Democracy: Liberty, Security, & Prosperity

Interview with March 12, 2010

Posted by Jawar on July 27, 2010 conducted an interview with a young Oromo political analyst and social commentator, Mr. Jawar Mohammed, about his childhood, political views and visions. He also shared his views on the state of politics in Ethiopia and the Horn, the Oromo struggle and the upcoming election. Here’s the interview. Tell us about yourself.

Jawar Mohammed (JM): I grew up in Dhummugaa, a small rural town on the Arsi-Hararge border in Oromia. I think of Dhummugaa as my hometown – the place where I came of age and where I attended elementary school until I got kicked out and left for Asella. There, I went to a Catholic school for a year and Cilaalo secondary school for another year until I once again had to move to Adama, where I took my high again had to move to Adama, where I took my high school national exam.

From there, I won a scholarship to attend the United World College of South East Asia in Singapore, where I studied Afaan Oromoo and other subjects. Upon completion of my studies there, I came to Stanford for my undergraduate degree and graduated this past June. Currently, I have just completed an internship in Washington, DC; and I am now conducting an independent research. I plan to start graduate school this coming September. You have come out hard on the politics-as-usual establishment in Ethiopia. Your first article lambasted the OLF leadership for its failure; your subsequent articles berated Ethiopianists’ unjust views on self-determination; andyour most recent article depicted the hostage-captor relationship between the people of Tigray and TPLF.

JM: I feel that the standard way of analyzing Ethiopian politics often gives undue credit to personalities and ideologies in determining the causes and effects of political actions. While actors and ideologies do influence politics, a structural assessment of the agent-institution relationship tends to help better explain political phenomena more logically and rationally. Ideology presents the world in a very simplistic and shallow manner. It relies on a singular assessment of the problem and promises a universalistic and absolutist solution. It does not allow room for doubt and alternative possibilities. Thus, using an ideology of a certain organization as a sole basis for analyzing political phenomenon might not help us understand causes and effects for a given outcome.

The role of political personalities is also often overestimated. In politics, I think there is duality of a person. A political person has his own views and interest, but those interest and views are prone to change due to factors outside his control.

Politics is a product of an interaction between an institution and its agents. I like to call this interaction anorganizational norm. Understanding politics, therefore, requires assessing this relationship.

The problem is that, while ideology and leadership are visible, the organizational norm is not; and it is difficult to quantify. Thus, people often misdiagnose a problem by focusing only on the visible factors. In the articles you mentioned, for instance, ideology and leadership have been the two widely accredited factors for the weakness of the OLF in the last two decades. But, the OLF has changed both its ideology and leadership during this period, yet still could not solve the problem. It could be the case then that the prescription did not work because the problem was misdiagnosed. In that article, I used structural assessment in an attempt to show that factors other than ideology and leaders were significant in hindering the OLF’s progress.

In a related way, take the example of the ultra-conservative Ethiopianists, who are obsessed with any perceived threat to Ethiopian unity. For them, those who challenge the established norms of the state and advocate ideas contrary to the conventional wisdom are mercenaries sent with evil intentions. Like all conservatives, they prioritize state sovereignty over the will, interests and aspirations of the people within that state. There should be no mistake that such conservatives are patriots with deep love for their country, but the weakness of their political analysis occurs because, in their zealous obsession with sovereignty, they always blame external forces for any internal crisis.

The basis of the state-citizen relationship is the state’s obligation to improve the welfare of its citizens, or at least create favorable conditions for their self-improvement. When a citizen or a group benefits from the state, they value that state and will have a vested interest in protecting it. By contrast, when a state becomes a burden on people, when it oppresses them, exploits them and discriminates against them, they all have reasons and rights to dismantle it. With this in mind, I argue that people support the liberation front’s position of self-determination as a means of fighting an exploitative and oppressive state, not because they are guided by some magical power of the elites.

As the state has invoked unity and sovereignty in order to suppress dissent and disregard legitimate grievances, those slogans have become synonymous with repression and misery. The best way to promote Ethiopian unity, not as mere political slogan but as something real, is to eliminate the predatory state, to ensure the equality of each citizen and group, and to promote equitable socioeconomic development. This will reduce animosity and increase interdependence, which will result in each stakeholder having a vested interest in strengthening unity as a means of ensuring his or her own continual benefits.

In general, I aim at a more thorough analysis than those provided by our contemporary talking points and accepted notions about political matters, with the hope to better understand the most likely causes of our problems and find accurate solutions for them. What are your views on the future of Ethiopia in the context of the Horn of Africa?

