Oromo Freedom from What and for What
By Mekuria Bulcha, PhD*
In the three debate articles I have published on this subject in the course of this year, I have argued that history and the current situation speak for Oromo independence in assessing the so-called declaration made by a group that split from the OLF positing that the objective of the Oromo Liberation to form an independent state of Oromia has been “dropped” in favor of a “new democratic federal republic of Ethiopia.” In the second article, I have made a call for a declaration of our preferences and for an articulation of a common vision, and above all, a conviction that speaks for the sovereign state which our people deserve and are aspiring for. In the third article, I have provided a critical analysis of the arguments being made by other observers against the formation of an independent Oromo state.
In this article, I will present the arguments which, in my view, express the Oromo claim for sovereignty, that is to say an independent state of Oromia. The article starts with the fundamental issue of peoples’ right to seek independence from a colonial rule and discusses at length issues, such as the right to life, the right to life worthy of human beings, and the right to a life free from fear instigated by the state and its agents, which precipitate in general the Oromo quest for sovereignty. At the core of the argument is the conviction that (a) freedom is an inherent human rights, which no one has the right to deny any people, and (b) that the Oromo, who, given the bitter experience of not only a century-long colonial oppression, but also of the brazen betrayals of their trust by Abyssinian ruling elites many times in the past, have no choice, but draw on their rich human and material resources, restore their freedom, and establish their own sovereign state. In addition, (c) the article will answer the question why having their own sovereign state is crucial for the Oromo people in achieving social, cultural and economic development.
The article has four parts, including this one. In this one, I will show that the on-going Oromo struggle is not only about freedom, but also about survival as a people and culture. I will describe and analyse the role of culture in the struggle, including the way the Oromo rejection of Ethiopiyawinet (Ethiopian identity) is expressed culturally. The important, but unacknowledged, role which Oromo music, art, literature and culture are playing in promoting Oromummaa (Oromo identity) is highlighted. It argues that art, music and culture in general have increasingly become the most potent weapons in the Oromo struggle for nationhood and statehood. The article demonstrates that the most passionate theme with which Oromo writers, poets, artists and other agents of Oromo culture are engaged today is bilisummaa — independence. In addition, the article exposes the futility of the TPLF regime’s effort to kill Oromo nationalism by imprisoning, torturing and assassinating Oromo artists. Furthermore, it criticizes the pro-Ethiopia Oromo politicians who are busy trying to shelter our nation under the shade of a non-existing democratic state of Ethiopia, instead of paying attention to our people’s aspiration, which the works of our artists and other Oromo cultural activities express.
The other three parts of this article will be forthcoming consecutively during the coming six weeks.
A Word on Freedom and Sovereignty
Freedom, or bilisummaa in the Oromo language, is a subject which has preoccupied the Oromo since their land was conquered at the end of the nineteenth century. This is particularly the case of the last forty years during which the Oromo people have been conducting intensive political and protracted armed struggle for national liberation. Thousands of Oromos have died fighting for liberation during the last four decades. Tens of thousands of Oromos were also jailed, tortured and marked with traumas that will follow them for the rest of their lives. Tens of thousands of them are in Ethiopian jails even now.
The Oromo struggle for freedom is being fought, not only with firearms, but also with other means. Thus, Oromo scholars, artists and politicians have produced all kinds of literature concerning the quest for freedom. During the last two decades, the “war with words” has taken the upper hand over the armed struggle, and the words of Oromo scholars, poets and artists are playing a decisive role today. In fact, Oromo poets and artists have, during the last few years, taken the frontline, and are becoming the leading figures and spokespersons of their people’s national quest for sovereignty. Even here, the struggle is not without its casualties; many Oromo poets, journalists and artists have been imprisoned, tortured and murdered by the present regime. The list of artists and poets, who were imprisoned, tortured, killed or made to “disappear” or were forced into exile during the last twenty years, is long too enumerate here.
In this article, it suffices to focus on the contribution of some of the artists and writers. I will start with the contribution of Jaarso Waaqo, who was one of the well-known Oromo poets and martyrs of the struggle. What makes Jaarso Waaqo an interesting case is his background and speed with which his message could spread among the Oromo. Jaarso had never gone to school. He composed political poetry which he recorded on cassettes. The cassettes became very popular and were spread in Oromo communities both in Oromia and Kenya in the early 1990s. Jaarso grew up in the Borana region of southern Oromia in the town of Moyale on the Kenyan border. His poetry became an effective means for uniting and mobilizing the different Oromo communities for the struggle led by the OLF which Jaarso joined in 1991. The poems expressed feelings of rage against Oromo oppression under the regimes of Haile Selassie and Mengistu Hailemariam, and indeed the harassment suffered by them under the present EPRDF regime. Above all, the poems advocated for Oromo unity, which Jaarso believed was the only remedy for the harms being inflicted on the Oromo under Ethiopian domination.
The following quotation is from “The Poetics of Nationalism,” which is a collection of poems by Jaarso Waaqo translated to English by Abdullahi Shongolo and published as an article in Being and Becoming Oromo (eds. Baxter, et al 1996). Jaarso writes:
“Come”, they called us.
If we refused, we would be killed,
if we came, we would be flogged.
Was there really any hope of life for us?
There is no idling away, but to direct your thoughts
to liberate yourselves
Now patience is no longer tolerable,
it’s time to find an end to servitude,
Let us unite our strength,
our Great God is there for us, our Great God is there for us.
As indicated in the quotation, Jaarso tells his countrymen to unite and get rid servitude. He believes that God is on their side.
Needless to say, Oromo poets and artists are not alone in the world in expressing the popular feeling of this sort against foreign domination. Be it against domestic oppressors, or alien rulers, popular struggles have almost always had their artists and poets who express the feelings of the masses. For example, compare the content of the following excerpt from a poem by the Hungarian author, Sándor Petöfi, with the feelings expressed in Jaarso Waaqo’s piece cited above. Petöfi wrote,
Rise up, Magyar, the country calls,
It’s ‘now or never’ what fate befalls …
Shall we live as slaves or free men?
That’s the question – choose your ‘Amen’!
God of Hungarians, we swear unto Thee
We swear unto Thee – that slaves we shall no longer be! …
Petöfi was one of the greatest Hungarian nineteenth-century authors. Many of his revolutionary works reflected the Hungarian desire for freedom from the Austrian Empire. His poems in particular symbolized the passion of the Hungarian people for independence during the revolutionary uprising of the 1840s. One of his poems, Talpra Magyar (“Rise, Hungarian”), from which I took the excerpt cited above, was written on the eve of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 and became the national anthem of Hungary after independence.
It is interesting to see that passion for freedom expressed in Petöfi’s poem is almost replicated in Jaarso Waaqo’s poem. Obviously, lives in nineteenth-century Hungary and twenty-first century Oromia are worlds apart. However, in spite of the great differences between the two poets, their aspirations for sovereignty are similar. Although I cannot go into details here, even the degree of oppression to which the two artists were exposed differed much. It seems that the Habsburg dynasty, which ruled the Austrian Empire, was far more humane in the treatment of its subjects than the Abyssinian rulers of the Ethiopian empire state have ever been to theirs. However, the yearnings of the two poets were similar. Both Jaarso Waaqo and Sándor Petöf equate lack of sovereignty with slavery. With both poets, a life worthy of human beings is at the heart of their quest. It is not just individual rights which they claimed, but also national sovereignty, which is the right of a nation to assert power over its territory. We know from history that foreign rule is seen nowhere as legitimate: it stirs collective aspirations for sovereignty wherever it occurs. The Habsburgs ruled an empire, and were considered foreigners in Hungary and in other states which became independent when the Austrian Empire disintegrated. The one specific thing Oromo poets, dead and alive, have in common with Hungarian poets like Sándor Petöfi, is the quest for national sovereignty. Freedom from colonial oppression in all its visible and invisible dimensions has been the burning issue that underpinned the struggle of the Oromo for independence.
Conditions that instigate sovereignty claims
There are at least three major political and historical conditions which have instigated demands for secession or independence of territories from states or empires, and have set off the creation of new sovereign states in the aftermath of World War II. The first condition concerns conquest, annexation and colonization of territories by states or empires in the past. Thus, the European colonial conquest in Africa in the nineteenth-century, and in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean before that, led to the creation of numerous new states in the aftermath of World War II. The indigenous populations, which lost their inherent rights of self-government as the result of colonization, were empowered by an international convention underlined in the Declaration on Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (Resolution 1514 (XV)), adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1960. Many countries, which were European colonies in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific region, became sovereign states after the UN had adopted the declaration.
