Jawar Mohammed is a study in contradiction. One minute he is a demagogue inciting tribal conflict and bloodletting. The next minute he is a peacemaker in the genre of Mahatma Gandhi. Balancing the dual role of a stealth conflict peddler and a heralded peacemaker is his modus operandi to make himself an indispensable political power.
Before returning to Ethiopia, the Qerro movement that he built from scratch and led was peaceful. His followers’ signature protest signs were a white handkerchief, and crossed arms raised above their heads – a sign Feyisa Lilesa globalized at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic games. The peaceful movement was a stroke of genius, intended to bring down the Ethiopian government led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Once Jawar returned to Ethiopia, he started using the Qerro movement as his powerbase to disrupt the nation’s political order in a bid to appraise his political currency, as he transitioned himself from a protest leader to a power contender for the PM position. His foot soldiers dropped their white handkerchiefs and picked up machetes, knives and sticks weaponized with nails as their weapons of choice – their badge of honor. Terror became the lingua franca of their political lexicon.
In March 2019, in a two-part interview with Tsion of the Voice of America (VOA), Jawar revealed that Qerro was well organized with proper chains of command all the way down to every nook and cranny of the Oromo tribal land (link: interview part 1 and part 2).
After the VOA interview, he gave another interview where he declared there are two prime ministers in Ethiopia: Abiy and Qerro. Further, he asserted that the real power resides with Qerro and that Qerro is able to takeover Addis Ababa within 24 to 48 hours. He reaffirmed this in another interview by stating “If war (“ግብግብ”) is needed, that is easier for me because all I need to do is incite Qerro and tell them let us finish the job we have started.”
In October 2019, when the Ethiopian government recalled his government-provided bodyguards in the middle of the night, he sent out a distress call to Qerro. Within hours, armed Qerros blocked the streets across the Oromia tribal land and unleashed wrath upon innocent people, killing 67 and wounding 213 more.
After they ravaged cities and towns large and small, Jawar instructed them to “Open the blocked roads, clean the towns of barricades, treat those who have been injured during the protests and reconcile with those you have quarreled with.” But he warned them to “sleep with one eye open.” At a moment’s notice, the region returned to normalcy, allowing families to bury their dead and salvage whatever was left of their properties and businesses.
The Slogan of Hate: Ethiopia Out of Oromia! Oromia to Oromos!
To achieve his political objectives, Jawar polarized anything and everything. His agenda included fabricating stories to sow hate. He claimed Oromo was colonized by Ethiopia and subjected to horrendous injustices. Based on his fabricated claim, he popularized “Ethiopia Out of Oromia! Oromia to Oromos”slogans.
In September 2018, led by Bekele Gerba (Vice Chair of the Oromo Federalist Congress), five Prominent Oromo parties gave a joint press release, declaring exclusive land ownership right of Addis Ababa to Oromos. In a televised debate, Gerba argued six million residents of Addis Ababa, a majority of whom are of mixed race, do not have constitutional rights because they are not “ብሄሮች” (ethnic group). The Constitution acknowledges only eight ethnic groups. People of mixed ethnicity exist outside of the protection of the constitution, unless they choose one over the other.
“Oromia to Oromos” means establishing [an] exclusive ownership rights in every aspect of life in the Oromo ethnic land. In January 2020, at a Salaalee-Ficheee political rally, Dr. Merera Gudina, President of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) announced the Oromo “will lay an exclusive claim over the national palace” named after Emperor Menilik and erect statutes of Oromo heroes, removing Emperor Menilik’s statue.
At the same rally, Haile Michaiel Tadese (an Oromo religious figure), declared only native Oromos will be allowed to lead Oromo Churches. One can be a fourth-generation Ethiopian living in the Oromo ethnic region, and a native speaker of the language, but he/she would still be unqualified to lead a sermon in the Oromo land unless he/she is an authentic native Oromo.
Islamizing the Qerro
Jawar was not content with tribal clashes only. He felt the need to weaponize tribal conflicts with religious animosity. His most dangerous political poison was revealed in a speech he gave to a gathering of Oromo Muslims. He stated in his signature rhetoric: “My village is 99% Muslim. If someone speaks against us, we cut his throat with a machete.” But his interest was not limited to assert the rights of Muslims where they are majority. His intention was to create a politically engaged Islamic force.
