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ODF, a democratic alternative for Ethiopia

(OPride) — After an intense week of discussions in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the activist group Oromo Dialogue Forum on Thursday announced the formation a new political party, the Oromo Democratic Front.

This came after a year long deliberations on the direction of the Oromo people’s struggle in Ethiopia, a series of media interviews, and meetings across continents.

Leenco Lata, an intellectual and founder of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a rebel group formed in 1973 by Oromo nationalists to fight for the self-determination of the Oromo people, was elected the chairman of the new organization.

OLF has fought a low key guerrilla warfare against three successive Ethiopian regimes, including the current one. But its influence waned in recent years as the organization battled numerous internal splits amid a dwindling support from the Oromo diaspora.

There are many old OLF faces in the leadership of the new political party. For instance, all but three of the nine-member executive committee of the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) were, at one point or another, former high ranking OLF officials. ODF Vice President Dr. Dima Noggo Sarbo was among its founders, and briefly, the first chairman of OLF.

What is new, however, is perhaps their political program.

ODF “advocates justice for the Oromo and all persons and nations in Ethiopia,” the party’s declaration reads. “The founding of ODF ushers in a new phase in the Oromo nationalist struggle with the objective of working for the transformation of the Ethiopian Empire into a truly democratic multinational federation of all the concerned nations.”

The birth of ODF as an independent political party run by former OLF leaders and supporters is a clear break with the recent practice of forming a splinter of OLF which has nearly crippled the movement. The group’s bold decision to depart from the usual business, whereby different factions compete on who is more committed to the “original program” of forming an independent Oromo state than the other, is expected to force the Oromo nationals to look into the future.

Nonetheless, ODF faces a crucial test in lifting the Oromo people’s political struggle from its current dismal state. In addition, as has been evidenced over last year, a sizable number of Oromo activists continue to insist on the formation of independent Oromia state as the only answer to the Oromo question in Ethiopia. It remains to be seen if ODF can win their endorsement.

The idea of Oromos having a democratic political force in Ethiopia was first brought to light by the ODF Chairman Lata in his speech in July 2000 at Oromo Studies Association in Toronto. His idea of democratizing Ethiopia has since divided the opinion of the vast Oromo diaspora. Some continue to be preoccupied with denunciation of Lata, albeit without a discernible alternative political agenda of their own.

But the formation of ODF, in large part the realization of an idea he put forth in 2000 and two subsequent books he has written, is being hailed as the first bold move by architects of the mainstream Oromo nationalist camp in re-articulating the goals of the Oromo movement crafted in OLF’s program of 1976.

The news of the formation of the new political party for the Oromo people comes as Ethiopia is going through a set of leadership transitions since the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi last year.  At its 9th congress, held in the tourist city of Bahir Dar, the ruling party Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front formally elected Hailemariam Desalegn as its chairman and introduced a number of new faces to Ethiopia’s political scene.

It is not immediately clear if ODF is looking to make a leap toward participating in the 2015 general election in Ethiopia. But it’s success is likely to be dependent on whether it would become another Diaspora-based outfit or one rooted inside the country.

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