Source: Ethiopia Insight
Qeerroo are organized—but not under Jawar Mohammed
The term “Qeerroo” was introduced to the Oromo political scene in April 2011 when an Oromo youth organization named “Qeerroo Bilisummaa Oromoo (QBO)” or simply “Qeerroo” was established.
Soon after its formation, Qeerroo released its first manifesto, opened a website, and organized a series of protests in many higher education institutions. Oromo student protests led by Qeerroo continued intermittently throughout Oromia until a major series of protests broke out in 2014 and 2015, which continued nonstop, resulting in the collapse of the TPLF-Tigrayan hegemony in Ethiopia.
The purpose of this article is to impart the beginning of the Qeerroo movement and correct some misconceptions about Qeerroo. Specifically, I will rebut a widely held misconception, that “Qeerroo is a spontaneous social movement without formal structures.” I will also attempt to shed light on the role of the former activist and now political prisoner Jawar Mohammed in shaping the early movement of Qeerroo.
Since 2009, I have written at least eight articles on Oromian Student Movement (OSM) and the Qeerroo unrest, posted on various websites but mainly on Gadaa.com using an alias name. On 12 November 12, 2009, I wrote about the 2005 widespread protest. On 11 November 2010, I published on the continued resistance that took place between 2006 and 2010. On 19 November 2011, I released a chronological review of OSM from November 2010 to November 2011. On 7 November 2014, I published about the chronological summary of the widespread Qeerroo movement from November 2013 to November 2014. More of my publications are available at this link.
Furthermore, I have made at least two scholarly presentations on Qeerroo, one at the 2019 OSA annual conference, presented by Lammi Benya on my behalf, the other at the 2018 OLF Policy symposium in Finfinne.
Apart from writing and making scholarly presentations on Qeerroo, I was involved with Qeerroo activities including supporting the movement personally. I have intimately known about the preparations that led to its establishment in 2011, including the adoption of the term “Qeerroo”. I remained up to date about Qeerroo’s activities thereafter. After the formation of Qeerroo, I have been continuously involved in translating their public statements into the English language to this day.
I stated above some of my contributions and sources of information about Qeerroo not to brag about my very modest contributions, but to qualify myself for this article and solicit the readers’ confidence for my argument. With this done, let me present a brief history of the origin of Qeerroo from my vantage point. To keep the focus on the subject at hand, in this issue I will address only matters directly related to the history of the Origin of Qeerroo.
Unless specifically stated otherwise, by the term “Qeerroo” I refer to the organization of “Qeerroo Bilisummaa Oromoo” (QBO), translated as Youth for Oromo Freedom. When a reference is made to an individual “Qromo youth” the term “qeerroo” will be used – with the letter “q” not capitalized. QBO is used to distinguish this original organization from other imposter groups that were created later for promotional purposes.
The origin of Qeerroo
As a prelude to pinpointing the beginning of Qeerroo, it is helpful to note that in my November 2011 article I indicated that the Oromo Students’ Movement (OSM) has gone through a qualitative change by forming a coordinating body for civil disobedience known as Qeerroo. Here is an excerpt from that article.
“In April 2011, the Oromian Students Movement (OSM) underwent a qualitative change. Inspired by the Arab Spring, Oromian youth all over the globe came together by forming a coordinating body for civil disobedience known as the National Youth Movement for Freedom and Democracy (NYMFD) aka Qeerroo. In Afan Oromo “Qeerroo” literally refers to an unmarried young person. It can also mean simply a young person.”
Note that this article was published just six months after QBO was formally founded in April 2011. There was no organization by the name of Qeerroo prior to this month of year. There is no other organization by this name at any time before or after 2011 other than QBO. QBO emerged as an organized social movement out of a prolonged struggle of the Oromo students against the tyrannical regime led by the TPLF, operating in the country’s higher education institutions, particularly since the 1990s.
Researchers, human rights groups such as Amnesty International (AI), Human Rights Watch (HRW), Oromia Support Group (OSG), and the Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa (HRLHA) among others have extensively reported about the OSM tied to whole host of government abuses. Some of the most noticeable series of protests that occurred between 2002 and 2005 were those held in opposition to the Bale and Borana wildfire, the transfer of offices of the Oromia regional government to Adama, and the closing of the Macha Tulama self-help association.
