The Oromo Resistance: All Rise, Students Presiding | reflections on what is to be done
By A. Beyene*
Over the recent weeks, the world has been witnessing a rational exuberance of hope filling the political landscape in Oromia, and it is blowing all over Ethiopia. This hope evokes memories of the political excitement of the 1970s. For the younger generation – which was not part of that thrill, the ongoing Oromo resistances offer a prospect for a new political order. As a partaker of the revolution in the 1970s, I remember being told about various prior rebellions led by, for example, Waqo Gutu or Girmame Neway – the first leading a popular revolt, the later organizing a coup d’etat against the Emperor. I saw the core purpose of those prior rebellions converging with the wishes of the students in the 1970s – creating a diffident hope that saturated the air then. The hopes of Waqo’s or Girmame’s generations and that of mine, the past and the present combined evolving into a power that destroyed the imperial class, but could not build a fundamentally transformational political order to replace the archaic system. The outcome was a deficiently forged balance of power that filled the vacuum and remained in power for 17 years representing an era of death – a political hegemony that killed a generation. I see the current massive uprising by Oromo youth in Ethiopia as a sharpened segment of the same trail that began in the 1970s or earlier, but also as an end to over 300 years of political oppression. In contrast to the 1970s student revolution that merged political visions from the past and the present, the 2015 Oromo student uprising converged the visions of past and the present with the future in a uniquely lavish manner.
The 2015 Oromo student protest has been lavish in Gandhi’s edifying sense – willing to peacefully and keenly conquer pain, or spare life for a high purpose even in the face of wanton killings. As I mentioned above, this uprising combines visions from future generation because, unlike the social movements of the 1970s that were led by university students, the current demonstrations in Oromia were born in elementary schools, the seat of the future generation. Young children, as leaders of a revolution, are indeed unique to Ethiopia, but history bears witness to children of exceptional maturity with visions capable of leading a revolution. Here is an example.
Between 1144 and 1189, there were four major Christian attempts to capture Jerusalem from Jews and Muslims – which all failed in humiliation. But the crusader fervor continued with greater pitch. In 1212 a shepherd boy named Stephen had a vision in which he claimed that Jesus appeared to him disguised as a pilgrim and gave him a letter for the king of France. From his little town of Cloyes sur le Loir, he set out to deliver the letter to the king. He believed he could capture Jerusalem by love instead of violence. As he declared his vision, crowd of children gathered around him, determined to follow him wherever he went. Eventually, there were over 30,000 children who traveled to Marseilles and off to Jerusalem. The story has no good ending, but the power of children with a vision is evident.
Oromo children of elementary schools from hundreds of Oromo little towns, the “Cloyes sur le Loir,” confronted a cruel army barehanded, and died waging peaceful demonstrations. They kneeled down with hands on their heads when confronted by gunmen, they walked in dark clothes in front of pitiless security squads to mourn the killings of their colleagues, and they refused to eat when the government kept killing. They stood tall in their actions, mature in their demand, bold against a surge of suffocation of their rights, and patient against confiscation of their personal properties from their land to their cell phones, the later to deny them photographing the crime that is perpetrated against them. The government security forces are fully aware the photographs and videos are historic records that will one day bring these criminals to justice. The people serenely observed the destruction of their TV antennas by troops which didn’t want the people to watch the brutal actions of security forces on objective TV channels. The demonstrators would not throw rocks like we did in the 1970s; they are calm and collected – and they only run at times – in escape from bullets and tear gas. This show of maturity by children to the immaturity of a government that behaves callously against kids must produce charged emotions even in those who stand ready to hurt or kill. Oromia gave the lives of its children for an ideal that its grownups only dreamed. How more lavish can a revolution be? This is a question we can never ever delete from our memories. This is a question that validated Oromo identity masterfully.
How did we end up here?
At the outset of garnering Ethiopian political power, the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) puffed up itself into mimicking a party that represents more than one ethnic group, the Tigreans, by creating a number of loyal parties “recruited” from its war prisoners. The collection of the puppet parties and TPLF adopted a collective name of Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Ethiopia is de facto ruled by TPLF, but TPLF cleverly disguises its ethnic dictatorship and rules the country by ironclad masked under EPRDF since 1991. This may define the emergence of TPLF as a mafia-type party controlling the economy and political power of Ethiopia. But what is the genesis of its cruelty, why is it so ruthless when it has witnessed and experienced the carnage perpetrated by the former cruel government first hand?
