Organizing Exiles: Self-Organizing for self-emancipation–Towards Restoring Trust and Hope
(Remarks Prepared for delivery on the inaugural Oromo World Congress, 18 September 2021.)
Tsegaye R Ararssa
The topic I am given for this historic congress is entitled ‘Organizing Exiles.’ On a closer look, I realize that, that is not a particularly accurate description of what we are doing here. What we are engaged in here is self-organizing. Self-organizing for self-emancipation. For obvious reasons, organizing these exiled bodies is very difficult, if not impossible altogether. Self-organizing is in itself a difficult venture. Trying to organize our exiled bodies for effective political action at home is quite an extraordinary experiment. In trying to do self-organizing from outside to be able to mobilize support for the struggle at home we are embarking on a rare experiment. In embarking on it in this day and age, we are already daring to do what had rarely been done before. And I salute you, and I thank you, each and every single one of you here–and the many more who could not join us here today, but who have been working hard for its success–for taking this first step with us to embark on this daring experiment.
For those of you who do not know me, my name is Tsegaye Ararssa. I am an Oromo from Ethiopia. I currently live in Australia. Today, I come to you from Melbourne, Australia, a country that knows that it is built on a stolen land of indigenous peoples that were conquered, dispossessed, displaced, and subjected to a settler colonial project of elimination via assimilation.
As I begin my talk this morning, I would like to acknowledge that I am here standing on the unceded territory of the Wurunjeri people of the Kulin nation, and I pay respect to the traditional owners and custodians of the land, and their elders past and present. As people who have a similar experience of conquest, dispossession, and displacement, as a people who are familiar with the ills of settler colonialism, we Oromos do understand what it means to be dispossessed and displaced. Knowing what we know as a people with similar historical trajectory, we take these seemingly innocuous words of acknowledgement very seriously.
As Oromos, we are a nation in resistance. As we gather here today, we, in the Oromo universe, are at an important historical juncture. In many ways, we are beset by contrasting developments. On the one hand, we are in the midst of a raging war in Ethiopia.
For several years now, our people have been under a sustained military operation that has now morphed into a comprehensive systematic assault that is no less consequential than a full-fledged war. This war that has targeted everything Oromo (the leaders, the land, and the identity) and has brought about unprecedented horrors to our peoples. The systematic attack on Oromos, Oromia, and Oromummaa has posed an existential threat. On the other hand, in spite of the sustained attack, our people have kept resilient, have weathered the storms, and have survived so far. They not only survived but they are resisting by putting their lives limbs, and livelihoods on the line. They have long passed the stage of mobilization and are looking for some form of organizing that can convert their energy of resistance into a meaningful public-political action.
Owing to the closure of the political space in which to organize themselves in the country, our people seek direction and support from their compatriots in the diaspora. Direction and meaningful support can be provided fro over here only if the diaspora, these exiled bodies, are well-organized and well-directed themselves.
Today’s exercise in self-organizing, this grand adventure we are embarking on here, is an attempt at responding to this call for support and direction.
In this talk, I will address myself to the following questions:
What is the WOC about? (to clarify vision).
What is it that it is not?(to dispel doubts and misconceptions).
What are we up to here? (to understand the activities we will be engaged in)
What does WOC, and this gathering, offer to the generations, present and future?
What messages does it have for the peoples beyond the boundaries of Oromia?
What WOC is about: Let’s Clarify the Vision
WOC is an idea. An idea born out of tragedy, born in the aftermath of the assassination of our uncommon icon, Artist Hacaaluu Hundessaa, and the arrest of Oromo political leaders including our friends Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba, and all the other leaders of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in July 2020. It is an idea born out of disillusionment, of anger, despair, and rage. We were enraged because, on that fateful day of June 30th 2020, at that moment, when Ethiopia waged war on our people once again. We were also enraged because we did not know how to respond properly. We were raging because of our inability to act systematically, sustainably, and coherently.
