Diplomatic activities by Oromos in diaspora: Problems and Perspectives

Diplomatic activities by Oromos in diaspora: Problems and Perspectives

Diplomatic activities by Oromos in diaspora: Problems and Perspectives

Diplomatic activities by Oromos in diaspora: Problems and perspectives
aide memoire
by: Bayisa Wak-Woya[1]

This DRAFT aide memoire is prepared and shared with Oromo Political Organizations.



(Ayyaantuu) Diplomacy has always been part of human history since the emergence of states. It is a conduct of relations between States/Nations, otherwise known as subjects of international law, both in peace and at times of conflicts and wars. Diplomacy has been practiced in different forms, the main ones being political and humanitarian. Another often used version is what is usually referred to as public diplomacy. Public International law also recognizes the rights of non-state entities (also subjects of international law) to practice diplomacy in their relationship with State(s) and other non-state actors. The Oromo political organizations diplomatic activities fall under this category.

Diplomacy is an art and it should be learned. The practice that “anyone” can be a diplomat is a totally wrong perception. True, anybody can become a diplomat by learning the art of it the hard way (on-the-job training) and after causing damages to the cause itself, but in the case of Oromos in diaspora, there is no need to go through that unnecessary path, because Oromo nation is not short of experts in the field. It is just a matter of identifying and tasking them.

Political Diplomacy

Here I am not attempting to give scientific definition to political diplomacy as such. We can use the term for our current purpose only and to make it easier for our basic understanding of the subject matter. It has no meaning other than that it implies inter-governmental relationship and other relationship between subjects of international law. For the States, it means among others, systematic meetings not only to discuss friendly relationships but also to negotiate matters of peace and war as well as economic ties. For our purposes, it means, among other things, meeting with government officials and members of parliament or Congress, addressing the parliament or the Congressional Committees to enlighten them on problems related to Oromo people and to solicit support in all forms.

Humanitarian Diplomacy:

Again, this is not a scientific term, hence my definition here, is not scientific either. I am using it simply to make it easier for the wider Oromo community to understand it better. It is practiced, for example, in war and conflict situations where subjects of international law controlling certain territory are asked to grant access to a Third Party to deliver humanitarian assistance or to evacuate civilians from besieged locations. For our purposes, it means, among others, meeting the material needs of Oromos, for example, assisting Oromos;

victims of the TPLF regime – including political prisoners, assisting (financially) those in need of medical care because of wounds sustained during demonstrations; families who lost bread winners i.e. heads of families killed by the regime; and,
identifying and assisting (both financially and legally) Oromos who are victims of human trafficking and those in legal limbo in asylum countries;
Increasing awareness of the international community regarding the plight of Oromos with the objective of widening the circles of support to raise funds or to welcome Oromo asylum seekers and refugees etc.
Public Diplomacy

There is another term called public diplomacy, often used by states in conflictual situations where the civic society from both sides is engaged in bridging existing gaps between two or more nations through joint activities of civilian nature. For example, there is one active public diplomacy going on between Ethiopian and the people of Egypt, involving non-political but active members of the civic society from both sides. It is meant to diffuse the tension between the two countries which resulted from the ongoing construction of Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia. This type of diplomacy normally fits into the overall diplomatic activity of the actors and normally takes place parallel to the political diplomacy. In our case, it is ideal if this part of diplomacy is tasked to the civic society to enlighten respective communities on the plight of the Oromo people.

Diplomacy and Oromos in diaspora – problems

The Oromos in diaspora, despite their academic excellence and exposure to the way politics are defined and work in the Western democratic world, never accorded diplomacy a serious thought. For many years, neither Oromo individual activists nor Oromo political organizations thought it important for example, to join the body politics of the respective host countries of the West where they reside despite the fact that in those days, most native political organizations in these Western Countries, (especially the left oriented ones), were very eager to include Africans in the ranks of their party structure. Oromos were content with sharing their grievances with fellow Oromos and as and when the situation back home gets worse, they were equally happy to organize demonstrations and march to the parliaments or selected ministerial offices of their respective countries of residences to hand over letters of concern to the government, to the security guards of these government offices. No one knows if the security guards passed the envelopes over to the addressee in the parliament. The Oromos could have been in the parliament itself as recipient of these envelopes had they been active and involved in local politics of the respective host communities. They also seem not to use the good offices of their respective MPs and Congressmen in the respective parliaments despite the fact that every now and then the diaspora Oromos actively participate in the periodic national parliamentary elections. As constituencies, they had all the rights to demand from their respective representatives to raise voices of support and concern at the respective legislative bodies.

