Leencho Lata: The Mixed Legacy we have to deal with: Part I

  • What political implications, both historically and at present does Leencho Lata’s ODF represent in Ethiopia?
  • What have ODF and its previous cause as OLF have to contributed to the Oromo cause and Oromo nationalism?
  • What prospect can we see as they come home? Do others follow the path?
  • Business as usual or a new dawn by these veteran politicians?
  • Do they deserve any credit or should they face justice for crime they allegedly committed?

Ethiothinkthank.com editor Mengistu D. Assefa touches on these pressing issues and urges us to embark on the task most challenging about history, which is learning from it.

There are reasonably conflicting reactions to ODF’s coming to Ethiopia to continue peaceful struggle. That is mainly due to the mixed legacy the leaders of ODF left in Ethiopian political history. Before forming ODF, this team which contains notable political figures such as Leencho Lata, a controversial Oromo politician and founder of the Oromo Liberation Front and Dima Negewo, a man from the same token who was once a Minister if Communications during the Transitional Government of Ethiopia.

Photo (Left to Right): Herman J. Cohen, Meles Zenawi, Leencho Lata & Isayas Afworki

The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was one of the rebel groups who had fought the Dergue regime together with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), and Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and finally toppled Mengistu Hailemariam’s dictatorship. Both Leencho Lata and Dima Negewo are among the masterminds of the current Ethiopian ethnolinguistic federal system. After a sore rift with the TPLF on how to move forward, OLF was ousted since the former created satellite parties which practically would advance its hegemonic aspirations of which Oromo People’s Democratic Party was its hand in “OLF’s Oromia” and hence cut off the OLF from its political lifeline (which is the Oromo people). This was a truly historic mistake (how much ever it might have been deliberately executed), even attested to by TPLF’s own founding fathers like Aregawi Berhe, Tsadkan Gebretensay (Lt. Gen), and Gebru Asrat on various occasions. It has created at least the following crises.

  1. OLF left the the transitional government and resorted to armed struggle.

Liked it or not Oromo Liberation Front represented the Oromo cause ever since its inception as a grassroot self help organization (Macha and Tulama Self Help Organization). Its main struggle was to see educated, civilized and prosperous Oromo generation. The strong sentiment they sowed into Oromo youth was not just political aspirations but also a doctrine of identity (they call it Sabboonummaa (“pride in nationhood”) or Ormomumma (Oromo-ness) one needs to live by, treasure and cherish against the odds Oromos had to deal with within the Ethiopian empire.

Even the late prime minister Meles Zenawi, who knew OLF very well once reportedly said “scratch an Oromo [even the loyal OPDO], you’d expose the real who, who’s essentially OLF”.

Even the late prime minister Meles Zenawi, who knew OLF very well once reportedly said “scratch an Oromo [even the loyal OPDO], you’d expose the real who, who’s essentially OLF”. Once forwent its peaceful struggle in the Transitional Government, OLF went strong with its colonial thesis which led to many of its wrong sides in its political history in particular and Oromo nationalism in general. Its members reportedly committed killings and displacements of ethnic Amhara in Hararge, Arsi, Ilu Ababora, and Wollega. Nevertheless it remained flagship of Oromo cause, (which I assume it is because of what they believed was and is true for almost all Oromos, albeit not what they are being accused of). The government of Ethiopia branded it terrorist with other three indigenous political parties and two foreign organizations. This weakened its social base in the country as anyone who asked his rights will be suspected of being a member of OLF and consequently arrested, disappeared or killed.

2. Despite their most accurate representation of Oromo cause, OLF failed at least structurally

Due to its repeated attachments to few armed attacks on government officials, the military and at times civilians, OLF lost its structural social base in the country and reaped a bad name for itself as a secessionist, separatist and even criminal among non Oromo Ethiopians. This is partly due to government propaganda against the party.

OLF also revealed its weakness by claiming false attacks on the armies and exaggerating victories over them. Nevertheless, the very nationalism sentiment that OLF had been holding became cultivated in the hearts and minds of Oromo youths (Qeerroos) and bore fruits by uniting Oromos along the same line even when they are worlds apart ideologically. The structural weakness (of OLF) and ideological variance among them led to disintegration of its leadership and departure of its founding leaders including Leencho Lata, its then deputy secretary general.

Over many internal rifts and way of struggle Leencho Lata left OLF together with other senior leaders and founded ODF in 2013, a party which dropped its “independent Oromia” thesis. They announced that the independent oromia thesis is no more useful nor feasible and rather resorted to struggling for Oromia’s cause by democratizing Ethiopia. To this effect they called for negotiations with the government of Ethiopia on various occasions but to no avail.

In 2015 they came to Addis for negotiations but the government told them to leave. The next gesture was successful in Khartoum in November 2017 ( Both the Ethiopian government and the party didn’t disclose the meeting).

On February 06, 2018 Central Committee of Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) called out to Oromo political parties in the country and abroad. In a swift response to the call just a few hours later was Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) who praised the move and expressed its willingness and readiness to work with OPDO. The next similar albeit more vocal statement in demanding of fundamental change to democratize Ethiopia was released by Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) on April 05, 2018. OLF called for negotiation “without any precondition” in the presence of third party.

