By Mekuria Bulcha (Prof.)*
An interesting discussion is going on among Oromos about the relevance of the Scottish referendum of September 18, 2014, to the Oromo question. On one side, there are those who say that the Scottish referendum has little relevance to the Oromo situation. These point out great differences in the historical relations that the two nations have with the states from which they would separate. On the other side are those who argue that the referendum has relevance. While these paint exaggerated similarities between the Oromo and Scottish experiences under colonialism, they ultimately dismiss the Oromo struggle for independence and advise Oromo nationalists to work for democracy within Ethiopia. They argue that Oromo nationalists should drop the “misconception that democracy is given,” that “an empire cannot be democratized” and that Oromo should struggle to “earn” democracy within Ethiopia (See Gelan on OPride.com, September 17, 2014). That position is an old one. It is now used to direct Oromo nationalists to interpret the result of the Scottish referendum to mean that they drop their aspiration for an independent Oromo state. In this commentary, I point out that the Scottish referendum was not about achieving democracy (the UK is a democracy), but about the right the Scots have exercised to make their own choice. I argue that the main lesson we can draw from the referendum is that a nation or a people have the right to build their own state irrespective of the nature of the historical relationship they have with the state from which they will separate. Before entering into the discussion of the lesson Oromo can draw from the Scottish referendum, let us first look at some of the main contexts within which political independence has been claimed by different peoples in the past and is also being claimed today.
There are at least three major conditions under which a people would seek independence from a multinational state and form their own sovereign state. The first condition concerns a history of conquest, annexation and colonization of territories by states or empires. Thus, the European colonial conquest in Africa in the nineteenth-century, and in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean before that, led to the creation of numerous new states in the aftermath of World War II. The indigenous populations, who lost their inalienable rights of self-government as the result of colonization, were empowered by an international convention underlined in the Declaration on Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (Resolution 1514 (XV), adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1960. Many countries, which were European colonies in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Region, became sovereign states based on the UN declaration.
The second condition that justified the creation of a new state was a prolonged conflict leading to massive violations of human rights involving a state and a nation, or an indigenous group with a specific homeland or territory. There is a tacit agreement among scholars, human rights activists and statesmen that the creation of new independent states is justified where such a situation obtains and when no solution is in sight. The creation of new states during the Balkan crisis of the 1990s, particularly those of Bosnia and Kosovo, East Timor’s independence from Indonesia in 2005, and the separation of South Sudan from Sudan in 2013, can be cited as the most recent examples here. Annexation is also involved in the cases of East Timor and South Sudan.
The third condition which leads to the creation of a new state occurs when and where the inhabitants of a sub-state or territory show the desire to secede from a state or an empire of which they have been a part for a long time. This has happened many times in the past and is still today in progress in a number of places around the world. Wherever this occurs, a history of conquest, annexation or a political union of some sort could be in the background. This, for example, was the case of the Ukrainians, the Georgians, and the peoples of the Baltic States as well as the remainder of the 18 states that have seceded from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (in effect from the Russian empire) since the 1990. However, the immediate impetus that stirred the desire for secession differed from case to case. Parts of the Ukraine were under Russian rule for over 300 years; its separation from Russia, after such a long period of co-existence, was motivated to a large extent by a call for sovereignty. National sovereignty and national identity were the two reasons given by the peoples of the Baltic States. The separation of former Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993 occurred because the Slovak nationalists demanded their own sovereign state. Their desire to secede was not opposed by the Czechs.
Today, a number of nations around the world are aspiring to build their own independent states basing their claims on one or a combination of the conditions described above. To mention some of them, the Catalans are conducting a political struggle to secede from Spain, of which Catalonia has been a part since 1714. They claim that the Catalan language has been suppressed and disadvantaged, and independent Catalonia will fare better economically than in a union with Spain. The French-speaking Quebecois, who will secede from the rest of Canada, will also use the ballot box. They do not claim they are colonized or oppressed by the English-speaking Canadians or the federal government in Ottawa, but say that their desire is to build an independent Quebecois state and run their own affairs. Scotland’s quest for an independent state, notwithstanding its three-century long union with England, is instigated by the desire to live under the umbrella of their own state. I don’t think that the recent “No” vote has put a stop to the desire. In my view, the majority of the Scots have decided to stay in the Union for now, but not forever.
All of the three conditions described above involve some aspect of “human rights.” Basically, the concept of “right” has moral and legal connotations pertaining to rights that belong to all humans. It deals with rights that are generalized as natural and worthy of human beings. The concept denotes, among other things, the right to maintain or develop one’s own identity as an individual or a collectivity. One does not need to ask permission to speak one’s language, practice one’s culture or live one’s life. Normally, one does not do that both as an individual and a people. These are natural rights that belong to all human beings. One does not need others’ permission to breathe the God-given air. Simply stated, a fundamental human right has that “God-given” quality. One does not need to ask for it from others; it is inalienable. One demands recognition and respect for it from others. One has the right to resist its violation by them. It is an inherent right every human being is endowed with in order to enjoy a life worthy of a human being. That is also why it is clearly stipulated and guaranteed by international conventions. That this right is inherent or natural does not mean it is readily exercisable or enjoyable.