The second condition that justifies the creation of a new state is a prolonged conflict leading to massive violation of human rights involving a state and a nation, or an indigenous group with a specific homeland or territory. There is a tacit agreement among scholars, human rights activists and international statesmen that the creation of new sovereign states would be justified where such a situation obtains and when no solution is in sight. The creation of new states during the Balkan crisis of the 1990s, particularly those of Bosnia and Kosovo, can be cited as an example here.
The third circumstance which leads to the creation of a new state occurs where inhabitants of a sub-state or territory show the desire to secede from a state or an empire of which they have been a part for a long time and build their own state. This has happened many times in the past and is still today in progress in some parts of the world. A history of conquest, annexation and mistreatment is often in the background even here. This was, for example, the case of the Ukrainians, the Georgians, the peoples of Baltic States and others who seceded from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (in effect from the Russian empire) in the 1990s. However, the immediate reason that stirred the desire for secession differs from case to case. Although parts of the Ukraine was under Russian rule for over 300 years, its separation from Russia, after such a long period of co-existence, was motivated to a large extent by sovereignty which Ukrainian politicians and intellectuals had striven to achieve for a long time. National sovereignty and national identity are the two reasons given by the peoples of Baltic States. The separation of former Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993 occurred because the Slovak nationalist demanded their own sovereign state. The fact that Slovakia was less developed and less prosperous than the Czech region did not prevent them from making such a decision. The decision was not opposed by the Czechs.
Today, there are a number of nations around the world that are aspiring to build their own sovereign states using both violent and nonviolent methods. To mention some of them, Scotland’s quest for an independent state, dissolving a three-century long union with England, is instigated by Scottish aspiration to live under the umbrella of their state. The Scots will use the ballot box to achieve their goal. So will the Catalans, who are conducting a political struggle to separate from Spain, of which their territory was a part since for a long time. The French-speaking Quebecois, who will secede from the rest of Canada, will also use the ballot box. Today, the Kurds are waging an armed struggle against Turkey to establish their own state of Kurdistan rejecting the identity which the Turkish state will impose on them.
The Oromo experience
Ethiopian colonialism and its atrocious human rights violations, which are the legacy of a colonial conquest, are the main grievances that stir the struggle of the Oromo people for an independent state today. The Oromo have been waging a sustained political and protracted armed struggle to build their independent state since the early 1970s. By and large, they have rejected Ethiopiyawinet or Ethiopian identity, which the Ethiopian rulers have been trying to impose on them. To understand the Oromo claim to an independent state, it is necessary to put it in a historical context. I will not go into the debate in any detail here. I will start this discussion by briefly pointing out the link between the Oromo claim to sovereignty, and the conquest and colonization of their country by the Abyssinians in the nineteenth-century. I will point out the fact that the application of the term “colonialism” to the Abyssinian conquest and annexation of the Oromo country is controversial, particularly among the Ethiopian ruling elites. What is controversial is the nature of the conquest: whether it was colonial or not. What is relevant to our discussion here is when and why the controversy arose.
Behind the denial of Ethiopian colonialism
That the Oromo were conquered by the Abyssinians is a fact which nobody denies. That the time of the said conquest coincided with the European scramble for Africa is also not contested. The Ethiopian ruling elites started to deny the colonial origins of the Ethiopian Empire because, following the end of World War II, to be called colonialist became not only unfashionable, but even a violation of the spirit of the UN Charter of 1945. It meant giving up a colonial possession when freedom was claimed by those who were colonized. Therefore, the Ethiopian ruling elites were quick to start denying the colonial nature of their late nineteenth-century conquest of the south once the question of colonial territories came up on the agenda of the UN. In fact, Haile Selassie was worried about the Oromo, who were demanding independence from Abyssinia (that was what Ethiopia was called in mass-media and diplomatic documents) before the UN Charter was declared.
There are several events which had caused Haile Selassie’s worries, and which are on record as such. I will mention here the two most important ones. On the eve of the 1936 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the Western Oromo Confederation was established under the leadership of Habte Mariam Kumsa, a member of the Bakare royal family and governor of Wallaga, sought recognition unsuccessfully from the League of Nations. Five years later, following the collapse of Italian occupation in 1941, the Oromo petitioned the British, who were involved in driving the Italians out of Northeast Africa, to form their own independent state. Although the Oromo demand was supported by British officers who were assigned to Abyssinia, the British government reinstated Haile Selassie on his throne in 1941, and the Oromo came under the Abyssinian-cum-Ethiopian colonial rule once again. Alerted by these Oromo demands, the Abyssinian ruling elites started to raise their tone of denial as soon as the de-colonization of Africa started in the late 1950s. Emperor Haile Selassie championed the formation of the Organization of African Unity, and his well-orchestrated anti-colonialist politics played also an important role in hiding the colonial history of his empire. However, the denial efforts did not silence the Oromo and the other colonized peoples. They continued with their struggles against Ethiopian colonial occupation.
The Abyssinian-cum-Ethiopian colonization of the south, which was a tabooed subject for political or academic discourse, was raised first by the Ethiopian Student Movement of the 1960s. One of the events which brought up the “colonial question” for student debate was the Bale Oromo uprising of the 1960s. Since then, it has been discussed widely. However, the debate did not go beyond a few slogans about the history of colonialism which were tossed back and forth to prove or disprove the colonial nature of Abyssinia’s participation in the scramble for Africa. But, today, any objective historian, who has an adequate knowledge of Ethiopian history and an adequate grasp of the history of colonialism at large, cannot deny the colonial nature of the Abyssinian conquest of what is today southern Ethiopia.
To underscore the relevance of colonial argument in the ongoing Oromo claim for independence, I will highlight a few important points to show that the Oromo situation under Abyssinian rule is similar to the situations of other African peoples when they were under European colonialism.
In the first edition of her book The Government of Ethiopia (1948, reprinted 1969), Margery Perham wrote, “The provisions in the United Nations Charter for the direction of international interests upon all ‘backward’ people who have been annexed to empires of foreign rulers, which have been willingly accepted by Great Britain, would seem to apply with complete propriety to regions and people conquered by Menelik.” Perham was referring to the UN Charter of 1945 of which Ethiopia (which was at that time known as Abyssinia) was a signatory. Chapter XI (Article 73) of the Charter requires that countries owning or administering colonies “to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples, and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions.” That is to say the Oromo and the other peoples, who have been annexed to the Abyssinian Empire created by Menelik, have as much right to realize their political aspirations as other African peoples, who were colonized by European powers at the same time.
As indicated above, Perham wrote her book before the colonial nature of the Ethiopian Empire became controversial. Although she mentions the UN Charter, it does not mean she was an anti-colonial agitator. She was suggesting that, if Great Britain can do that regarding its colonies, Ethiopia can do the same. It is important to note that Perham did not see colonialism negatively. She entertained the view that colonialism, including its Abyssinian version, was progressive. Although she was critical about the excesses of Abyssinian colonialism, she admired Emperor Haile Selassie’s effort to spread the Amharic language and assimilate the Oromo into the Abyssinian Christian culture. As her use of the phrase “backward people” indicates, in her opinion, the colonizers were “civilized” and will “civilize” the colonized.
Perham was not alone in holding the view described above. In fact, in those days, owners of colonies, including the Ethiopian ruling elites, were not only very proud of their status as conquerors and colony owners, but saw themselves also as benefactors of the colonized peoples. They saw themselves as moral superiors with the right to rule and “guide” the “natives.” In his book Ethiopia: Power and Protest (1996), historian Gebru Tareke, himself from the colonizing north wrote, “Exhibiting different manners and habits, the new rulers were not without pretensions to a ‘civilizing mission.’ They tried much like the European colonizers of their times, to justify the exploitability of the conquered peoples by stressing the historical inevitability and moral validity of occupation.” One can say, they were basking in the glory, which the colonial powers of the day were enjoying. Abyssinia was the only African power in the colonialist club.
As the Swedish historian Norberg stated, Menelik was, not only able to demonstrate to the European powers that he was also ‘a legitimate colonial power’ in the scramble for territories, but also behaved as an owner of colonies. It is important to recollect here that Menelik entered the race for colonies as an Italian proxy and broke with them after he became emperor of Ethiopia with the death of Yohannes IV in 1889. It was then that Menelik sent his famous circular letter of 1891 declaring that he, too, was “a legitimate colonial power.” At that point, Menelik was strong enough to revoke the Treaty of Wuchale defying the Italians, who, ironically, were sending arms to him even after he had revoked the treaty – hoping that he would remain loyal to them and help them build their colonial empire in the Horn of Africa. Finally, however, the revocation of the treaty led to the battle of Adwa and the defeat of the Italian forces.
The Distortions about Adwa
The victory at Adwa is taken for victory over European colonialism and imperialism. That a black African force had defeated a white European army at Adwa in 1896 is beyond doubt. But, the representation of Adwa as an anti-colonial war and the victory as African victory over colonialism is an atrocious distortion. Menelik relinquished the role he was playing as an Italian proxy at the battle of Adwa and became a member of the colonialist club in his own right. Colonialism lost color there and then. One can be white, brown or black, and own a colony if one can fight for it. The European mass media of the time reported that fact. The Spectator of 27 February 1897, for example, reflected the British view of the matter stating that, although Menelik, his queen, and his generals care little for human life, “this native dynasty of dark men,” nominally Christian, is “orderly enough to be received into intercourse with Europe.” The European colonial powers recognized ‘the dynasty of dark men’ as their junior partner in the scramble for colonies.
Back from Adwa, Menelik continued his competition with the British for territories in the south and southwest. It is interesting to note here that now he, not only got rid of the status of proxy in the white men’s competition for colonies in Africa, but he could even employ white men as his proxy in the expansion of his colonial domains. Thus, in a letter he wrote on the 7th of June 1897, he told the Russian adventurer Count Leontiev “… by this letter, I inform you that it is my wish to appoint you forever over the land on the limit of which you open. So as to pay for your losses, we will give you as much as five years gratis; but after that, if in the land you have opened be found any gold, silver, ivory or coffee … so shall you pay your tribute. This land on the limit that I give will be on the south side of Ethiopia” (cited in Greenfield and Hassan, “Interpretation of Oromo Nationality,” Horn of Africa, Vol. 3(3), 1981). Count Leontiev and his men became Menelik’s proxy, albeit their investment in the conquest of the Baro River valley in the southwest, did bring them much profit. Thus, Menelik could compete with Europeans in the business of empire-building in the continent, particularly after his victory over the Italians at the battle of Adwa.
The whole story about the battle of Adwa is not written yet. The circumstances, under which the peoples of the south, such as the Oromo, who were conquered in the 1880s, and the Walaita, who were conquered by Menelik two years before the battle of Adwa, participated in the war are not mentioned. Did they march north to fight against Italian colonialism voluntarily? What had happened to them after the war is never raised in the story. Were they rewarded for their contributions in the victory over the Italians? I will not delve into details, but the answer to both questions is ‘NO’! They were captives who were forced to march north and become cannon-fodder. The “reward” for their participation was the confiscation of land and slavery, which characterized Abyssinian colonialism. Thus, the Oromos and the Walaita, who participated in the battle of Adwa, did not win any victory over colonialism for themselves. They helped a black colonialist power in the scramble for colonies with white colonialists. They were the target and victims of the competition which Menelik won. That is why I call the simplification of Menelik’s engagement in the battle of Adwa as an anti-colonial drive, and his victory as African victory over colonialism an atrocious distortion. Simply, it is not true.
The war was between two colonizing powers over colonies in the Horn of Africa, the Italians and the Abyssinians, whose leader Menelik, as mentioned above, was, ironically, armed and entered the race for colonies as a proxy of the former. That the distortion is sold by the Abyssinians to the rest of the world should not mean the Oromo people should accept the colonial situation as a historical accident and call ourselves Ethiopians. The fact that Menelik had outsmarted the Italians, or that the rest of Africa has taken pride in the victory at Adwa as their victory over colonialism and racism, should not mean we should repress or forget the memories of the genocides committed against the conquered peoples, such as Oromo, the Kaficho and Gimira. Since I have dealt with the subject at length in, “Genocidal Violence in the Making of Nation and State in Ethiopia” (African Sociological Review Vol. 9(2), 2005), I will not go into that here. It suffices to note that, as participants in the scramble for colonies, the crimes against humanity, which the Abyssinian had committed, does not weigh less, if not more, than the crimes committed by the Belgians in the Congo and by the Germans in Namibia. In short, what the victory at Adwa led to was the recognition of Abyssinia as “a legitimate colonial power,” to use Norgberg’s articulation, and not the protection of Africans against colonial genocide. Both Britain and France negotiated and signed agreements that delineated colonial borders with Abyssinia.
Although the colonial makeup of the Ethiopian empire was proved beyond doubt, there are politicians who think that it is possible to deprive the Oromo and the other conquered peoples of the right to self-determination by keeping on denying the fact. They believe their obstinate denial of Ethiopian colonialism will render the Oromo demand for an independent state meaningless. They will reduce the Oromo national demand for freedom to what they call the “demand of a few power-hungry Oromo elites” – ignoring the experience and grievances of the Oromo and other colonized peoples at large. However, this did not give the expected result of weakening Oromo feeling about their national identity or their claim to national sovereignty.
Since the Oromo opinion and experience of the Ethiopian conquest is well covered in oral traditions, in songs, travelers’ notes, and in numerous other documents, I will not go into details. Here, it suffices to note that, for the vast majority of the Oromo people, Ethiopia is, not only a colonial construction built through conquest, but that it is also being experienced as such. The Amhara have a saying: yewaggaa biresa, yeteweggaa ayrasaam (“he, who inflicts harms, may forget; but he, who is hurt, never will.”) The saying applies to the Oromo, who share collective memories, which were passed down from past generations which had experienced the conquest.
In addition, the memories of conquest are being reinforced by the atrocities of the present regime. Oromia is still a killing field for forces of the Ethiopian regime. Thousands of Oromos are still being killed every year by Ethiopian security forces of the present regime. This is no news. Oromo property rights are not respected. It suffices to mention here that millions of Oromos are displaced from their farm and pasturelands – which are then leased or sold to local and foreign contractors by the present regime. Although their ancestors were dispossessed of their land at the end of the nineteenth-century, that did not lead to their displacement from their homes and communities; they stayed as gabbars (serfs) of the landlords who owned their lands. They stayed at home. Those whose land is being confiscated today are uprooted and displaced. The loss they incurred is not only economic, but also social.
Colonialism has no color or nationality; therefore, English, French or Abyssinian colonialism is colonialism. The colonial makeup of the Ethiopian state is captured best by the Swiss conflict researcher Christian Scherrer of the Hiroshima Peace Institute, who noted that, ‘European and Abyssinian colonialism occurred simultaneously, pursued similar interests, albeit from differing socio-economic bases, and this was reinforced by comparable colonial ideologies of the idea of empire and notion of “civilizing mission” and the exploitation of the subjugated peoples.’ The Oromo quest for independence is informed by that history and more. Ethiopia was a colonial empire, not only in its origin, but also in conduct. It is from this colonial structure and conduct that the Oromo people will free themselves.
To sum up, although Menelik had used Oromo resources to win the battle Adwa, he confiscated their land and enslaved the Oromo – even though Oromo farmers have been feeding the country while their families were made to starve; while their Oromo coffee and gold have been earning hard currency for the Ethiopia sate during the last 130 years, the Oromo have been sinking into abysmal poverty continuously; although Oromo athletes have, since Abebe Bikila won the first Ethiopian Olympic gold medal in Rome in 1960, been winning nearly all of the medals Ethiopia had earned at the Olympic Games and other international tournaments, Oromo identity has been denigrated and the people have been disrespected.
The question is, will it be surprising if the Oromo people feel that the Ethiopian state is as colonial and hostile to them as it was to their ancestors? Is it surprising that the perpetual atrocity, of which the violation of human rights against them by the present regime is a continuation, deepening the cleavage between the Oromo people and the Ethiopian state? Is it surprising if the Oromo feel that they are treated, not as respected citizens, but as denigrated subjects of the Ethiopian state and reject Ethiopian identity? Is it not human, and should not it be legitimate, to struggle for an independent Oromo state as the other African peoples who, rejecting the colonial identities imposed on them by Europeans, struggled and established their independent states during the last fifty years?
