Given the activist’s revered status among many Oromo, the attempt to silence and defame him will surely backfire.
Since the popular uprising that swept across Oromia in 2015, Jawar Mohammed’s reputation grew tremendously, leading him to become arguably the most influential figure in Ethiopian politics. Today, Jawar is in prison, yet he has become a household name among both supporters and detractors.
Beyond the Oromo, he enjoys a wide audience among other historically marginalized nations such as Afar, Somali, Sidama, and Wolayta. Even his political antagonists, such as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), are said to be impressed, rather grudgingly of course, by his foresight and intellectual acuity.
On the other hand, Jawar is hated, even demonized, by a small but very vocal group (hereafter addressed as the ‘vocal minority’) that are politically and psychosocially linked to an Abyssinian heritage.
To understand the roots of the seemingly irrational hostility Ethiopianists harbor towards Jawar, one needs to examine the psychosocial and economic impact of the Abyssinian southward expansion on the indigenous inhabitants.
Following Menelik II’s conquests, the army that settled in Oromo land kept the nation under siege. Divisive policies were crafted to keep the incorporated nations under control. The imperial powers expropriated Oromo and other incorporated peoples’ ancestral land and appropriated it to members of the invading army and the Orthodox church they had institutionalized in the occupied nations.
The peoples of incorporated nations were reduced to serfdom, denied the use, exercise, and development of their political, linguistic, cultural, and religious identities. On the contrary, the imperial rule instituted a largely Amhara culture, language, and religion in all of Ethiopia. Jeylan Wolyie Hussein articulates this phenomenon as follows:
“Following Menelik II’s conquest of the Oromoland, the Oromo were forced to relinquish their land and to pay tribute to the conquerors. They were also made to relinquish their religious, cultural, linguistic, and political identities. The conquerors created hegemonic structures through which they would perpetuate their cultural, economic, and political domination.” (J.W. Hussein, p.34)
The children of the marginalized people were denied access to education as the schools were found only in garrison cities where the settlers were located and not in rural areas where the predominantly farming community of the occupied people resided. Moreover, even those near the schools were largely unable to benefit from the opportunity as fluency or at least a passing grade in the Amharic (the settlers’ language) was required for a child to move from lower grades to the next level. The few who broke the language barrier and managed to get into these government schools were conditioned to reject their own people, deny their identity, change their names, and assimilate through marriage.
[Afaan] Oromo was denied any official status and it was not permissible to publish, preach, teach, or broadcast in Oromo. In court or before an official an Oromo had to speak Amharic or use an interpreter. Even a case between Oromos, before an Oromo speaking magistrate, had to be heard in Amharic. I sat through a mission service at which the preacher and all the congregation were Oromo but at which the sermon as well as the service was given first in Amharic, which few of the congregation understood at all, and then translated into Oromo. The farce had to be played out in case a Judas informed and the district officer fined or imprisoned the preacher. (Baxter 1978, 288)
In sum, these divisive policies conferred on the vocal minority unprecedented opportunities to sustainably dominate the country’s bureaucracy, defense, politics, diplomacy, external relation, and wealth. On the contrary, the Oromo and other occupied peoples were relegated to serfdom, poverty, and second-class citizenry.
Over the last three decades, however, the multinational federation, though imperfectly implemented, has nonetheless gradually eroded the foothold that the vocal minority had in the cultural, educational, and linguistic arena. The formation of federal structures has allowed the historically marginalized nations to develop their culture and languages, though political and economic progress were muted since power, decision making, and resources effectively remained at the center.
Moreover, during these three decades, the vocal minority maintained its dominance over the bureaucracy, culture, language, diplomacy, and media outlets, which they disproportionately influence, to control narratives and disseminate bogus allegations that targeted individuals and groups advocating for self-rule and equality.
It is at this critical juncture, when the many opposition groups could not do much beyond reeling at its loss of political power, that Jawar appeared in the political arena. He infused vigor in the Oromo political discourse by providing fresh analyses, commentaries, and eloquent defense of the Oromo cause at a moment when the Oromo politics was disenfranchised. He helped to spearhead the Qeerroo protest, studying and modeling it after Orange Revolutions.
