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Opinion – The Lemma Megerssa Moment and the Oromo Dilemma: Between resistance and governing


Tsegaye R Ararssa, for Addis Standard


Addis Abeba, Janurary 10/2018 – One of the most emphatic achievements of the #OromoProtests is Lemma Megerssa himself. The Lemma Megerssa moment is produced by the resurgent Oromo resistance that was rekindled in 2014 and persisted to date.  Having produced the Lemma Megerssa moment as its overall effect, the Oromo protest has since evolved into a full blown revolution that is increasingly forcing a fundamental change upon the TPLF-EPRDF system of rule. For the first time in its history, the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has been rendered so incoherent that it is almost dismembered as a coalition of ethno-national fronts of the four major highland regions of the Federation, namely the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) of Oromia, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) of Amhara, Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM) of Southern Nations Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNPRS), and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of Tigray.

As a consequence of the Oromo Revolution, the TPLF, the hitherto dominant core of the ruling EPRDF, has been so fractured that it had to sit for an extra-ordinarily long meeting of over thirty-five days in October-November 2017, just so it can divine some coherence in a party that was completely in disarray. Earlier, the three other parties have been sitting for similar, if shorter, meetings at the end of which they all vowed that they have achieved what they insisted was a “deep reform.” In late December, the 36-member Executive Committee of EPRDF sat for a similarly long meeting of about seventeen days at the end of which they came out clearly divided (in spite of the fact that the written press release issued before the leaders gave a presser claimed to have achieved a unity of ideas and a consensus of a sort). What they were saying implicitly (also noted in the veiled comments of the TPLF chief, Debre-Tsion Gebremichael) was that they have averted a shootout among the leaders.

The combined effect of this complex and intricate dynamics is the emergence of a faction of the OPDO (now known as ‘Team Lemma,’ tellingly named after the OPDO Leader and the Oromia President, Lemma Megerssa) offering an alternative future for EPRDF and for Ethiopia. This was preceded by a heartening gesture of alliance between OPDO and ANDM, an event that unsettled the TPLF and signaled the increasing isolation of TPLF within the coalition. Lemma’s statement that although they “didn’t enter the Executive Committee’s meeting hall with a sense of competition among ourselves, there is a clear winner at the end,” already indicates that his team – or in his words, the country – has come out most favored. No doubt, following the long presser given by the four representatives of the parties (i.e., Lemma Megerssa, Demeke Mekonnen, Hailemariam Desalegn, and Debretsion Gebremicheal), Lemma has, as an individual, come out the most popular leader in the eyes of the Ethiopian public. This in turn has created what can be called the ‘Lemma moment’ in Ethiopia. The Lemma moment, as generative as it is in many respects, seems to be having its own irresolution and ambivalence. This piece reflects on the dilemma of this extra-ordinary moment highlighting the tension between ‘the logic of resistance’ that gave popular legitimacy to his efforts and the challenge of ‘occupying’ the seat of leadership that demands not just protesting but also governing.

Playing Politics into the Center: the Logic of Resistance

‘Team Lemma’ and the moment of political hope it created is the product of the Oromo Revolution. The team is a group that came to realign OPDO with the resistance movement of the Oromo youth, known in Afaan Oromoo as Qeerro, to whose pressure the old OPDO establishment buckled. As soon as the team took over the helm of power in the OPDO and in Oromia, it sought to vie for the minds and hearts of the Oromo youth by promising a massive employment scheme through what they awkwardly called ‘economic revolution’.

The team picked up some of the demands of the youth and amplified them as part of their desire to implement ‘deep reform’ within their party (OPDO), their region (Oromia), their front (EPRDF), and the wider country (Ethiopia). In so doing, the team started to sound like the voice of protest in government. It used the language of freedom from oppression, (human) rights, and people’s suffering. More often than not, the team followed tack of the protesters’ motto in insisting, among others, on the adherence to the rules of the constitution, observance of the rule of law, respect for the federalist principles of self-rule and shared rule, a better enforcement of constitutional human rights clauses, a more equitable distribution of wealth, a more democratic share of powers, implementation of the constitutional “special interest” of Oromia over Finfinnee (Addis Abeba), recognition of Afaan Oromoo as one of the working languages of the Federal Government, etc. Operating as a government but identifying more with the suffering public, it appropriated the language of the Oromo Revolution and functioned essentially on the logic of resistance, albeit from the top.