Oromo Rejection of Ethiopian Identity
The depth of the cleavage between the Oromo people and the state of Ethiopia is clearly reflected in Oromo music, Oromo literature and the revival of Oromo cultural traditions. It is said that ‘nations are felt and lived communities whose members share a homeland and a culture.’ Its culture, language and territory make a nation distinct. Colonialism will, not only dispossess a people of its homeland and control its resources, but will also destroy its culture and language. It will erase what makes the colonized people different and unique. It will make them forget their past and their history, and gradually that they are a people. The result of such a policy is known among scholars as ethnocide: killing a nation without committing genocide or its physical destruction.
Success in the use the Qubee: Oromo Literacy Strengthens Oromo National Identity
Because they had aimed at the destruction of the Oromo language, the Ethiopian regimes did not see any purpose or logic to adopt the Geez characters called fidel in Amharic to Oromo sounds. Literacy in the Oromo language was banned by law. Since they were forbidden to read and write in their own language, the Oromo did not try to adopt the fidel to the sounds of their mother tongue. That does not mean they did not try to write in their language in one way or another. But they were persecuted when they tried. I will come back to the opposition the Oromo had encountered as they tried to write their language in the 1970s and 1980s, and present obstacles to the development of Oromo literature at home in Part 3 of this article. Here, it suffices to point out the evolution of the qubee, which came, not only to revolutionize Oromo literacy, but also constituted an important symbol, which added a new dimension to the politics of identity.
The events that led to the development of Oromo literacy are well known to most of us, who have been following the development of the Oromo struggle during the last forty years: the Oromo had to take up arms and defend their rights among which the right to use their language without interference from the Ethiopian regime was one. They were able to develop Oromo literacy as guerrilla fighters in the bushes inside the country, and as refugees abroad. For that, they used an alphabet created by the Oromo themselves based on the Latin alphabet. The decision was inscribed in the Political Program of the OLF of 1974 (see English version amended in 1976), which under Article VI (Section C, No. 5) declared to “adopt the Latin alphabet for the Oromo language.” The adopted alphabet came to be known as “qubee.”
Few people outside the members of the Front believed in the practicality of the project for more than a decade. In fact, before 1991, those who came across or heard about materials, which the Oromo produced using the qubee alphabet, were amused by the audacity of those who were developing Oromo literacy using the Latin alphabet in the bushes and in exile – dismissing it with derogatory remarks. It is true that, the task which the Oromo nationalists had undertaken to achieve under very difficult circumstances without material assistance from an organization or a government was a very challenging. Above all, the possibility of bringing the qubee home to the people also seemed nonexistent. The Oromo were under the control of a regime which commanded the largest military force in sub-Saharan Africa. That, together with the overwhelming firepower it had built up, made its grip on the country to look unshakable. Therefore, it was not surprising that the Oromo nationalists’ dream was a cause for the skeptical mirth of spectators. However, the lighthearted sarcasm of the Amhara elites about the qubee and the grip of the military regime on the country were short-lived.
The result of the struggle over Oromo literacy became what both friends and enemies never imagined. The Ethiopian ruling elites, particularly the Amhara, who hitherto had dominated the political and cultural life of Ethiopia, did not think this could happen. What happened did not transpire even in their worst nightmares. The appearance of signs in qubee characters on official buildings, public institutions and the premises of private business was shocking, particularly to those who thought that the fidel, which, after the Crown and Orthodox Christianity, was the most important symbol of Ethiopian nation, could never be challenged or that the Oromo or any of the subject peoples could use another alphabet and develop literature in their language at such a speed as the Oromo did in 1991 and 1992.
The “shock,” which the Amhara elites felt, was depicted by Ben Barber (1994), who wrote that, before 1991 “fidel, Amharic’s unique alphabet, graced official signs around the country. But, because the Oromo, who have now started to use their language preferred “to express their language in Latin characters,” the fidel is disappearing from the Oromo country. He wrote that, to the Amhara “the rejection of the Amharic culture by the Oromos, and the disappearance of thousands of Amharic signs from Oromo lands, and their replacement with Oromo language written in Latin script have been deep and shocking blows.” Indeed they were. They never thought that Oromo literacy could revive and spread with the uncontrollable speed, which it had registered in 1991-1992, or that an Ethiopian regime would allow the Oromo to use an alphabet other than the Geez characters to transcribe their language.
As many of us may remember, the initial surprise felt by the Amhara elites was followed by frantic activities opposing the use of the Oromo language and the demonization of the qubee alphabet. This was particularly the case of the Orthodox clergy whose struggle against the Oromo alphabet was expressed in grotesque and senseless actions. They labeled the qubee “the devil’s script” (see Thomas Zittelmann’s article: ‘The return of the Devil’s tongue: Polemics about the choice of the Roman alphabet for the Oromo Language,’ Oromo Commentary Vol. 4(2), 1994). They refused a Christian burial to a young girl who was involved in a literacy campaign using the qubee in Caancoo, a town about 40 kilometers north of Finfinnee (Addis Ababa).
Another incident in which the clergy were involved took place during the timket (Amharic for epiphany) festival of the Ethiopian Orthodox of 1992. In such celebrations, the Orthodox clergy, followed by their congregations carry the tabot (a tablet that symbolizes the Ark of the Covenant) of their various churches out for a day. On one of the timket festivals, the Orthodox clergy of a certain St. Mikael Church in central Oromia tried to involve divine powers in their war against the qubee alphabet: they told their congregation, of whom the majority were Oromo, that there was a divine curse against the Oromo alphabet and that their tabot was refusing to return to its place in the church unless the “devil’s” alphabet (qubee) is removed from the country. The Oromo majority who were participating in the timket festival did not believe what they were being told was the “wish” of St. Mikael, but a hoax invented by the clergy to turn them against qubee. They went home leaving the clergy and the tabot behind. Shocked by the action of the people, which was clearly in favor of the Latin alphabet, the clergy carried back the tabot to its church.
There were even those who thought Oromo parents would reject, not only the qubee script, but also education for their children in Afaan Oromoo because of social mobility for their children: the argument was that Amharic allowed for social mobility whereas the Oromo language did not. Naturally, the Oromo people welcomed literacy in their language with great happiness. Barber had interviewed an Oromo farmer in a village on the outskirts of Finfinnee (Addis Ababa) about the change from Amharic to Afaan Oromoo – who told him when asked his views: “Who hates his own?’ said one farmer with a smile creasing his worn face. ‘We love it. We have begun to practice our culture: what we forgot and what was repressed.’ The farmer told Barber: “Now three of my children are in school and learn in Oromo.” These words express both a sense of liberation from an imposed oppressive socio-linguistic situation and the pride which this Oromo peasant felt in his language. The rhetorical question ‘Who hates his own?’ expresses also a rejection of the dishonour which, hitherto, was attached to Afaan Oromo and its speakers.
Like the farmer mentioned here, the enthusiasm, which the Oromo have shown for education and public administration in their language, was enormous. They discovered a new glory in the print elevation of the language they had humbly spoken at home. As millions of other Oromo who like this farmer welcomed Oromo literacy with jubilation, the nationwide support to Oromo nationalism became obvious immediately. A phenomenal increase of enrollment of schoolchildren throughout Oromia within a few years proved the readiness which the Oromo parents had to accept the qubee alphabet and their children’s education in their own language. The cynicism directed against the qubee alphabet was silenced once for all.
Thus, the assertion of Oromo national identity was strengthened by the unexpected “arrival” of the qubee characters in the capital city in 1991 followed by the subsequent nationwide use of Afaan Oromoo as the medium of education, administration and law throughout Oromia. As the sociologist Lorraine Towers has stated in her doctoral dissertation, the qubee, in providing an instrumental means to modern communication, has itself become highly symbolic of the legitimacy and authority of Afaan Oromoo in the modern learning environment. Towers rightly notes also that, together with the odaa tree, the qubee became a “resonant symbol of the Oromo polity asserting the unity of all Oromo,” and that it is “a printed alphabet that is as much a celebration of Oromo culture, tradition, and identity, and an assertion of their place in the world of modern literacy and learning.” The symbolic significance of the alphabet was marked in many Oromo poems and artists who write and praise its role in bringing Afaan Oromoo out of illiteracy. It would be strange if they didn’t, because the implementation of Oromo writing in qubee was an act that epitomized the resurrection of Oromo language from “a century of colonial neglect.”
