The Oromo Question
|The OLF is ready to talk with Meles Zenawi, « without any condition » […]
« In the presence of a third party »Dawud Ibsa Ayana, Chairman of the Oromo Liberation FrontInterview to Les nouvelles d’Addis
Paris, March 29th, 2006
|by Colette Delsol, Katia Girma, Alain Leterrier
interpreter French-Amharic-English : Katia Girma
pictures : Alain Leterrier
|Les nouvelles d’Addis interviewed Mr. Dawud Ibsa Ayana, the Chairman of the Oromo Liberation Front, while he was in Paris from the end of March to the first week of April, 2006. Mr. Ayana is accompanied on his European tour by his Head of Foreign Relations, Mr. Hassan Hussein, a member of the Executive Committee, and Dr. Shigut Geleta, Head of Foreign Relations in Europe, a member of the National Council.
LNA. The OLF has been created in 1974. Which are its basis (principles) and main historical dates and events ?
LNA. It is in the Ethiopian Constitution, isn’t it ?
LNA. You want to use this constitutional right ?
LNA. Knowing that the Oromiya’s independence would be the end of Ethiopia, do people inside the front argue about Ethiopia’s unity issue ?
LNA. When did you talk about this issue for the last time with Meles Zenawi ?
|LNA. Which are your links or antagonisms :
– with the others Oromo fronts or movements (OPDO, ONC, OFDM…) ?
DIA. Out of the organizations listed here, let me first take the OPDO.
The OPDO was created by the TPLF in 1990. It is not an independent organization, it is part of the EPRDF and it was also created by the intelligence arm of the TPLF. We have no problem with Oromos in OPDO but we don’t consider OPDO to be an independent Oromo organization as it is controlled and moved by the TPLF. It is the TPLF arm in Oromiya, that’s how we consider it. The relationships between the OLF and the TPLF is a relation of armed conflict, thus we have problem with the OPDO as a political organization, although we don’t have problems with Oromos in the OPDO… especially those that have not shed the blood of our people.ONC has been around for a while. OFDM is a new organization formed a few months before the May 2005 elections. We have no problem with Oromos forming any sort of political organization. We don’t have any official relationship with ONC or OFDM, but we have respect for them because they are trying, in their own ways, to find solutions for the suffering of the Oromo people. They are “legal” and we are “illegal” at this time, this according to the Ethiopian Government, and thus we cannot have official relationship with them because the authorities will immediately attack them if we had formal relationship. For this, we have refrained from having any official relationship with them for their own security.– with the other Ethiopian opposition parties (UEDF, CUD…) ?
DIA. With other Ethiopian parties and organizations, with UEDF, CUD, ONLF, or any others left, OLF has a cordial relationship. We have a relationship of cooperation with ONLF that was established a long time ago. With the rest of the Ethiopian organizations, we have respect for them and don’t have any antagonism with any organization, whether we have a relationship with them or not.So the OLF has no problem with any political organization in Ethiopia, be it those who are inside or outside. Our problem is the regime and its tyrannical nature, and with the system that is repressive and undemocratic. Anyone has the right to take any political position or struggle under any political program they deem fit. Of course, we have difference of political program with some parties but we don’t have problem with them so long as democratic system is in place where people reder their final verdict.LNA. You are very nice warriors ! (laughs)
DIA. No, that’s the real position of the OLF. It is not politics that we are talking, it is a real position of ours.LNA. There were several meetings abroad, in the USA or other countries of the opposition organizations and you did not participate. Why ?
DIA. The reservation is only technical, not strategic. We participated in the Paris conference of 1993. We joined with others and we in fact sent our delegation. After the Paris meeting, the actual conference was supposed to be held at the Ghion in Finfinne (Addis). We sent our delegation who was a member of the leadership and he was immediately imprisoned at the airport. Since then we were reserving ourselves from any meeting of that sort just because we did not find it practical to participate.LNA. There was also Ghennet Girma for the EPRP, she was also arrested, wasn’t she…
DIA. We don’t remember about Ghennet Girma but Abera YemaneAb was arrested if you remember. He is still in prison. And that became a problem and the process was aborted because of that. Again, there were attempts to form an alliance at a conference in Washington and other areas. Out of all of them, we are the banned organization by the government, we are at war, with fighters in the bush and it became very uneasy for us to participate in that. That was the only problem. Despite not being able to participate in these meetings, we have had our relationship or meetings underneath with most of them (laughs). To make matters more clear if you take the All Parties Conference that was conducted in Washington, they adopted a policy which says : « We will struggle peacefully », although this is our choice we have not settled our problem with the government that we entered in 1992 and we cannot embrace such a policy abandoning our fighters. These kinds of technical problems have been the reasons why we refrained and were reserved.
