Gadaa.com / Finfinne Tribune: Four years ago, when you sat down with Gadaa.com for an interview on current affairs, you said, the “Oromo movement has achieved its objectives, but not concluded its journey.” Over the last four years, a number of political events have taken place, including the resurgence of Oromo Nationalism. In your view, has that Oromo journey gotten anywhere near conclusion since then?
Jawar Mohammed (JM): Not yet, but we are on a better speed & trajectory than we were then. Four years ago, we had that interview on the wake of the worst crisis in the movement’s history – the OLF split of 2008; the split severely fractured our people in Diaspora and dampened morale in Oromia. It was a time when the movement was facing physical and ideological defections, including from among the senior leadership, to the adversary camp.
Despite the gloomy socio-political environment, I believed that we would soon get out of the parochial shenanigan and get back on the path towards completing the journey. However, to be honest, I didn’t think the movement would revive itself and resurge this quickly. What we have observed over the last two years is a dramatic shift, which not only put a stop to defections, but also reversed it. We are now in a situation where the spirit of resistance is fully restored; damages caused by factionalism gradually, but surely, being repaired; and the movement is galloping forward with an acceptable speed. If we maintain the current momentum and continue to institutionalize various aspects of the movement, I believe we will complete the journey sooner than we think.
Gadaa.com / Finfinne Tribune: Speaking of the Oromo journey, three major Oromo movements of the last half century, namely, the Afran Qalloo Movement for Oromo Culture, the Bale Struggle for Oromia’s Freedom, and the Macha-Tulama Movement for Oromo Economic and Political Rights, have recently celebrated their golden jubilees. In many ways, these movements had been successful in galvanizing the Oromo Nation for the changes that have taken place in Oromia in particular, and in Ethiopia in general, over the last half-century. What is your outlook for the Oromo journey of the next half-century? Have what these Oromo movements initiated finalized yet?
JM: The Golden Jubilee commemorations (of Afran Qalloo, Bale, Macha-Tulama Association/MTA and Dr. Ali Birra), in conjunction with the constructions of memorial monuments (of Aanolee, Bakri Saphalo, Calanqoo), and the death and befitting memorial service for Jaarraa Abbaa Gadaa, all played crucial roles in kick-starting the ongoing resurgence. These commemorations facilitated for the Oromo community to take its head off the then depressing and demoralizing paralysis, and nostalgically, look back to the past. Events showcasing the past also created a mutually acceptable space for those fighting over the present conditions to come together. For the younger generation, hearing the gallantry of our forebears during those dark days has inspired us into action. The projects and campaigns (such as Oromo First, OMN, Afaan Publications, Boycott Bedele and #OromoProtests, Oromiyaa Tiyya Concerts), which have been launched over the last year, have given purpose to the public, that was already reawakened by the commemorations – leading it to a full-swing action-oriented resurgence mode.
Gadaa.com / Finfinne Tribune: On the resurgence of Oromo Nationalism and its effectiveness against the new adversary, some pose doubts. The Oromo national liberation movement has been successful in decolonizing Oromia and the Oromo Nation from a century of Shewa-Amhara elites’ hegemony. However, as the decolonization from the Shewa-Amhara elites’ hegemony nears the finishing line through Oromo Nationalism, Oromia and the Oromo Nation are falling prey to the Tigrean imperial ambitions through TPLF’s control of Oromian resources using new colonial institutions. And, some question whether or not Oromo Nationalism is adequate in combating the new type of colonization Oromia and the Oromo Nation face today under the Tigrean hegemony. Is Oromo Nationalism capable of rallying the Nation against the Tigrean imperialism in Oromia?
JM: For any oppressed group, collective emancipation is achieved only when they tap into what holds them together — their shared identity. The oppressed have no one, but each other. Nationalism has proven to be the one ideology of collective action that doesn’t get outdated, and has outlived all rival ideologies, such as class-based ones. This doesn’t mean a given national movement should use the same narratives and talking points throughout time. It must fine-tune itself as the natures, interests and strategies of the adversaries change, and as the domestic and external environments change. However, this fine-tuning must be done very carefully. Extra care must be made to ensure adjustments do not negate the core foundational narrative of that nationalism, i.e., the quest for the homeland, self-rule and indivisible nationhood.
When we come to Oromo nationalism, it’s true that we were not able to quickly adjust when the nature of the adversary changed in 1991, and this contributed to the organizational paralysis we had later faced. Two major changes happened due to the regime change in 1991. First, after 1991, the Oromo movement has faced two adversaries, instead of just one. Although the old rulers lost state power, they did not vanish or become friends of the Oromo struggle; they remained an active ideological adversary — in fact, more vocal than the new one. Second, while the old regime and the new one shared the same objective of expropriating Oromo resources, the new power holders came with a different strategy when going about it — exploitation via an indirect rule, and toleration and exploitation of identity, instead of assimilation and suppression. The Oromo nationalism needed to frame this new enemy in a different way than relying on the same talking points used against the old one. While the struggle against both adversaries takes place within the same political space, Oromo nationalism needed to develop a language that can help define and confront these two adversaries simultaneously.
The response to this need for reframing came in two ways: some pushed for watering down Oromo nationalism while the other side argued for sticking to the old narrative in order to remain firm in our stand and maintaining ideological purity. Both approaches were problematic. The water-down approach threatened to deplete the only source of fuel the movement has – nationalism, without finding an alternative rallying ideology for the movement, or standing any chance of winning alliance. They failed to realize that an alliance comes only if you are strong enough to induce incentive, not because you are softer or have chosen an appeasement over a confrontation. And, in order to remain strong, you must use the powerful resource at your disposal: Oromo nationalism. On the other hand, the hardline approach of refusing to refresh the narrative with newer talking points prevented us from defining the new enemy in light of the changes that took place.
Is a pragmatically framed Oromo nationalism adequate to advance Oromo interests in the era of Tigrean domination? Yes, definitely. That’s why TPLF is so concerned and hyperactive at the sight of a slight commotion in Oromia, even when Oromo political organizations were in paralysis. We must also ask what other organizing ideological instruments Oromos have at their disposal. Some have suggested jumping on the ‘human rights’ bandwagon. While human rights is an appealing concept, it doesn’t adequately address the Oromo cause (national question) for two reasons. First, a collective action requires defining and demarcating the ins and outs of the collective as to reduce the free rider problem and strengthen cohesion. Human Rights movement is a ‘universalist’ concept which, in its application so far, has not contributed to the effective and sustained collective action of a particular nation. The collective right to self-determination in the UN Human Rights System could go only as far counteracting classic colonial domination of so called ‘third world peoples’ by the West. The principle of sovereignty of member states (and non-intervention thereof) made it difficult for international human rights law to deal with issues of what is often called internal colonization. Similarly, the right of minority and indigenous nations to existence, recognition, equality, non-discrimination, representation, participation, and autonomy fell short of addressing the concerns of collective groups because of the state systems in which international human rights law operates.
Second, Human Rights movement is a reformist and internal critique of oppression. As such, it falls short of tackling the structural violence, oppression and exploitation faced by groups like Oromo. Human rights based activism succeeds once questions of equal citizenship and power are resolved, and an agreement is reached on the rule of the political game. Until the power question is resolved, the language of human rights, as a powerful moral imperative for governance, may be used as a tool of resistance, as a language of delegitimizing oppressive use of power. To put this in another way, the Oromo is facing structurally designed and enforced oppression; hence, the Oromo question is a structural question, not an internal reformist critique of the existing system. Solution comes through dismantling and/or fundamentally restructuring the system, i.e., changing the power balance, not through simple facelift. For such a change to happen, the power holder must be dislodged through an ideology that provides both rational and sentimental attractions for the collective to bond together in a sustained manner. Nationalism gives you both. Therefore, Oromo have to rely on nationalism to engage in the collective action toward the collective emancipation. In doing so, we must rely on pragmatic and flexible strategic approaches over dogmatic rigidity.