JM: I am quite optimistic about the future of Ethiopia. The creation of Ethiopia in the late 19th century through conquest and subjugation led to unequal and unjust relationships among different stakeholders. The system of economic exploitation, forced cultural assimilation and political oppression made the situation unbearable for the subjugated people. The disadvantaged groups and their progressive sympathizers fought and began to dismantle that ancient system. Progressive forces hoped to remake Ethiopia based on the principles of social justice, equality and fraternity. They were smothered, however, between the conservative forces that fought hard to maintain the old system on one side, and the hardliner ethno-nationalist groups, on the other, that saw the complete dismantling of the empire state as the only way to solve the problem. The struggle between these two polarized forces has dominated Ethiopian politics during the last three decades making consensus-based politics unthinkable. Now, it seems that both forces have been exhausted and a new era for the progressive democratic voice is on the horizon. If this emerging moderate progressive voice can mobilize the silent majority of people around their aspirations for a mutually inclusive political system, and if it is also able to overcome the challenges posed by the variety of highly vocal, visible and organized hardliner groups, I believe Ethiopia will make a democratic breakthrough within the next decade.

A democratic breakthrough in Ethiopia will have a fundamental impact on peace, stability and development in the entire region. It’s obvious that the current regimes in Asmara and Finfinne are the main spoilers of peace and stability. If they were democratic, they would have no reason to stir up fake border wars to divert attention from internal crises or intervene in each others’ internal affairs; nor would they need to finance rival factions in Somalia and elsewhere. As long as Meles and Isaias remain in power, there will not be peace in Somalia or the entire region. Only a nonviolent removal of these dictators and establishment of a democratic system can change this, and such an outcome would be a win-win situation for all stakeholders. I am convinced that Ethiopia is moving in that direction and that it will not be too long before democracy finally takes hold. The current political establishment is a result of the 1960’s and 1970’s leftist ideologies. How does that shape the regional politics?

JM: I have great admiration and respect for the progressive generation of the ’60s and ’70s. They were selfless, dedicated and determined youth, and rarely does such a generation emerge in a society. It pains me that we speak only about their mistakes and shortcomings. Given the political and social background many of them came from, the notoriety of the system they faced, and the unfavorable regional and international political conditions of the time, they achieved the unthinkable: they actualized a fully fledged revolution that brought fundamental social, economic and political change to the country.

It’s true that much of the current state of distraction and disarray that has become the norm for political behavior can be traced back to that era, simply because the same generation has exclusively dominated politics ever since.

Yet, it is also important to understand that the best and brightest leaders of that generation perished early on and that the burden fell to mediocre individuals, who suddenly found themselves at the helm of every organization. The visionary and visions were divorced very early, such that organizations performed very poorly due to their shaky foundations and lack of viable leaders. This vacuum of leadership prevented many organizations from learning from mistakes and improving their performance. By and large, it is that frustration caused by the failures of leadership that led to the birth of the politics we observe today. Tell us what shapes your political views.

JM: My political views as well as my general outlook on life have been shaped by my childhood experiences and international exposure at young age. I was born to a Muslim father and Christian mother. In that area, I was told that it was the first cross-faith marriage and that the young couple had, therefore, broken major social barriers. I grew up well-acquainted then with delicate matters of family and religion. Although religion was never a major reason for a conflict, I observed that each family made extra efforts to accommodate the others’ faiths with their social affairs. That background instilled in me the importance of tolerance and respect as essential values for human coexistence.

As a child, I was fond of old people. I spent most of my time listening and talking to my grandparents and their friends, as it was the norm in the area for young people to spend as much time as possible with elders. I can say that I received the first and the best training in history, law and politics from those elders. And to me, the fascinating thing was that while my father and his friends were conservatives, the elders were quite liberal in their outlook and communication with us. Even today, every time I read books or listen to lectures, it reminds me of the proverbs and stories I heard from the elders.

My two years in Singapore were the most life changing for me. My classmates came from over 65 countries around the world and spoke over 100 languages. It was a major cultural shock for a village boy like me, but it was also rewarding, as I was forced to push my limits to overcome cultural and linguistic barriers in order to fit in and succeed academically. The school also gave me the opportunity to travel to tens of countries in Asia, Europe and North America, to volunteer, facilitate youth conferences, and visit historic sites. These extraordinary opportunities helped me grow personally and appreciate the multicultural nature of our shared world. They helped me understand that my country and my people are not alone in going through difficult times.

The academic training I received at Stanford helped me give theoretical and philosophical interpretation to the experiences and beliefs I already developed. Many people and organizations have different interpretations of the Oromo cause (or the Oromo question). What’s the “Oromo cause” from your perspective?