It was to change this situation that we have tried to settle our problems with the government several times. In 1992 there was a meeting in Asmara, facilitated by a group of Ambassadors. In 1994 the Carter Center took the initiative to be a mediator between us and the government refused again to sit with the OLF. In 1995, it was the Congressional Task Force of the United States, headed by Congressman Harry Johnston, which started to mediate and still, the government refused to deal with the OLF unless the OLF met one unreasonable precondition after another. Again in 1996 and 1997 in Germany with the presence of the Ambassador Winkelmann, sponsored by the German government, we tried to meet and resolve the conflict but the government once again failed to show up after two encounters without giving any reason. Since 1999 up to 2005, it was the Norwegians who tried to mediate between us several times but the government avoided it. So, the relation remains a relationship of conflict and we still believe all the outstanding issues need to be settled through dialogue. The government is the obstacle for us to join such party meetings and also to take part in the elections.
LNA. Six months ago perhaps…
LNA. Yes, he told to the BBC that he wanted to meet you. You didn’t have time ? (laughs)
LNA. Meles Zenawi sometimes asks to his people to translate our newspaper for him, so, if he wants to meet you, is it still ok to meet him ? We can tell him through the newspaper if you want us to.
LNA. Heu, no. But my question was serious. Would you be ready to talk with him if he says again what he said in September ?
LNA. Have you relationship with the other armed movements in the area (ONLF, FRUD…) ?
LNA. Why don’t you know about the FRUD and why don’t you know them ?
LNA. What do you think about the general elections which have been held in May 2005 in Ethiopia ?
Anyway, there is something unique that took place in this election, that is the courage of the population to massively go out and show their protest against the government and voting them out. This is a turning point, the courage of the population is clearly shown in the election. That’s a big change in Ethiopia. Which would mean if the Ethiopian people are given the chance, the support for democracy amongst the population is already demonstrated. That is the only hope that we saw.
LNA. Don’t you think that it could be also that democracy goes little by little ? It was not possible this time but something changed and the next time… Could it not be that it will be better and then… Don’t you think this ? He wants to hope, you know !
LNA. But why ? I have got the impression that Meles Zenawi has so strong a will to keep power that he could be ready to make some concessions, just to keep the power. Am I wrong ?
If democracy was only by word, Meles would be the best democrat. But where is the practice ? With years, don’t you have to see progress ? Human rights violations everywhere, killings everywhere, conflict everywhere. It is all talk… despite the nice talk Meles did not deliver on peace, development or democracy. So, this impression that this is a man who is putting Ethiopia on the course to democracy is an illusion. It has been a misapprehension, the people know about it for the last 14 years.
Democracy has to tolerate at least the minimum dissent, say from civic organizations which do not threaten the power of the state. Look at what happened to Ethiopian Teachers Association, look what happened to Ethiopian Journalists Association, look what happened to Metcha-Tulema, the Oromo Human Rights League and what not. Those are unarmed civic organizations, others professionals such as artists groups, bands, music bands. If these associations are not tolerated, can wee speak of democracy ?
LNA. Ethiopian authorities are regularly accusing OLF to make or to be behind attacks ; for example the recent attacks in Addis Ababa :
Let me add a little bit on this issue. It is not unusual for regimes in this part of Africa to accuse all their opponents with this kind of name. If you remember, during the campaign for the 2005 election, Meles and his party were calling the CUD Interhamwe in Ethiopia. Going as far as charging them for intending to commit genocide against the Tigreans. And the other thing, during the Mengistu years, Mengistu was calling them terrorists. Actually, these days, it has become a vogue. If you remember during the last week’s election in Belarus, the President was saying anyone who will go on the street protesting against the election result would be charged as terrorist. So, what I am trying to say is that accusing your political opponents as terrorists has become a fashion for tyrants, who keep creating phantom enemies rather than seeking political settlement for their problems. This is all designed to suppress the political situation inside the country. OLF rejects terrorism as a means of struggle. In any case, terrorism is a means for desperate groups, not mainstream organization like the OLF enjoying the support of the majority of the population in Ethiopia. And we have stated our position on this issue so many times. What good does harming innocent people do ? Because, the people in harms way could be potential supporters, in addition to being innocent. It doesn’t serve any political purpose and it is actually counter-productive. The TPLF has committed so many crimes in the last 14 years and accused the OLF for committing them. But some of the very people who committed that crime have now come out and said it was orchestrated and concocted by the TPLF security agents. It is done so that non-Oromos will not support the Oromo struggle. This is done purposely to isolate the OLF both from inside and internationally. But it has failed.
LNA. Addis Ababa, it’s not you ? The little taxi ?
