The Oromo People and Acts of Genocide Against Them
Who the Oromo People Are
The Oromo people are the largest Kushitic group and the second largest nation in Africa. Their population is about 33 million. They have a distinct cultural and linguistic identity of their own. They have inhabited a separate and well-defined territory in the Horn of Africa for centuries.
As a geo cultural bridge between Europe, Africa and Asia, the Horn of Africa has always been embroiled in some world historic events, since the times of the Roman Empire down through the millennia to the present-day era of globalization. Its geopolitical significance derives from its position along the Red Sea, the waterway from the Suez Canal, and, hence, the Mediterranean Sea, to the Indian Ocean. The region is also the source of the Blue Nile - a lifeline for Sudan and Egypt. The Horn remains important in security considerations of the Middle East and the increasingly competitive global economy. It controls a passage for a bulk of Middle East oil - a strategic material crucial for the demands of Europe and the Far East. The population of the region is significantly large to serve as a source of cheap labour for investors and as consumers of industrial products.
The present-day Horn of Africa comprises primarily the states of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti, and the Sudan. Ethiopia was created as an empire-state during the era of the "scramble for Africa" by the core Abyssinian state that was founded by the Tigreans and then consolidated over centuries by the two major Semitic-speaking ethnic groups of Abyssinia - Amhara and Tigreans.
Oromia, the country of the Oromo people, is 375,000 square miles (600,000 sq. km). It is larger than France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands combined. The people follow three major religions: Christianity, Islam and Waqeffacha - the indigenous Oromo religion.
Oromo Political Culture
Before the colonial conquest and subjugation by Abyssinia toward the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Oromo people had lived under a sophisticated indigenous democratic system known as Gada - in which political, military and other leaders including legal experts are elected for non-renewable eight year terms from among males who excel during five eight-year long grades of continuous training. That the Gada democratic culture and other egalitarian Oromo institutions have endured the last 120 years of continuous acts of cultural genocide by successive Ethiopian regimes is a remarkable testimony to the resilience of the Oromo cultural values and democratic heritage. Professor Asmarom Legessa, a leading African anthropologist, wrote in his book, Oromo Democracy: An Indigenous African Political System (Red Sea Press, 2002), "Oromo democracy is one of those remarkable creations of the human mind that evolved into a full-fledged system of government, as a result of five centuries of evolution and deliberates rational, legislative transformation". (p. 95)
Oromo's Wide Outreach and Vast Resources
Oromia shares borders with all cultural groups in Ethiopia and across the internationally recognized boundaries adjacent to its territory-Sudan in the west, Kenya in the south, and Somalia in the southeast. Consequently, the cultural tie and economic interaction that the Oromo people have with diverse peoples living adjacent to Oromia's huge land-mass give them a unique opportunity to cultivate peace, social harmony, and economic interdependence. This geographic position of the Oromo is highly significant for mutual benefit of the peoples of the region, as well as for the benefit of the international community having interest in the region.
Oromia is a "water-tower" of a drought-prone region that is constantly threatened by desertification. It has 16 major rivers, including the main tributaries of the Blue Nile, with a total length of about 4,700 km with approximately 367, 000 sq. km. of catchments area. It has also ten lakes with a total area of about 2,000 sq km. In fact Oromia has the potential to provide hydroelectric power to the entire Horn of Africa. The total energy supply of Ethiopia is generated by the Oromia river system. In addition, Oromia has geothermal power resource in the Great Rift Valley section that passes through the heartland of Oromia.
Most significantly, Oromia has large reserve of gold, platinum, nickel, tantalum, iron, marble, and other non-metallic and construction minerals. All the mineral exports of Ethiopia are produced in Oromia. Oromia has even greater potentials in agricultural development. Most of the arable land of the entire Horn of Africa is located in Oromia. Coffee, which generates about 60% of Ethiopia's foreign exchange earnings, grows mainly in Oromia. Oromia accounts for about 80% of the total coffee export of the country. Other major exportable agricultural products such as hides and skins, pulses and oil seeds are also produced mainly in Oromia. If properly managed, Oromia can supply most of agricultural products needed for all the urban population as well as the people in the arid and drought affected regions of the Horn. From the estimated 27.2 million cattle population, about three-quarters of it is found in Oromia.
