OLF: Turning the Current Crisis Into Opportunity

By Abbas Qoro and Dabala Dimbo | January 12, 2012

The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was born out of deep historical injustices perpetrated against the Oromo people by successive Ethiopian regimes. It is rooted in centuries-old political oppression and economic exploitation of the Oromo in the hands of the Abyssinians. The OLF was founded with a political goal of freeing the Oromo people from such oppressions. It has spearheaded the Oromo liberation struggle now for over four decades.

Over the course of this struggle, the Front has achieved some notable successes but has also faced several external and internal political and organizational challenges. Some of the external challenges were caused by a well-resourced and externally supported enemy that is the Ethiopian state, hostile neighboring countries that have long served as proxy for the Ethiopian regimes, etc. Internally, the Front has faced core leadership weaknesses and divisions within the OLF which weakened its organizational capacity. The OLF has been particularly plagued, over the last decade or so, by internal divisions and organizational factionalization, unable to manage or resolve such conflicts, with devastating consequences to the success of the organization. At the interface of these external and internal weaknesses is also insufficient material support from the Oromo populace.

These challenges notwithstanding, Oromo resistance has however continued virtually throughout Oromia. The history of human liberation struggles show that, regardless of organizational challenges, the struggle against domination continues as long as injustices persist. This is more of a law of nature than an engineered desire, and that of the Oromo is no exception. While the presence of unity and organizational effectiveness may speed up progress, their absence can’t void the struggle.

It seems therefore somewhat surprising that so much euphoria has surrounded the recent cryptic pronouncement of a splinter group of an OLF that the OLF has given up on its political goal of liberation and independence in favor of embracing Ethiopian unity. The pronouncement may have created a political illusion among some Abyssinian quarters including Ginob 7 that the Oromo cause has suddenly disappeared into thin air, and that the century-long injustices against the Oromo have suddenly disappeared. It is wrongly assumed that the quest of the Oromo people for freedom from political oppression and economic exploitation will somehow be addressed by embracing a system that has generated these injustices in the first place. As a result, some of these political groups have begun to prematurely celebrate the death of OLF as we know it. They have failed taking heed from lessons of history: organizational challenges may slow progress, open way for some opportunists to try to sell out the cause, and for enemies to align with such groups to spread needless propaganda undermining the cause, but they will not be able to stop the quest for Oromo freedom.

On the other hand, the political maneuvers and foul-plays offer a clear opportunity to the Oromo people and the Oromo diaspora in particular. This should be a moment of reflection, a moment that should serve as a clear call to begin to chart a new path for unity, based on a recognition that while there may be differences within us, these differences pale in comparison with the threat that is now emerging from the “OPDOs” of the diaspora, those who are only too willing to abandon the Oromo cause. The Oromo opportunists who have been party to this pronouncement should not only be roundly rejected by the Oromo diaspora – our communities, civic organizations, and Oromo individuals – but they should be isolated and never again be allowed to undermine the Oromo struggle. They should be discouraged from allowing the enemy to poke a hole in the Oromo struggle.

OLF Splinter Groups

OLF’s inability, over the last two decades, to confront the many political and organizational challenges it has faced has culminated in a lack of visible overall progress, particularly in terms of military successes against the Ethiopian state. The lack of success has in turn led to a great deal of frustration within the OLF ranks and the larger Oromo population. Indeed, these challenges have resulted in the creation of many splinter groups within the OLF over the last few decades.

Some of these splinter groups went on to build a separate organization of their own with new names. Others split from the OLF, but retained the “OLF” as their organization name, fully cognizant of the irreplaceable brand-name that OLF has become both within the Oromo community and within the broader Ethiopian political establishment. As a result, there are today three Oromo political groups who call themselves “OLF”. They are generally referred to as QACA, Jijjirama, and the core OLF – Shannee.

The QACA group decided to separate from the core in the early 2000s, accusing the latter of having changed its mission from “independence” to “democratization of Ethiopia”. In reality, and barring mutual recriminations, a neutral observer of this conflict would be hard pressed to establish that there has indeed been a change of mission since the early 2000s. Shanne revised the political program of the OLF, replacing the word “independence” by “self-determination”, but it is hard to see how this provides a conclusive proof of a change in mission. The two groups have played a war of words around words such as “self-determination”, “independence”, “negotiations”. However, for about a decade now, Oromos have been deliberating, discussing, and searching for a clear and definite proof of political differences between QACA and Shanee –and to no avail. So far, no fundamental difference that justifies the split has been articulated.

