Ethiopia’s zealots of yesteryear and their desperate bid to remain politically relevant

Monday November 7th 2016

By Zecharias Zelalem

This week will see the culmination of the US presidential campaign with Americans of all stripes down to the fat lady set to cast their vote in an election that frankly the whole world will be waiting upon with the utmost curiosity. But while Americans will end what has been at times a comical diatribe between two stumbling, misspeaking titans in their own right, a much lower key event that will be taking place in the same country later this week is suggested to have implications in a country on the other side of the planet: Ethiopia.

Starting Friday November 11th, Atlanta Georgia will be the setting for the “Oromo Leadership Convention,” a gathering of expat Ethiopian Oromo members of different sectors of society. The much hyped convention is slated to discuss the ongoing political crisis in Ethiopia and plan the seamless entry of an emergency transitional government that would take over the country in the event of the current ruling EPRDF regime’s downfall. The organizers have repeatedly made it clear that they believe the government in Ethiopia is on its last legs. According to them, the reality on the ground has precipitated the necessity of planning a post EPRDF era country.

A banner promoting the upcoming Oromo Leadership Convention taken from the convention’s official website

While many questions surrounding the legitimacy of the convention remain unanswered and the exact nature of what the organizers hope to accomplish this weekend in Atlanta is hazy for the most part, one cannot deny that the publicity surrounding the event is proof of the strength of the Oromo people as a political entity, both at home and abroad. It has been the talk of Ethiopia’s discussion forums for a while now. Supporters laud the initiative as a sincere attempt at contributing to the nation building process and correcting the wrongs committed over the last twenty five years by the EPRDF regime. Opponents accuse the organizers of trying to wrestle the harnesses of the yearlong domestic Oromo protests away from those actually on the ground. It would be mere speculation to comment on the sincerity of the individuals involved in the organizing process. But what will transpire this weekend will no doubt have a great effect both at home and abroad, in one way or another.

The convention is in tandem with the current trend in the Ethiopian political discourse: Ethiopians have become more or less uninhibited when it comes with airing the grievances of a specific ethnic group or people, despite the apparent “damaging effect” it is said to have on the overall unity of the country. The forever propagated fear of the breaking down of the fiber of Ethiopian unity has been catalyst in the muzzling of voices that aren’t singing green yellow and red tunes. For instance, the current Amhara protests movement using slogans such as “Respect my Amhara-ness” and “Being Amhara is an honour” are a far cry from the slogans that would have been tolerated and accepted under the dogma of populist mainstream Ethiopianism. It could be the realisation that the populist mainstream ideology was little more than a protocol for prolonging the oppressive rule of the leaders it empowered, or people accepting that Ethiopia as a whole wouldn’t be affected negatively by the voices crying for justice in different languages for differing reasons. Either way, Ethiopia’s current movements demanding national reform have not shied away from vocally filing complaint after complaint of state sponsored oppressive measures meted out uniquely to people of a certain ethnicity.

The youth will inherit the reins of power in any society. So for the youth of Ethiopia to stretch their political language beyond the taboo barriers delimited by populist Ethiopianism, one can come to the conclusion that the ideologues of yesteryear have been kicked to the curb and that their views no longer resonate on a great scale with the majority of Ethiopians under the age of 25.

However instead of understanding their new restricted roles as outside observers and well wishers, some ardent believers in these outdated mainstream ideologies have refused to accept the fact that they and their visions are obsolete and harbour no influence over Ethiopia of 2016.

A little known diaspora based Ethiopian organisation calling itself “Vision Ethiopia” had planned on holding an open discussion forum surrounding Ethiopia’s future. After the organising of the above mentioned Oromo expat convention scheduled for November 2016 became public knowledge, Vision Ethiopia recruited a team of academic intellects it believed would be best suited for planning their vision of a post EPRDF Ethiopia. Scheduled for the last week of October 2016 at the Marriott Hotel in Washington DC, Vision Ethiopia managed to obtain the cooperation of Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT), who would broadcast the entire two day conference to its viewers around the world. The Vision Ethiopia response to the Oromo Leadership Convention was to hold a discussion forum with sixteen notable opinionated Ethiopian speakers, the majority of whom were middle aged and didn’t directly associate or endorse the Oromo or Amhara protest movements. ESAT, known for its traditional right wing leanings, sponsored the convention which was clearly in line with the television station ideologically.

