From a Student Movement to a National Revolution
A Struggle with an Independent Oromo State in Sight*
The Oromo and the other peoples in the southern part of Ethiopia are caught in a vicious circle of tyranny that is deeply rooted in a colonial conquest at the end of the 19th century. The tyranny had stirred popular uprisings in many places at different times. Hitherto, most of the uprisings have been suppressed, and the revolutions were hijacked and reversed. As we know, the revolution that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 was hijacked by a military junta, which came in promising democracy but delivered terror in abundance. The response to the military dictatorship was the formation of half a dozen national liberation fronts with the aim of waging a struggle and liberate their respective peoples from an empire which a British political scientist Ernst Gellner called a prison-house of nations.[i] After a decade and a half they defeated the military regime in 1991 and formed a Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE). One of the victorious fronts which formed a coalition and built the TGE was the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). The Charter on which the transitional government was based, promised to bring about fundamental changes in the prevailing political and social order in Ethiopia. It made provisions for a federal structure that will create space for democracy and the self-determination of peoples in Ethiopia. However, within a year, the revolution was hijacked and reversed by the TPLF which was militarily and organizationally the strongest party in the coalition and a new dictatorship replaced the military dictatorship. As an autocrat, Emperor Haile Selassie was the law for there was no law above him. He ran the country as his private property, handing out favors in land and punishing lack of loyalty severely. After consolidating his political power and asserting his position as the prime minister of Ethiopia, the TPLF leader Meles Zenawi assumed an autocratic posture similar to that of Haile Selassie and ruled the country with an iron hand. In his book Ye-Meles Tirufatoch (The Legacies of Meles), Ermias Legesse mentions that Zenawi’s subordinates – ministers and other functionaries in his government – referred to him internally as “Dirgitu”, meaning “The Organization”.[ii] Gradually, his wishes and orders came to weigh more than provisions in the Ethiopian Constitution and conditions set by the laws of the country. Thus, with a pernicious form of Abyssinian rulers’ despotism in place, Melese and his acolytes intensified the abuses of their predecessors plundering the properties of the state which they were supposed to guard. They committed human rights violations with impunity that has surpassed the appalling records of the military regime they had replaced. The Oromo have been affected by the policies of the regime more than most of the peoples in Ethiopia. The reason is simple and well known: (a) they occupy a territory that produces more than 60 percent of Ethiopia’s gross national product. The Oromo peasants produce more than 85 percent of the coffee exported from Ethiopia. Gold, platinum and tantalum which play an important role in the Ethiopian economy today are also extracted from mines in Oromia. (b) Democracy, as promised by the Transitional Charter, will not allow the TPLF leaders to structure the political economic institutions in their own favor. (c) Therefore, it was necessary not only to weaken the structure that was designed for a democratic change in Ethiopia, but undermine also legitimate Oromo institutions and political organizations in order to control the state and exploit the economic resources of Oromia, and indeed the rest of the country.
A revolution can be aborted by a counterrevolution, but that does not always mean that no change had occurred or the present is an unaltered continuation of the pre-revolution system. Whenever and wherever revolutions occur somethings will change or seeds of change are planted. One of the changes which was introduced by the 1991 Transitional Charter was the right to language and culture. In the case of the Oromo, what made this change important was the “vernacular revolution” which followed in its aftermath. The speed and efficiency with which textbooks were prepared and the change from Amharic to Afaan Oromoo was implemented between July 1991 and June 1992 was stunning. What could have taken several years to organize and implement was accomplished in less than a year under the leadership of Ibsaa Guutama, a member of the OLF who was Ethiopia’s Minister of Education in the TGE. The school which, by and large, was seen as an alien institution in many parts of the Oromo countryside in the past became an Oromo institution overnight. With Afaan Oromoo as a medium of instruction, it became a place of learning and engagement, where education was sought eagerly and acquired easily by millions of Oromo children. The Oromo children who started their education with Afaan Oromoo as a medium of instruction in 1991-92 became the first cohort of the qubee generation. The Oromo youth who are currently enrolled in grade-schools (grades 1-8), high schools (grades 9-12), colleges, and universities are over seven million.[iii] Without this generation, we wouldn’t have had the ongoing revolution. The strength of the current uprising cannot be appreciated without a proper understanding of the qubee generation’s cultural underpinnings and demographic background.
To be called a revolution, an uprising should mobilize a population for a fundamental change. Uprisings can occur in a country in different places and their causes may be also similar; but they become revolutionary only when they occur simultaneously “nationwide”. In the case of the Oromo, the uprising which occurred in a small town a small town of Ginchi, central Oromia, on November 12, 2015 had triggered such an event. Together with the prevailing contention between the Oromo people and the Ethiopian state over the so-called “Addis Ababa Integrated Development Master Plan”, widely known as “the Master Plan,” and multitudes of other illegitimate acts conducted by the TPLF regime against the Oromo, the event in Ginchi, as will be discussed in this article, could raise popular grievances to a boiling point throughout Oromia. The result is a revolution in which millions of people have taken part during the last five months. In spite of the brutal violence with which the regime has been trying to suppress the revolution, not a single day has passed without massive demonstrations, often occurring simultaneously in a number of towns, cities and districts in Oromia during the last five months. The situation has been such that it gives, at times, the impression that the entire Oromo nation is out demonstrating in the streets.