About Oromiyaa


 9. The Colonial Experience

Colonial ExprienceUntil the last quarter of the 19th century, the Oromo people had been an independent nation. As a sovereign nation, they had developed and used a unique democratic system known as Gada. This system being ubiquitous across the Oromo land had influenced and guided the way of life of the nation in political, economic, and social arenas. It guaranteed respect for political rights, equal economic opportunity, and full participation in all spheres of social milieu for every citizen. As a result, the Oromo people had been among the well-organized and led community of nations that enjoyed freedom, peace, and prosperity for several centuries.

However, by the turn of the 20th century, the Oromo nation lost its sovereignty. For generations, Abyssinian rulers had ambition to conquer and rule the Oromos and other peoples south of Abyssinia. But every venture they made to invade their neighbours had never been easy. They found it quite frustrating and at times humiliating. The Oromo people put up fierce resistance and defended their country often repulsing and inflicting humiliating defeat on the invading army of Abyssinians. This has dashed the aspiration of Abyssinian until the European powers of the time involved in the politics of the region. Such involvement has ultimately altered the balance of power in favour of the Abyssinians. With the material, technical, and moral support of Europeans, the war of colonization that the Abyssinians launched against the Oromo people for years finally succeeded. Consequently Oromiya has been annexed and incorporated into the Ethiopian Empire.

To conquer Oromiya, the architect of the Ethiopian Empire, Minilik II waged the most vicious war against the Oromo people. In effect, Mililik actually conducted a genocidal war to exterminate the Oromo people. Supplied with modern armaments and guided with the advice of military strategists of European powers, the army of Abyssinia for the first time overran the Oromo defense force. The Oromo fighting force with much less sophisticated weapons was ruthlessly killed by Minilik’s army. Captives were massacred or sold as slaves. The army indiscriminately burned alive the elderly and children they encountered all across Oromiya. They terrorized and plundered the Oromo people. Such a wide spread brutal action of the army reduced the once prosperous people to abject poverty. The Oromo people were exposed to war induced famine. As a result of the incessant war of colonization for nearly two decades and famine, historians indicate that Oromiya lost about half of its population.

The Oromo people who survived the genocidal war and the generations that followed have experienced the rule of the most anachronistic colonial system ever seen in the history of mankind. Their colonial experience began under the rule of Minilik. This became the beginning of what the Oromos referred to as the Dark Age of their history. Minilik dismantled their democratic and egalitarian system of administration and replaced it with his colonial rule. Under his rule they lost all legal and political rights as a nation. With no rights of any kind, the Oromos became literally items to be owned, bought and sold: slaves.

Establishing garrison towns and stationing colonial army (naftanya) across Oromiya, the Oromo political, economic, and social activities were tightly controlled throughout the reign of Minilik. With the exception of the colonial collaborators, by decree the Oromo people were denied the right to own properties. Their land was confiscated and their properties were taken as booties. Two-third of the land went to Minilik and his royal families, landlords and churches. The remaining 1/3 was given to the indigenous people who submitted and demonstrated loyalty to the rule of Minilik on conditions that they provide services to settlers, pay taxes, support churches financially and otherwise.

In the cultural front, Minilik outlawed the Oromo cultural practices. He campaigned extensively to denigrate the Oromo culture and promote that of the Amahara. As a result, for the Oromos practicing even their own religion was considered a crime. Their ritual sites and shrines were replaced with Abyssinian churches. To at least spare them from slavery, accepting the Abyssinian religion, moral value and norm became the order of the day. The Amharic language was elevated to the language of court and colonial administration, whereas Afaan Oromo was reduced to a home language. Where he failed to physically eliminate Oromos, Minilik used every conceivable method to obliterate every element that characterizes the Oromo people.

Under the subsequent Abyssinian rulers, the Oromo people in essence experienced the same degree of operation. The change of hands of the rulers changed only the system of operation; making it with time more sophisticated and subtle. Following Minilk, Haile Sellasie ruled the Ethiopian Empire for the longest period of time. For nearly half a century, he entrenched a feudal system that kept the Oromos as servitude. Under the feudal system more settlers were encouraged to head south from Abyssinia and live in the sprouting urban areas. The settlers in such urban settings assumed the role of centralized administration of the colonies. They controlled the life of the indigenous people through running newly established coercive state machinery such as court, police, and army. On the other hand the role of the Oromo peasantry became toiling the land and feeding the growing settlers in Oromiya.

Again under Haile Sellasie by proclamation the Oromos were forbidden to practice their tradition, custom, and religion. Suppression of Oromo culture and language continued with great intensification. In parallel, the degree of effort put to Amharanization and assimilation of Oromos greatly increased. The degree of assimilation to Amhara culture became one of the criteria for an Oromo to get employment opportunity. Access to modern education was restricted only to the children of naftanyas. When in fact schools were built with the resource and labour of the Oromo people, Oromo children were denied access to school.

The relentless struggle of the Oromo people, especially the peasantry, against the archaic feudal system of Haile Sellasie resulted in a popular revolutionary surge that ultimately ended his reign in 1974. For a while this appeared a new era of emancipation for the Oromo people. However, realizing such a trend of the Oromo movement, the sons of naftanyas wrestled not to lose the grip on power. Deposing the decaying monarchy, new breeds of naftanyas from the rank and file of the military usurped the political power. This group of junta known as Dergue ruled the empire for 17 years. During this period, the Oromo people faced yet another form of colonial rule. This time around the colonial rule of the Dergue took the name of Ethiopian socialism.

