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June 15, 2021
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Under-siege OPDO and its role in the near future of Ethiopia’s politics

By Abdisa Aga

The three years old pro-democracy protests have made OPDO a newly born reformist group within the ruling elite but a massive brutal crack down on the organization has got its future hanging in the balance.

The Oromo peoples democratic organization (OPDO) was created in the later stages of the civil war by captured troops of the then Ethiopia leader Mengistu Hailemariam to serve as a satellite organization for the upcoming TPLF rule. Their genesis was mainly in a response to the growing influence of the Oromo rebel group, OLF. By the time, in the late 80s and early 90s, the OLF was ideologically and militarily in a much better shape and it probably had some support from the failing Mengistu Hailemariam army. the OPDO became very critical to the survival of TPLF.  It gave them a nice cover to fight the OLF and get full control of Oromo populated lands.

As they were captured troops of Mengistu hailemariam, the OPDO  have always had Ethiopia in their hearts. Plus they were not radicalized by foreign education and fantasy. They also lived with peasant Amhara and Tigre fighters in North Ethiopia. So they were a perfect cover for TPLF. Even more, the propaganda by the some OLF-affiliated diaspora members and the TPLF made OLF a scary name for pro-Ethiopia Oromos and the rest of Ethiopianist elite. So for Oromia, OPDO were by far the choice of everybody.

While OLF leaders always used the word Wayyane ( TPLF) to refer to the regime, other opposition figures like Merera Gudina prefer the acronym EPRDF. This is a recognition to OPDO’s role in the regime. But practically the OPDO was TPLF’s wing in the name of Oromo. The deceased dictator Meles Zenawi used the existence of OPDO to attack the nationally organized opposition as “uniformist” and “expansionist” while OLF as a narrow nationalist and separatist.

It all worked. OPDO’s existence has helped TPLF control Oromo until the death of Meles Zenawi. Meles’s shrewd personality created the cult that kept the coalition EPRDF together. After his death, the TPLF had no man OPDO or the other satellite organizations would worship or  willingly open their mouth for long to listen to his speech. Even worse, three years of violent pro-democracy protests forced the TPLF itself to denounce its long time leader and crushed pro-meles factions within it.  The OPDO has now got the chance to elect its leaders without direct influence from TPLF.  These were really dramatic events in the party’s three decades old life.

Following the election of young charismatic leaders in Lema Megersa and Abiy Ahmed, the OPDO emerged as a reformist movement. It denounced TPLF’s ages old narrative of Ethiopia vs Oromo in which they successfully limited Oromo to minor regional affairs and kept it away from Ethiopian center politics.   That was like a stab from the back for TPLF when this narrative was thrown away. Some pro-TPLF elites were even forced to call for the dissolution of the EPRDF coalition.

The personal gestures of the new leaders were as sweet as honey for most people. They brought in people like Negaso Gidada, former head of nation who were doomed and persecuted by TPLF. their regional media started acting independently with successful campaigns. But Nothing like events at  pro-opposition rallies tell about the new born OPDO. Top regional officials were giving speeches at these massive peaceful rallies for freed politicians like Merera Gudina and Beqele gereba. The speeches were like ‘they arrested you and we freed you’.

Hailemariam Desalegn was forced to resign as prime minster in name. The vacant position was widely assumed to be filled by an OPDO man. For that purpose, Lema Megersa, the party chairman transferred the title to Abiy Ahimed who is member of the federal parliament. To the embarrassment of TPLF, newly elected chair and PM hopeful, Abiy skipped the extra ordinary parliamentary session to pass another draconian marital law in just two years. Close to a hundred OPDO MPs opposed the proposal which led to an embarrassing recalculating of the votes. It was a historic moral victory against TPLF.

After all these, Its true the OPDO has not fully toppled TPLF from Oromia let alone Ethiopia but it surely has become an opposition party in EPRDF’s dictionary. And when you act as an opposition party, The unorganized unarmed populist support is only psychological. It has little effect on the ground. Ethiopia is a millenniums old nation with violent history of power. You can’t easily walk into the Minilk palace.

Reality is now surfacing for OPDO. Yet many Ethiopians and western diplomats want to see an OPDO man ( either Lema or Abiy) to take the prime minister position. Which is good but TPLF has also officially started the crack down on this reformist faction. This second state of emergency is only for OPDO. Cutting the foot of Abiy and lema is well underway.  Several regional officials have been arrested. The killings are well and high in numbers. Only on Saturday, regime troops killed more than twenty Oromos in Moyale. The killings were deliberate by the ruthless regime. They blamed it on OLF. They brought back their old same song. TPLF is as determined as ever to get rid of anyone who threatens their power.


Can OPDO really rule Ethiopia?