Gadaa.com / Finfinne Tribune: In related topic, some commentators advise Oromos to abandon the quest for group rights, and instead join others in advocating for the protection of ‘individual rights.’ What do you say to them?
JM: The Oromo movement does not oppose the promotion of individual rights. Rather, the movement believes that, when the rights deprivation targets a people as a group, respect and protection of individual rights and privilege are achieved through collective political emancipation of the nation as a whole. There are two reasons for that. First, individuals are rarely deprived of their rights on a personal basis. More often than not, they suffer because they belong to a certain group that is targeted by the power holder. This is mostly the case with Oromo individuals. Be it economic discrimination or cultural and linguistic suppression, individuals become victimized as ‘a collateral damage’ when the power holder wages the war of repression on the group. For instance, we may not see a regime directly preventing a person from speaking a language, but rather systematically suppressing the language itself. The second important point is, once such collective rights are violated, they can only be restored through a collective action. Politics in general, and resistance politics in particular, is a group affair, not an individual’s solo dance. To influence political decision-makings, we march, fight, protest, boycott, etc. as a group. Only when individuals join hands in an organized manner in pursuit of a collective agenda can they impact the behavior of decision-makers, and challenge and change the decision-making process.
Here, it is important to stress the centrality of power – either for suppression or protection of rights. Rights are almost always violated by those who control state power or monopolize the means of violence. Hence, in order to prevent violations of rights, the ability of those in control of power must be curtailed. This can be done either by making violations of rights extremely costly or by removing them from power. An individual in and of him/herself cannot muster such ability to either curtail behavior of power holder or displace them. Only when individuals engaged in a group-based action will they muster sufficient force to make this happen. Therefore, for people like the Oromo who are subjected to economic, political and cultural repressions, both individual rights of the Oromo person and interests of the nation as whole are best achieved when the question is framed and the struggle is waged on a collective basis. In other words, with the national liberation of Oromia comes the emancipation of the Oromo people, and the individual’s ability to defend his/her personal rights against the intrusion by the state.
Gadaa.com / Finfinne Tribune: How about the argument that national liberation doesn’t necessarily guarantee the respect for individual rights. Example of this can be listed from the post-independence African states, and most recently, Eritrea.
JM: That is true. Although national liberation removes repression and discrimination by an alien rule, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee freedom of its citizens. This happens because critical mistakes are often done during the course of the struggle. Most of these liberation struggles were led by vanguard Fronts that shouldered all responsibilities, and consequently, controlled all resources. Civic societies, if ever allowed to exist, were made to become ‘leagues’ that were subordinate to and dependent on the party or Front. This created a totalitarian political culture and public control, even before liberation.
Therefore, present-day liberation movements must learn lesson from mistakes of their predecessors. The ground for post-liberation democratic governance must be paved in advance. This can be done by creating independent civic society organizations, such as media, professional associations, think-tanks and advocacy groups, as integral parts of the liberation movement. It’s important to note that any established or aspiring democratic community must have two layers within it: political society and civic society. Political parties, liberation fronts and armies, whom they control, occupy the political space while professional organizations, community service associations, religious establishments and youth groups fall within the civic society.
For a liberation movement to successfully throw away an alien rule and replace it with a democratic self-rule, both of these layers of society (political and civic) must be allowed to exist as vibrant and independent institutions, and even promoted to grow stronger during the journey of the struggle. This is important both for speeding up the struggle and transitioning to a democratic order afterwards. The existence of various, active and autonomous civic society organizations means they can share the tasks and burdens of the resistance from the political organization. This enables the political organization to focus on the major policy and strategic affairs, without being bogged down to dealing with the numerous operational issues. Even more important is that the existence of vibrant civic society that has accumulated experience of autonomous activism during the struggle – which will later provide citizens with readily available institutions that can be utilized to prevent dictatorial temptations by the leadership on the aftermath of liberation. Thus, establishing and strengthening civic society is a remedy against liberation leaders turning into post-independence tyrants.