He preached to his audience that they need to be strong. It is only when you “put political power in your hands that you will ensure your economic and social rights,” he enthralled his audience. He wanted to create an Islamic power within Oromo. When Oromo is strong, Islam will be strong. When Islam is strong, Oromo will be strong, he continued. That, he said, is when they can help their Muslim compatriots to build mosques in Adwa. It is only when they assert their political strength that they can be a role model for Muslims outside of Ethiopia. He was not encouraging them to be engaged in the nation’s politics as Ethiopians or Oromos, but as Muslims. It is an Islamic force that he was trying to build.
Part of the Qerro he tribalized became Islamized. His message became deadly as it percolated down to the restless youth who served as his foot soldiers. They would later use machetes and gasoline to hack and burn not only Amhara Christians, but also Oromo Christians and Oromo churches. They went as far as slaughtering a pregnant Christian women in front of her husband because they “would not allow an Amhara Christian to be born in Oromia.”
The Global Post put Ethiopia’s problem with ethnic strife in perspective. “Within mere months, over 2 million people fled their homes to neighboring districts within the country due to violence.” To put the figure in perspective, the Post added: “Ravaged by eight years of war, Syria now counts 6 million IDPs; Ethiopia accumulated a third of that in less than one year.”
Experts in Ethiopia and abroad called for a serious look at the nation’s ethnic federalism. Jawar Mohammed rejected it, stating: “Multinational federalism engrained in the current constitution is here to stay. It’s [in] not up for discussion, let alone negotiation. Anyone caught in some FANTASY should wake up from their hallucination.”
Jawar’s Ultimatum and PM Abiy’s Defiance
On September 13, 2019, Jawar issued a bold ultimatum to the Prime Minister’s party, the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), not to tinker with using constitutional reform as its election strategy. He announced that ODP cannot go to the election before it agrees on a power-sharing arrangement with other Oromo parties. “We will not allow competition within the various Oromo parties… We must build a consensus and have a united front behind the current ethnic federalist system.” He added: “We cannot allow ODP behave like a ship that has lost its compass… They cannot tell us this is their party, and they can do what they choose to do. We will not allow that.”
He continued on: “If ODP joins the other Oromo parties we will have 180 block-votes from Oromia. We can then bring other ethnic federalist parties and win at least 350 seats. This will allow us to control the next Parliament and maintain ethnic federalism. We will make any changes we may desire.” He gave the PM an ultimatum: Do as I say, or I will hand you a calendar with Ethiopia’s expiration date.
When the PM ignored the ultimatum, in November 2019, Jawar told the New York Times, “I will contest, and I will challenge him. And I will defeat him, there is no question about it.”
On December 1, 2019, the PM announced the Prosperity Party (PP) that was perceived as Pan-Ethiopian “inching away from ethnic federalism toward a system based on territory but not identity.” All major Ethnic Parties barring TPLF (a small minority in terms of population) joined the PP. Giving a fatal blow to Jawar’s hope for winning majority seats, the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), the Somali Democratic Party (SDP), the Afar National Democratic Party (ANDP), the Benishangul-GumuzPeople’s Democrattic Party (BGPDP), and the Gambela People’s Democratic Movement (GPDM), among others, joined the PP.
In February 2020, the PP’s introductory tour in Southern People and Oromia ethnic regions attracted far more people than Team Jawar thought possible. In the Kembata Tempero zone of the Southern Peoples region, enthusiastic PP supporters started to form lines at 3:00 AM to listen to PM Abiy. In Hawaasa, the capital of Southern Peoples region, the city’s stadium was filled to the brim with PP supporters. In like manner, PP attracted tens of thousands of supporters each in Wellega, Bale Goba, Bedelie and Harar regions of Oromia. A similar PP support rally in Ambo had to be disbursed after a “bomb attack” injured 30 people waiting to hear PM Abiy’s speech.
Apart from losing the prospect of winning a majority seat in the Parliament and sustaining the ethnic federation, Jawar Mohammed lost the confidence of Oromo political leaders. General Kemal Gelchu, Chair of the Oromo National Party (ONP), went on the record stating both the Oromo Media Network (the prominent voice for the Oromo movement) and the Oromo cause will suffer “unless it frees itself from Jawar.”