Then came a major series of protests, which started on 9 November 2005 and continued non-stop until early 2006. During all those years, the protests were organized by local student organizations bearing various names such as “Oromo Student Union”, “Oromo Student Association”, and so on. However, the most perceptible of all was OSM. The involvement of the OLF in organizing those student bodies is not something that can be stated explicitly in those days since the OLF was labeled a “terrorist organization” by the regime. However, it is simple to make the deduction if one is willing to conduct minimum research. The overwhelming violations of human rights occurred because of allegations that one is a member of the OLF. This has been thoroughly corroborated by almost all human rights groups. For example, in its 2003 annual report on Ethiopia, the HRW states:
“The state [of Oromia] claimed that the OLF had infiltrated schools, organized students and teachers, and “instigated them into engaging in violence and acts of lawlessness.” A journalist who had been on the scene told Human Rights Watch that angry residents in a village outside Shambu, some of whom possess illegal firearms, shot at police who were pursuing a student leader seeking refuge in the village.”
This report and many others make it clear that the OLF was involved in organizing those protests.
After the formal establishment of Qeerroo in 2011, there were several ways that the existence and activity of Qeerroo manifested itself quite vividly. Some of these are:
- The Qeerroo website
- Sagalee QBO (Qeerroo radio),
- Hawwisoo QBO (Qeerroo Artists’ Group),
- Tumsa Qeerroo Idil Addunyaa (International Qeerroo Support Group).
Below I discuss each of these three connections in brief.
The formal establishment of Qeerroo in 2011 was immediately followed by the creation of the Qeerroo website. The website has become a very important tool in communicating the activities of Qeerroo to the public and putting out the statements of the organization. Unlike many websites that are stagnant for weeks or months, the Qeerroo website was updated daily with reports of activities of qeerroo on the ground and the reports of the brutality of the regime from every corner of the vast Oromia region. For example, during the first month of the creation of the website, April 2011, there were 48 posts. In April 2014, 109 posts, in May 2014, 178 posts, and so on. The complete list of posts by month from 2011 to date is available at this link. The activities reported on the website from such a vast region of Oromia for such a long time are clear indications that the Qeerroo organization was not just on paper but that was rather a formidable, organic, and highly disciplined underground organization that spearheaded widespread activities on the ground.
Sagalee QBO–Qeerroo Radio
In January 2014, Sagalee QBO shortwave radio was launched to disseminate information to audiences in the Horn of Africa. This radio became a very important tool to reach out to the vast majority of qeerroos and the public in Oromia who do not have access to the internet to hear about the activities of Qeerroo on the ground. The radio was continuously broadcasting three days a week for half an hour each day from 2014 to this day. These radio programs were also posted on YouTube and Facebook for the wider audience around the world. (To listen to these radio programs, one just needs to type “Sagalee Qeerroo Bilisummaa Oromoo” in the YouTube search engine.)
Hawwisoo QBO (Qeerroo Artists’ Group)
Another remarkable accomplishment of QBO was the establishment of a revolutionary Oromo artist group known as “Hawwisoo Qeerroo Bilisummaa Oromoo”, (“Oromo Youth for Freedom Artists’ Group”) – about the same time Qeerroo radio was established. The songs produced by this group were distributed on YouTube and other social media. It had a profound contribution to the Qeerroo movement, inspiring and energizing the Oromo youth all over the world. In one of the articles I posted online on December 4, 2014, I have listed 19 songs of this group and commented that Hawwisoo QBO is a living proof that the Qeerroo organization is a well-organized entity. Some of the songs listed in that report were:
Qeerroon Diina Mancaase, (Qeerroo is about to exterminate the enemy), released on 31 August 2014.
Gootni Baroode, (The hero roaring, released on 4 September 4 2014.)
Baranoo Goonni si waama, (This year the hero is calling you,) released on 3 May 2014:
Tumsa Qeerroo Idil Addunyaa (International Qeerroo Support Group)
The fact that the Qeerroo organization was underground created a problem about how the Oromo Diaspora could support the Qeerroo financially. Funds were much-needed as the activities of Qeerroo expanded throughout Oromia: stationery, musical instruments for the Artists’ Group, satellite for the Qeerroo radio, cell phones, computers, cameras for recording the activities, medical expenses for qeerroos injured during protests, funeral expenses for those who were killed by the regime, transportation expenses, and so on.
