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Viewpoint: Jawar Mohammed, in the eyes of his generation

Jwara Mohammed. Photo: Addis Standard Archive/December 2019

Kebene Wodajo (PhD) @kebenewodajo &

Mebratu Kelecha@MebratuDugda

Addis Abeba, August 27/2020 – A gem is born to a nation not that often, but comes after a challenge. Jawar is one of such gems and finest things that has happened to the Oromo and Ethiopia. He lived, fought, and conversed to redeem Ethiopia from itself more than once. Despite the narration by his detractors, he stood for equality, justice, fraternity and co-existence. For his colleagues and friends, Jawar is an embodiment of brilliance, dedication and active agent of positive change. For the Oromo youth he is often referred as their father and mentor, though he prefers calling himself as their brother – in his words he once said “I am a qeerroo brother. We grew up together.” Jawar’s private and public life stands as a testimony for his belief in transcending various forms of social divides. His unique multi-religious family background with a mix of Muslim, Orthodox and Protestant Christian enables him to understand and accommodate social divide.

Jawar has a tremendous influence on Ethiopia’s politics. His influence lays at the intersection of many roles he plays at a time. His activism as a sophisticated social movement leader, scholar and strategist spans from internal and geopolitical analyses to diplomacy and advocacy. Jawar is known and often presented as a defender and advocate for the Oromo, an ethnic group he is born and raised to. While there is truth in this claim, Jawar is as much an advocate for every Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia, especially to the historically marginalized section of the broader South. One would get the flavor of Jawar’s ideological orientation for his activism and advocacy by reading through some of his writings. Among others, Jawar wrote and advocated for linguistic justice, academic freedom, people’s right to self-determination, election politics, on foreign policy issues, politics and interests over Nile and Ethio-Eritrea dispute. And most of all, he has been and still is, from the prison house, a voice and agent for civil resistance and non-violent struggle against injustice and systemic inequality in Ethiopia and beyond. Jawar advocated and advised for democratic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic federal Ethiopia. Testament for this is his long-standing support for the statehood quest of the Sidama people and the question of other ethnic groups in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region. Besides, he also was a voice for Ethiopian Muslims based on the principle of separation of state and religion. In the next paragraphs we present some of his active roles in the Ethiopian politics.

In defence of separation of state and religion

He was one of the intellectuals behind the ”Dimtsachin Yisema” (Let our voices be heard) movement of Ethiopian Muslims who staged weekly demonstrations across the country against Ethiopian government’s interference in religious affairs since 2011. The Ethiopian Muslims Movement was the first ever innovative mode of resistance on the Ethiopian political scene, where it was able to prove that it was a peaceful and disciplined resistance. The Dimtsachin Yisema movement introduced new genres of protests, rejected the violence, and demonstrated the ability to predict, decipher and expose the repressive techniques of the state. From his US base, Jawar Mohammed helped in strategizing the movement and raising awareness on the methods of nonviolent actions together with the committee coordinating the movement on the ground. His involvement with the Ethiopian Muslim movement was so important that he gained experience of applying social media and non-violent methods to mobilize youth, from which the famous Oromo protest sign with crossed arms overhead was adopted for the 2015-2018 Oromo protests.