With a huge landmass, the second largest population in Africa, long-standing democratic cultural heritage, and enormous natural resources, the Oromo people hold a pivotal position in the Horn of Africa. Yet, as a colonized people, they remain politically marginalized, economically deprived, and culturally oppressed in the land of their origin. This paradox is explained next.
Genocide Initiated by War of Conquest Continued in Different Forms
Conquest by Menelik of Abyssinia.
Emperor Menelik II of Abyssinia (1889 - 1913) conquered and colonized the Oromo and other non-Abyssinian peoples of present-day Ethiopia toward the last quarter of the nineteenth century during the era of "scramble for Africa". Menelik incorporated the territories of the conquered peoples and transformed the core state of his ancestors into an empire state, increasing its size by two-thirds. In fact, Menelik was the only black African partner in the "scramble for Africa" designed by the European powers in the Berlin Conference of 1884 5. The three major colonial powers -Britain, France, and Italy - competed to use Menelik as a client to widen their spheres into the richer and historically impenetrable prize of the hinterland of Northeast Africa. Menelik sought and obtained acceptance by European powers as a partner in the "scramble for Africa". Though they denied their identity with Africans and black people in general, Abyssinian rulers gave their empire the name "Ethiopia" to claim legitimacy based on historical and religious (biblical) antiquity of that African name.
Menelik accomplished his colonial conquest by heavily investing in contemporary European weapons in a region where spear was the common means of combat. He also acquired advisers skilled in military science from European powers. Millions of Oromos were exterminated by the war of conquest; millions were taken away and sold into slavery while hundreds of thousands perished by war-induced famine. The consequence of the conquest was genocide. Those who survived the genocide were subjected to the most dehumanizing form of domination. Menelik's warlords, "colonial troops" known as "naftanyas", and the clergy were entitled to personal servitude of the subject people, and to collect dues often to the tune of 70% of the produce of the subjects who had absolutely no legal protection for their life and property against the conquerors. The colonial administration was organized in a form of decentralized feudal hierarchies subsisting on levies, slaves, and personal servitude of the conquered people.
European powers that were Menelik's partners showed little concern about the genocide perpetrated against the Oromo and other conquered peoples. The powers were interested in opening up the region for trade and the Abyssinian emperor was considered as a partner in "civilizing pagans and barbarians."
Modernization of Institutions of Violence Under Haile Selassie Regime
Emperor Haile Selassie (1930 - 1974) consolidated Menelik's empire by introducing modern concepts of building institutions of violence to maintain the empire. He was aware of an argument presented by Fascist Italy at the League of Nations to justify its invasion and occupation of his empire (1936 - 1941) - Italy's contention was that Ethiopia was not civilized enough to possess and administer a colony. With all-round assistance of his foreign partners, the emperor introduced laws to modernize institutions of violence against the subject people under his absolute power. A military bureaucracy and a court system were built to exercise the coercive power of the state to suppress resistance against the colonial domination. Oromo resistance in Raya (1928) and Bale (1963-70) regions were brutally crushed by the armed forces. The Western Oromo Confederation (1936) failed due to refusal of diplomatic support by the colonial powers that had their own designs on the Oromo people. The Macha-Tulama pan Oromo movement that was established to in the early 1960s to promote Oromo human rights and development was repressed and many of its leaders were prosecuted in a kangaroo court that sentenced them to capital punishment or long years of imprisonment.
Haile Selassie introduced an educational system that served as an instrument of cultural genocide against the Oromo and the other non-Abyssinian peoples. His regime intensively and systematically promoted Abyssinian history, language, culture, and values to the detriment of the national identity of the Oromo people. It organized and maintained a strong intelligence system and one of the strongest military forces in sub-Sahara Africa, essentially to maintain an iron-grip over the Oromo and other subjugated peoples of the empire. In the world then divided into western and eastern blocs, the western powers were interested in gaining the emperor's support to contain expansion of communism in Africa. In return, the powers provided generous financial and technical support for the emperor's educational and military programs. Ultimately, however, liberation struggles by the Oromo and other oppressed peoples, disillusions among the Abyssinian elite, disaffection by intellectuals in general about the performance of the empire, particularly poor development performance compared to those of newly independent African states, brought the downfall of Haile Selassie and his regime.