To alleviate these problems, a group of qeerroo members who are in the USA and around the globe came together and formed a legally registered nonprofit organization called “International Qeerroo Support Group”. In 2016 alone, a record shows that $188,814 was collected from the Diaspora Oromos and supported QBO for the expenses described above. While the actual leaders of Qeerroo are unknown, the leaders of the International Qeerroo Support Group are well known, and they had direct contact with the actual leaders of Qeerroo on the ground. This group had an enormous contribution to the success of the movement.
The “Spontaneous” Claim
There is a widely held misconception that even research-minded scholars took as factual. For example, Dr. Terje Ostebo’s analysis entitled “The Role of the Qeerroo in the Future Oromo Politics” in Addis Standard online magazine, dated 26 May 2020, made a wild assertion that “Qeerroo is a spontaneous social movement without any formal structures”. No evidence was presented to corroborate this claim except quoting some “informants”. Otherwise legitimate sources cited in the paper were unduly dismissed, by reason of “it is difficult to verify these claims”. The author began by describing how Qeerroo came to fame in 2014 in opposition to the Addis Ababa master plan and explains how it “became instrumental in the transition that brought PM Abiy Ahmed to power”. He then states, “There are many unknowns when it comes to the Qeerroo”. It is understandable that investigating the inner mechanisms of an underground and unregistered organization such as Qeerroo can be challenging. Yet hundreds of Oromos including the claimed leader were and are still available to clarify, before putting erroneous assertions for the public to consume. Yes, many of the details of the structures of Qeerroo remain unpublicized for obvious security reasons and hence deemed “unknown” to an outsider. When adequate and convincing data are not available, the researcher must refrain from making sweeping conclusions and seriously flawed assertions that ultimately harm the truth.
To disprove the spontaneous assertion, one must look at the events leading to the major protests which occurred at the end of April and the beginning of May 2014. The major and bloodiest protests occurred on 30 April and 1 May, 2014, in several towns including Ambo, Nekemete, Haromaya, Jimma, and Ciro. To create a link between Qeerroo and those major protests, it is sufficient to examine what had been reported on the Qeerroo website on the weeks and days leading to 30 April. Those reports are still available (in Afaan Oromoo) on the Qeerroo website, and therefore I have inserted a link for each incident to help the inquisitive reader.
On 13 March and 20 March, the Qeerroo website reported that Oromo students of Shakkiso Preparatory Secondary School, Guji zone, staged two separate peaceful protests. On the same day 20 March, the Qeerroo website reported that Oromo students of Jimma University staged a peaceful protest on their university campus. On 22 March the website also reported that Oromo students of Haru Chululle School, South West Shoa zone, staged a peaceful protest. These are just a few examples to establish the link between Qeerroo and those protests. It must be noted that, at the time there was no other organization, group, or even individual who gave such a well-coordinated report other than Qeerroo through its website and Qeerroo radio, Sagalee QBO, which broadcasts three times a week for half an hour each day.
The above reports are circumstantial pieces of evidence that shed light on why the 2014 series of protests are unlikely to have been spontaneous, enough to create a reasonable doubt on the validity of the “spontaneous” claim. The following evidence, which still exists on the Qeerroo website, combined with a series of reports about the protests on the Qeerroo website (links provided below), proves, beyond any doubt, that the April/May protests were planned and executed by the Qeerroo organization – QBO.
On 2 April 2014, about three weeks before the major and bloodiest protests occurred, Qeerroo released a statement from the “Central Committee of QBO” calling the Oromo youth and the entire Oromo nation for revolt against subjugation in general and against the so-called “Addis Ababa Master Plan” in particular. This call was the beginning of the widespread protest that later engulfed the entire Oromia. No other organization or entity made such a call during this period. Here is an excerpt from that statement:
“The dictatorial Woyane [TPLF] Ethiopian regime has openly declared through its media that it has a new plan to expand the city of Finfinnee [Addis Ababa] by evicting Oromo farmers from their ancestral land to exploit and control the natural resource of Oromia by incorporating several surrounding Oromo towns such as Burayu, Sebeta, Laga Tafo, Holota, Aqaqi, Dukam, Bishoftu, Laga Dadhi, Qalitti, Galan, and several other Oromo communities under the Federal government. To abort this Plan; protect the natural resource of Oromia; protect Oromo farmers from eviction so that they can live in peace maintaining their land and property; all Oromo nationals should stand together without any pre-condition, based on Oromumma [Oromoness] alone, and ignite Revolt against Subjugation [Fincila Diddaa Gabrummaa] (translation mine)”.
