By Fikru Helebo
Back in the early 90s, when email was still considered a novel communication medium, there was an Ethiopian email discussion list called EEDN that served as the first meeting place for Ethiopians on the Internet. The list was a hotbed of lively, though sometimes vitriolic, political discussions about Ethiopia. I participated in the discussions, but my participation was limited to occasional replies on threads started by others. There were plenty of contributors to the list who initiated discussions on various topics and one of them was an Oromo separatist from Wollaga who used the name "Makobili".
Makobili was passionate about Oromo issues and his contributions on EEDN were mostly characterized by a scathing, though largely appropriate and deserved, criticisms of the Amhara and Tigrean ruling classes of the last 140 years. Although Makobili tried hard to make a case for his views, his separatist arguments were apparent and did not win him much support. My take on Makobili was that he was an ideologue whose main interest in the discussions was to re-define the political relationship between Amharas and Tigrayans (whom he refered to as Abyssinians) on the one hand and Oromos and other southerners on the other just solely on the basis of Ethiopian history which, for him, begins with the conquest of the Ethiopian south by Minilik II.
One day in 1992, in an attempt to bolster his arguments, Makobili decided to use the issue of slavery in Ethiopia in one of his postings by putting the blame for slavery in Ethiopia exclusively on Amharas and Tigrayans. I do not recall whether Makobili raised the slavery issue himself or he used a thread that was started by someone else, but I vividly remember that he was making his case in a forceful way. Needless to say, I was bothered by Makobili's assertion and I decided to contact him privately to find out if he really believed in what he was writing. Makobili promptly replied to my query and said that he did believe in his assertion.
I was surprised by Makobili's admission. To my surprise, he added something else in his reply which startled me even more and remains etched in my memory till this day. Makobili informed me that I was too naive to understand the objective of his missives on EEDN. He said that his objective in the discussions on EEDN was not to have a give-and-take type discussion, which assumes that we all have something to learn from the discussions but, rather, his sole objective was to project an "Oromo" world view which will act as a counterbalance to that of the "Abyssinian" world view. In other words, what he was essentially trying to do was to plant further seeds of division between Amharas and Tigreans on the one hand and Oromos and other southerners on the other, instead of trying to build a bridge of understanding among them.
Presto! If there is such a thing as a Road to Damascus moment in politics, that was it for me. I admit, up until that time, I was too innocent to believe in the best of intentions of all Ethiopians in the discussion list where, I thought, each one of us were attempting to shed light on the complex issues that have kept Ethiopia in the dark ages for far too long. Unfortunately for Makobili, and fortunately for me, what that email reply of Makobili managed to do was turn me into a skeptic, albeit a well-meaning one (I have since become more discerning of what I read and I have learned to read between the lines). I wish everybody was straightforward and more reflective in their writings. Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in.
From Makobili's point of view, separating the Oromo from Ethiopia is the only way to correct the injustices of the past, and he is willing to throw away all the progress that has been made since the fall of the monarchy in 1974 in addressing the injustices just to achieve his singular goal of an independent Oromoland. I would have given Makobili a pass if the injustices of the past were only committed by the Amhara and Tigrean ruling classes. The truth, however, is that the ruling classes of most, if not all, ethnic groups in Ethiopia have committed injustices of one degree or another. For example, the Oromo ruling class used their Gada system to conquer the Hadiya people. Not only did they conquer the Hadiya, they forced the Hadiya to assimilate and loose their identity. I know this doesn't bother Makobili (sorry you would need a Google account to view this link) and he probably doesn't consider the conquest of the Hadiya by the Oromo an injustice.
So, "what is the point of this story about an obscure separatist named Makobili?", you may be asking yourself. Well, the point is that the separatist ideas that Makobili has been propagandizing all these years seem to be coming apart at the seams in the last few months as evidenced by the unravelling of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), where Makobili is a behind-the-scene power player. The Woyane regime has taken a note of this development and is working hard to take advantage of the situation by employing a multi-pronged strategy to decapitate the OLF by: 1) stepping up its harassment of independent-minded Oromo political activists, 2) increasing its military and propaganda efforts against the OLF, and 3) luring older and perhaps disillusioned former leaders of the OLF to its den to neutralize their influence.
While the decline of Oromo separatism is, in my view, a positive development, the fact that the Woyane regime is using this opportunity to intensify its persecution of innocent Oromos is extremely troubling and, unfortunately, it may end up strengthening the separatists within the OLF. People like Makobili probably want to see this happen and they will not, for sure, admit that their own mis-adventure is contributing to the suffering of innocent Oromos. This is to be expected, but I sincerely hope that they will soon start re-thinking their separatist position which, in all likelihood, will never be realized as there are so many forces arrayed against them. On the other hand, Ethiopians who believe in building bridges among the various ethnic communities of Ethiopia should stop being by-standers and be proactive in reaching out to Oromo separatists like Makobili and other separatist groups.
What I mean by reaching out is conducting an honest but principled dialogue with the separatists at the grassroots level. It is preferable to start such dialogue at a personal level in a coffee shop or at a dinner table where people are most comfortable. Political organizations should also do their own reaching out, but I do not put much stock on them at this time since the credibility of the political classes in conducting such a dialogue is at an all time low. The likes of Makobili, who are very successful in their own professional lives and have constructed an artificial wall of separation between themselves and the larger Ethiopian Diaspora community may not be open to such a dialogue, but we don't loose anything for trying. The first step in such a reach out is to educate yourself about the views of the separatists. These separatists have produced voluminous literature in the last couple of decades which reveal the strengths and weaknesses in their arguments in favor of separation, and it is your responsibility to understand their perspective before you reach out to them. Besides, they are as much, if not more, versed in your point of view and you need to be well armed with incisive ideas and have the willingness to see and appreciate their point of view. If you really want to see a united, just, peaceful, democratic and prosperous Ethiopia, you will do that. Good luck!