This is our third and final piece regarding the Oromo Leadership Convention (OLC) that was held in Atlanta, GA, November 11-13, 2016. Our first article was written prior to the commencement of the OLC under the title “Questioning the Motives of the Atlanta Leadership Convention” and it addressed fundamental questions regarding the identity of the organizers and their motives, choice of meeting venue, and selection of participants. The second article was produced on the last day of the convention based on information that leaked out from the tightly controlled convention halls. Titled “The Atlanta Leadership Convention: A blessing in Disguise?” the second article exposed the hidden agenda of the organizers based on events that took place at the convention. In the current piece, we will attempt to present a comprehensive assessment of the OLC based on facts that we gathered from those who participated in the convention and other sources.
As we predicated in our second article, the organizers issued a press release declaring that the OLC “was successfully concluded after passing groundbreaking resolutions that affirm the unity of all Oromos.” We wish this phrase that was on the first paragraph of their press release was true. On the contrary, as we demonstrate below in details, the OLC threatened the unity of the Oromo people that was created by blood and bones of our people in Oromia. That is why it became necessary for us to present the facts to the Oromo people. In doing so, we hope that our informed people will sort out the facts from the fiction and seal the fissures created by the OLC and individuals with sinister motives. We fear that, if not sealed properly, unwanted elements can sneak into these fissures and attempt to crack it wide open.
We would like to make it clear that having different political views and opinions is natural for any society, and it is no exception for the Oromo. As such, we are not advocating for the kind of unity that results in all of us thinking alike and rallying behind a single organization. On the contrary, we believe that “group thinking” and blindly following a single party (or a single leader) is dangerous and limits progress in our struggle. What we are against instead is the political treachery that certain groups appear to be undertaking to hijack the gains that the Oromo people have made in their struggle over the years and divert its course for their own political ambitions. That, we will fight wholeheartedly.
In the next few paragraphs, we will discuss the genesis of the OLC, procedures that the organizers used for inviting convention participants, formats in which the meetings were conducted, the documents that were discussed at the convention, and the resort style meeting venue. We will then make our own recommendations for a way forward.
Genesis of the OLC.
As discussed in our first article, the idea of having a convention was initiated by a different group whose intention was to have a truly pan-Oromo conference. As discussions about the convention progressed, however, a group who organized the Atlanta convention saw an opportunity to use such a forum for their personal fame and political ambitions. It is in public records that a dozen Oromo nationalists and activists who started discussions about organizing an all-inclusive Oromo conference with the Atlanta OLC organizers quit and publicly opposed to it. We believe they quit because they understood the motives of the OLC organizers.
In the courses of our investigation, we have established solid links between some members of the OLC organizing group and current and former officials of the Ethiopian government. Here, we would like to make it crystal clear that we are not accusing everyone involved in organizing the OLC of association with the dictatorial regime in Ethiopia. It has been established, however, that a few of their members have irrefutable links to EPRDF thugs and have made several sponsored trips to Ethiopia over the years. Several pictures and videos that confirm these allegations have surfaced and are available on social media for anyone interested to see. It is, therefore, our legitimate right to question the motives of such groups.
Selection of participants.
Participants of the convention were selectively invited by the organizers. Although the names of the organizers were publicized later towards the conclusion of the convention, there was no word on how and who assigned them to conduct this monumental task. Assignment of the Organizing Committee is the start of the long journey but it has serious procedural flaws right from the start. We believe the organizers should have been appointed by some sort of council/board of representatives of Oromo civic and religious communities, professional organization and representatives of the various political forces. It is not difficult to create such a council in the diaspora as we have different communities already organized and operating. The organizers in turn should have exercised the utmost transparency in the way they choose participants.
Given that the convention intended to generate a working document to guide the Oromo national struggle, not to design political agenda for specific political group, the pool of participants should have been as broad as possible to adequately represent the entire diaspora Oromo. Anything short of that can leave holes for enemies to poke into and can be a source of misunderstanding among friends and comrades. Handpicking, or selectively inviting, participants could lead to personal preference, taste, motive and judgement. Thus, instead of representing the views and diverse positions of the society, the audience becomes collection of people with similar mindset and moral orientation. We believe this is a serious bias that can distort the outcome of any discussion. Not all views and perspectives have been given opportunity to be reflected upon. Outcomes of such discussions can lead to wrong projection of ideas that can potentially stir up controversies and that is what we have been witnessing at the Atlanta Leadership Convention and thereafter.
