Commentary: An OPDO choice: Cut the Gordian Knot or let the people go

At a crossroads


Ezekiel Gebissa, Special to Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, September 15/2007 – In his book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr, the influential American theologian and ethicist, discusses the difficulty of achieving social justice through moral and rational means.  Following Thomas Hobbes, Niebuhr argues that individual humans, suffering from the anxiety of knowing the finiteness of life, tend to rely on power and self-assured security as a means of protection against competitors. This renders them incapable of considering the interest of others. While selfishness is thus an inescapable reality for both individual persons and human groups, Niebuhr reiterates, humans are endowed with unselfish impulse, which, when reason prevails over the instinct to survive, affords them the ability of self-transcendence, a measure of sympathy and a sense of justice.

The individual’s capacity to consider the interest of others, however, Niebuhr contends, does not directly transfer to human groups, which have less capacity than individuals do to consider the needs of others. Human groups or institutions effectively gather only the selfish impulses of the constituent individuals, not their capacities for unselfish consideration toward others and, therefore, find it virtually impossible to handle rationally the interests of competing individuals or subgroups. In sum, Neibuhr argues that, in every human group, there is “less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others, therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals” (Neibuhr, 1932, pp. xi-xii).  The collective egoism of individuals-in-groups happens to be overridingly more powerful that, when acting within institutions, concludes Niebuhr, the individual’s will-to-live becomes the will-to-power.

In this article, I analyze the OPDO’s performance during the recent state of emergency using the framework of Reinhold Niebuhr’s insight that makes a distinction between a person’s behavior as an individual and within a collective. I argue, following Niebuhr, that individual OPDO leaders and members may be committed to advancing Oromo nationalist goals but their party’s original raison d’etre restricts their ability to translate their dreams into practice. In other words, the individual members of the party have the capacity to transcend the party’s interests and subdue their own lust for power and wealth to serve the greater good of the Oromo cause. As a human institution, however, the party has no capacity for self-transcendence and for considering the interest of others.

 Rebranding OPDO

Since the outbreak of the latest phase of the Oromo protest in 2015, the relationship between the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has been severely strained. As I wrote in the first part of this series, the protest exposed a bifurcated organization being pulled apart by the TPLF-loyalist old guard and the reformist new cohort within the OPDO. The first series of approaches—denial, resignation, despair—did not afford the party a return to relevancy and governing. During the state of emergency, the OPDO took the ensuing tranquility to revise its strategy of dealing with the new post-protest reality.

Accepting the reality that the protests were not a plot of a disgruntled diaspora, the OPDO sought to spring back to action by mimicking the activists in several ways. First, they elected a congenial and eloquent president of Oromia to sell to Oromos hope and promise of a new era of political reform, economic opportunities and improved quality of life for citizens. Second, the new group of leaders expropriated the language of Oromo nationalism to a point where observers suspected OPDO collusion with the opposition activists. Third, they came out displaying newfound techniques and adeptness in using social media not just to communicate but also to inspire, recruit and organize supporters for their cause. Under the state of emergency, the OPDO repositioned itself to bargain with the people.

Beyond parroting Oromo nationalists, the new OPDO leaders took certain actions to signal that they were using their power to address the main demands of the Oromo people, which triggered the protests in the first place. They announced that the Addis Abeba Integrated Development Master Plan (IDMP) is dead, the Oromia “Special Interest” law is in preparation, ill-gotten land is being recovered and jobs are being created for Oromo youth.  It seemed the center of gravity of the Oromo cause had shifted to OPDO headquarters. For a fleeting moment, the OPDO seemed to have captured the imagination of Oromos as the new champions of Oromo nationalism who can lead the nation to freedom.

Notwithstanding the new leaders’ mastery of the art of nationalist grandiloquence, OPDO was discernably incapable of defending the gains of Oromo nationalism, much less implementing Oromo nationalist projects. In speeches made to various audiences, the new OPDO leader, Lemma Megersa, promised greater autonomy in decision-making, economic revolution, social justice and national renaissance. In practice, the OPDO can claim little in terms of responding to the demands of the Oromo protests or even meeting their own promises. The following are examples of the gap between the high-sounding rhetoric and the stark reality on the ground.

