ethiopia has only existed for the past 130 years only. What went before the 1880s is no different from other contemporary African kingdoms. There were Oromo dynasties and others too. For example, the Warra Himanu and Yejjuu were powerful Oromo dynasties in the 18th and 19th century. Further back the Oromo dynasty is believed to have ruled over Egypt during the 12th Pharaonic dynasty. Therefore, there is no justification in selectively glorifying the Abyssinian past and attempt to present it as a unique existence when in actual fact it was just one of many.
The current discourse about the relationship between Oromia and Ethiopia is sharply divided between on the one hand, those who argue that the Oromo question is colonial in nature and hence subscribe to waging a classic war of independence, no matter for how long. On the other hand, there are those who argue that the past is history and we have to ignore it and pretend the Oromo question will disappear through time. The first group includes the OLF and other independent Oromo political organizations. The second group includes Abyssinian political organizations such as the TPLF, Qinijjit and Ginbot 7. But, the Oromo “problem”, one of the world’s oldest conflicts, is not about to go away without a significant change in the political landscape of the Ethiopian empire.
Be that as it may, there are times, when, after years of discrimination, an unquestionably oppressed ethnic group, fortuitously constituting an overwhelming demographic majority in a given region, becomes convinced of the utter futility of trying to extract any meaningful concessions from its overlords by peaceful means. At this point, some form of separation by force becomes unavoidable. Nowhere is this truer today than the Oromo condition.
Lesson from History
Prominent Oromo leaders and organizations have tried their best to extract concessions from Ethiopian powers through negotiations without avail. Gobana Dache was the first notable Oromo leader who attempted to make peace with the Abyssinians in the mid 1880s, right at the height of the conquest itself. He died in unknown circumstances. Garasuu Dhukkii, a hero who liberated almost half of Oromia from the Italian invaders, had 50,000 armed fighters under his command, negotiated with Haile Selassie on his return from exile from England at the end of the second world war. Having consolidated power Haile Selassie betrayed Garasu Dhukki. General Waqo Gutu, leader of United Oromo Peoples’ Liberation Front (UOPLF), and the first chairman of the United Liberation Forces of Oromia (ULFO), negotiated with Haile Selassie in 1970. The peace pact between General Waqoo Gutu and Haile Selassie was mediated by none other than Gereral Jagama Kello. Having been betrayed General Waqo Gutu had to return to the mountains in 1975 and resumed struggle until he passed away in exile in 2002. During the Derg era certain Dr. Haile Fida, leader of a Marxist political organization known as Meison, negotiated with Mengistu Haile Mariam. But he also ended up losing his life.
More recently, the OLF had been involved in a number of negotiations with the TPLF. Talks between the OLF and TPLF began in 1990, a year before the fall of Derg, followed by the London Conference and the Transitional Charter in 1991. The OLF had to withdraw from the agreement as the TPLF fragrantly violated the terms of the negotiated agreements. The OLF is forced to seek solution through armed struggle. It must be noted that the OLF has been in the fields for the past 40 years since 1976.
The negotiations between the OLF and the TPLF continued for nearly a decade after the OLF left the Transitional Government in 1992. The Asmara Talks (1992), The Carter Centre Talks (1994), Peace Initiative by Congressional Task Force (1994-5), the unilateral offer by the Asmara Group wing of the OLF in 2000 through the so called “Agenda for Peace” are some examples. These efforts did nothing but proved, yet again, that one cannot achieve concessions from Ethiopia through peace talks. These negotiations were at best detractors and at worst source of conflict and division within the organization itself. Ironically there are some who still propose that the OLF can negotiate with the TPLF to bring about peaceful settlement between Oromia and Ethiopia. “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is a form of insanity” (Albert Einstein).
On the issue of negotiations with the TPLF, “Just for the record, what happens to the immense violation of Oromo national pride and honor, the huge loss of Oromo lives, the horrendous destruction of the social fabric, the colossal pillage of resources? Are these non-issues in peace negotiations with the perpetrator?” asks Abiyu Galata, Harvard educated lawyer and one of the founding fathers of the OLF, in his paper presented to OSA (2002) challenging those who advocate for making peace with the TPLF on flimsy grounds.
Facts on The Ground
For anyone who makes the slightest effort to scratch below the surface there is a tremendous tension in Ethiopia. The tension is created by differential cruel treatment of the majority Oromo by a hegemonic despotic minority. This phenomenon is far from new. It is characteristically Ethiopian since its creation. In the past the Amhara hung onto power through similar distractive techniques. Now, the Tigreans are doing the same. Nevertheless, there is a striking difference in the sense that the former was 20th century and now we are in the 21st century.
