Given the pitiful state in which the Oromo struggle for liberation finds itself today, I am always eager to listen to anyone who has any idea or suggestion on how we can surmount the complex challenges we are faced with. When I heard that “Waltajjii Marii Oromoo” or “Oromo Dialogue Forum” would be coming to a city near me on 9/22/2012, it was an easy decision for me to drive a few hours and hear what they had to say for two reasons. First, as a firm believer in dialogue among Oromo political actors and public, I wanted to contribute my two cents worth on the challenges we are facing and possible solutions and listen to other compatriots’ ideas and suggestions. Secondly, I was attracted to one of the topics of the forum which was “A new vision to renew the Oromo liberation struggle.” This particular topic brought many questions to my mind: What would this new vision be? Would it be a vision to bring about unity among Oromo political actors and organizations? And many more!
So, having attended the meeting, did I get a chance to contribute my two cents worth? Did I hear a new vision? What follows is my personal reflection.
The “dialogue” forum
I may have misunderstood what is meant by the word Dialogue in “Oromo Dialogue Forum”. To my knowledge, a dialogue is a two-way communication between persons who hold differing views on a subject(s), with the purpose of learning more about the subject from the other to try and come to a consensus. The notion is that neither side has a total grasp of the relevant issues, or a monopoly on the truth, pertaining to the subject under discussion. Through dialogue, a two-way communication, each side listens to the views of the other side in search of the truth.
However, the Washington DC ODF “dialogue” forum was hardly a forum for dialogue in the true sense of the word. If the purpose was to have a true dialogue to identify the deeply divisive political and other issues among Oromo political actors, to listen to competing views and to build a more constructive and collaborative relationship among them, then the OFD Washington DC forum has failed miserably.
The format of the “dialogue” forum was no different – in form or in content – from gatherings usually organized and conducted by political organizations such as the OLF, ULFO and others. Not that there is anything wrong with the way OLF and ULFO run their meetings. Unlike a proper dialogue forum where the purpose is to increase mutual understanding and build a more constructive and collaborative relationship by encouraging the airing of differing views, such gatherings are “convert-making” lectures by the “truth-holders”. They do not lend themselves to entertaining various differing views and therefore cannot be called “dialogue” forums in the true sense of the word. On such meetings, all presenters would have the same views that they present to the audience, one after another, in an effort to garner support for their views from attendees. No retention is made to present the gathering as anything other than a partisan political proselytizing meeting. No differing views from, or contrary to, that of the organizers are presented from the podium or from the floor. If ever a contrarian view is expressed from the floor, it would be in a form of question which the organizers would attempt to answer in an effort to convert the person who posed the question. But, for organizations like the OLF and ULFO, this is by design and they don’t misrepresent their meetings as “dialogue” forums.
The ODF meeting I attended in Washington DC was no different from the ones conducted by the OLF and other Oromo political organizations except in two regards. The first is that they called their meeting a “dialogue” forum which it was not for reasons provided above. Secondly, they claimed that they have not formed an organization nor do they have any intention to form one. I find these two assertions very misleading which I will address a few paragraphs down.
Unlike facilitators and/or participants in a dialogue forum, the ODF leaders appeared to me as being quite convinced that they have all the truth on the subject of the Oromo struggle and its challenges. The audience was there to receive the ODF “truth”. There was no solicitation of others’ views on the root causes of the challenges of the Oromo struggle or possible solutions which a true dialogue forum is expected to do. All presenters were the “truth-holders” on the subject and the way forward. This was not a dialogue at all, not a two-way communication, but a one-way lecturing which obviously is not meant by the term dialogue. I could not help but wonder if the leaders of ODF have a basic misunderstanding of the term dialogue or deliberately engaged in an opportunistic manipulation of the term and misleading the Oromo public.
On whether the ODF is a political organization or not
According to the opening remarks by one of the presenters, the ODF traces its genesis back to “Bu’ureessitoota fi miseensota buleeyyii ABO”. This is a group consisting of a couple of founders and some longtime members of the OLF that was formed in Dec. 2008 purportedly to try and reconcile the various factions of the OLF. Many suspected the true intention of this group at the time. The fear was that they might be using the reconciliation effort as a pretext to form another political organization. This was feared because it is widely believed by Oromos that there are already too many political organizations (basically little fiefdoms) and breeding more would worsen an already bad situation. By limiting or reducing the number of Oromo political organizations, the Oromo hope to reduce their internal squabbles which have consumed their time and energy that should have been expended on fighting the enemy. They are also mindful of the fact that the mushrooming of organizations would be to the detriment of pulling Oromo scarce resources together to give the nation a fighting chance against their colonizer.
When the formation of ODF was announced, Oromo’s worst fear was realized. Regardless of the leaders’ claim that ODF is not another Oromo political organization but a dialogue forum, there is no mistaking that it is one. If the Washington DC “dialogue” was any indication and with its manifesto of democratizing Ethiopia, it is, in fact, one itching to join the fray of Oromo little fiefdoms a.k.a political organizations. This was particularly evident from the speech made by the last speaker via a video conference in which he bitterly complained about being dismissed from the OLF and that they will not take it lying down any more.
