For more than a decade, I struggled not to be imprisoned for my nonviolent resistance against the Ethiopian government’s violence against the Oromo people. Inspirational events such as the Arab Spring Revolutions had convinced me that an activist should be brave enough to challenge the situation and show courage to make the impossible possible—that nothing is impossible when you are with the people, and the people are with you.
But the state of emergency declared in October 2016 following the Oromo uprising endangered the lives of many activists like me. Most of us went underground; many fled to neighboring countries. At last, the time had come for me to depart from my beloved family, friends, and most of all, from the land I had always stood to liberate or die for.
I left for Norway in March of this year with a bleeding heart knowing that, if ever given the chance one day, returning would not be easy. I was relieved to save myself from persecution, but I ached with guilt, knowing that tens of thousands of my fellow folks wouldn’t have the chance to save themselves from prison, torture and death for their activism. I felt like a coward fleeing when others were determined to fight, and I felt as if I betrayed them.
Since I arrived in Norway, I have seen many immigrants struggling with the exile mentality: helplessness and giving up hope that they can contribute something useful to the cause that forced them to flee. The idea of being far away from where the real fight is going on disappoints them and haunts them—problems that often interfere with their ability to adjust to the new culture, society and ways of life.
As an activist who is determined to bring change through civil resistance, I believe in seizing every available opportunity to help push the movement to the next level. I have come to realize that challenging unjust people in power needs strong and unified leadership both inside and outside the country. An exiled activist can have an impact by speaking up for those who are silenced; he or she can create awareness about the atrocities that a repressive government is committing against its own citizens.
But to be effective, the exiled activist must maintain connections with the movement at home. Digital communication is the easiest and cheapest medium, but cyber surveillance and security checks on activist accounts pose real risks, including to one’s family and friends who have stayed in-country. In Ethiopia, the regime perceives digital media as its chief enemy—a weapon that threatens their stability (perhaps they are right). Connecting from thousands of miles away requires proper precautions to minimize the risk of being hacked by cyber spies.
Here, connecting doesn’t necessarily mean commanding the movement from exile. The Oromo struggle against the Ethiopian regime always depends on the strength of its leaders at the grassroots and local level. We activists living in exile can complement that by leading efforts to build Oromo institutions in exile in support of the movement back home, for example to fundraise, organize petitions in support of the struggle, and spread the word about the struggle in international media and NGO circles. Two of the major institutions engaging in such activities are the Oromo Studies Association—I presented a research paper at the OSA conference on April 2, 2017—and the Oromia Support Group, a UK- and Australia-based Oromo human rights advocacy group with whom I am engaged in conducting research about the human rights crisis in Ethiopia.
In our struggle, victory will be the result of collective actions both at local and international levels. As an activist, I dream of one day returning to my beloved land and walking as a proud man with my head held high for having contributed even in some small way to achieving rights, freedom and justice for the Oromo. Whether from the fascinating city of Oslo or the remote area of Oromia where I was born, fighting hard to end the rule of violence in our country—and many other areas worldwide—is the urgent task of our time.