Oromia Under Occupation – the Colonization of Oromia
The Oromo were colonized during the last quarter of the nineteenth century by a black African nation – Abyssinia – with the help of the European colonial powers of the day. During the same period, of course, the Somalis, Kenyans, Sudanese and others were colonized by European powers. The fact that the Oromo were colonized by black African nation makes their case quite different. The military balance of the Oromo was fundamentally reversed during the scramble for Africa when their adversaries, the Abyssininans acquired large number of firearms from the European powers. In late 1880s when the Abyssinian army was invading the Oromo country and the Southern peoples the number of Abyssinian soldiers bearing firearms was estimated to six hundred thousand(600, 000). Once the army was built upto such massive proportion it become powerful machinery for Abyssinian empire building.
Despite the great advantage that the Abyssininan army gained through the use of modern weapons, they still faced much resistance from the Oromo and other Cushitic peoples. The Oromo were able to stop the advance of Abyssinian army equipped with European arms and military advisors, even though temporarily, by raising a large number of age- regiments (Chibras) and fought a protracted defensive wars in Arsi, Tulama, Hararge, Wellega, Ilu Abbabor and other regions of Oromia. Until they were outweighed by the fire power of the Abyssinians in late 19th century the Oromo warriors and, in particular Oromo cavalries demonstrated again and again that they were capable of showing the same kind of military efficacy and versatility as their ancestors in the 16th century.
After colonization, the emperors of Abyssinia and their successors continued to treat Oromo with utmost cruelty. Many were killed by the colonial army and settlers, others died of famine and epidemics of various diseases or were sold off as slaves. Those who remained on the land were reduced to the status called gabbar ( crude form of serfdom).
In all spheres of life, discrimination, subjugation, repression and exploitation of all forms were applied to Oromo population. Everything possible was done to destroy Oromo identity – culture, language, custom, tradition, name and origin.
1. Conquest by Menelik II (1889-1913)
There is a gross lack of knowledge about the real history of Ethiopia among the international community in general and Africans in particular. Briefings materials on Ethiopia for diplomats and other foreign dignitaries still contain the myth of the 3000-year-old “independent Ethiopia.” It is disappointing to hear sophisticated diplomats and journalists talking about Ethiopia that has been independent for 3000 years. In reality such Ethiopia does not exist. The historic “Ethiopia”, the land of Kush, is not at all the same as the present Ethiopian empire. The Abyssinian clergy and rulers appropriated the name of ancient Ethiopia and claimed its history as well. To this moment, the rest of the world is being cleverly misled and astonishingly accepted the myth as real.
The Ethiopian empire is ethnically heterogeneous, comprising more than 80 nations and/or ethnic groups of 83 languages and 200 dialects spoken by its over 80 million people in a land of 1 million Sq. Km. The Oromo, Amhara, Tigrayan and Somali are the largest ethnic groups respectively.
As some like to call it, Ethiopia’s modern period (1900 to present) is represented by the reigns of Menelik II, Haile Selassie I, by the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam; and, since mid-1991 up to 2012 by Meles Zenawi a Tigrayan like Emperor Yonnes IV. Each has been characterized by political suppression and political isolation of the Oromo nation and other ethnic groups. Political pluralism has never been the history of the Ethiopian empire, which is true for all empire states too. In fact the whole history of the Ethiopian empire is characterized by warfare, famine, forced dislocation of people and lack of democratic culture.
The present Ethiopia is an empire state. The empire state consists of the core Abyssinian state, which was first founded by the Tigrayans under Yohannes IV and then consolidated over centuries by the two national groups of Abyssinia—Amhara and Tigrayans. Emperor Menelik II of the Amhara national group was the creator of present day Ethiopia. First- as a vassal king under emperor Yohannes IV of Tigray, and later on as an emperor, Menelik conquered the Oromo and other non-Abyssinian peoples during the era of “scramble for Africa”. In conquering and incorporating these peoples’ territories, he transformed the core state of his ancestors into an empire state, increasing its size by two-thirds. After the accession of Menelik II to the throne in 1889, the ruling class consisted primarily of the Amhara and since 1991 the Tigrayans. The Oromo, who constitute over 40 percent of the population are politically marginalized.
