Photo: Dawud Ibsa, Chairman, Oromo Liberation Front (OLF)
Please allow me to present to you warm greetings from OLF leaders, members and supporters to the participants of this conference. It is a great honor and pleasure for me and our leadership team to be in your midst to jointly explore the challenges and prospects for a peaceful resolution of the conflicts ravaging the Horn of Africa region. On behalf of all the suffering people of the Horn, Oromo and non-Oromo alike, I sincerely thank the Chr. Mechelsen Institute, particularly Dr. Pausewang, for successfully organizing this very timely, pertinent and exploratory conference on Conflict resolution in the Horn in general and in union Oromia and Oromo region in particular. It is a new testament to the deep concern of your institute, your government and your great country for the well-being of the voiceless in the world.
Allow me also to thank Ambassador Shinn, Prof. Clapham, Dr. Pausewang, Lovise and Dr. Tronvoll for a scholarly assessment of the situation on the ground and for sharing it with us openly. Let me assure you, our organization takes your recommendations seriously as it critically rethinks and readjusts itself to better face new challenges and vigorously exploit new opportunities. We hope this will be the beginning, not the end, of a long journey towards making Oromia and by extension the Horn a more democratic, peaceful and stable region.
Having said this, please allow me to focus on the obstacles and prospects for a peaceful resolution of the mayhem in the Horn. In order to do that, I have to make these assumptions:
• You are all aware of the history of the formation of contemporary Oromia;
• The impact of the conquest on the Oromo and other people in the South;
• Despite the many upheavals and so called transformations, Oromia has yet to shed its imperial nature where the minority dominates the majority by sheer force of arms and crucial support from outside;
• And that the current conflict is a result of a determined minority trying to cling to power by all means and the attempt of the subjugated nations to free themselves from domination, subjugation, repression, marginalization and exploitation.
At every historical juncture Oromos have acted in good will to bridge this gap. Many Oromos had served Oromia with distinction. The collaboration of famous Oromo generals like Gobana with Minilek, the exemplary leadership of Iyyasu, however short-lived, the statesmanship of Habtegiorgis, the decisive support extended to H/Silassie against the Italians by heroes like Ababa Aragay, the guidance given to Mengistu by theoreticians like Haile Fida and finally the cooperation given to Meles by the OPDO, and even OLF, albeit briefly, all ended in frustration. Oromos have also attempted to peacefully improve their lot by forming the first official Oromo NGO, the legendary Macca & Tulama Association, which was of course open to non Oromos reflecting the goodwill and openness of Oromos, but it too did not fare any better.
After assimilation, cooperation and entreaties for a peaceful redress of their grievances failed, it was only natural for the Oromo to ask, “What is left to be done?” Although an independent militant organization was the answer, in no time did the Oromo close the door to a peaceful political alternative. When Mengistu assumed power and temporarily opened the field for political agitation the OLF helped form a multi-national political organization called the Oromian Oppressed Peoples’ Revolutionary Struggle (OCHIHAT) by bringing activists from all nationalities to strive for a peaceful political transformation of the Oromian state. However, when the Dergue reneged on its earlier promises, OLF had to go back to the field. Continuing the policy of working with others whenever possible, it took initiatives to build alliance with other forces to topple the Dergue and subsequently joined the Transitional arrangement in 1991/92 with a positive spirit. This is evidence that OLF has always been and remains to be open to alternatives for cooperation. OLF has never been and shall never be shy from embracing a more comprehensive agenda that does not compromise on the national aspirations of the Oromo people.
Although the price paid by OLF for this experiment is heavy, it did not make us give up on the search for a just peace nor dampen our desire for negotiation. We continued our exploration for just peace after the abortion of the Transitional arrangement. From the Paris conference, the different bilateral and multilateral arrangements to peacefully negotiate all outstanding issues down to the many attempts by the Americans, Germans, and the Norwegians attests to our ceaseless search for just peace. Since the war is being fought on our soil and financed with our own resources our resolve for peaceful resolution of conflicts is not a tactical but rather a strategic one. We cannot afford to sacrifice our youth as we need each and every one of them alive to grow our country, fight poverty and achieve a better standard of living. We understand that whereas we have everything to gain from peace, we have plenty to loose from continuation of violence imposed on us. However, while being relentless in our search for just peace, we shall never compromise nor bargain, in the name of an empty promise for peace, on the fundamental interests and rights of the Oromo people for which thousands of Oromos have sacrificed.
