The above is a picture taken when the newly appointed PM Abiy Ahmed visited the Ethiopian Diaspora in the USA in 2018. He is standing with, among others, the prominent Oromo Activist, later turned Politician, Jawar Mohammed. He was at the height of his popularity and influence as a premier Social Media Based leader of the homegrown, grassroots popular uprising for change in Ethiopia, the #OromoProtests, that brought the much talked about political transition reportedly underway. Today, Jawar Mohammed is confined to a prison cell and in regular attendance of court proceedings officially charged with terrorism by Abiy Ahmed’s regime. By all credible measures, this has turned out to be part of Abiy’s Machiavellian maneuvering to eliminate one of his most potent rivals in the most populated Oromia State of Federal Ethiopia.
On the contrary, there was an individual in that image, a literal unknown at the time, that appeared to the public on this podium as an Amharic Master of Ceremonies to the events in Minneapolis, MN. It is the man pictured second from the right. His name: Daniel Kibret. Official public role: A Deacon in the Pro-Amharanization wing of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Today, he is, perhaps, the most recognized figure in the arena of Ethiopian politics. Daniel currently enjoys the role of a close political adviser and personal confidant to Abiy Ahmed Ali. He is considered the most powerful influence on the policies and actions of the regime as it is unfolding currently. Abiy has also appointed Deacon Kibret to public office, although his qualifications or political career amounts to a virtual nothing prior to 2018. How did the fortunes for these two, now consequential players, in Oromo-Ethiopian politics reverse so dramatically? The figure seen as one of the most visible faces of #OromoProests that helped usher Abiy to power is incarcerated and serious charges mounted against him by the regime. This is contrasted by an initially unknown figure at the beginning of the administration, now championed by the same State as an exemplary leader, wielding tremendous power on the regime’s leaders and functions.
The politics of Neo-Neftenya Elites
The oft framed and labeled “reformist government” of Abiy Ahmed was a result of a coalition of the Oromo and Amhara factions of the former ruling party EPRDF, which replaced TPLF’s dominance in the Federal Government. That coalition was dubbed Oro- mara, and the group that led it within EPRDF was designated “Team Lemma”; after Lemma Megersa, who was the then Chair of Oromia State. Today, Lemma is fired by Abiy Ahmed from his post as Army Chief of Ethiopia, his supporters disbanded and fired from their government posts, and himself placed under house arrest. The rise and infiltration of the Neo-Neftenya political faction into the nucleus of Abiy’s government is now complete, and Daniel Kibret, by most measures, is the leading public figure behind that influential group that runs the government now. The stated goal of the Neo-Neftenya group is to end the ethnonational Federalism of Ethiopia and dismantle its Constitution, along with its provisions of autonomous self-governance to Oromia, and other nations and nationalities. Oromia, being home to the largest ethnonational populace, the Oromo in Ethiopia, had been politically silenced and marginalized in the empire for over 130 years, tracing back to Menilik II’s colonial conquest of the Oromo Nation along with the rest of the South. The very success of the Neo-Neftenya faction in hijacking the current reform and taking the helm of the Federal Center can be reverse engineered to its legacy of forcible takeover implicit in its Colonial-Imperial past.
Militancy: Time Tested and Effective Tool of the Neftenya System
For the sake of accurate reference, it is helpful to define Neo- Neftenya as a political orientation and identifiable front in Oromo- Ethiopian politics. Neo-Neftenya refers to an ethnocentric Amhara political class and movement in Ethiopia working to forcibly [i.e. by instrumentalizing “Neft” or “the barrel of the gun”] reinstate a single Ethiopian identity with one dominant language [Amharic], culture and governing structure [dismantling the current multinational Federalism of Ethiopia, with its autonomous ethno- regional States along with its Constitution as its foundation]. It seeks re-Amharanization of Nations and Nationalities of Ethiopia; with its official corollaries of public celebration and glorification of bygone and deposed Imperial Monarchs [Menilik II and Haile Selassie I] that enforced this same Imperial policy on the entire populace. It is a movement working for the effective resuscitation of their hegemonic, black-on-black colonial norms and policies. Within the short span of the last two years, culminating to its current stage, the Neo- Neftenya, constituting mostly the Amhara political elite with an Amharanizing goal for Oromia and greater Ethiopia, secured the government of Abiy into its exclusive control. It then commenced its latest stage in that schematic control to evidently and effectively weaponize the regime’s security apparatus against Oromos to realize its political ends. At this point, this group is no longer just a civilian political faction or ordinary opposition to the status quo, but an integral part of Abiy’s regime itself; in full control of the State’s lethal Machinery with its military, legal, economic levers; and the commanding agency of its cooperated institutional political apparatuses and functions, including law and order, as well as parliamentary.