JM: First, it’s important to be clear that there is nothing called the “Oromo question”. The Oromo do not ask anyone for anything; and there is nobody who has the answer for us. What the Oromo have are objectives, which are freedom, prosperity and stability. And, these are not things the Oromo are asking someone else to provide to them, but which they have been struggling to accomplish through their own ultimate sacrifice, commitment and hard work.

I like the ongoing debate between the two camps of the Oromo movement, “independence vs. democratization.” However, I find the rationales of both sides weak and defeatist; both camps advocate their position because they believe the other alternative is unattainable.

For instance, pro-independence individuals and groups argue that Ethiopia cannot be democratized; hence, the only option is the formation of a separate state. In a similar fashion, those advocating to solve the issue within the existing state believe that – due to internal, geopolitical and international factors – it is impossible to realize an independent state. I disagree with both reasons, because:

1) Both sides forget the fact that the current system must be dismantled before either democracy or independence is realized. Both outcomes require removing the current tyrannical regime.

2) Both positions are defeatist in the sense that they underestimate the power, will and ability of the Oromo people. If we are incapable of liberating Oromia, it’s a farce to speak of democratizing Ethiopia. If we cannot democratize Ethiopia, there is no guarantee that we can establish a democratic Oromia. I am absolutely confident that we have the means to realize either of the two outcomes. In my view, the debate should be about which of the two outcomes could best advance the short- and long-term interests of the Oromo nation.

The Oromo nation started this fierce struggle because the status quo deprived it of its freedom, degraded its cultural institutions, and reduced the great nation to servitude on its own land through expropriation and exploitation. As a result, the current fight is about developing a system that advances the interests of Oromo people – economic, social and political. In short, the fight is about liberty, security and prosperity. Therefore, neither establishing an independent state nor reforming an existing one is an end, but a means to advancing the interests of Oromo people. We should choose whichever means we believe holds the maximum sustainable outcome for these interests. In my view, keeping the current state, but changing the political process from one of domination and marginalization to one that fosters a pluralistic, inclusive and democratic coexistence holds the best advantage for the Oromo people and everyone else.

There is no question that the Oromo people have the legal and moral rights to establish an independent state. But, it is crucial that we rationally evaluate the benefits and costs of such a decision. It’s obvious that the formation of an independent Oromian state would bring an end to the existence of the Ethiopian state and lead to the subsequent disintegration of the over 80 ethnic groups in that country. Such a scenario would engulf the entire region into chaos. Even if we assume Oromia can be self-sustaining due to its size and resource, the neighboring people would have a difficult time surviving, and the resulting desperation and inevitable conflict would have drastic negative impacts. Even if a warring group might not fight the Oromo, being surrounded by such a group would cripple Oromia’s economic development and could be a security nightmare – a situation that would undercut any hope of having a democratic, stable and developmental government in Oromia.

Therefore, those advocating this position have the burden to tell us why their proposal is a better alternative to change within the current state. Liberation to me is about building a foundation for a prosperous, just, democratic and sustainable future. Disintegrating the current Ethiopian state by the removal of any group is tantamount to committing collective suicide, and the Oromo have a vested interest and moral responsibility to prevent such a tragedy from taking place. It is in our best interest to preserve the territorial integrity of the Ethiopian state, democratize the system, create an inclusive political community, and make the country home for everyone – and we can. We can draw inspiration as well as values and principles from the glorious Gadaa system, the oldest and most egalitarian democratic system in the world. We are proud of our heritage, so let’s share it with our neighbors. Let’s lead by providing an example of a brighter future that all can share. As a majority, we do not lose anything from democracy taking root in Ethiopia, but we have the capability to create a win-win situation for all. Ending subjugation and empowering the Oromo people are essential for peace and stability of that region. And yet, unless the Oromo take leadership and full ownership of the process, I would argue, it is impossible to establish a democratic system in Ethiopia. This is an unpleasant reality: the Oromo have been the primary victims of the Ethiopian state, yet the Oromo shoulder the primary responsibility for shaping its future. What are your thoughts about forming a political organization or joining an existing one?

JM: The most effective way to bring about desired social change is through coordinated collective action, and that demands organization. One can either join an existing organization or establish one. My view is that before joining or establishing an organization, one should spend good amount of time and energy figuring out:

a) What he or she would like to accomplish – meaning what is his or her personal mission and vision,

b) What skills, knowledge and value would he or she brings to an organization.

