My two cents to break the deadlock between the Oromos and Unity Camps [by Assegid Habtewold]

Assegid Habtewold
Assegid Habtewold

Researches recognized that many change agendas fail not because of resistance to change. It is due to wrong responses to resistances. Many people tend to think that all resistances are one and the same. And hence, they use the same response to all resistances. To give you a quick background, experts in the field agree that there are three major levels of resistances to change. People resist at Level 1 since they don’t understand the change at all. Those who resist at Level 2, they capture the change agenda very well but they don’t like the change. People who resist at Level 3 do grasp the change and also like it but they don’t like the change implementers (or who they represent).

These different levels of resistances require different kinds of responses. Giving more data, statistics, examples, stories, and so on may be appropriate to people that resist change at Level 1 so as to assist them comprehend it. Helping overcome fear and doubts, and showing them the benefits they may gain personally and/or collectively from the change, and so on are the right responses at Level 2. Level 3 resistances demand a different kind of response, and they are the most difficult ones to overcome. Such resistances are due to lack of trust, most of the time. Sadly, trust cannot be generated over night.

Let me ask you. What happens if someone keeps barraging you with more data while you are resisting the change as you don’t like it or you don’t trust him/her (or who they represent)? I’m sure, rather than endorsing the change, you may display one or more of these signs. You may get madder, frustrated, and/or question whether the person has respect toward your intelligence. The more they push you with the wrong responses, the more you resist. You got the point.

For your information, Level 1 resistances are at intellectual level while Level 2 are emotional, and Level 3 resistances are at heart level. It takes your awareness and picking the suitable response to a resistance in gaining buy-in from the people who resist your change agenda. One thing you should pay closer attention is that many people may not be aware at what level they are resisting, or unable to articulate their resistance at the right level. And consequently, it looks like they are resisting at Level 1 while they may be resisting at one of the higher levels. Besides, it is hard for some people to come out and be vulnerable to say that they’re scared of the change. It may be embarrassing for some to admit that they are resisting the change (your proposal) due to the fact that they may lose control or become irrelevant once the change is implemented. Some people may not have the courage to tell you straight to your face that they don’t trust you or what you represent. Hence, it is your responsibility to dig deeper and pinpointing the nature of resistance you are facing. This is your obligation to figure out at what level people are resisting, and most importantly, responding at the right level if your desire is to transform resisters into allies.

Once you have got the background, let me confess why I decided to write this quick article. In recent days, social media and the mainstream diaspora media outlets have been swamped with responses to the idea of Oromo activists, community leaders, and politicians meeting in Atlanta in November to deliberate on the future of Oromo people. As a change management expert, I’ve been following this issue very closely without being emotionally attached to it. I’ve read articles written by advocates of unity, and also listened to the responses of some of the organizers of the event. It seems that both camps have some difficulties to understand the level of resistances they are experiencing from the other camp, and most importantly, they are unable to articulate their responses appropriately.

First, let me start with proponents of unity. It looks like you haven’t completely comprehended yet the concerns of Oromos about their future in the post TPLF Ethiopia. I cannot speak to all Oromos (though I’ve a little bit of Oromo blood in my veins). Nonetheless, I bet that they understand the importance of unity. I’m also sure that they love other Ethiopians from other ethnic groups. Do go far to figure that out. In recent months and weeks, Oromos around the country demonstrated solidarity with their Ethiopian brothers and sisters in Amhara and other regions. What is more? Some of the Oromo leaders publicly declared that the people of Oromo would love to live together with their brothers and sisters from other ethnic groups. I presume that the fear many Oromos express is at Level 3. They are wondering whether they would achieve self-governance and treated as equal citizens in the new Ethiopia or not. In short, Oromos are being cautious, that is all. And, we (I’m in the unity camp) shouldn’t be surprised considering our past. I know you may have so many ‘responses’ in your head as you read this section. You may say, well, these aren’t the Oromos alone who were mistreated in the past, and so on. Put these responses aside for a while. Oromos have heard most of your arguments. You cannot change their mind and cause them to drop their guards by bombarding them again and again with the same data. Do you remember what I said earlier? Many people treat all resistances as Level 1 and respond accordingly, and that is why many change agendas and partnerships fail? Well, we who vouch for a different kind of Ethiopia that treats its people including Oromos the same and equally need to reexamine our responses. We need to come up with appropriate responses to give the people of Oromo genuine and authentic assurances if we want them to buy into our unity agenda.

