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Jawar Mohammed: from ‘la aluta continua’ to peace preacher

To the dismay of some Oromo nationalists, Jawar appears to be placating the government.

 
“La aluta continua!!” was his last statement before his arrest. 

After spending about a year and a half in prison, Jawar Mohammed remained silent for five months following his release. 

As an Oromo activist and politician, the broader Oromo public expected him to address the crisis in Oromia and elsewhere in the country as soon as he came out of prison. As time passed, they asked why he chose not to speak publicly, and many criticized him for his silence. 

In his first two interviews on 26 May, Jawar presented himself to the public as a mediator between the parties involved in the conflict. 

Given his record as a vocal activist and that the situation in Oromia has worsened since his arrest, many Oromos were eager to hear what Jawar had to say. They expected that he would use his influence to denounce the suffering they have been facing. 

However, after hearing his interviews, many reacted negatively to his soft statements, while some were very angered by his attempt to portray himself as an outsider mediator. 

Amid conjecture that Jawar supports disarming the insurgency in Oromia, the reactions to his interviews revealed a divide between members of the Oromo elite who support his conciliatory approach and those who support the armed resistance. 

Thread walking 

The two interviews—one in Amharic with Ubuntu media and the other with Oromia Media Network (OMN) in Afaan Oromo—appeared to be somewhat scripted: they were both recorded from his office, the questions and the order in which they were asked were similar, and they were published on the same day, around an hour apart. 

Jawar shied away from expressing his opinion on the current crisis in Oromia. He tried to act only as a representative of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), the party that elected him as its deputy chairman in March. 

In both interviews, he tried to stay neutral and avoided directly criticizing any of the parties in the Tigray and Oromia conflicts. Instead, he tried to act as a middleman, an outsider planning to mediate between conflicting parties. He said the war has to stop, and matters need to be solved through discussion. 

He also gave something of a defense when discussing Amhara nationalism and objected to the government’s attempt to disarm Amhara Fano militants.

While carefully avoiding directly criticizing those engaged in atrocious crimes in Tigray and Oromia, he gave a few middle ground prescriptions: the terrorist designation of Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and TPLF must be removed, a ceasefire must take hold before the national dialogue, and the dialogue has to be truly inclusive. 

He also added that opposition officials should be released from prison, especially Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) officials. Apart from its chairman, Dawud Ibsa, who was released from house arrest recently, many OLF officials remain behind bars.

Oromo disillusionment

Some influential Oromo elites and activists were critical of Jawar’s statements in these interviews.

Tsegaye Ararssa, an Oromo nationalist legal scholar, reacted to Jawar’s interview, saying, “Drawing moral equivalence between the criminal and the victim (in the face of a glaring asymmetry) is hypocrisy at best and complicity at worst.”

Tsegaye said that the whole interview was directed towards the Ethio-Amhara elites—to appease them, calm them down, and woo them to support him—and his secondary audience was the international community. 

He tweeted, “My friend Jawar Siraj Mohammed seems to have launched his official campaign to become the next Ethio-Amhara Prime Minister.” Tsegaye added, “The Oromo nationalists are right to be angry at him because he ignored the conflict, the humanitarian crisis happening in Oromia in his interview.”

Etana Habte, an Oromo activist and academic in the UK, said, “Jawar presented the criminal Abiy as having moral equivalence with Jaal Marro, a freedom fighter.”

On the other hand, some Oromo elites defend Jawar. They argue that as a member of the OFC, he must avoid expressing comments not in line with the party’s official positions. Some also say that harsh statements could lead to him being rearrested.  

In response to criticism of Jawar, Dereje Begi, a newly elected member of the OFC executive committee, asked, “Where did Jawar shift away from OFC’s position, which content of the interview was controversial to OFC’s position?” Dereje then asked whether those criticizing Jawar forgot or were not aware of OFC’s political program.  

New division

Jawar and Bekele Gerba are currently on a “Galatoomaa tour” throughout Europe to thank the Oromo diaspora for advocating for their release from prison. 

Throughout his tour in Europe, Jawar faced challenging questions from participants. One of the topics in focus was the future of the Oromo struggle. Many wanted to know whether the goal now is to democratize Ethiopia or fight to build an Oromia nation-state. 

Jawar responded to the questions with confidence and underlined the differences of opinion within the Oromo political camp. He said that his party’s position is to democratize Ethiopia and then stressed, “If you have the same belief, support us, otherwise you can support others.” 

