Amid growing rifts within Ethiopia’s ruling elites on whether to stay as federalists or to join the ranks of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s centralist approach, Jawar Mohamed, the most popular Oromo activist and founder of the powerful Oromo Media Network, has become a member of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC).
The move has ended speculation among Oromo nationalists and others in the ruling elites on whether Mohamed would align himself with Ahmed’s new Prosperity Party.
Right from the beginning, Jawar, who has led an effective campaign in exile against the former Tigrayan hegemony over the Ethiopian polity, has blatantly opposed the incumbent Ethiopian prime minister’s “Medemer” philosophy that is bent on marginalising the regions’ power in favour of an all-powerful centralised government.
His objection to Medemer (Amharic for “synergy”), which Ahmed heavily promoted in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, was the first nail in the coffin for this philosophy among his fellow Oromos, particularly as Jawar explicitly accused Ahmed of being “authoritarian” and showing early signs of “dictatorship”.
Ahmed now has to face the music as the defiance coming from Jawar, given the latter’s popularity in Oromia, threatens the young leader’s political career. While Ahmed was a member of the now-defunct Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) cabinet under former Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Jawar was engaging in active mobilisation among his fellow Oromos in exile against Tigrayan rule.
Jawar’s bold actions against the Ethiopian government under strongman former prime minister Meles Zenwai and the ineffective Desalegn also gained him publicity beyond measure among his fellow Oromos and within other nationalities that suffered under EPRDF rule.
Having joined the OFC, Jawar will run for a seat in the upcoming general elections in Ethiopia slated for May this year, and if his party gains a majority he may be picked as the head of the next government, as stipulated in the country’s constitution. In practice, the OFC has plans to field candidates in all 180 of the registered constituencies in Ethiopia — in other words, it will challenge the incumbent prime minister’s new party across the country, particularly as the OFC is expected to form a coalition with another federalist Oromo party, the Oromo Liberation Front, once labelled a terrorist organisation under the EPRDF-led government.
Ahmed has presented himself to the West as a reformist leader who has freed prisoners, tolerated dissent, and empowered women to the extent of picking a woman as president for the first time in the country’s history, let alone allowing for the freedom of expression and leaving no journalist behind bars. Such a recipe has appealed much to Western circles, and it secured Ahmed the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize, even if it has fallen on deaf ears in Ethiopia itself.
Decades of ethnic politics have put down roots in the Ethiopian community, and the kind of paradigm shift that Ahmed wants cannot happen overnight. It is true that the EPRDF’s notion of federalism was more a matter of form than of substance, as the leaders of the regions were picked based on their allegiance to the former ruling coalition, and the regions’ influence in decision-making never crossed the role of yes-men. But it is also true that the regions’ adherence to staying as federalists can be traced back to their panic at the prospect of returning to the old days of Ethiopian history under the rule of the former emperors when they had almost no say in their country’s political structure and only slight representation in the government.
Above all, introducing a federal system to Ethiopia in the wake of the demise of the Marxist-led government of Mengistu Hailemariam did, except in the Eritrean case, maintain the lesser evil, namely the façade of a united and undivided Ethiopia, though one that had a restive and turbulent shape.
Mohamed, on the other hand, has based much of his confidence as a potential successor to Ahmed on the fact that his defence of federalism as the administrative structure of Ethiopian politics appeals to nationalities that are afraid of losing their gains, particularly autonomous rule, in favour of Ahmed’s centralised form of governance.
Jawar’s appeal also goes beyond his home Oromia region as he has deftly embraced people in Amhara through a reconciliatory discourse, in Afar when he visited the region wearing national dress, and even stretched hands as far as archrivals the Tigrayans, who, like Jawar, defend federalism, though for different purposes.
Jawar’s main objective remains in harmony with that of the Oromos: greater self-rule through which the Oromos can have wide control over the wealth that is abundant in their region and that has been used to sustain the federal republic but not the Oromos themselves. He is widely seen in the region as a messiah who can spread Oromisation in its broader sense, socially and culturally in particular.
Such an ideology appeals to average Oromos who have been neglected for decades and have sustained one blow after another, particularly after their leaders collaborated with Zenawi in the guerrilla warfare against the Marxist government of Mengistu Hailemariam, dreaming at the end of an independent state just like current president of Eritrea Isaias Afwerki did with his country following the collapse of the Derg (Amharic for “committee”) regime in Ethiopia in 1991.
But the Oromos’ request was then met with a resounding refusal, and they saw their leaders scattered in exile or labeled as terrorists, or, in the best-case scenario, being spared only to be sentenced to long terms in prison or vaguely “disappeared”. This was the time in which Mohamed was raised, and it was also the time when every Oromo bore the brunt of a ruthless campaign, both in the media and among the community, that Oromia wanted the disintegration of a happy and stable Ethiopia.
No wonder, Jawar’s tone looks to some as ultranationalist, something he does not conceal, particularly as the Oromos believe it is now or never if they are to flex their muscles over the political and administrative system in Ethiopia.
At first, the Oromos were jubilant when one of their own reached the helm of politics in the country, and they all, including Jawar himself, did provide support for him. But Ahmed has been busy turning his dream as a seven-year-old boy into reality: getting to the palace, as he said his mother predicted he would, and embarking upon imperial-like rule. The Ethiopian nationalities, small or large, have legitimate concerns that Ahmed will turn into a dictator and that they will once again lose what they gained with sweat and blood.
By joining the Oromo Federalist Party, Mohamed has reshuffled the cards, particularly as another close ally of Ahmed, his defence minister, has left him between the devil and the deep blue sea by standing alone on his new political agenda.
Should Ahmed manage to win the next elections and get the popular mandate he seeks, Ethiopia will enter into a new era of “Abiyism” by introducing amendments to the 1995 constitution and changing the country’s political system into a presidential one. But things will surely not be better if the other camp wins the race, because then secessionist calls could ruin an already ailing building.
The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly