The Indefatigable Bulcha

Book Title: My Life: My Vision for the Oromo and Other Peoples of Ethiopia
Author: Bulcha Demeksa
Publisher: The Red Sea Press
Published: 2013
Page number: 281
Price USD 34.95

– By Solomon Hailemraiam

bulchaI read Obo Bulcha’s book with great interest as I always remember him as an outspoken and eloquent parliamentarian in the Federal Parliament after the controversial 2005 national election. He had and still has, as his book discloses, a passion to make Oromiffa as the parallel official langue in Ethiopia as in Switzerland. The book provides the reader with insight into institutional history. Obo Bulcha was fortunate enough to have established the first private bank in Ethiopia, be a member of a new political party, and work in the ministry of finance during the Emperor’s time in the capacity of Vice Minister and therefore fully informed. He also held a senior position in the World Bank in Washington, DC and was the first African representative of UNDP and many other UN agencies in Nigeria, Gambia and Tanzania. He was ordained to be one of the first individuals to attend the 1991 charter conference to establish the transitional government after the fall of the infamous military regime to share power among different parties and nationalities. For these and many other reasons his book is very powerful and valuable.

The book spans from Obo Bulcha’s childhood to the growth and transformation plan of the current government in power. The honest narration about his upbringing and the strenuous scarcity of material wealth during his childhood was disarming. In 1938 (when Obo Bulcha was not even 10) his father, Demeksa Senbeto Gerba, who was Qoro (a sub-district administrator) in Wellegga, Bodji Dermaji was arrested by the Fascist Italian, and subsequently died in the Italian prison. Thus, Bulcha’s upbringing was challenged by material wealth deprivation. Nevertheless, Bulcha was destined to be a shining star after hard work and great discipline. He came to Addis Ababa. The book recounts that during his childhood and as a student, Obo Bulcha, was brilliant, sharp and great observer. His late father inspired and set a standard for him to be a great man; he toiled to educate himself at any cost. Obo Bulcha comments that his uncle Obo Gobu Senbeto was also an honorable man who committed to help him achieve his dream to get a modern education.

The book sheds light how the EPRDF planned power distribution. Obo Bulcha had a chance to briefly meet Issaysa Afeworki, the Eritrean dictator, during the charter conference “…my impression of Issayas was that he was cocky, and appeared unrealistically arrogant for a leader of a small African country.” P.163

During the 1991 Charter Conference Obo Bulcha was an amazing observer and somehow participated: “Meles Zenawi appeared on the stage from behind the curtain and said…’May I have nomination for the chairmanship of this conference…There was a moments of silence. The Silence continued for a few more moments…..I raised my hand and Meles recognized me.I proposed that the Secretary-General of TPLF and Provisional President of Ethiopia be Chairman of the Conference. Meles did wait for other nominations, but there was none…..They say: ‘you nominated him to be the President of Ethiopia.” Actually I did not….”P157-158

Obo Bulcha in this work has criticized and felt sad that Ethiopia has been land locked because of “TPLF/EPRDF” refusal to stand for it.

“He (Issayas) also wanted the conference to recognize the right that the Port of Assab belonged to Eritrea, but Ethiopia could have the right to refuse. This changed during the Ethio-Eritrean War,1998.At this point, it was clear that the Americans wanted the issue of Assab separately. Logically the issue of Assab might have not the subject to be openly discussed separately.In other words, they wanted the Ethiopians to make their case to, at least, have the right to the use of Assab. But unfortunately, at the moment, there was no strong representative of Ethiopia to fight for the right to use Assab. Of course, the Weyyane were all for Eritrea taking Assab without any condition attached to it. Ethiopia could have negotiated an internationally binding agreement to use the port of Assab. Ethiopia had no representative at the Conference.” page 160

Some of the Conference participants who were supposed to support Ethiopia’s interest on the issue of Assab port had declined to defend it.

