INTERVIEW: “I HAVE ALWAYS SAID THAT THERE IS REALLY NO IDEOLOGICAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN OROMO POLITICAL PARTIES” JAWAR MOHAMMED
Jawar Mohammed announced yesterday that the party he will be joining in the run up to the next election will be Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC). But not many details came out of the announcement. Addis Standard’s Ephream Sileshi and Mahlet Fasil caught up with Jawar for the following interview shortly after the news was announced.
Addis Standard: The news that you have joined Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) party is now official. But what does that mean in practical terms? Does that mean you are going to run for a seat in the coming elections representing the party?
Jawar Mohammed: Absolutely.
JM: The party will decide that.
AS: In what capacity did you join OFC?
JM: As a member. As someone who wants to fight with them, who wants to work with them; somebody who wants to contribute, just like any member of the party.
AS: Can you tell us about the renunciation of your US citizenship? Is it completed?
JM: Well, it is a two-part process. One is renunciation. The second is regaining Ethiopian citizenship. I am in between. The process has begun.
AS: You are also the head of a media organization, Oromo Media Network (OMN). Can you be both the head of a media organization and a member of a political party?
[I JOINED OFC] AS SOMEONE WHO WANTS TO FIGHT WITH THEM, WHO WANTS TO WORK WITH THEM; SOMEBODY WHO WANTS TO CONTRIBUTE, JUST LIKE ANY MEMBER OF THE PARTY
JM: As an ordinary member you can, but for all intended purposes since we want the media to remain impartial as far as internal Oromo politics is concerned, I have decided to resign from the leadership and we are in the process of handing it over to a new management team. We have been working on this for the last two months. Girma Gutema will replace me as the incoming Executive Director of OMN and Dejene Gutema will remain the editor-in-chief.
AS: We understand that OFC is talking about unveiling a new party program. Do you have a hand in that?
JM: I have been working with them for a long time. I have known the chairman for almost 16 years, known much of their senior and mid-level leadership. As someone who was involved in mobilizing and strategizing the protest, I worked with them when the party was engaged in non-violent resistance alongside the anti-government protests. I have a long history of working with them. We have been comrades and this is simply really a formality.
AS: But what exactly is your hand in the new party program? If so, have you fundamentally changed its programs?
JM: We have been working on different things together. Remember OFC chairman [Professor Merera Gudina] and myself were actually charged under the same criminal charges back in 2016. When both Merera and his deputy Bekele Gerba left jail Bekele came to the U.S. whereas Professor Merera and the others went to Germany and other places in Europe. We started to have a series of discussions about the current election since then. So, me, as an outsider, an advisor and a supporter, and them as party leaders have been working very closely. We will unveil a program; we will unveil a strategy not only for OFC but for the federalist bloc in the upcoming election. We have been working on a lot of coalition building, campaign strategy, communication strategy and policy issues, among many.
AS: What is the nexus between your politics and beliefs and that of OFC’s?
JM: We are both federalists, if you want to be specific. But I have always said that there is really no ideological difference between Oromo political parties. Not even much of a strategic difference. It is just tactical difference. The Oromo question is very clear. The Oromo objective is very clear. It boils down to self-rule, which can be translated into cultural, political and economic autonomy, having full ownership over the wealth God has given us, being proud and developing our culture, not being forced to assimilate and also being able to govern our home region by a government elected by the Oromo people. That’s OFC’s policy, that’s OLF’s policy, that’s every Oromo organization’s policy. I call it the Oromo policy. I have always said Oromo is my party because to me the difference between OFC and OLF or any other Oromo party is just insignificant, it is non-existent.
AS: And yet many parties do exist. They see themselves as separate from each other, and in fact some of them have a leadership and membership from mostly one part of Oromia. Isn’t this an indication that it is time for a grand coalition?
JM: I think all of them have members from all over the country. Maybe, largely to one side or another. If you take the difference between OLF and OFC, for example, the difference was the means, not the end. OLF was engaged in armed struggle, OFC was engaged in non-violent struggle. Even back then there was this overlapping membership whereby OFC members used to be arrested and charged for being alleged members of OLF. So, we don’t have much of ideological and membership differences. And recently they are working to narrow their small differences and I think we will have some good news in the coming weeks before the election and surely after the election there will be much more development.
OUR PARTIES HAVE TO HAVE MEMBERS IN ALL 180 ELECTORAL DISTRICTS WHERE WE WILL COMPETE AND EVEN BEYOND. OFC IS A NATIONAL PARTY
AS: Speaking of working to narrow differences, one of the areas is said to be a discussion on mapping electoral districts. OFC’s stronghold for example is in central and western Oromia. Is that something you will set out to change through talks?
JM: Our parties have to have members in all 180 electoral districts where we will compete and even beyond. OFC is a national party, it’s not a regional party. It has members in Gambella, in Benishangul, in Harari, in Somali, in Amhara regions and so on. So, it has to strengthen its organizational reach, not only across Oromia, but across Ethiopia. In fact, we would like to do much more. When I was in the diaspora I built over 67 chapters in 67 cities. We want to replicate that by creating chapters for OFC across the diaspora. We want to mobilize the diaspora not only to support the party but to engage in our politics constructively.
AS: But isn’t this approach that has given birth to fear among Oromos that votes might be split among Oromo parties giving advantage to parties that wouldn’t otherwise have a chance unfounded?