OLF has always been advocating for a just peace of the brave. That is why we proposed a bold agenda for peace in 2000 only to be frustrated by lack of response from the regime. That is why we took initiatives to bring several opposition parties together to form an alternative political force. That is why we went even further by issuing a joint statement with them indicating our desire for voluntary and democratic unity based on the freely expressed will of all peoples.
The Objectives and Obstacles of the Struggle
Contrary to the disinformation and propaganda by the regime, the main objective of the Oromo struggle is not revenge for past crimes or retribution for present transgressions but rather to change the victor-victim relationship between the conqueror and the conquered and build a brand new polity on a new paradigm based on the mutual consent of the peoples concerned. This will create harmony and open the way to build a democratic society that will work for the well-being of all the peoples. As we have indicated before, given a willing partner, I assure you we are ready to travel extra miles to rest this conflict causing misery for millions.
The obstacles to achieving peace are two-fold. First, the regime, being a minority pays only lip service to democracy- not wanting to lose the absolute advantage it currently enjoys. Second, Abyssinians lack a culture that tolerates differences and nourishes democracy. Every power transfer has been through violence. The winner takes all; compromise is seen as weakness. That is what makes the automatic resort to violence and political machinations possible.
The regime has perfected its oppressive machinery. Its propaganda campaign has escalated to the extent of suppressing any movement, whether political or non political, inside the country and branding those outside as terrorists. Nevertheless whenever one venue is closed the subjugated people resort to the next available means and the machinery follows suit- thus perpetuating the vicious cycle, the outcome of which is abject poverty, endless war, disease, famine, repression manifested by thousands of political prisoners and the forced exodus of skilled manpower, polarization of inter-communal relations, isolation of the government from the people, and interstate conflicts. The Oromo people carry the brunt of this burden. According to objective reports from independent Human Rights organizations and neutral observers, the atrocities committed against the Oromo nation rise to a level of genocide.
The simmering Oromo-Ethiopia conflict will not affect only Oromia, but the whole region of the Horn of Africa. Owing to the proximity of our region to the troubled Middle East and the religious composition of the peoples, the rise of religious extremism is a real threat. Thus the search for just peace needs to be aggressively pursued as whatever happens in Oromia has a spillover effect on the Horn countries and vice-versa.
Oromo region shares boundary, traditions and religion with almost all the regions in Oromia. It is at the center, it is the most populous and the largest in land mass and resources. Oromo region manifests all the diversity of Oromia. Thus, whatever takes place in Oromo region affects all of Oromia. It is the only society where Islam, Christianity and Waaqeffanna harmoniously flourished side by side for centuries and there are no signs of religious extremism so far. OLF’s adherence to a strictly secular policy contributes greatly to curb the mushrooming of religious fundamentalism. The OLF sees the solution to the Oromo question from the perspective that the aspiration of every popular struggle is the political, economic, and social well-being of its constituents. We believe all people benefit from just peace and a genuinely democratic arrangement. We therefore believe that prospects for Oromo freedom lies in the freedom of all the peoples in the area and the establishment of a truly democratic institutional and legal framework premised on the freely expressed will of all the peoples in Oromia.
This can only be based on the mutual recognition and acceptance of the principle of self-determination of peoples where all genuine representatives of these peoples come together and agree on a basic constitutional charter that will guide the way to commonly agreed democratic governance. This should include recognition of the right to form ones own government. If everyone is assured one’s appropriate share and a just, equitable and democratic system is devised we don’t see any basis for a deadly conflict that we are currently observing in Oromia and throughout the region. What the concerned peoples in the region desperately need and where friends of the region could help is thus in facilitating such a broad-based and serious dialogue.
We in the OLF believe that there should be a guarantee that all peoples will have the right to self administration within their own demarcated and sovereign area to develop their language, preserve their culture, manage their economic resources and better their lives. Human Rights, Rule of Law, separation of state power, multi-party democracy with free and fair election, free enterprise, sanctity of private property, the rights of national minorities, religious freedom and all relevant UN and international conventions will provide the basis for such a charter.
