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Humanity before Ethnicity

Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) Declares Commitment to Work with Others towards a Democratic, Multi-national Ethiopia:
Is this the Same “New Ethiopia” We in the SMNE Envision?

April 6, 2013

At the meeting
On March 30, 2013, I had the privilege of watching history in progress while attending the first meeting of the newly formed Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) as an observer. Those involved included most of the founding leaders of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). As they announced their new vision, direction and organization to more than 500 people attending the meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota, I was deeply struck with the vastly different message I was hearing that day—calling Oromo to work together for one Ethiopia—from what I had heard at their 2006 OLF meeting where their secessionist goals and strictly Oromo agenda dominated every aim. I can only think that this transformation has been brought about by a renewed hope among its leadership that the great people of Oromia can contribute to the creation of an Ethiopia for all its precious people.    

I believe the ODF, and its new vision, could be part of the answer to the serious division among the Ethiopian opposition groups. This is a good beginning and worth applauding. During the meeting, ODF leadership clearly explained their objectives as advocates not only for the Oromo, but also for the “freedom and justice for all individuals and nations.” They explained that the change in focus was “motivated by the universal principle that struggling for justice for oneself alone without advocating justice for all could ultimately prove futile because ‘“injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”’

I do believe it is legitimate to protect the rights of your own ethnic people; exposing injustices and working towards the resolution of these grievances, especially in a country where no one speaks on behalf of others; however, we will know we have a much healthier society when we advocate for the rights of others and readily correct wrongs. These others can be from tiny subgroups of people or from large majority groups. They can be fellow members of our society that agree with us or those who dispute our positions. In a free society, those unlike us still deserve respect and equal rights. This is why it was so gratifying to hear Oromo leaders say they will not be speaking only for Oromo, but for everybody; and that from here on, the ODF will be a body that will work with others to bring lasting change to all Ethiopians.

Some in the audience challenged this new position. One man summed up the opinion of a number of attendees as they sought to better understand the change of direction. The man asked, “For the last 40 years, we’ve been told that Ethiopians in power were colonizers and imperialists and we have been dreaming about having our own country, but now you are saying we can work from within? Why the change the course we have been on?” 

One of the leaders, Mr. Leenco Lata, respectfully explained, “I cannot preach what is unachievable. It cannot work in Ethiopia. If Oromia was to become a country, the entire region would be in chaos. Oromia is everywhere.  What are you going to do with Gambella, Southern Nations and Benishangul? 

It will be best to fix the country from within so we all have a democratic country in which to live. The Oromo don’t have to think like we are a victim or act like we are a minority. We are not a minority but a majority. We will not forget the historical chapter, but we have to start a new chapter where we work together with everybody to create an Ethiopia for everybody.” 

Mr. Leenco explained to the audience that all Oromo might not be convinced of the need to change directions, but that the leadership planned on talking with those holding different opinions in order to hopefully convince them to come on board. If convinced, they could go forward to start reaching out to other Ethiopian groups with the goal of coming together so all stakeholders could be party to formulating a plan that would work for everyone.

Another leader Mr. Dima, explained that in the previous Ethiopia, as well as under the TPLF/EPRDF, one group defined the direction of the country for everyone else and that this was wrong. He called the EPRDF a façade because although it is a large group of people that pretended to be for everyone, others outside the TPLF were never consulted. He said that Ethiopians should not make the same mistake, but instead must reach out to stakeholders so all could be involved in forming a plan as to how to bring about a more democratic Ethiopia for everybody. He emphasized the need to gain the consensus of the people to form a movement from within the country—not from a neighboring or other country—which would bring the heart of the struggle to Ethiopia so that change could come from within. 

Following the presentation, I came forward to give a response during the question and answer period. I enthusiastically complimented the leadership who were presenting this new direction as well as the way the entire discussion was conducted. The leadership and the public had shown real respect towards each other even as questions were asked, positions challenged and explanations given. It was very encouraging. I wish I could have understood the language, (Afaan Oromo/Oromiffa) but thankfully, I found an Oromo brother from Melbourne, Australia who translated the entire discussion for me.

I told them what began there in this room as a dialogue should be demonstrated in action by talking with others. Other groups should follow suit—regional groups, women, religious groups and youth representing diverse groups. The time to start talking is long overdue no one should wait for an invitation. Be the one to start the conversation. For example, even though I was invited to this meeting; even without an invitation I still would have come had it been possible because this was such an important meeting. Its outcome would affect me as an Ethiopian. I called on them to think out of the box; realizing no one has to stay in their ethnic enclaves. I encouraged them to not wait for an invitation to enter the discussion. 

