Commentary: An OPDO Conundrum: The indissoluble bond and organizational bifurcation

Lemma and Abadula

Both Lemma Megerssa, left, and Aba Dula, have taken to the practice of speaking bold to their constituency. Will they deliver?

Ezekiel Gebissa, Special to Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, September12/2017 – The Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) is the most enigmatic actor among Oromo political parties. Unlike Oromo parties who emerged out of the Oromo national moment, the OPDO was created by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and emerged on the political scene in the early 1990s as a counterweight to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). A quarter of a century later, the party hasn’t demonstrated any affirmative reason for its continued existence. The historic Oromo Protest of 2014-16 provided the OPDO a chance to clarify whether it is an autonomous agent working for the Oromo people or an appendage of an authoritarian plutocracy ensconced in power in the capital Addis Abeba. It was an opportunity to be or not to be on the side of the Oromo people at a critical time in the history of the Oromo national struggle.

Emphasizing the historicity of the moment, I wrote a piece in Addis Standard calling on the OPDO to take measures that affirm it has “become the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization.” During the state of emergency, the OPDO took advantage of the apparent tranquility to regroup and recalibrate its approach to dealing with the Oromo protest. In October 2016, Caffee Oromia, the regional legislature, elected Lemma Megerssa as party leader and president of Oromia. Since assuming office, Lemma has traversed Oromia from one end to another, promising political reform, economic revolution and renewed commitment to the goals of Oromo nationalism. Addisu Arega, the regional government’s head of communications affairs bureau has been busy on social media, flaunting his organization’s program of reform, renewal and revolution. The OPDO has apparently deployed tech-savvy and rhetorically nimble leaders and they have successfully expropriated the slogans and the discourse of the protestors and even claimed leadership of the protest itself.

In this article, I examine OPDO’s record at yet another critical juncture in the course of the Oromo protests. By assessing the actions of party leaders and officials of the Oromia government, I trace the evolution of OPDO’s stand vis-à-vis the historic Oromo protest. I also analyze events and process during the time the state of emergency was in effect to understand the party’s reason for existence in the wake of the Oromo protests. I conclude by offering an overall interpretation of OPDO’s place of the in the context of Oromo politics.

The Oromo Protests and OPDO

The problem that triggered the Oromo protests was planted in 2009 when the caffee Oromia created an administrative unit called the Oromia Special Zone surrounding Finfinne in response to the federal government’s refusal to promulgate a law defining the constitutional stipulation regarding Oromia’s “special interest” in Addis Abeba (Finfinne). Demarcation signs between Finfinne and the Oromia region were soon erected. An urban master plan developed by Addis Abeba city planners was renamed the Addis Abeba and the Surrounding Oromia Special Zone Integrated Development Master Plan (IDMP). Without the establishment of the special zone and the subsequent demarcation, all indications are that Addis Abeba’s expansion and displacement of Oromo farmers would have continued unnoticed.

Accountable to the office of the prime minister, officials of the Addis Abeba city government expected to implement the IDMP by administrative fiat. Disregarding OPDO officials’ request for delay, federal officials pushed ahead with implementation. On April 12, 2014, they convened administrators and experts of the cities in the special zone to give them implementation instructions. The assembled OPDO officials objected with unusual directness and courage. The state-owned Oromiya TV aired the proceedings. One speaker after another objected arguing that the IDMP violated several constitutional provisions, principles and provisions. One speaker put it at the time as follows:

The issue of Finfinne and the Oromia Special Zone towns is not a simple question of city management. Looked at from any direction, it is clearly a question of identity. When we talk about identity, the plan should be implemented in a way that respects the rights of the Oromo and does not ignore the Oromo community’s identity, history and politics. We know full well how the boundary of the City of Finfinne expanded; we know where it was and where it is now. From its very inception, the plan should have been designed in a way that respects the constitution of the country. We do not want a Finfinne that grows by dispossessing and displacing Oromo farmers but one that grows by embracing them. I personally do not. The plan should be one the community and the government of the [Oromia] regional state have accepted and endorsed. It should not be a plan that an external agency designed and handed down only for implementation.

The next objection emphasized that the IDMP violated the constitutional requirement of public participation in policymaking. Another speaker explained:

Article 89:6 of the constitution clearly states the development objectives and policy are governed by the participation of the community. Why is this provision neglected in the formulation of this plan? Why was it announced to the Oromo community after everything was completed? Isn’t this a problem? Isn’t the process in which the plan was developed over the last two years beyond any accountability?

The third speaker objected alleging that the IDMP violates the federal structure and division of powers provisions of the constitution. He posited:

If we are going to move in the direction of implementing this plan, because the Oromia Special Zone surrounding Finfinne is a part of the Oromia region, the region’s caffee, the highest authority of the regional government, should have deliberated and passed a decision.  That the federal government is moving ahead with implementation of the plan on its own is apparently a violation of the authority of the regional state.  The members of the regional parliament must debate and come to a consensus before the plan is implemented.