To all close observers of Ethiopian politics, it soon became apparent that the team is in resistance to the dominance of the TPLF and the latter’s authoritarian modus operandi both in EPRDF and in the entire country. This in turn revealed the emergence of consequential tensions between TPLF on the one hand and its hitherto junior partners, particularly OPDO and ANDM, on the other. The tension started to rock the entire federal government. Knowing the numerical advantage OPDO and ANDM have in Parliament, the TPLF started to evade or bypass formal democratic institutions of decision-making such as the Federal Parliament (formally known as the House of Peoples’ Representatives [HPR]), especially after the resignation of its Speaker Abba Duulaa Gammadaa (also from the OPDO). Tensions also started to show up within the Federal Government (e.g. between the Communications Minister and the Director of the Press Board) as well as between the Federal and State Governments (Federal Ministry of Communication and Oromia and Somali Regional Communication Bureaux; Federal Prime Minister and Oromia President).

Team Lemma. From Right: Shimelis Abdissa, Addisu Arega, Lemma Megerssa and Abiy Ahmed

These tensions put the OPDO at the center of the unfolding drama of Ethiopian politics of these latter days. Increasingly, the protesting public seemed to have found an ally in Team Lemma. Having appropriated all the languages of the protest and its logic of resistance, the team (especially its key figures, Lemma Megerssa, Abiy Ahmed, Addisu Arega, and Shimelis Abdissa) increasingly sounded virtually like, and became, political activists speaking for the people. However, beyond speech, in reality, little changed on the ground. People are still being killed arbitrarily by the military. Many are being arrested. The army and federal police roam around the states and their localities uninvited and illegally-unconstitutionally. TPLF-orchestrated “border wars” are still raging, especially between Oromia and Somali regions. Regiments of federal government soldiers are encamped in university campuses all over the country. The close to 700, 000 persons displaced from the Somali region and the adjacent border areas are yet to be resettled in proper homes. The promise of ‘economic revolution’ and the jobs and benefits thereof are yet to be delivered.  Provision of utilities and public services are not making any improvement. Economic activities are still stalled. In short, governance is conspicuously absent. And the team has yet to stop activism (which the TPLF casts negatively as a populist gesture) and start governing.

At times, the team seems to be trying to do two things at one and the same time: resisting TPLF’s hegemony in order to transform EPRDF from within and to govern Oromia legitimately and serve the regional public (the domain of the Oromo demos) properly. The first task propels the team to scale up its ambitions and act on behalf of the wider country as it also seeks to edge out TPLF, sustaining its alliance with ANDM, taking other political groupings on board, and gradually steering the country to the democratic transformation long hoped for. The second pulls it in the direction of remaining grounded in its Oromo constituency as it seeks to address all the demands of the revolution, pacify the region, secure its autonomy (or self-rule), restore displaced people, release detainees and political prisoners, make wrong-doers (officials included) accountable, and heal social wounds caused by tragedies of mass killings and other atrocities. The first pulls them in the direction of assuming new national (country-wide) responsibilities including re-configuring the Ethiopian state and its identity for the better. The second pulls them in the direction of discharging the responsibilities they are already encumbered with in the Oromia region. The first demands the envisioning of a new Ethiopia, the creation of a distinctly Oromo project for Ethiopia, as part of the Oromo contribution to the ‘nation-building’ process, if only redemptively. The second demands a nationalist self-assertion as Oromos vis-à-vis the hitherto oppressive Ethiopia.

Owing to the complex politico-moral responsibilities they shoulder as Oromos in contemporary Ethiopia, members of Team Lemma are inescapably forced to live with a tenuous irresolution, walking every day with a degree of ambivalence about which call to emphasize (and which to postpone in pro tem)—the call of the wider Ethiopia or that of Oromia?–at a particular point in time. Perhaps more than any other political groupings in Ethiopia, Team Lemma will be the most afflicted with ambivalence, the ambivalence about which call to respond to first, the call to reform, redeem and “save Ethiopia from itself” (the call to become more than oneself and to do more than resisting TPLF and traditional Ethiopian hegemony), or the call to empower its own constituency regardless of what becomes of its Ethiopian other (the call to first pursue Oromo justice vis-à-vis Ethiopia and think of Ethiopia only afterwards). The team is thus required to live under the imperative of reflexive (and agonistic) thinking. Consequently, the team is forced to play politics into the Ethiopian center. (What this center is a debatable point in itself. But that should be left for another day.)