Neo-Neftenya’s Hijacking, Ascendancy and Triumph over Liberal Oromo Politics
Joseph Nye, a Harvard based, globally prominent political scientist popularized the distinction between Soft Power and Hard Power in politics. Hard Power is coercive power executed through military or economic actions and enforcements. Soft Power, on the other hand, is persuasive deriving on consensus building, consultation, and diplomatic marketing of one’s agendas to rivals. The flaws of Liberal Oromo Politics, its subsequent takedown by the Abiy’s Neo-Neftenya regime, and its current decline can be, thus, traced to its exclusive use of what is deemed Soft Power. It is the total abandonment of Hard power in the form of Armed Self- Defense of Oromia, in particular, even when it is constitutionally protected and practiced by fully armed regions like Tigray and the Amhara through its Militarized populace and militia itself.
Conversely, the rise and the current triumph of Fundamentalist Neo- Neftenya politics can be traced to its effective use of Hard Power, which is lethal, hence coercive and mostly successful over vulnerable rivals like the Oromo that only deal in Soft Power. This can be readily observed from the strategic steps taken by this faction of Ethiopian politics within the years 2018 to the present. In a very early and pivotal move, during the fledgling stages of Abiy’s regime, arguably Neo-Neftenya forces acted decisively by assassinating Ethiopia’s Defense Chief of Staff, General Seare Mekonnen, a Tegaru descent along with the then Amhara regional president, Ambachew Mekonnen. This was an exercise of coercive hard power in its most nefarious form intended to give warning shots to rivals and also the regime itself and to eliminate any potential to opposition against the Neo- Neftenya agenda to be subsequently unleashed fully. At the very same time, the Liberal Oromo political camp, headed by the likes of JM was engaged in diplomatic talks with the regime and preparing to hold pre-election rallies, etc. It is compelling to deem these assassinations as a hardline move by the Neo-Neftenya Amhara elite to deal a critical blow both to TPLF’s influential presence in the Federal Army; as well as the consolidation of their own hold and power over Abiy and his regime; as it sends warning signals of coming doom to the Oromo Political camp.
In further materialization of that trend, and is a widely held conviction by the Oromo Political Camp, the same Neo- Neftenya forces committed another assassination, bringing it full circle. This time of #HaacaaluuHundeessaa, an iconic Oromo artist and a prominent Political Activist. Within 24 hrs of his assassination most prominent leaders of the Oromo political Camp like Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba were arrested and accused of his murder by Abiy’s Prosperity Party Officials in the days that followed, later officially filing terrorism charges against them. These are coercive acts with a clear message that being an armed Tegaru, Prominent Oromo, or a weak Amhara would not spare anyone that stands in the ways of the Neo-Neftenya Forces that have infiltrated and taken over the Federal Government of Ethiopia.
In an ongoing move, the same Neo-Neftenya forces that now control Abiy’s Federal Government trained and released armed militants in civilian garbs in hot spot protest towns like Shashemenne, Adama, and Finfinnee, among other areas for Oromo Public Protests. These reports are denied by government and Pro-Neftenya Media outlets, which in turn utilized this orchestrated acts of violence to pin it on arrested Oromo political rivals, as well as the otherwise Peaceful Protesters themselves. The reports are corroborated by eye witness accounts of these events by media outlets not affiliated with Abiy. However, under the weight of the propaganda noise and high pitch generated right around these incidents those reports were intentionally neglected by the regime as well as other concerned bodies. These militants would mingle with Peaceful #OromoProtesters and commit acts of violence against perceived civilians. This was immediately and in a clearly coordinated fashion seized by the pro-government media and promoted as acts of terror fomented by Oromo Opposition Politicians that were in jail when these acts allegedly took place. There was, by now, a propaganda war launched both in the Diaspora and also from within Ethiopia, particularly instrumentalizing Social, State-Owned, and Private Media, labeling #OromoProtests as genocidal. Leaders like Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba are named terrorists that have authorized the killing of innocents, and there were pleas by chanting Neo-Neftenya supporters for him to “hang.” The tactic of falsely tainting the peaceful movement of the Oromo masses as an Islamic Terrorism with no credible connection to events transpiring became commonplace. However, this was a proxy war via all available public means fabricated to smear and label the entire Oromo opposition political establishment as a terrorist and illegal entity within the country. This same rhetoric and fabricated allegations were used to arrest, and still being instrumentalized to prosecute Oromo civilians and its prominent politicians.
