My starting point for this short reflection is my discomfort with friends and acquaintances who question (and dismiss) the morality of supporting (to use their pejorative expression ‘mafafam’) Oromo Protests from overseas. As most of these critiques reside in Ethiopia (where public display of solidarity with Oromo Protests is meant risking torture, incarceration, and of course one’s life), the claim of immorality of Ethiopian diaspora showing solidarity with Oromo protesters may be interpreted as either a fear of tyranny or a disguised yearning for an Ethiopia where public display of resistance does not cost one’s freedom or life.
But there seems to be more to this argument than the fear or yearning that I alluded to above. If you push a bit further and ask why they are not themselves doing the support (if the morality of protests overseas is the issue as they claim), they end up telling you ‘order’ must be managed or Oromo Protests must first be reframed as ‘Ethiopia Protests’. So, for them, order (whatever that means) and fetishizing Ethiopia are the litmus tests of the morality of protests against the Ethiopian state. As a corollary, one can legitimately assume these people don’t care if the Ethiopian state kills, dispossess, disempowers, and denigrate Oromos as long as ‘order’ is maintained and fetish Ethiopia is thereby performed. In this piece, I will try to explain why, in many ways, the silence these resident Ethiopians seek from their overseas friends is ethically more troublesome than the solidarity (often expressed through social media outlets such as Facebook) that Ethiopians in overseas show to the victims of state terrorism in Ethiopia.
The participation of Ethiopians overseas in protests has more often involved social media activism. Although the effects of this social media activism cannot be contradicted, it is hardly the cause or the primary instigator of the Oromo Protests on the ground. In a country where internet access is limited to only less than 5% of the total population (the majority being Addis Abebans who are not apparently interested in the protest), the impact of social media activism in fuelling Oromo Protest is negligible, more so in rural Oromiya where we are witnessing the protest. Oromo Protest has its origin within Ethiopia and is related to developments there. The impossibility of the protesters’ demand to be expressed through other less explosive spaces of resistance and the eternally undemocratic and imperial nature of the Ethiopian state and its development model are its major contributors. The social media activism by the diaspora cannot be implicated in this, unless one wants to easily buy into the dull rhetoric of the Ethiopian government blaming every wrong on ‘external forces’.
Instead, complementing the voice of the subaltern in spaces where their participation is marginal (e.g. social media) is morally satisfying. As can be easily noticed, the social media is a space of its own dynamics. Though it can generally be open to all, there is every possibility that sympathisers of the violent Ethiopian state dominate the social media discussion of current affairs in the country. This makes the active complication of the suffocating state-sponsored discourses of developing, democratizing, and modernizing Ethiopia urgent. Those who perform their resistance on social media may at least vindicate the causes of the subaltern (such as the Oromo protesters) by exposing the state’s pretentiousness vis-à-vis its politically and economically marginal communities.
Of course, there is an additional reason why Ethiopians overseas should do the social media activism. Unlike their brothers and sisters at home (who are paying dearly for asking legitimate questions), Ethiopians overseas are removed from the immediate threat of state reprisal for echoing these questions. Although doing the easy thing in a virtual space cannot compensate for the pain suffered by victims of state terrorism, it is at least a blameless (as well as useful) thing than remaining silent about the injustices perpetrated by the Ethiopian state.
Another thing which seems to obsess the silent supporters of injustice relates to vocal diaspora activists and their increasing popularity. It is often argued resistance from afar is cowardice and meaningless. In their eyes, the brave is the one who dare to challenge the government from within. Admittedly, those who do their protest in Ethiopia are brave. But, their bravery cannot and should not be measured against the alleged spiritless-ness of vocal diaspora activists. In fact, numerous foreign-based Oromo protesters know what it means to challenge the Ethiopian state from home. They have experienced the brutality of the Ethiopian state for having done that.Their bodies and souls unalterably inscribe experiences of torture and other inhuman and degrading treatment under the Ethiopian state that rendered them homeless in the first place. Hence, they have every reason to fear the brutality of the evil state, least for having part of their family back at home. This fear is not illegitimate and cannot be ridiculed as cowardice, not least by sympathisers of the violent state who often rationalise their desire for status quo in terms of fear of the unknown post-Oromo protest future.
Interestingly, some admit the Ethiopian state has always (perhaps unsurprisingly) justified its excessive violence in terms of the ‘need to maintain order’. It is unclear how one can ethically and consistently claim the primacy of order (which assumes the sincerity of state’s monopoly of violence to supress any protest) as well as suggest that those who languish in Ethiopian prisons (as a result of their participation in creating ‘disorder’) are morally more righteous than runaways who make the talk from overseas.This is just like saying: ‘come and face the power of the ruthless state or don’t tarnish Ethiopia’s hard won image of stability and development by channelling the legitimate question raised by the people of Oromiya through social media outlets’. Local elites who do not want their privileged life disturbed and their demand for silence from their equally privileged friends abroad may be interpreted as a desire to normalize the violence the majority is living under in Ethiopia. If anything, the diaspora can contribute (as well as it does) in exposing the façade of development and stability that the Ethiopian state and its sympathisers deploy to invisibilize the multidimensional structural violence in the country. There is no wrong in siding with the powerless, even if that would ‘disturb’ the imperial peace of the privileged that charge the diaspora for the continued mess at home.
For me, this is not the time to worry about the good image of Ethiopia or the Oromoness of the protest. Whether the protest is framed as Ethiopian or Oromo protest it is irrelevant as long as what is at stake is an issue of social justice. Those who suspend their support to Oromo Protest because of its framing as “Oromo” cannot be more ethically wrong than this. If they sincerely believe Oromo questions are Ethiopian questions, they should have done the framing themselves and join the struggle under the banner ‘Ethiopia Protests’ instead of demanding the Oromos to reaffirm the primacy of Ethiopia (which they cannot for legitimate reasons) or wanting the likes of me (who is not an Oromo by the way) keeping silent about the plight of the Ethiopian subaltern.
I don’t understand why it is morally right to keep silent about injustices while at the same time complaining about the ‘disturbing voice’ of Ethiopians overseas that rightly believe they are supporting the cause of justice and channelling that voice to those who care to hear. Those who don’t care to hear can continue complaining about the disturbing voice. Should I worry for incidentally disturbing the privileged and the complicit in violence? No. Those who worry much are those who have something to lose (like the ruling EPRDF) or those who want the continuity of violence. And, they are the reasons why I should take my otherwise insignificant but disturbingly resistant voice seriously.
Ed’s note: Hailegabriel Gedecho former assistant professor at Bahir Dar University, Ethiopia. He now studies law at University of Melbourne, Australia