The fourth speaker asserted that the IDMP violated the fundamental principle of the sovereignty of the people enshrined in the constitution. The objection questioned the legitimacy of the federal government implementing a policy that violates the principles of popular sovereignty and direct democratic participation.

What we are discussing here is a matter concerning the Oromo people. We are discussing a public issue. On this matter, the ultimate authority should be the people. But the people are not represented here. The matter should be discussed at the level of the people who are affected by it. You must take this matter to the people.

In the same vein, another speaker rejected the paternalistic attitude of Addis Abeba officials and the secrecy surrounding the IDMP. The speaker posited:

The way this plan is presented to us smacks “we have planned it for you and you should take it. Accept what we say without any question.” It must be made clear the extent to which, if any, the Oromia regional government participated in developing the plan.

Presiding over the Abate Sitotaw, Deputy Mayor of Addis Abeba, responded to the concerns raised by participants quite curtly, saying top-down planning is superior to developing a policy from the bottom up. Abdulkadir Hussien, the vice president and head of the Bureau of Industry and Urban Development of the Oromia regional government, summarily dismissed the questions insisting that the plan was developed jointly by the Addis Abeba city government and the Oromia regional state and would go forward. Even after the dramatic and vigorous objections OPDO members and regional government officials, the officials did not seem to understand the gravity of the problem.

Two weeks after the existence of a secret “Addis Abeba expansion master plan” was revealed and these objections were broadcast on TV Oromiya on April 14, the Oromia region was engulfed by unprecedented Oromo university student-led protests. In nine cities in the Oromia regional state, students took to the streets demanding full implementation of the country’s constitution and respect for the autonomy of the regional government in deciding local issues. The protestors opposed the IDMP which proposed to extend the capital city’s municipal boundary to incorporate more than 15 communities in the Oromia Regional State as unconstitutional. In particular, they demonstrated against the displacement of Oromo farmers and residents on the affected land.

For a while, the issue of the IDMP seemed to languish in a limbo reflecting the ambivalence within the ruling party, with the OPDO opposing implementation and the TPLF determined to forge ahead with the plan. The tension came to a head in early February 2015. Unable to wait until the Oromia regional government officials find a way to “convince” the lower echelons of OPDO members and the Oromo people before bringing the plan to the Oromia parliament for approval, Abbay Tsehaye, Special Political Advisor to Prime Minister of Ethiopia, convened a meeting of city administrators and planning officers in Hawassa. At the meeting, he allegedly issued a stern warning to officials of the Oromia regional government and of the special zone administrators, as was heard in a leaked audio which went viral.

He late on denied having said the derogatory contents in the leaked audio, but in hindsight, it is clear that Abbay Tsehay’s threat, the arrogance with which it was issued and the unconcealed contempt he had for Oromia government officials enraged the entire Oromo nation. Any attempt to implement the IDMP was bound to reignite a massive reaction. What was not predictable was the nature and scale of the imminent protest.

The trigger came on November 12, 2015 when officials arrived in the small town of Ginchii, located west of the federal capital of Addis Abeba to transfer a community land to a private investor. The townspeople protested. Resistance that started by a handful of people in a small town soon turned into a conflagration of protests that engulfed the entire Oromia region and lasted for nearly a year.

OPDO Response

OPDO’s response to the protests revealed the precarious position of the party in the Ethiopian body politic. As noted above, the party ranks were opposed to the IDMP and its implementation. The top party and government leaders were ready to implement in an apparent expression of their unswerving loyalty to the TPLF. By the time of the protest, this intraparty tension had reached its apogee. This drama of OPDO’s response was played out in four stages.

OPDOIn the past, Addis Standard has published articles calling on the OPDO to take measures that affirm it has “become the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization.”

The first phase was denial. When the protests broke out, it took Muktar Kedir, then president of the Oromia and party boss, almost a month publicly to address the subject. When he spoke on December 4, 2015, he dismissed the protests as minor disturbances in a few pockets of the region, denying the fact that the protests were Oromia-wide. He bragged that the Oromo people, in grateful gesture to the party that brought them peace, democracy and prosperity, had restored peace and order and ferreted out the anti-peace, anti-democratic and anti-development forces unleashed by external enemies. To the surprise of many, he praised the security forces for restoring order in an expeditious manner. Apparently, the murder of innocent protestors in cold blood was mere collateral damage, a negligible price paid for democracy and development. Overall, Muktar’s response went from shock to denial.

As the intensity of the protest increased, denial was no longer tenable. The approach of the second phase was resignation to accepting the reality of the protests. This mood was captured in a long lecture Abba Dula Gemeda, Speaker of the Federal Parliament, gave to OPDO members in the federal parliament building on March 7, 2016. In a leaked audio that also went viral, the speaker absolved opposition parties of any wrongdoing and excoriated party members for deviating from the party’s mission of listening to and serving the people and engaging in self-enriching endeavors. The upshot of his long tirade was that OPDO is responsible for the grievances that led to the protests.