Furthermore, he pioneered the establishment of the first successful private international Oromo media house, Oromia Media Network (OMN), that gave voice to the voiceless Oromo nation and the incorporated peoples in Ethiopia. Using OMN, social media, and the Qeerroo organization, he became instrumental in pushing the TPLF out of power and ushering the OPDO-led current government in Ethiopia to power in 2018.
Nevertheless, the vocal minority felt threatened by the influence Jawar and OMN are gaining in Oromia and other marginalized nations. Thus, it commenced its fight not to yield, and to a certain extent to restore, the undeserved dominance and privilege the north had been enjoying over their southern counterparts since the emergence of the modern Ethiopian state. The model of governance it desires to reinstate had been a vehicle for implementing its divisive policies. Thus, it demonizes prominent activists like Jawar who threatened to unravel its narrative.
Jawar’s first and foremost crime is thus, being borne an Oromo. The Oromo, in P.T. W. Baxter’s words, is “Ethiopia’s unacknowledged problem” since “the problem of the Oromo people has been a major and central one in the Ethiopian Empire ever since it was created by Minilik (sic).” The only Oromo the vocal minority seem willing to accept is what they sometimes call “a good Ethiopian”; that is, an assimilated Oromo that rejects his/her Oromo heritage and identity and embraces “Ethiopian identity”—a code word for Amhara identity. Jawar flunks the test of being “a good Ethiopian” precisely because he is proud of his heritage and knows that he cannot become a good “Ethiopian” before he becomes a good Oromo.
Another accusation often directed at Jawar shows the inherent bias the vocal minority harbors to cultural and religious constructs that supposedly threaten northern hegemony on religio-cultural values. Jawar is a product of a Muslim father and an Orthodox Christian mother. He received his primary education at a Roman Catholic school. He is married to a protestant Christian wife.
Regardless of his markedly heterogeneous religious background, which ought to have silenced accusations of religious extremism, and his life-long adherence to non-violence, he is intentionally falsely portrayed as a Muslim terrorist with the intention of gaining the sympathy of the Western Powers.
Jawar’s third crime is that he is a well-educated Oromo with degrees from the National University of Singapore, Stanford University, and Columbia University. Jawar’s academic integrity, is not well received by the vocal minority as it threatens to undo their long-standing propaganda to mischaracterize Oromo activism as archaic and uninformed. Moreover, his well-articulated arguments exposed subtle biases and marginalization engrained in the social, economic, cultural, and political fabric of imperial Ethiopia the vocal minority wants to resuscitate.
Jawar’s fourth crime is that he mounted an incredible challenge to the exclusive control enjoyed by the vocal minority over media and diplomatic relations for more than a century. Successive Ethiopian governments have been using the national media and diplomatic relations to frame internal conflicts and disseminate them for the consumption of both internal and external audiences.
Employing “a systematic policy of ‘showcasing’” these governments have been presenting “carefully designed programs and policies which conform to all the formal characteristics necessary to win acceptance, favors, and a partnership with imperial powers but which are facades without base or foundation within the empire.” By establishing OMN and using its platform to provide news, analyses, and counter-narratives, Jawar enabled Oromia and other marginalized nations to address their concerns and aspirations.
Jawar’s final crime is his political views, which succeeded in captivating the hearts and minds of the Oromo. Upon ascending to power, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed disbanded the Oromo Democratic Party—ODP (formerly Oromo People’s Democratic Organization), as well as the ruling umbrella organization the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and replaced it with a quasi-unitary party known as the Prosperity Party. The Oromo public, and even significant members of ODP (including Lemma Megersa – one of the main architects of the reform), rejected the new party on the grounds that ODP is being disbanded before having had the chance to answer fundamental Oromo questions.
In the process of exposing the new party’s desertion of Oromo causes, of which Jawar played a significant role, the Prime Minister lost ground in Oromia. This increasingly pitted Jawar against the incumbent and a fierce diplomatic struggle over the soul of Oromia ensued. And perceiving a shift of allegiance of the premier towards the Ethiopianist bloc, Jawar decided to abandon his previous position as an activist and joined the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC). This brought about immediate impact in terms of soaring support for the party.
However, the overwhelming support Jawar and OFC succeeded in amassing was not received well by Prime Minister and his allies. The subsequent decision by the incumbent to incarcerate Jawar and other influential political leaders on bogus allegations can therefore be seen as an implicit admission of defeat.
