During his tenure in office, Meles Zenawi was surprisingly consistent in stating the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) commitment to democratization, economic development, and sustained peace in Ethiopia as if these goals were not shared by any other political party. In fact, no Ethiopian disagrees that these are desirable goals for a country ravaged by bad governance, poverty, and civil war for decades. It is not just Ethiopians. People everywhere in the world aspire for the right to freely choose their government, participate in economic activities and exercise the right to be free from violence, coercion, and other deprivations. These are fundamental human rights that transcend cultural or national boundaries.
The problem with the late prime minister’s position is the gulf between rhetoric and reality. The democracy he championed excluded many from participation in politics and governance. Even so, he had no qualms justifying his party’s monopoly of the political space as a desirable and legitimate “dominant party democracy.” The aggregate economic growth that occurred on his watch produced a handful of fabulously wealthy plutocrats and a vast majority of destitute Ethiopians. But the increasing inequality and massive poverty did not prevent the prime minster from claiming “an economic miracle” and audaciously dismissing as infantile any talk that a strong middle class is essential for a flourishing democracy. The problem with his vision for Ethiopia is his inexplicable and indefensible insistence that his monopolization of the political space and concentration of ill-gained wealth would ultimately guarantee democracy, development and a stable peace.
We don’t have to guess at what will become of a system that fosters economic inequality and political alienation. All such social systems have ultimately been consigned to the dust bin of history by popular revolutions. InEthiopia, economic inequality and political alienation have invariably led to violent political transitions. In the early 1990s, many political groups concluded that the EPRDF regime was intent on establishing complete domination over the political space in Ethiopia and decided that armed struggle was the only recourse for effecting change. For Oromo nationalists, armed struggle once again became an unavoidable imperative to continue the Oromo struggle for identity and self-government. Perhaps no other conclusion could have been reached at the time, given the current circumstances and the history of Ethiopia’s violent political transitions. Much has changed since the 1990s and certainly in the last few months. At this juncture in history, Ethiopia has indeed come to a crossroads, where the available choice is between democratization and disintegration.
This time, disintegration is not just a theoretical possibility. The contours are clear. The political dynamic is not promising. The EPRDF is trying to justify its one-party dictatorship as “dominant party democracy,” a predatory economic system as “prosperity,” and popular apathy as “peace.” The opposition that refers to itself as “forces of unity” has shown its capacity for extra-constitutionality and disregard for inclusiveness with its temerity to form a government in exile and request governments to grant it recognition as an Ethiopian government. Political organizations that claim to represent the Oromo seem to be missing in action, both in and outside the country. All of these positions are untenable. But the very real prospect of disintegration and chaos should goad everyone to eschewing the “winner-take-all” political culture – an approach that has always led to a violent political transition – in favor of renegotiating a new Ethiopian social compact.
It should be clear to both the incumbent government and to the opposition that is shamelessly jockeying for power that there will be no democratic, prosperous, and stable Ethiopia without the genuine and full participation of the Oromo. None of the charades and schemes of the last two decades have captured the Oromo for either group. It should equally be clear to Oromo nationalists that the path of the last two decades is bereft of political realism. There are compelling reasons for Oromo nationalists to actively engage in shaping the future in Ethiopia. For one, the Oromo constitute half of Ethiopia and as such whatever affects Ethiopians inevitably affects Oromos. The effect of avoiding engagement in the task of remaking Ethiopia is ceding the field and watching from the sidelines while vital decisions are made on behalf of Oromos by actors who cannot represent genuine Oromo interests. For another, the Oromo have a rich heritage of indigenous knowledge and practices of democracy, development, and peacemaking that could gainfully be shared with other nations, nationalities, and peoples in Ethiopia. By being engaged, Oromo nationalists can help create a freer and better country for all its citizens. They should not shirk from their responsibility to be a positive agent for change and improved life conditions in the whole region. Enlightened self-interest in this case actually aligns well with the greater good.
Preventing a Violent Transition
To prevent recourse to another violent transition, Oromo nationalists should consider pursuing three interrelated political goals in the short run. First, they must assess the prevailing situation and put forth unambiguous and achievable objectives. This is not a new idea. Assessment of the political environment and adjustment of political objectives have happened before in the Oromo nationalist camp. Prior to the early 1970s, the political goals of the Oromo national movement were articulated by the, the Ethiopian National Liberation Front (ENLF), founded in 1971 by Hajji Hussien Sorra in Aden. The ENLF was established to unite all the oppressed peoples of Ethiopia to pursue the goals of removing injustice and building a country of equal citizens. At this stage, the focus of the Oromo activists was on the restoration of Oromo dignity and identity. Few entertained the idea of an independent Oromo state.
