Dr. Merara Gudina is chairman of the newly-formed Oromo People's Congress (OPC).
He used to chair the Oromo National Congress (ONC) but after a claim by Tolossa Tesfaye to the party leadership, and the subsequent decision by the Electoral Board to recognize Tolossa rather than Dr. Merara as leader of ONC, the latter went to court and filed charges against the board.
But, recently, Dr. Merara and his colleagues decided to have their own party registed as OPC and to abandon ONC for good.
Dr. Merara spoke to Bruck Shewareged about the transition from ONC to OPC Excerpts.
Why did you give up the legal battle to retain the party's original name of ONC and change it to Oromo People's Congress (OPC)?
We just didin't give up. We went all the way. Yes, we filed charges against the electoral board. Tolossa doesn't have the political and financial base to claim ONC as his own. To be frank, it is probably the work of the ruling party, EPRDF, to meddle with our party's leadership.
Some people just called in a meeting and claimed to be the new leaders of ONC. They came up with a fake seal in order to "endorse the resolutions" of the meeting. We notified the police and the electoral board about this illegal meeting. Our party's regulation says that either the chairman or his deputy can call a meeting. And you need a two-thirds vote of the central committee to remove the leadership. As far as we know, they didn’t have enough support to do that.
Then at some point, our two offices were raided.
By police or by Tolosa's supporters?
Well, Tolossa and his people served as front men. It was well organized. They were well prepared. There were even ambulances for any possible casuality. They were accompanied by officials from the Oromo People's Democratic Organization (OPDO), one of the constituting parties of the ruling EPRDF coalition. They were there to give cover to the raiders. The security people were beating our party members. Tolosa even drew a pistol and fired at some of our members. We notified the police of what had taken place. But the police said that was a government affair and told us not to come back.
They openly said that to you?
Yes. If they go to the scene, the perpetrators could be caught red-handed with their guns. So, this is clearly not Tolosa's doing. He even asked to be allowed to go back into the party's fold. But when the security people scolded him, he resorted to his intransigence. The game they were trying to play was clear.
Tolosa had no power, in the first place, to call a meeting. Even if there were problems with the leadership, only the auditing committee can call that meeting. This was an attempt to change ONC's leadership. When that failed, they resorted to stealing the party's name.
Then came the harassment. Many of our members were put in jail. Even now, our members, numbering in their hundreds are jailed.
How severely were your activities restricted as a result of the jailings?
It has a serious impact on our mobility. We have some mobility. Our activities were not completely halted but were severly impaired. We were not legally banned. We are represented in the federal parliament and Oromia region's parliament. We have been participating in the inter-party dialogue with the ruling party. Mind you, it is not Tolosa and his supporters that are participating in that dialogue. In Oromia's parliament, our party is represented, not Tolosa's.
The problem with Tolosa and his people is that they have only a name, not a real organizational entity.
Wouldn't changing your name create a gulf between you and your supporters? Aren't your going to need more time to re-introduce yourselves to the public?
That would not be a problem. Even though we have changed our name, we are well known by our supporters. Every honest Oromo knows our entity. Our members know the party very well.
Sometimes attempts to crush a political entity have a backlash. When you came out of this leadership crisis, did you gain more sympathy among the Oromo people?
We were able to withstand the pressure. We were able to show that we stand for the respect of the rights of the Oromo people. We have suffered to some extent, of course. Our mobility has been restricted. Members been jailed in North Shoa, South Shoa, Arsi zones and other places. But in terms of public support, we didn't suffer a bit.
When you first request the electoral board to change your name to Oromo People's Congress, Ato Tolosa objected on the ground that in the Oromo language, the name is similar to Oromo National Congress, the party he is now leading. Can you enlighten us on the specifics?
You only need to come up with another name when each word becomes similar to other party's name. Let me take you back to the time of the party's foundation. Back then, we decided to follow the policy of inclusion rather than secession. We were convinced that the problem could be solved within the Ethiopian context. Oromos need not secede. So, just like South Africans we follow the path of forming democracy throughout Ethiopia. That path, we believe, is a better path than secession. We want to find a solution within the national context.
Oromos are not a minority but a majority in Ethiopia. So secession is not a viable option. What is suitable is to find a solution within the Ethiopian context. So, we went for the name Oromo People's Congress.
Now, Tolosa's party is "Biolesa" or national. We use "Umeta," meaning people. So it is not the same thing.
We even offered another name, "Oromo People's Salvation Congress" when the dispute over the name first arose. But the word " Salvation" has a strong connotation, maybe. The electoral board didn't like it. They gave us the go-ahead for the Oromo People's Congres.
