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OPDO: Lost, confused and at a crossroads

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Kalkidan Yibeltal &Tesfalem Waldyes

Less than a year after the Oromo People’s Democratic Party (OPDO), part of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), celebrated its 25th founding anniversary the Oromo protests took the region OPDO is seemingly in charge of by a sheer storm. The protests, which broke out on November 12, 2015 in Ginchi, a small town 82 km west of Addis Abeba, were originally against a proposed integrated master plan for the capital Addis Abeba, which was, at the very least, unconstitutional.

Officials of the Oromia regional state looked helplessly, and at times totally disoriented, as protests gradually morphed into an expression of political discontent and frustration accumulated over the 25 years of OPDO’s presence as a party.

Picking up pace and spreading throughout the entire regional state, the Oromo protests persisted in various shapes and differing magnitudes; but unlike several protests in the past, they have accentuated an issue that had been a subject of heated debates (albeit on and off) among the Oromo nation for 25 years: the legitimacy of OPDO as the only party that is representing a region of more than 35 million people.

The current Oromo protests have, more than any time in the past, wide opened the doors for sincere reflections on the legitimacy and relevance of the party that constitutes the larger share to the coalition of the ruling EPRDF.

In the beginning there was no OPDO

Together with three parties, – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), OPDO makes up the ruling EPRDF. But its critics have long criticized it as illegitimate, weak and ineffective.

Such criticisms do not exist in a vacuum.

When EPRDF assumed power in 1991 after overthrowing the Marxist Derg regime, a new federated Ethiopia came into being. Carrying the burden of righting the wrong the Oromo people have suffered under previous regimes was the OPDO, which, unlike TPLF and ANDM, was just about two years old. Compared to TPLF, which had been engaged in armed struggles since the mid-1970s and ANDM, which metamorphosed from its precursor, the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (ENDM), the OPDO came to the coalition with no significant military background of its own as a freedom fighter.

“The OPDO was formed towards the demise of the Derg. Although many of its founders were not new to the armed struggle (some of them were part of the ENDM while others have served in the Derg army and were even held as prisoners of war), as an organized party, the OPDO had not been in the scene [of the armed struggle] as long as the TPLF. In fact its existence was needed to fill a void.” says a political analyst based in Addis Abeba who wishes to remain anonymous.

“The void”our interviewee referred to was a void left by the Oromo Liberation Front, (OLF), an armed group which spent decades fighting for the independence of the Oromo people, but which was eventually rendered unlawful by the Ethiopian Parliament. “When the OLF, which, strictly speaking is a deceased entity now, walked out of the coalition in 1991 for one reason or other, the Oromo people were left with no representative; there was no plan B than strengthening the existence of the newly created OPDO,” says the analyst, who closely watches  political events within the OPDO.

A statement by the OPDO published to commemorate its 25thfounding anniversary underscores this point. Under the subtopic “On the Effort to Work with the OLF Ending in Vain,” the publication maintains that early founders of the EPRDF travelled to Khartoum, the Sudan, and sat down with the then leaders of the OLF to arrive at a consensus that would help them work together. The attempt failed because the OLF “lacked political commitment and had a deficit at its base,” the publication claims.

For our interviewee, therefore, OPDO’s problem began at its inception as a party. “It has a top-down formation. It was created because there was a missing puzzle to make EPRDF full. And we will not be wrong if we call this a birth defect,” he says.

Negasso Gidadda

Dr. Negasso wants an objective answer from those who claim that the OPDO is created to decimate the OLF

But Dr. Negasso Gidada, a former president and a senior member of the OPDO during the first 10 years, strongly disagrees with the assertion that OPDO suffers from a political ‘birth defect’. According to him1980 was the time when TPLF had to work hard to create Coalitions/Fronts of Organization to join it to fight against the military Derg. “Around mid ‘80s an agreement was signed between TPLF and OLFmembers to jointly fight against the Derg and the Soviet intervention…while continuing to discuss on their differences,” Dr. Negasso told this magazine.