Unfortunately, so far, many in the unity camp barrage Oromos with Level 1 and 2 responses. Is it helping? No. What Oromos are expecting, whether they express it explicitly or not, is trust. They are (consciously or unconsciously) asking, “Are those who promote unity trustworthy?” “Will Oromos have a different experience and destiny in the future Ethiopia that is unlike the past?” These are fair questions that require proper responses. Otherwise, how can they be sure that we have taken their genuine concerns seriously if we keep shelling them with the same arguments till they bleed to death? Remember, the more you do this, the more you harden their heart and the more they question your motive and trustworthiness. We cannot address these kinds of resistances at intellectual or emotional levels by telling Oromos the importance of unity and/or what Oromos might enjoy from unity thousands of times. The question is how can leaders in the unity camp connect with their counterparts from the Oromo community at heart level, and generate trust? The challenge is that trust cannot be generated with more data, emotional appeals, begging, or pressuring, manipulating, threatening, or even by appeasing, and so on. Let me share with you a story that may shed some light on how responding at the right level may help to break deadlocks.

I won’t tell you the organization that arranged the event, nor its leader. I can tell you, nonetheless, that the occasion brought some of Ethiopia’s best children from diverse backgrounds into one room. Some of the participants wouldn’t have come that close if it were not because of the person who organized the session. Many of these individuals have thousands of followers and have their own unique brand. They’re smart and completely recognized the importance of the occasion. They also liked the idea and the person who invited them. The organizer tried his/her best to create a consensus and hoped the group would deliver something at the end of the brain storming session. Time ran out and it seemed impossible to reach consensus. Most importantly, it looked like this group consisted of high profile Ethiopian leaders in the diaspora wouldn’t be able to use that critical moment to issue a strong message of solidarity.

I was invited to this event as an attendee. I was closely observing some of the resistances from the backside of the room. When the session was on its last legs, the host of the event asked me if I might come forward to lead the brainstorming session. To be honest, though I’m a trainer and speaker and don’t have stage fright, it was quite frightening to stand in front of leaders I admire and respect a lot without preparing myself, especially while it looked like things were going south. Fortunately, my trainer, coach, and consultant instinct kicked in and I thought on my feet on how to break the deadlock. Coincidently, I was preparing to lead a change management workshop the following week, and the materials were fresh in my mind. I quickly recognized that these people don’t need further data or argument from me to understand the timeliness of the occasion and the need to deliver what the host expected of them right there. I decided to be influenced, and thus, allowed them to have control over the outcome of the meeting. I said, “If you guys don’t want to do it, fine, let’s call it quit. Or, you are already here, and you understand the importance and the urgency of the matter, and therefore, take 15 minutes and prepare yourself to say whatever you want.” The room was quite for a while, and it felt forever. I didn’t know what to expect. Within those few seconds, some thoughts crossed my mind though. I wondered what the host would think of me if they take the first option, and walk away from that room after he spent days and days in preparation and investing hundreds of dollars? Would he forgive me for giving them a way out if they take it? Well, that is the power of trust. When they knew that they had control and could walk away without any pressure, it generated trust and they were willing to deliver what they were asked right away. I’m not sharing this to brag about it. I didn’t do anything except tapping into a principle that works. When you face Level 3 resistances, allow yourself to be influenced. And, when people see that, they most probably buy into your change agenda (proposal).

Of course, I admit that breaking the deadlock between the Oromos and unity camps may not be as easy as facilitating a brain storming session among less that two dozens of leaders under one roof. Yet, it’s not a rocket science. It’s possible if the two camps reconsider the ways they are expressing their concerns, and most importantly, the approaches they are using to respond toward resistances from the other camp.

The question to advocates of unity is how can we generate trust? How can we allow ourselves to be influenced by Oromos who already understand the importance of unity, and its advantages toward the people of Oromo? I don’t want to prescribe any approach here. I’m sure that there are many smart leaders in the unity camp who could come up with smart ideas and approaches. What I’d say is that this is high time to understand the genuine quest of Oromos, and to build a strong bridge between the two camps based on trust. Let’s stop pressuring, and twisting hands. It doesn’t create a win-win partnership between Oromos and the rest of ethnic groups in Ethiopia, especially with Amaharas. What I’m saying is that Oromos quest to have self-governance and equal rights in the post TPLF Ethiopia has been met with the same responses that delivered nothing except more resistances. It is time champions of unity to change their approaches.

Coming to the leaders of Oromos, as much as you want the people who push for unity remain trustworthy, you should also proof that you’re trustworthy too. Rather than responding at level 1 or 2 for the resistances you face from supporters of unity, find ways and approaches to generate trust by responding at Level 3. I’m sure that people like myself who promote unity understand your quest. They just don’t know how to express their concerns about your quest at the right level though it seems as if they are resisting at the lower levels. Otherwise, I never met any proponent of unity who doesn’t want to see Oromos are treated fairly and equally in the new Ethiopia. I presume that many in the unity camp love Oromos. For that matter, many from this camp either they have Oromo blood in their veins (like myself) and/or knotted with Oromos in marriage and/or have relatives who are Oromos and/or do business with Oromos. Even if they may not have any direct relationship with Oromos, many understand that Oromos are the largest ethnic group and one of the most significant parts of Ethiopia. As some of the activists in the unity camp expressed it so many times, without Oromos and their contributions to Ethiopia, the history of Ethiopia is incomplete. Not only that, the future and destiny of Ethiopia and the people of Oromo is inseparable. By the way, not just the people I talked to, Ethiopians from other ethnic groups clearly understand this truth. A simple proof is the recent protests. Protesters in Amahara region, for instance, expressed their love and solidarity to the people of Oromo and their leaders who are in jail.