IN AREAS WHERE COMPETITION COULD JEOPARDIZE PEACE, THERE HAS TO BE COMPROMISE AMONG THESE PARTIES SO THEY DON’T COMPETE, THEY DON’T RUN AGAINST EACH OTHER
JM: It is a real fear. But we are not ignorant of and oblivious to these problems. We’ve been working on how to solve these kinds of problems. Two issues are very important for this election. One, the election has to be peaceful. As this is the first time we are going to engage in, hopefully, a free and fair election in which the public and the party and their candidates are not well experienced. Second, we have to make sure we go very carefully. That means we have to prioritize consensus over competition as much as possible. That’s why we created the Oromo Leadership Council; that’s its end result. Also there has been regular discussions and negotiations among the leadership of the political parties. That has to go down to the zonal and district levels to ensure that first the electoral campaigns don’t lead to conflict among supporters of different parties. That’s very important. Second, to avoid wastage of votes. We have mapped all the districts; we have been working on it. In areas where competition could jeopardize peace, there has to be compromise among these parties so they don’t compete, they don’t run against each other. They have to coordinate and combine their votes. Quite common across the world, and we have been working on that. So, the concern is right and legitimate but we are on the right path to address these concerns.
AS: You mentioned the Oromo Leadership Council. How is it going to be positioned going into the coming elections? How are you, your party and other members of the council going to utilize it to the benefit of ensuring the election is conducted smoothly?
JM: I think it is very important to understand what this council really is about. It is where the political party leaders, and some senior political leaders of the Oromo, come together to dwell on important matters that concern our regional state as well as the federal government. We discuss about security, how to ensure competition and on how activities of our political parties do not jeopardize security. So, we discuss on how issues of policy, issues of election and other issues of our interests are preserved and protected. The council is chaired by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and chairmen of all of the parties do attend it, myself and other influential personalities such as Lencho Leta, Galasa Dilbo, Dima Negewo also attend it. The meetings are quite productive. Currently we are focusing primarily on issues of security, on problems of conflict in the western part of the country as well as some of the instabilities. We discuss the internal problems of the Oromos and Oromia as well as our relationship with different communities. For example, coordinating the recent meeting between Amhara and Oromos elites is an outcome of these discussions. We meet every two weeks or so, and it will continue. Eventually, it will have a positive effect on the election. But it is not a coalition. It is very important to differentiate. It is not a coalition where ‘Gaaddisaa’ becomes an umbrella for an election campaign. No. It is a forum, a closed discussion forum, where the key players come together to discuss, debate and coordinate their actions to maximize security as well as political gain.
AS: Should we expect a coalition going forward though? There are talks of possible coalition between at least three main Oromo parties.
JM. Sure. Not from the forum though. That facilitates to bargain, to network, to negotiate. Coalitions do come out of it but not necessarily as part of it.
AS: In a recent interview with Addis Standard Dawud Ibsa of the OLF talked about possible alliances with other Oromo political parties. As a member of OFC, do you see such coalition between OFC and OLF happening anytime soon?
JM: Very soon. There will be coalitions at regional levels, not only in Oromia. The way it is going to work is, in the region there are different parties and they have to form a coalition in their own region and at the federal level. Negotiation is underway right now for these coalitions at both levels. And soon within weeks we expect something to come out of these negotiations. As time is of essence right now – the deadline is looming, so definitely there will be coalitions at regional levels and federal level.
AS: At the federal level, how is OFC going to handle being a member of Medrek at the same time with being a part of these coalitions then?
JM: That’s technical. If there is a will, there is a way. We are talking about highly experienced politicians who have done deals, who have created coalitions under the repressive EPRDF regime. Today, under a better political environment, they will definitely find a way. I find that is only a mere technicality, not an issue.
BARGAIN HAPPENS EVERY DAY. IT HAPPENS BEFORE AND AFTER THE ELECTION. THERE IS A POSSIBILITY, AND AN IMPORTANT ONE, WHICH IS PRE-ELECTION COALITION FORMATION WHICH AIMS TO WIN THE ELECTION BY MAXIMIZING THE EFFICIENCY OF YOUR RESOURCE AND BY PULLING VOTES TOGETHER
AS: In various interviews, you speak about power sharing both at the regional and national levels. Is that something you want to bargain on before creating these coalitions or a deal you want to strike after the election happens?
JM: Bargain happens every day. It happens before and after the election. There is a possibility, and an important one, which is pre-election coalition formation which aims to win the election by maximizing the efficiency of your resource and by pulling votes together. The other is post-election coalition which is governing coalition. First you should make it clear that whichever way you are going to go is very clear. You have to know the law and you have to devise strategy around the law. There will be bargain now, after the campaign starts and after the election and so the door is open for all possibilities.
AS: Finally, would you start to bridge differences which reportedly exist between the leaders of OFC, Professor Merera Gudina and Bekele Gerba?
JM: There is no difference between them. Where does this come from?
AS: Reports on this have been surfacing for some time now.
JM: It’s [false]. These are two of the closest people to me. I have never seen a difference between them. Bekele looks at Merera as a father. I have seen leaders together, I haven’t seen two leaders who are so close and you sometimes forget whether they are actually chairman and deputy. I always see them as a father and son and they have a father and son relationship. But I have really never seen a difference between them. Of course there are people who want to split them up. Whenever there are two Oromo leaders together, there is always rumors about this kind of stuff. But between Bekele and Merera, it is pure wishful thinking. AS