Challenging historical injustice and the danger of single stories

The other campaign he led was the first ever online campaign organized by Oromo activists, which was a successful attempt to boycott Bedele Brewery for being the exclusive sponsor of Ethiopian pop singer Teddy Afro, controversial for his eulogies past Ethiopian rulers such as emperor Menelik II who is critically known among Oromo nationalists. The viral campaign with the hashtag #BoycottBedele demanded that beer drinkers in Ethiopia abandon Bedele products, as well as pressure on the company to stop sponsorship. The backlash against Teddy was partly reinforced by a comment made by the singer in an interview with a local magazine in which he reportedly stated that Menelik’s war of conquest in southern Ethiopia was tantamount to a “holy war”. The brutal expansion campaign of Menilik personifies one of the most callous acts of pain in the history of the Oromo and the history of the southern nations and nationalities of Ethiopia. Although most of Menelik’s cruelty is hidden by the battle of Adwa, in which Ethiopian troops defeated Italy in 1896, no other Ethiopian ruler represents such a savage face of repression against Oromo. The campaign thus reinforces already tense ethnic relations. The singer’s musical tour, praising and immortalizing the former Ethiopian rulers, was regarded as offensive and deluded among Oromo and other ethnic groups in southern Ethiopia. Following the successful implementation of the #boycotbedelle social media campaign, which leads to the suspension of sponsorship of the music tour of the controversial artist, the campaign organizers raised a number of questions that are likely to linger in the minds of the current generation and offered a number of lessons. Firstly, despite the schism of diaspora politics, this proved how vociferously and in unison the Oromo people can withstand the brick wall of historical injustice. Secondly, the novelized assumption of political disunity among the Oromo saw its self-healing, which was hostile to a flaw in speculation and these helped the mobilization of Oromo protests since 2014/15.

The third campaign was triggered by a question on Al-Jazeera The Stream to Jawar Mohammed, a prominent activist and political analyst: whether Oromos should identify as ethnic Oromos or as Ethiopians first, to which Jawar replied “‘I am an Oromo first’, and ‘Ethiopia is imposed on me.’ This was not a denial of his Ethiopian identity, but a displacement and attack on the exclusive concept of Ethiopia-ness, which bans the right of the Oromo and southern peoples to maintain the identity of their group if they were to be Ethiopians. The version of Ethiopian identity attacked by a prominent activist was an identity that is still used as a weapon in political struggles today because this version of Ethiopian identity was designed to be a native of the Amhara language and culture, making other non-Amharic speakers subordinate. This version of Ethiopian identity appears to have been reincarnated with waxed statues of former emperors in a restored palace since Abiy came to power.

This comment on Al-Jazeera The Stream triggered a political tsunami among Amhara centric scholars, but their unbalanced condemnation of Oromo nationalism prompted Oromo activists to turn the opportunity into the hashtag #OromoFirst Campaign. After the success of the #OromoFirst campaign, Oromo activists managed to raise funds from the Oromo diaspora community and launch the Oromo Media Network (OMN) in March 2014. Since then, OMN has served as a resistance media. Rooted in the “I am Oromo First” movement, its mission was to disarticulate the dominant Ethiopian discourse by rearticulating Oromo’s struggle. Oromo protests re-erupted in protest against the publication of the infamous Addis Abeba master plan just eight months after OMN launched on March 1, 2014. Jawar also articulated the significance of the media in his opening speech at the ceremony saying that: “With the launch of OMN today, we have liberated the airwaves in Oromia, and shortly we will bring this liberty down to the ground in Oromia.” Further he explained that OMN was designed to be a media of resistance narrative, a voice of the Oromo struggle. Since its inception, it has been acting as an alternative media, recording, documenting, and archiving the Oromo ordeal and the renewed modes of resistance. In the years of #Oromoprotests, OMN voiced the resurgent struggle of Oromo and provided an important platform for discussion, debate, and value the popular resistance, which was carried out in almost all cities and villages in Oromia region.

Leading a social movement, civil disobedience and resistance

Jawar Mohammed began to rise to the fore of Ethiopia’s politics by paving the way for the new Qubee generation to inherit the struggle through organized peaceful movements such as #OromoProtests. To promote nonviolent resistance, Jawar co-translated Gene Sharp’s famous book on the nonviolent movement, From Dictatorship to Democracy, which has inspired Oromo youth to engage in advocacy and hold anti-authoritarian resistance. Through his well-versed advocacy of nonviolent struggle and eloquent communication skills, Jawar became an inspirational figure for Oromo youth and remains in this stage of the struggle the architect and power behind the sophisticated and clandestine Oromo social movement. It is this movement that toppled one of Africa’s strong authoritarian regime and ushered in an era of reform in Ethiopia.

