On Saturday, March 31st in Washington D.C., an organization called the International Oromo Youth Association held a rally in front of the State Department. About 500 people from as nearby as Pennsylvania and Maryland and from as far away as Minnesota, California, and Georgia gathered together, some holding signs condemning the Ethiopian government and U.S. foreign policy, others holding flags for a nation called Oromia, and many dressed in traditional Oromo garb. Some were college students, others were children, fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers. Some were Lutheran, some Ethiopian Orthodox, some Muslim, some humanists. As the rally began, residents of D.C. and tourists walked by, wondering who these colorfully dressed people could be and what they were energetically protesting, and if any of these passers-by ventured close enough, he or she received a little piece of paper explaining it all.
One of the organizers of this rally is Maya Tessema, formerly a student at Penn State University, now living and working in her home state of Maryland. Shortly after the rally began with some chanting of political statements, she took the microphone and requested that everyone lower their signs and flags. “I’d like to quiet down, change the tone for a moment, and focus on why we are here. I’d like to ask, how many of you have a family member, a friend, or a loved one who has been killed or disappeared or imprisoned by the Ethiopian government?” Almost everyone in the crowd raised their hands, and Maya continued. “Three of my cousins were recently put in jail without explanation from the police and for no other reason than that they were Oromo. This is an experience we all share, and this is why we are here today.”
Very few Americans even know who the Oromo are. The average American may remember Sally Struthers on their TV’s in the 1980s asking Americans to donate money to starving Ethiopians, and readers of newspapers will know about Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia last December – an invasion encouraged and supported by the U.S. government. But who are the Oromo and why are they being murdered and unjustly imprisoned now? I’d heard bits and pieces of the story, but I didn’t know enough, so before I attended the rally, I read a couple of history books.
The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, with their own language and culture. According to a conservative CIA estimate, they presently comprise 40% of Ethiopia’s 75 million people, making them larger than the second and third largest ethnic groups – the Amhara and the Tigray – combined. In fact, that makes them one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. Another book I read estimates that the Oromo comprise an even larger percentage of the population than that, and in addition, there are also many Oromo in neighboring Somalia, as the Somali and Oromo languages are similar.
The history of the region known as the Horn of Africa is too long and complex to summarize adequately here, but it’s impossible to understand why the Oromo are now protesting without an overview. In the 19th century, when Europe was rapidly colonizing the interior of Africa, the Amhara kingdom was able to convince Europe of two things: first that it could supply them slave labor and valuable commodities (such as coffee), and second, that the kings of Amhara were among the earliest Christians, even claiming the Hebrew patriarch Solomon as an ancestor. They negotiated with the European imperial powers to be their commercial ally as well their religious partner in the epic battle against Islam. Europe supplied the kings with guns and other technologies so that they could fight against the Turkish Empire and subdue other peoples such as the Oromo. The Oromo tried to resist, but ultimately could not beat the Amharic kings whose imperial ambitions were supported by European capital, technology, and weapons.
A series of brutal campaigns killed, enslaved, and displaced hundreds of thousands of Oromo and other ethnic groups in a violent expansion and consolidation of an Amhara empire -- later re-named Ethiopia so as to sound more Biblical -- in imitation of European empires. This was done in the name of Christianity, in the name of development and progress, and in the name of a dream – a dream that we now call “Ethiopia” as we unknowingly accept the Ethiopian government’s mythology that it has always existed as a unified nation.
During the 20th century, the Ethiopian government under the emperor Haile Selassie even used fighter planes to suppress the Oromo. At the same time, it attempted a cultural “Amharization” of all people within the state; among other things, it prohibited the Oromo from publishing or broadcasting in their own language. Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974, and although the so-called Leninist revolutionary government (the Derg) promised to return all people to their land and give everyone equal access to political power, instead they forcefully nationalized the land in a manner that displaced and killed even more Oromo. In 1984 and 1985, government policies greatly exacerbated the effects of a drought and intentionally starved certain segments of the population to suppress dissent and reorganize the land.
After the Derg was overthrown in 1991, the new Tigray dominated government promised to respect the economic, civil, and cultural rights of all its people, and indeed, U.S. aid was given with this promise in mind. However, the government continued to oppress the Oromo people. Even worse, since 2001, the Bush administration has reversed U.S. policy in the region (as an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs explains in detail.) The Bush administration no longer concerns itself with human rights and the rule of law in the horn of Africa. Rather, just as the monomaniacal Captain Ahab pursued the white whale Moby Dick around the globe, so Bush pursues the “war on terror” to the exclusion of all other foreign policy concerns. Believing Somalia’s Union of Islamic Courts to be supporters of terrorism, Bush asked Ethiopia to invade.
However, for the past few months, the Ethiopian government has used the opportunity to hunt down Oromo people who had fled to Somalia in 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and to violently round up anyone suspected of political dissent in Ethiopia itself. At the same time, the Bush administration has given guns and money to Somali war-lords in order to overthrow the traditional Islamic government that actually has the support of the Somali people and protects the Oromo. The result, of course, has been a chaos even worse than the chaos in Iraq that we see daily on television.
By and large, the U.S. media has simply reported the Bush party-line without question. The media has not bothered to learn the point of view of most of the Somali people, and neither has it bothered to hear the point of view of most of the people in Ethiopia.
The rally organized by the Oromo Youth was part of an effort to correct the media’s oversight. Some of the speakers were the student organizers of the rally: Jawar Mohemmed (Stanford University), Gelane Gemechisa (Drexel University), Arfasse Gemeda (University of Minnesota), and Damee Ormaa (University of Minnesota). Others were invited community elders living in D.C.: Alemayhu Dhaba and Obbo Jelo. As they spoke of the past, present, and future of the Oromo predicament, the elders praised the young organizers for imbuing their community with a positive spirit.
Following the rally, we all marched from the State Department up Constitution Avenue alongside the National Mall to the steps of the Capitol building. The march was led by some street-theater – individuals dressed up as a student, a teacher, a doctor, and children were dragged forward in chains and beaten by soldiers.
As we marched, we could not help but appreciate what a beautiful spring day it was. Many tourists had come for the Japanese tradition known as O-hanami (cherry blossom viewing), and others had brought their kites to participate in the Smithsonian Kite-Festival. The mall was crowded with curious people, and as the Oromo marched by guided by D.C. police, the organizers passed out their small leaflet about who they are and why they are protesting.
If you want to know more, see their website http://ioyn.org/.
For further reading:
Bulcha, Merkuria. The Making of the Oromo Diaspora. Minneapolis, MN: Kirk House Publishers, 2002.
Jalata, Asafa. Oromoia and Ethiopia: State Formation and Ethnonational Conflicat, 1868-2004, 2nd ed. Asmara, ERITREA, 2005.
Marcus, Harold G. A History of Ethiopia, 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Melbaa, Gadaa. Oromia: An Introduction to the History of the Oromo People. Minneapolis, MN: Kirk House Publishers, 1999.
“On a Dilemma in the Horn,” The Economist (24 February 2007): 57.
Prendergast, John and Colin Thomas-Jensen, “Blowing the Horn,”
Foreign Affairs 86 (March/April 2007): 54-74.