The territorial demarcation of Oromo territory, with Oromia as its name, even concretized the image of their homeland in the minds of the Oromo. Like the qubee, the name Oromia also became controversial. For a long time, its use as the name of the Oromo region was avoided by the Ethiopian mass media and most Amhara elites. Instead, they used Kilil Arat (Region Four), a term which was given to the region by the TPLF government. However, the name which, as will be discussed in a while, was already known to millions of Oromos through the songs of Oromo artists and radio stations based abroad, it was popularized quickly by Oromo mass media which started to flourish, and by artists and writers who began to sing and publish in Oromia immediately after the fall of the military regime in 1991.
To sum up the discussion in this section, based on the experience gained in the implementation of the qubee script, there are a number of important observations that can be made about the Oromo struggle. The first is that perseverance has its rewards. The OLF started implementing the idea of using the qubee in Oromo writing under very difficult circumstances, but could achieve its goal. The dedication and determination of its members were rewarded. The second observation concerns organization and leadership. The quick implementation of Oromo literacy in 1991-92 showed the Oromo thirst for freedom. The voluntary participation of teachers in the preparation of textbooks from scratch in every subject within a short time for millions of schoolchildren showed their dedication to the cause of freedom. The implementation of Afaan Oromoo as a medium education in all schools throughout Oromia within a year was a remarkable achievement. It proved that the Oromo people are capable of achieving any collective goal, including the establishment their own sovereign state, if they are properly organized and led.
Music, Poetry and the Oromo Rejection of Ethiopiyawinet
Oromo songs, both traditional and modern, are part of the Oromo oral tradition. Oromo artists are storytellers. They sing about past events and heroes. They narrate myths often relating them to the present situation. Oromo heroes are recalled when the security of the group or nation is threatened by outsiders. Stories about historical events are narrated to emulate victories or avoid mistakes. The genre called geerarsa deals particularly with such narratives.
The contribution of art, music and culture to the development of Oromo political consciousness is not properly recognized yet. That the work of the artists has been crucial in the cultural and political awakening of the Oromo people is beyond doubt. It has revived and enriched the Oromo culture and contributed immensely to the development of Oromo nationalism. The Oromo are fighting now, not with firearms, but with culture. The cultural battle waged by Oromo artists, as I will show later, has its casualties. However, the regime in power in Finfinnee (Addis Ababa) cannot outgun them as it did against the OLF in the confrontations of the early 1990s. The cultural ammunition is inexhaustible. It is not imported; it is homemade.
By and large, there has been an upsurge of cultural expressions since the mid-1970s. In June 1976, notwithstanding the opposition from members of the government, groups of young men and women from all over the Oromo country converged in Finfinnee (Addis Ababa) and staged a two-day cultural show at the Ethiopian National Theatre. In many ways, the show revealed the strength of Oromo collective memory and the emotions which it could arouse. The suppressed feelings which the event brought out was a great surprise for many observers, particularly for the military junta, which took measures to punish the actors and suppress Oromo nationalism to which the event gave an expression. However, the other side of this development became an enhanced rejection of Ethiopiyawinet, albeit this is not always expressed in words.
During the last forty years, numerous songs that glorify the Oromo struggle for liberation have been written and sung by artists. These songs do not mention Ethiopia, and when they do mention it, it is to condemn its regimes. They depict the life they wish for their people and express the hope the artists see in the future of their homeland. The poets and the artists glorify the beauty of their motherland and admire the bounty of her natural resources. They convey a great sense of pride in Oromummaa – an identity of which the Oromo were made to be ashamed under Ethiopian rule. Ethiopiyawinet – Ethiopian identity – is a subject which Oromo music does not raise at all. Thus, reading Oromo literature or listening to Oromo music, I haven’t come across a narrative or heard a song in Afaan Oromoo that praises Ethiopia as “my fatherland” or “motherland.” But, there is a long list of songs and poems condemning the deprivations which the Oromo people are experiencing as colonial subjects of Ethiopia’s Abyssinian ruling elites. Colonialism degrades, and it is not surprising that Oromo artists will not glorify Ethiopia. I have not come across a work of an African poet or artist that glorifies British, French or Portuguese colonialism. For Oromo artists, to praise Ethiopia is to accept humiliation, degrade Oromummaa and confess surrender.
Today, the Oromo claim to an independent Oromo state is expressed through the works of artists who have become the spokespersons of the Oromo nation. The artists have access to the Oromo masses listening to them and have a greater influence on Oromo political preferences than any group of activists. Therefore, I will discuss briefly the role of music and art in the Oromo struggle for liberation, and their rejection of Ethiopian identity in this section of the article.
One of the earliest freedom songs written after the 1976 episode in Finfinnee was a poem written and sung by Tahir Umar, who was an Oromo refugee in Djibouti in 1981. In it, Tahir expresses his aspirations for freedom and the natural beauty of his homeland. Like Jaarso’s poem mentioned above, Tahir’s song was communicated to his audience orally: it was chanted and recorded on audiotape and spread to an Oromo audience within and outside the Horn of Africa.
What makes Tahir’s contribution remarkable is his panoramic description of the entire Oromo country – taking his audience from one region to the other, leading them from one big river to the next one and looking across the horizons from different mountaintops that majestically dot the beautiful homeland of his nation. That homeland is Oromia, not Ethiopia. The chanting was done by a group of refugees: the title – Yaa Rabbi nu bilisoms! Biyya keenyatti nagaan nu galchi (“O God, lead us to freedom! Take us home to our country in peace”) – constitute a chorus and was repeated by a group after each stanza or section of the poem is sung by the leading singer. The song was a history text, a lecture in geography, a narrative about life in exile; it is everything about the Oromo, but not about Ethiopians.
Tahir is not the first or the only artist to express the agony of his beautiful homeland under Ethiopian occupation. Bilisummaa (freedom) has been the main theme of many Oromo songs since the 1970s, and hundreds of lyrics were sung also by veteran Oromo artists, such as Ali Birraa, Elfinesh Qanno and Nuho Gobaana – giving vivid insights into Oromo culture and history. In my view, this is very important because the unwillingness of the artists to include Ethiopia in their narratives and songs indicates a lack of emotional attachment to the name and what it stands for. The omission is a sign of a strong rejection. All the beautiful places and great mountains and rivers are in Oromia, be it in Tahir’s mind or the minds of other Oromo artists. Ethiopia is an imposed name a political “reality” that can change. It is Oromia to which the refugees, who chant Tahir’s poem, will return.
That territory is vital in the definition of nationhood is widely acknowledged by scholars. For many Oromo artists, mixing up Ethiopia with Oromia, or vice-versa, will amount to distorting Oromo national identity. By separating the two, they are defining the nationhood of their people and, of course, their identity. Oromia is not in Ethiopia, but the Ethiopians had conquered Oromia. For example, when they were singing “O God, lead us to freedom! Take us home to our country in peace,” Tahir and his fellow refugees were thinking about Oromia, not Ethiopia, which they associate with the Abyssinian empire. Thus, Ethiopia is not the name of their country. It is the name of an empire from which they are struggling to free themselves. They did not entertain the idea of being Ethiopians. They are free now and will return as free men and women to a free homeland called Oromia, not to Ethiopia. “Oromia shall be free!” was the most popular slogan printed on T-shirts worn and souvenirs produced and distributed by Oromos abroad in the late 1970s and 1980s. The feeling is not unique to Oromo refugees. It is shared by refugees who flee from foreign domination everywhere.
Writing about the West Saharan refugees who lived in camps in Algeria in the 1980s, Jon Lee Anderson in his book Guerrillas: Journey in the Insurgent World (1992) wrote “These Saharawis are no ordinary refugees, but believers in a dream fostered by the Polisario Front.” Anderson writes that “The dream is to see their homeland become in reality what they have already declared it to be: the ‘Saharan Arab Democratic Republic,’ their own state flag, national anthem, Prime Minister, Cabinet, and most important of all, citizens: themselves, the Saharawi people.” Needless to stress here that this is also more or less the feelings that Tahir and his fellow Oromo refugees were expressing when they sang “Yaa Rabbi nu bilisoomsi, nagaan biyya keenyatti nu galchii!” in the 1980s.
