Ethiopian Oromo’s quest for self-determination
By Bernard Muhia
19th Sept, 2022, Nairobi, Kenya.
No one is free until everyone is free! This statement by Fannie Lou Hamer, filled the air this past weekend at a bookshop in the heart of Lavington, Nairobi. Hamer, an African-American woman who pushed for the civil rights movement in the 1960s led in community organizing to get black people in America to register as voters despite police harassment and death threats from the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
In an almost similar scene, a female storyteller from Ethiopia was doing the same last weekend. Soreti organized a solidarity session for her Oromo people from the south of Ethiopia. The session was set at a bookshop/ bookclub cafe where books were in shelves on the walls and this was very symbolic because the session was meant to be an exchange of knowledge, information and ideas. The Oromo word for book is “Kitaaba” which has Arabic influence and close to “Kitabu” which is book in Swahili, another language with Arabic influence. The Oromo are 60% Muslim and 40% Christian. Then there is a small population that practice Waaqeffannaa, the traditional Oromo religion.
Soreti spent over six hours moderating a very engaged audience made up of Kenyans and Ethiopians. Her sheer presence and eloquence inspired a deep exchange of ideas and information about the various conflicts in Ethiopia and specifically for the Oromo people. There are also Oromo people in Northern Kenya. The Ethiopian Oromo extend all the way to Addis Ababa. The name Addis Ababa means ‘new flower’ and was given by Empress Taytu Betul, wife to Emperor Menelik II during his reign. The Oromo call Addis Ababa “Finfinne”.
Emperor Menelik II, also known as Sahle Maryam was Emperor of Ethiopia from 1889 to 1913 when he died. Previously, he was the King of Shewa from 1866 to 1889. He amassed great power and was highly regarded outside of Ethiopia largely due to his defeat of the Italian invaders at the battle of Adwa. He continued to expand his empire through peaceful negotiations with neighbouring kingdoms and where that wasn’t possible, he exerted crushing military takeovers where the resisters were tortured, maimed and/or starved to death. This territorial expansion facilitated the creation of the modern empire-state of Ethiopia in 1898. Menelik expanded his empire-state to the south and east, into Oromo, Kaffa, Sidama, Wolayta and other kingdoms or peoples.
The Oromo still view the Ethiopian state as an extension and expansion of the Menelik empire. We say Ethiopia wasn’t colonized but the Oromo say they were colonized by Menelik II and have never been decolonized, that they are still being colonized even now, through the state.
Despite the seat of the African Union Commission being in Addis Ababa, there is so much oppression and state violence against almost all ethnic people all over Ethiopia including the Oromo and Tigray to say the least. It had gotten so bad that according to Soreti, speaking their native Afaan Oromo language was not permissible from 1941 under the Haile Selassie rule up until 1991 when the DERG fell. Their culture was considered inferior to those of other communities. Their community faces discrimination and underdevelopment despite being rich in resources. The resources are merely taken out of Oromia and used to develop other regions and very little is invested back. This is despite the fact that the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is from the Oromo community. His coming to power was meant to soothe unrest and the grievances of the minorities.
However, some view him as a puppet for the state. He was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at ending the 20-year post-war territorial stalemate between Ethiopia and Eritrea. He has since enlisted Eritrea in his onslaught of the Tigray region which borders Eritrea. Eritrea was once a province of Ethiopia but managed to gain independence and self-rule.
The Oromo desire for self-determination and justice. Justice in the Oromo language is “Haqaa” which is close to Haki which is Swahili for Justice. Haqaa, according to the crowd present on the day, means deciding their own fate, deciding how their resources are used and being free to express themselves in their language, their culture and their political aspirations.
Soreti talked about Pan-Africanism and the need for Africans to band together to fight injustice everywhere on the continent. She walks in the footsteps of other great Pan-Africanist women like Jeanne Martin Cissé from Guinea who was instrumental in the independence of Guinea. She went on to become the first African president of the United Nations Security Council in 1972. She lobbied for and passed two resolutions, one condemning Apartheid in South Africa and the second one condemning Israel’s aggression against Palestine.
The second Pan-Africanist woman that Soreti walks in the footsteps of is Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (FRK) who was a Nigerian activist. She was the first woman to be in a high ranking position at the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons. She was also the first woman in Nigeria to drive a car. Funmilayo’s son, Fela Kuti, grew up to be a very popular musician and created Afrobeat, a political musical genre that was very Pan-Africanist. His mother influenced his music a great deal.
Women are often casualties of war, however women’s involvement in war has, according to Soreti, given them a greater chance at advancement and promotion on the basis of merit more than anywhere else in Ethiopian society. Women in Ethiopia still face many inequalities. The United Nations says that women’s participation at the political level has resulted in greater responsiveness to citizen’s needs, often increasing cooperation across party and ethnic lines and delivering more sustainable peace. At the local level, women’s inclusion at the leadership level has led to improved outcomes of projects and policies. On the contrary, if policies or projects are implemented without women’s meaningful participation it can increase existing inequalities and decrease effectiveness. Soreti has risen from being a mere storyteller to a political activist and a force to be reckoned with.
Members of the Mathare Social Justice Center who were present had a feminist chant in support of women which goes like this “Women on the frontline, organize, educate, liberate and celebrate. They also advocated for Oromo women to join both the political and military wings of the struggle.
As a first hand immersion into the Oromo culture, the crowd was treated to Ethiopian cuisine. The main dish which looked like pancakes was a flat bread called Budena. It was the colour of porridge (sorghum) and was served with stew known as Shiro.
There were Oromo present who didn’t speak English and thus the session was translated to Afaan Oromo. It was a cultural exchange that left everyone feeling more connected. It opened the eyes of the Kenyans in the room to the plight of Ethiopians.