It is worthwhile to stress here that a human right is “guaranteed” by international conventions does not mean it is instantly attainable whenever people want to have it. Some form of struggle has to be waged to achieve it. As the late Nelson Mandela has sagaciously reminded us, there is no easy road to freedom. That includes any nation or people who seek political sovereignty. The means used to achieve it is decided by the politics of the concerned state: in democratic states the means used is political and peaceful. It is usually concluded by a referendum.
In dictatorships like Ethiopia, the road to freedom has been made violent by the nature of the state’s resistance to assertion of rights. This is a regrettable reality, but such a road must be traversed to achieve human dignity and respect worthy of a nation. Speaking about means Fredrick Douglass, a hero I always love to quote on the subject of freedom said, in a speech he gave on slavery in 1857, that “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what people submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.” The Scots used words to exercise their rights. The Scottish right to independence is fully recognized by the government and non-Scottish people of the United Kingdom. That recognition has saved England and Scotland from conflict that could have caused them great tragedy. The Oromo are being denied not only acknowledgment that it is appropriate to exercise their rights, but they are being brutally persecuted when they bring attention to the violations of their God-given rights in peaceful protests.
Other observers have pointed to the great differences between Oromia’s relation to Ethiopia and Scotland’s relation to UK. The differences are historical. Scotland signed the Union Act with England voluntarily in 1707, and they formed a single parliament for both nations. Oromia is a colony kept by brutal force in a “prison house of nations,” as some political philosophers have put it. The Oromo question is one of survival. The present Tigrayan regime introduced a very harsh version of imperial colonial rule using unprecedented violence, particularly against the Oromo nation. As those who follow the politics of the state know, the TPLF leaders have introduced concentration camps and used them as sites for collective punishment. Tortures, rapes and castrations, extra-judicial killings and “disappearances” have been new forms of violent brutality used against individuals by the TPLF-led regime. The late Sigfried Pausewang, who was not known for his support of the idea of an independent Oromo state, but rather for his outspoken criticism of violation of human rights by Abyssinian ruling elites, wrote what the majority of the Oromo had reason to feel in Ethiopia today. He argued that they were not only politically marginalized, controlled and dominated by a ruling party from another ethnicity, but were the single group most exposed to control and repression. He went on saying that, “Oromia is the region with most political prisoners, and most human rights violations, torture in prison, and even disappearances,” and that the federal structure introduced in 1991 “has not been able to soothe the trauma the Oromo suffered after a century of Amhara domination, dispossession and relegation to the status of landless serfs or tenants, and suppression of their language and culture” (see Pausewang, Exploring New Political Alternatives for the Oromo in Ethiopia,” CHR. Michelsen Insitute, 2009). That being the case, the objective of the ongoing Oromo struggle is to reclaim those rights and establish an independent state. The right to political self-determination refers to the right to be what the “self” wants to be. To want to form an independent state or go into a federation with others peoples or states is up to the collective “self” to determine.
As is reflected in the contribution made by some of the commentators on Oromo websites (see for example Nageessa O. Duubee, Gadaa.com, September 21, 2014), there is a wish that the present Ethiopian regime will learn lessons from the Scottish referendum and would allow the Oromo to decide their political future through referendum. In the first place, I do not think that the regime will take such a step voluntarily. It has to be forced even to contemplate such an idea. But let us say it allows referendum to take place in Oromia. Will the Oromo majority say “No” to independence? I have strong doubts about that. My guess is that, given the chance, the vast majority of the Oromo will say “Yes” to independence, and “No” to staying under the umbrella of the Ethiopian state. If we read the writing on the wall carefully, the Oromo have already said, “Enough is enough.”
But, say I am wrong and the “No” to independence vote wins and the dream of pro-Ethiopia Oromo politicians is fulfilled. Will that bring democracy to Ethiopia? I do not think so. Occupying Menelik’s palace (as some pro-Ethiopia Oromo politicians insist) in coalition with Abyssinian political elites will not turn the latter into democrats overnight. We all know that the concept of democracy is alien to them.
In conclusion, what the Scottish referendum shows is that the idea of an independent Oromo state is not “out-of-date,” as one may think. The referendum demonstrates that it is the inalienable right of people anywhere in the world to claim independence from a state of which they constitute a part. Furthermore, when it is normal and acceptable that the Scots, who have lived in a voluntary and democratic union with the English for 307 years, could without any problem vote to leave the union, it is scandalous to argue against Oromo independence from a state that has treated them with horrendous cruelty for 130 years.
* Mekuria Bulcha, PhD and Professor of Sociology, is an author of widely read books and articles. His most recent book, Contours of the Emergent and Ancient Oromo Nation, was published by CASAS (Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society), Cape Town, South Africa, in 2011. He was also the founder and publisher of The Oromo Commentary (1990-1999). He is an active member of the OLF and has served in the different branches of the national movement since the 1970s.