On May 23, 2018 the high level delegates of ODF led by its president Leencho Lata, arrived in Addis Ababa were received by Abadula Gemeda, the founding father of the “brother-foe” party that sidelined it 26 years ago.

Abadula Gemeda welcoming ODF leaders at Bole International Airport, Addis Ababa

What is the significance anyway?

Many praised the move as a new chapter in Ethiopia’s political history given the government’s promise to reform by broadening the democratic space. Others took to heart as a “dream come true” by looking upon the “brothers at war” for most part of their adult lives at the peril of the constituency they claim to represent, hugging each other. They considered not as just another photo ops of politicians but as a symbol of the effect the Oromo protests and other resistances have brought about by forcing these old politicians to come together. Others hope that these veteran politicians have immense political and security experiences about Ethiopia and the horn of Africa hence useful. This actually holds some real substance.

The other many downplayed its meaning, considered it as a business as usual of an opportunist’s modus operandi of taking advantage of a relatively calm political environment. Others still went farther to demand their detention and bring them to justice for the crime they allegedly committed. This has some palpable substance too.

While we can’t deny the weight these extremes hold, it is a prudence to note that both sides of the arguments are due one of or the combinations of sentimental constructions and deconstructions, conflicting interests over power in Ethiopia and the grave suspicion the non Oromo Ethiopians have about Oromo nationalism have contributed to this contrasting views about ODF’s readiness for negotiations. We can draw some conclusion as follows. While many Oromo nationalists and youths see OLF as a historical phenomenon, not a party per se but a phenomenon which substantiated their nationalism and a vanguard party, others feel betrayed by it and consequently lost too much. Significant non Oromo Ethiopians see OLF as a divisive and vengeful. It has to be underlined that the Oromo cause that has brought all of them to the streets, from all walks of life and all shades of thought, they demanded the due representation they deserve in their country, the very essence, absence of which is the cry of OLF during the transitional government which forced it to exile how much ever foolish it was to do so. Since then OLF, being beyond a party, has represented the suffering the Oromos have experienced even in this regime.

ODF and the future of Ethiopia

ODF’s contribution to the Oromo is insignificant so far if not nil. These leaders are blamed by many Oromos for betraying them by leaving the Transitional Government. They are being blamed for the dysfunction, weakness, disintegration and ineffectiveness of Oromo Liberarion Front and finally leaving it in a mess. They are also responsible for radicalizing Oromo nationalism by fanning the secessionist agenda and consequently deprived Oromos of the civil patriotism they otherwise would felt for Ethiopia they also bled to build. While Oromos were being killed by Ethiopian security forces, they remained seemingly indifferent except for some pressers and media appearances. They lacked clear roadmap towards Ethiopian politics.

These can be summed up as follows.

1. They seemed more concerned about coming home to work with EPRDF while they are less bothered about condemning the brutal actions the Party has been using to quench the public protests.

2. Their detachment from the youth segment both by virtue of their physical absence and their lack of new blood in their leadership and/or members is partly an indicative that they might be far from the real pulse of the millennials’ questions.

One thing that the author of this article applaud is the fact that the peaceful resistances of Ethiopian people in Oromia and Amhara regions has brought a significant change and a new chapter to country’s political atmosphere. Even if the success yet to be sustainably substantiated, the gesture made by the OPDO to embrace the demands of Oromo protests is commendable. This can be explained by repeated call for unity among Oromo people, its introduction of ‘economic revolution’, growing assertive in its push for intraparty democratization of the Coalition, making its regional broadcasting media, Oromia Broadcasting Network relatively free, and crackdown on illicit trades that have been draining the region and many more. Its charismatic young figure and president of the region Lemma Megersa, has become a name on every lip of Ethiopians even beyond his regional constituency. Recently he extended a call to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) come home and join the struggle. He explicitly said that “while one segment of Oromo sits in office and do politics, it is counterproductive if the other segment of this Oromo is in the desert fighting the same cause, so let’s come together”.

It is so ambitious and doesn’t subscribe to the culture of EPRDF, and yet a move to be commended. Yet we have to be cautious and hold our horse not to take us away to an engagement potentially so deceiving. There are many questions we should ask, milliard of criticism we have to give, many ideas to contribute in order to shape, direct, lead and control the current Ethiopian politics. Chain of events should be mirrored against the lens of truth, history should be taken as be learnt from because that is the most difficult to do about history. We have to envision the Ethiopia we all love and proudly call homeland.

  • So, does ODF has the moral and political capital to democratize Ethiopia and then fulfill the demands of its constituency?
  • What about the OLF?
  • What can be done about the Anti Terrorism Proclamation?
  • What about other opposition political parties?
  • Does the ruling party, better known for it’s undemocratic culture and repression of peaceful protests, have the capability to adapt to a seasoned negotiation that will result in a meaningful political gain?
  • Can we chart a new political territory by embracing our diversity, accommodating identity questions while we can at the same time maintain our national unity and territorial integrity?
  • Will it be just domestic agenda or it has more geopolitical and regional implications?
  • What about the superpowers?

In part II and III of this article, I will address these issues. Till then comments, criticisms and recommendations are welcome at

email: servezking@gmail.com

Facebook page Mengistu D. Assefa

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