(Read the full statement in Afaan Oromoo from this link.)
Following this call of QBO, the Qeerroo website reported (supported with audios or videos of the protests for which links are provided below) that Oromo youth protests were intensified all over Oromia: 11 April in Jimma University [video], 16 April in Adama Science and Technology University, 20 April in Mattu University, 25 April in Ambo University [audio] and Haramaya University [audio], 26 and 27 April in Wollega University [audio], canbe cited as examples. On 28 April, Qeerroo website reported that protests spread to several universities, colleges, and high schools: Adama University, Mattu University [audio], Bule Hora University, Gedo Preparatory Secondary School, West Shoa Zone, among others. On the next day, 29 April, protests spread all over Oromia: Ambo University, Adama University [video], Mattu University, Nekemte, Shambu, Dembi Dollo, Gudar, and many others. On 30 April, Qeerroo reported more protests all over Oromia, the bloodiest one in Ambo town [audio] in which dozens were killed by the so-called “Agazi” forces of the regime. On 1 May and 2 May [video from Mendi and audio from Ayira towns, West Wollega zone] protests engulfed the entire Oromia region. These are very few of the many detailed reports, including videos and audios that were constantly posted and still available only on the Qeerroo website.
After the 2014 protests subsided, on 7 July 2014, Qeerroo compiled a list of 61 Oromos that were killed during the protests and 903 that were arrested. What is more striking is that this list is from all over Oromia and contains details such as full name, sex, age, address, and grade level. One must ask how is it possible for the Qeerroo group to collect all these data, supported with videos and audios, daily from such a vast Oromia region under strict government supervision? Besides, why is it that these data turned out to be largely accurate and are found only on the Qeerroo website/radio and other affiliated websites/radios (such as SBO, OVR, Simbirtuu, all of which were affiliated with the OLF as well)? The only conclusion one can arrive at is because they are the ones who were organizing those protests and they had their organizational structures on the ground all over Oromia.
The above argument and the evidence presented, not only discredits the “spontaneous” claim, but also conclusively establishes the fact that the 2014 protest was planned, organized and led by QBO, not an “an informal and decentered manner.” It may be noteworthy to mention a fact, that Jawar Mohammed had testified on many of his public interviews that “qeerroos, who were organized in different forms, are leading this movement,” without claiming leadership role. I will come to this point later, at least briefly.
Ka’i Qeerroo! (Rise up Qeerroo!) – The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) Artists Group (Eritrea) (YouTube)
Apart from examining the sequence of events leading to the bloody days of 30 April and 1 May, many other episodes show that the protests were well organized. For example, there were many instances when protests were seen to have been ignited at various places simultaneously, at the same time and on the same day. Such concurrent action would be very unlikely to have occurred in the absence of a centralized management. Another way to know that the protests were well organized is that the protesters were chanting and holding uniformly the same slogans at all places, showing that the slogans have been distributed from a central body and location. So, if we believe that there should be some organized entity that planned and led the protests, who could that “organized entity” be? Based on the above sequence of events and the evidences presented, it should be clear that all fingers point to QBO. No other entity was constantly reporting the struggle of the Oromo youth over the months and years leading to the April/May protests other than Qeerroo. Therefore, the April/May 2014 series of Oromo student protests were planned and led by QBO.
Before I leave this section, I will briefly present one more conclusive evidence that shows that the 2015 protests were also organized and led by QBO. We all know that the 2015 Oromo protest started on November 12 in Ginchi, a small town of West Shoa Zone, some 40 km west of Finfinne [Addis Ababa] and engulfed the entire Oromia like a wildfire. On 4 November, eight days before the start of the protest in Ginchi, the Central Committee of QBO released a statement stating that a “fire of protest is about to engulf the entire Oromia”. The very title of the statement reads:
“ Waggaa 10ffaa FDG Sababeeffachuun Abidda Warraaqsaa Oromiyaa Guutuutti Qabatuuf Deemu Ilaalchisee Ibsa Gabaabaa Qeerroo Bilisummaa Oromoo Irraa Kenname”, roughly translated,
“QBO’s Short Statement Regarding the Fire of Revolution that is about to Engulf the Entire Oromia in Memory of the 10th Anniversary of ‘Fincila Diddaa Gabrummaa’ (Revolt against Subjugation).”