The geography of Oromia, which was described in Tahir’s 1981 song, has been elaborated in many different ways by other artists whose music was heard by millions of Oromos since then. His rejection of Ethiopia as the name of his homeland was strengthened by other artists, such as Ali Birraa, who sang Anis biyyan qabaa (“I have a country, too”); Nuho Gobaana’s Yaa biyya too (“My country”); and most recently by the contributions of Hailu Kitaabaa, who sings Nu biyyi keenya Oromia, essatti beekna Itiopiya (“Our country is Oromia; we do not know Ethiopia”), as well as Hacaaluu Hundeessaa’s Oromiyaa tiyyaa (“My Oromiya”); Dawite Makonnen’s Oromiyaanis biyyaa (“Oromia is also a country”). All these artists and their songs depict Oromia as a colonized and occupied country, and talk about the Oromo people as a stateless nation in need of their own state. They call for the liberation of their people and country. Their authentic messages reach millions of Oromos almost every day. I see their messages are authentic and clear, because they express what they see and feel, which is also what the Oromo masses who are listening to their music see and feel.
Tahir, and many of the Oromo refugees mentioned above, might have returned home after 1991 to stay or just for a visit, but most of them did not go back as Ethiopians, but as liberated Oromos, and for them, the family home they returned to is not in Ethiopia, but in Oromia, even if the latter is not yet a free country. It is interesting to note that this feeling is even shared by millions of Oromos at home who have silently rejected Ethiopiyawinet without walking away from the state that will impose it on them. This silent rejection is a perplexing problem, not only to the Ethiopian ruling elites, but also to the pro-Ethiopia Oromo political organizations. The explanation for the OPDO’s failure to attract Oromo support during the last two decades is not only its junior partnership in the TPLF dominated EPRDF party and government, but also because of the Ethiopiyawinet which underline its position on the question of Oromo independence.
What is said above explains partly even the failure of the independent Oromo political parties, which took part in the parliamentary elections. Although there is no study on the subject as far as I know, I do not think EPRDF repression and fraud alone are the explanations for the failure of both the Oromo Federalist Democratic Party and the Oromo People’s Congress to win even a single seat in the federal parliament during the elections of 2010. It seems that their partnership in the coalition called Madrek had its share in their loss of the seats they had during the previous session. Their association with the centrist parties that constitute the Madrek coalition seems to have disappointed their constituency.
During the last two decades Oromo music has developed into a literature of combat reaching every corner of their homeland and Oromo diaspora communities around the world, calling on Oromos to fight for existence as a nation. Oromo music shows one of the characteristics which Fanon has ascribed to a literature of combat. A literature of combat according to him “moulds the national consciousness, giving it form and contours and flinging open before it new and boundless horizons.”
The creation of modern combat literature which had contributed in building up Oromo national consciousness started with songs from the 1976 show in Finfinnee, of which Elifnesh Qannoo’s Geerarsa was one. Several of the bands which participated in the show even toured the different Oromo regions at that time. The 1980s passed without such events. The 1990s saw the explosion of Oromo music. Ebbisa Adunya’s ABO (“OLF”) and ABO jabeessa (“Build up the OLF”) from the 1990s; Dirribee Gadaa’s Geerarsa (a patriotic song); Hirphaa Ganfuree, who sings Ka’i lammi koo (“Rise up, my people”); and Dawite Makonnen’s Oromiyaanis biyya are some of the example. These patriotic songs are commentaries on the state of the Oromo struggle putting it in a historical perspective. While the focus of Ebbisa’s and that of his female counterpart Dirribee’s songs is the shame of bowing to oppression and is a call on the Oromo to struggle for freedom, Hirphaa Ganfuree and Dawite Makonnen persuade the Oromo not to give up the struggle because of difficult times, such as the present one, when it is opposed, not only by external forces, but is also betrayed from inside. These artists are opposed to both cowardice, and indeed political opportunism, a behavior which is not rare among Oromo politicians.
Many of the Oromo combat songs will awaken the collective memory of the Oromo people. There are also those which call upon them to restore the gadaa, the ancient democratic political and socio-cultural system. It is important to note here that none of the Oromo songs or artists is against any group or people. They express Oromo protest against injustice. They call upon the Oromo people to combat the atrocity imposed and perpetuated by a colonial and build a free state of their own. Their opposition to Ethiopian oppression is not to build a state exclusively for Oromos or where Oromos are the only citizens. They express an aspiration for an Oromo state which can defend the rights of its citizens, including non-Oromos. They express what Fanon called “a will to liberty” and not a hate toward other human beings. Hence, that they reject Ethiopiawnet, or being Ethiopians, does not mean that they hate those who are Ethiopians. The songs express Oromo nationalist feelings and nationalism which aspire to emancipate the Oromo and do not aim to oppress or hate others. What the artists say to their people and others who can listen to their music is simple. They say, “We Oromos must be the masters of our destiny.” They say, “We should not allow others make or unmake us, be it our neighbors or the big powers.” Their sole demand is respect for their human rights as individuals and as a nation; that is also what Oromo nationalism is all about.
It seems that most of the Ethiopian political elites are aware of the Oromo attitude concerning Ethiopian identity, and know Oromo claim to nationhood and statehood. However, their reaction to Oromo nationalism has varied according to the resources they commanded in terms of political power. We can categorize them into camps today: the Tigrayan regime and the Amhara political groups in opposition.
The TPLF, the party dominating the present regime, started undermining Oromo nationalism when it formed the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization in 1990 to oppose the OLF. Although the TPLF formed a coalition government with the OLF in 1991, it resorted to the use of violence against members and supporters within a few months after it had consolidated its power. Its actions revealed that the coalition was entered to buy time to establish itself in Finfinnee and consolidate its dictatorship over Ethiopia. It declared war on Oromo nationalism. As noted by many commentators, the TPLF published an article in its organ Hizbawi Adera (Vol. 7 (4) 1997) declaring war on Oromo ‘educated elites and capitalist class’ labeling them Ethiopia’s worst enemies. Since then, thousands of Oromos have been killed, kidnapped and made to “disappear,” and tens of thousands are rounded up and thrown into some of the filthiest prisons on earth. The declaration has resulted in the crackdown on Oromo university and secondary-school students – which led to the imprisonment and death of many young men and women and the suppression of the Macca-Tulamaa Association. It also led to the extra-judicial killings, and the disappearances of tens of thousands of Oromos.
As part of the war against Oromo nationalists, the regime’s security forces have, during the last two decades, staged dozens of cross-border raids into the neighboring countries of Kenya and Somalia, and hunted down, kidnapped or killed thousands of Oromos, including many Kenyan citizens.
It is quite clear that Oromo music and art are opposed to the undemocratic rule of the present regime. Oromo culture in itself is opposed to undemocratic political culture. Besides the concern for their own rights and the welfare of their people, the Oromo poets and artists also express that culture. Therefore, they have been a category targeted by the TPLF regime as its worst enemy from the beginning.
The list of Oromo artists who were imprisoned and tortured, kidnapped and killed or made to “disappear” since 1992 is long. It suffices to mention the names of some artists who were brutally murdered or are kidnapped and made to “disappear” during the last two decades. Among male Oromo artists, who were assassinated, were Ebbisa Adunyaa, a gifted guitarist and vocalist, who was gunned down together with his friend Tana Wayessaa in his home in Finfinnee in August 1996; Usmayyoo Muusa, who died from damages he had incurred in an Ethiopia prison cell, where he was kept in isolation and tortured for eight years, Bonsiso Caalaa and Himee Yusuf, who were murdered in 1996 and 1997, respectively. Among female vocalists, one can mention Kulani Boruu, Sabbontuu Barentu and Ayyaantu Borana. The three young artists were murdered in 1997. Among those who were kidnapped and “disappeared” in 1996-7 were Jireenya Ayyaana, Daraartu Boona, Adem Waaqee and the poet Fufaa Dhuguma (see Oromo Support Group’s occasional reports, and the reports of Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch for the list of the numerous Oromo artists who were killed, made to disappear or have been jailed during the last two decades).
Torture survivors have witnessed the horrible treatment of prisoners in Ethiopian jails and concentration camps. As the brutal mental and physical torture, to which artists, such as Usmayyoo Muusa and Kadir Martuu, were exposed, shows the human rights abuses perpetrated in the Ethiopian security prisons against Oromos, particularly to those who are popular among their people are horrifying (Ayyaantuu.com – March, 6, 2012). Ethiopia has notorious name for being one the countries that imprison most journalists in the world. What is not known is that there is no country on earth that has killed or imprisoned so many artists as Ethiopia is doing under the present regime.