Yes they can. They have openly said that. After relinquishing the chairmanship of OPDO to Abiy Ahmed, Lema the former chairman was quoted to have said they don’t use the power to steal Ethiopia and benefit Oromo but work for all. It was like an election campaign for a huge Ethiopian audience.  And just last week, the secretariat or the spokesman of the command post, Siraj fergesa said the violent situation is turning to look like a color revolution. The color revolution narrative is directed to Lema Megersa’s OPDO. TPLF in the mouth of the command post admitted the power struggle. TPLF uses that expression to situations that threaten its power. They used it against CUDP in 2005 after the election results signaled victory for the opposition coalition.

No one really knows what is on the mind of Lema and his reformist faction. TPLF, under the name of the command post and martial law has declared war on them. It  is killing their base and network all over the Oromia region. They need to act sooner than later before their base is gone. Once their base is gone, they will only be individuals not an organized group.


What they can do

The long awaited EPRDF meeting is underway. Its expected that they will name the new party chairman or the defacto PM in a few days. Western donors and most people on the opposition side prefer to see Abiy Ahmed, the OPDO chairman as the new PM. But TPLF is well known for ignoring advice. As Shiferaw Shigute another PM hopeful from the south said just like week, the EPRDF ( TPLF’s mask) has its own way of doing things. Yes they’re right. They have been doing things their own way and it has so far worked. They still rule Ethiopia.

For OPDO the first thing to do is wait on the outcomes of the meeting. We live by hope. If Abiy Ahmed gets the PM position, thats clearly a first victory for OPDO. They try to maintain their psychological triumph.

But as much as getting the PM position, there are other serious things to do. They one way or another way need to get rid of reactionary elements within the OPDO itself. Until recently, this party was full of corrupt officials who are directly connected to Addis Ababa in direct corruption. They have their own personal fear of retaliation. So they prefer to serve the TPLF than fully support their newly born independet OPDO.  They declared war on their own people by voting for the martial law. Lema and co. must carefully clear the organization of these people. The old guard of opportunists like Abadula Gemeda and the foreign affair minister Workneh Gebeyehu must be prime targets.

Once getting full control of the OPDO itself, the next move must be getting sympathy from individual Oromos in the armed forces. The hardest job ever for OPDO will be this. This is like playing with fire but its possible. In terms of numbers, there are thousands of Oromos within the armed forces. The army was organized along regional ties. So once they have the full control of their party free from the back stabbers, they might get the sympathy of members of the army with Oromo origin.  We have seen signs of doing that. Just last week again, a retired Oromo general who is also veteran of the rebel movement appeared on the regional television. The general vanished from public eyes after the end of the Ethio-Eri war. Its almost twenty years. In the TV appearance, he praised the new OPDO leaders and applauded their capablities of leading Ethiopia. This is not an accident. It is a small sign of the new OPDO trying to get foot in the military. Success in this area is the key toward the full reform everybody hopes for.

The Other most important thing is to maintain the rhetoric and the gestures. This is mainly a test for the two front men, Lema and Abiy. They need to start communicating to the international community. It was reported that US secretary of state department, Rex Tillerson would speak to them on the first stop of his Africa tour. This means they have attracted the attention of the international community. Its a huge moral boost. Who knows, may be the US is pondering its chance of replacing TPLF by OPDO for a less violent transition. Lema and Abiy must know that they’ve already held the tail of the beast. There is no way back. They must continue with the rhetoric and the gestures. They must embrace whatever cost will come. The cost of backing down will be much higher than cost of going forward. It is suicidal.

Least but not last is the opposition within the Oromo itself. Merera Gudina’s home based opposition is  in theory an opposition to the OPDO. Since it is a regionally registered party. They still oppose OPDO but its hard to say they will stand on its way for a better future. You never know. Politics is full of opportunist individuals and groups. If they see OPDO really weakening TPLF, they may plan to seize the hole and come after OPDO. It needs some serious calculation from the side of Lema and Abiy.

The rest significant element is the Oromo diaspora. The most vocal groups in the diaspora have been playing a very negative role for decades. Some are old school OLFites in confusion. Some are new school OLFites who have eternal love for the name. Some are detached from the new Ethiopia. These old folks know the Ethiopia of the emperor, so day and night they fantasize about a non existent Oromia republic they dreamed of forty years ago. But recently, a new generation of young smart activists have emerged as a vocal group in the Oromo diaspora. These young men are smart and play the game better than the outdated older Oromo diaspora. They control media. They compete to appear as a better Oromo by bashing the name Ethiopia and Amhara. They want to shape the future of OPDO. They post and tweet. They ask a question and they answer it themselves. They don’t let other oromo voices be heard on their platform. They are another big challenge for the new OPDO.

OPDO was not born to be a hero. But thanks to the pro-democracy protests, a new generation of leaders have emerged. Situations create heroes. Its up to Lema and Abiy to live to the name and write history. They came out from nowhere. Who knew these men before three years. Ethiopia’s history of power, the power of the underdogs favors OPDO to be the next play makers. But it must prove itself by defying all the odds.


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