“When the agenda item of Assab came up for debate, the Ethiopian voice was weak. Dr.Asrat Woldeyes who represented the University Community, spoke and defended the right of Ethiopia to use Assab….I sent a note from where I was sitting, to Kifle Wodajo, asking him to support Asrat and make a strong case for the right of Ethiopia to perpetually use the port of Assab, Kifle did nothing. But…later on, he was questioned why he said nothing about Assab…He said ‘It’s easy to hold a hot iron with somebody else’s hand.’” page 161

The book informs the reader that Obo Bulcha had some affection for the Emperor whom he served most of his productive time. However, he did not hide his hate for the power mongered Amhara elite who had neither respect nor affiliation for him. Like most of the Oromos, he felt neglected and oppressed by the Imperial regime. He thought he would be Minister or even a higher official had he belonged to Amhara elites at that time. Nonetheless at the end of the Imperial regime, he was offered a ministerial position by the Endalkachew Mekonnen cabinet. This he meticulously declined as it was very difficult and even life threatening to accept the position at the time.

Obo Bulcha was an able finance professional and admired Yilma Deressa, the then Minister of Finance, who recruited him for the senior position to the extent that he regularly briefed Emperor Haileselassie on budgetary issues. He was doubtful that he might not rise to the position of Vice Minister of Finance had it not been for the Yelma’s mentorship and advice.
His scrupulous move to politics after the EPRDF is worth reading about. He took every caution* to avoid harassment, intimidation and imprisonment from the local militia* and government cadres.His great determination to be elected in his birth place and his detail report on the harassment of his supporter is a good record for those people who wish to research the then current politics. He describes the tactics used by local militias to harass and intimidate opposition political candidates more or less the same way as written by many other opposition politicians like Dr. Merera Gudina.

The book clearly illustrates that there was no rule or law in Ethiopia particularly in the country side. People had been oppressed, harassed, beaten and killed arbitrary without due process of law. “No Commission of Enquiry was ever established, even for pretense to look in to the cause of the death of Kumarraa. No human being’s death should be like the death of a dog. When I noticed that the farmers were most frightened by the Government, I told them that in Finfinnee, the so-called free press openly criticizes the Government. But the farmers said that they would be treated differently from the people in Finfinnee: ‘It has always been like this’ they said, ‘they can do anything they want to us here.’” P196-197

Awash International Bank is naturally mentioned in the book as the author was one of the founders of the Bank. Obo Bulcha’s hard work and *leadership qualities are highlighted in the chapter about Awash. As with many shareholder business projects in Ethiopia, the power struggle within the board was discussed in the book.

I have heard about and read newspaper articles here and there on the support of the Americans to the former dictator Mengistu Hailemariam in helping him to leave the country but I did not realise the extent to which they were involved in setting up the transitional government. Now Obo Bulcha’s book has exposed this in detail and his observation during the transitional conference was very impressive:“…the Americans had a heavy hand in the drafting of the Charter.Herman Cohen, Irvin Hicks (who later became America’s ambassador to Ethiopia) and some uniformed military advisers, were in the conference Hall overseeing the entire proceedings to ensure that everything was being executed according to prepared plan…….In the Conference, the Americans were intensely following the discussions, sometimes nodding when the Chairman made a remark which corresponded to the agreement reached with U.S. negotiators in London.” Pp159-162

After reading the book one appreciates how Obo Bulcha is very much fascinated and adores the American Presidential system. He aspires for Ethiopia the rule of law the Americans have in America.He makes clear in this work what sort of political structure he would wish to have in Ethiopia and tries to justify it.The book was absorbing for serious readers as it is full of ideas and logical arguments on politics, economics and ethnic/racial relations.He wrote extensively about his UN experiences and about racism. He even makes suggestions how to improve the lopsided recruitment policy between white and black race in the UN system.

