The Jawar Mohammed I know

The Jawar Mohammed I know

In September, Ethiopia charged prominent politician Jawar Mohammed and 24 other Oromo activists with terrorism.


(awashpost)—The charges, famously announced by the Attorney General’s office in a Facebook post, capped weeks of high-drama at the federal court where the defendants attended a sham pretrial hearing and “witnesses” testified against them from behind the curtain.

The politically motivated charges come as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s regime shows vigorous interest in holding an election whose indefinite postponement precipitated the arrests of Jawar and his co-defendants. None of this is surprising. Ethiopia has been backsliding from promises of reform for more than a year as Abiy amassed unchecked power and sidelined key allies.

Jawar is arguably the country’s most famous political prisoner. I first met Jawar in California when he was a freshman student at Stanford University. I have since watched him grow and blossom into the most consequential, if controversial, politician he has become.

Jawar is certainly fallible. He often acknowledges his imperfections. But he has been unfairly maligned by alt-right Ethiopianists for years. This piece is about the Jawar I know. One thing that’s been constant since Jawar was catapulted into the public spotlight is this: He cares deeply about human rights, democracy, and equality in Ethiopia. 

Jawar’s generally centrist political views have been endlessly caricatured. For example, he is the furthest person from being violent or extremist. He is the last person to promote or partake in acts that could be deemed “terroristic.” 

Jawar spent years studying, thinking about, and promoting nonviolence. In fact, he translated into the Oromo language Gene Sharp’s classic book, From Dictatorship to Democracy, a bible of sorts on nonviolent action.

After completing his undergraduate studies, Jawar moved to Washington, DC, where he interned at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. While in Washington, Jawar, who by that time was already working with and organizing the Oromo youth, expanded his network—reaching across the aisle and befriending the likes of Birhanu Nega; ultra-nationalists like Tamera Negera, and many others who disagreed with his budding Oromo advocacy. 

Tragically, none of these fairly known facts or the decade-long archive of the body of his work—writings and media interviews—could convince Jawar’s detractors of his intentions and political views. That is because, ultimately, he is the product and embodiment of Oromo nationalism which scares them.

While in Washington, Jawar told me that ‘Ethiopianist’ activists and politicians wanted to schmooze with him for two reasons. First, they saw a promise in a young, well-spoken, and open-minded young Oromo leader. They hoped to co-opt and turn him into a “good Oromo.”

A good Oromo is an assimilated, Amharic-speaking, and “cosmopolitan” individual of Oromo descent who eschews ethnic identity, doesn’t challenge the structural imbalances of the State, and espouses a unitary notion of Ethiopia

Second, Jawar, a relative newcomer to Oromo diaspora politics, did what was at the time unthinkable. In his senior year at Stanford, Jawar wrote a now-infamous 19-page essay on the organizational weakness of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), calling on Oromo leaders to make a paradigm shift.

He urged all who profess to care about the welfare of the Oromo to “make the crucial decision and move to Oromia,” and “fight the enemy either in the jungle or in the streets of Oromia.” This was a daring and revolutionary act. He spoke for those of us who were fed up with the infighting and lack of concrete action on the ground, but who feared the wrath of diehard OLF supporters. Indeed, many Oromos misunderstood Jawar’s intentions and were angered by his comments. Jawar and his generation grew up in the 1990s when the deeds of OLF were a subject of resistance songs, literature, and youth activism. Jawar was part of that activism. He did not hate the OLF. He wanted OLF leaders to rise to the occasion and lead.

But his Ethiopianist friends erroneously believed that they found common cause with this dynamic youth leader. They have, for years, tried to portray OLF as the ultimate boogeyman and an anti-Ethiopian separatist movement. Jawar stood his ground. He challenged both sides to focus on his key message: To reorganize and fight, by all means necessary, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)-dominated minority regime in Ethiopia that has made “peaceful revolution impossible.” 

That essay cemented Jawar’s place as a critical voice and commentator on Oromo and Ethiopian affairs. Undeterred by the Oromo criticism and unmoved by the adulation of the alt-right, Jawar continued to speak his mind, write and comment on Ethiopian politics. You may hate his guts or dislike him, but he earned a place where you could no longer ignore him. 

Then came the Dimtsachin Yisema movement by Ethiopian Muslims, protesting against government interference in religious matters. Jawar quickly made connections with the organizers on the ground and in the diaspora. Jawar lent his platform, voice, and spent a lot of time engaging with the community in the diaspora. Once again, the ever-fragile Ethiopianist right, dominated by urban elites, felt uncomfortable with the rising star of a dynamic and vocal young Muslim leader (whom they hoped to co-opt and use to go after Oromo nationalism). He was attacked and demonized for a muff that was grossly taken out of context.

Jawar continued to grow, expanding his horizons and analytical tools. He kept writing and commenting on Ethiopian politics. In 2013, he joined Al Jazeera English and proudly declared, I am Oromo First, which angered and dashed the hopes of his Ethiopianist allies and friends. They attacked him relentlessly for days. He stopped trying to reason with the unreasonable and focused on organizing the Oromo diaspora. 

