A wind of change is blowing across Oromia. The Oromo people, angered by the regime’s brutal oppression and economic marginalization, rose up in unison signaling to the regime that they can no longer tolerate the revolutionary democrats’ authoritarian rule. There are many reasons that pushed the Oromo people to break away from fear and wage a civil rights revolution. Among them are found the massive violations of the people’s fundamental rights and freedoms for so many years, the entrenchment of greedy elite preoccupied with eviction of the poor from their land and homes capriciously, exploitation of public resources and all gainful economic opportunities by ruling party members or their supporters and metastatic growth of extractive institutions. Hence, what made the situation worse is the entrenchment of such abusive and exploitative government structure down to the communal (kebele) level.
The current ruling elites often take pride in filling kebeles with government officials throughout rural parts of the country. They claim it is the revolutionary democrats who for the first time in history actually governed rural Ethiopia. True, decentralization of public administration is basically thought to be an act of bringing closer to the public provision of social services by the government. However, the rampant abuse of power, greed and bribery has negated the merits of decentralization in Ethiopia. Decentralization has aggravated land grabbing and activated bribe extorting networks at the local government level. So through decentralization, the revolutionary democrats burdened the already destitute peasantry with another layer of bribe extorting class. Note here that one of the slogans heard in the protest organized by Gadab Asasa youth was ‘worra kiisii ofiitiif dhaabbateen hin bullu’ roughly translated as ‘we shall not be governed by those merely concerned with filling their pockets’.
The Oromo protest that began in Ginci district in opposition to plans of the local government to privatize the communal forest of Cillimoo spread like wildfire in many parts of Oromia. Contrary to this reality, the regime’s public relations machine seems to issue contradictory statements: on the hand, it conceded defeat and declared that the government scrapped the controversial masterplan heeding to the people’s demand; on the other hand, it was so dismissive of the people’s protest, calling the protestors ‘few misled by anti-peace elements’ and ‘forces of destruction’. But the facts on the ground are clear for everyone to see that there is no single zonal administration in Oromia State where the protest did not take place in one or another form. People from all walks of life actively participated in the protest across the whole region of Oromia. And the protest had been mostly peaceful. Therefore, the government’s narrative that the protest is led by ‘forces of destruction’ does not hold water.
To be sure, there are many success stories that could be told about the ongoing Oromo protest. I will only highlight the ones I thought to be very important.
A grass roots movement led by the youth
The Oromo protest is a grassroots movement that morphed into a popular democracy movement in the absence of well-organized elite leadership. Many believe a successful struggle against oppression cannot be waged without the active involvement of the elite. In our case, the elites were either decimated by the brutal actions of the authoritarian state or co-opted by the revolutionary democrats.
Correctly appraising this unfavorable condition, the Oromo youth took upon themselves the moral responsibility to free their nation from ruthless oppression and economic marginalization. They organized their rallying points around the immediate concerns and interests of their society. They raised their voices against the Integrated Addis Ababa Masterplan which is part of the scheme by the ruling revolutionary democrats to enrich themselves and their cronies at the expense of poor peasants by dispossessing the landholdings of the latter under the guise of development planning. The youth further objected the policies of the state that economically marginalized the peasantry and turned their life into misery and destitution. They sought a working government that takes into account the people’s interest in all matters of public life. They rejected a dysfunctional government of the revolutionary democrats paralyzed by corruption, fraud and waste. They wanted to see a genuine self-rule in Oromia region and a shared rule at the center. They demanded the regime to cease ‘party dictatorship’ and yearned for separation of party and the state. They rejected outright domination of the political sphere by the Tigray Liberation Front (TPLF hereafter) for it has been the root cause for lack of genuine self-rule and shared rule.