That being said, I cannot speak for millions of proponents of unity. However, I bet that they are concerned about the future of other ethnic groups in the new Oromia. This concern has some merits. Though TPLF played a key role for ethnic violence and tension, some people got murdered and hurt in some parts of Oromia. Within the fake federalism designed by TPLF, many non-Oromos in the region have been disfranchised and unable to lead a decent living because they are not Oromos or unable to speak Oromifa (this is also true in other regions, not unique within Oromia). Of course, we’ve already heard from many leaders of Oromos who are vouching that something like these won’t happen if Oroms get self-governance. (Let’s be on the same page here. When I say self-governance, I’m not talking about cessation here. Why the largest ethnic group leaves a union? It doesn’t give sense. I’m talking about the self-governance of Oromos within the new Ethiopia.) Though these promises are great, they couldn’t generate trust by themselves. The problem is that Oromo leaders couldn’t be able to demonstrate adequately how Oromos self-governance won‘t squash the rights of individuals within Oromia. So far, you have given all kinds of explanations at the lower level (Level 1 and 2) in an attempt to convince protagonists of unity that your quest is fair and equitable. However, it’s not enough.

And therefore, these are my two cents for Oromo leaders: a) Articulate why you resist the appeal of the people in the unity camp. Do you remember earlier? Many people have difficulties to express their Level 2 and 3 resistances. To wipe out confusions, you may need to sit down and articulate your concerns. Explicitly indicate that your resistances are at Level 3. People in the unity camp should be clear that you’re not resisting at Level 1 and 2. To do that, why don’t you unmistakably express that you understand the importance of unity, and its benefits to the people of Oromo using unequivocal terms? It doesn’t hurt to admit that unity is strength and the people of Oromo would be better of if they unity with other ethnic groups in Ethiopia. You might have said it before but it hasn’t clicked to many of the people in the unity camp. Let me give you a quick eye opener. Have you noticed? Most journalists ask Oromo activists questions that are coined to get clarifications as if their resistances to the idea of unity is at Level 1 and 2. Of course, there are a few activists who are promoting cessation. I’m not talking about them. They have the right to express their views. I’m talking about those Oromo leaders who believe in unity as far as the new Ethiopia respects the full rights of Oromos. Hence, I suggest for Oromo leaders who believe in a win-win unity to spell out your Level 3 concerns in clear terms. b) Prepare your responses to the people who resist the quest of Oromos at Level 3. You should clearly demonstrate that people who resist your quest understand your aspirations. You should also recognize that these people love to see you be happy and satisfied within the new union. Most of the resistances you face from unity camp may seem at Level 1 and/or Level 2. They may consider my suggestions and be able to articulate their concerns at Level 3. That is their homework. From your end, change your approaches to clarify that your resistances aren’t at Level 1 and 2 but rather they are Level 3 concerns. And most importantly, prepare to respond at Level 3 for those that are in the unity camp who have genuine concerns. Remember these: consciously or unconsciously, many from unity camp are asking, “Are those who promote the self-governance of Oromos trustworthy?” “Would other ethnic groups within Oromia have a safe and equitable future in the new Oromia?” How can people in the unity camp be sure that you have taken their genuine concerns seriously if you keep responding at lower levels? Let me stop it here. Hope, my two cents are helpful to break the deadlock, and in turn lead toward the two camps forging a strong force that brings lasting, equitable, and just changes in Ethiopia…

[1] Dr. Assegid Habtewold is a leadership expert at Success Pathways, LLC. Assegid can be reached at ahabtewold@yahoo.com

1 COMMENT

  1. To all useless intellectuals!!

    Yesterday it was the issue of Eritrean separation that was a distraction. And now this issue of Oromo or Jawar and bla bla is becoming useless point. People are dying. Right now the most important question is to remove woyanie. This so called Ethiopian oneness is a distraction. Come on make soul search. Woyanie came to divde Ethiopia and is still there. yet you still worry about unity. Survival first!! What is the purpose of unity when we do not live as humans? It is not a priority question. Organize, arm and fight. You can keep the unity of Ethiopia only if you can do this. The rest of talk is useless. Stand up from your couch and fight.

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