In 1973, Oromo nationalist leaders recognized that the imperial government was suffering from irreversible institutional decay. This was happening at the height of the cold war, only a few years after the liberation of many countries inAfrica, and at a time when the only scenario of a successful conclusion of a liberation movement’s struggle was the establishment of a nation-state. In this context, Oromo nationalist intellectuals determined that the relationship between Oromia andEthiopiawas colonial in nature and it would be resolved through the establishment of an independent Oromia. As such, the political program of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) wasn’t a utopian vision, but the result of a deliberative dialogue that took account of the real and present conditions of the time.
That program has guided the Oromo national struggle to tangible political gains, cultural renaissance, and international visibility. For more than a decade, there has been a struggle within the Oromo national movement to assess and adjust the political objectives of the Oromo struggle in light of changing times and realities. The failure to respond to the demands for change has led to organizational fracturing and political stasis. The need for change is palpable. Action can no longer be forestalled without causing an irreparable damage to the Oromo movement itself.
The second objective is to take concrete steps to protect the gains the Oromo struggle has achieved so far. In the context of the current realities in Ethiopia and the way the contending political forces are arrayed, Oromo political activists should come out in support of the current constitution of Ethiopia. This is, of course, a heretical statement in thetempleofOromopolitical religion. But let us be clear that we are talking politics, which requires flexibility and cunning, not dogma. A significant portion of the Ethiopian political opposition views the current constitution as the major cause for everything that is currently wrong withEthiopia. This section of the opposition promises to replace it with a constitution that guarantees individual rights instead of group rights. When the political jargon is stripped, this means the abrogation of the right of nations, nationalities, and peoples to self-determination and destruction of the federal arrangement that provides the framework for the exercise of many other rights. It doesn’t make political sense for Oromo nationalists to join this section of the opposition in advocating the dismantlement of the rights stipulated in the current constitution and calling for a return to the centralized administrative structure that existed before the establishment of the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Republic in 1987. Instead Oromo nationalists should call for the full implementation of the federal arrangement and genuine devolution of power to the regional states.
After all, the current constitution is in many ways the result of the Oromo struggle for recognition and self-rule. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was instrumental in shaping the contours of the Charter of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia in the early 1990s which laid the framework for the current constitution. The Oromo cannot expect a more accommodating constitution for their cause. The much maligned Article 39 (1) not only grants an ethno-territorial community “an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession,” it also stipulates that these rights cannot be suspended even during national emergencies. The constitution limits the powers of the federal state to matters expressly enumerated under Article 51 and Article 55 and assigns to regional states all powers not given to the federal government. Assuming then that Oromo nationalists are ready for real politics, it makes a political sense for them to defend a constitution that, among many other positive rights, recognizes and institutionalizes the right of ethno-linguistic communities to self-determination and the right of ethno-territorial communities to self-government within a federal framework. In principle, the constitution guarantees many of the rights for which Oromo nationalists have given their lives. Supporting the constitution and calling for its full implementation honors their sacrifices.
Defending the principles of the constitution is a courageous and pragmatic position that could yield meaningful political benefits for the Oromo people. First, it assures those Ethiopians living counterclockwise from Bejameder in the northwest to the Afar region in the northeast that Oromo nationalists are not the caricatured “narrow nationalists” their political enemies had created in the popular imagination but fighters for legitimate rights that all people deserve. Second, this gives Oromo nationalists the moral high ground in waging a legitimate struggle for a legitimate cause. Third, it allows Oromo nationalists to speak to the rest of the world with clarity and in a language that everyone in the world understands. Fourth and most important, it reconnects the often detached Oromo diaspora with the movement in Oromia, which is engaged in struggle for concrete rights that are constitutionally ensured but illegally denied.
This brings as to the third political goal of the Oromo national movement at this time. Oromo political organizations, particularly the OLF, should offer a viable alternative to both the backward-looking Ethiopian political opposition and to the incumbent government championing an unsustainable, oxymoronic “dominant party democracy.” The Oromo are central to the Ethiopian polity geographically, historically, demographically, politically, and economically. Democracy, development, sustainable peace, and even the integrity of the polity cannot be achieved without the land and resources of Oromia and the full participation of the Oromo population as equal citizens in shaping the country today and in the future. Oromo nationalists have the responsibility and legitimate right to play a constructive role to prevent another descent into a violent transition.