With the upcoming bi-elections, did the alleged harassment abate? Or is it on the rise?
It didn't change. It hasn't abated in Oromia region.
But it isn't on the rise either?
Well, the problem is that one day the harassment might abate. But on the third or fourth day, it will increas. It is on-and-off.
In my opinion, it is only through the use of force that the government can rule Oromia. Unless they resort to the use of force, harrassement or bribery, their days of ruling through peaceful means are over, especially after the May, 2005 elections. There is no doubt that our party can liberate the Oromo people from the stranglehold of the OPDO with the support the people. They know that we have no problem is convincing the people.
If, as you said the repression continues, couldn't things get out of hand? Won't the peaceful struggle be abandoned and people resort to armed struggle?
If you look at the history of Ethiopia for the last 150 years, regime changes have taken place through the use of force. There was no peaceful transfer of power since the days of Emperor Theodros in the 19th century.
Emperor Theodros used to be a rebel. He came to power by force and became a King of Kings. Following his death, there was a three-year-long power struggle. Emperor Yohaness IV came to power after defeating his rivals. There was no peaceful power transfer from Yohannes to Menilik II, too. There was no link between them.
Following Yohannes' death, Menilik claimed the throne and became King of Kings. Menilk followed the carrot-and-stick approach: either they follow him or, the Shoan stick will strike them. Most accepted the carrot. When Menilik was paralyzed and incapacitated to effectively govern the country, his wife, Etege Taitu, gained supremacy for more than a year. But she was checked by the Shoan nobility.
After Menilik's death, Menilik's grandson, Lij Eyassu, reigned for a few years. The Shoan nobility was not comfortable with that, and Eyassu was removed from power by apparently the first coup d' etat. Then Emperor Haile-Selassie (then known as Teferi Mekonen) came to power as a regent in 1916. He became to be known as the first Black Machiavelli. From 1916 to 1930 he removed his rivals one by one. Some, like Fitawrari Habteghiorgis, died a natural death. Anyway, he officially assumed the throne in 1930 when Empress Zewditu died of illness. Then Haile-Selassie in turn was deposed by the military junta, which itself was removed by through armed struggle.
So power transfer from Emperor Theodros to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi took place through the use of arms. I don't know what the fate of the governing party, EPRDF, will be. But the current trend shows that EPRDF is following the path of former regimes. History might repeat itself.
Which means armed struggle?
Not only that. There are many armed groups. There is the Oromo Liberation Front, The Ogaden National Liberation Front, the Gambella Liberation Front, the Patriotic Front etc. But EPRDF is also accusing the Opposition parties of calling for an insurrection. EPRDF is more afraid of popular uprising than armed struggle. Unless national reconciliation is achieved, there are bound to be problems.
It has to negotiate with the opposition. Currently, it is negotiating with its supporters. You just don't negotiate with your supporters. You negotiate with opponents and try to reach a settlement.
EPRDF has its own political reading of the situation. But in my reading, there is still a big problem.
Last week, the prime minister implied that he will urge his party to suspend inter-party dialogue as a result of what he alleged to be opposition parties' complicity with the HR 2003. But opposition parties, including yours, said that the dialogue had already been suspended. What would you say about the contradictory statements?
That's what amazes me, too. How did HR 2003 originate? Let me take you back to the end of the Cold War. Since the end of the Cold War, America has become the only super-power. Many countries aligned themselves to the USA because they believed that it would benefit them. They were seeking support from the USA.
In the Ethiopian case, more than anyone else, the EPRDF-led government sought this support and became an ally of USA. It is known that some American army units are operating in Ethiopia.
What's puzzling is that whenever the US supports the Ethiopia government, it doesn't have anything to do with sovereignty. So far the partnership with the US is one-sided. The support was geared towards one party, not the whole people. Questions were being raised. This unbalanced approach must be rectified.
Ethiopians in USA were asking why the US government supports the government which used the aid to suppress human rights. They were raising this question for many years.
What is surprising is that congressmen Donald Paine, who is now being criticized by the Ethiopian government, was an ardent supporter of the EPRDF. The congressman once told us opposition members not to be obstacles to the budding multi-party democracy.
However, I think, the report by the inquiry commission of the killings that followed the 2005 election could be a factor behind the change of mind on the congressman's part. The chairman and deputy chairman of the commission took the original report before it was released out of the country and released it there. Then a number of the American legislators started to question the misuse of American support by the Ethiopian government. This, the Ethiopian government didn't like. It was used to unqualified support from the US. Now, the government is worried that the monopoly of receiving the US support could be busted.