After this has been thought out, the particular decision to join an existing organization or establish a new one should be considered based on several factors. I would join a particular organization if it is on the right track to achieving its goals and objective, or at least if I can see room for possible reform and improvement. Joining an organization simply based on ideological compatibility will have a disastrous consequence. Yet, I do not advocate rushing into establishing a new organization without doing rigorous investigation into the causes of flaws of the existing one, and then devising a clear vision, identifying and developing executable strategies, and making systematic plans for the new organization. Just as product differentiation is essential for a new firm to survive and grow in a market, a new party can only succeed if it can emerge as an effective and better alternative to the established ones. Dissatisfaction with an existing organization is not enough of a reason to establish a new one, unless there is a clear plan to produce tangible results.

Personally, I am not ready to get involved in party politics now, primarily because I would hate to be a part-time politician for such a holy cause as that of the Oromo people. These people have been deceived for so long that I find it immoral to pretend to work for them unless I am prepared to fully commit my time and resources. Until such a time occurs, I prefer now to be an independent advocate, particularly through writing. Who’s your inspirational Oromo political leader? Why?

JM: The countless freedom fighters who died in the jungles and deserts of Oromia for the just cause of the Oromo people. The poor and selfless activists who relinquish their lives in Ethiopian jails for my future freedom. The barefoot farmer who never gives up the dream of a better future for his children despite the odds. The loving mother who is repeatedly discriminated against yet continues to inspire her children to seek knowledge, peace and compassion. They are all my leaders in their respective fields. Their determined commitment to defy their current reality is my major source of inspiration. You’ve been the president of the International Oromo Youth Association (IOYA). How has that leadership experience helped you in your career?

JM: Before we founded IOYA, I had some experience in youth activism and leadership development. I organized and facilitated a number summits and conferences around the world. I then came to the Oromo youth with a lot of enthusiasm and ideas about how to transform our society. There was a matching degree of excitement among the youth here as well. This helped us overcome some of the obstacles we faced at the beginning, and we were quite successful during the first two years. We executed several projects quite effectively. Since we were operating within the polarized Diaspora politics, we agreed from the outset that the organization must remain nonpartisan as far as the internal Oromo politics was concerned.

After two years, I realized it was no longer possible for me to remain “nonpolitical.” I wanted to freely express my views on issues that mattered to me and the Oromo public, yet that could be a great distraction to the organization. At the same time, I was also realizing that I did not have enough understanding about the Oromo people and the historic and contemporary factors that affect them. I had to admit to myself that I was facing a crisis in my confidence, and that the issues I thought I knew actually eluded me completely. As a result, I made the decision to leave IOYA and took two years of “sabbatical” from politics in order to educate myself in a more intense manner. I went to Oxford for a semester, traveled to India to study Gandhi’s work and India’s democracy, and visited my country to re-connect with the people and update my understanding of the current political climate. I can say that my experience in IOYA has helped me re-think what I thought I knew, and broadened my understanding of the issues that mattered to me. Who’s your favorite political philosopher? Why?

JM: I do not have a particular favorite philosopher. I tend to piece different perspective from several thinkers in an attempt to develop my own. What message do you have for the Oromo Youth?

JM: My advice to every young Oromo in the Diaspora is to take full advantage of the various opportunities available for both their personal growth and the benefit of our people. There are only two reasons why we are here: to get educated and accumulate wealth. We should focus and strive to achieve the most in whichever goal we are pursuing. In regards to our struggle, there are also two things we can most effectively do: advocating the cause of our people and providing material support for those on the front lines in Oromia. In addition, I strongly advise avoiding being sucked into the parochial politics waged by disillusioned politicians and instead promoting true understanding, harmony and unity among our people. In ten years, where do you see Oromia and Ethiopia?

JM: In my view, through the sacrifices of our martyrs, the Oromo movement has accomplished the overwhelming majority of its objectives, albeit incrementally. I remember three fundamental goals that the movement had set out to accomplish:

1) Regaining our land,

2) Protecting, preserving and reviving our identity and nationhood, and

3) Establishing self-rule

I argue that we have accomplished all of these goals, but have yet to consolidate them.

The famous rallying slogan of the Ethiopian revolution: “Land to the Tiller” – was basically the demand of the Oromo and other Southern people. Rarely, do historians mention that it was Oromo intellectuals organized under Maccaa Tuulamaa and the students that articulated and made the land question the central theme of the revolutionary left. Although the military junta had no choice, but to address this burning issue, implementation of land distribution would have been impossible without the leadership given by our giants, such as Haile Fida, Zegeye Asfaw and countless others.

