I, Jawar Siraj Mohammed, plead not guilty. But before I offer my views on the specific accusations against me, I would like to make two general observations of central significance to me and my colleagues. We believe the accusation against us is politically motivated and that our arrest, detention, and trial were driven by two main political objectives.
First, the government fabricated the charges against me and other leading members of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) to prevent us from running in the forthcoming election. Because the ruling party knows that it has very little chance of winning seats against us in the Oromia regional state, it decided to pre-emptively remove us from the political space by concocting a trumped-up charge that has nothing to do with me and my colleagues. That is why we are here today.
Second, we see this trial as a trial of the collective aspiration of the Oromo people and our ongoing struggle for political emancipation and self-governance. The nature of the charges chosen by the prosecution and the narrative that accompanies those charges demonstrate that the case is not simply against us, the defendants named in this case, in our individual capacity. This is a charge deliberately put together by the government to defame, belittle, delegitimize, and denigrate the struggle of the Oromo people.
Having said that, I want to comment briefly on the specific charges against me and some issues raised the state prosecution. In summary, the charges against me include (1) ordering attacks against Orthodox Christian clergies, (2) inciting violence among nations and nationalities, specifically against ethnic Amharas, and (3) conspiring to overthrow the government through force.
Your Honours, these accusations are not only false and wholly untrue, but they also contradict my world views, background and track record as an activist.
First, I am a product of a marriage between a Muslim father and a Christian mother. My father, Siraj Mohammed Tufa Jillo, is a Muslim Arsi Oromo. My mother, Fantu/Shemsi Tola Buli Bune, is a Christian Tulema Oromo. I married to Arfase Gemeda, a protestant Christian whose parents are from Borena and Mecha Oromo. Arfase has been a tenacious and unfailing defender of the Oromo people who has been on the Oromo political scene long before me.We have a son who we named Oromo.
In addition to being a product of a marriage between a Muslim father and a Christian woman, I also work with people of diverse religious backgrounds. I could not have the kind of irrational and bigoted religious animus against Christians when I grew up in a religiously diverse household and working with people of diverse religious background or fighting for a religious diverse community. But the reality is that this accusation is false and inconsistent with my background and track record. For me, religious equality, tolerance, and peaceful co-existence are not just important principles that I uphold in my public and private life but also an integral part of my lived experience. For me, respect for diversity and plurality is a way of life, not some facile gesture I talk about because it is politically convenient.
I find this accusation ludicrous and so wildly outlandish. I will leave the ultimate judgement to the court, but I want the honourable court to know that these accusations were not new and they were part and parcel of a broader campaign against the Qeerroo movement and the Oromo quest for self-determination. This campaign has been ongoing for decades but intensified in recent years. As an individual who played a key role in this movement over the last decade, I have been targeted by a well-coordinated and financed campaign by the government and its supporters. A key part of this campaign is to vilify and demonise me by conjuring an image of a violent and radical Muslim. What makes the current situation different is that these same allegations are being levelled against me at an official level camouflaged as a question of law and justice. I want to make it clear that this accusation, which draws on deep-rooted Oromophobic and Islamophobic tropes, is deliberately manufactured by those on power to construct an alternative image of a violent Muslim fanatic to advance their goals of delegitimizing my cause and disparage the struggle of the Oromo people.
I was also accused of inciting ethnic violence, particularly against the Amhara. Again, this is simply not true. Everyone who has followed my political career over the years knows that this allegation is completely untrue and contrary to the political strategy I have pursued and the alliances I have managed to build. I do not deny the fact that I have spoken out in defence of diversity, plurality, and multi-ethnic federalism in Ethiopia, and that my vocal defence of these values has angered those who do not like the idea of diverse communities existing side by side in peace and harmony. I never believed that the interest of any society would be advanced by attacking any other society for any reason whatsoever.
Let me offer a few examples to support my point here:
(1) During the struggle against the EPRDF regime, I and my fellow activists were able to develop an inclusive and accommodating strategy that is focused on putting pressure on the ruling elites than targeting civilians living in Oromia. We collaborated with activists with Amhara nationalist movement. We enabled and provided support for the OPDO and ANDM to work together to facilitate a smooth and orderly transition. I have played an important role in the formation and implementation of the cooperation between the two nations, known as Oromara. We prevented horizontal communal conflict that targets minority ethnic groups who lived in Oromia, and we showed that our struggle was with the oppressive government regime instead of individuals belonging to one or another ethnic group. No Tigrayan was targeted in Oromia.
(2) On my return to Ethiopia in August 2018, I travelled to Bahir Dar, the Amhara regional capital, to explore fostering collaborative and constructive relationships with representatives and elites of the region. I advised the youth to push for a peaceful and democratic transition by resolving the historical and contemporary divisions between the Amhara and Oromo political communities through dialogue. During my stay in Bahir Dar and after I returned to Finfine, I met with senior officials and tried to create a forum for political scholars to continue negotiations between the two nations. Although the allegation against me is that I exposed the Amhara people to attack, I did the opposite. My accusers today are well aware that I have long been trying to bring the Oromo and Amhara people together for a peaceful and prosperous future.
(3) The border clashes between Oromia and Somalia a few years ago is another evidence demonstrating my commitment to bring together communities and resolve disputes by peaceful means. After returning to Ethiopia, I worked hard to bring peace between the two nations and renew the solidarity between them. I invited tribal leaders from both sides of the border for dialogue. I travelled to the area and countries around the world where influential figures from these communities were located such as Kenya, Minneapolis, Djibouti, and Dubai, where I worked with others to bring people together in a spirit of solidarity and reconciliation. These efforts have helped foster a more peaceful co-existence between the two communities.