According to him“one of the practical implementations was the agreement to send [TPLF] personnel to train OLF fighters.” But the deal collapsed and the trainers went back to TPLF’s base. Dr. Negasso admits “there is still conflicting explanations” on why this agreement collapsed. Since then, according to him, therewas no sign of the two groups working together until the 1991 collapse of the militarist Derge.

In the meantime, “some Oromo members of the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (EPDM), [the predecessor of today’s ANDM], began to organize themselves in line with the TPLF experience.[These include] OPDO heavy-weights (both former and current) such as Kumaa Damaksaa, Ibrahim Malkaa, Abba Duulaa Gammadaa, Bachaa Dabalee, Getachew Bedhaane, and Ynatan Dhibbisaa. Some of them were freed Prisoners of War (PoWs) sent to Tigray by [their liberators] the TPLF. It was this group that finally organized itself as OPDO and joined the EPRDF (a front of two organizations: TPLF and ENDM) in 1989/90.

Dismissing as baseless the argument that OPDO lacks the political legitimacy to represent the Oromo because it was created, among others,as theOLF antithesis, Dr. Negasso refers to a historic incident in which, in 1991, members of OLF and EPRDF had jointly fought against the military Derg and Sudan’s SPLM armies in Asosa and Wallagga in western Ethiopia. “In fact it is said that it was Abbaa Duulaa of EPRDF and Abbaa Chaalaa of the OLF who led the armies of the two organizations which liberated Dembi Dollo [now in western Wallagga of the Oromia region]. It was then agreed that the OLF takes over the administration of western Wallagga while the OPDO could open offices in the major towns of the area,” Dr. Negasso said, adding, “I want an objective answer from those who claim that the OPDO is created to decimate the OLF.”

A ‘disparaging lack of narrative’

Critical of the ‘birth defect’ theory, Dr. Negasso says that from the very inception of OPDO, its members, although few in number, actively participated in the final battles against the Derg.

However, for our anonymous interviewee, apart from the political ‘birth defect’ the other problem which keep on haunting OPDO in the face of the EPRDF coalition – and perhaps in the eyes of its own constituency – is its “disparaging lack of narrative.”

“If you take a look at TPLF or ANDM you are met with a narrative so well-structured, a historical journey so prideful. You can find a romanticized, tantalizing story of a bunch of youngsters who, against all odds, managed to defy an atrocious regime. You find stories of defiance, commitment, and triumph. You can’t find that within OPDO.” OPDO, for him, is “a rootless organization with no attachment to the conscious of the constituency it claims to represent; it is a party that couldn’t even settle where it was conceived.”By this he is referring to last year’s controversial decision senior OPDO officials took to celebrate the 25th founding anniversary of the party in Adet, a small village in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, as the birth place of the party. This came after OPDO was celebrating the previous anniversaries in North Shewa, Darra Woreda of the Oromia regional state, in a village called Harbu Meskele.

For many political analysts, it was a decision that signified the bottomless exploitation of the OPDO by “their masters” within the EPRDF coalition, another reason why OPDO keeps on struggling to win the hearts and minds of its constituency.

Similar manipulations have eventually created an extraordinary asymmetry within the ruling EPRDF, which further robbed the OPDO of the much needed legitimacy in the eyes of its  constituency, according to Solomon Seyoum, who has written extensively on the genesis of the OPDO. “OPDO has no historical, intellectual and moral background to compete neck and neck with [the rest of the parities within the ruling EPRDF]”, he told this magazine.

Solomon has another theory to add: “Ethiopian heroism narrative is yet in its version of military adventure. Civil adventure is at its infancy. Regarding the military adventure, OPDO is far more behind TPLF,” he said, adding that in the eyes of the other members of the coalition, “this robs OPDO of the freedom fighter heroism status,” which in turn significantly affects its relations with the people of Oromia.

