In choosing to call for the departure of Admiral Mohamed Omar Osman, the Chairman of the Ogaden National Liberation front (ONLF), I put myself in the unenviable predicament of either coming up with thorough explanations why the chairman must go now, or live with the round revilement that will be reaped from this misstep.
More still, in yielding such a titanic political leader as Admiral Osman to critical inspection, I risk two calamities: throwing the enemy into triumphant jubilation on one hand, and on the other hand, irking the sensitive toes of cantankerous fellow supporters of this liberation icon. The enemy will gloat about it, taking this call as an elucidation of the demise of the ONLF. Evincing a disturbing incapacity to accommodate critical discourse, fellow ONLF supporters would feel betrayed. Some would want to lynch me; others would prefer me roasted from the temple down; and the mighty wrath of a ‘demeaned’ Front will fall on my little person.
In this huge burden of casting critical comments on ONLF and the otherwise likeable Admiral, I take solace in the knowledge that I am only trying to salvage the struggle, not to weaken it. I also seek relief in the hope that this admonition will augment internal democratic culture in the Liberation Front.
We cannot fault the ONLF leadership for their efforts. They tried their best. But, in the end, we judge them by their results, not by their efforts. It makes no sense whatsoever if they have been staying up without sleep for days, for nights. It is irrelevant if they had done everything in their ability to move the cause of liberation forward. What matters is what they delivered. As things stand, the Front is in political stagnation. The leadership is only getting by nothing more than a roaring ego and tedious determination. None of these are enough.
There is a lot at stake, and the time is right for cruel evaluation of what the ONLF leadership has delivered since Admiral Osman took the mantle. More importantly, it is high time we ask ourselves if the current leaders have the capacity to effect fundamental policy and strategy reforms; reforms that are long overdue.
In liberation struggles, survival is tolerable as a benchmark of success only in the battlefields, faced against a mightier adversary. A liberation front, fighting for a just cause, cannot be expected to be content with survival for more than two decades. It must make progress; it must win new allies; it must broaden its support base. Far from achieving this, the ONLF is stagnating. There is no single idea, strategy or support base that has joined the Front for over a decade.
It is well known that global and regional factors had and continue to have an adverse impact on the cause. Unyielding perseverance is a desirable tribute of a liberation front, and ONLF had displayed a lot of it. But, ONLF’s debilitating incapacity to expand its support base inside the Somali region is indefensible. Not forming any effective political alliance with other Ethiopian opposition groups is pure, unmitigated failure. The dalliance with AFD (Alliance for Freedom and Democracy) was half-hearted and predictably did not go far. As usual, obstinate principles got in the way of requisite pragmatism. By not building alliances, the leadership isolated the struggle. They have given the grave matter of seeking common ground with other freedom-loving Somalis in the region, at best, a lip service.
ONLF’s key problem is that it looks at itself with a magnifying glass. The glass gives it larger muscles than it actually has. A cunning leadership would make a candid inventory of its social, economic and political capital and would come up with practical solutions to fill these gaps. The ONLF leadership has not done this. They did not invest in defining and articulating the ideals they are fighting for. The ONLF has allowed everyone who feels to belong to its brand to join in. And because critical collective consciousness about the ideals of freedom and justice has not been created, those who were in its ship for the simple reason they could relate to its name, started to desert when the Tigre regime and its stooges started to fiddle with clan sensitivities. Abdi Iley’s vitriolic and self-serving clan jingo today competes with the noble ideal of resisting Ethiopian colonialism.
There is no point in denying that there are big fissures in the communities that supported the ONLF. There is no doubt Meles’s strategy of breaking up the ONLF along clan lines is causing some damage. Apart from pretending that these crafty divide-and-rule maneuvers do not matter at all, the ONLF did not come up with countering strategies. It is well known that the enemy is using plenty of money and other inducements to create divisions. It is recognized that divisions are inescapable among the oppressed, in a situation where sowing such divisions are ordained as a policy by the colonizer. But the approach taken by ONLF, which is to wish divisions will go away by themselves, is not working. Wishes are not strategies.
Admiral Osman, as the chairman of the Front must take responsibility, lead by example, and give way, so that other ideas, newer approaches, and fresher minds could step in. Deaf to endless calls for reform, blind to growing divisions, and obsessed by the inviolability of a hopelessly obsolete and divisive label, the ONLF leadership have demonstrated that they cannot institute the changes that the Front badly needs to rejuvenate. They are principled, but principles bereft of pragmatism are dogmas.
That the current ONLF leadership is incapable of undertaking reforms is more than clear. What is unclear is if a younger generation with fresher ideas is ready and waiting to take over. If there are none, it means the Front is in more mess than we even thought. How can an ageing leadership not put a succession plan when they know the road for freedom is long? How dead and uncalculating can a leadership be, politically, not to plan this? If they do not have a young leadership that can take over, they may as well close shop and send the whole thing to retirement.
Political stagnation is a sign of atrophy for a liberation struggle. The ONLF is in political decline, and surviving militarily cannot be taken as an indicator of a lively future. In fact, military survival cannot continue without political advancement. Political failure is a prelude to military fiasco. The current divisions in the community are untenable. Admiral Osman’s exit will not cure everything, but it will offer an opportunity for a new beginning. Reform ideas that have no chance of acceptance by the current leadership can be experimented on by a newer and hopefully more flexible leadership.
A flexible leadership is not one that submits to Meles or Ethiopia. It is not one that signs false peace deals. It is one which is capable of objectively evaluating the current political milieu and coming up with winning formulas and alliances. For this to happen, the entire deadwood leadership must graciously bow out. How they go and to who they handover is a matter for them. Their departure sends a message of renewal. In politics, symbolism is as important as substance.
Muktar M. Omer
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