Meeting Format – Formation of the break-out group.
Although participants occasionally came together in one hall for some general directions, the bulk of discussions on the main agenda were conducted during the breakout sessions. For this, the participants were divided into a number of separate groups at random and each group moved to separate meeting rooms. In our opinion, this was done intentionally to make sure that the organizers get what they wanted. This format of meetings is not new and has been used extensively by various organizations to brainstorm ideas. If the purpose of the OLC was to brainstorm on ideas for the creation of the “Oromo freedom charter”, this would have been a non-issue. The purpose of the meeting was, however, to discuss on a prepared document and such a format should not have been used.
The format that the Organizers used is known as the Delphi technique and its purpose was to manipulate the participants to agree to a pre-determined ideas presented in the document. On the surface, it appears a democratic process as unsuspecting participants feel that they openly and democratically expressed their ideas. What most participants do not realize, however, is that the organizers have implanted their own agents as facilitators and participants in these groups. In fact, some of the implanted agents are trained to raise ideas in opposition to the ideas on the written documents so that the process is considered to be democratic. Ultimately, however, it is the facilitators that determine what to include and not to include in the final result of the group discussions. Even after each groups’ ideas are summarized, with all their shortcomings, it is up to the organizers to accept or reject the different ideas raised by various groups.
There are fundamental questions that we would like to ask the many innocent and patriotic Oromo participants of the Atlanta convention. How do you know what ideas were raised in the room next to yours? Did the facilitators really capture everything that was discussed in their group in such a short period of time? Better yet, how do you even know if your ideas and concerns have been included in the final document? If it is not included, how do you ask, or whom do you ask, why your concerns were not addressed? To answer this last question, you probably are not going to ask anyone because you will assume that your idea was excluded because it was in the minority. That is the fallacy of using such a format and these are the reasons why it should never have been used. The OLC organizers, however, knew exactly what they wanted and used the Delphi technique to achieve it.
Here is a statement that we received from one of the convention participants in its entirety. “The different groups were completely separated from each other to make sure that one group doesn’t interfere with that of the others. Facilitators or discussion leaders were assigned by organizers and so were the discussion topics, a prearranged top-down assignment. The discussion cannot be regarded as open and free as facilitators occasionally imposed their views. This technique is normally used for gathering constellation data but in that case participants need to be equally informed about the subject matter (issue under discussion) to facilitate full and informed participation. Also, the very short time allocated for discussion did not allow the supposedly communicative interaction amongst the groups that is used in this technique was absent. Lack of participation has undoubtedly affected the conduct of the discussion and may thus have undermined the expected consensus.”
This testimony from the participant fits perfectly well with the Delphi technique that we discussed in the preceding paragraph.
Discussion on the main topics.
Information that we received indicates that all participants were presented with a document entitled “Irbuu Oromoo: Chaartara Bilisummaa, Haqaa, fi Nagaa Oromoo”. According to comments given by participants during the discussion, this document resembles a constitution or charter of some kind, although its objective was not clearly provided or not mentioned properly in the introduction section or as preamble. There were several issues in the document that attracted the attention of the participants. Some of the key points are as follows:
• On the right to self-determination up to secession – The most audacious opinion forwarded by participants is on the section of the document that seems to undo the gains that the Oromo people have achieved thus far through their long and bitter struggle, i.e., the right to self-determination up to secession. On page 3, the document not only pledges allegiance to maintaining the unity of Ethiopia as it is but also downplays the universally accepted right of people to self-determination including secession. The motto of the Oromo people’s struggle both in the past and at present is to gain their inalienable right to self-determination up to secession and become masters of their destiny. This topic has been one of the contentious issues we had to face in the past that garnered conflict and social divide among freedom fighters and the Oromo society. Watering down this issue at the very time when our people have moved in unison to reclaim these rights is not only complete betrayal of our cause but also an insult to our brave men and women who have paid the ultimate price on our behalf.
