Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Which Model for the Oromo Struggle: The Recent Arab Uprising, the Former Eastern Block or the South Sudanese?

By Samuel Guutuu

It feels like 1989 in the Arab world. The end of the cold war in 1989 ushered in the revolt in Eastern Europe and finally the fall of the Berlin wall.

2011 ushered in the Arab revolt. The general public led by the middle class in the Arab world seems to have become angry at the lack of progress that has held them back despite their oil wealth. The pervasive corruption that has limited opportunities for the millions who cannot find work has enraged the Arab world from Tunisia to Egypt, to Jordan, to Yemen and the list goes on. Political turmoil is creeping around Arab streets one after another. Is the game over for despotic Arab leaders? Only time will tell.

The driver and the inspiration for the overthrow of communist regimes in 1989, and now Arab leaders, is a call for democracy, freedom, economic opportunity and representative government.

However, there is one notable difference between the uprisings in the former eastern block and the Arab world today. The revolt in the former was not only for, and did not only result in creation of, democracies but also liberation and independence of many nations under alien domination. The notable difference here lays in the fact that we know of no nation seeking liberation from alien domination or independent state in the Arab sphere at least at this time.
On the other hand, the people of South Sudan fought war of liberation for independent state for the past 55 years which finally came to a successful conclusion. They have just announced an overwhelming vote for independence. A new nation is being born on the other side of the western borders of Oromia. The OLF has been conducting a similar war of independence for the past 40 years. The Oromo are struggling against Abyssinian colonial rule akin to the South Sudanese war against Arab rule imposed on them.

It is interesting to read suggestions by some quarters that something like the Arab revolution should be attempted in Ethiopia. While it is natural to wish and try to emulate a successful endeavour, to be led by wish alone is a recipe for failure and even disaster. The importance of taking in to account the similarities and differences in subjective and objective conditions of these societies cannot be over emphasized.

The similarities are obvious for the careful observer: a dictatorial regime, sky high inflation, lack of freedom etc … These similarities have been discussed to death by those who wish for the same upheaval in Ethiopia as, say, in Tunisia. However, there are important differences to be considered here which all opposition groups and commentators can ignore only to the detriment of the peoples of the empire.

The main differences between Tunisia/Egypt (North Africa) and Ethiopia are many folds.

The first is, unlike in the Tunisia/Egypt case, there is an obvious lack of a sizable middle class to lead an urban based street protest to challenge the dictator in Ethiopia. Tunisia’s “per capita income is almost double that of Morocco and Egypt. It's higher than Algeria's, …” Ben Ali ran a police state where the people simply "shut up and consumed" for years which in the process created a sizable middle class. No such middle class exists in the Ethiopian empire to lead and sustain such a resistance.

The second is that Ethiopia is an empire, albeit backward and lethal in its subjugation of not only action but thought. As all empires before it, in order to perpetuate its existence, Ethiopia keeps a tight leash on the use of the rudimentary communications infrastructure in the country. Access to communications media such as cell phones, Facebook, Twitter.and other social networking media that have been used in Tunisia/Egypt is concentrated in the hands of the regime’s supporters besides being monitored and tightly controlled not only during a time of turmoil but at all times.

Thirdly, Ethiopia has no national army to speak of in the first place but an ethnic (Tigrean) army whose loyalty lies with its ethnic base and whose neutrality in an event of a popular upheaval cannot be counted on. This assertion is based not on assumptions but on experiences gained during past popular uprisings in the empire under the current regime.

If the Amhara, the group that considers itself to be archetypal Ethiopian, in addition to Tigray, manages to gather their effort in organizing urban revolt akin to their attempt in the 2005, the striking difference between the Egyptian security forces and the Tigray dominated Ethiopian security forces will become obvious to those who suggest a Tunisian style revolt will succeed in the Ethiopian empire. The former is a national force and the latter is a security force of a nation called Tigray currently colonizing the rest. The Egyptian military is a national army and ordinary residents of Cairo can mount the tanks and talk to their own boys in uniform. Try that to the Agazi force and you will see the difference. It is not that the Agazi are naturally different but they are from Tigray and do not even speak your language. Their national interest which they are given order to protect is not similar to, say, the Oromo national interest or anyone else’s for that matter.

Unlike in the Arab countries, it would be difficult to organize the peoples alongside economic class in the Ethiopian empire. While monopolizing the economy, income disparities, lack of opportunities, and lack of freedom of various sorts are part of the grievance against the regime in Ethiopia they by no means affect all nations and nationalities in that empire equally. While the people whose ethnic brethren are in power (Tigreans) have been benefiting from the status quo, other peoples bore the brunt of the regime’s attack. To maintain the status quo, it is likely that the Tigray people, who currently have the state on their side, will side with the regime thereby changing a popular upheaval against the regime to a conflict between peoples. For a serious analyst of today’s Ethiopia and TPLF psychology, such a scenario is not only possible but inevitability.

For nations like the Oromo who are not only under colony but under the rule of a despot like Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, the comparison between the uprisings in Tunisia/Egypt and Ethiopia is tempting but wrong. Arab societies are not in revolt against a system imposed on them from outside while the opposite is true for colonized nations like the Oromo in the Ethiopian context. The Arab revolt is a popular uprising to change the system within one nation/state in their respective nations for they consider themselves citizens of the same state. That is not the case for the peoples, nations and nationalities languishing in the Ethiopian empire also dubbed “prison of nations.”

The matter of whether the Oromo should be inspired by the South Sudan success, the Arab revolution or the Eastern European model needs to be answered.

The fact remains that the Ethiopian state is neither Federal, nor Democratic nor a Republic. It is a dying empire. Given the above concerns and the Oromo long term experience with the past two major Ethiopian revolutions both OLF and the Oromo people should model their struggle on the proven method that guarantees freedom and human emancipation from the ugliest system of slavery. The Oromo are well advised to follow the example of South Sudan for their struggle closely mirrors and calls for similar outcome as that of the South Sudanese. Just in case the Ethiopians (Amahara and Tigray) rose against their rulers, the Oromo should use that opportunity to organize and bolster their chance for liberation and independent Oromia just like others did in the former Yugoslavia and the USSR.

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