The Oromo Nation on the Move amid Political Dynamics in East Africa


In the span of a little over one year, several political developments have been witnessed in the struggle of the Oromo people for liberty.


In late 2003, it was decided to move the capital of Oromia from Finfinne to Adama without any consultation with the Oromo people and in violation of even Ethiopia’s constitution. That decision was the cause for widespread resistance by the Oromo people inside Ethiopia and around the world. Notable among them is the resistance by the Macha and Tulama self-help association as well as Oromo university and high school students.


As if out of the blue, a meeting called “Conference on Conflict Resolution in the Horn of Africa” was organized by the Norwegian Christian Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway, from September 27, 2004, to October 1, 2004. It was reportedly sponsored by that country’s foreign ministry and involved “Oromo elders, civic associations, professionals, leaders and international scholars”. Perhaps, this meeting was one of the most important meetings in the history of the Oromo people’s struggle from the point of view of the messages it conveyed. Prominent among the messages were those of the international scholars that Meles’ government is weakened and that Ethiopia’s politics can not be brought to stability without the participation of the majority, the Oromo people. Another unique message was the fact that the meeting involved the presence on an international stage of representatives of the three major faiths the Oromo people practice. These are Oromo religion and the other two non-Oromo religions of Christianity and Islam.


Among the other topics reportedly discussed at the meeting, one extraordinary subject was the discussion on the concept of Guma, which is one of the highly civilized aspects of Oromo culture. Guma may be viewed as a payment in kind instead of capital punishment for capital crime. It has the notion that if someone takes the life of another person, no one else but the Creator has the right to take the life of the criminal. However, the community to which the criminal belongs retains and exercises the right to punish him or her materially. It is the payment so made and the process thereof that Guma signifies. This notion is in direct conflict with the notion of opening one’s gate to heaven by taking out somebody else’s life, which is reflected in some cultures.


Yet another important message was in the report about the conference by Dr. David Shinn, former U. S. Ambassador to Ethiopia and one of the participants at the conference. In his summary report about the conference, Dr. Shinn indicated that the Oromo people outnumber the population of all African countries south of the Sahara except six of them. That fact and the fact that they have been marginalized in Ethiopia's politics by the Abyssinians makes the struggle of the Oromo people for liberty worthwhile and their movement for this cause understandable.  


Following this development in Norway, the third Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) congress was held in East Africa recently. If not for the change it brought in the leadership, it should be appreciated for the peaceful way it conducted its leadership re-election. It made clear the serious question of power struggle between members of the former leadership of the organization. Some of the important figures from the former leadership are not in the new top level leadership. However, it is not clear whether these former leadership members did not wish to be re-elected or if the election result was not in their favor. What is clear is that their absence from the leadership list has bitterly disappointed some of their comrades. The fact that some top leadership members paid the ultimate sacrifice about a decade ago is a far more bitter disappointment than some previous leadership members now retreating to the back stage or staying in the backstage. In addition, peaceful political transition process should outweigh the bitter disappointment of some of the organization’s members. Such is a maturity that the struggle has achieved and should improve upon. It is a political move uncommon among the leadership of many liberation fronts that hang on their posts or simply take power by attacking their comrades.


In another development, some 70 “concerned Oromos, residing in USA, Canada, Europe and Australia, and belonging to different professional, religious, and age groups” met in Mid January this year to discuss what they called “Stocktaking and Charting the Future Roadmap of the Oromo National Struggle for Liberation”. From the resolution of this conference, it seems obvious that the participants engaged in a serious debate about the main issues and challenges that is facing the Oromo people’s struggle for liberty. We can disregard some of the weaknesses of the resolution, such as the notion of liberating Oromia is easier than democratizing Ethiopia (generally accepted point of arguments of the past has been Oromia needs to be independent since it was colonized). It is hard to understand any Oromo politician that argues that liberating Oromia is easier than democratizing Ethiopia even though the Oromo people are the majority in Ethiopia and Oromia hosts the political capital of Ethiopia. We can also disregard the uncalled for call to others to stop what these others are doing without consulting with the Oromo people when these 70 concerned Oromos themselves met and discussed about the Oromo people’s cause without consulting with the people. However, their determination to organize a meeting of like minded people and to travel long ways to participate in such a meeting to consult on the issues and challenges facing the Oromo people should be appreciated. They have invested their resources, although time will tell if the stocktaking will end in profit. The measure of their success will be not in terms of their investment in meetings but in terms of stocktaking at the end of the day. The fact that some concerned Oromos can get together and call on others to stop what they try to do for the cause of the Oromo people doesn’t seem to suggest a profitable stocktaking on their investment.


