Addis Abeba Dec. 07/2016 – It is now more than a year since the Oromo Protest for justice and democracy began in Ethiopia. It reverberated throughout Oromia and exposed the regime’s use of brutality to suppress and silence dissenting voices. But instead of waning, the struggle gained momentum when the Amhara youth in Gondar and Bahir Dar came out not only to demand justice for themselves but also carrying slogans asking the regime to stop the killings, arbitrary imprisonments, the torture and forced disappearances of innocent Oromo civilians.
Such protest is not only the first of its kind to vehemently challenge the quarter century uncontested rule of the TPLF dominated EPRDF in Ethiopia, but also has significantly shifted the overall power balance, mindsets and political dynamics in the country. It also inspired other peoples of Ethiopia to rise up for their rights and engaged all Oromo from east to west and from south to north irrespective of age, gender or religion. (The streets in Oromia were overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of protesters including a 77-year-old grandmother who went out with her stick in a brave act of defiance against the regime’s brutality.)
Because the protest has, beyond its initial call against land dispossession, evolved into a struggle for freedom, a resistance against injustice, and a longing for a dignified life, no amount of force or of coercion was able to suppress it, let alone stop it. A year on, it is now safe to conclude that this nationwide protest has already planted itself in the hearts and minds of millions of oppressed people as the most significant event of the year.
The protests and the public debates that followed have also impacted others’ views on the long-standing plights of the Oromo and the Amhara, the two largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Prior to these protests hardly anyone understood, much less publicly recognized, the sacrifices paid by the Oromo and the Amhara to live a dignified life in their own country. Above all, it exposed how successive regimes in Ethiopia have marginalized, denied and robbed these two groups of their ability to develop and flourish as human beings in their own country.
What a demanding public exposed
Inspired by these protests, currently, Ethiopians all over the country are asking their government to protect and respect their economic, social and cultural rights as well as their civil and political rights. But at the same time, the government’s response is helping the people of Ethiopia to realize that it has almost no leadership capacity to respond to their demands. Ethiopians now see that their government is dysfunctional and its leadership in crisis; what exists and functions is a dissonant leadership that exacerbates conflict, driving the society into a downward spiral from frustration to resentment, and perpetuates antagonism and hostility.
Throughout the year, the ruling party has demonstrated no notable leadership capacity; not one political leader has spoken authentically to the hearts and the minds of the people in order to solve the common problem amicably. Instead of making an effort to lead through this crisis and face the challenge by creating an accommodating environment for all Ethiopians, the ruling party cliques have remained empty demagogues who keep on sending divisive messages and wielding their power by fear-mongering techniques.
Beyond the call for freedom and justice, the Oromo and Amhara protests, as well as the defiance in various parts of the country including from the people of Konso in the south and Tigray in the north, have exposed the truth about EPRDF’s leadership capacity, which was mystified by ‘*seventeen years of relentless struggle and tested leadership to defeat the largest military in Africa*’. It is now clear that it is nothing more than an empty ideological rhetoric and a means to frighten, belittle and silence people who ask difficult questions and challenge the system. But that doesn not mean than the rest of Ethiopians do not recognize and appreciate the sacrifices and the agony the Tigray people have paid for seventeen years to oust the military dictatorship. However, it is not hard to see that the TPLF, which was born out of this struggle and had led this protracted war to victory, and the regime it dominates, have turned out to be an authoritarian regime.
There for good or bad
Although the yearlong nationwide protests led by the Oromo and the Amhara, as well as others to various degrees, have exposed the regime’s inability to bring in meaningful political leadership, for good or bad, the TPLF dominated EPRDF is the government in power which, for now, will determine the course of actions to respond to the current struggle for justice and democracy.
There is a possibility that the TPLF dominated EPRDF might take one of the following two courses of actions. Both have a potential to direct or misdirect the current call for democracy and justice in two mutually exclusive directions.
First course of action: road to democratization and peace
The first direction and course of action the TPLF dominated EPRDF may consider is the road to democracy and sustainable peace. However, reversing the current dire political condition and responding to the needs of the people requires it to recognize and understand the need for change; it requires embracing the change and transformation the people want to realize through a democratic process.