The first episode where OPDO’s difficulty in practice evinced was the incident I characterize as the qubee fiasco. This was a measure taken to change the order of the qubee alphabet and revise the Oromia elementary school curriculum, which was revealed by TV Oromiya. At first, the OPDO denied such a measure was ever taken at all. When the piling evidence made denial untenable, the president of Oromia referred the issue to a commission of experts to study it in depth and make recommendations. During the whole saga, it became clear that the OPDO was not even in charge of the region’s curriculum. Even the American embassy, which financed the study that ostensibly prompted curricular change, entered the fray to explain away curriculum change at regional state level. It was a surprise why the OPDO would even contemplate, much less implement, such a drastic change that would adversely affect Oromo politics and the Oromo psyche. Qubee is a mark of a generation, the signal symbol of the triumph of Oromo nationalism and the birth of a new Oromo nation. A genuine Oromo political organization wouldn’t tamper with the qubee for any reason. The OPDO showed clearly that the party takes order and implements them without question.

The qubee fiasco was followed by the “special interest” charade.  In late April 2017, news that purported the Oromia regional state had developed a draft proclamation to determine Oromia’s special interest in Addis Abeba as the first step to begin implementation of Article 49 (5) of the Constitution. The draft law had a preamble that overawes even the ardent Oromo nationalist. The draft law itself contained practically no provision that clearly defined Oromia’s special interest in Finfinne. Instead, contrary to the intent of the constitutional provision, the draft law provided for a “special treatment” of any Finfinne resident who can claim an Oromo identity rather than spell out Oromia’s “special interest” with regard to administration, resource utilization and provision of social services as stipulated in the Ethiopian Constitution of 1995. On the very touchy issue of Addis Abeba’s boundary, the draft law indicated continued expansion of the city into Oromia. Despite OPDO’s claim, the Master Plan was not quite dead.

The draft law that was approved by the council of ministers and was presented to the national parliament was bereft of any provision that defined Oromia’s special interest. The bill granted Addis Abeba government’s power to determine what it is willing to doll out to Oromia as special benefits instead of granting Oromia regional state special rights in the administration of the city and sharing economic and social services benefits. Introduced three days before its annual recess, parliament did not have time to take up the bill for debate.  It is not clear if it will take it up when it returns from recess. What is clear is the marginalization of the OPDO in defending Oromo interest against the TPLF and its associates. As inadequate as it was, OPDO’s initiative was set aside by the council of ministers in approving the draft law. In view of the fact that its priorities were flatly rejected by federal authorities, the OPDO seemed utterly irrelevant in any discussion at the national level in which the interest of Oromia are being considered.

From the “special interest” charade, the Oromia government proceeded to the tax hike debacle. The new fiscal year began with an announcement of a new tax system that targeted “small businesses” with annual sales of up to Birr 100.000 ($4300).  In the new system, small businesses included barbers, internet cafes and kiosks, even street side coffee vendors. Beginning in May 2017, tax “assessors” started to visit small businesses to determine their daily income estimates. Following the visits, the businesses received letters requiring them to pay annual taxes as high as Birr 50,000. The daily income estimates, determined quite arbitrarily, were inflated beyond measure, in some cases 20 times more than actual incomes. For some, taxes increased by up to 300 percent. Even so, people did not rise in anti-tax rebellion; they only asked for proportionality and justness.

Setting aside the propriety of taxing street side vendors and peddlers who eke out a miserable existence, OPDO’s response to the business owners’ cry for revaluation of daily income estimates betrayed their complete detachment and utter indifference to the plight of ordinary people. Federal and Oromia state officials dismissed the taxpayers as uneducated hoard who cannot tell the difference between “income” estimates and tax obligations. Both the president and spokesperson of the Oromia government stated that businesses in Oromia have been undertaxed for years, implying that the new tax hike was legitimate. When businesses closed down and owners started to queue up to return their licenses, the official response was that tax authorities would look into the people’s complaints to ferret out irregularities and complaints.

The final official response was for business owners volitionally to determine the appropriate level of their tax obligation and pay that sum to the government. It is not the onerousness of the tax burden but the callousness of Lemma Megersaa, the president, and Addisu Arega, head of Oromia government Communication Affairs Bureau that stripped the veneer of their lip service to Oromo cause and exposed the true nature of their organization when it comes to the Oromo people’s demands. In response to the ruling party’s failure to help small business owners, the people of Oromia showed that they have the alternative of taking matters into their own hands. The economic boycott and stay-at-home campaign held from August 23-27, 2017 was the people’s response to the ineptitude and unaccountability of their government.