One participant reported that “from the heated discussion at the Atlanta convention, it was clear that the facilitators were completely disconnected from the participants and no consensus was reached on this issue.” Our opinion regarding this issue is that it is the Oromo people who can decide how they want to live and the Atlanta convention organizers have no business or authority to decide it for them. The fact that they downplayed the universal rights of the Oromo people to self-determination up to secession, however, tells us what they stand for and what their motives are.
• On the issue of “Afaanii fi Haqa Afaanii” – Another blatant assault on achievements of the Oromo struggle came in this document on Oromo language. The document explicitly states that the administration and working language of all cities in Oromia will be determined by the will and power of the residents of these cities. This statement has similar negative effect with the now infamous Addis Ababa Master Plan and the impact it can have on Oromo identity, culture, natural resources, property right, history, and wellbeing is enormous. This document simply proposes to the Oromo people to give up every bit of right they have been fighting for and surrender. The 100 plus years of colonial rule has robbed Oromo people of their right to self-rule and the use of their language at all levels. The demography of Oromo cities and towns and the humiliation the Oromo people continue to suffer in their own cities are vivid testimonies to this. This document seems to declare that the Oromo people belong to rural areas and have no business in the cities. If we follow the logic that this document proposes and hold referendum on official language and administration of Oromo cities, it is clear what the outcome will be. The document not only promotes and endorses tyranny against the Oromo people but also takes away the few rights that they achieved through their blood. Of course, true nationalists will never allow this to happen.
• On “Raggaasisa Tokkummaa Oromootifii Hawwii Egeree Sabaa Oromoo”- This topic discusses the concepts and beliefs of the Oromo society regarding some major social issues such as Gadaa administration, supremacy of the law, equality, the peace keeping role, conflict resolution, security, safety, and wellbeing of the Oromo society. These are traditional values of the Oromo people that still exist in the minds of the Oromo people. While the issues are well laid out, the document does not provide the tools or powers used to keep and enforce them. There are no comments given about the role of institutions such as the judiciary system, policing power, peace keeping forces, and institutions of public safety while the document attempted to perform as a legal document.
• On the issue of financial support – According to sources within the meeting halls, another controversial topic discussed during the meeting was the issue related to providing financial support to the family of the victims of TPLF genocide. To express solidarity with everyone affected by the ongoing struggle would be a blessed undertaking. Based on presentations by various Oromo intellectuals and experts in the recent past, support for our people affected by the brutal regime can be provided in two ways, people based support and issue based support. People based support that seem to be the focus of the discussion at the convention and it is about providing financial support directly to the victims and survivors of the victims. If there is enough resources and reliable avenue to channel the support, this can solve many problems the victims face. Given the number of people affected and the blatant and illegal intrusion into peoples’ lives that the TPLF government undertakes, however, providing financial support to everyone affected will be overwhelmingly difficult. Moreover, this struggle is at its early stages and the number of victims will surely increase by days and hours as the struggle intensifies, making it impossible to meet all the needs through people based support.
On the other hand, issue based support may not address the immediate needs of the affected individuals and their families but it is the wisest and most effective way of using the meager resources to advance our cause. Such support promotes solutions to causal problems such as providing public awareness, empowering the national movement, providing budgetary support to wage armed struggle, and for soliciting diplomatic support from regional and international communities. We strongly believe that the OLC organizing committee is either intentionally manipulating patriotic Oromo diaspora for their own gains or is totally misguided in presenting this document for discussion. Their proposed action will treat the symptom but does not cure the disease.
The convention was held at a 4-star Atlanta Hilton Hotel and a total of nine conference rooms were used in addition to the large convention hall. Rumor has it that the organizing committee fully covered travel expenses of about 500 pre-selected individuals and the rest paid their own expenses. Even if we ignore this claim as unsubstantiated hearsay, the expenses involved in renting all these conference halls for three days and other miscellaneous expenses is sure to be significant. Using average rates for the Atlanta area, we estimated the total costs to be over $100,000.00 by conservative estimates. The question one must ask is, therefore, who paid for all these expenses? No organization, political or civic, ever came forward and disclosed that they paid for the convention and the organizing committee did not disclose their source of funding. We are, therefore, left with questions and speculations. Is it possible that this was funded by an individual, a group of individuals, or an organization with a set political agenda? If so, how can we accept the outcome of such a gathering as beneficial to the Oromo people? God forbid, what if there is a long arm of TPLF, or its surrogate the OPDO, involved in this? Given the links between some of the organizers and the Ethiopian government that we uncovered, it does not surprise us if they have a hand in it. The Oromo people have the right to know who sponsored the Atlanta Oromo Leadership Convention and organizers have a legal and moral obligation to disclose it. A convention of this magnitude does not just happen.