Gadaa.com / Finfinne Tribune: Now, turning to the upcoming General Election in Ethiopia – it seems the 2015 General Election has failed to generate momentum from any one corner, even the incumbent seems to have no talking points for the General Election, given that it is only a few months away from today. Is everyone content by now that elections do not work in Ethiopia? Is there any use for the sole independent Oromo political organization in Ethiopia, the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), to participate in an election whose results are already known loud and clear?
JM: Before commenting on the upcoming Ethiopian election, it’s important to clarify the role of elections in the struggle for national liberation and/or democratization. Do elections play the same strategic role under authoritarian regimes and democratic ones? Should Oromos participate in elections, and if they do, for what strategic and tactical objectives? Answering these questions require clarifying what kind of political game is being played in Ethiopia, and what kind of politics Oromos ought to engage in.
In general, we can classify politics into two main categories: contentious/resistance politics, and conventional/established/competitive politics. The later, established/competitive/conventional politics refers to the kind of politics where major issues of contentions (the rule of the political game, the structure of the state, the division of power, etc.) among constituent groups of the state have been resolved, and politics has become a business where parties compete over alternative socio-economic policies. On the other hand, resistance/contentious politics refers to a polity whereby, the constituent groups have not reached a consensus on the rule of the game, and the distribution of power and resources is skewed. To put it in another way, resistance politics exists where a significant portion of the polity contests, or rejects, the legitimacy and/or the structure of the state, do not accept, or did not participate in the making of the rule of the political game, and believes power and resources are illegitimately and unfairly distributed. Ethiopian politics currently is the latter type of politics. Legacy and legitimacy of the state are extremely contested. The structure of governance is highly disputed. The rule of the game (electoral, judicial, legislation powers, etc.) are skewed in favor of the dominant group. Essential state institutions (military, intelligence and foreign affairs) are not multi-national/federal, but partisan.
Now, an election can take place under both types of politics: contentious or conventional. It’s also good to participate in them. However, it is crucial to have a very clear idea of what elections mean under each condition. In conventional politics, the legitimacy of the state is not contested; the structure of governance is accepted and the rule of the electoral game has already been agreed up on. The strategic objective of participating in an election is to present alternative policy choices and leaders to the public. No matter whom the winner, the nature of the state, its structure and composition are unlikely to change. National institutions remain intact. Only limited policies and few leaders are changed. The cost to those who stand to lose power is not existential, but minimal. Ascendance to, or removal from power, is not permanent, but temporary. There will be another election, and another chance to regain it. Basically, changes are not revolutionary, but incremental.
In contrast, in resistance politics, an election has a different tactical role both for the dictatorship and the freedom fighters. For the dictatorship, it is a means of buying fake legitimacy for itself, and it’s a way of delegitimizing the claims of its critics about repression. Hence, there cannot be an illusion of achieving your objective, be it regime change or adjustment of structure of government. Since rules of the game are highly contested and skewed, and institutions conducting the election and enforcing the outcome are clearly partisan; the results of the election are already known even before campaign begins. Hence, for a resistance movement, an election is just one instrument in a toolbox full of various instruments meant to erode, weaken and dismantle the oppressive machinery of the ruling group. That is, an election, just like other campaigns, is a tactical tool meant to achieve limited gains. More specifically, a resistance movement should participate in an election to use the limited opening that is made available to advance certain limited goals, such as recruiting membership, mobilizing public through rallies, and further exposing and delegitimizing the system during public debates. In themselves, these gains are too small and too contained to bring about a systemic change, but when combined and coordinated with other means of struggle, they can help advance the cause.
