Guest Editorial: The OPDO Challenge: Defining the problem

Ezekiel Gebissa, Special to Addis Standard

In the last two years, the Oromia region has gone through tumultuous times. New political realities are emerging. A new generation of Oromos has arisen demanding respect for constitutionally-guaranteed, universally-accepted human rights. The awakening of a new demand-bearing generation is a new political reality signifying the Oromo struggle for human dignity has now reached a stage of irreversibility. This is a new experience that gives hope to future generations of Oromos. Every generation has passed on ideas worth fighting for to the succeeding generation.

In the current political dispensation in Ethiopia citizens are constantly harangued to accept the charade that the rule of violence is required to achieve democracy, development, and peace. However, the current young generation of Oromos has not given in to despondency and cynicism. In fact, members of this generation have rebelled against double-talk and demonstrated their willingness to turn their lives into a testing ground for the idea of dying for consistency between work and life. That is a frighteningly beautiful idea championed by the generation some call qeerroo, and others refer to as the qubee generation.

For this generation, to live is to work, to function according to design. It is a generation who has shown that to live in freedom requires paying the ultimate price for it. It is a generation of young people who have a clear sense of who they are. It is a generation that has realized that the Oromo have committed no offense, nor violated any principle to deserve to be subjected to the perpetual violation of their human dignity, let alone to be deprived of their citizen rights. It is a generation that has decided to overcome the moral and existential ambiguity of the political class’s double-entendre. Rather than live in the subliminal state of being alive but without really living as human beings, the new generation of Oromo has decided to take the riskiest of paths and has chosen never to negotiate their right to be free. The historic Oromo Protests of 2014-16 is their defining moment as a generation. It is an epochal event that has revealed, tested and shaped the new Oromo generation. I call it the dinnee generation.

The protests have created a new chapter in the history of the Oromo people’s struggle for freedom. They have opened a new era in which all political organizations that claim as their objective the realization of a political system that respects Oromo human rights must reassess their reason for existence. Only those that succeed in repurposing themselves can continue to provide leadership at a particularly difficult time in the history of the Oromo nation. In this article, I focus on a political party, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). My intention is not to privilege the OPDO over other organizations or to single it out for criticism. I address the OPDO because it is a party that could do the most harm to the Oromo cause and to the Oromo nation. Conversely, it could take the Oromo struggle and nation to a new plane if it successfully adjusts to the new situation created by the Oromo protests.

Diagnosis or prescription
In his co-authored book, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading, Ronald Heifetz, Professor of Public Leadership at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, states that success in resolving human problems of any nature begins with proper diagnostic work of separating technical problems from adaptive challenges. According to Heifetz, technical problems can be addressed with known solutions or existing know-how. Problems that are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures are adaptive challenges. Solutions to such problems involve significant (and often painful) shifts in people’s habits, status, role, identity, and ways of thinking. Heifetz posits that these problems call for “adaptive leadership” which mobilizes people and units that frequently have different needs, priorities and perspectives toward new ways of working and ways of thinking.

According to Heifetz, the “most common cause of failure in leadership is produced by treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems.” If Heifetz is correct, all indications are that OPDO officials have gotten off to a terrible start defining what the protests are all about. High ranking leaders of the OPDO have been musing about the causes of the protests. Almost universally, they seem to define the Oromo Protest as an issue of mismanagement that could be solved with good governance practices. In an interview with Horn Affairs, Feqadu Tesema Degefa, the Oromia government spokesperson, went beyond the issue of good governance, almost seeming to take credit for the protests. I have quoted him in extenso:

After a bitter struggle, the OPDO has built a new order in which political, economic and social rights have been fully respected. We have built a new order and a politically-conscious population that is not satisfied with the demands that have been met. We have created a population that has rising expectations that looks for more victories, wishes for more development, and is relentless in demanding more rights. We have said that the Oromo have achieved political rights and glowing victories. In the protests, we see the fulfillment of our objective to create a population that is able to defend its rights at any time. … Oromia is a huge part of our country’s development, which has in turn created a demanding people who are aware of their rights. … The people made it clear to us that they are not satisfied with the work we are doing during the 5th round national election. By protesting, they wanted us to be accountable. We see [the protests] as a fruit of our struggle. We are not ashamed of it. We don’t see it as a sign of weakness. We struggled to create a demand-bearing people. We did not struggle to produce students who don’t raise demands, those that are satisfied with their condition and sit back quietly. In the future, we like to see people with more expansive demands. The goal of our struggle has always been to create people who refuse to live in trepidation under an oppressive government. We understand that the people are sovereign over us. As an organization and myself as an individual, we are gratified to see the fruits of our struggle. The protesters’ demands are about several issues related to good governance; second, they are attributable to our failure to explain the true objectives of the Master Plan. … The people protested to hold accountable a government they voted with 100 percent of their vote. People voted in massive numbers and the next day went to development work. And by protesting they expressed their vote of confidence for the party and for the government.

This is the latest iteration of the OPDO version of the causes of the historic protests. We are now told that the uprising wasn’t a problem that required a reasoned response but a victory to celebrate and a vote of confidence in the government. To the extent that the spokesperson explained the OPDO’s take on the cause of the Oromo Protest, he mentioned the lack of good governance and the lack of clarity in explaining the objectives of the Addis Abeba Integrated Development Master Plan. Elsewhere in the interview, he also added unnamed transnational activists who exploited the situation to advance a hidden political agenda.

To be sure, the way the OPDO official defines the protests does not comport with either side of Heifetz’s two categories of organizational problems. It doesn’t make any sense to argue that young people spilled their blood to hold their government accountable or express their vote of confidence in the government they overwhelmingly “elected” only a few months previously. The mind-warping assertions aside, it looks the OPDO’s take on the Oromo Protests is a classic case of what Heifetz describes as the “most common failure of leadership.” Looked at in Heifetz’s framework, it is clear that the causes of the Oromo Protests were not technical problems that could be fixed by administrative reform. The protests presented adaptive challenges that required new ways of thinking and working, and significant (and often painful) shifts in habits, status, role, and identity.

In this vein, the OPDO must first recognize that the Oromo protests have changed the political environment. Technical fixes not only fail to solve the problem but also cause irreparable damage that actually increase the cost of rebuilding exponentially. When faced with adaptive challenges, it is the organization that must adapt to the changed environment. In this case, it is the OPDO that must adjust to the post-Oromo protests political dispensation. Adaptive challenges require adaptive work which, according to Heifetz, demand three “very tough, human tasks: first, figuring out what to conserve from past practices; second, figuring out what to discard from past practices; and third, inventing new ways that build from the best of the past.” Here is how Heifetz’s three human tasks may apply to the OPDO case.

What to conserve
In organisms, successful adaptations take the best from the organism’s history into the future. Similarly, organizations remain true to their roots and adapt to the changing surrounding environment. What does this suggest in the case of the OPDO? Three decade ago, Oromia was a concept in the minds of Oromo nationalists, the qubee script a fancy dream of an Oromo organization striving to educate Oromos in the use of a foreign script, and being an Oromo a great obstacle to self-improvement in a world dominated by Amharic hegemony. Today Oromia is a self-governing entity with delineated boundaries and institutions of governance recognized by the Ethiopian government. The qubee script is the sole means of written Afaan Oromoo, and the Oromo language is the medium of administration, instruction, justice and modern sector commerce in Oromia. The Oromo people have proudly embraced their heritage as individuals and as a collective. These achievements are the foundations of Oromo identity, unity, and nationhood along with the civil society institutions that support them. Finfinne (Addis Abeba) is the umbilicus of all. The OPDO cannot afford to risk the mistake of 2003 when it relocated to Adama.