In 2014, a social movement that erupted in Oromia was a protest that began as resistance to the Addis Abeba master plan. But Jawar and Oromo activists worked hard to quickly grow it into a staunch opposition to the TPLF-led regime grip on power, discriminatory policies, repression, and the use of violence to solve political problems in the country. The movement, which lasted almost four years, not only uprooted the authoritarian regime and ushered era of reform in Ethiopia, but also catapulted Jawar Mohammed as a prominent political figure in Ethiopian history. This prominence is the product of decades of hard-fought activism for the causes of democracy and freedoms, not an opportunistic exercise. Jawar is a successful activist not only in terms of mobilizing the Oromo youth’s struggle for freedom and democracy, but also in terms of the political achievements on the ground that allowed the Oromo wing of the EPRDF to expropriate power from the TPLF in early 2018. No one has ever created the non-violent social movement in the horn of Africa with consequential outcomes, as Jawar has done in modern Ethiopian history. His tracks of records are the testament to this. He is an ardent pro-democracy political activist with a wide range of experience, combining traditional Oromo culture with modern Western and Eastern knowledge, gained through deep engagement with Oromo elders, reading and studies at National University of Singapore, Stanford University and Columbia University. He is known for his intellectual and political flexibility, being a formidable force among Oromo ideologues who have a great influence on the youth in Oromia and the southern region. Millions of his followers venerated him as a learned scholar, political analyst, freedom fighter, leader, and strategic thinker. But to his enemies, he is Machiavellian, ruthlessly ambitious and seeking power on his own terms. Those who have harped on Jawar as Machiavellian have fallen prey to the interpretation of his politics as directed by “tribalism.”  While he is an unquestionably formidable Oromo nationalist and have manipulated ethnic factors to bolster his position, tribalism cannot explain his appeal. His popularity spanned the ethnic groups of Oromo, Somali, Afar, Wolaita, Gambella, Qimant, Sidamas and southern Ethiopian ethnic communities. What these groups in the south of the country have in common is not so much ethnic identity, but the history of peripheral inclusion in the political and economic structures and processes of the state and the common suffering at the hands of successive Ethiopian regimes. His political advocacy and activism reach out to a diverse population of the country, devoting his young life to the causes of improving the lives of millions and working diligently for the universal values ​​of equality, freedom, and justice for all Ethiopians.

The homecoming and the will to assist that didn’t go well

Jawar returned to Ethiopia with the hope of assisting and participating in the democratization process in August 2018. He helped Abiy’s regime resolve conflicts between ethnic Somalis and Oromo, which claimed the lives of so many people and displaced in millions. He has been at the forefront of the process to demobilize OLF army to create an enabling environment in which they can peacefully participate in the transition process. He did enough to rally Oromo youth behind Abiy during the early phase of the political reform that had begun in the country. Recently, however, relations between Oromo youth and Abiy have deteriorated due to an inept transition that has misplaced priorities, as well as the grow of authoritarian rule in the country. One of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s misplaced priorities began with lobbying the African Union in early 2019 for a statue of former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to be erected at its headquarter in Addis Abeba. Although this upset many Oromo and southern peoples, as the move was akin to adding salts to the injuries inflicted during the late emperor’s regime, many Oromo activists held back from open criticism of Abiy somehow due to the emperor’s contribution to the formation of the OAU. But the action did not end there, it was followed by a vanity project during the restoration of the palace, featuring life-size wax replicas of Menelik and Haile Selassie’s statues, causing a rift among the population and political classes. However, no one expected that the unveiling of the statues of the late emperors were actually part of a broader plan to resurrect autocratic imperial rule in Ethiopia. The statues of the emperors in the palace represent a long-gone dark age, an era of assimilation, feudal dictatorship, during which numerous atrocities were committed against religious and ethnic groups in several places in Ethiopia, including the slave trade. The emperors were simply feudal kings who sought to strengthen their power at the expense of their subjects, carefully creating their own image, far from reality.

