Lemma Megersa was the most consequential story
(OPride)—On November 30, 2015, speaking at a town hall meeting in Burayu, a little-known Speaker of the Oromia State Assembly (Caffee Oromia) said: “As for the Integrated Addis Ababa Master Plan, even if it is for the benefit of the Oromo people; even if it were to pour gold on us, it will not be implemented if rejected by the public; it will not be implemented. The sky does not break up, nor does the earth burst.”
The speech resonated with his audience and catapulted Lemma Megersa to a national spotlight out of relative obscurity. About a year later, on October 23, 2016, he was elected chairman of the regional ruling party and president of the Oromia National Regional State. He took over a badly run state government in the midst of unprecedented protests and a brutal security crackdown, vowing to “address the legitimate concerns of the youth.”
All told, at the onset of 2017, few ordinary citizens knew his name. By its end, Lemma has become a household name—not just in his home state of Oromia but also throughout Ethiopia. A topic of discussion by his fans and detractors alike, Lemma’s meteoric rise beats all expectations. What is most remarkable is that the 47-year-old leader is still part of a reviled Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist since 1991 and presided over one of the worst human rights abuses on record.
Lemma’s rise isn’t an accident of history. He is the latest iteration of Oromo leaders serving the Ethiopian state—aspiring to also equitably serve his own people as well. In years past, such overtures to the Oromo public by prominent Oromo members of the Ethiopian state didn’t end well.
Lemma has his own skeptics. Many in the country and outside still wonder how far he can go to redress the historical and contemporary grievances of the Oromo people. Can he finally deliver on the Oromo aspiration for self-rule and equitable representation in Ethiopia’s social, economic and political life?
There are reasons to be hopeful: For one, his transformation into the darling of the Oromo came on the back of three years of stubborn protests that have effectively remade—at least rhetorically—a one-time docile Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO), the junior partner in the four-party EPRDF, into something of an opposition.
Born and raised in Gudeya Bila woreda, East Welega Zone, Lemma was a largely unknown quantity prior to 2015. Still a relative newcomer to the national politics, Lemma rose through the ranks of OPDO. He’s served in various capacities in the regional administration since the 1990s. It seems as though every role he’s taken prior to his ascent to the regional presidency was carefully selected in preparation for this moment.
He spent most of his formative years within the Oromia state’s security sector. Insiders say, his acute understanding of the country’s politics and the inner workings of its security apparatus is what prepared him for the current role. Among other high profile positions, he has served as Oromia police commissioner, head of the Oromia Administration and Security Bureau, as well as Head of Trade and Market Development Bureau.
Lemma earned his first degree in Political Science and International Relations from Addis Ababa University; and his second degree in International Relations from the same institution.
Like him or loathe him, when Lemma speaks everyone in Ethiopia and its vast diaspora listens. If OPDO becomes the people’s party in 2018 and beyond, it owes much to Lemma’s powerful oratory, charismatic leadership, and a genuine concern about the Oromo condition.
For 27 years, OPDO served its founder, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), also a member of the EPRDF coalition, with enviable loyalty.
Under Lemma, there are signs that the era of blind loyalty is coming to an end: He came on the scene and boldly proclaimed, “I took the oath of office to serve my people not shadowy elements hiding behind the cover of strict adherence to party dogma.” This will be tested of course and Lemma has much to prove to the Oromo — or walk the talk so to speak. He has a near universal goodwill and unprecedented support of the Oromo masses.
He exhibits the qualities of great leaders. He inspires confidence in his colleagues and elevates everyone around him, according to OPDO officials. He is greeted with flowers, cheers, and ululations wherever he goes. Elders offer him unsolicited prayers and blessings at public gatherings. He has won over many skeptics by taking on robber barons, entrenched contrabandists, corrupt politicians, and crony businesses.
On Dec. 11, when federal military forces killed 16 innocent civilians in Chelenqo town, Lemma called out the central government for deploying the national army and police without Oromia’s request per the country’s constitution, which forbids such deployment without a formal request by the state. He vowed to hold perpetrators to account. It was not an empty threat. Earlier in the year, perhaps for the first time since EPRDF came to power, members of the armed services were brought to justice in Oromia for wanton killings of peaceful protesters in Shashamane, Awaday, and other towns.
His politics of inclusion and a recent public forum in the Amhara state has endeared him even to urban elites who spent two decades campaigning against the federalist system and battling Oromo nationalists on group vs. individual rights.
Lemma doesn’t sugarcoat his speeches with party speak. Instead, he speaks with a measured tone—often without any visible notes or transcripts—at once validating his constituents’ fears and concerns and offering visions for future that are anchored on Oromo culture and values. His speeches encapsulate both the suffering and the hope with which the Oromo people lived for generations. But his is no victimhood politics. He challenges the youth to look inward and overcome nihilism, disunity and believe in their ability to change the course of history.
“Aren’t honey bees a type of insect?” he said in a well-received speech last February. “But what is it that they are most admired for? Their unity. The organized swarm (colony) has a leader. They follow that leader and make sweet honey. In unity, there is a strength. Without the colony, scattered honey bees are just like any other fly. And anyone can squash a fly.”
Lemma is far from perfect. No one leader is. But he offers a prototype of what an Oromo leadership in Ethiopia can be. His bold claim that Oromos hold the stump key to build a better Ethiopia —a truly multinational federation that is at peace with itself—is at the heart of the age-old Oromo question.
“Oromos will determine the fate and future of this country, Ethiopia itself,” Lemma said in the February speech. “Let alone development, Ethiopia cannot continue to exist as a country without Oromos full participation and without affording the Oromo people their fair share.”