The OPDO should see to it that these gains and the structures that support them, the constitution and the federal arrangement, are here to stay. A successful transformation of the so-called “prison house of nations” into a democratic, multinational state which the OPDO advocates will not only solve the Ethiopian empire-state’s vexing problems of nationalism but also will set a model that nations with problems of ethnic, racial and national questions can adapt to address their own situations. As the Oromo scholar Asafa Jalata put it in his book Fighting Against the Injustice of the State and Globalization: Comparing the African American and Oromo Movement, democratic multiculturalism has a good chance of bringing about fundamental political, economic, and social transformation. But the kind of rhetorical flourishes and the gloating that permeates the OPDO spokesperson’s interview, saying that they have built a new democratic federal unity, is not what will conserve the gains. Building a political arrangement that accommodates the Oromo people‘s will is a project no Ethiopian ruling party is willing to undertake. The EPRDF regime has made it clear that it is not willing to share power. The intransigence of the ruling class should not force the OPDO to overhaul the vision of democratic unity. It should guard it vigilantly.

What to discard
An organism discards or rearranges the DNA that no longer serves the species’ current needs. As an organization, the OPDO should do the same. It could begin by discarding terrible claims that don’t even make for good propaganda. The idea extant in the spokesperson’s words, i.e., that a political party created people who demand their rights, is outrageous. It is true that the Oromo people today are united and aware of their rights. They are willing to pay any price to preserve the victories they have gained and to fight for more. The OPDO may ultimately take a place in history for contributing to the making of the Oromo nation and the victories attained. But to claim that the OPDO is responsible for the creation of Oromo national consciousness and the present generation of politically conscious Oromos is historically inaccurate. The OPDO knows it has a distinct history that it may not recite with pride.

The OPDO spokesperson also repeats the constant refrain used by regime officials – that the lack of good governance in its multifarious facets and the failure to explain the “true” intention of the Master Plan caused the protests. He also asserts that crafty “agents of destruction” exploited the crisis situation. OPDO officials should always keep in mind that their most important target audience is the Oromo people. The notion that some faceless activists exploited the muddied field created by the regime’s failure to consult the people denies the fact that the protesters have legitimate political, economic and social rights. The spokesperson’s claim, that Oromo protesters who were martyred actually paid with their lives in order to demand marginal rights, is non sequitur.

In fact, the spokesperson goes as far as suggesting the protests were an expression of the political consciousness that the OPDO itself created and that, as such, it is a cause for celebration. The OPDO knows that its public claims are simply false because in closed meetings its officials talk the truth. Both Abbadula Gammada and Fekadu Tessema’s voices have been leaked to the public affirming their knowledge of the truth. Overall, the cost of repeating lame excuses that both the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and House Speaker Abbadula Gammada have repudiated diminishes credibility, a rare commodity any government needs in order to have even marginal legitimacy.

Denying that the problem exists isn’t the place to start solving problems. The problems that led to the massive protests are real. If we judge by the slogans that the demonstrators showed, people demanded respect for their human and constitutional rights at the minimum. The Oromo protested marginalization, discrimination because of their identity and exclusion from consultation in political or economic decisions. The new Oromo gave their lives for genuine grievances to be redressed, not for the luxury of encouraging officials to do more development or holding them accountable for mismanagement. The OPDO should abandon charades such as 100 per cent electoral victory and its officials should adjust to the new situation. Nothing can be hidden from the Oromo public. This is the emerging reality. If the OPDO chooses to continue business as usual, as Abbadula Gammada himself once said in one of the party’s deliberately leaked tapes, “the flood of the protests will wash away” both the party and the government.

What to innovate
An organism creates DNA arrangements that give the species the ability to flourish in new ways, in more challenging environments. It is not a secret that OPDO was created by the TPLF during the final offensive against the Derg as its forces moved into Oromo areas. The founding members were prisoners of war from the Derg military who happened to speak the Oromo language. At the time, most were descendants of the Amhara settlers in Oromo areas who knew the Oromo language enough to echo the OLF, but not quite committed to the Oromo cause owing to their non-Oromo background. These were the Oromo infiltrators.

