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Oromia: Struggle Towards a Peaceful Sociopolitical Transformation in Ethiopia: Bekele Gerba as one of the Leading Icons February 14, 2016

Posted by OromianEconomist in #OromoProtests, Africa, African American, Baqqalaa Garbaa, Because I am Oromo, Oromia, Oromiyaa, Oromo, Oromo the Largest Nation of Africa. Human Rights violations and Genocide against the Oromo people in Ethiopia.
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Struggle Towards a Peaceful Sociopolitical Transformation in Ethiopia: Bekele Gerba as one of the Leading Icons

By  Begna F. Dugassa, Ph.D.

Bekele Gerba translated Martin Luther King’s book  ‘I HAVE A DREAM’  into Oromo language while he was in prison.

Bekele Gerba translated Martin Luther King’s book  ‘I HAVE A DREAM’  into Oromo language while he was in prison.



 

The Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) led government of Ethiopia is portraying Bekele Gerba as a violent man and charging him with instigating violence. Ordinary people are characterizing him as a compassionate, kind and a caring teacher, a professor and a humble political prisoner. Some people take it further and think Gerba acquired his political philosophy from the great leaders of our recent past such as Gandhi of India, Martin Luther King of America and Nelson Mandela of South Africa. If that is the case, inspired by those renowned leaders Gerba is humbly facing humiliation. In reality, who is Bekele Gerba?

Bekele Gerba is a deputy chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC). In my short personal conversation with him, I found him to be a good listener, humble, compassionate and forgiving. I agree with the view of those who say that he has been influenced by the principles of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.  In addition, as a school teacher and professor he might have been influenced by Paulo Freire’s teaching facilitating students “learn to read the word and the world”.  He has a strong character and compassion for a peaceful mass movement. At one point he said “promoting a peaceful movement is not the path that scary leaders choose to prevent personal risks, it is a strategy they follow to humbly accept personal humiliation and reduce harm to the public[2]”.
Bekele gerba speaks

 

In Gerba’s mind, the principles of Gandhi, King and Mandela are not foreign ideas to him and to the Oromo people; they are indeed consistent with the Oromo principles of nagaa (peace) and (Gada) democratic system of governance which are enshrined in the Oromo culture. He believes that only a peaceful mass movement can guarantee real change and sustain building a democratic society in Ethiopia. In Gebra’s mind and heart, violence has no place. In several interviews, he repeatedly and emphatically noted that even those who are involved in the killing and those who are ordering the killings and imprisonment knew that they are wrong and in the backs of their mind they feel guilty.  He believes such self-righteous individuals will realize their wrongs and gradually join the peaceful mass movement.

The first time I heard the name of Bekele Gerba was when a friend forwarded me his powerful speech that he made on the 2010 election debate.  His speech was thoughtful and articulate.  He is a linguist and his language skills have given him the tools needed to articulate the aspirations of the Oromo people.  In many parts of the world having individuals who are thoughtful and articulate is desirable and such individuals are usually respected and rewarded. However, things are different in the eyes of the Ethiopian government officials.

Like many other dictators, the TPLF- led Ethiopian government sees human rights activists as “the enemy”. Soon after Bekele Gerba met the Amnesty International research team, the Ethiopian security forces charged him for crimes he never committed and threw him into jail. TPLF officials fear him not because he is a violent person or conspiring to promote violence, but because he is thoughtful and articulate.  The Ethiopian government’s concern is that he can articulate the demands and the aspirations of the Oromo people to the Amnesty International research team.  For that the TPLF officials fabricated a dramatic type of crime and sent him to jail. He was released from prison in 2015 after serving four years.

 

In 2015, the Oromo Studies Association (OSA invited Bekele Gerba (an Oromo) and John Markakis (a Greece-American) to be two keynote speakers. OSA always encourages diverse perspectives and views (because no one has a monopoly on knowledge) to be presented at its annual conferences. Bekele was a university professor before he was imprisoned. Before that he was a school teacher.  His lived experiences, and career as a school teacher, university professor, politician and then political prisoner have given him a wide range of perspectives. He was therefore an excellent candidate to be invited by the OSA as one of the keynote speakers.   When I learned he was to be one of the OSA’s keynote speakers, on the one hand I was happy that I was going to be able to hear his first hand presentation.  On the other hand, I was concerned because many Oromo intellectuals are leaving the country and I wanted him to stay in Oromia to provide the leadership. My reason is I knew one of the motives of the TPLF government is to deny the Oromo people all forms of leaderships.