Politically, the Oromo experience under the Dergue was not any different. The only difference if any was that unlike its forerunners the Dergue nominally recognized the rights of all peoples in the Ethiopian Empire being equal. Practically, however, political power was concentrated still in the hands of the Dergue and Abyssinian elite. In other words, Oromos remained subject people taking orders from the Dergue and its cadres instead of the king and the landlords. For them it was just a change of lordship. In many respects, they were as marginalized as ever from involvement in any political process affecting their livelihood during the regime of the Dergue.


As a result, the Oromo people became subjects in the Dergue experimentation of socialism. The Dergue tried on them two most notorious policies, resettlement and villagization. Following the legacy of its predecessors, the Dergue pursued with the implementation of the policy of resettlement of Abyssinians in Oromiya. Resettlement projects carried out in various parts of Oromiya displaced hundreds of thousands of Oromos. For ease of control of the political, economic and social activities of the Oromo people, millions of Oromos were dislocated and herded to ‘socialist villages’ through out Oromiya. The Dergue called this exercise of literally creating a regimented society as villagization. These two policies created unprecedented havoc in the Oromo society. They tore apart the social fabric of the Oromo society and caused millions to flee as refugees to various countries.

Economically, the Oromo people were reduced to destitute mass due to some draconian policies of the Dergue. Nationalization of land was one of the policies. As the state became the sole owner of the land, over 80% of the Oromo people whose livelihood was based on agrarian economy had lost any right to ownership of land. Leave alone ownership, they had no guarantee for sustainable use of land. For the piece of land they were allowed to use, they had to pay hefty taxation. Not just in monetary term they were also forced to render either military or other services without remuneration. This coupled with the resettlement and villagization programs of the Dergue compounded the grinding poverty of the rural populace. The Dergue socialism was therefore instrumental in perpetuating the economic deprivation of the Oromo people and maintaining their servitude status.

Culturally, the extent in which the Dergue suppressed the Oromo language, norm, and value far exceeded any of its predecessors. It promoted the Amhara culture in a grand scale. Amharanization that was limited mainly to urban centers expanded to rural villages. Oromos were subjected to forced assimilation within the settings of its social engineering scheme that resettled Abyssinians across Oromiya.

The growing discontent and struggle of all oppressed people in the Ethiopian Empire against the Dergue led this tyrant regime to collapse in 1991. With the demise of the Military regime, the century old Amhara rule ended. In its footstep the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) emerged and took the state political power. Seeing the debacle of the most backward and oppressive Amhara rule was a significant historical moment for the Oromo people. It was historical because it signaled the beginning of disintegration of the Ethiopian Empire. The Oromos hoped that this moment would usher in a new era of freedom. However, with the rise of Tigreans to the rank of Amharas they lost yet another opportunity of determining the fate of their nation.

The Tigrean ethno-national regime did not take much time when it replaced the Amhara hegemony with that of its own. Initially the TPLF, the avowedly communist organization, sounded democratic and entered into an agreement with various political forces to change the political landscape of the Ethiopian Empire. That is, to change the imperial nature of Ethiopia and to redress the injustice done to all oppressed peoples within the empire. However, as it consolidated power its deep-seated Abyssinian polity emerged with full swing. It assumed the custodianship of the subject peoples of the empire and made maintaining the empire its historic responsibility.

In less than a decade since it assumed this responsibility, the extent of political suppression and economic exploitation that the Oromo people have faced/are still facing in the hands of the TPLF has no proportion. They have been denied the freedom of association and assembly. Their independent political organizations and free press have been banned. Political dissidents have been subjected to mass arrest and imprisonment, torture, extra-judicial killing. Tens of thousands have been thrown to concentration camps and treated with cruelty. Even those who managed to flee to neighbouring countries have been pursued by TPLF squad and assassinated. In short, the political persecution is so severe that fear and terror have overwhelmed the life of the Oromo people under the fascist regime of the TPLF.

Similarly, TPLF has denied the Oromo people every economic opportunity. It has launched a sinister plan meant to create impoverished mass. Under the guise of free market economy, it has created a situation for itself to have free access to the resources of the empire. Commercial establishments and industries have been systematically taken over by organizations that function as TPLF economic wings. It has full authority on the land use, and its good will determines who should and should not use the land. Under different pretext, properties of individual Oromos are confiscated. It made free entrepreneurship the exclusive right of one ethnic group: Tigreans. Such a monopoly of resource in the hands of the TPLF and its own people has made Oromos totally marginalized in the economic scene.

In summary, the successive Abyssinian rulers robbed the political, economic, and social life of the Oromo people. For more than a century, generations of Oromos went through similar colonial experience. They all suffered from policies of the colonizers geared to alienate them from active involvement in the affair of their nation. The policies include: waging genocidal war on dissidents, systematic confiscation of the Oromo land, resettlement of naftanyas, campaign of obliteration of Oromo culture, prohibition of the development and use of Oromo language, assimilation and Amharanization, deprivation of access to modern education, economic marginalization of the Oromos in all economic sectors.