The Abyssinians rejected their identity with any black people. They appropriated the name “Ethiopia” and gave it to their empire to claim legitimacy based on antiquity and divine authority of biblical proportion. [The term Ethiopia is derived from the Greek word “Aithiops”, meaning the land of the people of the “burned-faces” or simply the country of the blacks. The name applied to a region, also referred to as the land of Kush, and not to a country or states until the time the Abyssinian kings and clergy appropriated the name Ethiopia]. At the same time, the idea of Abyssinia as a Christian outpost and that the Abyssinians “have a much higher form of intelligence than do the purely Negro peoples of Africa” was strong among the colonial powers. Euro-Americans accepted Abyssinians as “honorary” whites.
Menelik enjoyed advisory and arms assistances from the European colonial powers. He accomplished his colonial conquest by heavily investing in contemporary European weapons in a region where spear reigned. He was heavily engaged in the slave trade to earn cash to pay for European modern arms. Thus, contrary to the common belief that Ethiopia is a symbol of freedom for blacks everywhere, Menelik‘s reign was featured with a large-scale slave trade. He also acquired advisers skilled in military science from European powers. He employed the strategy of divide-and-conquer to mobilize one ethno-national against another. It is a fact that Menelik built the Ethiopian empire with unparalleled brutality against the indigenous African peoples. He reduced the size of the Oromo population from ten to five million. Ethiopia has taken an active part in the slave trade like any colonial force. So, the attempt to symbolize Ethiopia as the only non-colonized African nation and hence symbol for the African pride is an overt denial of recorded history.
Menelik and his successors, once they defeated the Oromo people, targeted their national integrity by employing the strategy of divide and rule. Hereditary leaders were promoted from among the subjugated peoples to serve as intermediaries between the myriad members of the colonial administration. The colonizers consisted of warlords and militia known as “naftenyas”, and the clergy all of whom were organized into decentralized feudal hierarchies subsisting on levies, slaves, and personal servitude of the subjugated peoples. Slave trade, feudal levies and personal servitude of the peoples provided good life for the conquerors.
It is a historical fact that the subjugated peoples suffered devastation of genocidal magnitude. The Oromos and other peoples were subjugated to slavery by Abyssinians. Sadly, European powers that were Menelik’s partners condoned the atrocities perpetrated against the Oromo and other victims of genocide. The major powers of the time were interested in opening up the region for trade and the Abyssinian emperor was considered as a partner in the “mission of civilizing pagans and barbarians.”
An Italian spokesman to the League of Nation in 1935 had the following to say:- “Modern Ethiopia consisted of a ruling minority, holding down by cruel repression the colonies which it had conquered within the last forty years. Flourishing lands had been laid waste, peaceful tribes [sic] had been enslaved and almost exterminated. To liberate these oppressed colonies was a duty of civilization”(Walter 1960: 643).
2. Under the Emperor Haile Selassie 1913-1974
Emperor Haile Selassie consolidated Menelik’s empire by utilizing the art of modern state machinery. With encouragement and technical assistance of foreign patrons, he introduced laws that institutionalized violence against the subject peoples. Modern civil administrations and military were put in place. He maintained absolute power over the subjugated peoples of the empire. He was pressured to gradually abolish personal servitude and slavery; but he compensated the colonists for lost feudal rights and privileges. Menelik gave the colonists, by law, property rights over land originally confiscated by Menelik himself from the colonized peoples. He introduced a modern educational system to produce manpower for the state apparatus as well as to serve as an instrument of cultural genocide against the subjugated peoples. He intensively and systematically promoted Abyssinian history, language, culture, and values to the detriment of the colonized peoples
Unfortunately for the subjugated peoples, the Haile Selassie regime’s cultural genocide disguised under the euphemism “social engineering,” was accorded all-round enthusiastic support by the regime’s foreign allies. In the world then divided into Western and Eastern blocs, the Western powers used the emperor’s regime to contain the expansion of communism in Africa. In return, these powers assisted the Emperor to organize a strong intelligence system as well as build and maintain the strongest military forces in sub-Sahara black Africa to guard him against resistance of oppressed peoples.