Continuing the same saga, Demeke Mekonnen, a Neo- Neftenya figure in the now-defunct Oro-mara coalition, currently the Deputy Prime Minister of Abiy regime, himself, officially declared and vowed that the Amhara that live in the contentious border area with Benishangul-Gumuz Regional State, as well as other areas, will be supported and are now officially permitted to arm themselves, to attack and lethally eliminate their perceived enemies; in reference to the Gumuz people. This is, to date, the most flagrant assertion by a prominent Neo-Neftenya politician encoring the use of lethal force by ordinary Amharas against other ethnicities.
Neo-Neftenya Weaponization of Hard Power – A Winning Legacy
It is to be noted here, that the Neo-Neftenya instrumentalizing of lethal power, both in the public militia, mercenary as well as Federal forms, is inherent in the very roots of its emergence. Its current manifestation is in lockstep with the original modus operandi employed by Colonial and Imperial Ethiopia that annexed Oromia through conquest and kept it in subjugation ever since. This group knew that it was a winning strategy, then, as it evidently seems to do the same now. The only group in the Oromo-Ethiopian relationship that consistently underestimated this recurring pattern and hence self- sabotaged its own influence, differing measurable gains to indefinite future appears the liberal Oromo Political faction.
The Neo-Neftenya in accord with its Colonial-Imperial past effectively used hard power to enforce its nefarious will on the, otherwise, free, and democratic Oromo Nation. In a political impact of double whammy, it also employed, as it also currently does, soft power through its posturing in political negotiations and utilization of propaganda mediums. Its showdown with the Liberal Oromo Camp that is asymmetrically prepared only employing instruments of Soft Power guaranteed success at every turn, as it has already done so in the current case.
The Liberal Oromo Political Camp and its Self-Sabotage
Although currently jailed and charged with terrorism by Abiy’s regime, Jawar Mohammed started off as a staunch ally of the Prime Minister and advocated for the sustenance of Abiy’s government till his arrest, despite many Constitutional violations perpetrated by the regime.
From the outset, in an acutely critical move that would later prove politically disastrous, Jawar unilaterally called off the #OromoProtests, capitalizing on the prevailing perception of himself as de facto spokesperson and most visible leader of the movement. This gave Abiy a much-needed opening to consolidate his power and garner recognition both nationally and internationally. In the meantime, through Jawar’s endorsement of Abiy, all the actors and players behind #OromoProtests quietly lent their endorsement and support to the regime. The only exception to this move is that of the OLF/OLA that insisted on Disarmament and proper integration into the system only based on the hard implementation of democratic elections and the erecting of true self- government in Oromia.