In Oromia, a new legal opposition organization called Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) was established recently. This development as well may not necessarily be bad news although not for how much more it will deliver that the Oromo National Congress (ONC) hasn’t delivered since both stand on the same platform of the so called opposition political organization. It may be good news in terms of breaking what became a taboo among Oromo nationalists that to take part in the TPLF/EPRDF government as an opposition political organization is to be a traitor to the struggle of the Oromo people for liberty. That is one of the issues that the ONC has been blamed for for years. Yet, there has been a call for some time now for the necessity to struggle for the Oromo people’s liberty both on our terms as well as on TPLF/EPRDF’s terms. If such opposition Oromo political organizations can work together by removing their weaknesses, they are bound to be a strong arm in the Oromo people’s struggle for liberty.


One of the most interesting developments in Oromo political discourse is the sophistication with which some mature Oromos have been conducting the debate on the Oromo people’s struggle for liberty. Communications between Oromo political activists is obviously a mix of very sophisticated argument on issues, which is reflective of highly developed Oromo culture and Abyssinian style personal attack, which is reminiscent of Abyssinian school of thought. Notable in this discourse is the manner with which the some of the OLF leadership members conducted the differences between them even though they have bitter disagreements. It is simply a promise that those in the leadership who may have differences can readily solve their differences if they come to some consensus on the issues that divided them.


On the other hand, the denial of some chauvinists of the Oromo people’s question is waning down. As some of their discussions indicate, now their theme is no longer a denial of the Oromo question, or the Oromo factor as some of them prefer to call it. What makes them busy is how to address that question, which they do not seem to have a clear answer for but it will certainly keep them busy for sometime to come. In fact, the Oromo question seems to have become their question already. In some aspects, they are now caught between those who favor democracy and those who do not, probably because they are the minority in the country. Some of them still venture to the extent of saying democracy is not necessary in Ethiopia, in a similar fashion as some Sunni’s in Iraq tried to tell the Shiites that “democracy is evil”. These former chauvinists have yet to settle their differences on their vision of democracy.


From the direction of international politics, the wind blowing around criminal dictators could not be pleasing to them. In deed, President George W. Bush’s inaugural speech earlier this year has a very strong message for these dictators. If the U. S. follows up with what it promised the world through the president’s inaugural speech, in the future, there will be less people around the world chained or tortured by dictators on grounds of difference in political opinion. The least the U. S. could do to help in this regard is to measure its relationship with dictatorial regimes. A relationship with the people is worthier and more rewarding than the relationship with their dictatorial rulers. The inaugural speech seems to clearly point in the direction of building a better relationship with the people instead of dictatorial rulers. That will not disfavor by any measure the Oromo people’s struggle for liberty.


From the perspective of history, the focus of research of early human civilizations seems to have been on the move from the Middle East to Egypt. Interestingly, there is now even some focus on the areas south of Egypt. The Discovery Channel recently featured the rich early civilization of the Nubians, one of the Kushitic peoples in East Africa as are the Oromo, the largest Kushitic people. Some scientists have suggested their shift from Egyptology to the history of the Kushitic people south of Egypt. In his interview in 2002 with one of the Ethiopian private newspapers, Jean Doresse, a French historian said: “Formerly I was an Egyptologist with knowledge of the hieroglyphics system. But when I was in Ethiopia I found that there are the same names, the same appellations for so many things that appeared at the beginning of pharaonic language. For instance, there is a word ‘Oromo’ in Ethiopia which appeared in ancient Egypt referring to the same subject, with consonants only, without using vowels…” This accomplished historian goes on to say that “… in ancient Egyptian we found many words which are in Ethiopia, both in Amharic and even more in Oromiffa. So, the conclusion is that Ethiopia is the birthplace of ancient civilization which developed later in Egypt and much later on in Greece and other countries.” “…I am very much fond of reading Plato and some of his dialogues but I could not understand those dialogues until I visited Ethiopia … When I visited Ethiopia, I found ways of thinking and ideas that made me very clear with my Plato's readings.” … “Oromiffa, Somali and Afar languages use words whose origin is earlier than hieroglyphic Egyptian.”