Totalitarian Regimentation Under the Dergue Regime
The Dergue, which was a military junta led by a group of the Abyssinian inner core, came to power (1974-1991) after Emperor Haile Selassie's downfall. Because of its dictatorial nature, most of the intelligentsia and several liberation movements representing many of the oppressed peoples of the empire opposed the junta. In order to stay in power and to save the empire from disintegration by the upheaval, the junta became a client of the communist bloc. To avert uprising by peasant farmers, the Dergue regime inaugurated 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. 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 exercised absolute control over the empire'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, it began to hunt down and eliminate as "narrow nationalist bourgeois elements" any Oromo intellectuals that defended their national rights. The regime also introduced a heinous scheme called "resettlement." The objective of the scheme was to settle a large number of armed northerners on Oromo land to change the demographic composition of the territory and to suppress the Oromo struggle for self-determination. In addition to changing the demographic composition of the area and imposing their views on the local people, the settlers showed wanton disregard for the ecosystem. The "new settlers" violated the Oromo people's culture and tradition of high respect for nature. The sacred obligation the Oromo people have always had to protect the environment through balanced use of resources was undermined.
In a similar scheme, the Dergue regime uprooted the indigenous population of the rural area and moved them into "strategic hamlets" under a policy of "villagization." This scheme had a double pronged objective of resource control and surveillance of liberation forces. However, the armed struggle wedged by various national liberation forces - including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) - combined with the disintegration of the Soviet Union that maintained the Dergue in power for 17 years, ushered in its collapse in 1991.
Genocide by the Current Ethiopian Regime How TPLF Built Capacity to Commit Genocide
The Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF), also known as Wayyane, was promoted in 1991 by foreign governments, particularly that of the US, to fill the power vacuum created by the downfall of the Dergue regime. This led to the replacement of the Amhara regime by a Tigrean power as was evident to those familiar with the Ethiopian political landscape. However, the TPLF needed a transitional period to consolidate its power. It, therefore, signed a transitional charter in July 1991 that recognized in its Article 2 that "nations, nationalities, and peoples" in Ethiopia have the right of self-determination including independence. The charter served mainly as a camouflage for the TPLF hidden agenda of domination.
Under the pretext of opening the country for world market as well as under pretensions of democratization, traditional partners of the Ethiopian empire used the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to pump huge amount of money into the coffer of the TPLF. During the first four years of its rule, the regime received about US$3 billion in bilateral and multilateral grants. The Paris Club member countries, co-ordinated by the IMF and the World Bank, have granted significant debt-cancellations and rescheduling. The TPLF regime used the multilateral and bilateral assistance to dismantle Amhara-centric state-apparatus and to replace it by institutions that are nothing more than appendages of a tightly controlled party-apparatus of the Tigrean ruling class. 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. Thus, the regime cannot claim democratic legitimacy by any standard. Regarding the situation, Professor Christopher Clapham of University of Lancaster wrote in a book titled Ethiopian 2000 Elections, published by 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.
Given its narrow social base - the people of Tigray are less than 5% of the total population of Ethiopia - the TPLF has chosen to use brutal force to perpetuate its domination of the Oromo people by suppressing their demand for self-determination. Financial and technical assistance provided by international donors is used to build the capacity of a murderous minority regime. The institutions of violence built with the assistance provided by international donors are mobilized to commit acts of genocide against the Oromo people. The regime has turned Oromia into a military garrison where training camps with a total capacity of hundreds of thousands are maintained. Several thousands of the regular army and air force personnel are trained and deployed to kill, rape, loot, and terrorize the people. The regime is using its security forces and full military capacity to forcibly suppress the Oromo people's demand for self-determination.
Oromo Self-determination Mischaracterized to Defend Genocide
The TPLF regime, like its predecessors, has subjected the Oromo people to genocide by labelling the people's struggle for self-determination as "banditry, rebellion, secession, terrorism …etc." Its stratagem has been to dehumanise the victims of acts of genocide by calling them "bandits, rebels, secessionists, terrorists" in order to mobilize "institutionalised violence" against them. The legitimacy and validity of the Oromo people's right of self-determination is based on the fact that the people are under foreign domination. The Oromo people's demand of self-determination is not a question of secession from a country with whom they have wilfully integrated. It is not also a matter of a periphery struggling for decentralization or devolution of power from a central government. It is a demand by the Oromo people to restore the sovereignty taken away from them by the Abyssinian conquest and to freely determine their own political status. The Oromos are culturally and linguistically distinct and territorially separate from the Abyssinians who dominate them.
Their demand does not, therefore, violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Abyssinia-cum-Ethiopia. The Oromo people have never been meaningfully represented in the Ethiopian political process. In fact, there has never been a moment in the political history of the Ethiopian empire-state when the state possessed a government representing the "whole people". The population is never given any opportunity to freely express its political will.