While members of the royal family, the nobility, and high ranking public officials and their cronies enjoyed life of luxury under Haile Selassie, the country suffered from economic stagnation and periodic natural disasters. Liberation struggles by the oppressed peoples, disillusionments among the Abyssinian elites, dissatisfaction by intellectuals in general about the performance of the empire, particularly poor performance of the economy compared to those of newly independent African states, brought the downfall of the emperor’s regime.
3. Under Mengistu Hailemariam (1974-1991)
The Dergue, a military junta led by a group of Abyssinian inner core, came to power (1974-1991) after Emperor Haile Selassie’s fall. Discouraged by the lack of support from Western powers and by the intellectual pressure from members of the intelligentsia, the new regime adopted a radical ideology. Thus, to minimize counter offensive from supporters of the deposed regime, in desperate effort to stave off liberation movements that were gathering momentum, and to save the empire from disintegration by general upheaval, the military junta joined the eastern bloc by embracing the so called socialism.
To avert uprising by peasant farmers, it introduced a fundamental land-reform program and promised to address the “national question” through a Leninist model. A program of “national democratic revolution” was introduced and the principle of national self‑determination was declared. The program promised the rights of each nation and nationality to develop its own language and culture. However, the Amhara military clique that formed the core of the Dergue gradually transformed itself into a tightly‑controlled, repressive totalitarian party with the support of the Amhara elite. The party took monopoly of state-power and dictated socio-economic policies. It took ownership of enterprises in all economic sectors. In short, the regime established its total control over the population’s political, economic, and social life.
The Dergue regime, like its predecessor, built and maintained huge military and security forces. As soon as it consolidated its power, the Dergue regime abrogated the “nationality question” declarations and began to label any advocacy of national rights as “narrow nationalism.” It took unprecedented action against thousands of reform‑minded intellectuals and eliminated them as “bourgeois elements.” As an answer to the “national question”, instead of adopting self-determination, it introduced a heinous scheme called “resettlement.” Under this scheme over a million settlers were forcibly transferred from the north to the south. This action was underpinned by a political motive and security considerations to change the demographic composition of the non-Abyssinian oppressed peoples of the south. The program had no objective of improving the economic wellbeing of the multitudes of the destitute people of northern Ethiopia.
In a somewhat similar scheme, the Dergue uprooted some ten million people of the rural south and moved them into “strategic hamlets” under a policy of “villagization.” This scheme had double‑pronged objectives of resource control and surveillance of liberation forces.
The Dergue maintained huge military and security forces. It used these forces to suppress resistance by the Oromo and other oppressed peoples, who were opposed to its continuation of national oppression under autocratic Amhara regimes. Political repression, wars of liberation, natural disaster, distorted economic policy, and mismanagement of resources was the causes for human sufferings during the “Leninist” Dergue rule. The combination of liberation forces gaining strength and the disintegration of the Eastern bloc, particularly the breakdown of the Soviet Union, which maintained it in power ushered in its collapse.
4. TPLF/EPRDF as Successor to the Empire State (1991- present)
Despite the fact the Eritrean People’s Liberation Font (EPLF), TPLF and OLF were the major liberation movements that toppled the Dergue regime in 1991, foreign supporters promoted the TPLF, also known as Wayanne, alone to fill the power vacuum created by the fall of the Dergue regime. This led to the replacement of the Amhara regime by a Tigrayan power after one century as was evident to those familiar with the Ethiopian political landscape. With the full approval of the US government, the TPLF marched into the Ethiopian capital in May 1991 and exclusively formed an interim administration.