On 22 June 1988, the Ethiopian government launched a massive air raid on Hawsien, a small town of Tigray – sought to be a stronghold of TPLF. More than 2,500 people were killed on that single day when the Ethiopian Air Force bombed the marketplace of the town. TPLF cameras captured the attack as it happened, and the videos later became historic evidences of the mass killings exposing the former brutal military regime of Ethiopia. TPLF registered and carried the voice of horrible victims of the Derg, a regime that bombed and unwisely undermined the voice of its own people. TPLF, nonetheless, defeated the Derg eventually catapulting itself to power and remaining in full control for 24 years without genuine mandate of the people. These successful ex-guerrilla fighters, with personal experiences about the consequences of indiscriminate killings and undermining of an onrushing political wave, now repeat inhumane acts they lived through, and survived to rise to power. In fact, they even more foolishly undermine the voice of an even more powerful majority when it is their turn to listen. Where does TPLF’s cruelty, its willingness to kill elementary schoolchildren so at will come from? Given its numerically minority status, why would a political group draw so much hate from the rest of the people against Tigray that suffered so much bringing its own children to power? Is it possible that they assume that they will have eternal power to protect the resources they plundered, keep their offices they decorated, or conceal the crimes they committed? The senselessness of the political calculation of TPLF is mind-boggling.
I think one primary reason of this senselessness is lack of mature leadership from within. Prior to 1991, Meles Zenawi and the TPLF cliques knew how to transform their guerrilla group into a formidable force capable of capturing the central power. They saw what was to be done, and they knew the cost of the plan they rolled to action. The pre-1991 epoch marks the summit of TPLF’s success. The decade between 1991 and 2001 showed TPLF muddling with internal political challenges as well as facing simmering opposition, especially in the parliament. The 2001 split within TPLF and Meles’ triumph against his internal rivals marked a shift that altered Meles into a Tsar-like totalitarian leader.
Meles’ accumulation of power made him the uncontested ruler of the land, whereby his party served him as his loyal mouthpiece. After his death, those who inherited his absolute power didn’t have someone of the same caliber to emerge as a central TPLF figure. No one had the political cloud to auto-claim full authority within TPLF, and it seems Meles was unwilling to share his posthumous fame with another internal autocrat either. So he picked a toothless replacement from the south, a bogus leader who could be told what to say by the old TPLF guard from behind. The system was designed to maintain TPLF’s supremacy without entertaining another competing supreme leader to Meles – even after death. Meles’ greatness became the foundation of Tigrean nationalism to be imposed on all Ethiopia. While Ethiopia recorded Meles as a cunning divider and tribal ruler, TPLF worked on transforming the man into a more-than-life figure. 172 parks were established in Western Shewa region of Oromia alone in memory of Meles. The conqueror leaves a mark in its conquered territory by building parks and erecting statues, obviously these are destined for a short life.
TPLF could not produce a leader with the cunning ability of Meles or the shallow subtlety he possessed to benefit his policies. As a consequence, power rested in the hands of the incompetent inheritors who were deliberately handpicked by Meles. The cabinet was selected to diminish the internal challenge to Meles’ authority. So, the unqualified team that took over power from Meles turned the political reality of the country to a style which could be compared to that of the Derg. For all intents and purposes, there is a political vacuum in Ethiopia, or more precisely, there is absence of a leader with a shred of vision within the ranks of TPLF, and the abundance of such a vacuum is filled with arrogance and panic, both unpredictably alternating as a mood of the same political cluster. One group would invite a notable Oromo political leader for discussion; another group will demand his deportation after his arrival. One group will argue to stop killing students; the other will demand escalation of killing these “disobedient” children. And as always in history, selection of the negation has the upper hand.