I believe the book could have been written in more detail and in a more attractive manner. The book is issue focused rather than story telling about his personal life.The way the book started about his childhood life was excellent and mesmerizing but after a couple of chapters the modulation changed and the reader was bombarded with serious issues .* He did admit that he read religious books rather than fiction and creative works “…my friends had read lot of fiction, Shakespeare works and other classical literature, and frequently quoted from them.In the Mission, we read the Bible and related literature.”Still any one can enjoy the book as it has a bit of everything and sometimes to some details. The book has clearly shown that Obo Bulcha was a skillful finance professional; an outstanding organizer and problem solver, as well as academician. He wrote many articles on constitution, federalism, on the Ethiopian economy and regional administration. He mentioned the cream of his writing on the subjects in his book as well.He could have written more and I hope he will publish his second part soon as he might have many untold stories to relate.

Obo Bucha told us in his book how he joined the World Bank and how he resigned and how he joined the UNDP and how he resigned, how he did established Awash International Bank and Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM).By the same token, he told us in his book how he married his first wife W/o Menbere when he was 16 or 18 but he didn’t write how they divorced or separated. He wrote in his book about Helen, his second wife, but didn’t write how they met and fall in love.He might argue that “it is his personal life and none of the public business,” but, why joining the World Bank and resigning was important for the readers then? In my opinion, with a biography in particular, the writer should share their personal life for the readers benefit so as not to repeat the same mistake or to learn from their best experiences.

Someone writes his/her biography so that reader appreciate and enjoy or share the sadness or sorrow. Unfortunately, most Ethiopians who wrote their biography deliberately or inadvertently omitted their love life and avoid talking about their wife or husband. Obo Bulcha is not different in this. Where as well known politicians, ministers or pop star, priest or pop or religious leaders, states men and women from other countries write in detail without any inhibition about their love life whether good or bad as it is. I can site numerous examples if necessary. I was wondering why Ethiopians are omitting such issues. Is this because they think it is mundane? Is love life or talking about wife or husband mundane? Or is this because Ethiopians who wrote their biography are not liberal? Well I’ll leave this to psychologist.

Fitting in intimate personal life, bad or good, to biographical work, I believe, will increase the scintillating quality of the work.

The book in general dealt the life, challenges, successes, endeavors and struggles of Obo Bulcha for the Oromo people. It also reflected his wish for the other people of Ethiopia.The book could, conversely, be coined by different name as it covered mostly of his indefatigable struggle to achieve his dream and reached great success. Obo Bulcha lived a life of so many people as an economist, Banker, politician, international civil servant( as World Bank senior official) and as UNDP and many other UN agencies representative in Nigeria, the Gambia and Tanzania. He was also fortunate enough to serve two regimes in highest capacity and many countries in the world, predominantly African countries. He fought most of his matured age principally for the Oromo people and faced many predicaments. In his fight for the Oromo people he was a man of principle: “ I openly said to the people …that secession was not in our program. We repeatedly made speeches in which we said that the Oromo owned their land in Ethiopia and they should never consider separation from Ethiopia….It was and still is OFDM’s policy not to hate or fan hatred against other people because of their ethnicity or political beliefs. We were opposed to those who, in the 21st century, wanted to rule over the other peoples. We were also opposed to the proponents of a unitary government. With our philosophy of ‘no secession’, we become popular…My theme was always that old wounds must be healed…I often referred to the French and the German nations who fought bitterly in the Second World War, but are now sitting side by side in the European Council.” pp.242-243

He has been destined to be successful and win most of his challenges. He is a great visionary not only for the Oromo people but for the Ethiopian as well. His sadness, about Assab port, emanates from his love not only for the Oromo people but for the entire Ethiopia.

The book has great significance for the Ethiopian history, politics and economics as well as ethnic relations. It is a must read book for Ethiopian and those who would like to know about Ethiopia. I hope the book will be translated in to Oromifa and Amharic so that the wide majority can read in great detail Obo Bulcha’s vision for the Oromo in particular and for Ethiopian in general.

I hope the book will give him great satisfaction, peace of mind and happiness for the rest of Obo Bulcha’s life as he was able to produce a very powerful and mesmerizing book.

Happy reading!

The writer can be reached: [email protected]

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