In 2014, he co-founded the Oromia Media Network, a groundbreaking project that united the Oromo and elevated the voices of the protesters whose movement eventually swept Abiy Ahmed to power. When he finally returned to Ethiopia in 2018, Jawar went to all federal states, except Tigray, where he held town hall meetings sharing his vision for a democratic, just, and equal nation. He initially resisted active politics, instead offering to help the “reformist” transitional leaders. He joined forces with Oromo Gadaa leaders to launch disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program for OLF rebels. That act underscored Jawar’s deep commitment to nonviolence and firm belief that the Oromo question can be addressed through a political contest. 

As Abiy consolidated his power, Jawar and others began to sense a dangerous drift from promises of reform. In 2019, Jawar decided to join a political party to mount a vigorous defense of the multinational federalism that was evidently under threat from Abiy and his officialdom. It was an act that essentially sealed Abiy’s electoral chances in Oromia.

Politics of advocacy

Jawar’s arrest has exposed both the authoritarian drift of Abiy administration and the true colors of the “liberal” Ethiopian elites. The latter could not contain its elation at Jawar’s detention. During a recent state-sponsored protest in Addis Ababa, demonstrators called for his hanging. What is more shocking is the behavior of assimilated Habesha cabals—with last names such as Chala, Regassa, Beka, Feyisa, etc.— who are cheerleading the political show trial against Jawar et al. 

Life is full of ironies. A few years ago, when some of these self-proclaimed activists were jailed for expressing views critical of the rulers of the day, Jawar actively campaigned for their release and denounced the show trial against them. These “ungrateful” so-called liberals continue to justify Jawar’s unlawful arrest and trial. Such is the politics of advocacy in Ethiopia. The behavior of these assimilated Oromo and other elite corps raises many important questions: Do these activists and elites actually believe in democracy and the protection of civil liberties or do they simply want the elevation to power of elites who advance their exclusivist agenda? Who is liberal in Ethiopia? Does the “political middle” even exist? 

An astute political analyst 

Jawar has distinguished himself as a keen observer and astute political analyst. Many of Jawar’s predictions about the current state of Ethiopian politics have been prophetic. Two years ago, when Lemma Magarsa, the-then chairman of OPDO resigned to make way for the elevation of Abiy Ahmed, an unknown quantity in Oromo politics, Jawar warned that it was a mistake. He relentlessly campaigned against it. He specifically warned that by stepping aside for Abiy, an inexperienced cadre with murky political beliefs, Lemma put the final nail on his political career. Lemma who was then hailed as a national hero by a cross-section of the population—across ethnic and party lines—was recently fired from the post of Defense Minister and is now under a de facto house arrest. 

Lemma is a victim of deeply entrenched “winner-takes-all” political culture. The demise of his career is also such a sad Oromo story in the Ethiopia state. From Gobana Dache, a military general who helped Emperor Menelik II consolidate his nascent empire in the 19th century, to the present time, assimilated Oromo elites actively participated in forcibly subduing the Oromo populace.

Lemma’s biggest crime was that he deviated from Abiy’s vision of prosperity and stood up to his instinctual disdain toward Oromo nationalism.

According to historical records, much like Lemma, Gobana was demoted by Menelik because the native Oromo population in newly conquered territories recognized the former as their negus and paid taxes to him instead of Menelik. It is a common and recurring theme throughout Ethiopian history. Under Haileselassie, Oromo generals and civil servants, including General Tadesse Biru, were similarly disgraced for standing up for Oromo rights. Derg eliminated so many Oromo intellectuals (e.g., Haile Fida) on similar grounds. Under EPRDF, several OPDO apparatchiks, including Hassan Ali, Almaz Mako, Yonathan Diphisa, Junedin Sado, and many others fell in a manner that is consistent with Lemma’s coup de grâce.

Abiy’s Prosperity Party is barely two years old. In addition to Lemma, Abiy has quietly but systematically eliminated many key allies. To name a few, Workineh Gebeyehu, Tayeba Hassan, Berhanu Tsegaye, Suleiman Dedefo, and Milkessa Midhagaall fell as quickly as they rose through the ranks of the “reformist” regime. In short, the services of Oromo collaborators are needed only insofar as they don’t threaten the power of the king or go against the dominant status quo group.

To conclude, the Jawar I know believed deeply in the promise of a peaceful and democratic transition in Ethiopia. Like everyone else, he was misled and betrayed. More than anyone I know, Jawar understood the moral superiority of nonviolence. In the end, like many Oromos before him, he was charged with terrorism. In a way, he faced a familiar adversary: A state whose existence is predicated upon the silencing and dehumanizing Oromo bodies. As Jawar often said, they may sentence him to a lengthy prison term or even kill him, but no earthly power can stop the Oromo struggle. The Oromo will win its freedom. In fact, by putting Oromumma and Oromo nationalism on trial, Abiy and his lackeys are hastening their downfall.

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