Testimony of Dr. Shigut Geleta, Foreign Relation Officer of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) for Europe Regional Zone, at the Joint Committee on the Foreign Affairs, Sub-Committee on Human Rights of the Irish Parliament (December 6, 2006), Dublin, Ireland.
December 11, 2006
Honourable Deputies and Senators,
Esteemed Defenders of Human Rights,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me begin by saying that I am extremely honoured for this opportunity to address about the plight of the Oromo people, the policy of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) as well as the general human rights and the security situation in Ethiopia and the Horn.
Please allow me to say a word or two, by way of introduction, about the Oromo people. The Oromo accounts for close to 50% of the population in Ethiopia. Prior to being incorporated into the modern Ethiopian state in the last quarter of the 19th century, the Oromos lived in freedom under a uniquely democratic and indigenous institution called the Gada system. Under such a system, which is a replica of the evolving theory of deliberative democracy, the Oromos democratically administered themselves, elected their leaders and enacted laws through their representatives. After the occupation, such Oromo institutions were dismantled and replaced with a hierarchical and dehumanizing system. Ever since then successive regimes subjected the Oromo to domination, subjugation, exploitation. This is how a majority became marginalized.
I am narrating this not to dwell on the past but to show the genesis and birth of the OLF over 30 years ago to end this misery and injustice. With the fall of the imperial regime, we hoped the hierarchical structures rooted in a history of conquest and domination will be levelled out and that our people’s existence as second class citizens would come to end. It did not. Under the Dergue domination and the hierarchical ordering of communities continued in the form of socialism and totalitarianism. OLF had to continue its struggle through other means.
In 1991, the collective efforts of the liberation forces ended the era of the Dergue. We stepped forward to reconfigure Ethiopia as the common homeland of all its diverse nations and nationalities. We took a risk to usher in a new era of democracy and freedom. Our optimism was once again quickly dashed. The ruling party failed to live up to its promises. It violated our agreement to introduce genuine democracy, install the superiority of the rule of law, restructure the centralized state administration by devolving power to the grassroots, so that each nation and nationality administer its affairs. Instead it pursued the policy of monopolizing power and domination continued in the name of pseudo democracy and federalism. As a result we were forced once again to go underground and resort to armed struggle— with a hefty price.
We however continued to explore opportunities for just peace even after the abortion of the Transitional arrangement. We participated in different bilateral and multilateral talks with different stakeholders to peacefully resolve all outstanding issues. Our good faith participation in the many attempts to broker a just settlement with the assistance of the US, Germany, and Norway attests to our ceaseless search for peace.
The peoples of Ethiopia had dreamt and were promised that the post-Mengistu era would be an era of equality, peace, and of civil liberty. Instead torture, extra-judicial killings, disappearances, detention without warrants, overruling decisions of courts, snatching democratically won elections, harassment of the Free Press and civil society have reigned.
The May 2005 elections were a landmark. Of course Oromos did not have much of a choice. Despite this shortcoming, it demonstrated that EPRDF cannot rule as in the past without resorting to ever-increasing draconian measures, and resorting to draconian measures they have.
The overwhelming majority of our population has rejected the ruling party. However, the regime continues to trample upon their yearnings for freedom and democracy using its military and security apparatus. It kills, displaces, detains and tortures anyone who dissents with impunity. The judiciary is turned into a kangaroo court. Opponents are detained on tramped up charges and denied their days in court. The rubber-stamp parliament is simply a faÃ§ade to create an appearance of representation.
Human rights violations are prevalent in Oromia and have been so during the last 15 years. In the Qalitti prison itself where senior Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) leaders are unjustly held, there are over 300 Oromo prisoners. They have been rotting in there for years without due process of law, without any international scrutiny. Upwards of 30,000 Oromo prisoners of conscience are detained throughout Oromia. Leaders of Matcha and Tulama, the longest surviving Oromo NGO and a symbol of our tortuous struggle for freedom and democracy continue to be detained for years. They did not commit any offence. They are held in prison in utter disregard of court orders. Several Oromo students were/are killed, detained, and arbitrarily suspended or dismissed from universities and schools. The repression is not limited to the Oromo alone, although I must admit it is where the most horrific violations take place and mostly away from the spotlight. No population group in Ethiopia is spared this ordeal. In fact as the regime gets more insecure, paranoid about its slipping grip on power, repression has become a knee-jerk reaction.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Oromo and the other people in Ethiopia believed in Western pronouncements about respect for human rights, democracy, good governance, and accountability. But the silence as these ideals are flagrantly violated is regrettably testing this belief. We are told that the West does not have the leverage. How does this square with the truth when the regime survives with Western money? After last year’s broad daylight killings we had hoped, the west would review this policy of not looking tyranny in the eye but rather rewarding it.
We are encouraged by recent criticism of the violations of human rights and the deficit of freedom and democracy in Ethiopia by the Irish government. And I hope this hearing would mark a watershed.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Please allow me now to briefly elaborate on my organization’s guiding principles. Until recently OLF has restricted itself to advocating the democratic rights of the Oromo people. We have done this in order to allay the suspicions of those who might think we are aspiring to dominate Ethiopia on the backs of the huge size of our constituency.
We are still committed to enabling our people to exercise its inalienable right to self-government, to ending its subject status. But given its huge democracy and central location, the Oromo bears great and special responsibility in creating the conditions for democracy and stability. It is in our self-interest to champion democracy and freedom for all. Oromo nationalism has reached a new stage in its phenomenal development. As a majority population, while the Oromo cannot expect freedom and democracy as a gift from others, it has to work with others to usher in a new era of not only freedom and democracy but also stability.
It is in this spirit that OLF took a key role in the formation of the Alliance for Freedom and Democracy (AFD). AFD brings together the major Ethiopian opposition parties and liberation organizations. Its birth has created hope that a new beginning is possible. By bringing together the cross section of the society across the divides, AFD and its inclusive vision have offered a real alternative to the regime on power.
Given the extraordinary situation, only the convening of an all-inclusive conference can remove the underlying causes of the crisis in Ethiopia. AFD has called for such a dialogue, which the ruling party is rejecting. Instead it is taking ill-conceived military adventures. The declaration of war on Somalia is meant to deflect attention from the deteriorating situation at home. In an unprecedented step it has declared war on the opposition. This is would only make the situation worse. It would cause regional instability. It would sour relations between religious groups.
Ethiopia is at a dangerous turning point again. Sensing insecurity and instability, senior commanders, diplomats, high officials and judges are defecting. The political space is closed than ever before. There are thousands of political prisoners. Repression and severe restriction on civil liberties is creating an explosive situation. The crisis will get worse unless the regime heeds the call for dialogue. However, for this to happen, Europe and the US have to stop handling the ruling party and the Prime Minister with a kid’s glove. I hope this hearing will be a catalyst for the start of a process culminating in a change of policy on Ethiopia.