Home | Comment & Analysis    Wednesday 13 August 2008

Ethiopia: On the ongoing conflict within the opposition OLF leadership

By Kallacha Dubbii


August 13, 2008 — Maccaa and Tullamaa are two ethnographic branches of Oromo covering the central and western regions. Despite its location at the center, and its adaptation of only these two segments of the Oromo people for its identification, the Maccaa Tullamaa Self Help Association (MTSHA) was established in the 1960s as the first organized pan-Oromo movement representing and reflecting the entire Oromo people’s interest. It emerged as a result of the first wave of Oromo nationalism of the 50s and 60s at the center, with expanding influence throughout Oromia. The location of this first pan-Oromo association is not surprising since it simply benefitted from the relative concentration of the Oromo middle class in the capital city. Despite its ban and subsequent arrest and killing of MTSHA leaders and members, Oromo nationalism continued growing, giving rise to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in the early 70s. The beginning of Oromo nationalism was narrowly
geographic and its continued growth appears to have bubbles as a regionally traversed wave covering the last 3-4 decades. The first such wave stood out in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the east. This wave marked the creation of the first guerilla cells in Carcar. It was a very positive and historical development.

Since then, after the banning of MTSHA, there were also bubbles of Oromo nationalism which appeared here and there. The early waves were embraced by the then existing Oromo nationalism which founded MTSHA as well as the rising nationalist sentiments elsewhere. Hence, there was never equal distribution of nationalism that encompassed all regions of Oromia at any given time. This remains to be one of the challenges of the Oromo struggle.

This uneven progress in the nationalist development has at times negatively influenced the underlying political discourse of Oromia. For example, the bubble of the 1980s was costly since it created a split within the OLF. As a result, not only capable leaders were exposed to enemy fire, but internal clashes eliminated many potential leaders, demoralizing the rising pan-Oromo movement. Part of the bubble eventually linked itself to religion with a serious punch to the pan-Oromo movement and to the OLF. Although the problem was diffused to a great extent, thanks to Oromo elders who played key roles, suspicions and detestations remained for a long time. It is proof that the idea of injecting region or religion for political gains can be long-lasting and harmful. Just as the bitter Senator from New York was forced, some say she did it willingly – to accept her defeat in order to keep the unity of the Democratic Party, one has the right to expect from elites to give up their political ambitions to keep the unity of their people.

But it is important to recognize these political bubbles in Oromia as natural and neutral. They are random political platforms and one should not necessarily characterize them as destructive dynamics of the Oromo movement. The uneven rise of nationalism here or there, even with regional characteristics, is not uncommon. Failure to merge these bubbles to mainstream Oromo nationalism and embrace a constructive course of action to promote Oromo interest makes them destructive. They can be made destructive also if they target inward, or backward. They can be extremely divisive if they link themselves to clan and religious politics. Elites have serious responsibilities to guard the overall interest of the Oromo people. There is a lot at stake here.


The historical influence of clan politics on Oromo unity is an interesting topic. The Gada constituents and the election to the Gada offices had to deal with clan sentiments for the overall good of the Oromo people. Oromo modern politics has a serious challenge of merging clan politics with Oromo nationalist identity. This is a gap that can be easily exploited by political enemies as well as group rivalries. The danger is that, enemy manipulations can be easily exposed. That of group rivalries can not. The use of clan politics to promote group politics is a serious offense that could leave a lasting scar on Oromo unity and history. The penalty that comes as a result of clan agitated politics far outweighs the gain one may expect from a reform that comes at the cost of splitting Oromos to clan tentacles. It leads Oromo politics to great shame. It is harmful but acceptable to split for any political motive; it is a shame to split to feed clan lines, a shame unworthy of the Oromo people. I for one prefer no change at all than a change that leaves a clan out or collects only one clan in to a political bunch. Clan politics is a disaster, Somalia par Excellence – the greatest gift to those who wish Oromos ill. It calls for a few days or weeks long retreat from politics so that Oromo elites can all meditate and see the looming danger of their irresponsible actions. Even in politics it is ok to lose sometimes, there is such a thing as winning by losing – losing for a higher cause. It is in this spirit that many Oromos are staying out of this conflict even when they want to voice their version of the truth – to avoid the historic shame. But clan politics is ignorant of the truth; it besmirches the martyrs and belittles the people. How could one be part of clan politics? This psychic itself is sufficiently paralyzing for Oromo struggle. It puts Oromos far below where
they thought they are.


Owing to political developments of the last several years, the OLF emerged with three political identities:

On the left, OLF’s ultra-radical members condemn any attempt to negotiate with any Abyssinian organization; leave alone the Tigrean led Ethiopian government. This has been a paralyzing tide for the OLF leadership. In the early 2000s, considerable time and energy was spent needlessly, arguing the merits and demerits of negotiations, interpreting and reinterpreting the very idea of talking to the enemy as violation of the principles of liberation, betrayal of the cause, etc. This leftist tendency may just have been a pretext for power struggle, this I can’t tell. But the leftist arguments readably existed and heavily populated the Oromo internet.