Hard as it may be, the following course of actions should precede any other course of action to start the democratization process.
Restore the constitution – build trust and confidence of citizens around the constitution by making it a practical document. Arguably, this means the regime itself should begin respecting the constitution and lead by example.
Scrap laws and policies which are against the constitution and which prevent citizens from exercising their democratic rights enshrined in the constitution. These include, but not limited to, scrapping the Anti-Terrorism Law, which is so far mainly used to silence citizens and violate their rights than persecute suspected terrorists; amending the draconian press law, which is so far used to violate citizens’ right to freedom of expression and access to information; scrapping the Civil Society and Charities Law, which is prohibiting the growth of independent civil society organizations which are the pillars of non-state actors in the development of democracy and human rights in the country.
Release all political prisoners unconditionally. Obviously, once the laws and procedures, which often undermine the constitution, are lifted there is no reason to keep people in prison.
Reform, among others, the justice system, the police, security forces and prison administrations as well as the election board, the anti-corruption commission, the human rights commission, and the state-controlled media.
The ruling party would lose nothing for taking this revolutionary action. In fact, it would help it to breath; to objectively address its current leadership crisis and reemerge as a legitimate political force. It would also provide it with the opportunity to think strategically.
Change is a natural state, which we cannot completely control or make predictable. It is overwhelming and chaotic, but rewarding at the end. The most important step to start the process of change is by being bold, letting go of the old and rigid ways of thinking and governing. The regime in Ethiopia has to come out of its fear of change and see the bigger picture; it should relax its grips on old practices, which did not contribute to its own growth or to that of the rest of the country for the last 25 years.
There is no question that by taking such bold actions, the TPLF dominated EPRDF has a comparative advantage over other political groupings currently operating in the country. As it has shown in the past it can rehabilitate itself quicker than others and appear as a viable political organization in the years to come.
Above all, this action ensures the continuity of the democratization processes by engaging citizens to determine their own future and relieves the existing state-citizen tensions. If this is done, the healing process, as well as the peace and reconciliation process will be relatively easier. Ultimately, this approach also guarantees the existence and continuity of Ethiopia as a nation home to all its citizens.
Implications for a protesting nation
This peaceful democratization process can bring change and transformation to the people of Ethiopia in general and the Oromo in particular, who are the largest ethnic group in the country and have been the driving force of the nationwide protests. As a result, the Oromo struggle for democracy and justice might fall under one of the following two scenarios.
First is the scenario in which Oromo elites, by the virtue of being a middle class, by affiliation to any Oromo-related organization, or by their prior personal experience come together and create a consortium, a democratic front, or a party to lead a meaningful struggle. This may, in turn, render irrelevant disorganized struggles, which often hamper or even take hostage the Oromo struggle for freedom and justice.
The physical and emotional separation and distance of the Oromo elites from the struggle on the ground may at times prevent them from sensing and living the struggle itself. Unless the democratic process on the ground creates room to accommodate all dissenting voices both from within and abroad, those who have the leadership capacity and the necessary political know-how cannot provide adaptive leadership or have the empathetic capacity to connect to the mass, particularly with the young generation that is both leading and shouldering the brunt of the struggle.
The second is a scenario in which the need to phase out the old and replace it with the new thinking and political organization both within the country and abroad takes precedence. The Oromo Protest and the current awakening is a painful form of labor to give birth to a new dynamic and profound political organization fit for the 21st century.
For this new Oromo organization to be born and to become the vanguard of the struggle, all old Oromo organizations, which were and still are trying to contribute under different names and ideologies, have to die a natural death and give way to new thinking and new possibilities. The new will have the energy and capacity to unify and transform the Oromo to a higher level and lead the struggle to victory. Like the TPLF, all Oromo organizations which existed for decades and have tried to contribute, albeit less successfully, have reached their maximum limit and are in need of reform.
The struggle between the old and the new is natural – even our cells are continually dying and being reborn. The Safu value, which is unique to Oromo culture and psyche, reaffirms this natural process, which urges the old to peacefully pass the scepter to the new.