Before the de facto vacuum was created, a very alarming plan of the late Prime Minister Mr. Meles Zenawi was on the table. Having attained a personality cult who knows all, Meles Zenawi’s idea became a live-by theory his TPLF pupils would memorize and enforce no questions asked, without a grasp of the concept – in the same fashion they swallowed that of Marx and Engels to spit it later in the wrong place and at the wrong time. The draft manuscript of Meles Zenaw’s unfinished thesis entitled “African Development: Dead Ends and New Beginnings” carried the blueprint for Meles’ theory of “democratic developmental state” in which he openly argues that the best way to make money is through rent of natural resources, say to foreign enterprises. To implement this a “nation for rent” plan, he demanded autonomy for the Federal Government to seize full control, as TPLF’s sole leader by then, and argued that the government chooses when and how to partner with the private sector. By choosing business partners, he could cater the land to whoever he likes, and his favorite TPLF cadres, of course, became the chief beneficiaries.
Another master plan was in full gear in the Omo Valley way before the Addis Ababa “Master Plan” was concocted. This Omo Valley plan assigned cultivation of more than 375,000 hectares of land, with 150,000 hectares of land set aside for sugarcane plantations alone. The plan cut off 33,000 hectares from Mago National Park and a third of Omo National Park. These sugarcane plantations are run by the state-owned Ethiopian Sugar Corporation. An additional 200,000 hectares are being set aside for both private farms owned by Tigrean and foreign investments. International human rights and environmental groups have raised concerns about the environmental and social impacts of these agricultural projects. The plans have been categorized as land grabs. Several small tribes lost almost all of their land to these agricultural schemes. The Bodi tribe, with 7,000 members, lost all of its land to these mega projects. When a 30,000 hectare (74,000 acre) palm-oil plantation was established in the Omo Valley on the Koka River, the Suri tribe was forcibly removed from their land. Some Suri leaders were arrested randomly as a preemptive warning against any protest, and sentenced to prison for up to 25 years. When more Suri resistance followed, the government forces killed 54 unarmed Suri in a public marketplace. The killings happen to tribes that are already declining in numbers, from a total population numbering in the thousands. Evidently, the drive to make money is at all and any cost.
After the death of Meles Zenawi, the willingness of some diaspora political groups, of Oromo origin in particular, the weakness of others as a result of TPLF’s suffocation and intimidation, gave a false confidence to the TPLF leadership that the ground is ready to embark on the vision of the deceased great “role model” at a higher scale. They continued nationalization, auctioning and leasing of Oromo lands, including the land of other nationalities of the South, in a scale that exceeded all previous ventures. The TPLF’s 40th anniversary was celebrated on February 21, 2015 in the midst of such trumped up confidence, with a sense of accomplishment and realization that they can do it after all, even without Meles. The simulated confidence blinded the post-Meles leaders from reading the simmering popular objection which would have likely been noticed by Meles.
The TPLF’s celebration of their anniversary flew in the eyes of Ethiopians; it was untactful, if not outright disrespectful, to the people. It displayed an aura of naked arrogance narrating a distinct slogan that demonstrates how shallowly they understood Meles’ unedited credo, and how rushed they were to superimpose a sense of accomplishment to reboot confidence and assure continuity. The TPLF’s anniversary slogan: “kemegenexaxel adega wede limatawi andinet,” (from risk of disintegration to unity of development) captured these emotions. Meles would have probably tasted the waters and make a smart turn when he sees unpassable blockage, without dropping his mischievous plan nonetheless. His cadres took his literature and attempted to implement it as dogma. They didn’t know how to lose in order to try and win again. A stubborn policy they didn’t understand well, poorly articulated to start with, i.e. developed without a critical review, failed at the very first turn. The frustrating fiasco gave birth to anger that is now willing to mass murder.
So, here we are as a nation whose gains of costly revolution have been reversed, political achievements sabotaged, Oromo fertile lands leased to international investors, its territorial integrity violated in the name of a Master Plan, its children tortured, jailed, and killed in mass for peacefully protesting against injustice, free Oromo press forbidden, civic organizations banned, and political organizations disallowed to represent their people, and in a recent bizarre case a political leader living in diaspora deported from his own country. Even children are shot and killed for demonstrating peacefully. The political state of the Oromo people is simply tragic, and a question comes to mind, what is to be done?