The TPLF needed a transitional period to consolidate its power. Faithful to the political culture of its predecessors, the TPLF targeted the national integrity of the Oromo people by creating an Oromo surrogate organization known as the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). After it made sure that it dominated the government, the TPLF signed a transitional charter of July 1991 that recognized in its Article 2 that “nations, nationalities, and peoples” in Ethiopia have the right to self-determination including independence. The preamble of the charter used an oxymoron to describe the beginning of a Tigrayan era of subjugation and oppression as “the end of an era of subjugation and oppression” in Ethiopia. The charter served as a camouflage for the TPLF hidden agenda of domination. The TPLF initially posed as having accepted the US condition: “No democracy, no assistance.” However, that pose was a false posturing. In fact, it was simply a springboard to state power. As was proven later, the TPLF had no genuine desire to democratize the country. What it needed was a transitional period to consolidate its minority power in a multinational society.
Under the pretext of opening the country for world markets as well as assist democratization and structural adjustment, traditional patrons of the Ethiopian empire used the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) to pump substantial amounts of money into the coffer of the TPLF. Under the code name of rehabilitation and development, during the last 18 years, the TPLF regime received billions of dollars in multilateral and bilateral assistance. The bilateral and multilateral assistances were used to dismantle the Amhara-centric state-apparatus and replace it with more tightly controlled Tigrayan ethnic controlled institutions. Today, there is no public institution, be it the military, the judiciary, the civil service, the regulatory agencies, and financial institutions outside the control of the TPLF and its surrogate parties.
The regime cannot claim democratic legitimacy when it is suppressing political competition, and preventing meaningful participation in the political process. Professor Christopher Clapham of the University of Lancaster wrote this in a book titled the Ethiopian 2000 Elections, published by the Norwegian Institute of Human Rights: “To those accustomed to the uninflected authoritarianism that has been Ethiopia’s fate in the past, it may well seem remarkable that [the Ethiopian 2000 elections] could have taken place at all…. To those accustomed to states even in Africa, with better established traditions of electoral democracy, they will fall so far short of the standard required as to amount to little more than a travesty.”
The May 2005 parliamentary election was a ploy designed to influence the international community. In the hope of appearing democratic the regime opened the political field, even though with great reluctance and delay, to opposition parties. Much evidence leading to the elections suggest that the regime was not genuine about it. Particularly in Oromia, the Human Right Watch May 10, 2005 report explicitly indicated that the political atmosphere there was repressive and no democratic election could be held. Credible international observers including two groups from the USA, International Republican Institute and National Endowment for Democracy were expelled from the country, several opposition leaders particularly in rural areas were imprisoned and/or killed, the state owned media was one-sided, and the OLF was debarred. Generally, the population of the country showed their unequivocal disapproval of Tigrayan rule by massively voting for any group except the TPLF/EPRDF.
However, the regime manipulated the vote and the people came out in large numbers in pro-democracy demonstration to show their disapproval of the regime’s actions. The regime brought in a special force, Agazi, mainly comprised of individuals of Tigrayan origin and killed over 193 and wounded several hundred peaceful demonstrators, as ascertained by the “Truth Commission” created by the regime itself. Unfortunately some US supplied military materiel including Humvee vehicles were used to suppress the peaceful demonstrators demanding their legitimate rights.
Local-level elections in April 2008 provided a stark illustration of the extent to which the government has successfully crippled organized opposition of any kind. In this election, the ruling party and its affiliates won more than 99 percent of all constituencies, and the vast majority of seats were uncontested. TPLF and company won 3.6 million seats, as compared to three for the opposition groups. Today, the limited opening of political space that preceded Ethiopia’s 2005 elections has been completely reversed.