This self-imposed limitations in diplomatic activities and non-involvement in the body politics of the host communities seem to emanate from the fact that most Oromos in diaspora were hoping to return to Ethiopia and that their stay abroad was a temporary one. Hence, they did not find it necessary to contemplate local integration or interacting with the civic society and political organizations of the host country. The same absence of interaction with other Ethiopian activists and multi-national Organizations also observed. With the exception of few occasions that occurred during late 60s and early 70s, engaging in discussion with members of non-Oromo communities, Ethiopian associations and mass movements (for ex. Ethiopian Students Unions in Europe and the USA) were also considered betrayal of the Oromo cause. In short, Oromos in diaspora preferred preaching to the converted.

While the problem of addressing our political problems to the authorities and the civic society of the host countries continue to prevail, we are compounded yet by another major problem of humanitarian nature, this time, the provision of international protection for the hundreds of thousands of Oromos who are seeking asylum in Africa and elsewhere. Of recent and especially since the assumption of political power by TPLF, we are observing that more and more Oromo people are leaving the country, both legally and illegally to find sanctuary elsewhere. Those who leave the country using proper exit channels normally do reach their destination with relative ease. Complications start, however, when they initiate the processes of changing their original visa status to another one. The problem of those who leave the country illegally and in most cases, without proper travel documents, however, starts right from the beginning. Not only entering a foreign country without proper travel document but to leave the country itself is full of hurdles. On the way to their planned or transit destinations, they may be abused by human traffickers, bandits and in some places even by law enforcement officials of both Ethiopia and the authorities of the country of destination. Female asylum seekers and un-accompanied minors are the most vulnerable. Unlike in the “good old days”, submitting asylum claims to the authorities of most asylum countries is no more an easy process because:

the traditional asylum countries, that used to understand the political situation in Ethiopia and subsequently sympathetic to the cause of the asylum seekers, have become less sensitive to the cause but more sensitive about their national security especially after the September 11 terrorist attack in New York;
the Oromo issue has been on the radar screen of the international community for nearly half a century now and the immigration officers of countries of asylum who were dealing with the same issue for as many years are showing fatigue and do not attach importance to the claims of Oromo asylum seekers anymore. They find it easier to reject their asylum claims as a result of which thousands of Oromo asylum seekers found themselves in legal limbo and precarious situation – living a life of insecurity and perpetual uncertainty and danger of being deported back to Ethiopia; and,
The Ethiopian government, despite its gross violations of the rights of citizens, enjoys good relationship with most of the major asylum countries, hence, it is very difficult for asylum seekers to substantiate their persecution claims and to be granted refugee status. These asylum countries, due to the good relationship they enjoy with the Ethiopian government, tend to reject the persecution claims submitted by Oromo asylum seekers.
Although few Oromo human rights activists and non-Oromo civic associations were making attempts to bring this problem to the attention of the international community, Oromo political organizations hardly thought of having a coordinated approach to this problem through a unique diplomatic body.

On the other hand, the current situation in Ethiopia in general and that of Oromia in particular, compels us, Oromos in diaspora in general and the Political organizations in particular, to design a new diplomatic approach if we have to contribute to the efforts of the uprising Oromo people in achieving its goal and to meet the acute need of Oromo asylum seekers. We are better placed to do just that, for a simple reason that;

we are operating in a society where we can operate freely and organize ourselves in a way that suits us to bring the Oromo case to the attention of the international community; and,
we have access to those policy and decision makers of Western powers, if only we properly design our course of action and activities. In most cases we are constituencies, hence, we have a leverage to apply and to demand from our respective representatives what we think is legitimate.
What has been done so far?

Neither our political organizations nor the civic society activists took the initiative to explore the possibilities of being involved in local politics with the view to one day becoming member of the body politics of the respective host countries. They never give it a thought of learning, for example, from the Somalis, relatively new comers to the field, who by now managed to penetrate the system and are becoming active members of the society and the body politics of their respective countries of residence. The tragedy is that we seem to pass on this backward thinking to our second generation and today, almost half a century later, since the first generation of Oromos landed in the West, hardly any Oromo (of the second generation) become member of a congress in the USA or Members of parliament (MPs) in Europe or Australia. Back home, we are brought up with the mentality where academic success is measured by our children specializing in medicine or engineering whereas social science, especially political science were given lesser importance. The tragedy is that we passed this outdated belief to our children and that, regardless of the fact they are born and raised in the free world, we hardly granted them the choice to become politicians. Similar to what our parents did for us or to us, we also want our children to become engineers and doctors of medicine and nothing else. The disappointing outcome is that, we continue being missed out of the body politics of our host countries, where we could have been in a better position to draw the attention of policy/decision makers of our host countries to understand the Oromo cause.