Conclusion and a way forward.
In our opinion, the Atlanta Oromo Leadership Convention was a failure because it promoted a top-down approach whereby a selected few, who believe they know the answer to their peoples’ problems, produced documents that was supposedly meant to be a guide for the future of the Oromo people. Such documents should have been developed by the people themselves and compiled by entities that the majority of the people elected to be their representatives. Parties who compiled the documents will then present it to the public for discussion and organize a convention. Convention participants, usually representatives of different interest groups, will discuss the document in the open, without being divided into small groups with implanted facilitators and agents. We understand this process requires much larger groundwork but the result will be less controversial and more productive.
We also feel that the OLC failed because it did not adhere to the prevailing social science concepts that promotes a notion of meritocratic society that should reward the best performers of its member whereby a member of a society is valued on his\her personal contributions rather than any other criterion. The Atlanta convention unfairly criticized those who are doing the real work on the ground in Oromia while it praised and celebrated the ex officio of TPLF’s regime such as Junedin Sado, who has an Oromo blood on his hand. One should ask, if people like Junedin are to be celebrated today because they apologized to the Oromo people for what they have done, can we just forget and forgive those TPLF and OPDO officials that are killing, raping, and torturing our people in Oromia today if they come out tomorrow and ask for forgiveness? Does that mean the death of our innocent children, mothers, brothers, sisters, and fathers will be in vein? It was mind boggling to observe that the only video record that was made public from the tightly controlled convention halls was the one that was attacking a veteran Oromo organization, the OLF. The crocodile tear that followed the attack as a denouncement of the action by one of the organizers was, of course, childish.
While we were taken aback by the participation, and later first class treatment, of Junedin at the convention, a much bigger surprise came when we learned that people like Fikre Tolessa and other diehard Ethiopianists were also participants. This only strengthened our conviction that the OLC was not meant to affirm the unity of the Oromo people as claimed but to hijack the struggle and change its course. As concerned Oromo group, we do not have problems with the Ethiopian identity if the Oromo people choose it. What we have a problem with, however, is the behind the scenes maneuvering by this group with the objective of appointing themselves as leaders and deciding on the future of the Oromo people. It was also saddening to witness active supporters of the TPLF regime playing major roles as members of the organizing committee of the convention and this makes the whole game a fiasco meant to harm the Oromo struggle.
Now that the convention has come and gone, it is time for true Oromo nationalists in diaspora to reassess our situation and work together on a way forward. In our opinion, we learned quite a lot from the London conference and the Atlanta convention. Lessons learned from these meetings will serve us immensely as we chart our future course. More than anything, these conferences helped us identify the different groups in Oromo politics and what they stand for. The lines are not blurry anymore as we can see them clearly. Granted that every Oromo person is entitled to his (her) views on the future of Oromia, this is an opportune time to accept the existence of such differences and come together to free our people from centuries old subjugation and humiliation. Our focus needs to be on the enemy, not against each other. We do not need to be organized under the same political organization to be united. Our unity of purpose should be on defeating the real enemy. Instead of trying to create new leadership, support existing leaders of your choice and hold them accountable. The ultimate arbitrators of who will lead the Oromo people are the Oromo people themselves. That, however, can only happen after victory. Therefore, let us all make supporting our people achieve that victory our priority by providing the resources that they need. As one of our nationalist comrade, obbo Bekele Naga, once said, “There are no mountains that we cannot move” if we have a unity of purpose. We need to be aware, however, that there will always be selfish traitors and power mongers among us and it is our responsibility to guard our revolution from such individuals or groups.
Oromia Shall be Free!!
(Concerned Oromo Group)