In an apparent evidence of powerlessness, the OPDO kept hurtling from one misstep to another. The final test as to where the party’s loyalty lay came with the border clashes with the Somali regional state. A long running dispute between the two regions, the situation escalated to violence in March 2016, six months after the state of emergency was imposed. The so-called Somali region Special Forces, originally organized in 2008 to combat the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), made incursions into Oromo villages, killing residents and confiscating properties. With the exception of a lull following an agreement between the regional presidents in April 2017, the Special Forces regularly crossed into Oromia, causing tremendous loss of life and dislodging Oromo residents from their homes. According to reports, hundreds of people have already been killed and thousands displaced.

Ensuring the well-being of citizens is the fundamental responsibility of any government. The Oromia government did not seem to live up to its basic function and public expectation.  Its security forces could not or would not protect the Oromo citizens terrorized by armed gangs. The government could not provide adequate humanitarian assistance to the displaced. Residents from the affected areas report that their government has failed in its basic function of protecting them, much less delivering services. The death toll keeps rising every day.

In spite of these facts, the president of Oromia kept denying that citizens are in the line of fire of the Special Forces and that Oromo land had been confiscated. When a parliamentarian from East Harerghe asked him in parliament, the president responded dismissively, stating that boundary disputes always flare up in all Oromia’s boundary regions. When Harerghe and Bale representatives of the Oromo Abba Gadaa Council asked him directly, he denied that there was any death or any land taken, but excoriated them from spreading lies. This exchange was going on the same day twelve people were killed in Mi’eesso town in Western Harerghe on September 1, 2017. When it was over, twenty-five people had been killed in the town.

Failure to protect citizens is not simply dereliction of duty but an abdication of responsibility. To accuse the dignified representatives of the people of rumormongering is behavior unbecoming of the president of Oromia. The president is in denial but it is an untenable position. It is not possible to deny daily report of heinous atrocities, including images of dead bodies and displaced women and children from the affected areas. OPDO officials are back to a tactic that did not serve them well at the start of the Oromo protests: denial. We are back to square one.

After weeks of carnage, OPDP officials have begun pointing fingers to the Somali region as the main culprit. Officials of one regional state in the same federation accusing another of murder, collusion with terrorists, while accurate, bodes ill for the regions, the population and for the country.  The rhetoric of the rebranded OPDO is high-sounding. In practice, the boundary issue represents a case of OPDO’s epic failure.


In analyzing the OPDO now, we must make a distinction between the individual OPDO member and the party as a human institution. Many question whether OPDO leaders such as Lemma Megerssa, who spent much of his career in the security services, can ever become a legitimate advocate for the Oromo people. There is little doubt that the vast majority of OPDO members, especially those who joined the party after 2005, are genuine Oromo individuals who can feel the plight of their people. It would be a mistake to reduce them to a simple TPLF’s hatchet men. As Reinhold Niebuhr posits, as individuals, they are capable of rising beyond their current self-interest and look forward to the greater good of the nation of which they are a part.

The problem is that OPDO members cannot advance the Oromo cause from within the organization. After a quarter century in the political arena, the OPDO, as on organization, has proven that it has not outgrown its original design. The TPLF created it for specific political purpose. The machine is functioning according to its design. The political space in which it functions has changed dramatically. Because the OPDO has not adjusted sufficiently to the demands of the changed circumstances, it seems it is has outlived its usefulness.

The OPDO as an institution is bereft of the altruistic impulse that makes individuals rise above their self-interest. This is consistent with Niebuhr’s observation that human institutions do not change volitionally or through moral and rational means to advance the goals of social justice. They must be subjected to a type of resistance Niebuhr calls coercive nonviolence. Looked at from Niebuhr perspective, the OPDO is beyond reform.  The centrifugal forces within the organization have gathered momentum and the tie that binds it to the TPLF has been weakened. The TPLF has tried to reinvigorate the party by changing the core leadership and purging the party ranks of elements it suspected of disloyalty. Reshuffling leaders did not purchase the OPDO organizational vitality and political legitimacy. The core can no longer hold. Because the party has not adjusted, it is being subjected to nonviolent coercion from below. The individual members can become genuine agents of change only if they set themselves free from the entrapment the TPLF has constructed for them to keep the Oromo nation under its perpetual domination. AS

ED’s Note: Ezekiel Gebissa is a Professor of History and African Studies at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan. He can be reached at

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