(Read the full statement in Afaan Oromoo here)
How did they know a “fire of revolution” is “about to engulf the entire Oromia” before it happened? There is only one answer. They have been preparing for it. In fact, based on information I had at the time, they prepared for it for more than three months. There are two things persuasively declared in this statement. 1) A fire of revolution is about to ignite. 2) The fire is going to engulf the entire Oromia. It turns out that both happened after one week, on 12 November. In a homicide investigation, if a suspect is found on record to have said he/she will commit that crime before it happened, then this will be presented as an evidence of guilt to the court. The same analogy applies here. Qeerroo declared “a fire of revolution is about to engulf” before it happened. The fact that it indeed happened clearly shows that QBO organized and led the 2015 Oromo protests.
The issue of Qeerroo leadership has been left for speculations, innuendos, and soft claims – rendered a disservice to Oromo recent history. And yet, it has not been even a decade since the movement brought the Ethiopian regime to its knees. Many of the leaders of Qeerroo are around, a phone call away in most cases. My purpose here is simply to set this known record straight and correct the misapprehensions on the history of Qeerroo, which I have intimately known from its inception and continuously chronicled for years.
Among the denting statements, I have read about Qeerroo leadership, a mistake of historic proportion, is Dr. Ostebo’s narrative referenced above in which he surmises:
“What seems clear, however, is that there existed very limited horizontal structures among the Qeerroo across Oromia. Key were the vertical structures wherein Jawar Mohammed was – and still is – the main hub.”
Citing just one informant, a total leadership role of a formidable network is unjustly attributed to one person, “everything went through Jawar, it is he who gave the orders.” This is a classical mistake of trusting the words of a misinformed informant.
As mentioned above, credit to Jawar, he never stated he is the founder of Qeerroo or even the leader of Qeerroo directly, but he played a game that made him the leader—implicitly. The author could have had a simple interview with Jawar to validate some of the sweeping conclusions he made. It is obvious that the progression of his writing called for such validation.
Below, I present the chronology of events of the Qeerroo , and conjecture on circumstances that led the public to believe such distortions, mainly to show that many followed the wrong trail, but also because the topic of Qeerroo’s leadership commands further scrutiny than has been afforded hitherto.
Jawar Mohammed started to rise to prominence in Oromo politics in 2009 when he published his controversial article entitled “The Failed Journey of OLF” in which he proclaimed the OLF was “damaged beyond repair”. The article offended many friends but also pleased many foes of the OLF. In the months that followed, he was constantly invited on many “Habesha” talk shows, radio programs, and the then flourishing Paltalk rooms for exposing the inner predicaments of the OLF. He became a hero in the “unity camp” and a villain in the eyes of many Oromos for the years to come.
In 2013, during an interview on Al Jazeera’s “The Stream,” Jawar was asked whether he was “Ethiopia first” or “Oromo first”. Perhaps not anticipating the outcome, Jawar responded he was “Oromo first”. When asked to clarify, Jawar went even further saying “Ethiopia was imposed on him”. His response became a firestorm; many in the unity camp labeled him a “traitor” and even a “terrorist” – a label that is tagged to him by his political enemies to this day.
Nevertheless, not all was lost for Jawar. Oromo friends who shunned him for years came to his rescue. The controversy surrounding that interview continued for months and Jawar was once again at the center of attention. The “unity camp” threw the kitchen sink at him while the Oromo camp praised him as a hero. In the eyes of many Oromos he was considered a lost boy who suddenly came back home; his popularity skyrocketed in both the Oromo and the non-Oromo camps in vastly conflicting contexts. Everything he has done and the damage he caused in demonizing the OLF was forgotten and forgiven.