Being OPDO is never easy

Ever since its emergence as a partyOPDO has been known as, among others, “the sick child”and “the troubled kid” within the ruling EPRDF.Some of the reasons associated with this are the fact that unlike the other three major parties, OPDO has been hit by high presidential turnover;suffers from lackof a political seat where it can solidify its power. Although officially Addis Abeba is the seat of the Oromia regional state, OPDO has failed to secure even some of the constitutionally guaranteed provisions under the special interest of Oromia on Addis Abeba. OPDO is also a party that lost to exile the highest numbers of former senior party members including two former presidents – Hassen Ali and Junadin Sado. “These contribute to the unhealthy state the OPDO is in,” our anonymous interviewee says.

But for Dr. Negasso isolating OPDO as “a sick child” or “the troubled kid” is anoutrageous claim. “What about the situations in the other members of the EPRDF or the EPRDF [as a whole]? If OPDO is not healthy, does it not mean that EPRDF is not healthy as well?” he asks.

In the ten years (1991-2001) “I worked in the organization I know that only Almaz Makko, former speaker of the House of People Representatives, and Hassen Ali, former president of the region, left OPDO and now live in exile.[Other senior members such as] Yonatan Dhibbisa, Diriba Harqo, and General Kamal Galchu defected. Ibrahim Malka and Hailu […] were expelled from the organization, but live in the country. Asfaw Tune and I resigned and live in the country,” he says. “Compare this with the endless number of senior TPLF members who were expelled from the TPLF in early 2000. Do not forget the rank and file of thousands of TPLF members who were expelled or left the organization earlier (around 1991/1992 and in 1994).”

According to an official document published by the OPDO in 2015, in the first ten years since 1991, there had been at least four occasions in which the OPDO had to evaluate itself. On each of those occasions some officials, including high level officials, were expelled while some were simply demoted from their positions.


Solomon Seyoum

Solomon Seyoum believes more often than not OPDO had to struggle to assert its legitimacy and relevance

Solomon Seyoum doesn’t bite his tongue when discussing about the endless purges OPDO is often “forced to execute”, which plays a significant role in disorienting the party from its core. He also adds that OPDO central committee does not only suffer from perpetual purges but mysterious killings and disappearances of its members such as Mekonnen Fite and Bayu Gurmu who, according to Solomon, were killed by “government security agents in Sept. 1997”. “Hassan Ali, the then president of Oromia, and other OPDO central committee members were discussing the death of Mekonnen and Bayu when Alemayehu Desalegn, another OPDO central committee member and head of the Oromia finance bureau, was mysteriously gunned down and explained away as a suicide.”

Solomon further referred to an August 2001 statement given by Almaz Meko, the former house speaker who is now in exile: “The EPRDF government has brought untold miseries and sufferings on the Oromo people. [The] OPDO is … reduced to a rubber stamp for TPLF’s rule in Oromia.”

But Dr. Negasso disagrees and says “it is too simplistic to conclude that the OPDO is not healthy because few of its senior members left and live in exile or defected,” he says, “rather, other symptoms must be shown and the root causes must be looked for. Besides, root cause of the illness should not only pile upon the OPDO and [we should] not forget to investigate on whether EPRDF itself, from top to the lowest level, is healthy or not. OPDO cannot be sick if the EPRDF is not sick. If the OPDO is not healthy, EPRDF is not healthy.”

Our anonymous interviewee agrees that there are problems within other members of the EPRDF and the front itself.The problem of corruption, for example, is deeply rootedwithin the OPDObut it is also rampant within the EPRDF in general. But there are some problems that can only be attributed uniquely to OPDO, he says. “When we evaluate OPDO as a sister party to the coalition, especially in light of TPLF’s strength, the differences between the two members of the same front become crystal clear,” he says. “For instance, TPLF has a firm base within the Tigray elites; a heavy presence within the intelligence, the army, the diaspora and business people. OPDO can’t boast of such level of acceptance. It doesn’t have the Oromo elite with it.”

This, according to Solomon, often sends the party off balance, costing it the little faith its constituency want to entrust in it, if for lack of choice. Every now and then, therefore, “OPDO had to struggle to assert its legitimacy and relevance back from square one”, Solomon told this magazine during an interview.