In desperation to hang-on to power, the TPLF has become ever more tyrannical in its rule. The regime, in space of one year, has presented three draconian laws, for approval to its rubber stamp parliament. They are the “Media Law,” “Charities and Societies law” and“Anti-terrorism bill.” Against the outcry of national and international NGOs and human organization, these laws have been approved now. These laws impede freedom of expression and association and they are meant to be used as a legal weapon to harass, intimidate, jail, exile and kill particularly members of the opposing groups and their sympathizers. The TPLF government believes that these laws will give it an absolute power to rule over Ethiopia ad infinitum.
The TPLF social base is the people of Tigray who constitute about 6% of the total population of Ethiopia. That base is fractured by the serious rift that has surfaced within the rank of the leadership of the party a few years ago. As a result armed resistance is going on in Tigray region. In addition, the surrogate political groups created by the TPLF do not have legitimacy even among the constituencies they claim to represent. With lack of democratic legitimacy, the TPLF regime is compelled to use brutal force to perpetuate its political power.
The institution of violence built and controlled by the TPLF regime with the assistance of unwitting major world powers and international financial institutions is mobilized to effectively destabilize the Horn of Africa through wars it wages against Somalia and Eritrea. The TPLF regime also destabilizes Ethiopia itself through its internal wars against peoples’ uprisings.
Perfecting the political culture of divide and rule pursued by its progenitors, the TPLF/EPRDF regime is using government institutions to incite one group of people against the other. The fact that Oromia shares borders with almost all peoples in Ethiopia, makes the Oromo people vulnerable victims of the strategy. Constant attempts are being made by the regime, with some success, to create conflict between the Oromo and Amhara, Somali, Gedeo, Benishangul, Gambela, Afar, Gurage, Kambata and others. This act has denied the Oromo and other peoples the right to live together in peace and security.
The Inter‑Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD), a regional organization of eastern African countries established to promote development and security, has also been used as a launching pad for the Ethiopian government’s security agenda. When IGAD mandated that the Ethiopian prime minister use his good offices to resolve the problems in Somalia, he went about setting-up a client regime. Finally in December 2006 the regime invaded Somalia, a sovereign nation, under the pretext of supporting the regime and hunting down the so-called terrorist groups.
The Ethio-Eritrean war between 1998 and 2000 and the Somalia invasion from 2006 to present demonstrate another international dimension of the problem of autocratic rule in Ethiopia. The TPLF regime has embarked upon external adventures to divert attention from its internal problems and to win legitimacy as a protector of Ethiopian sovereignty. Its absolute power allows it to undertake adventures of war without any accountability. It is not only a matter of an evil intention by one faction or another within the TPLF, but it is a matter of absence of institutional mechanism to ensure accountability in the exercise of state power in the country.
Instead of uniting multi-ethnic Ethiopia, the TPLF leadership has antagonized them. In addition to dominating the economy, Tigrayans have a complete control of the armed forces and security. The institution of violence built and controlled by the TPLF regime with the assistance of unwitting major world powers and international financial institutions is mobilized to effectively destabilize the Horn of Africa through wars it wages against Somalia and Eritrea. The TPLF regime also destabilizes Ethiopia itself through its internal wars against peoples’ uprisings.
The Struggle of the Oromo People
The fundamental political objective of the Oromo people’s liberation struggle is to exercise their inalienable right to national self determination to liberate themselves from a century of oppression and exploitation, and to form, where possible, a political union with other nations on the basis of equality, respect for mutual interests and the principle of voluntary associations. The struggle of the Oromo people, then, is nothing more than an attempt to affirm their own place in history. It seeks equality, human dignity, democracy, freedom and peace. It is not directed against the masses of a particular nation or nationality, nor against individuals, but rather against Ethiopian colonialism led by the Abyssinian ruling class.
All genuinely democratic and progressive individuals and groups, including members of the oppressor nation, of Tigray, who believe in peace, human dignity and liberty should support the Oromo struggle for liberation.