The Jijjirama group split from Shanee a few years ago under the rubric of essentially bringing about fundamental organizational and leadership changes. Unfortunately, the group failed to capture the hearts and minds of the majority even in diaspora despite raising a legitimate-sounding issue, primarily because it organized its splinter group based on region. Furthermore, many remaining members of the OLF felt the changes could be implemented without a split that causes further weakening of the movement. There was however some sympathy to the idea of change, especially by those who believed that success is coming too slow, and that the OLF as an organization needed injection of some new ideas and leadership.

Regrettably, the experience of more than a decade of division within the OLF shows that none of the splinter groups has grown to become a viable organization better than, or even comparable to, the core organization they left. None has solved the very problem they enlisted as a primary reason for their split: lack of military success. None could deliver on what they perceived was an organizational failure of the core OLF leadership – the inability to build a vibrant organization with a growing membership base and expanded resources, capable of scoring victories. Indeed, with each splinter group leaving, the same membership base was further divided into more sub-groups, diminishing the financial and human capacity of each group including that of the core. Discouraged and off-put by the internal bickering, public support to each group has considerably diminished, with many Oromo nationalists in the diaspora deciding to stay on the sideline.

The New Development

None of the three groups has until now publicly articulated a different political vision for the Oromo struggle, different from that pronounced originally in the 1970s – freedom of the Oromo people from the Abyssinian rule. The experience also shows that, individual defectors aside, all splinter groups of the OLF have until now maintained a psychological independence, a stubborn political stance that often resisted compromise even with other OLF groups, let alone with Abyssinian political establishments. None of them would give or take reconciliatory measures even from neutral Oromo mediators, leave alone succumb to an Abyssinian moral authority.

In the past, all the three groups have publicly discussed the challenges of Oromo struggle, at times in a politically and emotionally charged environment. The sharp debates have centered on leadership, vision, and even personality issues. The debates have sometimes exhibited emotional overflows, but have always put the interest of the Oromo people first. Even in the midst of such politically and emotionally charged environment, all contending Oromo views have guarded the interest of Oromo nationalism against Abyssinian intrusion and manipulation. The most recent development with the Jijjirama group is, however, different.

It is indeed shocking to learn that the Jijjirama group has now negotiated, and wantonly surrendered the entire agenda of the Oromo struggle to a non-Oromo political organization, Ginbot 7, a move that has angered many Oromos. There is a legitimate anger when an Oromo stands for, or represents foreign agents against the interests of his or her own people. That anger is even more compounded when members of such group reside in North America, far from the despondency of hunger and excruciating poverty that may have subjected many an Oromo to reluctantly embrace alien political rules for some financial gain, forcing them to betray their souls. Clearly, this voluntary capitulation by a diaspora Oromo political entity to a diaspora Abyssinian manipulation lacks pride and integrity. It is beneath the dignity of the Oromo as a nation. It crosses the line that has never before been crossed by any self-respecting Oromo political group whose expressed purpose is to advance the Oromo cause. The question before us, the Oromo diaspora, is therefore how we should react to this sad turn of events. In particular, two questions are of critical importance: first, how should we deal with this minority group that has crossed the line? And, second, how can we turn this crisis into an opportunity to re-energize the Oromo spirit, and forge greater unity of purpose among the remaining Oromo groups. Before we, turn to these questions, a brief commentary on Ginbot 7 is in order.

Ginbot 7 and Its Mission

Ginbot 7 is an Ethiopian diaspora organization founded in 2008, led by individuals with political ambitions that seem to have successfully combined business and politics. Many of the Ginbot 7 leaders left Ethiopia after the 2005 Ethiopian elections in which they fully participated, and when their political ambition was cut short by the Ethiopian regime that denied them any political seat despite the claim that the group has scored some victories in the said election.

In recent years, Ethiopian unionist political groups have somehow managed to inject themselves into the inter-Oromo debate, in part emboldened by misguided fora such as the Alliance for Freedom and Democracy (AFD), a short-lived forum created by the OLF whose alleged purpose was to create alliance between the Oromo and the Amhara to topple the Tigrean Ethiopian state, the TPLF. These Abyssinian groups now seem to be willing to push the envelope, resorting to their tried divide and rule strategy, and hunting for weak spots within the Oromo body politic, to weaken the Oromo struggle.