We saw an outburst of popular anger and a spontaneous reaction to the regime’s brutal attack on the Oromo nation. On that day, it came to be clear to all–even to those of us who had long held out the hope of redemption–that the last bridge between the Ethiopian empire and the Oromo nation has been broken, and broken for good. On that day, the Oromo realized that it has given all it can to the empire–and lost all it has. Hacaaluu’s famous lyrical punchline, “Xiqqaas gabbarre guddaa/kana’rra maal goona ree?” became a lived truth. It became the sound of music in the heart of almost all Oromos. On that day, the age-old attack on the Oromo nation was re-enacted once more and brought to its ringing climax.
On that day, Oromo leaders were killed or detained, Oromo parties were definitively enfeebled, Oromo media outlets were closed, and the Oromo people who came out to in droves to protest the assassination and the arrests were brutally suppressed. In short, on that day, we lost Oromo leaders, Oromo parties, and Oromo media institutions to Abiy’s regime. We lost an artistic icon of the generation, yes. But beyond that, we lost representation and voice as a people. We were totally silenced. And we woke up to the reality that the empire has struck back.
Of course this attack was long coming. It was the re-inauguration of the comprehensive assault on Oromos, Oromia and Oromummaa that has long been designed by the concerted effort of the state and non-state actors who have made it their calling to “save Ethiopia from Oromos (and the other ‘others’). Our response at the time was ad hoc and individual (not systematic and socio-political), spontaneous and sporadic (not sustainable) and fragmented (often episodic and transient) (not coherent). But given what we were up against, i.e., the resurrected Ethiopian empire emboldened by Abiy Ahmed, we needed to act systematically, sustainably, and coherently. We needed to be organized to rise up against the empire and lay it to rest once and for all. We needed to think big, to organize big, and act big on a global scale. We needed nothing less than a global body under which Oromos they can coordinate their actions for an effective intervention. That global body evolved in the shape of the World Oromo Congress (WOC).
Above and beyond anything, the WOC is an exercise in self-organizing. We needed to give an institutional home to our endeavors. As a home, it shall be a space of asserting our collective agency and expressing our collective voice in all its diverse colors and tones. In my view, the WOC shall serve as a platform. It shall be a site of:
a. Meeting and (re)covenanting
b. Holding hands and standing together
c. Deliberation and consultation
e. Seeking and providing direction and guidance
f. A place of commissioning responsible persons and authorizing to do so.
The WOC shall be a place where an accountable, responsible, and responsive collective action is launched.
As a deliberative institution of these exiled bodies, it shall be a symbolic legislature of the Oromo nation. Symbolic because it is alienated from the constituency that it seeks to act for. In this symbolic legislative assembly of representatives and council of elders, the Oromo diaspora from all countries and all walks of life mobilize, harness, and channel the resources, knowledge, and freedom they have in the countries that have become hosts to them.
The WOC houses, authorizes, commissions, and oversees the five major activities that the Oromos in exile engage in in order to make a meaningful intervention in their homeland. Accordingly, they commission the people who work to help our people achieve political self-determination, economic self-reliance and self-help, diplomatic self-advocacy, military self-defense, and epistemic self-reliability (or enjoying self-knowledge).
The ultimate goal of the WOC is two-fold:
a) restoration of trust among the people in the diaspora; and
b) preservation of hope for the people at home.
In a sense, the WOC is an entrepreneurship of trust and hope.
What WOC is not–Let’s Dispel Doubts
The WOC is not a political party.
The WOC is not a government in exile.
The WOC is not a federation of associations of the Oromo communities across the globe. There are other organizations who play that kind of role: e.g. OGF and GOCA, It is not an organization of organizations.
It is not going to lead the struggle from abroad. It is not the owner, much less the leader, of the struggle at home.
It is only an institutional base from which we can support the struggle systematically, sustainably, and coherently in an organized manner.
Also, it is not a Transitional Government in waiting–positioning itself to take over power in the event that the regime collapses in the country.
What We do here: The Talking Points
In this conference, you engage with this idea, the idea of the World Oromo Congress. You look at the nuts and bolts of the WOC animal.