Land redistribution was a major victory that set the stage for the successful campaign of reconstructing our identity – which was facing the threat of extinction as a result of violent forced assimilation. Glory goes to our intellectuals who made it possible, within the last two decades, to re-establish a pan-Oromo identity, to develop a script for our language, and to put our homeland on the map. As a result, we forced friend and foe alike to recognize us as a political community with the ability to make or unmake the region. It was these achievements that forced TPLF – the lottery winners of the state power in Ethiopia in 1991 – to accept the establishment of Oromia, albeit with limited autonomy, and the introduction of Afan Oromo as a working language. These are not gifts from TPLF as they and our adversaries claim. TPLF was forced to do it because it knew fully well that it would not have been possible to rule the country without conceding that burning demand. Thus, with the re-establishment of our homeland and introduction of our language, we have wonde facto self-rule. Today, the daily administrative affairs of Oromia are, technically, entirely run by Oromo men and women, even if they lack the political muscle to implement their own policies.

I conclude, therefore, that the Oromo movement has successfully achieved its main objectives. But does this mean that the Oromo movement has concluded its journey? The answer is no, because victories need to be consolidated in order to increase and sustain their benefits. Power is the key for consolidating a victory. For instance, we won the fight for land, yet getting back the land did not change the life of our people because land ownership needed to be consolidated with desirable policy in order to increase productivity. But, outnumbered and overpowered by the establishment, our revolutionaries could not capture state power; hence, they were unable to devise and implement developmental policy. Similarly, the stagnation of Afan Oromo is caused by this lack of political power, which is essential for establishing institutions and allocating resources necessary for linguistic development. Despite Oromia being fully run by Oromos, the people remain as destitute as ever because those Oromo bureaucrats and administrators do not have the power to implement policies that advance the interests of their people.

That is why I believe that the central objective and mission of the Oromo movement at this stage should be enabling our people to capture state power. This requires devising a grand strategy compatible with the present day mission. The derailment of the struggle in the last decades can be attributed to our failure to appreciate our achievements and capitalize on them in order to transition to the next stage of the struggle – consolidation of our gains by capturing state power. Instead of re-articulating and reshaping our mission, we have been exhausting the movement over objectives that we had already accomplished. As a result, not only are we failing to step forward, our achievements have begun to erode – examples of this being the threat poised to our unity by factionalism, the deterioration Afan Oromo, and the sale of our land at such an alarming rate.

On a positive note, I believe we are entering a new era in the Oromo struggle; and the future is very bright for our people. First, I observe that we are overcoming ideological dogmatism and organizational absolutism. Tired of waiting for the dominant organization to produce results, the people are open to alternative views and ideas. This is a major breakthrough. Second, the conditions in Oromia have become more favorable than ever for our movement.

a) As a result of state repression and heightening nationalistic consciousness, the Oromo political community has become more alert.

b) The Oromo have taken over the administrative affairs of our homeland like never before. In the past, the fact that we have been totally excluded from the system was one crucial factor in preventing us from capturing state power when the opportunity presented itself. The experience and skills gained by our men and women are changing the balance of power.

c) Tens of thousands of our students graduate from college every year, which has been giving a crucial boost to our critical mass. Since literacy level and political consciousness are proportionally related to the potential of a group’s power, in the coming years we will have an increasing comparative advantage over our adversaries in both mobilization and execution of strategies.

How we take advantage of this situation will determine where the future Oromia and Ethiopia are headed. What’s your take on the upcoming election in Ethiopia?

JM: It’s obvious that this election will not be free, fair, or competitive. And as things stand now, this will hold true for future elections as well, since we have never seen a dictator willingly allow a truly democratic election. But this election presents a great opportunity to conduct research in order to develop a well informed strategic plan that would make it practically impossible for the regime to rig future elections. When people make it impossible for any authoritarian regime to rig an election and get away with it, it becomes practically impossible for that regime to continue to cling to power through the use of force.

As narrow as the political space is, I believe the opposition leadership suffers a major problem of commitment and is not effectively utilizing the very limited opportunities available. I think they underestimate their own capabilities and seem to lack the confidence and motivation to pressure the current regime. The elite-centered hierarchical organization model needs to be replaced by a bottom-up approach that relies on the power of ordinary people. A status quo can only be changed when the mass of people is effectively organized and collectively mobilized. I believe the opposition could come out of this election stronger if they are able to use it as an opportunity to reach out to the people and lay a stronger grassroots foundation, one which could intensify the struggle more effectively in the coming years. thanks Jawar Mohammed for taking time to conduct this interview.

One Response to “Interview with March 12, 2010”

  1. Abba Burqa said

    Superb interview. Thanks Jawar.

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