Jawar also returned to Oromia from the USA, in the heyday of his rise in popularity, as a public figure representing the #OromoProtests and its achievements. However, Jawar and his political compatriots DID NOT DEMAND nor work on a formal, public, and transitional political contract outlining the reform with Abiy’s new administration, and providing safety designed to curb potential derailment. This critical step, to integrate back into the system was done based on blind trust, which is an act based on softer than the softest of powers. No guarantees or brokering by a third party entailed zero to feeble accountability, if at all, of Abiy’s new regime to stay the course of promised reform. The public sentiment consented and followed this leadership or lack thereof. Ironically and conversely, Jawar, despite his own misgivings about potential for trouble, remained optimistic and continued to offer political cover for Abiy despite his reinvigorated campaign against other Oromo factions and OLF/OLA supporters in Western as well as South Western Oromia, among others. In the meantime, the Neo- Neftenya faction, as it is apparent now, was erecting its invisible trap to prey upon Jawar himself and all the major and visible Political leadership of the Oromo opposition. After an attempted assassination on his own life by the regime’s security, Jawar, continued his soft power exercise with an evidently killer faction and regime. By all reliable measures, the circumstances were now calling for his complete dissociation from the regime and call for public rejection and protests against it. However, none that even comes close to this occurred. Perhaps, it was hubris that he was untouchable due to the loyalty and apparent public approval he enjoyed, coupled with naïveté regarding the true nature of the Neo-Neftenyas with its vicious and callous hard power machinations that resulted in his absolute victimization by Abiy and his regime. A once formidable powerful figure, whose involvement and endorsement of a coalition was a required recipe for any viability with the Oromo and even Ethiopian public; has now essentially become a sitting duck in a political jungle that is Ethiopia; defenseless and vulnerable for any determined rival to neutralize or outright eliminate. The only one that apparently has not seen this coming was Jawar himself and his liberal political camp, that were pushing for elections in an increasingly dictatorial political landscape despite their calls falling on deaf ears. They were doing the same thing Oromo political parties have done and failed in the past, as in OFC, for instance, during TPLF- EPRDF era; which resulted in effectively no change. It was time to mobilize the public against the regime itself in direct and bold opposition, but that leadership was absolutely absent. This was, perhaps, the major flaw in a series of Oromo liberal political faction’s missteps.
Soon after returning back to Oromia, without any guarantees for his own safety or his political camp’s interests, Jawar also called for the OLF to publicly denounce its Armed Resistance wing, Oromo Liberation Army [OLA], declaring the end of the need for Armed Self-Defense. [See video below of him condemning armed self-defense of Oromia asking the OLA to disband, while demanding OLF’s ChairPerson, Dawud Ibsa, to publicly denounce and demand OLA’s disarmament.
Despite the vicious Federal crackdown against civilians in Western and SouthWestern Oromia, against Oromos in Wollega, Guji and Borana Zones, that were put under de facto State of Emergency [also referred to as Command Post]; Jawar also refused to call on public protests to expose these atrocities by the regime. This started much too late when the deterioration of the regime entered the phase of assassinating Oromo figures and putting JM himself in jail. Discrediting and condemning Abiy’s tyrannical turn was not capitalized on early on owing to the liberal generosity this camp offered the regime. This obviously proved a strategic miscalculation on top of being mere hypocritical in public perception. With the slightest of violations, Jawar had the pattern of calling for #OromoProtests against TPLF-EPRDF during 2014-2018, which was very effective in keeping the regime in check and eventually dispensing it effectively as it opened a new possibility for change. Abiy’s regime was accorded numerous passes unstated here by the soft politicking of Jawar and his liberal political camp. It is worth noting, however, its most crucial effect in the Oromo-Ethiopian political dynamic.
Through its soft stance and orientation, the Liberal Oromo Political Camp unwittingly provided cover for the atrocities of the regime practically shielding it from the public backlash that would have ensued. In doing so, it actively suppressed a much needed civic as well as military push back that could have altered the path to what turned out to be outright Dictatorship now. Effectively pocketing the keys and levers of the #OromoProtests facilitated by uncritical adoption of him as the perceived leader of the entire movement; Jawar and leaders with him vacated any other actors from effectively mobilizing the people in a different direction that could have shifted the direction of the popular movement for democracy, if not avert all carnage against Oromos that is underway today. It can be plausibly argued that the assassination of #HaacaaluuHundeessaa himself wouldn’t have been instrumentalized by the regime, had such civic uprising occurred prior to June 29th when it happened.
The complicity of Oromo Activism, Public Political Thought and Media
Although this Liberal Oromo Political Camp, virtually headed by Jawar Mohammed and in opposition to a more stringent and conservative approach by OLA/OLF, exclusively advocated for the exercise of soft power in its interaction with Abiy’s regime, it was further aided by other actors. Other members of the general political formation, encompassing activism, advocacy, and political analysis helped consolidate Abiy’s power through a remarkably sustained vote of confidence throughout the two years, up until the assassination of #HaacaaluuHundeessaa. In the exceptional case of those who commenced the campaign for #AbiyMustGo, that move itself lacked teeth to its bite failing to call the mobilization of public opposition as in #OromoProtests against the regime itself. This, perhaps, was also owed to the failure of Jawar Mohammed himself to fall in line with such an approach as the perceived critical leader of the protest movement. Any other entity that didn’t integrate JM into its move would have been a dismal failure in getting the #OromoProtests mobilized without his endorsement. Effectively, therefore, Jawar pocketed #OromoProtests and made its eventual success subject to both his strategic, leadership as well as personal flaws.