Jawar Mohammed is on trial based on trumped-up charges; not for any wrongs he supposedly committed—but for what he represents. This is largely true for most Oromo political prisoners including Abdi Ragassa, Bekele Gerba, Dejene Tafa, Gemechu Ayana, Hamza Borana, Lammi Begna, and tens of thousands of Oromo currently languishing in prison. A closer look at the diversity of their political affiliations, their religion, and their places of origin, reveal that they are persecuted not because of these factors but simply because of their fidelity to the Oromo cause. Thus, the war against Jawar and the thousands of Oromo political prisoners is in effect an extension of the war of conquest commenced with the southward expansion of Abyssinia by Menelik II.
Jawar embodies the ideas, values, politics, and a worldview that challenges the domination of the small but vocal minority. The group is mistaken for thinking it could get rid of him by imprisoning him using a “kangaroo court” approach, or through a state-sanctioned extra-judicial killing, and that in doing so it would be able to silence Oromo nationalism. The group fails to realize that the wheels of history only move forward. The old days when a minority maintains hegemony over the majority and keep the atrocities it commits in the dark are gone, never to return.
But why do Ethiopianists consider the Oromo as a problem?
First, the Ethiopian empire and those who sympathize with it are afraid of the implications of the genuine implementation of majoritarian democracy. Having emerged from a social class that thrived on resources looted from incorporated regions, built its privileged status on the back of the vanquished, being indifferent to sociocultural facets that are demeaning to the Oromo and the other marginalized people it has dominated, the vocal minority seems to agonize over the possibility of losing all these undeserved privileges.
Second, the vocal minority accuses Jawar of inciting Oromo protestors to commit acts of violence. They cite the October 2019 violence that erupted in some parts of Oromia cities after Jawar reported that the government attempted to remove his security in the middle of the night, possibly to assassinate him. No credible, independent party has substantiated the accusation by Jawar’s detractors.
Human Rights Watch has called on the Ethiopian government to “support a credible, independent, and transparent investigation into the use of excessive force by security forces and by those responsible for communal attacks.” No such credible and independent investigation has emerged. The vocal minority’s attempt to hold Jawar responsible for government and mob killings in which, in some instances, the alleged perpetrators were reportedly the victims is a typical example of their demonizing tactics.
Third, it seems the vocal minority is gripped with baseless fears of retribution by the Oromo and other peoples of the Greater South. The vocal minority is cognizant of the atrocities that were committed against the historically marginalized people. Imperial Ethiopia had indeed imprisoned, tortured, maimed, and killed students, professionals, and intellectuals for a century and a half. It has silenced voices like Jawar for far too long.
But fears of irrational retributions and categorical persecutions are largely unfounded. Evidence for this is that during the 2015-18 Oromo Protests Qeerroo and the Oromo public have demonstrated a disciplined, matured, goal-oriented struggle against tyranny while protecting members of other peoples who live in Oromia.
Solving the stalemate
The successive governments of imperial Ethiopia’s response to Oromo leaders’ demand for equality, justice, freedom, democracy, and the rule of the law has been to eliminate them. The killings of Oromo leaders are designed presumably to disenfranchise the Oromo people. Prominent Oromo leaders allegedly assassinated by successive Ethiopian regimes in what some see as state-sponsored terror include Lij Iyasu, Lt. Mamo Mezemir, General Tadesse Birru, Dr. Haile Fida, Rev. Gudina Tumsa, Artist Ebbisa Addunyaa, and Artist Haacaaluu Hundeessa.
Yet past killings have not produced the desired outcome of silencing the Oromo. An egg gets harder the more it is boiled. Likewise, the more people are oppressed, the more they resist.
Those who demonize people like Jawar should take note. Imprisonment, demonization, and assassinations do not solve political problems. On the contrary, they just make it harder to reach an amicable solution. Only one thing could take us all one step closer towards solving the current stalemate in Ethiopia, and that is conscientious and thoughtful efforts towards inclusive dialogue—with the participation of Jawar and all other prominent political prisoners.
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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
Acknowledgment: The author is grateful to Bahiru Dhuguma (Ph.D.) for reading the draft manuscript and for his valuable suggestions.
Editor’s note: On 9 January, the reference to assassinated Oromo leaders was amended to reflect the fact that the state’s responsibility for some of those killings listed is disputed.
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