Wednesday, October 07, 2009

State of political debate in the Oromo Diaspora – a colonial legacy?

By Gumaa Guddaa
“Colonial domination …. is made possible by negation of national reality, by new ‘legal’ relations introduced by the occupying power, by the banishment of the natives and their customs to outlying districts by colonial society, by expropriation, and by the systemic enslaving of men and women” (Frantz Fanon, 1963)

Oromo politics cannot be separated from its historical context. Oromia was colonized by Abyssinia assisted by the support of European powers in 1898. At this time Oromia was vibrant and a thriving country. Oromo society was collectivistic; with extended family clans and traditional kinship structures governed by set of social laws, customs, rituals and cultural ethics a.k.a ‘safu’ in Oromo language. The concept of ‘safu’ was central to the concept of Oromo self. The role of the Gada system in organizing and maintaining the Oromo way of life at the time was one of the crucial tenets of the Oromo society’s cultural being. Debate played a central role in decision making at all levels.

The Oromo concept of debate was holistic - emphasizing the importance of the whole and the interdependence of its parts. Debate and descent was not seen as antagonizing. There was no assumption that one man knows best. Ideas were separate from the proponent. Differing views were expected rather than being the exception. When one proposed an idea or a solution to a problem one was expected to back it with logic arguments and evidence. The Oromo society was inquisitorial rather then confrontational.

The Oromo continue to maintain strong link to their traditional culture to this date. I had the opportunity to witness the choreography of free flowing public debates as a child on several occasions. For example, it used to fascinate me as to the purpose of the energy dedicated to deliberation before they decided to cut down a tree. Once a consensus was reached after long deliberations and a collective decision was made, silence would descend and everyone begins to act. No one raised an objection halfway during the action for it would be dangerous if debate was to be reignited the tree would fall on them causing injury. I only fathom now the significance of such an organized way of life and the essence of Oromo collective consciousness in their ordered life. As it was not possible to reach a unanimous consensus at all times the Oromo are prepared to live with compromises too.

The advent of Abyssinian colonialism led to the announcement of something deeply pervasive and, arguably, cultural genocide on the Oromo society. It is as if the life of the Oromo – their everyday lives, responsibilities, values and goals – were and are being effaced. Through a pervasive rhetorical device and open psychological warfare and indoctrination – an implied cultura nullius –the life of the Oromo people is negated effectively and in its entirety. Colonization of Oromia a century ago was followed, until the present, by several years of conflict, marginalization and forced acculturation, with resultant loss of traditional society, religion, law, land, and cultural identity especially among some Oromo urban communities and semiliterate sector of the Oromo society.

One of the most detrimental effects of the Oromo colonial experience has been the stifling of a healthy debate. In particular, over the past one decade it has been my observation that some elements of the Oromo political class have made a conscious decision to adopt the Abyssinian way of going about their business. Some have not only abandoned our way of life but also actively sought out to discourage dialogue. They adopted a very intolerant attitude towards descent of any kind. This has led to doubts about identity issues, lack of trust and intimacy between Oromos of different political persuasions as well as region and religion.

Something strange seems to have taken place in the Oromo Diaspora. I have been following the nature and tone of the debate amongst the Oromo Diaspora for the past two decades. The debate started off in the traditional sense in the early 90s. But it became very bitter and divisive very soon. Most were taken by surprise by the vitriol and lack of ‘safu’ and called for return to our values and traditional norms. No one paid attention. Then came the first half of the 2000s when the debate turned nastier and nastier. It became virtually impossible to have anything remotely resembling a civilized debate due to heated political fervor.

There are fundamental significant cultural differences in the mode of conducting debates among the Oromo people and the Abyssinian people. These differences stem from fundamental difference in the concept of debate itself. In Oromo world view debate is a way of reaching a state of perfection and finding a compromise. The Oromo way of reasoning is circular as opposed to the Abyssinian way of linear thinking, which does not encourage debate. Equally important is also that the Oromo consider each other equal. The Abyssinian society is a class society. Thus, debate is interpreted as insubordination and has to be quashed according to Abyssinians. The Abyssinians say “follow the leader at all times!” However, the Oromo believe that the leader has to have a convincing argument to be followed.

At the present it will not be an exaggeration to say that debate among the Oromo Diaspora community has completely died out. It is non existent. A complete collapse of political debate among the Oromo Diaspora at a time when the Oromo people are subjected to unparalleled political and economic exploitation, famine and devastating HIV/AIDS pandemic is odd to say the least. Such a state of moral and intellectual paralysis is due to a combination of historical, political, cultural and social causes. These include the intergenerational transmission of trauma, unresolved identity issue, sociocultural dislocation – first from Oromia to Ethiopia, now from Oromia to different countries across the globe – resulting in lack of sense of community and deficiency in ‘safu’ – collective consciousness.

Although it would be wrong to attribute wholly this infirmity to our colonial experience it is nevertheless unavoidable questioning the impact of lack of autonomy and pervasive influence of the occupying enemy on the way we conduct our discourse. Whatever the cause may be, it is morally indefensible not to have a serious debate on our future and how we should get rid of the oppressive Ethiopian regime and gain our independence and reclaim our rightful freedom.

There is no question in my mind as to what the first topic of our discourse should be. Let us discuss why we have stopped taking to each other. In my views, the problem that has brought the end of exchange of ideas and opinion is at the root of our inability to unite our energy and talent to liberate our nation from slavery. So ask yourself. Is it we have no issues to discuss or that the problem will worsen by duscussions or we remain wishful that if we stopped talking about it the problem will disappear by itself?

In summary, the Oromo people had an active culture of debate without fear of upsetting each other or being labeled an opponent. The Gada system sustained the Oromo way of life for generations. However, currently the level of intellectual thinking and debate in Oromo society is in a dire situation. At home due to the shackles of Wayane oppressive security apparatus of ‘Gott’ and ‘Garee’ – one security agent for every 5 households and in the Diaspora as a result of the tyranny of the ill informed mindless cadres who spread false allegations and hatred amongst the Oromo community.

Evidence based, serious, honest debates led by the ‘safu Oromoo’ and wisdom are more likely to succeed than a narrowly focused narrative. And surely we should understand it will be at our own peril that we follow the backward Stone Age Abyssinian way of life. We have to be seriously concerned as to what will happen in the next ten or fifteen years at this rate. We are sleepwalking into intellectual decay and demise. Let us return to our natural habitat and have a genuine honest debate - everything about the myths, facts and challenges about our struggle for decolonization - intellectual as well as physical liberation of Oromia from the jaws of the enemy.
Have your say.
Gumaa Guddaa can be reached via e-mail:



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