What is to be done?
Ethiopians of older generation are very familiar with this subtopic. It comes from the Russian revolutionary leader, Vladimir Lenin, who in 1901 wrote a political leaflet, entitled “What is to be done?” – a title he adopted from an earlier novel by another author.
In “What is to be done,” Lenin outlines his strategy for a political success designing ways by which the working class becomes a political power. His strategy was to indoctrinate the working class with a previously unknown party ideology using a political party of new doctrine, Marxism, who shall spread the new ideology as a political ideal. This radical concept immediately caused a split of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party; one became Lenin’s Bolsheviks and the other that opposed the theme, Mensheviks led by Leon Toltoy who published a counter argument to Lenin’s notion of Marxism. In his rebuttal, Tolstoy criticized Lenin’s approach as a process that will lead to a bloody takeover of the party by a dictator. Tolstoy was right. He was also wrong because what he confined to Russia covered all continents as a dangerous idea that enthused before it killed.
Ethiopia’s schoolchildren adopted Marxism in the 1970s before they mastered the Russian or English languages to understand Lenin’s and Tolstoy’s works. Then and in the decades that followed the Ethiopian revolution, which resulted in the deposition of the Emperor, Marxists who popped up so inorganically had no plan for what followed the Emperor’s demotion. Thus, a political vacuum was created similar to that we see today in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, a vacuum of different making, but the same consequence. As one noted, the Ethiopian revolution became a war between a military junta armed to its teeth and infantile politicians in their teenage who never comprehended the balance of power. Ultimately, the Ethiopian revolution became a conflict between two Marxist groups, except that neither of the two knew why they had to kill each other, and even less – why they should die for Marx or Lenin. They died in mass nonetheless, and those who survived still suffer the eternal consequences of having witnessed death very intimately. The children of Tigray – who were once immersed in this rogue ideology – are still killing and perhaps willing to die for political indoctrination with religion-like creed.
Whether Russia benefited from Lenin’s “What is to be done?” or not, the need for a nation to discuss a road-map at a crossroad is an essential and constructive thing to do. TPLF and Lenin are excellent examples that, when well-planned and executed, even a wrong vision can thrive and succeed. One only needs to know what is to be done, and do what is to be done better than the opposition that may also have its own version of what is to be done. The competition is truly between groups which know what is to be done; those who have no such idea lose during the early cycles of the political contest.
The 2014 and 2015 demonstrations may have started as an objection to the “Master Plan of Addis Ababa.” But as an outcome, they validated defense for the Oromo identity against a tide that was in motion to undermine it, if not to abolish it outright. The validated defense should now move on to a new slogan of self-governance, demanding the evacuation of TPLF, and asking justice for the victims. This slogan is transformational, and it is Oromo-wide. In fact, based on reports reaching us from Ethiopia, it seems that it is supported or shared by many other Ethiopian political groups, including the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO).
The emerging slogan is summative; it is Oromo-wide for the first time since the 16th century. The Oromo people, as a collective whole, have never risen against an enemy or an occupying force for more than three centuries. Yes, parts of Oromia have revolted against the occupying forces, but the revolts were never encompassed the entire land in a territorial sense. In fact, a region in Oromia or Ethiopia has been used to punish another revolting part of Oromia or Ethiopia as recently as few years ago. This year of 2015 indeed is a historic and exciting time in that Oromia has risen collectively, all at once, and this makes a truly momentous turn of events in history. Unfortunately, there may still be Oromos who stand against the collective aspirations of the Oromo people, renegades of some sort. However, disgruntled Oromos who stand against the united face of their own people will have a superbly diminished impact on the overall thrust of the struggle of the Oromo people hereafter. This aggregate resistance of the Oromo people, if sustained, guarantees that, days in which the Oromo remain on the side of the political command of Ethiopia with their own resources plundered and rights abused, are numbered by months, if not weeks. But it requires planned action, knowledge of what should be done now, following the 2014 and 2015 Oromo student resistances.
