August 4, 2009

Oromo: Time of Ending Double Alienation

Sample ImageAn opinion article on Oromo’s trajectory in Ethiopia, calling on intellectuals’ role in bridging their reconciliation based on a broader understanding.


Below is an article published by Jimma Times :

The Oromo are a historically alienated people in Ethiopia. They are alienated because of the myths, falsehoods, half-truths, and erroneous assumptions that have been told about them for centuries. The greatest untruth about them is that they had no role in the history and civilization of Ethiopia. This untruth goes unchallenged to this day. But it has also found a new expression in recent decades as Oromos themselves have increasingly come to believe that Ethiopia’s history has no relevance to their people. These are two sides of the same story. But the story is wrong on one side, and it is wrong on the other. Oromos now face the challenge, and the opportunity, to set it right for once and for all time.

This myth about the Oromo past arose because of an error made by a man named Abba Bahrey, an Ethiopian cleric who lived in the sixteenth century. It was Bahrey who said (in or about 1593) that the Oromo people had then just come from “their country” and arrived in Ethiopia. He was dead wrong. As a number of researchers have already pointed out, the Oromo were present in Ethiopia long before the sixteenth century. I can now confirm this based on my own research.

Bahrey made a mistake, no doubt an honest one, but what a disastrous and enduring mistake it has proved to be!

Because of it, the Oromo, one of Ethiopia’s ancient peoples, came to be called strangers in their own land. The truth was that this people had been much more than just a presence in Ethiopia before the sixteenth century. They had left their unmistakable marks on Ethiopian traditions. There is no doubt, for example, that Ethiopia’s aristocratic political culture is the legacy of its Oromo ancestors.

Bahrey originated the myth but the credit for sustaining it goes to others. His European readers embellished the myth and passed it onto less informed and unsuspecting readers. They also spiced it up with their Christian bigotry, thus reinforcing already existing popular prejudice against the Oromo. Ethiopian rulers found it useful, particularly under the new empire of the nineteenth century, because it enabled them to oppress and exploit the Oromo people without compunction. Generations of Ethiopians had been raised on the prejudice that the Oromo were less than true compatriots (beside all the unmentionable things they had heard and believed about the Oromo); and they became comfortable with the feeling of superiority that this gave them. Galla, the Oromo name more commonly in use in the past, became the most abused name in Ethiopia.

Then came what we now know as Oromo nationalism in the early 1970s. Oromo nationalists arose in reaction to the decades old subjugation and denigration of the Oromo people. Theirs was basically a protest movement against the consequences of the new empire that Menelik II had imposed on hitherto independent Oromo populations in the nineteenth century. But the nationalists also broadened their argument by saying that this was not an empire in the classical mold but more like a colonial empire of modern times (the British colonial empire in Africa, for example). This led them to the view that Ethiopia and the Oromo never shared a past. Ethiopia had its history; the Oromo had theirs; and the two had nothing in common. Inevitably, they thought, Ethiopia and the Oromo should not have a common future either. The idea of an impendent state for the Oromo was born. Their view eventually took hold, particularly since the early 1990s, and a great majority of Oromos, if not most of them, now maintain that Ethiopia’s history has no importance whatsoever for their people. There are some who also still believe in the idea of separation.

Oromo protest against the empire was justified, of course, but those brave souls got their history wrong. They had rightly challenged the myth that the Oromo were new immigrants in the Ethiopia of the sixteenth century. They had the backing of researchers as far as that went. But they needed to have done more. They should have gone all the way and challenged the myth that had arisen on the back of Bahrey’s error: the view that the Oromo had never been part of the ancient Ethiopian polity. They did not do that. They veered off in another direction instead and plotted a different path to their people’s past. The old myth had seemed so self-evidently true that they did not even contemplate challenging it. Nobody else did, for that matter. This move seemed perfectly reasonable also because there was indeed Oromo history that had been excluded from conventional Ethiopian history. Oromos therefore dedicated themselves to the task of searching and asserting the ignored “half” of their people’s history. They went looking in this “half” for the sense of identity and pride that conventional Ethiopian history had denied them. Where they went wrong was to think that this “half” made up the “whole” of the Oromo past. They erred greatly when they closed their minds to the possibility of another “half” of their people’s history being there in real Ethiopian history all along. They not only precluded such a possibility but they also disowned every real indication of it. Their rejection of Ethiopia became near total. Rejecter and rejected traded places and the saga of Oromo alienation acquired certain mutuality. Figuratively speaking, the old alienators had ejected the Oromo out of the family home; Oromos then turned around, locked the door, with themselves out and the ejector in, and threw away the key. In sum, it has been a double blow of historical alienation for the Oromo people – once by those who tried to put them down, and once by those who wanted to lift them up. Consequently, the Oromo people now find themselves in a historical limbo: Are they Ethiopians truly or are they citizens only by virtue of necessity? They do not deserve this. They are too great a people to be left wondering about an issue so fundamental to their identity. There is something so gut-wrenchingly unfair about it all.

The primary responsibility to get the Oromo people out of this virtual bind falls squarely on the shoulders of Oromo intellectuals. It is such an easy thing to do. It took the human mind to make up the story that got this people there, and it will only take the human mind to unmake the story and set them free.

The question is: Will Oromo intellectuals do it? Will they try to make the story of their people “whole” again after four hundred years of mutilation and four decades of bifurcation? Will Oromo federalists be sagacious about the past and lead their people toward a broader self-affirmation as Oromos as well as Ethiopians? Will Oromo academics do the one thing that academics are trained to do, the search for knowledge, and not let ideology override their professional obligation? Most importantly: Will the nationalists once again muster the selflessness and moral courage that drove them to the struggle in the first place and change course for the sake of their people? The Oromo people had given them a carte blanche in 1991 for all the sacrifices they had made before that time. But they let their people down immeasurably in 1992. For this, they owe their people the truth. And this is what they have to say to their people: The idea of independent statehood for the Oromo was a mistake, unworkable, undesirable, and is hereby completely renounced. For them, and for Oromo intellectuals as a whole the time has come to get serious about the historical integrity of their people. This means: restoring Ethiopian identity to the Oromo, and restoring Ethiopia to its Oromo heritage. This is the call of the day, a task for the ages.