Gadaa.com conducted an interview with a young Oromo political analyst and social commentator, Mr. Jawar Mohammed, about his childhood, political views and visions. He also shared his views on the state of politics in Ethiopia and the Horn, the Oromo struggle and the upcoming election. Here’s the interview.
Gadaa.com: Tell us about yourself.
Jawar Mohammed (JM): I grew up in Dhummugaa, a small rural town on the Arsi-Hararge border in Oromia. I think of Dhummugaa as my hometown – the place where I came of age and where I attended elementary school until I got kicked out and left for Asella. There, I went to a Catholic school for a year and Cilaalo secondary school for another year until I once again had to move to Adama, where I took my high school national exam.
From there, I won a scholarship to attend the United World College of South East Asia in Singapore, where I studied Afaan Oromoo and other subjects. Upon completion of my studies there, I came to Stanford for my undergraduate degree and graduated this past June. Currently, I have just completed an internship in Washington, DC; and I am now conducting an independent research. I plan to start graduate school this coming September.
Gadaa.com: You have come out hard on the politics-as-usual establishment in Ethiopia. Your first article lambasted the OLF leadership for its failure; your subsequent articles berated Ethiopianists’ unjust views on self-determination; and your most recent article depicted the hostage-captor relationship between the people of Tigray and TPLF.
JM: I feel that the standard way of analyzing Ethiopian politics often gives undue credit to personalities and ideologies in determining the causes and effects of political actions. While actors and ideologies do influence politics, a structural assessment of the agent-institution relationship tends to help better explain political phenomena more logically and rationally. Ideology presents the world in a very simplistic and shallow manner. It relies on a singular assessment of the problem and promises a universalistic and absolutist solution. It does not allow room for doubt and alternative possibilities. Thus, using an ideology of a certain organization as a sole basis for analyzing political phenomenon might not help us understand causes and effects for a given outcome.
The role of political personalities is also often overestimated. In politics, I think there is duality of a person. A political person has his own views and interest, but those interest and views are prone to change due to factors outside his control.
Politics is a product of an interaction between an institution and its agents. I like to call this interaction an organizational norm. Understanding politics, therefore, requires assessing this relationship.
The problem is that, while ideology and leadership are visible, the organizational norm is not; and it is difficult to quantify. Thus, people often misdiagnose a problem by focusing only on the visible factors. In the articles you mentioned, for instance, ideology and leadership have been the two widely accredited factors for the weakness of the OLF in the last two decades. But, the OLF has changed both its ideology and leadership during this period, yet still could not solve the problem. It could be the case then that the prescription did not work because the problem was misdiagnosed. In that article, I used structural assessment in an attempt to show that factors other than ideology and leaders were significant in hindering the OLF’s progress.
In a related way, take the example of the ultra-conservative Ethiopianists, who are obsessed with any perceived threat to Ethiopian unity. For them, those who challenge the established norms of the state and advocate ideas contrary to the conventional wisdom are mercenaries sent with evil intentions. Like all conservatives, they prioritize state sovereignty over the will, interests and aspirations of the people within that state. There should be no mistake that such conservatives are patriots with deep love for their country, but the weakness of their political analysis occurs because, in their zealous obsession with sovereignty, they always blame external forces for any internal crisis.
The basis of the state-citizen relationship is the state’s obligation to improve the welfare of its citizens, or at least create favorable conditions for their self-improvement. When a citizen or a group benefits from the state, they value that state and will have a vested interest in protecting it. By contrast, when a state becomes a burden on people, when it oppresses them, exploits them and discriminates against them, they all have reasons and rights to dismantle it. With this in mind, I argue that people support the liberation front’s position of self-determination as a means of fighting an exploitative and oppressive state, not because they are guided by some magical power of the elites.
As the state has invoked unity and sovereignty in order to suppress dissent and disregard legitimate grievances, those slogans have become synonymous with repression and misery. The best way to promote Ethiopian unity, not as mere political slogan but as something real, is to eliminate the predatory state, to ensure the equality of each citizen and group, and to promote equitable socioeconomic development. This will reduce animosity and increase interdependence, which will result in each stakeholder having a vested interest in strengthening unity as a means of ensuring his or her own continual benefits.
In general, I aim at a more thorough analysis than those provided by our contemporary talking points and accepted notions about political matters, with the hope to better understand the most likely causes of our problems and find accurate solutions for them.
Gadaa.com: What are your views on the future of Ethiopia in the context of the Horn of Africa?
JM: I am quite optimistic about the future of Ethiopia. The creation of Ethiopia in the late 19th century through conquest and subjugation led to unequal and unjust relationships among different stakeholders. The system of economic exploitation, forced cultural assimilation and political oppression made the situation unbearable for the subjugated people. The disadvantaged groups and their progressive sympathizers fought and began to dismantle that ancient system. Progressive forces hoped to remake Ethiopia based on the principles of social justice, equality and fraternity. They were smothered, however, between the conservative forces that fought hard to maintain the old system on one side, and the hardliner ethno-nationalist groups, on the other, that saw the complete dismantling of the empire state as the only way to solve the problem. The struggle between these two polarized forces has dominated Ethiopian politics during the last three decades making consensus-based politics unthinkable. Now, it seems that both forces have been exhausted and a new era for the progressive democratic voice is on the horizon. If this emerging moderate progressive voice can mobilize the silent majority of people around their aspirations for a mutually inclusive political system, and if it is also able to overcome the challenges posed by the variety of highly vocal, visible and organized hardliner groups, I believe Ethiopia will make a democratic breakthrough within the next decade.
A democratic breakthrough in Ethiopia will have a fundamental impact on peace, stability and development in the entire region. It’s obvious that the current regimes in Asmara and Finfinne are the main spoilers of peace and stability. If they were democratic, they would have no reason to stir up fake border wars to divert attention from internal crises or intervene in each others’ internal affairs; nor would they need to finance rival factions in Somalia and elsewhere. As long as Meles and Isaias remain in power, there will not be peace in Somalia or the entire region. Only a nonviolent removal of these dictators and establishment of a democratic system can change this, and such an outcome would be a win-win situation for all stakeholders. I am convinced that Ethiopia is moving in that direction and that it will not be too long before democracy finally takes hold.
Gadaa.com: The current political establishment is a result of the 1960’s and 1970’s leftist ideologies. How does that shape the regional politics?
JM: I have great admiration and respect for the progressive generation of the ’60s and ’70s. They were selfless, dedicated and determined youth, and rarely does such a generation emerge in a society. It pains me that we speak only about their mistakes and shortcomings. Given the political and social background many of them came from, the notoriety of the system they faced, and the unfavorable regional and international political conditions of the time, they achieved the unthinkable: they actualized a fully fledged revolution that brought fundamental social, economic and political change to the country.
It’s true that much of the current state of distraction and disarray that has become the norm for political behavior can be traced back to that era, simply because the same generation has exclusively dominated politics ever since.
Yet, it is also important to understand that the best and brightest leaders of that generation perished early on and that the burden fell to mediocre individuals, who suddenly found themselves at the helm of every organization. The visionary and visions were divorced very early, such that organizations performed very poorly due to their shaky foundations and lack of viable leaders. This vacuum of leadership prevented many organizations from learning from mistakes and improving their performance. By and large, it is that frustration caused by the failures of leadership that led to the birth of the politics we observe today.
Interview Continues to the Next Page