Using his prominence as an opportunity, Jawar organized what he called “Oromo First Community Engagement” meetings in major cities all over the globe where many Oromos reside. Fast forward, this community engagement campaign resulted in the establishment of the first Oromo satellite TV, the Oromia Media Network (OMN). At the time, the establishment of this Diaspora TV excited Oromos. Jawar’s popularity became an asset in drawing large crowds and raising funds. Soon OMN was established and few months down the road, Jawar became the director and the key person who controlled the media. Jawar and the OMN became two sides of the same coin.
The establishment of OMN coincided with the beginning of series of Oromo protests that engulfed Oromia in the months of April and May 2014. At that time, while some of the major news flash intermittently broadcasted on OMN, many details including names and pictures of victims, audios, and videos of the 2014 protest were found only on the Qeerroo website: www.qeerroo.org. Jawar and OMN could not communicate with organizers of the protest on the ground. Qeerroo leaders operated under the direct guideline of the OLF, and Jawar’s relationship with the members and leaders of the OLF was tainted to say the least.
According to one former leader of the Qeerroo who wanted to be anonymous, Jawar has attempted to put the Qeerroo under his leadership. He contacted some of the individual Qeerroo leaders lobbying them “to abandon the OLF and work with him instead”. He promised them more support including financial benefits. The Qeerroo leadership turned him down and consequently refused sharing him any contact information of key Qeerroo members on the ground. Jawar reacted by denying any media coverage to the Qeerroo at such a crucial time. In fact, the term Qeerroo never came out of Jawar’s mouth nor was the name Qeerroo mentioned on OMN TV he controls in the next three or four years to come, until sometime late 2017 (more on this later).
The 2014 movement continued for a couple of months and was subdued until a much bigger Qeerroo protest begun on November 12, 2015, the popular #OromoProtest, spreading throughout Oromia. At this time, a fierce debate broke out within the inner circles of leaders of the OLF and the QBO organizations on how to use the then only Oromo media of OMN without a possible security breach to their organizations. Giving names and telephone numbers of qeerroos on the ground to an untrusted individual may create a leak to the security forces of the regime endangering their safety.
The issue was not only Jawar himself. The leaders of the OLF and Qeerroo did not trust some of the OMN journalists handpicked by Jawar. They had some tough choices to make. Continue denying Jawar and OMN the necessary information they needed and disabling information access from home or leaving their differences aside and providing Jawar and OMN with all the updates of the protests on the ground. They rightly made the second choice. This time all members of Qeerroo on the ground were ordered to forward all news updates, pictures, videos, etc. of the protest directly to Jawar. He was on his Facebook 24/7 posting updates of news, pictures, videos, and audios of the movement he received from individual qeerroo members on the ground minute by minute before they were even announced on OMN. Every news about the movement came out through Jawar and he appeared on OMN daily; gave analysis on the movement, often acting like the commander in chief. Although he did not have any access to the Qeerroo leadership, he was acting as if he was the one giving orders.
Using his unlimited access to OMN he told what the next step in the protest was utilizing some leaked information from the qeerroo members he gained access and common sense. He routinely talked about what he called “strategic advice”. When he realized he already had tremendous influence, he simply bypassed the Qeerroo leadership and provided written instructions on his Facebook and Twitter. He provided instructions on OMN, making it look like he was the actual leader. At times, his instructions contradicted those given by the Qeerroo leadership on the ground, but it was Jawar’s instructions that were heard more on the media.
His Facebook gained over a million followers many of which idolized him as the sole leader and a “hero”. In a short time, he became the face of the Oromo protest. To the outside observer and many Oromos, it appeared as if he alone was the one leading the movement. It is from this context that an informant may have thought “Jawar was the hub—he was the one giving orders” and that “everything came through him”. It is true that he “gave orders” but his orders were generally given over the media and to some of his individual fans here and there, not through the organizational structure. The fact that he appeared on the media and acted as if everything was going through him made many Oromo youth to believe that he was the actual leader of Qeerroo. Consequently, the misconception that Jawar is the “leader” and even the “founder” of Qeerroo has been widespread so much so that it even made its way to Wikipedia as a valid piece of information.
The “leader” of Qeerroo?
