Dawud Ibsa Ayana
Dawud Ibsa is Chairman of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). He was born in Abuna village, Horro Guduru District in Welega in 1952. He attended Haile Selassie I University in 1970-1971, where he participated in the student movement against Haile Selassie; there he joined the Association of OromoUniversity Students.
During 1974-1976 he participated in the Zemecha campaign. In 1977, Dawud was elected to the OLF Central Committee. From October 1977 to December 1979, he was imprisoned by the Derg. He returned to Addis Ababa University during the 1979-1980 academic year. Before finishing his studies (statistics), Dawud fled to Sudan in 1980 and joined an OLF unit operating from that country. A few months later, he received basic military training in Eritrea. In April 1981, Dawud commanded the OLF unit that started the armed struggle in Welega Province.
In December 1981, the Derg poisoned and then tortured him for several months. From August 1982 to December 1986, he was jailed at Kerchele prison without charge. Dawud escaped and rejoined the OLF. In 1988 he was re-elected to the OLF’s Central Committee and the Executive Committee, and until 1991 headed the OLF’s military department.
In 1998, he was re-elected to the OLF’s Executive committee and in 1999 became the OLF’s chairman. Dawud told Les nouvelles d’Addis on 29 March 2006 that he was confident that the OLF will form the next government in Ethiopia, a speech which motivated many nationalist Oromo diasporas.
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.
Interview 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
LNA. The OLF has been created in 1974. Which are its basis (principles) and main historical dates and events ?
Dawud Ibsa Ayana. The OLF has been created in 1973. But to talk especially about dates and time would be tricky because the OLF evolved out of two main events at that time. And this is a process that took place gradually and systematically. OLF is the culmination of the Bale Oromo Movement (between 1963 and 1970) which was an armed upraising against the repression of the Oromos and the product of the Metcha-Tulema civic organisation which tried to fill the gap in the underdevelopment of the Oromos at that time. Metcha-Tulama was founded to lay an important foundation for the development of the Oromo by building schools, roads, hospitals and other infrastructure in Oromia. It was founded in Finfinne (Addis) in the late 1960s but it was later banned, with its leadership either killed or imprisoned or exiled. The OLF was created in 1973 partly out of this frustration of Oromos and the enduring grievance resulting from the subjugation and marginalization of the Oromo. So as you can imagine it is difficult to speak of specific dates as some of the founders of OLF are participants in the Bale movement and some in the Metcha Tulema Association. And some others were leaders of the student movements -that is the Ethiopian Student Movement.
LNA. OLF has been founded as a front against colonialism and imperialism fighting for the Oromiya independence. Is it still the case nowadays ?
DIA. The objectives of the OLF were laid down and defined in its political program. The objective is to fight against oppression of all forms ; to emancipate the Oromo people from the subjugation, repression, and exploitation, to alleviate the suffering of the destitute peasants and the downtrodden masses in general and also to empower the people who have been marginalized from all forms of life in Ethiopia, meaning political and economic power and the powers to decide on their destiny. Our program calls for the emancipation of the Oromo people and also to stand against all forms of oppression in Ethiopia. The cornerstone of our political program remains enabling the Oromo people to exercise its inalienable right to national self-determination, a right to which the Oromo are entitled as a people. This of course entails empowering our people politically, socially and economically, especially the peasantry who at that time was under total servitude under the feudal system. Enabling the Oromo people to exercise its right to self-determination remains our core objective, the final decision is up to the Oromo people.
LNA. It is in the Ethiopian Constitution, isn’t it ?
DIA. Yes, the right to self-determination is in the Ethiopian Constitution. We want that right to be meaningful.
LNA. You want to use this constitutional right ?
DIA. The Constitution is partly the product of the Charter and we are co-owners of the Charter that formed the transitional government of Ethiopia in 1991. We are the ones who drafted it. And so, we have no fundamental problem with it.
LNA. Knowing that the Oromiya’s independence would be the end of Ethiopia, do people inside the front argue about Ethiopia’s unity issue ?
