Is the surge in OPDO’s popularity in Ethiopia an accident or a generational shift?

(OPride) — In Ethiopia right now, all eyes are on Oromia, the largest of nine federal states. The state has been an epicenter of official violence and anti-government protests since 2014. Protests persist but the latest spotlight is due to an unexpected resurgence within the ruling Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO).

OPDO is one of the four-member ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). EPRDF was formed in the late 1980s in the final years of the Derg, a military regime led by the communist dictator, Mengistu Hailemariam.

OPDO was the brainchild of the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) leaders. As such, from its inception, the Oromo questioned the party’s loyalty and legitimacy as genuine representatives in their quest for justice and equality in Ethiopia.

During the 1991 transitional government, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) enjoyed an uncontested popular support. OLF had a pivotal role in the fall of the Derg regime. Like TPLF, OLF fought to oust the Derg regime. After the demise of the Derg, OLF and TPLF emerged as major actors in the Transitional Government of Ethiopia. They played significant roles in the writing of a new constitution, which was adopted in 1994. But by 1992, TPLF and OLF could not see eye-to-eye on many issues; some would argue if they ever did.

OLF withdrew from the transitional arrangement and took up arms. This resulted in the persecution, harassment, and imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of OLF members and supporters, real and perceived. TPLF leaders always knew that they need the Oromo people on their side to succeed in their ambition to rule Ethiopia. In that regard, OLF withdrawal marked a temporary setback but TPLF had a plan.

OPDO was formed by Oromo-speaking former Derg soldiers and POWs precisely to help TPLF control the majority Oromo people. To make the OPDO more palatable, TPLF dangled the promises of multi-federalism before the Oromo. A promise that remained on paper to date. The recent turmoil in Ethiopia is evidence of the failure to implement the federal system. The Oromo protest started in 2014, at first in opposition to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa’s expansion. (The was later scrapped amid total rejection by Oromo and after OPDO withdrew its support.) But the protesters demands quickly expanded to include calls for regime change and the full and unencumbered implementation of the federal constitution.

The protests have also propelled the OPDO to new heights. Facing a full-on rejection, 27 years after its founding, the OPDO made a paradigm shift by embracing the protester’s calls and openly engaging with its constituency, the Oromo. For example, recent speeches by Oromia state president, Lamma Magarsa, on the theme of Oromo unity, in which he also recognizes the popular Oromo protests as legitimate, has validated previously ignored concerns by Oromo people. This is unprecedented by any OPDO official. But Lamma is hardly alone. Lamma’s cabinet and most in OPDO’s central committee seem united as the party seeks a share commensurate with Oromia’s contribution to the federal system.

The most apparent change within the OPDO is demographic. Most of the current OPDO members, including the top leadership, are young, educated civil servants. These are the new generations of OPDO. They grew up witnessing the deepening domination of Tigrayan elites over the country in all aspects of life. The new cadres also know (first hand) the corrupt actors, including some within the OPDO, who are responsible for the deterioration of human rights, living standards, and the country’s descent into authoritarian kleptocracy.

They are also, by far, the most nationalist generations of OPDO; they possess moral and ethical values to make a distinction between right and wrong. They have had better interactions and understanding with the outside world in spite of the government efforts to limit and censor the flow of information.

This generation of ODPO are our relatives, families, and, above all, peers who share the same or similar lived experiences. This is why the current resurgence within the OPDO shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s an outcome of accumulated guilt, betrayal and repeated failures to take meaningful actions inside EPRDF to address the perennial Oromo question. It has now reached the limit of one’s reasoning ability. The OPDO has risen to the occasion amid so many uncertainties in Ethiopia. They are showing flashes of responsive and accountable leadership, and it is being echoed by other Ethiopians.

The OPDO is also striving to unify all Ethiopians behind a call for the implementation of true federalism, generating unprecedented momentum and enthusiasm particularly among the Amhara — no small feat. Their grassroots support and influence is reaching far beyond Oromia. Even more important, the OPDP is filling a void left by the federal government to strengthen the cooperation and coexistence of the country’s many nations and nationalities.

The new OPDO leaders have taken on themselves to address what has been always the elephant in the room: Clearly and publicly responding to the Oromo question, age-old demands for genuine self-rule, freedom, and equality. They are proving to all that the Oromo struggle was never about taking anybody’s rights away or kicking other ethnic groups out of Oromia. They are promoting and upholding the best customs and values of Oromo people: Peace, justice, reconciliation, inclusion, and togetherness. They are engaging other stakeholders in pursuit of those values.

They are anchoring their visions in the principles of the cherished Oromo Gadaa system. Lamma and his colleagues have tackled topics that would have been a taboo even a year ago; they have unified the Oromia police force and the people they serve. These efforts have been felt and sensed in and outside the country.

One can only hope the current energy and momentum will last and it translates to actions and reach all people of Ethiopia who have been starved of basic liberty and who have longed for this type of leadership.

To be clear, the OPDO still faces a lot of internal and external opposition and challenges. Let us hope that the Ethiopia we all hoped for will finally be realized through the bold and assertive leadership of team Lamma. They deserve the benefit of the doubt a chance to walk the talk and prove themselves.

Let us not rush to destroy what has been built, instead, let us fix what has been broken. Let us heal those who have been wounded in the process and build on the strengths of the past and move forward together. The new OPDO leaders recent engagements and outreach in Bahir Dar is truly encouraging. It’s time to rally behind their unifying message for once and all.

The writer, Hussien Biru Berisso (MEng, MSc), is an Electrical Engineer (EIT) based in Canada.

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