For us, what we understand, terrorism is to target civilians and to pursue ones political motives and to terrorize the population so that they will be terrorized and support the “struggle” or its aims. We have no problem of support from our population and because you are armed, that doesn’t mean that you are a terrorist unless you target civilians. It is only if you target civilians for your political motives that you are a terrorist. Opposing force by force because you are forced doesn’t mean that you are a terrorist. That is what and how we understand… we have the legitimate right to oppose force by force since it is imposed on us against our will. That is what we understand.
LNA. The government says you might have acquaintance with Al-Itihada al-Islamiyya…
We are a secular organization. And we have a invested interest in religious tolerance. And that is for selfish reasons. Because our population is made up of Muslims, Christians and followers of the traditional Oromo religion… Waqefana. So, we oppose any form of religious intolerance. Among the Oromos, you have members from different confessions being part of the same household. For instance the wife being a Christian, the husband being a Muslim or vice versa… This is a tradition that we want to keep and preserve and pass to the next generations. We believe it is ok for people to have different ideas, different religions. We don’t tolerate any kind of intolerance, religious or political. So, it is inconceivable for us to have any kind of relationship with any organization of that sort.
LNA. If they want to meet you, would you accept to meet them ? (laughs). It’s a ferenji question !
LNA. Do you think there might be a risk of religious conflict in Ethiopia ?
You always never now what frustration and desperation leads people to. But if it happens in Ethiopia, it will be very catastrophic. The population to a large extent lived very harmoniously for a long time despite the negative influence of successive regimes. We didn’t see any religious extremism for the time being and as a policy we work on promoting interfaith dialogue and preach tolerance. It is one of our policies to promote religious tolerance and that is why we reach out to different communities, to the Amharas, to the South, to the Tigreans and others. We hope this kind of openness and outreach will help to mitigate the risk of religious conflict in Ethiopia as elsewhere.
LNA. The Ethiopian power is accusing you to be supported by Eritrea. You are very often in Asmara, aren’t you ?
On the positive note actually, our good relations with Eritrea can serve as a bridge to solve the current problem in a more amicable and peaceful manner. We can serve as a bridge between all the people in the region. We have a broad vision, beyond the current conflict. All of us in this region are facing common problems, common dangers such as draughts, famines and rising poverty. So, if you look in the long-time, it will be in our best interest to have a more amicable, more friendly relationship with everybody in this region. So our relationship can be used as a bridge to solve the current problem and maybe build a better relationship in the future.
There is one more fact that needs to be made clear, we have not supported the war between Eritrea and the Ethiopian government, we didn’t support the Ethiopian government on its war with Eritrea because we did not believe that the war would serve the interest of Ethiopia in general and the Oromo in particular. We have opposed the war from our position or point of view. The Ethiopian government took it as treason and accused us as supporters of the Eritreans. This is one point that the regime in Ethiopia raises but we don’t endorse the war as it was conducted. In general the war did not serve the interest of Ethiopia, the war was not conducted for the Ethiopian people and that’s why we didn’t endorse it.
LNA. These months, we have heard about mass arrests in Oromiya. Could you tell us more about this issue ?
The last 14 years were a nightmare for the Oromo people. What you saw in Addis after the elections in June and November were happening all over Oromiya for the last 14 years. It is good that you have heard about it but the international community has yet to see the full extend and depth of the crimes being committed in Oromiya. There are so many people who lost their lives in the last 14 years. So many people fled to other countries, so many people disappeared. Their whereabouts are never known. People are being detained even in individual residencies… It is just a nightmare. This nightmare has gotten much worse during the last 4-5 months. Thousands of people are detained but the media talks only about what happened in the capital city. You know, the majority of the population in Ethiopia lives outside of the capital city. But, sadly, the media is not talking about the thousands who are arrested in the small towns and rural areas, thousands who did not have any visit from the Red Cross, from the media, from the diplomats. That is a tragedy, a great tragedy that is happening. It is very tragic.
LNA. The representative of European Union, Louis Michel asked for an independent enquiry about the arrests in Oromiya when he went to Ethiopia. Did you heard about it ?
LNA. OLF seems to become a new recognized Ethiopian interlocutor for the international community. How do you analyze this change in standpoint ?
