Who is seeking a Referendum? The Oromo people or Oromo elites?

Tedla Woldeyohannes, PhD*

In my most recent  article titled “What is the Ultimate Goal of the Oromo Movement”[1], I argued for the view, given the evidence, the ultimate goal of the Oromo movement is to seek and establish an independent Oromo nation as a sovereign state. This piece is a sequel to the article I mentioned above. In this piece I argue for the following view: Some Oromo elites raise the issue of referendum for the Oromo people as a means to achieve the ultimate goal of the Oromo movement, which is the establishment of Oromia as an independent, sovereign nation. Below I offer reasons for this view.  Now to the question: Who is seeking a Referendum? The Oromo people or some Oromo Elites? A short answer to these questions is that those who are seeking referendum for the Oromo people are some Oromo elites. For evidence that supports this claim one needs to watch media interviews and discussions by some of the Oromo elites.

It must be noted that a referendum as an ultimate solution to the problems of the Oromo people is not at the center of the debate in the Oromo movement for the same reason that the ultimate goal of the Oromo movement, an establishment of Oromia as an independent, sovereign nation, is not at the center of the debate. In my view, the reason is clear, i.e., it is to avoid risking a potential backlash. I concluded the article mentioned above as follows: “It is for the Oromo elites to show that either they accept the claim I have argued for or they reject it or they show another more plausible explanation of the evidence on which my argument is based. If they accept it, that is an important clarification for the Oromo people as a whole and for the other peoples of Ethiopia. If they reject my claim, then it is also important for them to show where the mistake is. That would also add clarity to the ultimate goal of the Oromo movement. Now the most important question is: What is the official, ultimate goal of the Oromo movement according to the Oromo elites, if it is different from what I argued for above, i.e. seeking an establishment of Oromia as an independent, sovereign nation?” Until this moment, I have not seen a published response to my question.

Now returning to the current topic, from the outset, I want it to be absolutely clear that I am NOT against referendum for the Oromo people or any other group IF AND WHEN it is an actual expression of the will of the people. One of the purposes of this article is to trigger a conversation and a public debate and discussion on the issue of referendum when some Oromo elites raise referendum as an ultimate solution to solve problems for the Oromo people. It should also be clear from the outset that to raise the question who is seeking a referendum when it comes to the Oromo people should not be seen as standing against the will of the Oromo people. That is because this article is not a response to the Oromo people who are seeking referendum since I am not aware of the Oromo people in general who are seeking referendum for the Oromo people to decide a secession of Oromia. This article is about the views of some of the Oromo elites who advance the issue of a referendum as an ultimate solution to problems of   the Oromo people. I contend that identifying the desire for a referendum by some Oromo elites with the desire for a referendum of the Oromo people in general at this point in time is unjustified because there is no adequate evidence to support the view that the Oromo people are seeking referendum to secede from Ethiopia or to establish Oromia as an independent sovereign state. One can check all available evidence regarding the demands of the Oromo people especially in the last one year so to see if seeking referendum as a basis for secession of Oromia is among the demands. As far as I can tell, the evidence does not support the view that the Oromo people are actually demanding referendum to decide the future of Oromia. Having said this in light of the publicly available evidence, I am not suggesting that there are no Oromos in Oromia who seek referendum to achieve the secession of Oromia. My point is specific in that among the frequently stated demands of the Oromo people during the yearlong protest the demand for a referendum to decide secession of Oromia is not among them. Furthermore, it has to be noted that a demand for self-determination, or self-rule for Oromia has been made mostly by Oromo elites, but often without expressing the demand for self-determination or self-rule as identical to a demand for Oromia to be an independent, sovereign nation.

Why then Referendum?

 Let us reflect for a moment regarding the question of referendum and why it is raised by some Oromo elites.

First, it has to be noted that there are Oromo elites who make a case that there was an independent nation called Oromia that has been colonized by the Abyssinian/Ethiopian Empire. A discussion on whether referendum is an ultimate solution to the problems the Oromo people face and have been facing for a long time is predicated, to a significant extent, on adequately answering the question whether the Oromos have been colonized. The question whether the Oromos have been colonized is contentious and should be debated, but to offer a referendum as an ultimate solution to resolve the issues the Oromo people face is begging the question against those who argue against the claim that the Oromos have been colonized. Note that not all Oromo elites share the view that the Oromo people have been colonized.  Hence, to make a reasonable case for the referendum for the Oromo people requires making a reasonable case for the view that the Oromos have been colonized. Now note this: Even if a reasonable case can be made for the view the Oromos have been colonized, it does not follow from this that referendum is the only or the best solution for the problems the Oromo people have faced and still face. One can argue that democratizing Ethiopia as a whole where human rights are protected and where there is economic justice for the Oromo people along with the rest of the people of Ethiopia  is what is needed. One can argue that if the Oromo people play a vital role in a democratic Ethiopia where their culture is respected, where Afan Oromo is an official language, and if all their just demands are met, why would referendum even be raised?  But that argument is not the focus of this piece.