I suggested, “The next step would be to have a workshop—a national level dialogue—where representatives from different groups could carry on a dialogue. Those speaking from the podium should share the same stage. Let the people have a debate where disagreements can be respectfully voiced, like what just took place at this meeting. This is something the SMNE and others willing to work in collaboration, like the ODF, can pursue.”

As the ODF leaders continue to meet with others to explain their new direction, they are well aware that there may be skeptics among the public or those among the Oromo who do not agree with them; however, as this new vision is practically enacted, it can become a model for other ethnic-based groups, also struggling for freedom and justice, who might be willing to join together if they had a voice.

When this happens, a New Ethiopia for all Ethiopians will be the mindset of a country that, with God’s help, will mobilize an inclusive peoples’ movement. This also means that ethnic-based groups will become civic groups rather than political parties, competing for dominance against other ethnic groups. 

Freedom and justice can never be accomplished through one ethnic group, even a large one. Neither can it be achieved through multiple factions working on their own goals, independent of others. Instead, meaningful change will require the improved collaboration between the many diverse groups seeking an inclusive democratic state. Even though we are diverse people, we Ethiopians have more in common than our differences. Not only do we share the land, we share the same blood through our ancestors who have lived in this land for millenniums. The diversity of Ethiopians in terms of ethnicity, culture, language, history, religion and language is what I call the garden of Ethiopia and what we hold in common is a desire for one healthy family of Ethiopians.

THE TPLF/EPRDF and other narrow-minded, ethnic-centered politicians have tried to overlook the value of all the people of Ethiopia, whether intentionally, for their own self-interests, or because they feared there was no future for them unless they were in power; however the world is changing. People are able to come together in ways never before possible. Improved technology and communication help, but collaboration, undergirded with respect towards others, brings about a better outcome, greater harmony and more sustainable relationships. 

The TPLF/EPRDF’s whole system of ethnic-based hegemony cannot survive when groups such as the ODF refuse to play by those rules any longer. The TPLF/EPRDF’s apartheid model is dependent on division, suspicion and tribal competition and it will take a blow as the Oromo, Amhara, Ogadeni and other Ethiopians begin to advocate for the rights of the other. The people of Gambella as well as the people of Afar are said to be holding dialogues within their own communities regarding similar initiatives to advocate for the rights and inclusion of all Ethiopians, including the minorities and marginalized. This is a movement of thought and it now includes many in the Ethiopian religious communities.

Diverse religious groups have been the target of regime control for years, but now there are strong indicators that the TPLF/EPRDF’s control is faltering. Muslims are joining together with Christians to find a way to work together for the common good. This includes freedom of religion and expression for all Ethiopians. Civic organizations are also trying to create bonds with each other to advance shared goals. These developments should be a strong sign to regime power-holders that change is coming. The TPLF/EPRDF supporters are indeed on the wrong side unless they join with others in the transformation of Ethiopia into a “genuinely democratic multinational federation” that the ODF is talking about.

This new ODF initiative is what was envisioned four years ago when the SMNE was established. Our history of having an Ethiopia for only one or a few tribes—while all the rest struggle—must be ended. The only Ethiopia that will bring sustainable peace and prosperity is one where the humanity of each and every person, regardless of any differences, is not only valued, but also cared for, nurtured and protected. One’s own freedom, justice and empowerment are only sustainable when the same is given to others for “no one is free until all are free.” 

The widespread application of these principles will make Ethiopia a home rather than the prison described by the ODF that makes us hunger for personal and collective freedom. Lasting change requires much dialogue, acknowledging the grievances of other people, the restoration of justice, the empowerment of our citizens at every level and reconciliation. Our goal is not to defeat, crush or root out the enemy as was said during the Dergue, but we must work to find ways to transform our country.

Through such dialogue we can talk about why the majority of various ethnic groups will not end up having their particular language as one of the national languages of the country because we have over 80 different languages. In the case of the Oromo language, it makes strong sense that it becomes a second national language because forty million of our people speak it. English may become another of its languages. There are examples of some countries functioning well with more than one language, like Canada or Switzerland; however, it is important to keep in mind that language is meant to be an instrument to advance communication. Through dialogue we can find ways to figure this all out, including how to bring new inclusion to the minorities and to the marginalized—like Ethiopian women, the disabled, the uneducated and others whose voices must be included.