It is better late than never. So, we are happy that the international community is recognizing the place of the Oromo and OLF. To talk about democracy in Ethiopia is to talk about Oromo people. Democracy is about majority rule… and of course respecting the right of the minority. The Oromo people makes up close to 50% of the population, very close. So, any system that marginalizes the majority people cannot be durable, cannot create a stable situation. So, if you are talking about development in Ethiopia, peace in Ethiopia, you have to talk about the Oromo. And, because of the mobilization that has been going on for the last 14 years, the Oromos have become a force, a real force in Ethiopia and a real force in the region. So, if you want peace in Ethiopia, democracy in Ethiopia, you are obliged to talk about the Oromo people. The other thing is that our positions are built on principles and the welfare of the people. They are not motivated or driven by a narrow sectarian interest. Even if we stand for the Oromo people, when the rights of other people are violated, we don’t shun away from our responsibility of condemning human rights violations against them. We are not against any people- only against repression. We also believe that we have real solutions. We think our political program is very reasonable. It can lead to peace in Ethiopia, peace in Oromiya, and the troubled Horn region. And our principled stand on the war with Eritrea and the other conflicts in the region is, I think, a measure of our commitment to the welfare of everyone. So, like I said earlier, it is better late than never but we welcome it. We are responsible people. We are not into… quick fixes, we are looking in terms of long-time solutions for that region.
Ours is a culture of democracy, that is the largest population in Ethiopia and the OLF is supported by this large population and it is our geographical position, being the very center of Ethiopia, we are in touch with other neighboring peoples and countries, Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, and Djibouti. Our just cause resonates with other marginalized people. Our egalitarian culture is built on gada, for us, we have already got something on which to build equality, democracy and the rule of law. These are the strong points that the Oromo and the OLF brings to the table that the international community is late to recognize.
LNA. (Katia Girma) Adding the women to the system of gada, if I can be out of my translator role, I mean, the women gada… (laughs)
LNA. Did you meet important people during your stay in Paris ? I was told that you will meet the friendship group with Ethiopia in the Assembly ? Did you meet them ?
With the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we will meet tomorrow. We have met them last year also, we will also meet with other groups, parties, experts and institutions while here. Last year we also did a similar tour. We met members of the Senate, members of the Parliament, the Foreign Ministry and other friends of the region.
LNA. Could OLF become a governmental party in Ethiopia ? If it could, in which conditions ?
Let me just add a few things. We were part of the governing party, once. That was from 1991 to 1992. We were pushed out. Currently, there are obstacles to us being part of the political process. Because there are so many obstacles to democracy in Ethiopia, they have to be removed. What are they ? The media is controlled by the government ; that has to change. Press freedom has to be there. The other one, the judiciary is another domain that has to change. The judiciary has to be independent, there has to be due process of law. People have to have their day in court ; that is not there today. The other thing is the security forces are totally partisan to the ruling party ; that has to change. The other thing is, you know the Oromo people have been in this struggle to exercise their right to self-determination. So, that system has to recognize and respect the right of the Oromo people. This recognition should not just be in words, it has to be implemented, it has to be respected. The rights should not remain just on paper. The other thing is, there has to be a system that addresses the grievances of the Oromo people… We have many grievances against the Ethiopian state, that has to be addressed and then the Oromo people have its aspirations, which need to be accommodated.
So the system has to meet the aspirations of the Oromo people for freedom and for self-government. It has to satisfy their political demands, economic and social demands. If those situations are fulfilled, if those obstacles are removed, we don’t see any reason why OLF will not be a political party in Ethiopia. Actually, it’s very likely. We are confident that we will form the next government of Ethiopia.
LNA. Do you want to add something for our readers ?
The greatest wish of any movement is to be understood. We believe it is important to sufficiently and properly understand OLF- as it is destined to play a key role in the future of Ethiopia and the region. I hope your newspaper would play this role and fill the gap. We believe we have a small wind of opportunity to create a better future in Ethiopia and the Horn region. I think we, in that part of the region, are very good at missing golden opportunities. We have missed so many golden opportunities in the past and my hope is that we will take advantage of this opportunity. And now, therefore to take advantage of this opportunity, we need to use new paradigms. We cannot behave as we have done in the past, we need to go past the era of domination, subjugation of others, marginalization of others, exploitation of the marginalized and I believe it is time for everyone to be far-sighted. To look at the interest of all the peoples and rather than sectarian interests. I think that domination did not serve anybody, repression did not serve anybody. There have been enough conflicts and enough wars in Ethiopia and I believe it is time to leave that history behind. And, if the international community wants to promote peace, democracy and stability in the Horn of Africa, I believe the beginning place is the Oromo question. The Oromo question has to be resolved because to talk about peace and democracy in that country and not to talk about the Oromo people will be a big mistake. And, if the international community and the others in Ethiopia are ready to be serious and to seriously look to resolve the complicated problems in Ethiopia, OLF is ready to be a leading partner in this change. The key to overcome the current predicament and resolve the political crisis in Ethiopia and the region is to conduct meaningful sustained dialogue between the parties to come up with a comprehensive solution. And I hope this is not far off. And I assure you OLF will play a constructive and leading role in this noble effort.
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