By Qawdhan shuuriye
A look into how a political agenda to maintain the survival of the OPDO in the face of disgruntled Oromo masses was artificially transformed by its elite into unspeakable tragedy, ultimately serving that agenda well.
In a global age where access to social media is as easy as reaching your smart phone and where many vested interest groups, be it political or otherwise, are relentlessly engaged in a media scuffle to advance their agenda and interests, we may think that the voiceless is empowered and the world is lifted from the dark state of information scarcity. There is, however, another gruesome aspect to this as well: social media is not only used for disclosing facts and truth, but for undermining them as well, many times at all costs and at the expense of others unfortunately, as the case of the Oromia-Somali border conflict amply substantiates.
When the latter happens, those who are on the wrong side with respect to a particular situation, like for example the Oromia-Somali conflict, would often reap the benefits of the confusion they themselves have created and the resulting clouded judgment of others. Conversely, those on the right side pay the price, as they would become the receiving end of misinformed and hence misguided reaction from the public and the government. This is a typical case where the victim can’t be easily distinguished from the villain and hence in which blame goes both ways rather than to the actual perpetrator of the problem. Most importantly, this creates conditions under which justice can’t be served ideally in its true sense.
This is apparently so because there is high chance that misleading media campaign could sway public perception about the matter and therefore wrongly influence the outcome in terms of the decisions made to overcome the problem and the way they are executed. At least in the Ethiopian context, when political recklessness, narrow nationalism, ethnic hatred and irresponsible use of social media are all combined to achieve one crooked motive, the outcome would not only eclipse the facts on the ground but could also be deadly as this so-called border conflict has already proven.
The bloody border clashes between the two Regions have, so far, created information ripple effects, reaching virtually every corner of the country. There is, however, much devastating parallel war raging day and night to a much larger scale and intensity and to which not many of us have paid attention. This is a media warfare waged by only one side of the conflicting parties and it has exactly achieved what it was designed to achieve from the very beginning: hijacking public opinion and perceptions about the conflict in favor of Oromia Region. Therefore, in this article, I will try to uncover the basic facts that were completely lost in the rubble created by this media meltdown from Oromia and Oromo groups both inside and outside the country. However this time, I will limit myself to addressing the question of what is the real origin of this conflict and how did it came about in the first place? From a perspective of the history and relationship between the Somali and the Oromo communities in the border areas, is it really a genuine border conflict or something else in disguise?
Before I however embark on addressing the central issue, the real but hidden cause of the conflict, let me explore how the decisions and media campaign of Oromo regional government and pro-Oromo entities and individuals collectively formed the dominant narrative of the conflict and thus consequentially defined the characteristics of the current border conflict in a quite unique ways. The following five points distinguish the current border crisis from previous land-related ones between the two Regions:
1) Scale of the conflict
Previous conflicts were localized and hence in low scale, making them limited both in geographical scope and demographical impact. Although rhetoric from local authorities sometimes seemed blowing things out of proportion, practical clashes were often confined to neighboring and closely-knit communities from both sides. In the past, such border conflicts lacked continuity, were localized and erupted only occasionally but were also quickly vanished through local efforts. By contrast, the current one covers a geographical area of over 1400 kms and is affecting the communities all along this border, marking it the most deadly in terms of loss of human lives. It has turned out as the most devastating economically and unprecedented in scale as well. What a sad reality that was entirely avoidable if politics in Oromia is not taking precedence over human lives and livelihoods of the people.
2) Cause of the conflict
The Somali-Oromia conflict at the border used to be driven traditionally by occasional competition over grazing and water resources and by a dispute over land ownership. These local conflicts often had an aspect of seasonality where periodic movements of pastoral communities from both sides in some parts of the year mostly led to converge in specific areas and tended to raise the Specter for short-lived confrontations in some parts of the year but more so in drought years. This was occurring mainly in the dry season in which pastoral resource availability normally shifted downwards against growing needs for the same resources. In the current case, however, political challenges internally facing the OPDO’s new leadership apparently stand out as the main motive for triggering the conflict as we will explain later in this article.
3) Actors involved
Given the history of border conflict between the two sides in the past, actors involved in the fighting were obviously civilians. In most cases, fighting groups were poorly armed and acted sporadically. This often kept casualties to low levels, helping the quick diffusion of such tensions mostly through local efforts. The current conflict is however radically different in that uniformed police officers, reportedly called the Liyu hail in Oromia, always form the front-line of the attacking force from Oromia and Oromo militias join the fight afterwards in most cases.
The most ironic thing ideologically complicating these raids is that OLF militants identified by their flag and uniformed Liyu hail members paid and equipped by the Oromia regional government are dying hand-in-hand as brothers in these raids. How did these supposedly different forces come together for one common purpose: fighting what they see as common enemy though that is actually not the case? Where did the Liyu Hail of Oromia settle their differences with the OLF militants rightly branded as terrorists under the Ethiopian law? Can this suggest an ideological merger between OPDO and the OLF? There are more and more questions coming out as ones deeper this than answers.
Inter-communal conflicts of this nature conventionally used to be isolated incidents and were treated as unconnected cases by community leaders and local authorities. In the past, border raids were, once they happen, irregular and only confined to individual communities, lacking uniformly in terms of their timing. This is the first time in the history of any border tension between the two sides that we have seen an all-out fighting across a border of 1400 kms breaking in the same hour. To the surprise of most in the Somali side, this has happened not just once, twice or thrice but was characteristic of the current conflict from the very start.