I know that Bekele Gerba has spent four years in prison for a crime he never committed.   I know he clearly understands the social problems that afflict the Oromo people and the causes of those problems. I also know he has met hundreds of Oromo prisoners who are languishing in Ethiopian prisons “because they are Oromo”. He knows that thousands more of Oromo men and women who are languishing in several prisons “because they are Oromo”.  Therefore, in my mind I pictured him asssumured in my mind assumeman. ee social conditions in which the Oromo people live. ( from “ pictured him….” to the end is a mess. Better fix it!) He meet thousands  an angry man.  However, when I met him and talked to him he did not look like an angry man. He was not angry at those who imprisoned him. It is not that he was not hurt. Indeed, he was deeply hurt. Yet, he overcame the pain he went through and chose to forgive those who subjected him to pain. When I clearly understood his deep commitment to a peaceful mass movement and his forgiveness to those who imprisoned him, I was deeply touched. As Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate for the US president, once said “forgiveness is a way of opening up the doors again and moving forward, whether it’s a personal life or a national life” I realized the motive of Gerba to forgive is to move forward. I am deeply touched by this.

Let me tell you why I am deeply touched. When I was writing my Ph.D dissertation I was interested in human rights and public health. Therefore, it was natural to associate with students who geared their research interests to peaceful social movements such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King. At that time a friend who was focusing on Gandhi’s philosophy organized a research conference and invited me to present a paper. I presented a paper on Famine and Human Rights in Oromia. In the paper I explored the ways human rights violations perpetuated by consecutive Ethiopian regimes were contributing to cause famine. One of the audience members knew the situation that I was talking about and asked me if Gandhi type leaders need to be born in Ethiopia. I answered the question saying “thousands of Gandhi types of leaders are being born every year, but the social conditions of Ethiopia do not allow them grow. If Gandhi was born in Ethiopia, he would have been killed while he was still young”.  I further elaborated saying “although the British colonial rulers and the US slave holders were brutal, the system allowed many British and US citizens to be guided by a sense of “ethics”. Such a system allowed diversity within the dominant group of citizens and for this reason some of the members of the dominant group sympathized with the causes of those who were marginalized. However, the Ethiopian system does not allow diverse opinions to flourish.  Abyssinians like Wallelign Mekonnen who are inclined to promote social justice for the oppressed people are killed and such killing has suppressed others.  Oromo elites who tried to develop inclusive politics- like Haile Fida- and who tried to reform the Ethiopian Empire could not survive long.  Consistent with Newton’s law of motion that states “to every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” and many Oromo leaders who came after Fida chose to focus on organizing the Oromo people.   I was convinced that in such political conditions Gandhi and Martin Luther King types of leaders and inclusive leaders could not grow to be national figures.

When I talked to Bekele Gerba and listened to his interviews, I started to question my own assumptions. Clearly he has successfully overcome the challenges that I identified above and developed a deep commitment to a peaceful mass movement and inclusive politics. The question I had in my mind at that time was, would the Ethiopian government allow such a thoughtful individual who fully adheres inclusive politics (diversity, equity and self-rule on one hand and unity on the other.

In December 2015, the Ethiopian government arrested Bekele Gerba again. When I heard the news, it reconfirmed my view about the system. Professor Merera Gudina rightfully characterized the ways the TPLF leadership thinks and functions when he said “although the TPLF has left the jungle behind, the jungle did not leave them behind.” The TPLF leadership needs to walk up and move away from the violent mindset that was instrumental to them when they were in the jungle. Leading a country with a population of a hundred million and leading a guerilla force are quite different things. They need to realize they are heading the second most popular and linguistically the most diverse empire or federal state in Africa.  They need to understand they are heading a country where the headquarters of the African Union is located and hundreds of diplomats stationed. They need to realize that the rule of law of the jungle is unsustainable.

 

The TPLF leadership need to understand Newton’s law of motion that states “to every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. Imprisoning Bekele Gerba and his colleagues does not silence the voice of the Oromo people who are demanding social justice, human rights and rule of law.  The voices that the Oromo people clearly and loudly spoke, from the North to South, and East to West in the last three months has delivered a clear message: “we do not allow any forms of injustice”. Consistent with Newton’s law of motion, as the TPLF oppress the Oromo people, evict them from their land, imprison and kill their children, the voices of the people demands for social reform and structural changes will dramatically increase. The TPLF leaders need individuals like Gerba and his colleagues who can be instrumental in facilitating smooth political change and lead social transformation in the country.

Gerba and his colleagues are the beloved sons and daughters of Oromo people and they want them free.  Certainly, Gerba and his colleagues are in a better position to secure not only the Oromo children but also, the Tigray children and others. Having said this, let me leave my note with the quote below and encourage the TPLF leadership to reevaluate their framework of thinking, free all political prisoners and join the peaceful march led by Gerba and his colleagues.

Today, I see thousands of Mahatma Gandhis, Martin Luther Kings, and Nelson Mandelas marching forward and calling on us. The boys and girls [i.e. Gerba & others] have joined. I have joined in. We ask you [the TPLF leadership] to join, too.

Kailash Satyarthi

Begna F. Dugassa, Ph.D.


[1] Begna Dugassa, Ph.D., promotes human rights and health. He researches and writes in human rights and public health.  His recent work is published in the Journal of Preventive Medicine in February 2016. The title of the article: Free Media as the Social Determinants of Health: The Case of Oromia Regional State in Ethiopia.
[2] Translation is mine.

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