DIA. Well. (laughs) I understood your question. Yes, the political program of the OLF says self-determination but, having this program, we joined the transitional government in 1991 with the vision of making Ethiopia equal for all and to participate in changing the situation in Ethiopia so that Ethiopia will be owned by all and become a common and democratic state for all the nations, nationalities and people, big and small. We wanted to accommodate the aspirations of our people within a new voluntary unity based on democracy, freedom and equality, and it was to make this a reality that we joined the transition in 1991. The question is whether others are ready to accommodate the aspiration of our people who has been subjugated and marginalized for the last 120 years. Otherwise to attempt to dismiss or reverse Oromo nationalism is fruitless. Oromo nationalism has reached an irreversible stage. The only option available is to deal with it and make peace with it. We believe the Oromo is already a formidable and a force to reckon with.
LNA. When did you talk about this issue for the last time with Meles Zenawi ?
DIA. We talked on this issue with Meles Zenawi when we together formed the transitional government. Since then, we didn’t talk about it. The talk remained by gun, which Meles chose for us.
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…
DIA. That was in September. You mean the BBC report?
LNA. Yes, he told to the BBC that he wanted to meet you. You didn’t have time ? (laughs)
DIA. Yeah, correct. That was interesting in the fact that it was the first time when Meles said he would sit down and talk with the OLF without any condition. That is why we welcomed it and responded positively on the BBC and other outlets. Not only that, we went one step further and wrote a formal letter to the Norwegian government which has been trying to mediate between us for years. That was done to make it official and undescore our seriousness and commitment for dialogue. The Norwegians went to the Ethiopian government and asked for similar commitment to start dialogue with the OLF and urge it to take concrete steps. The government, as usual, avoided it. They said : « Let us talk with the Americans first, let us talk with our party first et cetera ». So, they took their time and they killed the process. We did not only write a letter to Norwegians, we have also informed the Americans that we were committed to resolve the conflict through dialogue with the government and the Americans noted it. In the end Meles’ declaration of September 2004 remained just that… a declaration.
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.
DIA. If you can be an official third party… (laughs)
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 ?
DIA. Well, the OLF’s official policy remains as it has always been to sit down and talk without any preconditions and resolve this conflict in the presence of a third party. This is a longstanding policy that we have. And it is without any condition.
LNA. Have you relationship with the other armed movements in the area (ONLF, FRUD…) ?
DIA. Well, we know very little about FRUD with whom we don’t have relationship. With the ONLF, it is a long-time relationship. In addition to this, we have our relationship with Sidama Liberation Front, Beni-Shangul Liberation Movement and the Gambella People Liberation Movement and there are some other fronts and movements with whom we have close and long-time relationships and we maintain our relationships.
LNA. Why don’t you know about the FRUD and why don’t you know them ?
DIA. We do, but not perhaps as best. This is because their operational area is very far from us. And besides, we have this policy of not interfering in the internal affairs of other states and the FRUD is in Djibouti.
LNA. What do you think about the general elections which have been held in May 2005 in Ethiopia ?
DIA. Well, head broadly, I want to tell you the understanding and assessment of the OLF. Elections have taken place in Ethiopia several times. During the Emperor, we have seen, in our eyes, we have witnessed elections for the Parliament. Again during Mengistu, elections have been conducted, we were witnesses of that too. Elections have also been conducted under the leadership of the TPLF. But we didn’t find any difference between the elections under the TPLF in 1995 and year 2000 and those under the Emperor or the Dergue. And in May 2005, before the election, we told European governments our assessment and our understanding about the outcome of the election. We told them, there will be few changes than in the past because there is some pressure, unusual pressure, from the donors on the government, which has created some space for the political parties in Ethiopia. The opposition was able to appear and debate on television. This helped mobilize the population to participate in the election massively. But the outcome of the election was a forgone conclusion for us and not different from the past. For the Oromo especially it was a hollow exercise as Human Rights Watch corrected termed it. This is what we told them. We talked to the French government, we talked to the Belgians, we talked to the British, and we talked to the Danish, Finnish, Swedes, Germans, Norwegians… And we said, in fact, the outcome will be uglier, the result will be nasty because the TPLF will not accept any defeat on the election and there could be chaos in the aftermath of the election because of rising popular expectation of change and the regime’s determination to forestall change. This is what we told them and this is what happened. We were very sure that the TPLF will not allow a defeat on the election, because, it will mean a loss for their control on the army, it will be a loss on their control of the security, it will be a loss on their economic dominance and this will be unthinkable as the TPLF is positioning itself to continue with the domination and that’s what happened. What came out of the election was not a surprise for the OLF.