(4) I have also travelled to Harar to help resolve the dispute between the Harar city administration and the rural residents of the Harar region. I met with Harari and Oromo elders and religious leaders and discussed with regional and neighbouring zone leaders, to find a peaceful and timely resolution to the crisis. Similarly, I have played a vital role in the process of bringing peace to Dire Dawa city where I worked tirelessly with the city administration and local elders to create an environment of understanding to solve the issues.
(5) Nearly two years ago, a large-scale ethnic conflict broke out in Western Oromia. Leading to the collapse of the government structure and leaving the local population vulnerable and without protection. Bekele Gerba, the second accused in this case, and I went to the area to find an amicable resolution to the problem. And through dialogue and stabilization, we have been able to reunite the people who were cut off from the rest of the country, reopen closed government institutions, and restore social and economic ties. After the visit, we have returned back to Finfinnee and reported the grievances we had heard from the public in the form of a report to the federal government officials and military leaders. Also, we have proposed a solution and begged the concerned bodies to address the matter immediately. But our pleas have been ignored, and the situation in the area has now escalated.
Honourable court, I spent my entire political life – my time, knowledge, and energy – to bring people together and make peace. Contrary to the allegation, I strived for equality and justice rooted in mutual respect and co-operation.
The third and final allegation against me is that I armed Oromo youth to overthrow the government by unconstitutional means. This is entirely false and concocted by the authorities to give substance to the image of a violent Muslim Oromo nationalist the administration tried to depict to scare its supporters. In my political career, I never advocated armed struggle as a means of political struggle. I am known for advocating for peaceful change. I also practised what I preached in public. This is known by the majority of Ethiopians, including my accusers. I believed and continue to believe that peaceful resistance is a more resilient and safe method to bring about a positive and democratic change in societies.
My fierce support and defence of peaceful resistance were based on extensive research into various resistance movements from the anti-colonial periods to the present. I have gained theoretical and practical knowledge studying at world-leading academic institutions such as Stanford, Oxford, and Columbia Universities and their scholars who have done extensive research in the field. I travelled from India to Serbia to work in think tanks and develop my understanding of non-violent resistance methods and the conditions for a successful peaceful resistance in a country like Ethiopia. I had the opportunity to serve as a consultant and analyst for organisations working on the causes, and consequences of the Arab Spring.
We were able to peacefully change the dictatorial system in our country within a short period because we pursued a strategy that took account of Ethiopia’s past and present as well as the various actors operating within the political space.
Given what we have achieved through a peaceful means in 2018, Your Honour, there was no reason for me or my comrades to change our strategy. Indeed, after I decided to get involved in formal politics, I decided to join the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), which participated in peaceful struggle for the last two decades despite conditions that rendered a peaceful struggle impossible.
After I returned to Ethiopia, I spent considerable time trying to find a way to get Ethiopia beyond a culture in which political power is gained and secured through the gun. I urged the government to implement the DDR (Disarm Demobilize Reintegrate) program as organizations that were struggling to achieve their political goals through armed struggle returned to the country. Your Honour, another notable moment is two years ago when as a result of the large-scale conflict and the collapse of government structures in Western Oromia made the entire population extremely vulnerable. The second defendant, Bekele Gerba, and I, along with the Abba Gadaas, Haadha Siinqees, and Oromo scholars, were able to accept the mission of both sides and travel to the conflict zone to resolve the conflict. Although the attempt to bring lasting peace has failed due to the failure of the government to implement the DDR, we made a concerted effort to resolve the differences between the warring factions and to end the vicious cycle of war in our country.
In conclusion, Your Honour, this case is not about accountability or justice. This case is not about legality or rule of law. We are not charged because we committed a criminal offence. We were arrested and detained because the ruling party felt that it could not win an election in Oromia if my party is allowed to participate in a free, competitive and fair election as mandated by the constitution. As I stated at the outset, this case is also goes beyond me and my party. This case is designed to squash the dignity of the Oromo people and besmirch the Oromo national struggle for self-determination. Since the beginning of Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule, the Oromo have been the victim of systematic economic exploitation and political oppression. Subsequent Ethiopian governments did the same. They humiliated the Oromo people and denigrated the Oromo national struggle. The case against us and other Oromo leaders bear the hallmarks of such an attack against the Oromo aspiration.
It is important to note that it was the Oromo people who lost the precious voice of freedom, artist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, on 29 June 2020. It was the Oromo people who were accused of killing their icon and imprisoned in thousands. It was the Oromo who were subjected to an unprecedented propaganda campaign by the government and its supporters, accusing our tolerant community of massacring minorities that lived among us for nearly a century where the reality is that the overwhelming majority of those killed in the violence were Oromos. Contrary to the toxic propaganda by callous forces who unashamedly used the violence to galvanise support for their campaign of dismantling multinational federalism, most of those who lost their lives were killed by government forces.
Therefore, Your Honour, the case before this court is an extension of these political campaigns against the Oromo cause and those of us advocating to advance this cause. We are being tried for acts of incitement only because the ruling party wants to seize power without a democratic challenge and impose its ideology on the Ethiopian people without any real option. As events over the last few months have demonstrated, it is now clear what lies behind these charges and our unjust detention and why such an approach is leading our country down a dangerous path.
Lastly, Your Honour, I am not before this court because I committed a criminal offence. I am here because I stood for and vigorously defended the cause of my people. I am a political prisoner standing trial because I unapologetically fought to advance the wishes and aspirations of my people, which the authorities found threatening.
Jawar Siraj Mohammed
March 22, 2021
Finfinnee, Oromia, Ethiopia