The Oromo people has been waging a continuous struggle to achieve the above objective for the last three decades. The struggle went through many ups and downs overcoming many obstacles. When this struggle started, the consciousness of the Oromo people was at its infancy. It took immense sacrifices to cultivate Oromummaa (Oromo nationalism) and rally Oromos for this just struggle of national liberation. Today Oromummaa has been widely and firmly established and Oromo consciousness has reached an irreversible stage. Today OLF is not just a front but a vanguard of a growing mass movement. The struggle has galvanized Oromos of all walks of life. What OLF started with a few dedicated members is inspiring and rallying millions of Oromos in Oromo region and around the world. We take pride in that all Oromos have come to know that they have one aspiration and goal- national self-determination. Despite some of our shortcomings that is what makes us optimistic about the future of our struggle and our beloved organization.
The TPLF Regime
Eventhough the Meles group has an upper hand, the division that surfaced within the top leadership of TPLF in 2001 has not come to an end. Credible intelligence reports from inside the Defense Council shows a new crack among the high ranking officers over how to share state power, the question of promotion, how to dole out military ranks, the disposition of Badme and access to sea port. This disagreement has gone down to various ranks in the army and taken the form of ANDM vs. TPLF or Amhara vs. Tigrai. If this continues, as we believe it would, the power structure in Oromia is headed for another internal implosion. Sadly, the change may not lead to a better understanding of the main problem, lack of democracy and domination of majority by the minority, for its peaceful resolution. On the contrary it may lead to reversing the positive gains made thus far and lead to more agony, turmoil and unnecessary bloodshed.
The erosion of mass support for OPRDF is driving local officials to rely more on force than on the rule of law. Desperation is leading them to take heinous actions. The massacre in Gambella, the killing of innocent Oromos in Watar, Bale, Jimma and Ilu Abbabor, the gunning down of peaceful demonstrators in Awasa, Shakka-mazengir, and Dirre Dhawa are manifestations of this desperation. A good recent example is what happened in Tajjo-Walal, western Oromia, where a hysterical TPLF cadre opened fire on a group of Oromo peasants killing four in cold blood.
TPLF’s track record on goodwill negotiation leaves much to be desired. We in the OLF have plenty of disappointing experiences from the Transitional period and afterwards. A good latest example is the border ruling by the Border Commission at The Hague. In Algiers, Oromia and Eritrea concluded a peace agreement in the presence of representatives of governments, the UN, EU and AU, to stop hostility and abide by the court’s ruling that would be final and binding. This did not prevent TPLF from rejecting the final ruling. This unreliable nature of the TPLF/OPRDF and its political culture of uncompromising intransigence is a major obstacle for peace.
The OPRDF is gearing up to “elect” itself to office once again in 2005. We sincerely believe this upcoming “election” won’t be different from the previous ones in significant aspects. The peaceful conditions necessary for a free and fair election do not exist. The Election Commission remains entirely packed with TPLF protégées. Without significant reform of the electoral laws, members of the OPRDF and its satellite organizations would compete among themselves and declare themselves winners as they have done in the past. Despite the lofty promise by Meles, TPLF is hesitant to let independents or opposition organizations freely contest and win seats in the parliament. Even if TPLF affords some opposition parties nominal participation, the latter are not in a position to seriously challenge the OPRDF that controls the economy, the bureaucracy, mass media, security, army and police. Hence the prospects for transforming the political system through the ballot box look as dim as when we were forced to abandon it in 1992.
The Situation in the Horn of Africa
Two opposing trends are being observed: peace making and escalation of conflict. The more than two decades old conflict between North and South Sudan, that consumed more than two million lives and devastated countless properties, is coming to an end. The peace agreement signed between SPLA and the Sudanese government, if it succeeds as hoped, will be a breakthrough to bring peace from round table rather than from the barrel of the gun. While wars have victors and losers, everyone wins in peace. Contrary to this positive development, the carnage engulfing Darfur risks to plunge Sudan and the Horn into further chaos.
The tension on the Oromia-Eritrean border is not abating and could erupt into war at any time. The situation in Gambella is far from settled. Popular discontent against the regime are on the rise. Recent killings in Dirre Dhawa and the restlessness within the Oromian Defense Council demonstrate the volatility in Oromia. Although the situation is favorable to bring peace to Somalia, Oromia is doing everything to sabotage and foil the on-going peace process.