On the faith front, the Oromo people are cultivating their own wisdom tradition, whose monotheism concept (one god concept) may have been the root of Christianity and Islam although with some misinterpretations. There is already research suggesting that Pharaoh Akhenaton of Egypt became Moses and went on exodus to the Middle East when the people in Egypt rebelled against his rule. This pharaoh is considered the father of monotheism in Egypt. There is also some thesis suggesting that the concept of monotheism was introduced to Pharaoh Akhenaton, perhaps by one of the Kushitic peoples south of Egypt. In this area as well, Jean Doresse suggests that the people of the southern part of Ethiopia who are outside Christianity “have their own very ancient beliefs and practices which are very intelligent ones. They had concepts of man, of fun and life, of the surrounding nature which are related to my reading of Plato.”


Very interestingly, Oromo meeting such as the ones conducted in Bergen and perhaps the one in Washington, D.C., have already embraced all the three faiths members of the Oromo people practice. Such is not common in many liberation organizations that tend to lean towards one religion instead of embracing the religions of its constituents on equal grounds. Oromo political activists have opened up a unique experience in this regard and sooner than later, they may discover how much the two non-Oromo religions have in common with Oromo religion in terms of the three major issues they preach. These are 1) monotheism, which is never a new concept to Oromo religion of Waaqa Tokkica, 2) peace which Oromo wisdom tradition answers through Guma as well as democratic practice of Gada, and 3) love which Oromo wisdom tradition has it in the form of Guddifacha.


Religious scholars in the west have already opened up a public debate on Christianity. Since the release of the bestselling fiction book Da Vinci Code (highly recommended for reading by Oromos), some documentaries produced on the history of Christianity have some revealing stories. One such documentary now available at movie stores is what is called Da Vinci Code Decoded (a must see movie for any Oromo). An Oromo who grew up in Oromo culture or anyone familiar with it can easily and quickly connect with the Da Vinci Code. One notable among many aspects in the fiction book is the balanced nature notion, which is still lively in Oromo culture. In fact, a writer for one western faith denomination failed to understand that Christianity was grafted on the culture of the paganus, that the cross is a symbol used by the paganus, and that certain rituals in some churches are based on paganus rituals. In trying to relate with the practices of the paganus, not to mention that Oromo religion is indifferent to their practices, the writer may have unwittingly done a good service to the religion of the Oromo people by writing that the Oromo people haven’t yet accepted the rituals and symbols of the paganus but believe in their own homegrown monotheism called Waaqa Tokkicha or one god. In fact, it appears that before monotheism spread to Europe, it may have traveled to Egypt from the Kushitic people and then on to the Middle East. It also appears that it is now coming back from the Middle East to Egypt on the way home.


In summary, the Oromo people are amid a dynamic political environment in East Africa when looked at from the measure of the above factors, which are all in favor of their struggle. This struggle is going on with maturity of these important and critical factors. In Voice Finfinne’s opinion, the future of the Oromo people has never looked brighter at any point in the past two thousand years since they were defeated by the Abyssinian king Ezana. What the leaders of Oromo political organizations shoulder at this point in the Oromo people’s history is heavy. Their practice ought to be of the highest standard for such a great nation that may have contributed so much to the history of the world. The goal of the political leadership must be not only to deliver liberty to the Oromo people but also to continue on a peaceful journey after liberty as well as involve meaningfully in bringing peace and stability to East Africa. Democratic practice of the leadership of Oromo political organizations on the way to liberty is already a sign of promise towards those ends.