To be sure, calling for local autonomy and truly representative national government is a concern about democracy than ethnicity. Therefore, it’s highly imperative that Addis Ababa residents should shed away their cynicism and join hands with the Oromo youth on the ground in galvanizing this democratic movement. We have a clear opportunity to take the fight for our political freedom to the center of power in Addis through nonviolent resistance. Or else this occasion will be remembered in history as one of the missed opportunities to form a winning coalition against tyranny. Thus, there are encouraging signs though: the taxi drivers strike.
As a long held adage says power can only be arrested by power. If we join and support our fellow Oromos who are resisting the brutal security forces of the regime, there is good possibility that we can turn the tide against the Woyane regime. We can overpower them easily because Woyanes cannot fight a determined people rising up together for a just cause. Woyanes do not have a just cause to die for. They are only after money and power. Whereas the people fighting Woyane on the ground right now have a just cause – to replace tyranny with democratic rule. For this reason, I think the people’s victory over forces of tyranny is inevitable.
Assembly and freedom of expression
The revolutionary democrats maintained their grip on state power not only by amassing wealth and building a partisan security structure but also, and even most importantly, by trampling on civil liberties. Peaceful assembly of citizens had been practically banned. Freedom of thought and expression had long been restricted. Criticizing government policies or actions without being assailed by the government has become a rare phenomenon. The revolutionary democrats had shrunk the political space and restricted political freedom of citizens because they have the ‘fantasy of complete and unassailable power’. It is because of such irrational understanding of power that they resort to brute force whenever they suspect that a challenge is posed to their political power.
Despite this adversity, the Oromo youth braved to debunk the ‘fantasy of complete power’ upheld by the ruling elites. In the face of harsh security crackdown, our youth dared to hold demonstrations in towns after towns and scores of rural villages. By standing for their freedoms defiantly, the Oromo youth were able to create a powerful social movement that attracted every section of the society in Oromia region including farmers, urban residents, teachers, civil servants. In many rural villages, the people have restored their right to assembly and freedom of expression. Now airing criticism against Woyane tyranny is commonplace. The spies of the regime cannot stop this overwhelming level of opposition to the regime. It is expected soon that Ethiopians in other regions will start feeling the cascading effect of the Oromo uprising and begin freely expressing themselves in opposition to the regime’s authoritarian rule. It is believed citizens in other parts of Ethiopia would follow the path charted by Oromos and begin challenging the regime’s policies that brought upon them an impending mass starvation. So it would be fair to say that Oromo uprising is opening new vistas of freedom in Ethiopia.
People’s power compelled the regime to reverse policies
The regime was compelled to rescind the controversial masterplan because of the vehement opposition it faced from the Oromo people. The revolutionary democrats are known for stubborn pursuit of their policies at any cost. But in this case, the people overpowered them and they begrudgingly accepted their defeat for the first time in their 25 years reign. The decision to scrap the masterplan was not an easy one for them because it denies TPLF the resource base to keep the regime’s expansive patronage network happy. If TPLF cannot keep this patronage network happy, it would be very difficult for it to hold together the EPRDF coalition. The coalition is not formed around a working political ideology or any decent ideal of statecraft. The coalition can be held together only if TPLF can maintain a neo-patrimonial state. The possibility to sustain a neo-patrimonial state for long is increasingly being challenged by the opposition TPLF encountered to the Addis masterplan, farmers’ objection to the lease of large tracts of farmland to foreigners and increasing apprehensiveness of citizens to TPLF owned businesses. Thus, this will weaken TPLF economic institutions and eventually starve TPLF of additional revenues from parastatals and party businesses.
Exposing the tension within the coalition of unequals
The Oromo protest exposed the tension within the coalition of the unequals. It is an open secret that the EPRDF coalition is cobbled together by the military strength of TPLF and opportunistic alliance of the rest. Tension has been simmering within this loose coalition since the death of the regime’s mastermind. The intra-elite jostling for top positions in the government had created an atmosphere of distrust among the EPRDF leadership that after the death of the regime’s strongman collective leadership or rule by committee had been brought back. Put differently, the current prime minister does not possess full powers as his predecessor. To compensate for the loss of the prime minister’s position TPLF has tightened its grip on command and control of the state’s security institutions. The promotion of several senior military officers to the rank of generalship from its political base immediately after the death of Meles is a testament to TPLF’s insatiable appetite for complete domination of the security agencies. Nonetheless, TPLF couldn’t buy peace with this entire machination and control freak behavior.