The chronology of events presented above shows how Jawar appeared to be the sole “leader” of Qeerroo to the outside observer and to the public. However, he could not have been in the leadership team of the Qeerroo organization for obvious reasons. Note that, Qeerroo was established in 2011 and that there was/is only one organization by the name “Qeerroo”. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, the word “Qeerroo” was never mentioned by Jawar on any media until around the end of 2017. The first time Jawar mentioned the term Qeerroo was when he made interview on OMN on 23 August 2017. Therefore, he could have not been a leader of the organization he never mentioned its name and certainly he could not have been the “founder” as Qeerroo was established in 2011. As indicated earlier, it was his unlimited access to media and his prominence, that led the public into believing that he was the “leader”.
There was one incident when the fact that Jawar was not the leader of Qeerroo was noticed by the public. A couple of days before 10 October 2017, a call was distributed over social media for Oromia-wide protest against the regime, starting Wednesday, 10 October. This was without the knowledge of Jawar. The actual leaders of Qeerroo on the ground called the protest, this time being careful that their plan would not be leaked to anyone including Jawar. Since many believed Jawar was the leader of the overall Qeerroo movement, many asked him if the call was legit. He forcefully responded that “there was no protest called by Qeerroo for that Wednesday” and added that Qeerroo all over Oromia are “planning when and how an overall protest is going to take place.” He further promised that he will announce when that happens.
Many of his followers also came out on social media live video and announced that the call for protest was fake and done by an “unknown” group. A surprise came when qeerroos came out in large numbers and protested holding the OLF flag on that Wednesday, 10 October and on the coming days for about a week. It appeared to have become a blow to Jawar. Unusual for him, he refrained from posting the popular protest for the entire week. Furthermore, the OMN refused to cover the protest for that week. Jawar even went further and called the protest as being “orchestrated by the TPLF regime” and the large number of OLF flags that showed up on those protests “were distributed by the security forces of the regime”.
The ‘illusory truth effect’, a widely known phenomenon in psychology, states that if a falsehood is repeated often enough, it will slowly be started to be believed as true. In a society such as ours, the power of media has traditionally been underestimated. Prominent figures with big megaphones and those who own the media can control the narrative even if that narrative is factually inaccurate. The current U.S. President Donald J Trump once said the president before him, Barack Obama, was born in Kenya. Even though it was a lie, many people came to believe it, and this became a headline on almost every talk show, cable news and newspaper for months. Since the controversy couldn’t go away, President Obama was forced to produce his original birth certificate and the then Governor of the State of Hawaii where Obama was born had to come out and validate it, hoping to put to rest the “birther conspiracy”. Trump then alleged the certificate was “fake” and the controversy continued. As early as September 2016, even after Trump was forced to admit in public that Obama was born in US, only 62 percent of registered American voters believed Obama was born in the US. Perhaps dared by his success, Trump throws out lies or misleading claims every day: more than 18,000 of them since he held office according to The Washington Post.
Unfortunately, Jawar and the OMN, the media under his control, propagated a misleading narrative about the origin of Qeerroo, and even high caliber scholars capable of finding their way through more complex research labyrinth fell to the trap. Every time Jawar appeared on the media, he postured as if he is the sole leader who gives orders to the Qeerroo. However, he knew those who are doing the job are those who are on the ground, who unfortunately do not have access to media. This is unfair to those real qeerroo leaders, and in the long-term, harmful to Jawar’s legacy too.
Many Oromos are hesitant to come out and tell the truth because of Jawar’s influence and the weight his devotees carry to tarnish or attack his critiques. Many others including me chose silence because we believed that in as long as the claim remained away from the mainstream data source and archives, it is harmless, and therefore no need to tweak. In addition, there is a concern that the issue may promote internal clash at the cost of the Oromo struggle. As a result, the tale continued spreading, ending in the pages of reputed media outlets, distorting history in front of our eyes. There came a time to put the record straight, with proper and honest tribute as well as recognition to Jawar’s formidable role in the Qeerroo movement.
The objective of this piece was to bring to light the general misconception that the organization of Qeerroo is “spontaneous” and give a brief background on the origin of Qeerroo. In addition, Jawar’s contribution also deserves attention and recognition but in a proper rightful context. While it was the well-organized QBO who was doing the actual activities on the ground, those activities could not have been known to the Oromo public and to the wider world if it was not for Jawar and the OMN. Jawar has been well-versed in and advocated for the methods of non-violent struggle. He co-translated the famous book on non-violent movement by Gene Sharp, “From Dictatorship to Democracy”, in April 2011, the same month QBO was established, to Afaan Oromoo. He communicated eloquently and tirelessly what he called “strategic advice” to the Oromo youth on the media he controlled and various other outlets and became an inspirational figure to the Oromo youth.