You consider its goals, visions, constitutive documents, its decision-making and executive entities, its structure, its mode of operation with respect to the five major areas of intervention, etc.
You will also elect, select, and commission the people who will do the work ahead of us in the months to come.
In this congress, you will make the idea operational. As my president of JIRAA (Ms Tufaha Ali) often says, we make feet to the idea so that it can move and have its being in its own right. “Miila itti goona. Akka deemuu danda’utti.”
What a thought! Giving an idea a feet on which to stand and walk! To give an idea a material existence in the real world. I think that sums up the idea of organizing.
The WOC is an Idea whose time has come, an Idea that stays!
The WOC is an idea whose time has come. In fact, it is an idea whose time has long been coming but left unheeded to. For years numerous Oromo men and women have tried to bring Oromo political actors together. Tokkummaa was the rallying cry of the ages.
The time has come now for us to come together for real, and to recommit ourselves to a new covenant as a people.As we always say in the JIRRA family, it is the time for us to hold hands, to stand with each other, and to be there for one another. Bara harka wal qabachuu, bara walii wajjin dhaabbachuu, waliif dhabatanii walif jiraachuu, barra JIRRA walin jechuu!
It is the burden of our generation to make this re-covenanting real. Our predecessors have kept the flame of resistance alive. They have educated and enriched the national consciousness of our people. They brought to light the shared national sentiment and created mutual intelligibility in their language for the shared experience of oppression. They have imagined freedom and found the language with which to give it a name and an expression: bilisummaa. They have organized our people in the best way they could and they have shaken the empire to its roots. Some have taken arms, others picked their pens, and yet others took to the streets and, together, they have deposed monarchs and dictators. They passed to us the longing for abbaa biyyummaa.
It is therefore our our responsibility now to reach for the next level. It is time for us to and for the generation to come to rededicate itself to stand together for the national interest. If there were discord among us before, if trust had been broken before, if hope was dashed before, it is time for us to bridge the differences, to repair the broken trust, and to recover the dashed hopes by coming together under the WOC. It is time for us to stand together in a solemn act of re-commitment to one another in the here and now but also to commit ourselves to posterity in the hope that if not us, they will see and dwell in the promised land of free life.
The WOC, ladies and gentlemen, is an inter-generational commitment. It is a renewal of commitment, a new covenant, for a different time. Let us do this for the sake of the generations. And for the sake of those awaiting us beyond the borders of Oromia.
Beyond Oromia: Oromo Self-Organizing and the Hope of the Nations
Beyond our borders are the many nations of similar experience of imperial conquest, dispossession, displacement, and othering. There are many more who are still under a similar systematic attack of the latest iteration of the Ethiopian empire. Qemant, Agew, Tigray, Gumuz, Berta, Anyuwa, Nuer, Somali, Afar, Konso, Wolayta, Sidama, Gedeo, Kambata, Hadiya, Harari, and the numerous other peoples of the SNNPRS, especially the perennially marginalized peoples of the South Omo and Bench-Maji zones.
As we gather at the WOC here, we should be mindful of these other peoples in the neighborhood. We should send “our good will and glad tidings,” as the scriptures say, to each and all. We recognize their struggles. We stand in principled solidarity with them and with all progressive forces that fight for freedom, for democracy, for social justice, and for peace. We salute those who have taken the current regime to the task, those who like our people, fought tooth and nail to assure posterity that they shall have land to live on, leaders to lead them on, and distinct identity to hold on to in a socially just order.
Conclusion: Let us come together, let’s march, and let’s act
My last word to my brothers and sisters here is let’s come together. Let us for once think big, organize big, and act big, on a global scale. As we do, let’s re-covenant as a people. Let us renew our commitment. Let us stand in solidarity for one another. Let us say JIRRA to each other and to posterity. Let us hold hands, and let us act. Let us act today by making the WOC a reality.
To our compatriots at home we say, JIIRRA. Isiniif jirra. You are not alone. We will be with you till the end. All the way to freedom. Hanga abbaa biyyummatti!
Organizing Exiles: Self-Organizing for self-emancipation–Towards Restoring Trust and Hope