History 101: Fiction and Facts on Oromos of Ethiopia
By Prof. Feqadu Lamessa for Salem-News.com
July 29, 2013, ADAMA, Ethiopia (Salem-News) – Recently, the Qatar-based media al Jazeera has published several articles concerning the Oromo people of Ethiopia. It is the first international media outlet to extensively report on our people and it should be praised for bringing our cause to the world stage.
One of the benefits of this exposure is it forces Ethiopian authorities to address human rights abuses in the country and to let them know that the world is watching. Oromos and other Ethiopians have been struggling for equal rights and democracy for decades. While it is important to report about Oromo people’ background and historical perspectives, it is however vital that we report accurate information. Instead of benefiting us, reporting inaccurate or biased information can actually harm our struggle for democracy. Instead of creating national consensus and peace, it can instigate bitterness and anger.
One of the reasons al Jazeera reported inaccurate information about Oromo history is because it depended on one-sided sources, especially from members or supporters of Oromo groups outside of Ethiopia (diaspora OLF, OFDM etc). But nobody can blame al Jazeera media because most people inside Ethiopia would be too scared to speak or contribute. The only option al Jazeera or any foreign media has is to use diaspora/refugee/external sources outside Ethiopia. This is a dilemma all foreign media outlets face while reporting about third-world countries like Ethiopia.
For educational purposes, some corrections are provided below to fix inaccuracies reported on al Jazeera media regarding Oromo history and our struggle for democracy. The corrections below are supported by non-political scholars, but they might be rejected by biased politicians (both from ruling party and from opposition party) for the obvious reasons. However, they are based on historical textbooks, European authors and scholarly accounts.
“Between 1868 and 1900, half of all Oromo were killed, around 5 million people”
This is one of the most repeated inaccuracies, usually told by Secessionist Oromos, radical ethno-nationalist politicians outside the country or pro-OLF history revisionist websites like gadaa.com et al. However, the undisputed fact is that even the total Ethiopian population (the sum of dozens of ethnic groups) was much less than 5 million in the late 1800s, let alone one ethnic group being 10 million. So claiming that 5 million ethnic Oromos were killed by Emperor Menelik’s forces does not add up. The truth is several thousand Oromos were in fact killed during battles of that era. It was not a “genocide” as some politicians claim but it was a massacre of the ill equipped southern forces defeated by the Shewan military of Emperor Menelik which had more European weapons. Throughout those decades, the truth is more Oromos were killed by other Oromos than by non-Oromos because competing Oromo Clans often traded for weapons to have an upper hand against their local competitors, who were often their fellow Oromo and Sidama neighbors. And it was not the first lop sided victory of that era in Africa because various communities from all corners of Ethiopia had attacked one another during the “resource battles” and whichever group had more modern weapons had the upper hand. To summarize, Professor Mengistu Paulos of Jimma University said it best when describing right-wing Oromo liberation philosophy:–
“Most fictional accounts of ‘Oromo history’ blindly accepted as facts by some misled people are manufactured by former politicians turned Pseudo-historians like OLF writer Asafa Jalata, who is renowned for abuse of paraphrasing, often with out-of-context citations. For example, while quoting the 19th century Russian Alexander Bulatovich (who provided an ‘educated guess’ of annihilation of almost half Ethiopian population by disease, famine and war, including internal conflict between Oromo clans and with Abyssinians), the OLF-writer Asafa Jalata infamously claimed half Oromo population was killed by ‘evil’ Amharas. This was purposely done by Mr. Jalata to create a foundation for ethnic hatred between Oromos and Amharas. Ironically, even Mr. Bulatovich himself never had the capacity nor the legitimacy to do a reliable census, as he spent just a couple of months walking around Oromia and hunting elephants in 1890s.”
“…. largely Muslim Oromo people”
This is a phrase seen in some media outlets but not most. Oromo people have never been a predominantly muslim people. In fact, both Christianity and Islam is not our ancestral religion because we have practiced an indigenous traditional religion for centuries before. Gradually, Islam and Christianity were both adopted (during Oromo migrations) by us and imposed (during conquest of our lands by Abyssinian/Christians & Somalis/Islam) on us thru out history. Even today, both the two major religions have equal representation among Oromos. The latest official 2007 census showed that around 48% of Oromos practice Christianity (Both Orthodox & Protestant) while around 47% of Oromos practice Islam. Yet, word on the ground is that the Islam population might soon surpass Christianity among Oromos in the future because Orthodox Christianity is decreasing inside Oromia.