On the right, the OLF is pulled by members who want to drop armed struggle and go into power sharing competition against the TPLF. This matter was a serious agenda both at the 2004 Bergen conference and at the OLF Congress in Eritrea . The group’s motion was defeated by a large majority of the OLF congress. Although the group raises some legitimate concerns and important questions regarding lack of significant progress in the armed struggle, there are no indications that the group has modified its sympathy for the idea of converting the OLF into a legal Ethiopian opposition. I will write more about this below as it relates to the ongoing conflict. In the middle are the OLF members who are willing to negotiate, but without ever compromising their right to armed struggle.

These three traits of the OLF may be able to walk together, but not run. In fact, failure to segregate these three identities and explain to OLF members and followers is one of the serious neglects of the OLF leadership. In many instances, these internal clashes were deliberately suppressed and the problem tabled, evidently at the cost of tabling progress and victory. Even today most OLF supporters do not understand the source of the conflict; it is only packaged as change. No one is against change that brings success and results. This is not headed that way.

Most of the ultra left dropped out of the OLF some years ago, and have since remained critical of the mainstream OLF without making an outwardly significant impact on the Oromo struggle. The group claims to be the legitimate OLF as now does the rightist group.

The ultra-right emerged openly as a new bubble and a contending force within the OLF in 2004 at the Bergen conference on "Conflict Resolution in the Horn of Africa: A Consultation among Oromo Elders and Leaders with International Scholars". The conference, a consultation as it may be, yielded some new developments which may relate to the current conflict within the OLF.

Apparent from the Bergen discussion was that some members of the OLF openly and clearly argued against the armed struggle accepting Meles’ condition to renounce the armed struggle and become Ethiopia’s legal opposition. This misgiving to the armed struggle was later rearticulated at the OLF congress in Eritrea by the same OLF members who moved the idea in Bergen. The OLF Congress voted the idea down after a heated debate that lasted for several hours. The ongoing conflict within the OLF is led by the same core group which also promoted renouncing armed struggle in order to participate in the Ethiopian elections. In fact, the group’s recent dissociation from the OLF first appeared suspiciously on Ethiopian website within hours - a leak by an insider who has vested interest from linkage to the Ethiopian peace politics. How could one fail to realize that that good news to that media was bad news to the Oromo people? Unfortunately it supports the flows with the presumed motto. Based on events of the last few years, I note that the bubble is predominantly identifiable with the second traits of the OLF. I have not seen sufficient proof to assume that the group has departed from those views expressed at the two major Oromo events. But one must be open to such possibility.


I believe legal Oromo opposition within the Ethiopian administration plays a very important role in fighting for the rights of the Oromo people. The Honorable Bulcha Damaksa and the Honorable Marara Gudina are examples of courageous people who cover this dimension of the Oromo struggle. One cannot undermine the wish of those individuals, OLF members or otherwise, who prefer fighting as a legal opposition. However, the OLF raised arms as the ultimate means and backup to the Oromo struggle. The armed option must be central to the very definition of the OLF as the ultimate guard to the only light at the end of the tunnel.

As mentioned above, the ongoing ‘reformists’ have raised some legitimate questions about the lack of sufficient progress in the armed struggle. These are valid issues that should be addressed at the executive or central committee levels, or by the eventual OLF congress. They have ample venues to raise these and all other issues within their organizational responsibilities. Unfortunately, ignoring the bylaws and claiming to take over political power without a due process is more of a coup (successful or not) than a reform. Poor performance that can be corrected democratically does not rise up to a reason worthy of a split. The executive committee can be replaced by a majority vote of the central committee; the central committee can be replaced by the congress. Where is the need for a shortcut and illegal change?

No doubt, the organization must address causes of its poor performance and take appropriate measures to improve its performance. The strength of an organization is rooted on members’ respect and loyalty to its constitution, not to individuals. Otherwise the reason for a split has to be fundamentally ideological – and the only one that comes to mind is the one that calls back Bergen and Eritrea. Why not join Ethiopian forces and wage peaceful opposition politics without burning the bridge? What is the basis or claim under which six OLF executive committee members are ‘fired’ by one executive committee member who claims to take control of the army? How could an OLF army ‘follow’ the one executive committee member who failed to convince the other six elected executive officials? How can one reconcile this with the organization’s constitution to which all officers pledged allegiance? These are unsettling questions; one is comforted by the knowledge that Diaspora politics is illusive.

Kallacha Dubbii is a scholar who is currently residing in USA. He can be reached at kallachadubbi@yahoo.com