In addition, Abba Dula identified three reason for the protests.  First, lack of good governance which bred complacency, corruption, ideological bankruptcy, nepotism, regionalism and favoritism; second, youth unemployment which increased every year as the number of college graduates often exceeded the number of available jobs, stating the discrepancy resulted from the OPDO’s bogus claim of job creation; and third, OPDO’s failure to deliver service to the people. He stated that the party created a demanding generation and rising expectations but failed to develop a structure that can deliver services efficiency. He concluded that the party can no longer deceive the people and admonished members to respond to the peoples demand in a genuine manner. As such, the OPDO resigned to accepting the Oromo protest was a popular movement demanding freedom, justice, dignity and human rights.

In the third phase, the OPDO went through a period of uncertainty and depression. OPDO came to realize that the Oromo activists’ use of nonviolent struggle and the sophistication of their tactics had rendered the regime’s much-vaunted arsenal of violence suddenly ineffectual. The activists’ use of social media to mobilize and organized protest movements proved to be a disorienting innovation government officials cannot keep abreast. We now know from leaked tapes that the party leaders felt they were under siege, unable to match the protestors’ tactic and badgered by TPLF bosses for failing to stop the protests. In the speech referenced above, Abba Dula Gemeda paints apocalyptic scenarios of dangers that might befall his organization during the height of the protests. Similarly, in a speech delivered at the 2016-17 Fiscal Year Performance Assessment and Consultation Forum held in Adama in mid-August 2017, President Lemma reminisces about the dark days of the protests.

Let us be honest. Last year this time, all of us here, including the leadership, were apprehensive of the future. We were asking, “What is going to happen to us tomorrow? Will this government whether the storm or succumb to it? Will our party survive or collapse? Will we ever be able to come out of this darkness? Most of us, including our leadership, were in deep despair.  … The whole country was engulfed by a sense of hopelessness. We stood up in the midst of the desperate situation, kept struggling while the fire was ranging around us and succeeded in turning things around.

Lemma concluded his observation by stating that the three to four million members and thousands of party leaders who were waiting for a propitious time to abscond the OPDO tent during the protests had been fully restored to confidence. The Oromo people who, during the protests, were raining rocks on OPDO members and setting OPDO offices ablaze had completely turned around and become ardent OPDO supporters.

The triumphant speech signifies the fourth and current OPDO approach to the Oromo protests. It sums up the party’s sentiment that it has negotiated its differences with Oromo protestors and has entered into a grand bargain with the Oromo people. In a way, this constitutes the fourth phase of OPDO response to the Oromo protests. Based on Lemma’s claims, it can be accurately stated that the Oromo protests have transformed the OPDO to a genuinely Oromo people’s democratic organization.  This is a testable hypothesis to which will turn in a sequel to this article.


The creation of the special administrative zone surrounding Addis Abeba was a critical factor in building up legal boundaries against Addis Abeba’s unregulated expansion into Oromia.  In addition, the middle rank party members and officials amply demonstrated that the IDMP is an unconstitutional scheme that violates principles of federalism as well as democratic human rights. Put simply, OPDO officials exposed the existence of the “Master Plan” and presented a constitutional case why it should be resisted.  As such, they set the stage for the Oromo protests.

Once the protests broke out, high-ranking OPDO officials adopted a hardline against the protestors. Unlike the middle rank official who showed the IDMP was antithetical to Oromo interests, the party leadership adopted an adversarial stand against the protests. Initially, they simply denied the protests ever occurred and condemned agents provocateurs for inciting disturbances in a few places. As the protests intensified, they accepted the legitimacy of the protests and even became champions of the cause of the protestors. Overall, the OPDO quickly went from denial to resignation to accept and to making common cause with the protestors.

This article has shown OPDO’s bifurcated response in relation to the Oromo protests. This indicates that the party’s original ties with the TPLF have proven to be an indissoluble bond that cannot be severed. It also evinces organizational bifurcation, with the TPLF loyalist old guard and the reformist new cohort pulling the party in opposite directions. The new cohort that is now at the helm of power and the party hierarchy has affinity with the reformist OPDO middle rank and perhaps the ordinary members. Tethered to the Oromo people’s current tormentors, OPDO leaders cannot lead Oromo nationalist aspirations to its goals. Either they cut the Gordian Knot or let the people go.

In the second and last part of this article, I will discuss the fourth phase and asses the OPDO after the imposition of Ethiopia’s ten month old State of Emergency. I will provide an overall interpretation of OPDO’s raison d’être within the EPRDF, concluding with the party’s stark choice at this critical moment in the Oromo struggle.

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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