- The Ethiopian people should stand by Oromos as united, and show solidarity at this critical time. Those sharp pens that argued so vehemently for Ethiopian unity for years have a great opportunity to practice what they preach. Such solidarity gives meaning to unity. What is talking and writing about Ethiopian unity while remaining silent when a minority regime kills the young citizens of a nation that they want to unite as Ethiopia, killing for a mere reason of tribal, ethnic, or nationality identity? A political entity or individual who shows no solidarity at least by condemning the massacre of Oromo or any other youth has de facto forfeited on Ethiopian unity.
- The Oromo student movement must be joined by or at least assisted by the Oromo mass. No Oromo region should rest in separation until the entire Oromia is free from TPLF’s occupation.
- For all practical purposes, Ethiopia is now a war zone, and there is no guarantee for stakeholders, especially foreign investors. Such investors who entered into agreement with TPLF, a regime that has no Oromo mandate, are illegal as far as the Oromo conscience is concerned. Oromo citizens are unhappy about the deal these foreign enterprises made with the Ethiopian government. After all, they are fully aware of the abuse that has been going on in the country. It is imperative that all foreign enterprises leave Oromia immediately until such time that Oromia is free from TPLF, and that it can independently enter into a political or economic arrangement. The same holds true for Ethiopians, including Oromos or Tigreans, who honor the “Master Plan” and build, invest or, otherwise lay new claims arising from the “Master Plan,” on Oromo territory adjacent to Addis Ababa. The “Master Plan” is illegal, and all constructions and ownership thereunto are illegal. All lands grabbed from Oromos in Oromia for parks honoring Meles or for investment sold or leased to Tigrean or foreign investors are illegal and subject for a recall. When such recall is authorized, current investors are required to cover all costs and damages inflicted upon the indigenous people as a result of their investment.
- OPDO’s constituency is the Oromo people, culture, resources, and territory. OPDO’s very beginning may be legitimized by history or not, but its existence is inseparably tied to its claimed constituency. TPLF may hope to retreat back to its caves in Tigray once the frantically and ruthlessly defended domination becomes unmanageable. However, OPDO will remain in Oromia with their families and all the political scars they accumulate. Not standing against the ongoing massacre of Oromo children would be a deep political wound that can hardly heal in our society. OPDO must not stay out of the conflict zone; it must support the people in the most active manner. This infrastructure and framework of TPLF, as an occupying force after all, is largely of their making, bad guests they invited home, showed them the ins and outs, helped them interact with the people by translating the language for them, and hosted them too cozily for too long. They should help escorting them out of the house most preferably in peace.
- The ongoing Oromo social unrest specifically targets TPLF’s domination and cruelty against Oromos and other people of Ethiopia. It is not against other people or religions, but TPLF. There may be collateral damages when targeting the TPLF domination peacefully – businesses will be closed and roads that serve the society may be blocked. And yet, the divide-and-rule propaganda may continue colliding the people against each other based on ethnic, religious and territorial blocks. The lives of innocent people may be expended to provoke such conflicts among good neighbors to extend the tyrannical rule of TPLF. But make no mistake, the Oromo upheaval is peaceful, and it targets only TPLF’s domination.
- As hinted above, it is important that the ongoing objection to the Addis Ababa “Master Plan” be fully replaced by a more fundamental slogan that uproots the problem of ethnic domination in Ethiopia once and for all. A slogan of fundamental change is needed to empower the people in a manner that offers a lasting peace to Oromos and other peoples of Ethiopia. Implicit in this demand is that the TPLF army must evacuate Oromia and all parts of Ethiopia. The country must have a national army that reflects its ethnic and national diversity, independent of any political or ethnic influence. The Ethiopian people must refuse to obey any political arrangement that keeps TPLF as a supreme body on Ethiopian political landscape. Oromos must not open up Oromia, its resources and roads, for anyone, but a democratically elected representative of the people. The killings of innocent peaceful demonstrators should not stop this demand because the alternative will only extend and expand the menacing pain. Until democratically elected representatives negotiate the establishment of a national army of Ethiopia, any army in Oromia that is constituted and led by TPLF must legitimately be seen as an occupying force of inherently unfriendly origin. Therefore, closing the roads to protect young lives is a legal and brave thing to do. The roads of must remain closed to all hostile forces!
* The author, A. Beyene, resides in the USA, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org