Perhaps, another honorable mention in the uncritical and sustained endorsement of Abiy enabling consolidation of his political power would be that of Dr. Awol Allo, a prominent Oromo Scholar and Analyst, who at that time can be seen as part of this soft powered liberal approach, claimed that he was, in fact, the one who nominated the now Dictator Abiy Ahmed, for the Nobel Peace Prize which he won in 2019. Following a much agreed upon, near-unanimous, silent code of conduct, most diaspora based Oromo Political Activists as well as in Oromia, intentionally neglected the resuscitation of Civic Action in the form of protests as well as the call to strengthen the much needed defensive structure of Oromia itself through Armed Military.
To this day, there is no consensus nor a considerable concerted effort to unanimously call for the wielding of hard power by the Oromo Activist and Media landscapes. Armed Struggle remains a topic for sub-structures within the Oromo communities in the diaspora and in Oromia. Particularly, in light of the successful championing of both hard and soft power, both Armed and Political Action, by other players in Ethiopia, the Oromo Camp of Political Activism has yet to take the mantle boldly and publicly and champion it toward the realization of freedom, justice, and democracy in Oromia.
OLA: Effective and Viable Wing of the Oromo Struggle.
In contrast to the Liberal Oromo Political Camp that now has solidly captured the loyalty of the Oromo nation; the Oromo Liberation Army defiantly acted to remain engaged in the politics of Hard Power. It was consistently registered by its leaders throughout the two years that the Armed Self Defense of Oromia, as well as the protections its citizens and people will continue until viable free and fair democratic elections, are held and subsequent self-governance was realized. In tandem, the political wing of the struggle, the OLF, headed by its Chairperson Dawud Ibsa, took the route of peaceful participation in the promised elections, however, without denouncing OLA for its continued Armed presence in Oromia or demanding its disarmament; consistently slating the decision of OLA’s eventual fate to a duly elected future government of Oromia. At this late stage in the game, it is evident, that this, more conservative approach, was a strategically sound and existentially formidable path in contrast to the liberal camp’s soft approach that facilitated the current debacle. Oromo Liberation Army, for the last two years, has been the most accurate wing of the Oromo Struggle for Freedom, Justice and Democracy. However, it has also become the least recognized and supported by the public. For careful observers, this is due to an obvious reason. The rise of Liberal Political Faction that exclusively advocates for #OromoProtests as an effective avenue to realize the aspirations of the Oromo, has, directly and indirectly, weakened the ideological underpinnings and popular base of Armed Struggle itself. A Fund Raising effort for Oromia Media Network /OMN/ would pick up momentum and reach its goal within hours or days; while the call to support OLA usually thrives invisibly the backdrop of its shadow, with far less recognition. This is is not due to the public’s informed decision to withhold or minimize support, but rather for the misguided and miscalculated promises made by players of the liberal politics that forging soft power in the forms of media and diplomacy to be sufficient to realize the promise of reform and democracy in Oromia. It is, perhaps, the most critical of the adverse effects of Liberal Oromo Politics. It has come to weaken the very element of the struggle that can bring its own activistic, diplomatic and civic efforts to its fruition. It sabotages its own success, longevity and safety through its naive and exclusive embracing Soft Power Politics.