Offering a Wealth of Indigenous Resources
Ethiopians have endured too much violence and for far too long. In his book, Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation, Messay Kebede argues that the causes for Ethiopia’s unending march from crisis to crises are rooted in the failure of intellectuals to indigenize imported ideas and upgrade traditional culture to render them applicable to solving specific problems in Ethiopia. Interestingly, Leenco Lata agrees with Messay’s basic argument that imported ideas have not solved Ethiopia’s perennial political problems. In his book, The Horn of Africa as Common Homeland, he calls for implementation of innovative solutions based on the knowledge and practices of grassroots communities to resolve the Horn of Africa problems and avoid uncritical embrace of transplanted democratic forms. If indeed the lack of originality, creativity, and authenticity has been the cause for Ethiopia’s problems, the Kibre Negest is not the place to look for alternative ways of building a new Ethiopia. Rather, these new ideas must be sought in indigenous traditions of the indigenous peoples in Ethiopia. The Oromo have a rich heritage of indigenous knowledge and practice of democracy, development and peacemaking that, ifcreatively applied to the present situation, can contribute much to the healing of the country.
What can be derived from Oromo experience in building a stable and vibrant political system in Ethiopia? Oromos’ own indigenous democratic political culture, the gadaa system, provides the basis for a positive contribution to the current democratization effort in Ethiopia. This is not a vision of some Oromo elite obsessed with reviving a hitherto dead political system. Donald Levine, a scholar of rare insight into Ethiopian culture, has been imploring Ethiopians “to understand and celebrate the gadaa system as an exemplar of value for all Ethiopia and beyond.” He is more direct in suggesting that the gadaa system’s “achievements in the practice of democratic governance could be transferred to the Ethiopian nation as a whole.” In practical terms, he has highlighted several Oromo cultural themes including gadaa egalitarian ethos, communal solidarity, democratic structures, separation of power, and civility in deliberation hold great possibilities to play a transformative part in the current democratization endeavor in Ethiopia.
The failure of imported models is even more palpable in the area of economic development. The practice of building economic institutions based on supposedly universal models taken from industrialized countries has not delivered improved living standards for most Ethiopians. Neither the liberal model now championed by the political opposition nor the developmentalist model of the governing party is likely to lead to sustainable and equitable development. The more effective models are ones that stress participatory grassroots approaches to development, generally seeking to empower the poorest sectors of society and draw on their cultural knowledge in policy formulation. Conceptually, this means helping local people and institutions identify and solve development problems and address issues of human survival and welfare.
The Oromo culture offers a rich repertoire of indigenous concepts and practices to draw upon for sustainable development. The word ‘development’ is rendered in the Oromo language by the word finna (or fidnaa), from the word fidu, which is directly related to fertility, meaning to bring or to hand down. The core meaning of the word refers to different forms of fertility, whether of a human, vegetal, animal, or spiritual nature. This notion of fertility encompasses all aspects of the productive and reproductive life in a community. There are seven interlocking phases in the Oromo model of development, leading at the eighth stage to broadly shared development. The order of development thus generated is a transformative process comparable to the spirals in the horn of a ram as opposed to the boom and bust of the business cycle. At the same time, the concept recognizes that states of development and underdevelopment alternate, between ‘good’ development (finna dansaa) and ‘bad’ development (finna hammaa).
As an integrated system, the Oromo model of development functions based on the principle of equality (walqixumma), which envisions growth for everybody in the land. It is founded upon custom or tradition (aadaa), regulated by the law (seera), and relies on a social welfare system (busaa gonoofaa) for wealth redistribution. It is also operates based on a set of environmental rules (aloo fi alollaa) that protect the commons. The model is ultimately governed by an ethical code (safuu) and its success is dependent on peace (nagaa), which is an essential prerequisite for development.
Neither democracy (gadaa) nor development (finna) is achievable without peace (nagaa). For the Oromo, peace is extremely important not just for the proper functioning of their institutions, but also because the security and prosperity of the community depends on the effort to minimize or eliminate the possibilities of conflict. In Oromo conception, conflict is a disruption of a balanced and tranquil society which is at peace with itself, with its social and natural environment, and with the creator (Waaqa). To survive, a society must function in accordance with nagaa which is a condition in which human life, individually or collectively, is free from tension, want or violence in general. That means nagaa is a general harmonious relationship in society whose components parts are interconnected through intricate webs and threads. Nagaais the basis on which the whole edifice of Oromo political system, economic organization, religious customs, social relations, and moral order are constructed. In Oromo perspective, simply put, nagaa sustains the cosmos and regulates all human relationships.