The discussion of such topics has exposed an increasing divide among Oromo elites. The OLA and the struggle for self-determination enjoy increasing support from those abroad, as the hope in peaceful struggle has faded.

At the meeting in Amsterdam, some participants criticized Jawar’s comment about fixing Ethiopia, given the ongoing intercommunal violence in Oromia, especially between Amharas and Oromos, and their support for the OLA.

The participants begged him to get back his US passport, leave Ethiopia, and struggle for the Oromo people from abroad. 

Amid the Europe tour, OLF wrote a letter to OFC saying that he should not use the OLF flag for his campaign, and should instead use the official flag of the OFC. Many criticized this move and said that the flag used by OLF is not OLF’s but rather belongs to the Oromo people, and thus can’t be associated with a single party. 

Oromo first?

Although he has been present in activist circles since the late 2000s, Jawar emerged as a prominent and popular Oromo activist in 2013.  His statement, “I am Oromo First … Ethiopia is imposed on me,” in an interview with Al Jazeera first caught people’s attention.

Prior to his ‘Oromo First’ statement, he was appearing at demonstrations organized by the Oromo community across the US. He advocated for the Oromo people, especially the Oromo diaspora, to follow in the footsteps of OLF and the mission to free Oromia. 

In one rally, he famously chanted, “We will march for freedom! Oromia shall be free! Ethiopia out of Oromia!” 

Jawar stated that they have the obligation to accomplish the objectives of their forefathers. He pointed to the OLF flag, which is now considered the Oromo flag by many, and said that they should follow the path of their fathers because they sacrificed a lot to bring this flag to them, with which the world recognizes Oromos as a nation. 

Since then, his popularity has continued to gain momentum, especially after establishing OMN. He was appointed as its director alongside members of the Oromo diaspora community in Minnesota, US. 

In subsequent years, as he coordinated the 2014 to 2017 Oromo protest movement, his popularity was widespread throughout Oromia. 

Jawar regularly appeared on OMN to analyze the protest movement, the government’s response to it, and future protest strategies. Additionally, he also provided regular updates about demonstrations that were going on throughout Oromia and provided analysis using his social media accounts, especially Facebook.

On 5 August 2018, Jawar returned to Ethiopia. He was warmly welcomed by the ‘reformist’ government officials. 

His positive relationship with the EPRDF and the new leadership lasted for over a year until he opposed the planned merger of the EPRDF that ultimately led to the Prosperity Party being created in December 2019.

Jawar’s support in Oromia, however, started declining earlier, only a few months after his return—because he and the media outlet he directs were largely silent about the crackdown in western and southern Oromia and also the failed OLA integration process.

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One attendee at his recent meeting in Amsterdam asked Jawar to explain what has happened to the person who once espoused an ‘Oromo first’ ideology. He responded by saying that he has faith, as he did back then, in a federal, democratic Ethiopia. 

Indeed, in one of his interviews in 2010, Jawar clarified his position on whether his goal is to democratize Ethiopia or build an independent Oromia. 

He said, “Disintegrating the current Ethiopian state by the removal of any group is tantamount to committing collective suicide, and the Oromo have a vested interest and moral responsibility to prevent such a tragedy from taking place.” 

He believes it’s in the Oromo people’s best interest to preserve the territorial integrity of the Ethiopian state, democratize the system, create an inclusive political community, and make the country home for everyone.

Armed resistance?

Jawar’s relationship with the more radical Oromo elites and organizations committed to armed struggle, self-determination, and independence has always been rough. 

In 2009, he offended many such elites when he wrote a paper titled, “Failure to Deliver: The Journey of the Oromo Liberation Front in the Last Two Decades.” In the paper, he stated that OLF is broken beyond repair and criticized Oromo political elites who were advocating for uniting the factionalized OLF groups.

His paper angered OLF members and supporters in the diaspora. Since then, OLF and its supporters have been suspicious of him. 

Jawar’s relationship with OLA has also been strained over the past few years. 

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In 2019, Jawar made statements to the public against OLA. He claimed that the Oromo people are liberated and, as such, they don’t need an army that liberates them, implying that OLA should be disarmed. Jawar’s statements about OLA angered many Oromo people and caused him to lose some supporters. 

Jawar’s first public appearance since being released from prison in January came after rumors began circulating on social media that he is conspiring with the government about how to disarm OLA. 

