In the recent politics of #Ethiopia, Jawar Mohammed is the most influential, the most controvertial, and the most followed opposition figure. In an unprecedented change of events, he is jailed. Now, I see some Oromo elites in diaspora are in a race to take his place. The new struggle is who should be the next iconic figure of Oromo struggle, and how? So, don’t be surprised to see people oddly outspoken. To make the work easy for you, I will demonstrate my views if they have what it takes.
Jawar became visible as a sharp critic against #OLF’s “failure to deliver” 10 years ago, when none of the Oromo elites in diaspora had the courage to do so; they sidelined him. He was an opinion leader in local newspapers even though he lived abroad. Most diaspora Oromo elites avoided those local newspapers because they thought they are appeals to the “Ethiopianist” team they are struggling. In contrary, Jawar always focused on what was happening in local politics. The others were flattering one another, in an echo-chamber, of their remote debates. He was a lead opinion leader on every political incident at home.
He endorsed Ethio-Muslims protests when it started in 2012. He commented a lot about what it is, what it means to Oromo cause, and how it should be received. In fact, many at the center only remember his foul about Christian minorities in Muslims dominated birthplace of him, ‘we will hit them with a machete on the neck if they say/do anything’ (forgive my translation). He asked apology for this later.
He appeared on AJStream (2013?) and gave the definitive ‘I’m Oromo First, Ethiopia was imposed on me’ response. Then, he was bombarded with angry comments on the social media from the team that knew him better (centrists) in Ethiopia. The backlash to his comment in AJ attracted him more attention from the diaspora Oromo elites. He started what he called “Oromo First Tour” in US and Europe. Then, OMN was founded.
OMN was not Jawar’s initiative. But, he dominated it and kicked away other founders in a seemingly unfair process. He admitted to me once that his ‘authoritarian approach towards managing OMN has made it successful unlike ESAT’ (his words). I believe, OMN reflected his opinion, but his Facebook page was more of his place to set-agenda informally, and was followed by more than any other Ethiopian politician. He then took a de facto leadership of #OromoProtests. He tirelessly followed, reported, and commented on it for years.
Oromo Protests was successful because it was also joined by a faction of groups from within EPRDF, the then ruling party in Ethiopia. Jawar long believed OPDO can be this kind of force for change. So he believed them and he was one of the first people to get back home immediately after things changed. In Ethiopia, he started as a cautious supporter of the leadership and end up a member of leading opposition group, OFC, which he openly supported for years.
He was obviously unhappy of the reform results even though I couldn’t get the real speicifics. I believe he was also unhappy of his place in the political change he was playing a key role. His relationship with Prime Minister Abiy was antagonistic from the very beginning. Jawar called the PM for being ‘Unitarist’, a taboo in Oromo nationalism; in contrary, he presented his likes as ‘federalists’, i.e. enthusiast of ethnofederalism.
In the struggle to keep the significance up, he co-tried to promote coalitions of Oromo Organizations – the Gaddisa – it didn’t work. The Coalition for Democratic Federalism didn’t go far alike. He strongly opposed the dissolution of EPRDF; he wasn’t listened. When COVID forced cancellation of election schedule, he demanded elite-bargain, a political solution; neither this has happened. He must have been frustrated and feeling his political power is diminishing. On the other hand, he was stuck in between party discipline and an urge to the wild activism. He was in a sort of competition with time.
In the mean time, Jawar was given all the names including a militant vigilante group leader, enemy of Ethiopian state, Islamist, and etc. by commentators of the political center. Regardless, he was available in all media platforms and answered all questions raised, spoke what he believed in, and pushed the limits. Even though he has failed to address the genuine concerns of those who have fear of being affected by his political narratives, he kept shaking the status quo and his opponents in his tweets and Facebook posts. He became a giant, seemingly untouchable until he was.
Jawar, unlike most diaspora Oromo elites, might be regarded as but not secessionist. He is more of a confederate-like system advocate. He used to write in three languages: English, Amharic, and Afaan Oromo. His message managed to fit the targetted audience depending on the language he picked. He is also a sharp analyst. Most of the times, even his opponents envy him. But he is impatient and apparently bad in a direct power struggle. He can’t sit down accepting domination. He is also conflict-insensitive when he speaks. This has contributed for deadly violent incidents following his comments and eventually to his imprisonment. (This is an attempt to explain, not to justify his imprisonment as the case is not clear yet. He is innocent until proven guilty; and, the burden of proof stays on the Prosecutor.)
Anyway, before this is cleared, I noticed some are competing to replace him. They are here and there on the social media now. But, none seem to have his qualities: his courage to criticize failure in one’s constituency, his ability to set-agenda, to appeal to people beyond one’s echo chamber, to analyse turn of events as they are happening, to consistently listen to the local voices, and etc. The only thing they have is his traits that failed him: impatience and conflict-insensitivity. They used the OMN and social media to call for violence, and wanted to have it all immediately. They already failed miserably. What has more intrigued me is that most of them took his imprisonment as a blessing in disguise. They didn’t care about how the crises can be fixed, but how to be an icon in place of him before he comes back to the stage.