Deciphering Lemma Megersa’s Speech in Bahir Dar
By Caala Ibsa Oromo
In the middle of mass protests and deepening crisis in Oromia, Lemma Megersa, President of the Oromia Regional National State, traveled to Bahir Dar on November 4, 2017 with elders and Oromo People’s Democratic Organization’s (OPDO’s) leadership team to deliver a conciliatory speech on the relationship between the Amhara and the Oromo, the two largest national groups in Ethiopia. He was appointed president late last year to manage the protests in Oromia when his predecessor, Muktar Kedir, was unable to control the situation. Muktar was blamed on both sides — by the TPLF leaders and the Oromo people — for his feebleness and unwavering loyalty to the brutal regime, respectively. As his replacement, Lemma was expected to be a strong leader who could stabilize the situation either with a firm hand or soft speeches. Shortly after assuming power, he made some speeches in which he criticized the excesses of the TPLF and provided some hope for the protesting Oromo youth. Some of his public speeches, indeed, suggested that he had the fortitude to stand up to his bosses. Lately, even some activists in the Diaspora have started to believe in Lemma’s rhetoric and advocated for giving him some space to deliver on his promises. But many Oromos remained skeptical. So far, the speech that Lemma Megersa delivered in Bahir Dar on November 4 tends to prove that the skeptics have been right.
First, there is no problem in organizing or attending a meeting of the two largest population groups in Ethiopia. In fact, more conferences should have taken place earlier between the two peoples to address their mutual concerns. But the timing and the agenda for this meeting are suspect because the participants did not seriously address the current crises facing both peoples and others in Ethiopia. Instead, the conference was intended to boost the morale of the regional leaders and cover the vulnerabilities of the EPDRF regime — including those of the TPLF (against whom some believe the meeting was organized). The satisfaction of all EPRDF leaders by the outcome of the conference gives credence to the suspicion of skeptics that the event was, after all, a ploy by the TPLF to divert attention from the mass protests, the conflict along the Oromo-Somali border, and the displacement of thousands of citizens.
Second, Lemma Megersa’s speech at the conference is puzzling at least for those who thought he would criticize the TPLF as did earlier. Those who had never believed him, despite his earlier rhetoric, got additional confirmation from the speech that he was deeply committed to saving the EPRDF and Ethiopian unity. But who is Lemma Megarsa? What did he say at the Bahir Dar conference, and why? Although he worked as a middle-level OPDO official for more than two decades and served as a Speaker of the Oromia Parliament (Caffee), there is not much public record on his actions until he was appointed as president of Oromia regional state on October 23, 2016. He joined the EPRDF in the early 1990s as a local political agent. But early on, he was recruited as an intelligence officer and received training on the job. Some suggest that he was one of those young agents picked by the late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, as a promising future leader. Apparently, the late Prime Minister believed Lemma would remain a loyal agent and facilitate the TPLF rule in Oromia. In this case, versatility is part of an intelligence agent’s training and job description. Then, is Lemma’s latest posturing as a supporter of the Oromo protests genuine or fake? After his Bahir Dar speech, critics would definitely say the latter is the case. For this reason, let us look at his speech carefully.
Although, as President of Oromia regional state, Lemma should have been very much concerned about the crisis on the eastern border, the displacement of thousands of citizens, and the mass protests throughout the State, his speech focused on the relationship between the Amhara and the Oromo. He dwelt on the historic ties between the two peoples and argued that Ethiopiawinet (Ethiopianness) is an “addiction” that resides in an individual’s heart; that Ethiopians are like ‘sergegna teff,’ mixed together and difficult to separate; they defended the country together and shed their blood on the same soil and buried on the same ground. He argued that the worst events in the past should be kept on record for historical reasons, but should not hinder our relationships in the future. Although he emphasized the positive common experiences of all Ethiopians, he never mentioned what one group (the Amhara and TPLF) did to the other (the Oromo and others) in the past and the present, or the root causes of the current Oromo protests and the grievances of ordinary people.
The Oromo people are already very familiar with the usual Ethiopianist rhetoric. They are accustomed to the call for Ethiopian unity selectively by Abyssinian leaders when they wanted the Oromo to defend the country. Ethiopianists often invoke intermarriages and inter-ethnic ties when it served their needs. But the injustices that millions of Oromos suffered in the late nineteenth century conquest, the dispossession and evictions from their lands for over a century, the brutal treatment — imprisonments, tortures, deaths and exile — they are still experiencing cannot be ignored causally, particularly, by someone who claims to be representing the people. In his speech, Lemma sounded more like some Abyssinian officials, generations ago or a few Ethiopianist intellectuals who still dream of resurrecting the imperial past. In his fervent appeal or utter flattery of the Amhara in the audience, he seems to have forgotten he (at least nominally) is representing the Oromo people. Even some reasonable Amhara in the audience should have noticed his shameless flattery. But why did he deliver such a speech?
As a leader, Lemma is still an enigma. For an observer, it is difficult to say what drives him to make contradictory public statements. One can only speculate the real motives behind his speech in Bahir Dar. Here are some of them. First, he is simply flattering the Amhara to gain their support for a genuine anti-TPLF campaign. Probably, he wanted to assure them that they have nothing to fear from the Oromo if they joined the protests against the TPLF. The unity of the two majority populations is beneficial to stabilize the situation and create peace in the region. Although his flattery is too obvious, this has an element of statesmanship. Second, he is personally vulnerable after criticizing the TPLF; he probably fears they will hold him accountable for the Oromo protests. In this case, his speech can be interpreted as a search for a cover, a buffer zone, in case the TPLF decided to remove him from power. Third, with deepening crises in Ethiopia and no unifying figure to save the EPRDF or play the role that Meles Zenawi played in the past, Lemma is building his profile to be future Prime Minister. Fourth, as indicated in his speech, maybe he is genuinely an Ethiopianist who has deep emotional feelings for the unity of the country.
At any rate, none of these reasons makes him an Oromo nationalist that he occasionally pretends to be or some activists in Diaspora believe he is. In fact, the tone of his speech makes him the most dangerous opponent of Oromo freedom. In his speech, he has totally failed to acknowledge the fact that it was Oromo nationalism that created the opportunity to be the president of Oromia. Indirectly, he is a beneficiary of the Oromo struggle for autonomy. However, Lemma laments the emergence of even Oromo religious and community organizations. He argued that the appearance of ethnic-based organizations is eroding the feeling of Ethiopian national unity. Then, where does he want to lead the Oromo, back to imperial days? One would only hope that he is not serious in turning back the tide of Oromo nationalism. In case he insists to do so, the Oromo need to scrutinize his actions carefully and challenge him before he does more harm to Oromo national movement.