In recent weeks, several video clips from my speeches at various events have been systematically edited to present a narrative that portrays me in the worst moral and political light. The latest of these doctored videos are pieced together to create the impression that I was advocating violence against Christians in Ethiopia. Needless to say, this is a calculated and horrendous political strategy so commonplace in the Ethiopian political landscape. Let me say as clearly as I can: I find such views so revolting and so repugnant that it has no place in any civil political discourse. Whatever motivated those who engaged in EPRDF style character assassination, this past week has given us an impeccable evidence about the state of our media and the place of truth, and journalistic ethics in their operations. It is also ironic that many of the individuals and groups engaged in this propaganda are the same people who went a long way to disparage me as ’naïve’, ‘spineless’, and ‘passivist’ for writing and speaking about nonviolence. Given the sensitivity of the issue and the malicious manner in which these videos were edited and presented, I want to take this opportunity to explain the context in which that particular speech was delivered.
On May 25, 2013, I was invited to speak at a town hall gathering organized by Risala International, a consortium of three Minnesota-based mosques. There were several prominent spiritual and secular leaders from various communities in North America. Present were also representatives from the Minnesota delegation to the U.S. congress. Based on my own observation and the organizers account, the audience consisted of Muslim Oromos, non-Muslim Oromos, non-Oromo Muslims, and Ethiopians of other faiths.
As I do with every invitation, I asked the organizers to give me a specific topic to address, a language of their preference, and format of the presentation. In this case, the organizers asked me to analyze whether the Oromo struggle and ongoing Muslim protests for religious freedom are complementary or contradictory. I prepared my presentation in Afan Oromo, however, after learning there were attendees who do not understand the Oromo language, I ended my comments with a rather condensed summary in Amharic. Given the moderator was flying the ‘times up’ sign on my face, I did not have the privilege of explaining my point in details
It was at the end of that comment that I made a statement which led to a controversy and used by interested group to advance their own political agenda. I said where I grew up, where Muslims make up majority, there is a broad consensus that people would stand up and fight; and the saying goes, they would fight with what is traditionally known as Menca in Afaan Oromo. Here I was trying to underscore the point that even if politically powerless, being numerical majority brings about a sense of collective security which leads people to confront the abusive state head on forcefully. Hence, this serves as a restraining factor against those who seek to undermine their dignity. In contrast, where the politically oppressed is also numerically outnumbered, the sense of vulnerability might lead to submission to injustice; consequently enabling the oppressive system to violate their rights with no fear of repercussion.
Every normative community has its own unique way of assigning and discerning meaning in a text or utterance. The expression I used is a sarcastic expression used for a humorous effect. Although it did not occur to me at the time, sarcasm, like satire and irony, works precisely on the slippage between what is said and what is meant. It is often joked among Oromos that Manca is a weapon of pride in Hararghe, as Shimala (a stick) is in Shawa, Eboo (a spear) is among the Arsi, Togorri for Karrayyuu and so on. These cultural expressions make meaning only within the cultural geography in which they are uttered. I suspect that the majority of the participants attending the consortium understood that the expression is intended not as a statement of fact but as sarcastic expression that signifies almost the opposite of what it seems to say. However, when several versions of the video—some of it doctored to generate the political effects needed by my detractors—several friends, colleagues, and other individuals who did not understand this cultural context expressed their disappointment, hurt, and even a rage. I fully regret these unintended consequences and the lack of foresight on my part.
I understand that a lot of Ethiopians disagree with my views and I welcome all constructive debates and criticisms. However, taking my statements out of context and juxtaposing unrelated events for mere character assassination is not only malicious but also an outdated political tactic. In this era of heightened instant communication lies have a shelf life of minutes before being countered by facts. But during that short lifespan, they could cause serious harm, not so much to their targeted subject, but more so to the unsuspecting general public.
If it is of any help, those who want to mislead the public should know that I am a product of an interfaith marriage. My father was a Muslim and my mother was from an Orthodox Christian background. Moreover, my wife is a Lutheran. I do not advocate religious freedom and interfaith understanding and tolerance because it is fad of the time. I was raised with and live by those values.
Now let me return to the real issue at stake. I would like to remind all that the defamation campaigns, including the distortion of this video followed the Al Jazeera program that focused on the plight of the Oromo people, in which I was a panelist. The frenzy has now gone beyond defamation and verbal threat. Abdi Fite, a young Oromo journalist was recently ambushed in Washington DC, physically attacked and threatened with knife to his throat. This attack happened following a video Abdi released sharing his perspective on being an Oromo. Those who are trying to silence the Oromo voice through physical and symbolic violence should reflect on history and revise their strategy. My reading of history is that targeting Oromo individuals have not yielded the intended result of destroying the struggle of Oromo People.
The Oromo people have a just cause that no amount of violence nor distortion can delegitimize. The Oromo nation has produced and continue to produce sons and daughters that pick up and carry the flag when one comrade falls. For those who are still attempting to recycle the old divide and destroy tactic, be sure that Oromos have a time tested culture and system that cherishes its diversity and promotes pluralism. Oromos are masters of coexistence with their neighbors. They are also fierce warriors in defense of their sovereignty. The just Oromo struggle is about restoring dignity to a people who have been ruthlessly denigrated, and violently subjugated. It is a struggle that gives back to the people their right to self determination in its fullest sense. This sacred goal must be achieved no matter the cost.