By Emeline Wuilbercq | Lemonde’s Addis Ababa correspondence
After ten years of exile in the United States, the fiery militant Oromo has been welcomed as a hero by his supporters, but the authorities watch him warily.
When he arrived in Ambo town on Monday, August 6, Jawar Mohammed took off his shoes. This city in the Oromia region, located 120 km west of Addis Ababa, was at the heart of an anti-government protest that lasted more than three years until the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in February. Jawar felt the need to visit those he spoke with “day and night.” “I was so proud of them. They have set an example for the whole country. I promised them that one day when freedom comes, I would walk barefoot,” he said.
Just a few months ago, Jawar Mohammed could not have done that. The executive director of the Oromia Media Network (OMN), who lived in the United States, was persona non grata in Ethiopia, where he had not visited for ten years. He was one of the regime’s sworn enemies who, in 2017, charged him with inciting violence. His media, broadcast by satellite, was banned. But these charges were dropped after coming to power of the new head of government, Abiy Ahmed. “It’s good to no longer be a terrorist,” Jawar said at a press conference on Sunday.
In Ethiopia, the mere evocation of Jawar’s name provokes intense admiration or aversion. A resident of Minneapolis, he is one of the “visible” leaders in the movement that forced the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the ruling coalition for 27 years, to reform itself.
A graduate of Columbia and Stanford Universities, Jawar has managed to become “the strategist and communicator of the Oromo revolution” from 12,000 km away. His weapon? His huge popularity on social networks: 72,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 1.4 million on Facebook.
For three years, riveted on his computer screen, he rebelled against repression of Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia from which he came. He organized the Qeerroo, young Oromo protesters, to block roads, boycott business, and stage protest demonstrations.
“We designed a horizontal movement whose chain of command the government could not detect,” says Jawar. He claims that this movement has succeeded in “infiltrating” the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO), a member of the ruling coalition led by Abiy Ahmed who has sided with the protesters since the end of 2016 and has impelled a change inside the ruling EPRDF. “We have created a mysterious, sophisticated and efficient machinery,” he says.
Jawar’s statements have, in the past, made him a controversial figure. He claimed to be “Oromo first,” before being Ethiopian. He has been regularly accused of preaching hatred, especially against Christians. In 2013, in a video, he said: “My village is 99% Muslim. If someone speaks against us, we cut his throat with a machete.” He says his statement was taken out of context, claiming the religious diversity of his family — his mother being a Christian and his Muslim father.
“If I preached hatred, I would have destroyed the EPRDF for what they did to my people, to my comrades. They were at the mercy of the Qeerroo, he says. If we wanted to separate this country, it was so easy, and we can do it now, it would not take us a week. Today we can declare an independent Oromia, no one can stop us.”
But Jawar assures concerned Ethiopians that he is not secessionist and believes in the Ethiopian model of ethnic federalism, introduced in the 1990s, provided there is democracy, as well as regional autonomy.
However, some observers cannot help but fear the awakening of an Oromo ultranationalism and the actions of a provocative character. Oromia political leaders and intellectuals distrust him, according to an observer.
Engaged in a policy of reconciliation with the opposition, PM Abiy met Jawar at the end of July during his American tour.
Today, Jawar welcomes the fact that the new government is “on the right track,” but warns that it remains under watch and that the “fight” is not over. “We must ensure that the country moves very quickly towards democracy and that there is enough pressure on the government to move towards free, fair and competitive elections” in 2020. He wishes for the time being to revise the editorial line of his media, created in 2014 and funded by the diaspora.
The journalist, Mohammed Ademo, founder and editor-in-chief of the OPride website, welcomes this decision: “Jawar used this platform to amplify the voice of the protesters. They made mistakes. They over-reported the number of deaths, used bad photos that did not come from Oromia, were driven by emotions. But they have succeeded and I am happy for him and his organization, which I hope will become a professional media.”
Jawar Mohammed’s objectivity should soon be put to the test. He swears not to have political ambition. “I want to be a counselor. I’m here to serve the people,” he says.