Despite the fact that the majority of the Ethiopians involved in the nationwide protest and civil disobedience movements are for the most part youths who don’t adhere to the traditional political beliefs that have held Ethiopia somewhat hostage over the past century or so, the gathering went ahead as planned. There was virtually no one fit to speak on behalf of the protesters in Ethiopia present at the Marriott Hotel. Simply opposing the Ethiopian government and seeking its quick overthrow doesn’t qualify anyone to stand in the name of the thousands of young Ethiopians who have died and have been incarcerated for the simple crime of shouting slogans espousing justice and equality for all. The majority of the participants at the Vision Ethiopia/ESAT held gathering were adherents of mainstream “Ethiopianist” views and are known for their previously speaking against the “evils” of ethnic federation and self autonomy for the different peoples of Ethiopia. The idea that over a dozen individuals, known for their second guessing of ethnic federation, would be the proper choice to draw up the blueprint for the future of people marching and demanding true ethnic autonomy, as well as the fair demarcation of ethnic based state borders (the contentious issue of the Welqait region for instance), is downright ridiculous.

The people behind the Vision Ethiopia organisation may be somewhat anonymous (there’s no contact information or names of the group’s leadership available on their website) but it’s no secret where they stand politically. They are allied, if not in cahoots with the remnants of the political elites of eras past. Thus one can assume they are having an incredibly difficult time registering as anything but irrelevant among the activists, both at home and abroad, who spearhead the movements.

The lack of political clout of Ethiopia’s political right was highlighted earlier this year when the ESAT television media network tried to engage another Ethiopian media outlet in dialogue. The US based Oromia Media Network (OMN) known for their leftist stand, have strived with its coverage of the protests back home due in no little part to their executive director Jawar Mohammed’s role as a popular cyber activist. His consistent disseminating of information, proven and unproven has turned his page into a hub for those seeking to get the latest updates out of the country. Among Ethiopian television news networks, OMN is arguably second to none when it comes to influence and coverage from Ethiopia.

In January of 2016, ESAT announced on its Facebook page that it would be holding a joint conference to discuss the role of media in a democracy alongside OMN and another Ethiopian television news network in February. It was seen as the rightist ESAT’s cozying up to the political left in an attempt to deal with their itch to gain some widely sought after influence. Sometime later, negotiations appear to have broken down. OMN announced it wasn’t going to be a part of the said gathering. It was a blow to ESAT intentions. Despite ESAT’s remaining widely popular and viewed among Ethiopians abroad, it’s coverage of Ethiopia’s political crisis isn’t as accredited as that of OMN.   

ESAT’s announcement of a initiative held in cooperation with OMN and BBN. OMN later withdrew its participation for unspecified reasons

Just over a month ago, Tedla Woldeyohannes, a former Philosophy professor at St. Louis University and a keen commentator on Ethiopian topics with rightist leanings, penned an article titled “The “Oromo National Charter” and the Future of Ethiopia: A Plea for Clarity.” In that article, Tedla implies that the charter may be little more than a curtain for separatists, going as far as drawing out similarities between the language used on the convention’s website and that of previously written manifestos by the banned separatist Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) armed group.

The amplified fears of the separatist Oromo “bogeyman” have long been used to prevent the Oromo people from holding gatherings in their name or speaking on behalf of the traditionally disenfranchised Oromo ethnic group. Tying the Oromo struggle to one hell bent on seeing the country be dismantled has always been the justification for containing Oromo dissenters, from the dawn of the country’s formation, to modern day Ethiopia where tens of thousands of Oromos languish in jails across the country, accused of supporting the OLF. The Ethiopianist populists, so often defenders of the legacies of Ethiopia’s imperial monarchs despised among the majority of Oromos, have also strove off of a fear of Oromo might. After all, an Oromo presence in the Ethiopian establishment wouldn’t take too kindly to their nostalgic feelings towards the oppressive emperors, or their outdated views on the country’s federalism experiment. Hence Tedla Woldeyohannes’ adopting of the similar scare strategy in his article could be seen as his personal effort at containing the ideological straying away of Ethiopians from the confines of populism.