The Oromo maintain nagaa through indigenous conflict prevention, management, and resolution mechanisms. These mechanisms are deployed to deal with conflict on three different levels: to prevent conflict from occurring; to keep it from escalating if it occurs; and if it escalates, to make peace between the conflicting practices through the intervention of mediators. Among these mediators is the qaalluu, the Oromo religious institution, which serves as an instrument of conflict resolution and social integration—ensuring harmonious relationships among those who share an identity.The process of conflict avoidance, management, and resolution always culminates in peace consolidation (nagaa buusuu) conducted in various rituals that help the conflicting parties overcome memories of bitterness and animosity. With this step, the loop is complete. Peace is restored and the community, once again, commence the activity of conflict prevention.
Overall, the institutions of gadaa, finna, and nagaa are indigenous resources that the Oromo bring to the table to negotiate their status with other Ethiopians. These institutions have survived a century of active suppression. Their values continue to inform what it means to be Oromo. For a long time, Oromos have discussed the value of their indigenous institutions among themselves. The Oromia regional state has incorporated some of the Oromo political instituions in its government structure. Some Oromo non-governmental organizations have integrated into their work concepts and practices from the Oromo model of development. Oromo indigenous institutions of peacemaking are functioning effectively in many places alongside the modern legal system. The Ethiopian elite who decry imported ideologies as the cause for Ethiopia’s travails, should open their eyes to see the wealth of original, authentic, and innovative traditions that the Oromo can share with all Ethiopians. Plainly put, they should stop demanding that Oromos abandon something to be active players in Ethiopian politics and begin asking what they can contribute to the remaking Ethiopia itself.
Line Not to Be Crossed
Many nations and nationalities in Ethiopia have concepts and practices of democracy, development and peacemaking as do the Oromo. Here I have tried to bring forth what the Oromo bring to the table in building a new country of citizens who have certain inalienable rights and certain inescapable responsibilities. Many in the opposition and their intellectual supports often speak and write nostalgically about the 14 provinces of the imperial period. Wittingly or unwittingly, they propose to turn the clock back 40 years. It took two revolutions to remove the scaffolding that supported the Amhara political, economic and cultural hegemony in Ethiopia. There is no way the Oromo would give up some of their hard-won rights.
In the last two decades, the Oromo have made progress in their quest for identity and self-rule. Oromia is a national entity with delineated boundaries and institutions of governance recognized by the Ethiopian government. The qubee script is the sole means of written Afaan Oromoo, the Oromo language, which is the medium of administration, instruction, and commerce in Oromia. The Oromo people have embraced their heritage as a nation and individual Oromos are proud of their identity regardless of its implication for upward mobility. In a nutshell, the basic components of Oromo identity, freedom, and justice have been laid on a strong foundation. Ethiopian political parties that seek to see a democratic, prosperous, and peaceful Ethiopia ought to know one fact. The Oromo yearn to be full members of a new Ethiopia, but no self-respecting Oromo would ever want to go back to the days of the imperial regime. That is a line not to be crossed.
Ethiopia is at a crossroads of either becoming free, democratic, and prosperous or repeating the cycle of violent transition. As noted, this time, disintegration is a glaring reality if the democratization route is not taken. Let me bolster my case by referring to history and a voice many Ethiopians trust. Over the past half century, Donald Levine has prodded Ethiopians to consider alternative views to build a new Ethiopia. In May 1961, he wrote an article in which he presented a passionate case to persuade Haile Sellassie to liberalize his regime and the educated elite to develop a movement for liberal democracy to prevent a military takeover. He was declared persona non grata in Ethiopia. In 1974, he urged Ethiopians to reformulate their social contract and recreate their nation by pulling together the cultural heritages of the many nationalities that make up the country. He was ignored. Looking back now, it is painfully clear that his appeals were prescient.
In the last few years, Levine has been trying to bring the Oromo question into public discourse. Thus far, it seems he is being ignored once again. The reality is nevertheless clear. The absence of a genuine Oromo voice, resulting from exclusion or withdrawal, is the most intractable problem in Ethiopian politics. No Ethiopian government can succeed in bringing democracy, development, and peace to Ethiopia without the Oromo people’s meaningful, legitimate, and sovereign participation in the remaking of the nation. The days when non-Oromos speak for or work on behalf of Oromos are long gone. Ethiopians can still ignore the admonitions for inclusion. Oromo nationalists can continue to shun political realism. But let us recognize that, this time, it is at our own peril.
Ezekiel Gebissa is Professor of History at Kettering University. He is the author of Leaf of Allah: Khat and the Transformation of Agriculture in Harerge Ethiopia, 1875–1991 and sole-editor of Contested Terrain: Essays on Oromo Studies, Ethiopianist Discourses, and Politically Engaged Scholarship and Taking the Place of Food: Khat in Ethiopia. He is also the translator and editor of Evangelical Faith Movement in Ethiopia: The Origins and Establishment of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church . For comment he can be reached at email@example.com.