It is not surprising that our artists became one of the most affected groups. As articulated aptly by the young scholar Kulani Jalata, in a paper she presented at the 2009 Annual Oromo Studies Conference at the Georgia State University in Atlanta, “Oromo artists have creatively developed revolutionary Oromo music to further advance and disseminate Oromummaa – the manifestation of Oromo identity, culture and nationalism.” In the process, many of them have sacrificed their lives.
Many of the Oromo artists who were released from Ethiopian prisons during the last two decades are in exile today sacrificing their family lives, and in many cases, even their careers. As mentioned above, the intention of Ethiopian regime is to deprive the Oromo nation of its talented members, including artists. However, the imprisonment and assassination of artists during the last twenty years did not arrest the growth of Oromo arts and music. Martyred artists, cultural workers, and writers are replaced by new ones. There is no doubt that the reviving Oromo culture will sustain the development of Oromo nationalism. It is a culture of over thirty million people. It is deeply rooted in their history.
Those who belong to the opposition, particularly the Amhara political elites, are not less hostile to Oromo nationalism than the ruling Tigrayan elites. They lack power to take physical action against Oromo nationalists and are, therefore, limited to verbal demonization of the OLF. The most reactionary elements amongst them represent the OLF as an organization created to commit genocide on the Amhara people. However, the majority seem to entertain the hope that the Oromo will soon change their minds and become “loyal” Ethiopian citizens. The illogical belief that the international community is opposed to Oromo independence is another factor that keeps their misconceived hope alive.
Even recent activities by pro-Oromo political organizations seem to have strengthened their hope to come back to power in Finfinnee. For example, the jubilation of the Amhara political groups and media commentators when a section within the Jijjirama group declared their vision of “New Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia” in January this year reflected such a hope. The politics of the recently formed group called Oromo Dialogue Forum (ODF), which also posits that the Oromo claim for an independent Oromo state is outdated and should be dropped, seems to have a similar effect.
However, the changing character of the Oromo national struggle for liberation contradicts the beliefs of the Tigrayan regime and the hopes of the political parties in opposition as well as illusions of the pro-Ethiopia Oromo political groups. Today, the Oromo people’s struggle for a sovereign state is driven and sustained, not only by organized groups or political organizations as such, but to a great extent also by Oromo culture, which in reality is organizing and unifying the Oromo masses into a self-conscious nation.
Culture Takes the Lead in the Fight for Oromo Freedom
Frantz Fanon, in a speech which was titled “Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight for Freedom” and which he gave at the Congress of Black Writers in 1959, emphasized that “It is the fight for national existence which sets culture moving and opens to it the doors of creation. Later it is the nation which will ensure the conditions and framework necessary to culture.” The two co-exist.
The reciprocal nature of cultural and political nationalisms is well known. That the suppression of the Ethiopian state and the hostility of its agents and institutions against the Oromo culture and language have been directed against Oromo nationalism is quite evident. Thus, since a nation and its culture intermesh, the destruction of a culture and language is a destruction of their bearers or ethnocide as mentioned above. The attempts made by the Ethiopian state to destroy the Oromo culture and language did not achieve the envisaged result. The Oromo people have resisted ethnocide, and their culture is resurrecting with an insuppressible force now. Although the OLF, under whose banner the Oromo people have reasserted their identity and struggled for national sovereignty, has been weakened by internal conflicts, its objective of re-establishing an independent Oromo state is not abandoned. The idea has become successively deep-rooted and well anchored in popular consciousness, because the Oromo masses have become its custodians with determination. The idea of national sovereignty is firmly established in their collective consciousness. It is a legitimate claim that won’t be abandoned.
The observation made by the Scottish theorist Tom Nairn in his book The Break-up of Britain (1972) about the elites of the colonized periphery is applicable to the Oromo. He wrote that the elites of the colonies “had no guns, no wealth, no technology and no skills to match those of the imperialists. But they did have one asset.” That one asset, he asserted, is people who “proved a potent weapon.” The elites, he said, mobilized ‘the people’ and “invited them into history, writing the invitation card in their own language and culture, and channeling their ‘mass sentiments’ into national resistance movement.” That was what had happened in Oromia in 1991-92. As I have indicated in my previous article, the Oromo people accepted instantly the “invitation card,” which was written in Afaan Oromoo, and have made gradually the formation of an independent republic of Oromia, their own objective. Today, they are channeling their sentiments in a national resistance armed with a common culture.
The role of culture in this national resistance is reflected among other things in the annual celebration of the colourful irreecha (often also spelt irreessa) Thanksgiving festivals on the shores of Lake Harsadee 50km south of Finfinnee (Addis Ababa). In the past, irreecha festivals involved the participation of just regional groups. Today, the participation has increased to the national level and the number of people, who gather from near and far to participate in the irreecha ceremony held at this site on the last Sunday of September or the first Sunday of October every year, runs into hundreds of thousands. Participation in the festivities of irreecha is open to all, irrespective of religious beliefs and ethnic background. The ceremony involves, not only the spiritual activity reflected in prayers for nagaa, peace and fertility, but also the performance of socio-cultural activities, such as eebba – blessing and araara – human reconciliation with Waaqa, and reconciliation between those who are in conflict, are blended.
The spontaneity with which this and other Oromo cultural traditions have come back to life during the last two decades tells a story which the Ethiopian ruling elites did not expect. The policy of Oromo assimilation into Amhara culture and language is defeated, and the majority of the Oromo people feel a sense of cultural identity different from that which the Ethiopian ruling elites tried to impose on them. The ongoing Oromo cultural revival has become a means for both the expression of Oromo unity and the national claim for sovereignty.
Normally, the irreecha is a non-political festival. However, the million irreecha gathering held on the shores of Lake Harsadee (Horaa) in recent years has reflected even a sense of political consciousness that pervades the huge festival. The rich symbolic resources of the Oromo gadaa culture that are borne by the multitude painted on their clothes and tattooed on their bodies, as well as the banners and cultural artifacts they carry marching together in a total harmony that is difficult to expect from such a crowd, reveal the pride which participants have in their culture and identity. The collective memories of the nation are reflected in the words and manner of the young artist Galaanee Bulbulaa, who sings Irreecha irreefanaa (“We Shall Celebrate Thanksgiving”).
The symbolic significance of Galaanee’s song is strong. What makes it strong is the authenticity reflected in the way it is communicated to the audience by the young singer, and the connection it suggests between the social and the natural environment. Galaanee’s captivating youthful innocence and her spontaneous effortless performance reflect an inborn sense of being one with the social and natural environment around her. The way she touches the water with the green grass in her hand, stretches her hand both to the sky (God) together with the beautiful natural scene across the lake constitute a strong representation of the world view of the Oromo people as reflected in the traditional Oromo religion – that we are at peace, not only with God, but with nature, and with ourselves. But at the same time Galaanee’s song express a predicament that the Oromo people should overcome: to recover a “lost” culture. She sings Kottaa ni hirreefannaa, aadaa bade deeffannaa (“Come let us celebrate Thanksgiving; let us revive our lost culture”). In general, the words and gestures of the youthful artist do not call the audience for a combat; after all irreecha stands for thanks-giving and not conflict. However, they awaken what the British cultural theorist Raymond Williams called “structures of feeling.” The Oromo say kan gara kee keessa jiru garaa koo keesas jira to mean the same thing. The structures of feeling (or kan garaa kessa jiru …) express both feelings and thoughts that are collectively felt and shared, and that in the case of dominated nations like the Oromo make claim for cultural or political rights. Structures of feeling are expressed in public speeches, in songs, different forms of literature, and indeed in collective actions, such as demonstrations. At the irreecha festival, all of these forms of expressions were present.
The presence of the aged, both men and women, who attired in traditional costumes, and carrying ritual sticks – bokkuu and siiqqee – the symbols of power and justice of the gadaa system – decorated the march which reflected the authentic Oromo tradition. This authenticity is articulated, not only in the words spoken by the elders and sung by the artists, but also expressed in the peacefulness of the gathering of millions of people. Oromo nationalism is reviving and thriving in the fertile soil of rich symbolic cultural resources that have come to the open since the 1990s. The array of national symbols, such as the odaa tree, which decorate the costumes worn by men, women and children, the siiqqee, the bokkuu and other pre-colonial pan-Oromo symbols carried by men and women at the festival represent and reinforce the pride of the nation and unite the multitude gathered for the festival through a common imagery of shared memories, myths and values – in other words the shared structures of feeling.