With respectful dialogue, we can find workable solutions to our differences and grievances rather than dividing the country or seeing other people as our enemies. This is the time to talk to each other rather than talking about each other. In the last 20 years the only thing we have done, which was also advanced by the TPLF/EPRDF, was for some Oromo to talk about the Amhara and what they have done and for some Amhara to talk about the Oromo, decrying them as refusing to let go of what Menelik had done to them. In other cases, some Ethiopians do not openly say it, but they discriminate against some they do not consider to be “real Ethiopians” by not giving them opportunity. The people of the Omo Valley are good examples of that discrimination. Fortunately, more of us are realizing that there is no 99% Ethiopian; but instead that every one of us is fully Ethiopian. 

We also must realize that there is no ethnic group that cannot claim being oppressed at some time; however, the name “Ethiopia” and the flag of Ethiopia have never oppressed the people. It has been the few elite in power and the dictatorial systems they set up which have oppressed us. There is no “us” and “them” in this land for we are one people. There is no need to separate the country when we can solve our differences through a genuine dialogue.  The ODF are now promising to do this.

From the very beginning, the SMNE has always sought to work with anyone and any group who honestly was willing to advance the betterment of humanity rather than using these principles disingenuously while holding onto a hidden agenda. As the ODF begins to advocate for all Ethiopians, they are “putting humanity before ethnicity” and endorsing the belief that sustainable freedom will never come to the Oromo until it comes to all Ethiopians. I enthusiastically commend them on a job well done and look forward to the fruit of this contribution. We in the SMNE will do whatever we can to work with them and hope that others, including the TPLF, will come to the realization that this is the only way forward that gives us all a future.

To accomplish these goals, we must acknowledge the historical past with its injustice towards different groups of people, but we must also look forward to building a better future. We should also be willing to give up something for a bigger cause.

There is a price to be paid for a better future. It will cost us something which may include forgiveness, humility, compromise, and putting behind us some of our past grievances.

The Ethiopia we have now is not good for anyone; for example: the unemployment, the locking up of Oromo and many others, the displacement of the people like the Amhara and others from their land, the outflow of Ethiopian women to the Middle East as maids, the lack of a future with hope in Ethiopia which should make us think about why we are choosing to work as factions rather than together. We must ask why we are settling for so little when we could collaborate by doing our share rather than giving the burden to only a few. Together we could create a better country—more unified than divided, more livable than inhospitable and more caring about others than selfish about our own interests.

If each of us really took the initiative and was willing to commit to doing our share, we could be able to create a better Ethiopia rather than a beggar Ethiopia. Imagine if the two major ethnic groups, the Oromo and the Amhara, would stand together as one people for the future of all of us! Imagine if the Ethiopian youth saw themselves as human beings first rather than as a tribe and could stand together as future leaders of one Ethiopia rather than as one tribe making Ethiopia their own playground for their own tribal interests. Imagine all the Ethiopian women reconciling and working together as mothers who do not favor one child over another. Imagine Ethiopia’s religious leaders, like the Ethiopian Orthodox, the Evangelical Christians, the Ethiopian Muslims, Ethiopian Jews, animists and non-believers coming together as people of moral character to promote love, compassion, peace, honesty, integrity, good relations and respect for freedom and justice. 

The evidence that the ODF and others are genuine will be seen in how they embrace others. Imagine an Oromo speaking up on behalf of the displaced Amhara, condemning it. Imagine an Amhara speaking up on behalf of the Oromo who have been unjustly imprisoned just for being Oromo. Imagine a Christian condemning the mistreatment of the Muslim. Imagine the Muslim doing the same thing on behalf of the Christians. Imagine if every group did this for others. Who would not want to live in such a country? This kind of Ethiopia would be much better than some of the countries where so many of our young people are running to in hopes of finding a better life, but too often are suffering or dying on the way.

The hope for a better future is within each of us. With God’s help, He can transform us and use us as tools to transform our country. It is a matter of putting these hopes and dreams into action. May God help more of us to realize, like the ODF, that we are one family, the Ethiopian family. May God help us not to be so judgmental and stubbornly fixed in our prejudices, but instead to open our hearts to accept each other; helping us to break down the barriers of suspicion that have kept us fighting each other and struggling to survive while a tiny minority has taken the power and are thriving at the expense of all of us.

May God help us to find a way to also embrace them, not excluding them either for they are a product of past mistakes and thinking.  If they change, we need to accept them as well for no one is free until we all are free. May the God who loves each of us, help us to see the beauty He created in our Ethiopian brothers and sisters.


Please do not hesitate to e-mail your comments to Mr. Obang Metho, Executive Director of the SMNE at: Obang@solidaritymovement.org.

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