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 !
There is no democracy that has been built in one time. Do you think really there is nothing to do with this government ? That it has to be radically changed ?
DIA. It is not the question of radically changing government. The TPLF regime is given 14 years by the Ethiopian people and they did not deliver on its promises. The promise was democracy, peace and development. Yes, if democracy was being built piece by piece in the last 14 years, if there was some noticeable change for the better in the eyes of the population and the international community, yes, you can say that there is some progress and then you can be patient about it. But, we saw no democracy, in the opposite, what we saw is tyranny, imprisonment and killings that were going for the full term of this regime. Journalists have been arrested, artists have been arrested and exiled and all this. This is what we saw in the last 14 years and the rest, development is promised and what we saw is famine, millions, 15 millions at one time, 7 millions at another time and then, the living standards of the peasantry has gone down, poverty is rather increasing than declining. And, the other one promise was peace. Instead of peace, we saw a very devastating war with neighboring Eritrea. Conflict everywhere in Ethiopia, massacres in Gambella, in Awassa, in Shaka Majenger, small nations that could not threaten the regime, a bloody conflict with Oromo. So the indications that we saw are rather deterioration on the question of peace, development and democracy. That is what happened. So, what does this piece-by-piece means ? The reality speaks for itself, that’s what we mean. Besides, major political forces such as OLF are excluded from the political process and prevented from taking part in the elections.
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 ? Is it impossible to try ? Is it over already ?
OK. Next question…
DIA. Yeah, better next question (laughs)…
14 years is more than enough to show some change. He has received enough aid by saying democracy is a process, you know. For democratization, for good governance, he has always been receiving huge aid but he has never utilized it to improve the standard of living of the population. But as you said it right, he has said that democracy is a process and he has, until now, deceived many.
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 :
– Is OLF a terrorist movement ?
– Which is nowadays the difference between armed opposition and terrorism ?
DIA. As we tried to explain in the first question, the OLF is one of the politico-military organizations in East Africa along with the EPLF and then the TPLF. It was founded before the TPLF as a political organization to fight a highly repressive system. Our problem and our fight is only against the system. And we were an armed movement for the last 30 years, before the term “terrorism” came as a political term in the world. So, if the OLF is a terrorist organization, the TPLF is also a terrorist organization, that is what the logic would say. Not only that, the OLF is a movement which is supported by not only thousands we claim millions of the Oromo people and others, supported by other marginalized peoples. Our target is only military institutions and the repressive organ and machinery of the system which would be the army and the security forces, nothing else is the target of the OLF. And this has been the case in the last 30 years. We have never used weapons against civilians and we have never targeted civilians in our operations. And this is a long-standing policy, this is what OLF is. Now, the current regime, the TPLF regime accuses us as terrorists, this is only to ride on the bandwagon of terrorism because it is now a trickery which repressive states are using against their opposition generally. That is what they are trying to do, trying to tarnish our image, their accusation is politically motivated. They have failed to substantiate their false allegations in the last five-six years. This is a movement supported by thousands and millions of people but whose target is only the repressive organ of the State, which is the security forces, nothing else. This has nothing to do with terrorism and OLF is very clean from all this. We categorically condemn terrorism and we denied several times the claims of the Ethiopian regime. It is only to divert attention from the internal pressure and external pressure that Ethiopian government raised this issue against the OLF.
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 ?
DIA. This has nothing to do with OLF… Very innocent people are in the taxis. It can be an Oromo, it can be from any nation. What could we gain from this ?
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…
DIA. Well, we thank them that they didn’t say Al-Qaida. Al-Itihada al-Islamiyya, we have no association with them. From what we heard, they were raised, rather organized and supported by the TPLF in 1991 in 1992, they were brought from Somalia to organize there, as a means to confuse the situation in the Somali state. That is our information. And then, some of them fell out with the TPLF and they began to clash. And then since this issue of terrorism came to the forefront the TPLF tried to accuse us. We never had relations, we have never operated with them. We have heard that they operate somewhere in Somalia far from where we operate, that is all we know.