“Abyssinians labelled Oromos the derogatory word ‘Galla’”
For many decades, this false statement has been used by Oromo separatists to create emotional resentment among Oromos against Semitic Abyssinians (Amharas, Tigrayans and Gurages). The fact is the derogatory word “Galla” was first used by Arab and muslim Somalis to describe Oromos as “gal” meaning “outsiders” and “Pagans.” Muslims used this label during Oromo migration because Oromo people had their own religion which the Muslims believed was paganism. Nonetheless, this derogatory word was gradually adopted and used by other Ethiopians.
“Oromos were colonized by Emperor Menelik”
Another popular claim made by secessionist Oromo politicians (and usually repeated by foreign journalists) is the fiction that Oromo people (as a whole ethnic group) were colonized by another ethnic group. Usually, the slogan goes “Abyssinians colonized Oromos” etc. This claim is popular among the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) organization and consequently among some Diaspora Oromo nationalists living in America and Europe. While a different version or a re-arrangement of the wording might still be true…in general, the Oromo nation as a whole was never colonized by another Ethiopian ethnic group. To start with, even a united one Oromo nation did not exist at those times. All non-political historical textbooks show the existence of battles between multi-ethnic BUT monolingual communities for many centuries through out Ethiopia. Even in northern Ethiopia (traditional “Abyssinia”) Oromos have migrated and mixed so much with Tigrayans, Amharas, Afars etc for centuries that the “Abyssinia” state itself was never a one-ethnic state. In fact, even around the 1700s, Rayya Oromos and Yejju Wallo Oromos conquered and dominated a portion of Amharas and Tigrayans; and thus made Afan Oromo the official language of Abyssinia for that brief period. Meaning: clans and ethnic groups have mixed up in Ethiopia for over a millennium but the dominant ethnic group always imposed its language since it was convenient. This linguistic domination however was not always as exploitive and as vilified as it is today; because many of the ethnic groups living along trade centers and trade routes often spoke the languages of other ethnic groups already, because there was financial or commercial incentive to do so. This is the background of the region. Therefore, when it comes to the Emperor Menelik era, all historians have argued that it is more factual to say a predominantly Amharic language speaking community gradually conquered a predominantly Afan Oromo language speaking community in the 1800s. So this does not mean an Oromo ethnic group was conquered by an Amhara ethnic group. In fact, just like Amharas of the north were divided,Oromos were also divided and in conflict among themselves. The obvious evidence for this comes from the fact that the Amhara Emperor Menelik was imprisoned by other Amhara regional kings when he was younger. And when he was freed, Oromo clans were also in fierce battles amongst each other, so much so that the Tullama Oromo, Limmu and Macha Oromos created an alliance with the Shewan Amharas of Menelik, leading to the infamous battles of 1880s that led to this said alliance easily crushing the non-allied Oromos in various bloody wars. In short, Oromos as a one whole were never colonized by exclusively non-Oromos. In fact, the original founders of the OLF organization themselves never believed it so they did not emphasize the word “colonization” in the beginning. But in the mid-1970s, OLF leaders needed to mobilize Oromos against Emperor Haile Selassie (who was half Oromo himself) and to justify the call for “Oromia independence” from “colonial Ethiopia.” Therefore OLF had to create a bad cop-good cop scenario for their convenience and simplified history for their people to create national resentment. This helped OLF to portray Oromos as suddenly being colonized by this foreign ethnic group (Amhara) that we (Oromos) have never came in contact with before. This is common tactic used by national liberation movements around the world. The truth that most Ethiopians know is that Shewa based Oromos and Amharas (ethnically mixed Ethiopians) were the main creators of modern Ethiopia. In his book “Who are the Shoans,” the historian and anthropologist, Dr. Gerry Salole once summarized that: ”In terms of descent, the group that became politically dominant in Shewa (and subsequently in Ethiopia) was a mixture of Amhara and Oromo.”
In Conclusion, the above are 4 of the main issues that create confusion for foreign journalists who report on Oromo people and Oromo politics in Ethiopia. While it is vital that al Jazeera and other media outlets cover the current suffering of Oromos and other Ethiopians, it is necessary to report responsibly. Otherwise, creating confusion and resentment between the younger Ethiopian population causes more problems than solutions. In reality, not just Oromos, but all Ethiopians have suffered under several governments and the only way they can achieve freedom and lasting democracy is when united, not when divided by tribes or not when being polarized by historical lies presented as truth. It is important that foreign media outlets make corrections or report accurate information to avoid inflammatory statements that are destructive and counter productive against Oromos and all Ethiopian people’ ongoing struggle for democracy, development and justice.
Feqadu Lamessa is a former Adama University professor and writer