Second, one of the most important issues that needs to be addressed regarding a referendum to achieve the ultimate goal of the Oromo movement, i.e., the independent, sovereign nation, Oromia, is distinguishing the will of the people on the ground and the will of those elites who speak on behalf of the people. Now which “people” are we talking about in this context? Obviously, proponents of referendum would say by “the will of the people” they are referring to the will of the Oromo people in general. But this view needs to be clarified. Is it the case that NOW the majority of the Oromo people are demanding a referendum to seek secession of Oromia from the rest of the country? In light of publicly available evidence, the answer to this definitely is no. As far as I can tell, a poll has not been conducted that shows the majority of the Oromo people seek a referendum to decide the future of the Oromo people. If there is data that show that the demand for a referendum is the demand of the majority of the Oromo people that will help. Those Oromo elites who propose referendum as an ultimate solution to solve the problems of the Oromo people are most welcome to share such data or evidence to support seeking a referendum is based on the demand of the majority of Oromo people.

There is a serious question that needs to be addressed about the will of the rest of the Ethiopian people when debating and discussing whether a referendum is an ultimate solution to the Oromo people. As everyone knows, what happens in the Oromia region will have consequences for the rest of the people of Ethiopia. In this case, a referendum for Oromia to secede from the rest of Ethiopia will bring to an end to Ethiopia as a sovereign nation. Obviously, the people of Ethiopia, including Oromos who do not support secession, have interest in the fate of Ethiopia as a country. That means, a referendum will not happen in a vacuum since it will have a ripple effect for the rest of Ethiopia. It will affect the interests of both pro-secession Oromos and those who are pro-unity and pro-territorial integrity of the sovereign nation called Ethiopia. That means, the will of the people of Ethiopia, both Oromos who want to remain as an important part of Ethiopia and the rest of Ethiopians who are in favor of a united Ethiopia must be taken into account in deciding the future of Oromia and Ethiopia. That means, to argue for the view that the will of the people must be respected must be clearly stated because there are several groups of people whose interest and will or desire matters. Furthermore, owing to its geographical location, Oromia is home for many non-Oromo Ethiopians and their will or desire along with the desire of those who are pro-unity Ethiopians must be taken into account, including people in Addis Ababa. Obviously, the will of the people of Addis Ababa needs to be taken into account if and when a referendum becomes real. To sum up, when we talk about a referendum to achieve a secession for Oromia, the will of the pro-unity Ethiopians, including the people of Addis Ababa, non-Oromo Ethiopians who live in Oromia, and Oromos who want to remain with the rest of Ethiopia must be taken into account.

Third, in this connection, it is common to hear from the proponents of referendum that referendum in other parts of the world is used as an example to make a case for referendum for the Oromo people. But this must be clarified. To make a case for referendum using examples of referendum elsewhere must take into account the similarities, differences, and the historical context that justifies a need for a referendum before modeling it for the referendum of the Oromo people. An argument from analogy can be good, or strong, and hence justified only when the similarities between things compared outweigh dissimilarities. That means, when proponents of referendum use  examples of  referendum elsewhere to support their argument for a referendum for the Oromo people such arguments  must be challenged, not because one is against the will of the people, but because the analogy can be  bad and does not reflect the reality on the ground. To expose a shaky ground on which a case for referendum is made can be a good a thing for the people since it is far better for people to make a life-changing decision better informed than otherwise. In this connection, we must guard against views copied from other countries before putting them to experiment in Ethiopia. We, as a society, are victims of imported ideologies and it is the responsibility of the elite to make sure the people of Ethiopia, in general, and the Oromo people, in particular, do not end up serving as another ground to experiment failed ideologies or flawed theories that do not serve the interest of the people.

People Know What They Want

It is crucial to understand what proponents of referendum often say when anyone raises any question about referendum for the Oromo people. It is common to hear at least two objections from proponents of a referendum when anyone raises any question about referendum for the Oromo people. One of these objections is that to raise any question about referendum is to stand against the will of the people. But that need not be the case and in my case I have already made it clear that if and when people express their will to decide what they want I, for example, have no objection whatsoever. To debate the value of referendum should not be discouraged at any rate. The other objection goes as follows: Who are you to tell the people what is good for them? The people know what they want or what is good for them? It is important to note that those who often raise these objections are also other elites—-how can they be “the people, all the people”? But it is not productive to respond to them likewise, because such a response does not advance the debate.  An attempt to understand what they are trying to communicate and to address the issue properly is more important. I conclude this piece with a reflection on the role of the elite, both the pro-referendum Oromo elites and pro-unity elites on the future of Ethiopia insofar as the issue of referendum for the secession of Oromia is concerned. This reflection also serves as a response to the objection, who are you to tell the people what is good for them?