But in addition to its political weakness, being OPDO in itself comes with a price tag on it. On the one hand OPDO as a party is a subject of constant scrutiny from the mother party for harboring Oromo nationalist members who sympathize with the long outlawed OLF. On the other hand, the party comes under constant attack by nationalist Oromos who accuse it of being the OLF antithesis. For our anonymous interviewee, “being OPDO is never easy.” “OPDO, for some is narrow nationalist, while for others it is not nationalist enough,” he says, adding: “many Ethiopianist political observers see OPDO as a threat, as a haven for narrow, and possibly secessionist, nationalists. But for many radical nationalists who want more self-autonomy for the Oromo people or generally for the Oromia State, OPDO is a deserter. It is very difficult to reconcile these two diametrically opposing demands.”

 But is there anything OPDO canhold on to?

Solomon Seyoum sees nothing in a form of political redemption for OPDO. According to him, the current Oromo Protests show that the party has long “crossed the Rubicon.” OPDO is irredeemable mostly because its founders remained ardent political loyalists to the all too powerful TPLF. Although the new generation of OPDO members have shown time and again that the party can indeed be redeemable and can become the people’s party, its founders and the “patron-client” relationship they maintain with the dominant TPLF has made them become the “Achilles heels.”

However, despite the enormous challenges, Dr. Negasso and our anonymous interviewee insist on the pragmatic outlook. Under the OPDO, “services of communication have expanded much in Oromia region”, Dr. Negasso says, listing the party’s accomplishments. Although the quality needs a serious reflection, the same holds true for roads, health posts, schools, higher education, and vocational training institutes.

But if OPDO wants to regain the much needed trust from its constituency, the work ahead is monumental. To this end, according to Dr. Negasso, even if some of the problems the region faces can be attributed to the country in general, OPDO has failed to even implement the rights of the Oromo people which are guaranteed in the constitution. A case in point is the “Oromia State’s special interest in Addis Abeba”, which, twenty years after it was written, is not supported by guiding proclamations. “There is problem in the justice system, too. And our election system and the absence of constitutional court have led to the situation that only OPDO dominates in Oromia.”

For our anonymous interviewee, apart from the administrative achievements, OPDO has registered successful accomplishments in making up to historical injustices and opening up opportunities for an entire generation of self-assertive youth who are proud of their identity. And for all its problems, OPDO remains “the largest, strongest and most structured Oromo organization ever,” he says.The problems that have tangled the OPDO should not therefore be diagnosed as OPDO problems only. “OPDO’s health and sickness has a wider ramification to the EPRDF as a ruling party, as well as to the country. That is why it is important for the party to tidy up its house.”

According to him “Ethiopian politics is predictably unpredictable.” But from where things stand today OPDO has two choices to make: putting all the focus in the past and getting lost in the maze or looking ahead and assume leadership.“If OPDO keeps undermining itself by playing the role of the little kid in the house, if it continues to be burdened by its own, or for that matter the country’s past, I don’t see a way of [redemption]. I’d recommend for it to focus on the future and get closer to the demands of the people it leads.”

In what came for many as the latest weave of purge, in an emergency meeting of the Oromia Regional Parliament (Caffe Oromia) held in the first week of June, OPDO announced it removed DemozeMame and Boja Tadesse, President and vice President of the region’s Supreme Court, and stripped the immunity from Zelalem Jemaneh, former OPDO executive committee member andhead of the region’s bureau of agriculture. While the former two were replaced by Addisu Kebenessa and Hussien Adam respectively, Zelalem was detained by the police suspected of corruption just a day after he lost his immunity.

The second round of high level purging since the beginning of Oromo Protests in November last year, this latest act of purge has left critics guessing whether itwas the long awaited road to redemption or just another political maneuver that will leave the party in yet anotherround of disarray.

Photos: Addis Standard

Info  graph & Cover design: Lensa Tsegaye/Addis Standard 

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