Team Jawar’s Metaconstitutional Effort to Share Power
The year 2020 was a referendum year on the tribal constitution. Proponents and opponents of the tribal Constitution were gearing up for a showdown during the national election that was scheduled to be held in August. The election was expected to give the people an opportunity to choose between those who wish to maintain the existing tribe-based federalism and those who call for reform. In March, the Ethiopian National Election Board (ENEB) suspended the election due to the COVID-19 pandemic and announced that it will schedule a new timeline once the pandemic has subsided. This was not unique for Ethiopia. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), from February 21, 2020 until March 2021, at least 78 countries and territories across the globe have postponed their elections. In Europe 33.3 percent of national and sub-national elections were postponed. The corresponding figures for Africa and Asia are 23.2% and 21.8%.
The federal government and all regional governments complied with the ENEB decision with the exception of TPLF. Team Jawar joined TPLF in challenging the constitutional authority of ENEB. The Constitution that TPLF authored and Jawar defends wholesale in its entirety empowers the Council of Federation to settle constitutional debates. The Council of Federation ruled ENEB’s decision did not violate the Constitution.
Jawar and his company ignored the decisions of two constitutionally sanctioned authorities – the Council of Federation and ENBE. They upped the ante by issuing a warning that if the federal government complied with the ENEB and the Council of Federation, it would amount to a violation of the Constitution and the federal government would become illegitimate after its term expires on September 25, 2020. Jawar insisted the people, the military and the police will not take order from the PM.
The Federal government ignored their threat. A critical question arose: How will Jawar act on his threat to usher in “Ethiopia’s expiration date?”
Going for the Nuclear Option: Hachalu Hundessa’s Assassination and TPLF’s War
Hachalu Hundessa was one of the most popular figures in the Oromo ethnic land. Some say he was more popular than Jawar and PM Abiy. Whom he supported in the tug-of-war between the PM and Jawar was seen as a deal breaker.
While expressing his desire to remain neutral, he made it clear that his personal views were more aligned with the PM. For example, Jawar believes Adwa is an epitome of Ethiopia’s history that demeans the Oromo. He wrote: “This Adwa thing should come around every month because it is kind of win-win for both sides. The other side gets high reliving the fictional glorious past rubbing salt on our wound and helping us further unify and mobilize our base.”
Like the PM, Hachalu believes Adwa is the epitome of Ethiopia’s iconic history and the pride of the people of Oromo. Hachalu took this one step further, stating Oromo heroes have played a lion’s share of leading the Ethiopian military force during the Adwa victory. This was a big blow to Team Jawar, because embracing Adwa will lead to embracing Emperor Menilik.
Furthermore, while Team Jawar was aligning his strategy with TPLF, Hachalu went on the Oromo Media Network (OMN) to defend his strong opposition against top Oromo opposition leaders who sought alliance with TPLF. Hachalu also rejected “the PM is not an Oromo” narrative that was propagated by Jawar’s supporters. During the interview, Hachalu revealed that his life was threatened by extremist Oromo forces because of his pro pan Ethiopian position.
On June 29, 2020, Hachalu was assassinated in Addis Ababa. Immediately after, Jawar politicized it, writing on social media: “They did not just kill Hachalu. They shot at the heart of the Oromo nation, once again… You can kill us. You can never ever stop us!! Never!!”
Why were Jawar and Comrade Bekele Gerba Arrested?
As BBC reported, “Trouble started when Hachalu’s body was being transported to his native town of Ambo for burial, but Mr. Jawar and his supporters intercepted it and returned it to the capital” contrary to Hachalu’s parent’s wish not to politicize his funeral. Jawar’s intention was to organize a political funeral. According to the Economist, one officer was killed after a scuffle broke out between Jawar’s security detail and the police. This is acknowledged both by the federal police commissioner Endeshaw Tasew and Bekele Gerba’s son, Dawit Bekele.
In the above referenced VOA interview, Tsion mentioned specific cases in which Jawar incited tribal conflicts and asked him if he should be held accountable. His response was I know the law and where the line is marked. I will go to the edge but never cross the line. This time he crossed the line hijacking the body of Hachalu and causing the death of a police officer.
Jawar is not a political prisoner, as some international media portray him to be. He is indicted of serious crimes. His case is under review by the court.
The article first appeared at Borkena