It should be recognized that Oromo political organizations have instituted external relations positons within their respective organizations, which in most of the cases, and unfortunately, are very passive because;

the doors to the Western political power, as I said above, is becoming more and more inaccessible; and,
the individuals who are assigned to the post are given that responsibility not necessarily because of their knowledge of and experience in diplomacy but because of allegiance to the political organization they represent.
This perpetual shortcoming is further complicated by the failure of Oromo political organizations and the civic society in diaspora to create a Central/unified Coordination body which could have represented the Oromo people at the International fora. Because of their very existence as “independent” Oromo political organizations, they opted to send their respective “externals relations representatives” to meet with government officials of different countries although the theme of their concern has always been one and the same. The meetings are erratic, un-coordinated and in most cases, the interlocutors are not necessarily the ones having the decision making capacity or ability to influence the decision/policy making process of the host government. The same interlocutors also seem to be targeted for several times which in the end resulted in, our “genuine” concerns becoming routine and irrelevant in the eyes of the official which had been listening to us complaining about the same thing for two generations now, with no change neither in our approach nor in the situation in the country.

Why do we need diplomacy? Do we need the help of international community?

The answer is an outright YES! There is no way we can achieve our goal of freedom of our people without using diplomacy as a tool for a simple reason that we do live in an inter-woven global society called the international community which sets standards regarding how States and non-state actors should interact with their neighbors or adversaries or how to become its “civilized” member. In other words, we are duty bound to respect these existing standards and norms of behavior although we were not involved in designing them. Deviation from these standards and norms are counterproductive for achieving our goals because the international community, will stand on our way. We do need the support not only of our immediate neighboring states but states that are even very far away from Oromia because, they will anyway find us at the global association called the “international community”. If they conclude that we deviated from the standards that are already set by them, there is a danger that they may “sanction” us.

Our main adversary, the Ethiopian government, as a sovereign state, and as an equal partner in this community, making it difficult for us, “the outsiders” to knock at the doors of the international community let alone appearing on their forum. TPLF is better placed to convince its partners, the international community, that Oromo political organizations are nothing more than “terrorists” and that they should not be invited to their dining table. On the other hand, Oromo political organizations and activists for very long time believed that the international community “is fully aware of our protracted problems and the essence of our just cause”, hence did not see the need for an intensified and coordinated diplomatic interventions. This is a very innocent approach, to say the least. Our cause is as just as the Palestinians, the Rohingas in Myanmar, and the Shiites in the case of Bahrain or blacks in Mauritania. Hence, the assumption that the international community understands our cause and gives it more weight should be removed from our minds. It does not mean however, that we should not make serious diplomatic efforts to draw the attention of the authorities of the Western Countries to our cause because there is always an overlapping interest somewhere in that arc of relationship between us and them which the Oromo diplomats should identify and make effective and timely use of them. That is the beauty of diplomacy – to locate that overlapping/coinciding interest of both parties and capitalize on it.

We also need the support of the international community because, the regime which we are fighting against is not only a friend to most of them but also sits with them, as equal partner, in the United Nations (sometime even at the Security Council, a body which decides on global Peace and War, or as member in the UN Human Rights Council another body which is setting standards and sets of “codes of conducts” for States relationship with their respective citizens) as an equal and dignified member. So it is incumbent on us to multiply our efforts not only to knock at the doors of these institutions but also to be in the Conference hall itself to present our case. It is an uphill battle, demanding and at times frustrating but we have no choice except facing it.

Fortunately, not all States treat the TPLF government favorably. Some, consider Ethiopia an ally and friend whereas some are adjusting their relationship depending on situations. Still some consider her an enemy State. It is very important to always remember that inter-governmental relationship most of the time depends on the type of government which is ruling a given country at a given time. That is why some States that are friendly to Ethiopia at one time can become enemies at another time. Historical ties between States and relationship between governments can never be permanent. Diplomacy is about identifying these finesse and to act upon them to gain support for our cause taking advantage of for example, souring relationship of some states with the TPLF regime at a given time.

Why one Coordinating body (Council)?