The fact that Oromia raids are often launched all at the same time across what is actually a very long border to overwhelm the Somali side remains undisputable evidence that the attacks are effectively coordinated under the Oromia security sector. In other words, the spirit of professionalism under which such attacks are carried out with great operational precision and technical guidance are clearly beyond the capacity and know-how of ordinary Oromo civilians and militias. After all, uniformed Oromo police members who are making no secret of their identity spearhead the raids. Now imagine all this lethal capacity pushing against poorly equipped and untrained civilians in the Somali side, a fact justifying why Somali casualties are mostly higher than those of Oromia.
5) Role of the media
While many national media outlets have refrained themselves from reporting on the conflict, and still many others found it easy to quote only from the Oromo side, clearly ignoring the need to provide a factual and balanced content in their coverage, the role of others have been dangerous and marked by a bloodletting coverage. This was primarily so through the failure of their impartiality and fanning of the flames of the conflict. This replaced what was traditionally a positive and constructive role for the media through engagement in fact-finding and research on workable solutions. The predatory media from the Oromia and Oromo opposition groups have not only brainwashed the Oromo people into believing that they are colonized and under attack from other ethnic groups but also the domestic and international audience into thinking that the Oromos, the actual architects of the this multi-dimensional border-crisis, are the perceived victims and not otherwise.
Having clarified those five-points, let me go back to addressing the real cause of the border conflict between the two Regions. When the Oromo demonstrations broke out two years ago, the initial trigger was the Addis Ababa city’s land expansion plan that surfaced publicly. What seemed however a legitimate complaint about such plan at the beginning has later turned into a rallying point for Oromo grievances of all sorts mainly under the influence of Oromo opposition groups, which misleadingly exploited the crisis for their own ends. Unfortunately, the OPDO was not prepared for this, as it neither had the popularity terms of connection to the Oromo masses to undo the demonstrations nor political capacity within EPRDF quickly unravel the plan on its own. The federal government was also caught in surprise and everybody woke up to a new reality: the demonstrations were not just protests of conventional nature this time, they were threatening the nation and the government has to act quickly.
Amid the scuffle to settle the crisis, the OPDO went under pressure from its EPRDF coalition members to clean its house and effectively deal with the problem. This gradually become a life and death situation for the OPDO as it struggled to re-connect with the people after many years of popularity decline, inhibiting them to make any influence along the way. This was so because of the fact that the Oromo people has lost faith with the new generation of Oromo leadership, and mostly shifted to the only available alternative sources of leadership they can turn to in what they see as troubled times, the opposition. The fact that a mere face-book message from OLF militants like Jawhar can make profound impact through swiftly pouring protesters into or removing them from the streets of Oromia in their millions in any given day while Oromia government orders and OPDO calls packed by militia enforcement can’t, attests to this fundamental reality.
Scared by its inability to make any grain of influence in curbing the demonstrations and in a desperate attempt to save its face, President Magarsaa and his team came up with a tactical diversion of public attention from the protests and the only way they could achieve this was to ignite a land-based conflict by turning to its Somali neighbor. They did this with an understanding that the existence of traditional rivalry over land and pastoral resources between the Oromos and Ethiopian Somalis would provide an outlet to create a cheap enemy target for the Oromo people and a historical platform to easily launch the first raids which they did with no much effort.
They also did with the impression that once conflict over land starts everything else, including the demonstrations, would fall to a second priority. For further clarification of this point, conventional experience tells us that war often unites people and generates attention for the leadership, a wisdom that most military regimes in the past world often utilized to prolong the life of their reigns. For example, the Argentine military junta of 1976-1982, Mengistu of Ethiopia and Isayas Afworku of Eretria know all too well how to play such card in the face of threatening divisions and loss of popularity with the masses by the ruling political elite. This is the path that led the current leadership of the OPDO into artificially manufacturing one crisis, the border-conflict, to solve another, OPDO inability to handle demonstrations.
This was basically why before, everything else, the border raids from Oromia, have started with uniformed police officers and not with community militia or civilians. This was also why they launched aggressive media campaign both domestically and internationally to portray a false situational picture endorsing their narrative. In the end, this has worked well in their favor, achieving three things at the same time: diversion of public attention in Oromia from the demonstrations to the border conflict and the ongoing self-repositioning of the OPDO as people’s darling.
The third gain made from this treachery is that Mr. Magarsaa and his team orchestrated all this bloody mess without picking attention or alerting anyone, ultimately ending up in fooling most of us. This plainly concludes that the new leadership of the OPDO is the ultimate beneficiary of this Oromo-Somali border conflict and every else, the most important of which are the Somali and Oromo brotherly peoples, is the loser. This is why the Oromo regional authority, which is riding the wagon of a populist rhetoric these days, are refueling the conflict through the surprise resumption of raids by the Liyu Hail some weeks back even after an agreement has been signed between the two Regions.
This is also why the border conflict is unlikely to practically end any time soon given the high stakes for the OPDO. Again, this is why the Oromo authorities have, in areas like Babile, Qarsadula, Lagahida and Moyale, curtailed local efforts between the two civilian communities aimed at making peace through traditional mechanisms obviously when political efforts driven from the top failed to meet expectations. Finally, this is irrefutable evidence that this conflict is far from a genuine border conflict in the traditional sense but an active OPDO policy in disguise. The border crisis is the practical implementation of a policy engineered for the whole sake of keeping the organization afloat in what is increasingly becoming a turbulent journey through the rough political seas the OPDO and Oromo opposition groups have created in Ethiopia.
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