Writing about the West Saharan struggle against the Moroccan state, Anderson stated: “The Saharawis consider themselves to be the citizens of a sovereign nation, and in many ways they are just that. After all, perceived reality is its own reality.” He notes that “the Saharawis have adopted the trappings of national sovereignty (my emphasis) in the form of an emblematic series of martyrs, slogans, and symbols that express their revolutionary and ethnic identity.” Anderson states that “The most potent of these symbols is the national flag, a red star and crescent moon superimposed on three horizontal bars of black, white, and green, running into a red triangle.” He adds, “Like a designer label, ‘RASD,’ the Spanish acronym for the state, is stamped on women’s saris, written in large letters on walls, and even woven into woolen rugs”. The Saharawis were doing this in exile. The Oromo are doing the same both in exile and at home today.
The political significance of irreecha festival
Normally, the irreecha festivals are organized as cultural activities and not a political gathering. Today, what is very significant about the festival is that hundreds of thousands (millions according to the information given by participants) men and women are gathered in Bishoftu from all over in Oromo to uphold a culture that was denigrated, despised and suppressed for about a century, wearing its most potent symbols that are common to all Oromo. The way this annual pan-Oromo festival attracts and gathers participants suggests to us the way the ancient jila pilgrimage to Abba Muuda, which was undertaken by thousands of representatives from the different gadaa federations had occurred. The effects of the current festival in Bishoftu and gathering at the muuda sites are similar.
The jila pilgrimage was religious and political undertaking at the same time. Those who traveled on foot for months every eight years to the muuda shrines, from regions which are far apart, were drawn together by a myth of origin from one ancestor, Orma. This was reinforced by a common language, a common religion through a strong attachment to their Abba Muuda, and a common system of law, a shared attitude toward the natural world as well as their democratic character gave the Oromo the sense of a single people. The muuda institution maintained the unity of the Oromo nation until it was banned in 1900 by Emperor Menelik. Although the purpose of the march to Lake Harsadee in Bishoftu today is not exactly the same with those which stimulated the pilgrimage to the muuda shrines in the past, the effects are the same. Like the jila gatherings at muuda shrine, the irreecha festivals establish a sense of belonging to a single nation among the different branches of the Oromo nation. The awareness created by the irreecha festival is even stronger for the following reasons: it is annual and it is covered by the mass media, which take the festival home to millions of Oromos who do not participant physically. In a way they also participate in the events. The imagination of their national community is more vivid and concrete than it had ever been in the past.
The festival refutes many of the distortions spread by Ethiopianists who, as I have discussed in my latest book, The Contours of the Ancient and Emergent Oromo Nation (Bulcha, 2011), posit that the Oromo “have never had a sense of collective identity based on popular memory,” and that they do not have a collective consciousness “rooted in myths and symbols.” It refutes the contention that the present Oromo struggle for an independent state has no popular support, and that Oromo nationalism is a project of the intelligentsia and will not attract the ordinary Oromos. It counters the argument, which says the Oromo did not possess a sense of belonging to a single societal community shared important past experience and a common historic destiny. The extraordinary enthusiasm with which irreecha and other Oromo cultural traditions are being celebrated by the Oromo masses shows, not only the vibrancy of Oromummaa, but also that the Oromo are a people who have a tradition that is capable of bringing together millions of people in one place to practice a pan-Oromo culture with such unbelievable peace and harmony.
The irreechaa festival reflected that the majority of the Oromo people feel a sense of cultural identity different from that which the Abyssinians have tried to impose on them for more than a century. The spontaneity with which Oromo cultural traditions are coming back to life and are colorfully celebrated as soon as the century-old suppression lifted tells a story that contradicts the programs of pro-Ethiopia Oromo political organizations. For example, one of the striking things about the irreecha festival is that no one was carrying an Ethiopian symbol in the crowd while Oromo symbols abound. That shows the rejection of Ethiopiawinet. It is possible to say that the sentiments of the crowd at the festival represent the sentiment of the Oromo nation.
The intriguing question, which pro-Ethiopia Oromo political organizations or groups, such as the Oromo Dialogue Forum (ODF), seem to have overlooked is whether it is possible for the Oromo people to drop the symbols of their nation and take up the symbols of the Ethiopian state, say the flag, or at least combine the two and make them part of the Oromo national identity or not. Even if they will accept the combination, when and how can we arrange a condition that will convince our people to accept the suggestion? If they do not accept the combination, should we get rid of Oromo nationalism or Ethiopian nationalism? How? Or can two mutually antagonistic nationalisms be reconciled and survive in one state together? Or are the Oromo people being invited to engage in a conflict, the end of which is uncertain? These are intriguing questions which the pro-Ethiopia Oromo groups in general seem not to have thought about or have chosen to ignore.
I will come back to the politics of pro-Ethiopia Oromo political organizations in one of the forthcoming parts of this article. Here, it suffices to say that the politics of these groups, particularly that of the ODF, seems to have overlooked the development I have described in this article concerning the role of Oromo culture, literature and music in shaping Oromo attitude to Ethiopiawinet. Preoccupied by the effect globalization may have on our struggle, the members of the ODF seem to have been less concerned about developments internal to the society.
The Oromo feelings for the revival of their culture have surfaced on several occasions in the past. Here, the cultural show of 1976 at the National Theatre in Finfinnee (Addis Ababa) and the attempt made to revive the gadaa tradition can be mentioned. Those expressions of Oromo culture, which had surfaced in the aftermath of the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, were suppressed immediately by the Ethiopian military regime. The present cultural development has proved insuppressible. However, it wouldn’t be surprising if the present regime will attempt to ban the irreecha festival next year. However, that cannot stop the course of Oromo nationalism. The component parts of Oromo culture are many, and the spectrum of Oromo cultural activities is broad. The suppression one of its parts is not going to stop the other from functioning as instruments of the national struggle.
As I have argued above regarding developments regarding Oromo literature, arts and music, the Oromo people have adopted the program of bilisummaa, and are geared psychologically for independence. Hence, it is unlikely that they will submit to those who will force or advise them to abandon the objective of the OLF. Colonial denigration, exploitation, poverty and endemic famine is driving the majority of our people progressively, albeit imperceptibly, to an open conflict. The recent development in literacy, electronic mass media and music have made more compact and easy to organize. The vigor reflected in the cultural sector and among the post-1991 qubee generation indicates the situation has become more conducive for the Oromo national struggle for independence than it has ever been.
To summarize the main points covered so far in this article, irrespective of what one chooses to call the genesis of the Ethiopian Empire and state in tandem of the Scramble of Africa, Oromo rejection of the imposed identity of Ethiopiyawnet – Ethiopian-ness is a reality.
The struggle led by the OLF was neither organized for the only reason of removing Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam from power in the 1970s nor was it fought to overthrow his successor, the late Meles Zenawi, during the last twenty years. It is to achieve freedom, not in a piecemeal manner envisaged by pro-Ethiopia Oromo politicians and the external forces will advise Oromo politicians often patronizingly, but to demolish the shackles of colonialism once for all through total liberation and achieve the rights, which are proclaimed in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
The politics of pro-Ethiopia Oromo political organizations is in conflict with this national objective. In essence, it invites the Oromo people to engage in a never-ending struggle with Ethiopian nationalism. Ethiopian nationalism is not going to give up and dissipate because the Oromo want democratize Ethiopia; nor will Oromo nationalism disappear. The Oromo struggle is a product of anti-colonial grievances. It aims to build a sovereign state that respects and protects the security of its citizens. It has produced thousands of heroes and heroines who died while fighting for that objective. Tens of thousands of men and women have been imprisoned and tortured for years by Ethiopian regimes. Thousands of Oromo women have been raped. Those who have been kidnapped and assassinated or made to “disappear” during the last two decades are counted in thousands. As Marina and David Ottaway (1978) have stated in their book Ethiopia: Empire in Revolution, the Oromo “never derived any advantage from being Ethiopian subjects.” They have incurred a traumatizing loss, which can be repaired fully only in an independent Oromo state and under a democratically elected Oromo government.
* Mekuria Bulcha, PhD and Professor of Sociology, is an author of widely read books and articles. His new book, Contours of the Emergent and Ancient Oromo Nation, is published by CASAS (Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society), Cape Town, South Africa, in 2011. He was also the founder and publisher of The Oromo Commentary (1990-1999). He is an active member of the OLF and has served in the different branches of the national movement since the 1970s.
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