It has been almost half a century since Oromo political organizations started diplomatic campaign, albeit at low level and un-coordinated, to promote the Oromo cause, but the results achieved so far are not that impressive. This is not necessarily because of the failure by the Organizations (although that has a role to play) but mainly because of the changing global political climate and the never changing situation in Ethiopia which created fatigue among the Western countries. On the other hand, even those States that still express interest and concern over our issues are not happy with the way we handle our diplomatic activity. One and the same official in Congress or the European Union is seen receiving different delegations from different Oromo political originations who are pleading about the same thing over and over again. And that is confusing for the interlocutors to say the least. Had Oromo political organizations been smart enough, after observing this disinterest from our Western interlocutors, they should have agreed among themselves to create a unified body – diplomatic coordinating council – which could have represented and continue to represent the interest of Oromo nation. So it is imperative and timely that we embark on a new undertaking of creating a Coordination Body (Diplomatic Council) that will be in charge of all diplomatic activities on behalf of the Oromo nation.

How to identify officials to serve in the Council?

To achieve our goals in effective and efficient manner, and to constitute members of the Diplomatic Council, we may contemplate two approaches: one, to identify individuals who can serve in the Political diplomatic wing of the Council, and second, to identify those who may serve in the Humanitarian wing of the Council. To that end, concerted efforts should be made to identify among Oromos in diaspora, individuals with previous experience in diplomacy, both as representative of State, for example former ambassadors, Senior diplomats from international organizations, individuals with academic background in international relations/law, experts in international conflict management and people who enjoy close ties with Western and African governments because of ether their past positions in the Ethiopian government or friendly relationship they maintained from their student time.

Regarding identification of potential members for the Humanitarian Council, maximum effort should be made to first audit the works of the existing Oromos civic society initiatives like OSG and MTA, and see if they can be taken as the source to identify experts from the ranks of their current members or supporters. In any case, any effort to identify potential members for the Humanitarian Council should be done in close cooperation with the above Oromo civic society initiatives and assessing their strengths and weaknesses.

There are many ways of identifying such individual Oromos, potential members of the Council, but for the purpose of efficiency and expediency, I can suggest the following two options:

A “head-hunting” team shall be selected (head-hunters will be created in close consultation between the political organizations and the Civic society, media and human rights activists). Once constituted, the headhunters will be tasked to compile list of individual Oromos who fulfill the required criteria (academic background in related subjects, diplomatic training and/or experience) and share it with the Political Organizations to select (or vote for) the most suitable (in their view) individuals for the purpose. To maintain impartiality, these selected individuals, preferably should not be members of any of the Political Organizations. Once the size of the Council is decided (not to be more than five in my view), those who got more vote will form the Council; or,
The political organizations will be asked to submit list of names of individuals fulfilling the pre-prepared criteria and share it with “head-hunters” to identify the top rated ones for formation of the Council. Again, the principle of non-membership in any of the Oromo political Organizations should be maintained.
How the Council works?

The Council, composed of two sections, (Political and Humanitarian Diplomacy) will function as one body, neutral and non-partisan. Members shall meet and receive/share information with Oromo political organizations and the Civic Society as necessary. It will be the sole diplomatic representative of the Oromo people, operating in diaspora although, individual political Organizations and the NGOs as well as Human Rights activists shall retain their rights to engage, bilaterally or multi-laterally, their traditional counterparts while dealing with specific issues limited to the activities of the individual Organization, without interfering in the works of the Council.

What should be done – a way forward:

In addition to representing the Oromo nation at the international fora, another major task of the Diplomatic Council shall be designing ways and methods for diaspora Oromos to become active in body politics and civic society activities of their respective host countries. The project design shall also include a policy (pedagogic / coaching plan) to ensure that younger generation are encouraged to be engaged in local politics with the view that one day, they will become members of Congress or Parliament. As I have said above, it would have been easier to present our case and get the right attention had we been MPs or members of the Congress ourselves, which unfortunately, is not the case now. But that is achievable in the future if only the Council properly plans for it and encourage our younger generation to aim for that.


Our adversary, The Ethiopian government, has under its disposal a heavy diplomatic machinery which has been in place for centuries. It is officially represented everywhere enjoying unhindered and direct access to the policy and decision makers of Western governments and the international community. To the contrary, we are the “outsiders” and it is not that easy to get in, especially if the door is closed and those inside are busy dealing with something “more important” for themselves such as “global terrorism” and do not have time to listen to us. Not an easy undertaking but achievable if a wise plan is put in place by the Council.


Geneva, 30 January, 2016

(1) The author is a former United Nations official, a diplomat residing in Geneva, Switzerland. Currently he is serving as the Executive Director of Global Refugee and Migration Council – a non-profit Organization dedicated to promote the need for the provision of international protection of asylum seekers and refugees.