The Ethiopian government itself in recent times has tried its hand at playing the bogeyman card. A widely aired clip depicting a London based Ethiopian man telling a crowd that the only way forward for the Oromo people would be to actively pursue succession was circulated among state broadcasters to portray the Oromo protest movement and the organisers of the Atlanta convention as hostile elements seeking the total demise of the state. Most notable activists used their respective forums to denounce the individual in the clip as nothing more than yet another loudmouthed, politically incorrect member of the diaspora.

Dr. Tsegaye Ararssa, a professor at Melbourne University, well known avid commentator and social media activist, recently made statements that provoked the ire of members of the political right. According to Dr. Tsegaye, there is Ethiopian citizenship, but no known “Ethiopian identity” due to a lack of cultural homogeneity surrounding the traditional and somewhat stereotypical image of an Ethiopian. Dr. Tsegaye made the statements in an SBS Australia Amharic language radio statement.

Since his uttering of these statements a few weeks ago now, Dr. Tsegaye has been the target of a cyber lynch mob. However, it’s clear to a certain extent that a major portion of the online banter targeting the Australia based Dr. Tsegaye is fueled by his widespread popularity in Oromo cyber activism circles and his expressions of support for the upcoming Atlanta convention. His statements have been stretched to the point that he has been quoted by many as calling for the dismantling of the country.

The now weeks long defamation campaign against the professor is somewhat shocking when one remembers that Dr. Tsegaye is often called to take part in discussion panels by media outlets from both Ethiopia’s left and right wing political spheres as a credible go to guy. The all out cyber “declaration of war” against him has connotations beyond outrage over anything he may have said on SBS Radio. Out of context application of Dr. Tsegaye’s statements has been used in an attempt to justify the Ethiopian right wing’s attempts at delegitimizing political activism movements that contain the name “Oromo” in them. A single individual’s comments being rendered a trend and rallying point among the ardent members of the Ethiopian political right is symbolic to say the least. If anything else, it also shows that a failure to be heard during the rocking of the Ethiopian establishment over the past year or so has forced some of the bigwigs of Ethiopian populism to attack those who they feel have the privilege of being heard and contemplated with. If the zealots of yesteryear feel the only way they can revive their dying influence is by demeaning the vibrant and politically relevant personalities of today’s Ethiopia, then their level of desperation is on scales thought unattainable. Finishing off a wounded animal is no easy task as it will resort to all means to ensure their survival. Well it’s clear that those who have instigated the campaign against this one individual are on the brink as well.

For the record, the “separatist” Dr. Tsegaye Ararrsa wrote on his Facebook wall yesterday that he “happen(s) to be one of those who labor in the hope that Ethiopia can be brought into wholeness through a redemptive discourse.”

“I happen to be one of those who resist the instinct to break it up because the stakes are too high for me personally-sentimentally and nationally-politically.”

Everything from attacking renown personalities, to highlighting an apparent public disaccord among Oromo activists in order to prey on any sense of disillusion this might create has been attempted by this country’s long lost traditional right as they continue in what is increasingly appearing to be their vain fight to remain in the game and with a say that will be heard.

The jury is still out on whether Ethiopian protest movement activists can conjure up the means of creating meaningful dialogue that will lead to the building of the foundation of a country that can accommodate the political needs and aspirations of over a hundred million people.

However, it’s clear that in the eventual successful accomplishing of this mammoth task none of the country’s populist zealots of yesteryear will feature among the prominent, articulate, social media savvy, nation builders.

Because neither rational Americans nor the majority of Ethiopians, are swayed by the extremely convoluted rhetoric of the “has-beens” pledging to make their country “great again.”

My name is Zecharias Zelalem.

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