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 !
DIA. As we told you, we are a secular political organization, with a legitimate political agenda. We have no business with anyone pursuing an extremist religious agenda. Besides for us, this is a phantom organization. We hear about them from Meles, that is how we hear of their existence. If there was something else to say, Meles will say anything to gain the support of the international community. It is the same thing with democracy. He likes to talk about democracy so often to get international support but it is not there in practice.
LNA. Do you think there might be a risk of religious conflict in Ethiopia ?
DIA. Not currently. We don’t see any religious conflict emanating between the different religious groups but we have fear. It might be used by some desperate groups to put one religious group against the other. There is tension between the different communities which has been used politically by the government in different parts. But we don’t see a religious conflict in Ethiopia within the population.
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 ?
DIA. We have our presence in Eritrea. Not only in Eritrea, we have our presence in the US, an office, we have an office in London, another in Sudan and in others countries too. We don’t understand why Eritrea is particularly selected by the Ethiopian authorities. The presence of OLF in Eritrea is not unusual. As to our relations with Eritrea and Eritrean organizations, it is very old. We have had relations with the TPLF during the Mengistu regime. And the TPLF was more close to the Eritreans than the OLF at that time. It was rather being strongly supported and brought up by the EPLF. At that time, Mengistu was rather accusing the TPLF for being supported and for being an appendage of the EPLF. It is really a pity that the government is repeating this same allegation against OLF. Well, our relationship with Eritrea is as any relationship of the OLF with other governments, of course, and nothing particular. And, that’s it, we don’t see any wrong with it also.
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 ?
DIA. The Prime Minister came out on BBC and said he was ready to talk to the OLF without any conditions. The OLF responded positively as we mentioned it before. But, between September and November, the people were waiting for this issue to be settled and were very hopeful but, in the process, when they saw that the repression was getting worse rather than better the people understood that this was a lie and frustration began to mount among the Oromos and out of this frustration our people rose up against the system. And this was across Oromiya, not only in one place. In Ambo area, in Wolegga, in Harergé, in Selalé area, Kofale, Wollo, Jimma, Ilu Abba Bora, Guji, Borena area. All regions of the Oromo. And most of the colleges and high schools, protest after protest, protest after protest, and this was supported by the general population including the peasantry. So, the government tried to resolve it as usual by suppressing these peaceful protests by force. Thousands of Oromos were imprisoned to quell the uprising and protests by students, teachers and peasantry. And because the prisons were full, concentration camps were established, in Senkellé Police College, which was used to imprison about 5.000, 6.000 at one time. And imprison them for about a month and two months and then release some of them and again, substitute others. Another concentration camp was established in Dedesa, in western part of the country, in Wollega and similar concentration camps were used closer to Hurso. Almost all schools and all police stations are full now in most of the Oromo regions. In particular in western Harergé, in Ambo area, in Senkellé and Guder area, in Gimbi area and now it is very difficult to know even the numbers of peasants, teachers and students in prison. In fact there are many high security prisoners (university students and college students) that are in Kaliti, their number is big. And, this is the situation as of yesterday. One university student, a fourth year engineering student was beaten and killed in Kaliti prison, yesterday. He was imprisoned for the last 3 years and he was beaten to death by the security forces. Such actions are rampant all over Oromiya. Unfortunately, this is not being reported and noticed except what was recorded and registered by Human Rights Watch at one time.
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 ?
DIA. It was the British minister who asked for an independent enquiry in Oromiya but that is not materialized and the European Union as you said asked for an independent enquiry regarding what happened in the capital, about the imprisonment of students and members of the CUD, etc. And that too did not materialize as yet. An independent inquiry was demanded by the European Union against the massacres in Awassa and Gambella and that did not materialize, either. As usual, they promise and then… do nothing about it. That is how it has been over the years.
LNA. OLF seems to become a new recognized Ethiopian interlocutor for the international community. How do you analyze this change in standpoint ?