Consequently, he became the primary target of all who are against the struggle of the Oromo people for democracy, freedom and justice – including the former TPLF-led regime and the current Ethiopian government led by Abiy Ahmed and his Prosperity Party. All media outlets affiliated with the government and others led by ‘Amhara extremist’ groups are waging a bitter propaganda campaign against him calling him extremist and even a “terrorist”. The Ethiopian government charged him with terrorism in absentia in February 2017, charges which were dropped in May 2018, few months before his return to Ethiopia.
After his return to Ethiopia Jawar gave his full support for the Abiy government. He repeatedly said “Oromoon amma bilisoomeera” meaning “Oromo people are now liberated”. He openly advocated against armed struggle. In one of the interviews he made on OMN, he forcefully stated, “even if it is my brother, any attempt to overthrow this government by force, is an act of disintegrating Oromia and Ethiopia. … Any attempt to overthrow Abiy Ahmed is an attempt to fail the Oromo people”.
He spearheaded a group of Oromo elders who exerted pressure on the OLF leadership resulting in the disarmament of several hundreds of members of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). It is this unrelenting support he rendered that Abiy betrayed today. Today Jawar is in prison, along with several opposition leaders including Bekele Gerba, Shigut Geleta, Kennasa Ayana, and many others. It is the duty of all Oromo nationalists and the Qeerroo to continue the struggle until these heroes and the entire Oromia becomes free from political injustices.
Before concluding this piece, it is probably appropriate to touch on the current status of Qeerroo and the destruction of property and tragic loss of lives following the assassination of a star Oromo Artist Hachalu Hundessa on 29 June for which Qeerroo is widely accused. The widespread protest that forced the government to shut down the internet and phone services for weeks demonstrated that Qeerroo Bilisummaa Oromoo, whom the Abiy government attempted to weaken by arresting and killing the leaders and by forming pseudo organization called “Qeerroo Haromsa”, has been fully reorganized and in full swing.
Preparations for an Oromia-wide protest were already underway before the murder of the singer simply because almost every Oromo youth believed that the Abiy government and his Prosperity Party have reversed everything the Oromo nationalists and the Qeerroo movement achieved over decades of bitter struggle. Therefore, Qeerroo gave orders of protest everywhere the same night Hachalu was murdered.
Following the call, the fierce protest engulfed the entire Oromia, including the capital, Addis Ababa, resulting in the complete shutdown of all government and non-governmental activities. However, it has to be clear that the looting, destruction of property, and killing of civilians reported to have occurred in some districts of southern Oromia and the capital did not occur under the leadership of Qeerroo. Never in its history since its inception in 2011 had QBO committed such crimes. The organizational “Principles and Guidelines” of QBO states:
“Our attitude will be one of openness and respect toward all we encounter in our actions.
- Qeerroo will use no violence, verbal or physical, toward any person.
- Qeerroo will not destroy or damage any property.
- Qeerroo will carry no weapons; we will not bring any drugs or alcohol.
- If participating in a nonviolent direct action, such as civil resistance, we will not run or resist arrest; we will remain accountable for our actions as a means of furthering our witness to the injustice of the brutal system.”
It is this high level of organizational discipline that led the Qeerroo to success. There is no doubt that the reported destruction of property and attacks on civilians was committed by a spontaneous and disorganized mob that are outraged by the killing of their beloved singer and the arrest of opposition leaders mainly Jawar Mohammed. Therefore, the accusations that are thrown against Qeerroo, mainly from non-Oromo media outlets and groups, demonstrates their luck of knowledge about the organization.
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Editor’s note: This article was submitted before Hachalu’s assassination, and so before the arrest of Jawar.
Main photo: Oromo students at Jimma University organized by Qeerroo Bilisummaa Oromoo on hunger strike 11 December 2015. All Oromo students put their food on the table, crossed their hands over their heads all at the same time—the sign of the Qeerroo movement—and left the cafeteria all together. This kind of protest was common in almost all universities. Photo: Geesse Bilisummaa
Editor: William Davison