The Global Situation
The current global situation is one of turbulence. During the cold war, the global situation was clearly defined. There were known camps to which governments and organizations adjusted their orientation. The New World Order has made sovereignty and territorial integrity less absolute. We saw nations determining their affair and forming new states. The right (to) of self-determination, which used to apply only to countries under colonial rule, is now recognized as a universal right of all nations and peoples. Consequently the map of the world is being redrawn.
On the contrary, with the formation of unions like the EU state sovereignty has become more symbolic than real. Countries joining such Unions voluntarily sign treaties that undermine their sovereignty to avail their people of economic, social and economic benefits from a larger pie. We are encouraged by both trends. The increased recognition of the right of nations to selfdetermination gives us hope that if our genuine appeal for peace is rejected and met with violence rather than being reciprocated, as has happened many times in the past, we have the right and the will to decide our fate. The trend towards cooperation is also encouraging to us because it opens new doors and creates more opportunities for our people to work with others to build a more prosperous, harmonious, stable and peaceful region.
The conditions on the ground tell us that there is no easy walk to Oromo freedom. The situation is complex, complicated and rife with uncertainties. TPLF has chosen to resort to all means of suppression to stay in power instead of working for long-term peace and prosperity. It has declared rich and educated Oromos to be enemies of its Revolutionary Democracy. Unfortunately it has also managed to muster enough international support for this unjust and destructive endeavor. It has Oromia’s human and material resource at its disposal. It has exacerbated the hitherto existing contradictions pushing Oromia and the region to further chaos.
The Oromo have been continuously pushed out of the system and marginalized through systematic denial of access to resources and opportunities. We are afraid that the rising tide of Oromummaa, the involvement of all sectors in the struggle, the denial of all venues to air their grievances and seek their aspirations peacefully, and the effort to categorize even the legitimate quest for self-determination as terrorism, may eventually push the Oromo to desperate actions.
As we have tried to indicate on several occasions, armed struggle has never been the choice of our esteemed organization. OLF has no desire whatsoever to waste its precious resources, the lives of our youth, in fighting. It is engaged in armed struggle merely because all other venues to address Oromo grievances and seek their aspirations have been denied. On the contrary it is the regime that is systematically using its monopoly on violence to quell the Oromo people’s legitimate quest for freedom and justice. OLF is ready to engage the regime in a peaceful dialogue and enter into a process that would lead to retiring violence as a political means. Unfortunately, it takes three to make a just peace- the courage, foresight and goodwill of the parties in conflict as well as crucial support from neutral third parties with a clear commitment to take appropriate action when one side reneges on implementing its part of the bargain.
In addition to the desire to launch a meaningful dialogue with the TPLF/OPRDF regime, a close cooperation and coordination with the struggle of other peoples and parties interested in justice, sustainable peace and prosperity in the area is vital. Engaging Oromian opposition organizations to form alliances of various forms is another agenda that OLF is committed to continue to work on. We cannot afford to view Oromo region as an island. Our freedom requires us to work relentlessly to build a healthy and working relationship with all the peoples in Oromia and come up with a more democratic, representative and viable alternative to the incumbent regime.
Eventually all parties concerned have to come together on a round table and jointly chart the future of Oromia. A strong and committed international input is a sine qua non to kick-start this process and ensure its success. If the global community takes its responsibility seriously and backs its commitment by real action, OLF is ready to do its part in the search for just peace. Should this fail, the situation will further deteriorate and descend into lawlessness and a breakdown of central authority. OLF has an immense desire to avert this impending chaos and resolve the underlying reasons for this conflict through a peaceful political means. It has demonstrated this will publicly, unambiguously and repeatedly.
Let me remind the distinguished international scholars as well as honored participants of this conference that the miraculous transformation in South Africa was not solely the genius of ANC nor Mandela; it also required a courageous decision by Deklerk. We do not believe Meles will follow this noble example but peace is so precious for our people that we are not going to leave the issue of war and peace to the whim of one person or a minority party. With your help OLF is prepared to take a new peace offensive. However, for this noble endeavor to bear fruit, interested parties need to pursue a two-pronged strategy. While putting real pressure on the regime to seek peaceful resolution of the Oromo-Ethiopia conflict, they need to support and empower the weak so that the powerful can no longer afford to dismiss it as mere nuisance. Unless the present power asymmetry is changed, the TPLF has no incentive to seek peace.