Qeerro, the emboldened youth (as the name implies) is currently filling the leadership gap and taking the responsibility of leading the resistance against the current government, even as they are met with brutal responses. The Qeerro is successful in amplifying the struggle to all corners of Oromia and beyond, as well as inspiring all Oromos irrespective of age, religion, gender, class and locality. It has also unified the Oromo under the motto of ‘Tokkummaa’ (oneness or unity) and the ‘Say No’ or ‘Diidnee’ slogan.
Above all, by flying the resistance flag (not the OLF flag) the Qeerro demonstrated that the flag is the sign of freedom for which all revolutionary Oromos sacrificed their lives even long before OLF was created. It has raised this flag because it embodies hope and reminds all Oromos about those beautiful young people who died flying it. Therefore, to lead the struggle to its final destination, the current Qeerro movement is in the stage of development to come out with the new leadership and organization from within its rank and file. Many think that Qeerro is just the network of youth from colleges, high schools, and elementary schools who are just driven by social media. But the fact is there are engineers, professors, medical doctors, businesspeople, and other professionals who are part of the rank and file of the Qeerro.
When the situation is ripe and there is a favorable political environment, the Qeerro can easily transform into a political organization. It is this organization and leadership of the Oromo which can navigate the ship towards freedom through the storm and onto its final destination. It is time this passion gets a new leadership it deserves.
Status quo: The second course of action for TPLF/EPRDF
The above scenario is in the event that the ruling party takes the course to democratize through reform. The second course of action is about maintaining the status quo. But it is a dangerous choice; a choice of war. It is about TPLF/EPRDF refusing to bring change from within itself and the country as a whole.
This is also a choice that looks for easy answers; but it is not the easy way out of the current quagmire. It is easy because it does not require critical thinking and having difficult conversations. This course of action is a decision to repress and silence the current cry for democracy and human rights through the barrel of the gun. It is about war and involving its armed force, intelligence, federal police and militia in the internal issues of the country to brutally suppress the uprising. By doing so, it will only intensify the conflict to a higher level and bring human and property losses to the level the country and the people of Ethiopia can no longer endure.
Unfortunately, this is what we are witnessing today; military forces killing, arresting and torturing citizens on behalf of a regime in power. The impending consequence is that they will never be regarded as a national army delegated to protect the constitution, and will be labeled only as the enemy of the people.
In addition to its military solution to the conflict, TPLF/EPRDF is getting into its age-old habit of manipulating and drawing other nations and nationalities into a civil war; perpetuate religious conflict in different places by pitting one religion against the other; and create conflicts between rural people/farmers and urban dwellers. But it should be known that this will benefit no one, including the ruling party itself.
What is next?
Inspired by the yearlong Oromo and Amhara protests the rest of Ethiopians have made it loud and clear that they need a fundamental change; they have been saying so for 25 years, too. Ethiopians have tried with all their might and used every means possible to make their voices heard and have time and again proclaimed a moment of reckoning for a paradigm shift. Alas, instead of objectively and purposefully responding to this popular demand, the government is stuck into its old tactics of blaming, accusing, and intimidating people.
Now in a frantic act to quell and pacify the protests and silence the voices of the oppressed, in October this year the government declared a state of emergency for six months. However, the state of emergency is doing more harm than good and its implementation is driving millions to the edge of bitterness. The sooner the ruling party realizes that such techniques are only good to temporarily pacify rising public demands, the better. The only road to bring lasting solution is the road that begins by protecting the constitution and striving to build a democratic country with respect for human rights and the rule of law. This is also true for opposition political organizations, which are operating both in the country and abroad.
The underlying cause for the current protest and uprising is the struggle between the old and the new. The old is trying to do everything in its capacity to extend its life while the new is striving to shape and realize the new world it is envisioning.
For the good of all, the old (self and system) has to be courageous enough to accept and let go of its old organization, thinking, and power; it has to accept the inevitable.
The people of Ethiopia in general and the Oromo youth in particular, are determined to leave the past behind and move forward. They don’t want to be chained to and distracted by the past, which contributes less for the wellbeing of today and humanity of tomorrow.
Only when the old gives way to the new do citizens develop trust and confidence in a political system and themselves to take the responsibility of contributing to a democratic society and prosperous nation.