One such accusation was that he made a deal with Abiy to work together with his administration and, to that end, he met Ethiopian officials during his stay in Nairobi. 

In his 26 May interviews, Jawar defended himself against these accusations, saying that he went to Nairobi for personal business and didn’t meet with Ethiopian officials while he was there. 

This is not the first time he was accused of such an activity. In 2019, Jawar and Bekele were accused of conspiring against the OLA during the failed OLA integration attempt by a committee formed to handle the integration process, in which they were key actors. 

The failed OLA integration is now at the heart of the crisis in Western Oromia that has led to the death of thousands over the past three years. Clashes between OLA and government forces are intensifying, while inter-communal violence is a regular occurrence. 

Last week, in a joint operation with the Gambela Liberation Front (GLF), OLA attacked the capital of Gambella regional state, and also launched raids on its own in Oromia. 

OLA is also accused of committing the 19 June massacre in Tolle, a village in Oromia’s Gimbi wereda, in which at least 200, mostly Amhara civilians were killed.  The OLA has denied carrying out the massacre, and instead accused a local militia formed by the Oromia regional government. 

La aluta continua?

Some Oromo elites blame Jawar for the crisis in Oromia since Abiy took power in 2018. 

One criticism is that Jawar shouldn’t have trusted Abiy and the ‘reform’ agents within the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). In this view, this misplaced trust caused him to stand against OLA. Some even say that it was Jawar who sabotaged the victory earned by Qeerro’s sacrifices by handing over the gains to OPDO. 

This criticism is somewhat fair, as it was Jawar who used his influence to convince the Oromo youth to trust in the ‘reformist’ Team Lemma, and, by extension, the OPDO. He recently admitted to being responsible for empowering a faction within OPDO in 2017.

Until late 2019, Jawar worked with the ruling party in Oromia, the rebranded Oromo Democratic Party (ODP). A serious breakup of this relationship only happened after Prosperity Party’s creation. Jawar strongly opposed the EPRDF merger in public, saying that it is against the federal structure and that the ones who benefit from the formation of the unitary party are primarily the Amhara group.

Abiy reacted to the fallout with Jawar by threatening an unnamed media owner with a “foreign passport” in parliament, which was widely believed to mean Jawar. 

Days later, the Federal Police ordered the removal of Jawar’s security guards, who were provided to him upon his arrival in 2018. Jawar responded by posting about the situation on his Facebook account. His Facebook post triggered deadly violence across Oromia, as Oromo youth who thought he was in danger reacted angrily. 

As the EPRDF member parties proceeded with the merger that he strongly objected to, Jawar decided to strengthen an Oromo opposition political party. He joined OFC in December 2019, and in March 2022, two months after he was released from prison, he was elected as OFC’s second deputy chairman and its foreign affairs head.

Jawar’s arrest followed the 29 June 2020 murder of Hachalu Hundessa, a prominent Oromo nationalist musician known for his resistance songs who contributed significantly in mobilizing the Oromo people against the EPRDF government before the ‘reform’.

The government accused Jawar of forcing Hachalu’s body back to Addis Abeba in an attempt to incite violence in the capital. The next morning, Hachalu’s body was escorted out of Addis Abeba to Ambo, his birthplace. 

On the day of his arrest, Jawar expressed his anger over the murder, saying, “They shot at the heart of the Oromo Nation, once again !! It was Tadesse Biru, Haile Fida, Elemo Qilxuu, Eebbisaa Addunyaa … now Hacaaluu! You can kill us, all of us, you can never ever stop us!! NEVER !! La Aluta Continua !!” 

Given this battle cry, many Oromos were first surprised at Jawar’s silence after his release and then by his moderate stance.

However, as a deputy chairman of a political party that sees peaceful struggle as the core of its program, it’s unsurprising that his statements are limited to the position of his party. 

If his goal is to mediate between all warring parties in the country and seek reconciliation, it would also not make sense to be openly critical or be perceived as taking sides. 

Additionally, as someone who knows he could be incarcerated for his statements, it is understandable that Jawar has to be cautious about what he says. 

Nonetheless, it is also only natural that many Oromos, especially Oromo activists who put their faith in the OLA and were advocating on Jawar’s behalf when he was in prison, are disappointed by his recent statements.

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Main photo: Jawar Mohammed; May 2020; Jawar’s Twitter account.

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