With the recent pronouncement, Ginbot 7 is now bragging that it has hit a jackpot, it has found a “formula” to “transform” the OLF, an organization that all unionists see as a major threat to the unity and integrity of Ethiopia, into one that is now ready to embrace that unity, and work within the framework of the Ethiopian constitution. The Abyssinian media outlets and blogospheres are abuzz with the news. They declared: “they have convinced the OLF to change course.” If it were only that simple!

What is missing from this declaration is the truth that this political matrimony occurred with an Oromo political group (Jijjirama) that many within the Oromo community regard as a marginal group in terms of representation and political outlook. In fact, some key core members of the Jijjirama leadership have resigned from membership prior to and following this highly controversial proclamation. This matrimony is short-sited and counter-productive because history has shown that the call for “Unity of Ethiopia” has consistently failed on deaf ears as far as the Oromo public is concerned; it is not a goal that interests or draws the attention of the Oromo people. It is counter-productive because whatever goodwill some Oromos have harbored about the possibility and utility of tactical “alliance” with the Ginbot 7 (and indeed the broader unionist Ethiopian political groups) to fight the Tigrean domination is now likely to disappear altogether. Blinded by the old ambitions of Abyssinian domination, now increasingly out of range, Ginbot 7 has now sabotaged what little hope there was for the principles of peaceful coexistence of people as equals, respectful of one another and each other’s cultures, in a format chosen by free will of the people. Its manipulative ploy has diminished whatever little trust there has been among the Oromo about unionist Ethiopian political groups.

What Next?

In the short term, we propose the following two points to be taken into account relative to the ongoing crisis:

  • It is important to place the Jijjirama group in the proper historical context of the Oromo struggle. The actions of these few individuals of immense appetite for fame should not be exaggerated; there were OPDOs, there are OPDOs today, and there will be OPDOs in the future. In a larger context of society all scavengers of fame are but less than a footnote. This recycled concept of trying to create OPDOs even in diaspora where such capitulation is not imposed on anyone by force is sad to watch, but not entirely unexpected. The Oromo struggle should still focus on its legitimate demand without resorting to revenge that these minorities of the Abyssinian minorities might provoke us to.
  • That said, since the Jijjirama has compromised honor and integrity and crossed a line that no Oromo political group in the diaspora has ever crossed before, we call on all proud and genuine Oromo voices – political organizations, communities, civic organizations and individuals – to condemn the actions of these individuals openly, and expressing such condemnations through the Oromo news and media outlets; and letting these individuals know that their actions are reprehensible, unworthy of the long struggle of the Oromo.

A call to turn this crisis into opportunity

Regardless of the damage done to the Oromo struggle as a result of this crisis, we believe the crisis also offers ample opportunity for some serious reflections and actions that benefit the Oromo struggle:

  • In concert with the actions suggested above, the current turbulence within the Oromo struggle must be dealt with swiftly, and honest discussions must be encouraged through open channels such as OSA, to facilitate a road-map that will reinvigorate the struggle. This must be done without compromising the Oromo ethos and without succumbing to the Abyssinian interest, be it for political prestige or for garnering attention and making news. We should guard the struggle from poachers and imposters especially during tough times like this by openly voicing our concerns and encouraging civil discourse
  • The two splinter groups of the OLF: the OLF core and the QACA group should put aside whatever minor political and personal differences they may have and start working together on reconciliatory steps in the interest of the Oromo people. It is evident, from this recent experience, that inter-Oromo conflicts are being used to poke big holes in the Oromo struggle. The last few years have shown clearly that the ruling regime of Ethiopia and other Abyssinian political organizations will do everything in their power to weaken the Oromo struggle. To fight and lose a fight is unfortunate, but to allow enemy infiltration of the Oromo struggle and weaken the struggle as a result of such infiltration is a mistake of historic magnitude.
  • All OLF supporters and members including those who have recently announced their withdrawal from the blundered Jijjirama group, others who distanced themselves from the struggle or withheld support for all good reasons, or chose silence rather than to be part of any group, must now come together to exert pressure on the Oromo political groups and individuals to act in favor of reconciliation to build a momentum for the Oromo struggle. Resting on our laurels is not going to bring about freedom to the Oromo people; it will not accelerate its coming.

Abbas Qoro and Dabala Dimbo can be reached at dabaladinqisa@yahoo.com