OLF and Its Call for Oromia National Transitional Government (ONTG)
On October 14th, the OLF, swiftly and publicly announced for the need for a full-fledged organizational and governmental formation in Oromia which it named the Oromia National Transitional Government (ONTG), that envisages, among others, restoration much needed civilian administration to the State; and the further development of Oromia’s own Defensive Army. In a system where the exercise of Soft Power, has been rendered ineffective, this is a consequential move, particularly, as a critically needed lighthouse that can guide the struggle, as well as a defensive bulwark of the Oromo nation. If this is forged together, and incrementally strengthened, it can be conceived that Oromia will secure the same status as Tigray; whereby the illegal interference of the Federal Center will not prevent from conducting its own elections or running its own self-governing structure. However, this can only be fully realized if the Oromo Nation, that has overwhelmingly fomented the #OromoProtests with its civic and 13 peaceful forms, in the same way, rallies behind it. If the Oromo people can wake up from the ideological and political slumber induced by its Liberal Politicians and Activists for the last two years; it can be made into a force that can not be ignored and has to be reckoned him through concessions by the Federal autocracy and its Neo-Neftenya machinations.
It is to be noted that, at this stage, the greatest danger to restoring and developing Hard Power to Oromo Political Struggle is posed, not by Abiy Ahmed or the imminent Neo- Neftenya threat. The greatest danger lies in the very ideological and Soft Power political discourse that has been championed, and rendered as the only acceptable norm of struggle by Oromo’s own liberal leaders like Jawar Mohammed et al. It can be reliably asserted that he and this camp has inspired so much uncritical following and blind loyalty that the mere advances by OLA/OLF to develop and consolidate its Hard Power to move the struggle forward is being slowed down by none other than staunch followers of these leaders. It is this ongoing thread of self-sabotage in Oromo Politics that the Oromo Nation needs to immediately face and rise above.
The Modus Operandi of Tigray
In Joseph’s Nye’s analysis, the best form of power is the combination of Soft Power and Hard Power, which can be termed Smart Power. Smart Power constitutes the simultaneous orchestration of both Civic and Armed Struggle, both soft and hard power, in a strategically coordinated manner to achieve the common goal of liberation. This happens to be the exact blueprint in political policy and strategics the Conservative Oromo Political Camp, OLF/OLA, in particular, has always championed, including throughout #OromoProtests 2014-2016 as well as the past two years of attempted transition. Ironically, this approach as an effective antidote to the Federal Dictatorship has been demonstrated in current Ethiopian politics with the standoff between Tigray and Abiy’s Regime over the scheduled elections. Through the use of its soft power in its continued advocacy for diplomacies and negotiated settlement, only backed by the Hard Power of Armed Self Defense, Tigray has successfully conducted its elections and continues to protect its interests. It should be noted that this success by Tigray has been lauded as justified by most established Oromo Political Activist and Political figures.
The de facto policy of stigmatizing Armed Resistance by the liberal camp of the Oromo Political as well as activist formation eventually backfired in the most damaging way for the overall Oromo struggle. The major political figures who advocated for that political route landed themselves on the vicious chopping block of the new, now indisputably atrocious autocrat, Abiy Ahmed Ali and his Neo-Neftenya henchmen.
By all measures, the policy of employing Smart Power, an effective, strategic, and simultaneous combination of Soft and Hard Power, has been the policy of OLF-OLA throughout its history, and particularly the last six years. The OLF-OLA claims and vehemently reserves credit for establishing and erecting the very grassroots network of the Qeerroo movement that was the essence of the Peaceful #OromoProtests 2014 – 2016. However, individual figures like JM, for justifiable reasons have increasingly amassed exclusive executive control of that movement, capitalizing on its need for a visible public figurehead, yet only hijacking its most potent caliber and potential and sacrificing it to a failed strategy and a vision blinded by the smokescreen fomented by its Neo- Neftenya rivals that have proven to employ a more formidable and effective scheme. The monopolar and exclusive instrumentalization of Soft Power that the Oromo liberal camp champions eventually weakened and diminished the very promise and actual achievements of the Oromo movement of the last six years itself.
For careful observers and Oromos willing to transcend sentimental attachments to individual figures and their correlating personality cults, there remains still a path to move the cause forward. This can only be more successful, however, if the Oromo nation embraced and supported OLA/ OLF’s or similar initiatives to wield Hard Power for the sake of the struggle with the unanimity and determination it did for #OromoProtests 2014-2018. The public on the ground, particularly, in the homeland, seems, by all measures ready to take that step. It is compelling to argue that such a coordinated shift in strategy by the political, activist, and media leadership in place from Oromia and across the globe, would make victory inevitable and within short-term reach for the sake of Freedom, Justice, and Democracy for Oromia in particular and Ethiopia in general.