DIA. One thing, you take the Oromo people, which is about 40-45 % of the Ethiopian population and its neighbors, almost all the populations groups of Ethiopia, as a people who have been very tolerant with their neighbors, with almost all people and the Oromo people have never had problems with any population group. If you take the OLF, which came out of the trials and tribulations the Oromo people, as we stated above, we had our relationships with almost all political organizations and liberation movements for the last 30 years without any discrimination. Amhara political organizations, with Eritreans, with Ogadenies, with TPLF. That was the profile of the OLF for the last 30 years. As to the OLF appearing to be a responsible organization, we think we have clearly shown this during the charter when we soberly and patiently recommended that the political problems and political issues in Ethiopia be handled very soberly and responsibly to the satisfaction of the people. We recommended that at that time not only to the TPLF, we also recommended it to the international community. The position of the OLF on how to handle the ex-soldiers of the Dergue is indicative of our far-sightedness. This was done to avoid and minimize conflict. That was our position, since then, we have recommended a lot of things to the international community, several times. We think that the recognition of the international community of the critical role of the OLF has been overdue, it came very late. We have tried to play a constructive role and we will continue to do so even more boldly in the future too to resolve the political issues in Ethiopia and the region by talking new initiatives, being tolerant to all ideas and sensitive to the needs and concerns of different communities. Our aspiration is to bring about a lasting solution and a lasting hope for the peoples in Ethiopia and the region.
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)
DIA. But they have their place in gada, even if it is not understood by others.
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 ?
DIA. We are meeting a lot of people. Unfortunately we could not meet the friendship group because of scheduling problems.
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 ?
DIA. OLF has been trying to get the support of governments and international organizations to transform itself into a party but before that, we asked, to sort out our relationship with the present Ethiopian government. That did not happen, I mean, to resolve our problem with the Ethiopian government. That did not happen in the last 14 years and OLF remains a front- against its will. The OLF wants to participate in the political process as a party or as a political organization. And we believe our participation is necessary. And not only do we want to be part of it but lead it, so that the basic democratic rights –both individual and group rights- are assured for all without any discrimination. And if the Oromo question is resolved we believe it will not only the end one the root causes of instability in Ethiopia but also the region. We want to be assured and we want to assure others that we don’t resort to force. If that is assured, we don’t see any reason that the OLF would no transform itself into a political party.
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 ?
DIA. To our understanding, there are many actors in Ethiopia. One of the actors is the state of Ethiopia, an old state and which has an inherent problem since its very creation. This issue of reconfiguring the state institutions and democratizing it and making it a common state of all the peoples is not resolved and it is our aspiration to change this situation. The other actor is the Ethiopian peoples, who need change and it has been their will and their aspiration to see the change. That is overdue and they have not seen it. They were hoping and this has to come ; in particular the Oromo and the rest of the South. The other actor is the international community. Since the creation of Ethiopia they had their hands. The creation of Ethiopia led to the marginalization of the majority and also the suppression and repression of the very people from which it came. The international community has given out billions and billions of aid dollars in the hope of changing Ethiopia for the better and improve the miserable lives of the population. But the billions of aid and resources that have been pumped to Ethiopia have not brought about the desired change because the superstructure based on an inherent contradiction stemming from domination of one group by another did not change and this superstructure misused and abused these billions of dollars that has been brought in the name of the Ethiopian people. So, we believe each of these actors has their responsibility, and they have to discharge their responsibility. And one of the areas where the international community has to discharge its responsibility is in the way it gives out aid. Its development support need not be without consideration of the political situation and there has to be evaluation afterwards, just giving foreign currency to the government cannot help ameliorate the suffering of the population. These resources have rather been used to suppress them and to conduct unnecessary wars and for repression, fund wars that were devastating to the population. We are talking of wars that took place in Eritrea for so many years and we are talking of the last war between Ethiopia and Eritrea and we are talking of the conflicts in Ethiopia, wars that did not help the Ethiopian population. So, we think this is the right time for everybody to assess their position and move in the right direction. OLF will contribute to bring about an end to these wars. Resolving the issue of war and peace in the Horn for the last time is important to embark on development. And this requires sustained and serious dialogue between all the parties. There has to be real change. This is our aspiration and we are very serious about it.
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.