It is obvious to all intelligent attendees of their meetings that they are already a political organization to which they have the right. In the Washington DC meeting, they presented their political manifesto; they even distributed survey questionnaires that asked attendees whether they agree with their views or not and whether they would like to become members or just supporters. However, when asked if they already are, or in the process of forming, an organization, they denied that they are or plan to. There was no need to insult their audience’s intelligence. What happened to telling the truth and earn the trust of those they are targeting for recruitment? As it is, trust is in short supply in the Oromo struggle. Why make it worse, if they are really trying to make a difference?
ODF’s “New Vision”
The ODF manifesto presented at the meeting consisted of seven points. The points range from struggling for citizenship rights in the Ethiopian empire to accepting federalism and re-interpreting the Oromo right to self-determination. The current Ethiopian federalism, according to ODF, is one without democracy. In order to realize true federalism, the ODF will struggle for democratic changes in Ethiopia. The way to do that, says ODF, is by re-interpreting the Oromo question of self-determination as a question for citizenship rights thereby closely mirroring the questions of other nations and nationalities in the empire, including that of the Habasha. By so interpreting the Oromo question, ODF hopes to gain sympathy and support for the Oromo struggle from Habasha and other groups. In other words, for ODF, there is no difference between the demand or question of the Oromo nation and, say, that of the Habasha groups.
But this is exactly what Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) and Oromo People’s Congress (OPC) (now merged into Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) have been advocating for many years to no avail. Even, OPC, a proponent of “one-man-one-vote” for close to two decades has gained no sympathy or support from these groups that ODF wants to solicit support from. Having failed to learn from history and current affairs, the General Kemal Gelchu Group – former comrades of the ODF – has been promoting the same ideal since January 2012.
So what is ODF’s new vision? Nothing new, I should say – for someone who has been following OFDM, OPC and the Kemal Gelchu group and leaders of the ODF. If there is no new vision, then what is the purpose of forming another organization to advance the same ideal? Why not join, or merge with, the Kemal Gelchu group or the OFC?
Seeking a second chance at leadership
The organizers and presenters of the ODF in Washington DC were all former leaders of the OLF. In fact, some of them are founders. Each of them held positions of leadership including chairmanship, deputy chairmanship, membership in the central committee and spokesmanship of the organization and heading the foreign affairs department at different times and for extended periods of time. In effect, these are former leaders campaigning for a second chance to lead an Oromo liberation organization. Whether that organization is one to be formed soon or another faction of the OLF to be announced only time will tell.
This group of former leaders agrees on two things: (a) that the OLF has failed to rally the Oromo people to achieve its objective; (b) that they don’t share any blame in OLF’s failure. While their first assertion has some truth – that the OLF has failed in its mission – I find it a turnoff that former leaders of their stature blame their organization’s failure on circumstances (the usual old excuses) and their former comrades in arms while exonerating themselves. They have made themselves self-appointed judges, jury and the prosecutors in the OLF failure saga.
It is very well known that failure defines ones character as a leader. When leaders refuse to take responsibility for their organization’s failure under their watch, it shows their lack of character. As Norman Schwarzkopf once said “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.” Not without character! Leaders deserve a second chance when they admit failure and have learned during the process of failing. Leaders who hold someone else accountable for their failures and blame the circumstances to deflect criticism for a failed outcome deserve no more chance at leading.
Sitting through over two hours of speeches by leaders of the ODF, I heard not a single admission of mistake on their part much less their role in getting the Oromo struggle to this pitiful point that it finds itself in today.
If they would like to be taken seriously, then they would admit their personal failures, stop scapegoating and blaming others and circumstances, take responsibility as longtime leaders and learn from their mistakes and failures before asking the Oromo public for a second chance.
Failure can be turned into an opportunity to learn and grow. I say it can because it requires a particular mindset to benefit from your failure. Without that mindset, all your failures will go to waste. This is true in politics as it is in personal life for a leader as well as a follower. So what is that mindset?
It is a mindset that is willing and able to reflect on past experience – past actions and their outcomes. It is only through such reflections that one learns one’s strengths, weaknesses and the environment and conditions in which actions were undertaken and what could have been done differently that could have resulted in a positive outcome. It is not enough to admit collective failure. One needs to evaluate one’s role in the failure. This is even more so if one is a leader under whose watch an organization – business or political – failed. Denying (to one self and others) failures and personal accountability and scapegoating or blaming on “globalization, end of cold war, etc.” will not do. Leaders without such a mindset cannot learn from past failures and therefore deserve no second chance.
Dialogue among Oromo political actors and organizations is long overdue. The purpose and objective of such a dialogue should not be partisan political proselytizing which the ODF Washington DC “dialogue” forum was, but one that is open to entertaining competing views.
ODF has all the makings of an active political organization vying for Oromo attention. With its manifesto of democratization of Ethiopia, it shall be sharing Oromo political space with OFC, the Kemal Gelchu group and other forces. Don’t insult your audience’s intelligence. Don’t present it as a “dialogue” forum which it is not. Come out and introduce your organization for what it is—a budding political organization.
Your (ODF) manifesto contains no new vision. Recognize others who presented that vision before you; join and strengthen them. Don’t create another fiefdom. The Oromo struggle for liberation will not benefit from another group of a few individuals claiming to speak on its behalf. Unity is strength.
As former leaders of the OLF, admit personal failure for the organization disintegrated under your watch. Tell us what you have learned from your failures and what you would do differently before asking the Oromo people to follow you again.
Nagaa Oromummaa wajjin,