Abiy appear to ignore the consequences of such a symbolic gesture for his politics. Ethiopians in the political south never able to heal their wounds by adding salt to their wounds, erecting symbols of terror at a time when the country hoped to correct past injustices and focus on what unites the country for the future, as the national legacies of these feudal emperors hardly represent the kind of symbol that the present and future generations of Ethiopia could embrace and look upon with respect. The romantic rewriting of their disgraceful history cannot change reality. The Ethiopian Revolution of 1974 erupted against this backdrop and dethroned the last king, Emperor Haile Selassie, whose era was the epitome of atrocities of millions of landless farmers and huge gap between the rich and the poor in Ethiopia, while a small fraction of the feudal lords enjoyed lavish lifestyles and extravagant banquets, hiding dire famines in the province of Wollo and elsewhere. If Abiy wants to unite the Ethiopian people, as he often claims in his rhetoric, then it is completely ridiculous to model these emperors who brainwashed the Ethiopians and others that they were elect-of-God, descendants of the biblical king Solomon, the incarnation of God himself.

The turning point 

It was this lingering feudal mindset from the era of absolute monarchy, the lack of robust institutions for the development of democracy, rampant violence and lack of order that forced Jawar Mohammed to break his silence, as such non-essential measures also began to raise questions among populace about the prospects for the transition to democracy in Ethiopia. Jawar criticizes the prime minister of resorting to “early signs of dictatorship”, of trying to intimidate people, even his very close allies who helped him come to power who happen to disagree with some of the policies and positions and ideologies he’s advocating. As a result, a rift developed between Jawar and Abiy Ahmed, so much so that Jawar blamed Abiy for allegedly trying to stage an attack on him in October 2019 to silence him. The attempt to silence Jawar Mohammed produced a result that went against the expectations of the regime, triggering the protests that sparked the decision to join the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress to challenge the Prime Minster in the election. His decision to run in the elections was thus a key turning point in the democratization process. Jawar proved to be a formidable opponent, given his significant role in the Oromo politics – among others, his partial success in bringing together an often-fractious Oromo oppositions; commanded an indefatigable nonviolent youth movement that brought the current changes in the country; and able to motivate a substantial proportion of the citizenry to participate in active and passive acts of resistance on the sham actions of the prime minster.

The fall of the start, imprisonment of the leaders and the aftermath

In the current political turmoil gripping the country following the assassination of the beloved musician and activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, Jawar’s influence can still be felt even from his prison cell – not only among the protesting communities fighting against authoritarian rule, but also among the ranks and files of the Prosperity Party, which Abiy created to bolster his position. At this time and space, when the PM’s grip on power is seemingly paralyzing almost all institutional apparatus, many wonder if Ethiopia would ever make it out of the current political, economic and diplomatic crises. As we write and speak, Jawar is sick in prison for which the cause is still unknown. In violation of his constitutional and fundamental human right, Jawar was initially denied access to medical care and the right to be treated by his private doctor until the court ordered that was given on August 20, 2020. The way the justice system is handling Jawar and other Oromo political prisoners and the accumulated grievance against the incumbent government has resulted in another round of deadly protest and civil disobedience across Oromia. In just 2 days, over 40 protesters including minors, women, Imam, and pregnant women are shot dead by government security forces. As the country is trying to navigate through this turbulent moment, no one can tell what tomorrow holds for Ethiopia. But for the qarree and qeerroo and to the Oromo Nation in general, it is a moment to redeem and redefine oneself, regain its dignity and free its leaders out of prison. As we hope for better days and future, we end with what would Jawar say – “Dhugan ilmoo Rabbi. Haqa qabna, tarsiimoon masakamna, ni moona!”  – can be translated as “Truth is a child of GOD. We have the truth, we will strategies our struggle and we shall prevail.” AS


Editor’s Note: Kebene Wodajo (PhD) is a postdoctoral fellow researching the question of justice in the digital space at the University of St.Gallen. She can be reached at @kebenewodajo

Mebtatu Kelecha is a doctoral researcher at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster in the UK. He can be reached at @MebratuDugda

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