Therefore, the Oromo movement should participate in the upcoming and other Ethiopian elections, but not with an illusion that we can achieve our goal through elections. Moreover, when we participate, we must be strategic, undertake advanced preparations, and utilize the opportunity to the fullest. This requires preparing for at least two years in advance, if not the whole five years prior to the election. This preparation should entail identifying and training organizers, recruiting reliable candidates, and devising a communication and public relation strategy. Due to the absence of such preparations, in the past elections, Oromo oppositions have not been able to field candidates for more than two-third of the federal parliament and Caffee seats. With sufficient preparations, even if it’s not possible to ‘win,’ we can make it way harder to cheat, and expose it when it happens. If we participate, it has to be with a clear goal in mind, and with the full commitment to fight for every seat and vote, even if we know it will be stolen. “Play to the fullest or boycott completely!” is my advice.
Gadaa.com / Finfinne Tribune: What do we expect from upcoming election? What do you see out of it if you have to compare it in advance with the last two elections?
JM: We cannot expect anything new from this election. The difference between the past and this election is that the public’s and the opposition’s enthusiasms are at the lowest point. The 2005 crackdown and the 99.6% victory in 2010 seem to have sapped any interest in the process. Ironically, the regime appears to be as scared as ever, if not more, which is demonstrated in the mass incarcerations of students and bloggers, and closing down of the remaining newspapers. The regime is taking such actions because, although the opposition appears to be passive and the public disinterested in the election, things could turn upside down quickly due to the extremely high dissatisfaction and anger caused by economic inequality and political repression.
Gadaa.com / Finfinne Tribune: Some activists are urging Oromo opposition parties to put forward the agenda of making Afan Oromo a federal working language as one of their election campaigns. What’s your take on it?
JM: I think it should be placed on the top agenda next to the ownership rights of the Oromo people over Finfinne. Making Afan Oromo the federal working language is beneficial, not just to Oromo, but even more to others. For Oromos, it will help enhance the status of the language, and also help mitigate the cultural alienation observed in federal institutions. For others, since Oromia is an engine for over two-third of the country’s economy, learning Afan Oromo means better access for the largest market for employments and other opportunities. As the most widely spoken language across various states of East Africa, Afan Oromo can contribute toward the socio-economic integration of the region. Moreover, within the domestic media, Afan Oromo can create a sense of productive and sustainable cultural competitions triggering knowledge production and dissemination. Therefore, I believe an agenda of making Afan Oromo the federal working language will get multiparty support as no one stands to lose, but to gain. In fact, even those parties who oppose or refuse to recognize the existing federal structure have expressed support for making Afan Oromo a federal working language. So it is a matter of now or a bit later, but it will definitely get its place. It’s inevitable.
JM: No. As I said at that time, I will join a political or any other organization if, and when, I am convinced that I can add a significant value to it, and if it offers me an opportunity and the means to do things I cannot do without joining. I joined OSA [Oromo Studies Association] eight years ago and am currently leading it because I have something practical to offer and do so directly. Regarding establishing or joining a political organization, as we stand now, I don’t see the need to so. Whatever I can offer, I can do it without becoming a member. Joining them while I am abroad, or they are in exile, doesn’t increase my contributions. Moreover, I am morally and strategically opposed to establishing or joining a political organization outside the battlefield of the struggle — Oromia. Morally, it’s indefensible to sit far away from the battle and give orders to others. Leaders and operatives must internalize the risk that comes with their decisions and orders. I must be there to share the costs and consequences of my decision. Strategically speaking, it’s just operationally impractical to manage and lead political operations from afar. Operations are time and place sensitive. You can play an advisory role from afar, but not operational leadership. Therefore, my plan for now is to continue working with the civic society through my academic endeavors and advocacy. I would like to work towards developing the capacity of our community organizations in Diaspora. I also plan to engage in establishing strong think-tank that can convert knowledge produced by our intellectuals into a utilizable packaged resource.