Once in power, the OPDO began to recruit new members. The first new OPDO recruits were members of the Oromo elite who had come through the Derg era either as apolitical bureaucrats who serve any government that comes to power or political opportunists who joined the incoming rebel groups in order to gain clemency for the crimes they had committed as members of the Derg era institutions. They offered their expertise to the OPDO in return for protection and stability in their personal lives. These are the Oromo opportunists who had no qualms renting out their expertise in exchange for personal improvement or immunity.

As the TPLF consolidated its power and the OLF gradually disappeared from the scene, some Oromos joined the OPDO to try and work within the legal framework to improve the lives of the Oromo people. Their objective of this group is not to prevent independent Oromo groups coming to power. This group believes in gradual change and is led by the belief that the political space should not be ceded to those who have no interest in advancing the Oromo cause. This group was the Oromo pragmatists.

In its early days, thus, the OPDO was a fractured party composed of three groups: the non-Oromo infiltrators, the Oromo opportunists and the Oromo pragmatists. In the aftermath of the national elections debacle of 2005, many university graduates joined the OPDO. Some joined to obtain government jobs. Others did as so as pragmatic nationalists who felt they could advance the Oromo cause incrementally within the increasingly restricted atmosphere of an EPRDF regime reeling from the shock of an ignominious electoral defeat. Under the presidency of Abadula Gammada, the OPDO has accomplished several things that would prove enduring for the Oromo people. This was made possible because the lower to middle level administrative positions of the Oromia government’s bureaucracy was occupied by the fourth generation OPDO members. By the end of the decade, many of them had managed to become mayors, woreda administrators, schools’ directors, kebele managers, party chair persons at woreda and zonal levels, and leaders of various party affiliated ‘development’ associations. In a way, this is the cohort that the late Prime Minister Meles sardonically described: “if you peel off the OPDO surface, you will find the OLF.” He could have quite appropriately called them Oromo nationalists. In time, this group turned the OPDO into a vehicle of resistance against EPRDF excesses.

The clearest signal that the OPDO is capable of resistance to the administrative fiat of the federal government came in 2009 when the Oromia government, unable to get the House of Representatives to promulgate legislation governing Oromia’s special interest in Addis Abeba, established a ‘Special Zone’ of towns and districts that surround Addis Abeba. This was the act that led to the creation of the “Integrated” Development Master Plan. Without this act, Addis Abeba would have annexed land from the Oromia region as it had done for two decades prior.

The most dramatic resistance from the OPDO came at a meeting held in Adama town on April 12-14, 2014 for the Oromia regional state employees who were designated to implement the plan. In a performance whose historical import was not immediately evident, OPDO officials raised serious concerns about the Master Plan. The stage was set by a speaker who stated: The issue of Finfinne and the Oromia Special Zone towns is not a question of city management. Looked at from any direction, it is clearly a question of identity. Successive speakers objected to the Master Plan’s implementation citing that it violates several provisions of the constitution, federal jurisdictional boundaries, constituency representation and principles of popular sovereignty. The participants even questioned the paternalistic approach by which the federal government prescribed the kind of development projects the Oromia region needs. Where the officials left off, university students picked up and rose in protest against the Master Plan.

The OPDO has come a long way. In its evolution, it has shown in many instances that the desire of the overwhelming majority of party members is to be on the side of the people. At this stage, the behavior of party officials reveal the conundrum of being organizationally tied to the EPRDF but emotionally attached to the plight of the Oromo. But divided loyalty is a recipe for organizational failure. There is an ancient scriptural wisdom: one cannot serve two masters. It is also a contemporary philosophy. In his famous essay, “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” philosopher and historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, states: “Some among the Great Goods cannot live together. That is a conceptual truth. We are doomed to choose.” The notion that one can have both ways is not only unattainable but self-delusional. OPDO must choose. At the moment when it has outlived its usefulness to its TPLF patrons, survival should dictate the choice: become the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization.
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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