Oromia is home to people from all the other States of the Ethiopian federation. It is also a region sharing borders with all the regions save for Tigray. Oromia also hosts the Federal Government in its capital city, Finfinne, which, as a result, draws people from all corners of the country. More than any of the States in Ethiopia today, Oromia is conscious of the presence of other peoples in its midst. This consciousness forces the leadership to practice an entirely other-regarding political ethics. This same consciousness makes the leaders mindful of the need to appeal to the political sensibilities of peoples other than the ones in their own constituency in order to bring the latter on board as they endeavor to bring about country-wide change. (Perhaps this explains Lemma Megerssa’s extravagant, if only vacuous, rhetoric in Bahir Dar about being “addicted to Ethiopianism!” Note: this is not to underestimate the symbolic significance of the speech as a gesture. But the gesture of alliance between the parties must be encouraged and given a more substantive content in order for it to be politically consequential, especially in creating new terms of relationship between the two peoples.)

Addressing all the demands of the Oromo Revolution AND leading the effort to reform the TPLF-EPRDF regime with a view to transforming the wider polity, all at the same time, is a herculean task. That is the challenge confronting Team Lemma at the moment, a challenge they seem to have taken up, with an enormous amount of care and caution not to rock the boat too much to their own peril. Perhaps this explains why the team is not pulling out of the EPRDF coalition. Or why, for example, it is so far hesitant to use the Parliamentary platform to form a new government in collaboration with ANDM, thereby automatically ending the TPLF hegemony in the Front and in Ethiopia.

Beyond vindicating the Oromo Protests: the challenge of governing of behalf of the oppressed forces, North and South

Given this is the situation, what can Team Lemma do? What can they do beyond vindicating and validating the claims and demands of the #Oromoprotests? And more particularly, what can they do to rise up to the challenge of governing on behalf of the oppressed peoples of Ethiopia, north and south? The following is a tentative list of (obvious) suggestions. I offer these suggestions fully mindful of the difference in the strategies, tactics, and positioning deployed for the different tasks of Resistance and Governing. The ‘logic of resistance’ based on which the team operates is more like the logic of oppositional politics run by groups running campaigns for democratic elections. Just as campaign strategies are different from strategies for governing in healthy democracies, so are the strategies of ‘Resistance’ and of ‘Governance’ in Ethiopia for Team Lemma. Accordingly, the team ought to learn to live with its dilemma, the Oromo dilemma in its best (with all its irresolution), and manage its priorities prudently. In so doing, it should find a happy synthesis of the work of resistance and governing, the work of critiquing and holding power at the same time, in order for them to effectuate a preferred change both for themselves, for the country, and for posterity.

The most outstanding task awaiting them now is how to bring the discussions (and negotiations) in EPRDF (and the platforms of the parties forming the Front) to the formal public decision-making institutions of the country such as the Parliament, aka, the HPR. Accordingly, they ought to:

  1. Make an increasing use of parliamentary platforms for public decision-making in the country. After all, the parliament is “the highest authority of the Federal Government” (See Art 50(3) of the FDRE Constitution). Similarly, they should use the State Parliament, Caffee Oromia, and State Constitutional institutions for every public issues pertaining to state matters. In order to help facilitate a free deliberation in the legislative bodies, they should begin to relax the rules of parliamentary procedures both at the Federal level and at the State level. This should be easy in the light of the fact that theirs are all single-party parliaments.
  2. Activate and exercise the parliamentary power to scrutinize the Executive at all levels, Federal and State. For far too long, the parliament’s decisional powers (legislative, financial/budgetary, and taxing) have been bypassed by the Executive which used the parliament as a window dressing. It is important to remember that the parliament’s scrutiny and monitory powers have hardly been utilized especially where it matters most, i.e., on the military, police, and intelligence authorities. The parliament’s responsibility to monitor the executive is key to the increasing (political and administrative) accountability of the latter in its duty to respect, protect, and enforce human rights at all levels of government (Art 13(2) of the FDRE Constitution). This will pave the way for, among others, making Abdi Ille, his so called ‘Special Police,’ and the complicit Federal Security authorities accountable politically (through removal), administratively (through demotion, disciplining, and dismissal), and judicially (through trials for their atrocities including mass killings, torture, gang rape, mutilations, and genocide). This will also give the Parliament an opportunity to disarm, disband, and outlaw the ‘Special Forces’ and all similar repressive security apparatuses in the country. Likewise, it will create the occasion for the Parliament to go beyond the symbolic (partisan political party) gestures to publicly resolve to release all political prisoners and to close down and outlaw all institutions of torture such as Ma’ekelawi and nameless detention centers in the military training camps. Most pressingly, this will help the Parliament to bring the country as a whole to come together and act in unison to resettle and/or restore the over 700, 000 displaced persons.
  3. (In the interest of opening up the political space and freeing the country for a more open, transparent, inclusive and, hopefully, deliberative democracy, the team ought to) use its parliamentary platform for repealing all repressive laws such as the counter-terrorism law (Proc no 652/2009), Charities and Societies law (Proclamation no. 621/2009), political party registration law (Proclamation no. 573/2008), media law (proclamation no. 590/2008), and the law on freedom of assembly (Proclamation no. 3/1991).
  4. Prepare the regime for a broad-based negotiation with other political parties with a view to pacifying the country, restoring political hope, especially among the youth, and creating a working consensus among a wide variety of political, social-communal, and economic actors. In order for such negotiations to happen, the regime should remove political parties from its list of ‘terrorist’ organizations.
  5. Now that the TPLF anxiety over potential loss of power to the OPDO-ANDM alliance has subsided (ensuring this seems to be the deal from the long Executive Committee meeting!), Team Lemma (in collaboration with Team Geddu Andargachew of ANDM) must push for a reconfiguration of the membership and voting power and procedure of the Executive Committee in the EPRDF. This is absolutely necessary if there is to come a transition to democracy keeping TPLF-EPRDF as part of transition to come. Sooner or later, and sooner than later, TPLF-EPRDF must realize that democracy, internally and externally, is the only happy way out of the quagmire they have put themselves and the country in. Team Lemma also should know that if they can’t push for change in the Executive Committee membership and transform their own party into a democratic one, there is no way they can take the wider country into the democracy to come.

Conclusion: Any Reason to Hope for Transformation?

The foregoing must have made it clear that the transition to democracy to come from within, particularly the one that may come about through the agency of Team Lemma, is going to be an extremely controlled transition. At best, being a result of internal contestation and negotiation within EPRDF, it is only going to be a managed transition. As such, it is bound to be slow (relative to the Revolution), measured, and incremental. Team Lemma, as a protest team that is also in government, can only push for a reform that may (or may not) pave the way for a full-fledged transformation. There is a limit to a revolution sought to be accomplished through well-placed elite. (And this is precisely the reason the Oromo Revolution continues unabated to put pressure on Team Lemma or any place holder until the peoples’ demands are fully met.)  Nevertheless, quite understandably, there is a limit to what the Team can do because there is bound to be an inertia born out of the irreducible contradiction in engaging (as they do) in protest WHILE ALSO exercising leadership, in doing resistance WHILE ALSO governing, in maximizing one’s current position WHILE ALSO seeking to occupy a more powerful position (in the name of effecting the change the generation sought to see).  Here in lies the dilemma of Team Lemma, whose dilemma can also be seen as the quintessential Oromo dilemma, the dilemma of the people whose historic mission it is to critique and interrogate Ethiopia (and all that it stands for) WHILE ALSO wanting to transform, redeem, and save it from itself at the same time.

The question remains, though. Is this Lemma Moment going to last? Will it overcome its dilemma and deliver what it silently promises? Does it still offer a moment of political hopefulness? Or is it a moment of anticlimax already? These are questions for another day. AS

The writer, Tsegaye R Ararssa, can be reached at

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