The claim that “people know what they want or what is good for them” needs to be handled with extreme care. If one claims that people in general do not know what is good for them that would mean that people are ignorant.  That is wrong because it is false. In general, people do know lots of things—they do not need experts about every decision they make. What needs to be noted in this context is not a general claim that people know what is good for them. The kind of knowledge that is attributed to people is the key in understanding the claim that people know what is good for them. As the context suggests, the content of knowledge in question is about socio-economic, legal, political, etc., issues that are essential for a society to flourish. When understood in such terms, it is correct to say that people, in general, do not possess expertise when it comes to knowledge of the complexity of socio-economic, political, and legal issues that a society needs for its flourishing to the extent the elites possess the relevant knowledge in question. Accordingly, it is a matter fact that the elite, those with expertise in various issues that affect a society, play significant roles, but the roles could be negative or positive or a mixture of both. I conclude this piece with a call to the elites in pro-referendum camp as well as the proponents of a united democratic Ethiopia with non-secessionist Oromos on their side going forward to make their case to inform the public regarding the pros and cons of referendum if referendum is going to be real.

The Role of the Elite

The pro-referendum Oromo elites have every right to advance and argue for their view, but that does not mean their view is a reflection of the views of the majority of the Oromo people now on the ground at the moment. Their role, among other things, is to offer compelling reasons why a referendum for secession of Oromia is a good thing for the Oromo people. If the majority of the Oromo people do not want secession as a good thing, at the moment, on what grounds would the referendum proponents argue that secession is a good thing for the Oromo people? Since elites play a role as opinion shapers, it is possible for referendum advocating Oromos to shape the views of the Oromo people on the ground. But the question that such elites must answer is this: Why should the Oromo people choose referendum for secession of Oromia when other options can bring about the desire or the will of the Oromo people?  To make a case for the will of the people to be respected, say,  in making a case for referendum,  should be distinguished from instilling in people a view and an option that might not be good, all things considered.  If, as a considered judgement, a referendum for the secession of Oromia will not bring about what is good for the people, it is the responsibility of the elite to seek another option which can bring the good for the Oromo people. It is the role of the elite to make known all available options for the Oromo people to make an informed decision.  Ultimately, it is incumbent on advocates of referendum to make a compelling case why secession of Oromia based on a referendum is a better option for the Oromo people.

On the other hand, the elites on pro-unity camp, those who think and believe that the secession of Oromia goes against the interests and the will of the people of Ethiopia, including the Oromo people who want to remain as an important part of Ethiopia as a sovereign nation, must make a compelling case for their view. To make a case for a united Ethiopia as a sovereign nation with the Oromo people as part of the unity need not be seen as a position against referendum per se. The issue is what is good, or the best scenario for the people of Ethiopia, including the Oromos who want to remain part of Ethiopia as a sovereign nation. Obviously, millions of Ethiopians, the majority of Ethiopians want Ethiopia to remain a sovereign nation without the regime in power, with a democratically elected government. This is also the will or the desire of millions of people. That means, the elites on the pro-referendum side for the secession of Oromia face the elites on the pro-Ethiopian unity side, and vice versa, to hear the most compelling cases for their respective views that will inform the decision of the public on both sides. Both groups must make a case for what is good for the people in question. When the Oromo people who hear the best reasons why referendum for secession of Oromia are also given a chance to hear the best reasons why it is better for the Oromo people to remain as part of Ethiopia with a democratically elected government that justly addresses the grievances of the Oromo people, there is nothing wrong for the people to choose what is the best for them. In presenting their arguments to serve their people the elites are expected to present truth with integrity without seeking their own personal agenda. The elites who end up seeking their own interest in the name of the interest of the people on whose names they speak will only end up doing what the regime in power  does—deceiving the people, betraying the people in whose name they speak and advocate issues without actually doing what they do to serve their people. It is my hope that elites on both cams will serve their community with integrity, courage, and conviction. Finally, it is my hope that this article will trigger a national conversation with that exhibits civility.

 

Tedla Woldeyohannes teaches philosophy at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and can be reached at twoldeyo@slu.edu

[1] Available, among other places,  here  http://www.ethiomedia.com/1000codes/7953.html

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