The Oromo people shattered away the dream of the TPLF oligarchs by saying no to governance by fear. OPDO read this political development quicker than TPLF and dropped a bombshell decision through convening an extra-ordinary session of the central committee on January 12, 2016. In this historic U-turn decision, OPDO acknowledged the Oromo protests were legitimate expressions of the people’s will, and it decided to rescind the controversial masterplan and compensate the families who lost their loved ones during the protest. Whereas the central government dominated by the TPLF has taken a radically different position: that the protest is not the expression of the people’s will; that there are anti-peace elements behind the protest including the Eritrean government and opposition groups that had vowed to change the government via armed struggle; that TPLF sees the protest as Oromo secessionist movement. This kind of radical difference between OPDO and TPLF has led the latter to adopt a military approach to resolve the current political crisis in Oromia region. There is no doubt that this is the beginning of the end for disintegration of the EPRDF coalition. If the army and security forces commanded by TPLF heavyweights continue the killing of innocent Oromo children, men and women arbitrarily, this will hasten TPLF’s isolation and eventually result in fracturing of the EPRDF coalition.
No more killing without consequences
The regime cannot kill Oromos endlessly without facing harsh consequences. The security forces of the regime committed heinous crimes by killing children under the age of 10 in Asasa and Ambo. They killed pregnant women and the elderly. They indiscriminately shot live ammunitions at wedding party in Siraro. They wounded hundreds of innocent protestors. They arrested and subjected to cruel beatings thousands of individuals only because they opposed the regime openly. Now after all these atrocities the Oromo people have run out of patience. The people are entitled to defend themselves against arbitrary killings. Self defence is a natural right when gross injustice is perpetrated against people. And it is also a mark of moral maturity because it is only through defensive action that the Oromo people can restore their dignity and protect their lives. Unless the TPLF-led police state immediately cease the killings of civilians and remove the brutal Agazi force from the streets of Oromia, further bloodletting is inevitable because the people will be left with no choice other than defending their lives. Hence, TPLF would be ultimately responsible for the lives lost and property destroyed in the process because it chose to escalate the violence.
We have witnessed in the last four months that TPLF is willing to kill innocent citizens indiscriminately to extend its reign of terror. The life of many families had been shattered by terrorist acts of the state. Because of the gruesome violence TPLF is meting out on the Oromo people, it is time to sit back and devise strategies on how to take a less confrontational approach to reduce the casualties on people demonstrating peacefully to take back their freedoms from the tyrants ruling them by force. Thus, the activists and community organizers must do more in this regard. I suggest the following actions:-
– Print posters containing the symbol of the Oromo protest with a message that the people want regime change; and post them on public buildings, market squares, and schools. When the police remove these posters from one quarter, post them in other quarters. By doing so, the police would be kept busy and have less time and resource to mete out violence on the people. The invincibility of the regime security structure would also be tested.
– Continue road blockage for it has been very effective so far in halting the free movement of the security forces of the regime.
– Disseminate information that motivates the civil servants of Oromia region to stand with the people and organize a strike. The rising cost of living and starving salaries paid to most civil servants will make them want change if activists and community organizers nudge them.
– Print posters with messages that acknowledges the refusal of the Oromia police to use excessive force against peaceful protestors; convey a message that the Oromia police and the people are one and that the people trust Oromia police for their safety. In contrast, relay messages that condemn the brutalities of Agazi and federal police.
– Encourage Kebele militias to side with the people, not the regime.
– Disseminate information on the goods and services offered by TPLF owned businesses and organize a boycotting campaign.