Technology has transformed the world we live in. Today you can hide nothing. Washington DC and Gadaa Dissii are interconnected. Grandparents not only fly between Finfinne and Washington, London and Minneapolis but also use mobile phones to speak to their children and grandchildren in the diaspora. Young Oromo artists use YouTube to spread the message of ‘bilisumma’/liberation/. There are some who even aspire to revive the Gada ceremony in the Oromo diaspora communities around the globe using the internet. It is naïve to think that you can control people under inhumane condition for long when people can see how the free world is enjoying unrestricted freedom and progress.
More importantly, the Oromo nation has awakened. The word ‘bilisummaa’ is uttered by everyone. “Free Oromia already exists in the minds of the people” as one prominent Oromo political leader described it recently. The OLF has not only become part of the Oromo collective consciousness but almost the DNA of the Oromo people. You cannot separate the Oromo people from the OLF. At the same time, you cannot separate the OLF from independent Oromia, within or without. The minority Tigrean-led regime is scared of anyone who appears to be self-confident Oromo. The TPLF regard the entire Oromo people as enemy and treat them as such.
The current Ethiopian rulers from Tigray have exposed the Oromo people to famine of epic proportion not to mention political and economic subjugation for the past two decades. Today, the regime is leasing away millions of hectares of fertile Oromo land to foreign investors when there are some estimated 8 million Oromos requiring feeding by donors due to starvation in the most fertile land on the planet. Something has horribly gone wrong here. It is suspected that these Oromos are now suffering from acute food shortage as a direct consequence of dislocation from their ancestral lands where they proudly lived for many generations.
Democracy or Independence?
The question whether the Oromo should struggle for democracy or independence is naïve at best and foolish at worst. The first democratic right a colonized people demand is the right of self-determination to free them self from the yoke of colonization. There is no higher democratic right than liberating own country from tyrants and set free the nation from poverty. On the other hand, democracy itself is a flawed system. It is, however, generally accepted as the best system around. Remember how Gorge W Bush was elected in the 2000 US election after the close-call between him and Al Gore? Swapping your struggle for freedom through declaration of independent state for search for freedom through democracy in Ethiopia is a stupid thing to do.
First, one has to struggle for independence and then worry about the system that best serves the new nation. The argument that one can replace fighting for independent Oromia for democratization of the Ethiopian empire is disingenuous. I fail to see where the two separate projects converge. The Oromo demand independent Oromia by rejecting Ethiopia. They reject Ethiopia not because it is undemocratic. They reject it because they are not Ethiopians. The Americans rejected being British subjects because Britain was not undemocratic but the Americans decided to be Americans. Eritrean rejected Ethiopia for not being Ethiopians. South Sudan rejects Khartoum not because of lack of democracy or not. It is a matter of identity.
Democracy is not a burden for the Oromo people anyway. Gada is deeply ingrained into the Oromo way of life. The Oromo people are respected for their tolerance and fair play even by the enemy’s standard. Oromia itself bears witness to this. One of the reasons why independence is so attractive to the Oromo is actually the country will have a great opportunity for peace and stability, which are prerequisite for unlocking the immense potential the country has for success and prosperity. Thus, preaching democracy to the Oromo at this point not only untimely but ironic since they are practicing a near perfect democracy wherever they are able to protect their Gada system. Not many people are aware that the Oromo Gada system is perfectly functioning today albeit not at the centre.
In the first place, one needs to understand that independence is a guarantee against foreign aggression, the type of violence that the Oromo endure at the present. The primary purpose of a sovereign state is to defend its people. Therefore, declaration of independence is the only sure solution for the Oromo people not to continue to suffer in the hands of others.
Moreover, Oromia is potentially a rich country. Independence is the best way to bring about the much needed economic development to overcome the century old underdevelopment due to Abyssinian rule and exploitation.
All sorts of nations are declaring their independence around us. Djibouti and Eritrea were once part of the Ethiopian empire. Both became independent in our life time. Puntland State of Somalia, independent for the past 20 years, will soon get international recognition. South Sudan is more than likely to be independent after referendum in January 2011. These four countries are geographically connected to Oromia. The Oromo people are engaged in the same journey. No doubt Oromia will follow in their footsteps and become an independent country before the end of this new decade. I expect the Oromo will declare independence before the end the twenty teens. And that will only be a good thing.