Furthermore, the Oromo people's demand for self-determination is not an internal affair of Ethiopia in the same way that, for instance, the self-determination and independence of the Finns in 1918 was not an internal affair of Russia. Similarly, the independence of the three Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania also exemplifies the validity of the right of national self-determination for a distinct and oppressed people. By the same token, the liberation struggle of the Oromo people against successive Ethiopian regimes cannot be characterized as "an internal civil strife, a banditry, a terrorism, a civil war". It is a struggle of people under alien domination - disenfranchised people struggling for external enfranchisement. The truth is that a continuous state of war exists between the Oromo people and their subjugators. In international law, people under foreign domination are not prohibited from resorting to armed resistance against a forcible denial of their right of self-determination. The resistance is a legitimate right of self-defence.
Moreover, article one of resolution 2649(XXV) of the United Nations General Assembly recognizes the right of dependent peoples to "use any means at their disposal" to restore to themselves their legitimate right. The TPLF regime constantly fabricates false accusations to criminalize and demonise Oromo political Organizations as a smoke screen to conceal the regime's acts of genocide against Oromo social and cultural life. An attempt by the regime to link the Oromo liberation movement with fundamentalism and international terrorism is a fabrication to discredit and forcibly suppress the Oromo people's legitimate right of self-determination.
In actual fact, the liberation struggle of the Oromo people is not directed against innocent people but against the regime's machinery of domination. The protracted armed resistance under the leadership of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) is an act of self-defence against successive Ethiopian governments, including the current regime, that have forcibly denied their right of self-determination.
State Sponsored Terror Against the Oromo Society
Reports by credible human rights groups, including International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch/Africa, confirm that there are grave violations of human rights of the Oromo people by the TPLF regime. Extra-judicial killings, "disappearances", illegal arrests, torture, gang rape, confiscation of property, detention for a long period are systematically and pervasively committed against the Oromo society. According to a statement made on May 22, 2002 by Saman Zin-Zarifi, Academic Freedom Director for Human Rights Watch: "Both the state government and federal police and the military have a history of repression and abuse, targeted mainly at Oromo intellectuals and community leaders who are viewed as sympathetic to the OLF." according to a report by Oromia Support Group (OSG), a human rights organisation based in the United Kingdom: OSG has, as of December 2002, reported 3,085 (three thousand and eighty five) extra-judicial killings of Oromo civilians and 857 (eight hundred and fifty seven) disappearances since the TPLF came to power. Furthermore, scores of thousands of civilians have been imprisoned. Torture and rape of prisoners is a common place, especially in secrete detention centres, whose existence is denied by the government. The counting continues.
A conference organized by International Association of Genocide Scholars at the National University of Ireland in Galway from June 7 -10, 2003 had a panel on genocide in Ethiopia. The conference was well attended and well represented by scholars from different continents.
According to a report in the Sidama Concern (2003) by one of the panellists: [T]he ongoing genocide in Ethiopia has remarkable resemblance with genocides in other parts of the world, especially the one in Cambodia. The definition, the motives and the preconditions for genocide are apparently visible in Ethiopia. It is reiterated that the oppressed national groups faced brutal atrocities and genocidal policies that resulted in massive poverty, apartheid-style discrimination, and neglect, and famine, destruction of environment, violence and widespread terrorism.
Thousands of Oromo have fled and are fleeing their homeland to escape state-sponsored terror. The exact number of Oromo refugees in neighbouring countries is difficult to know as the refugees do not want to be identified out of fear for the safety of their family and their own. Many refugees have been killed or kidnapped by murder-squads organized by the regime in Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia, and South Africa. Others have been subjected to forced repatriation, particularly by Djibouti.
Through provocation and fabrication of false accusations the regime targets Oromo social and cultural life for destruction. To cite the most recent instance, the TPLF forcibly and illegally abrogated the use of Finfinne /Addis Ababa/ as the capital city of Oromia. When, on January 4, 2004, Oromos in and around the city tried to hold a peaceful demonstration to protest the eviction of Oromos from their homeland, the regime used force to prevent the demonstration. Subsequently, it unleashed war of terror on the Oromo people - including even on school children - to suppress protest against the eviction. To date, the regime has unlawfully dismissed 400 (four hundred) Oromo students from the University of Addis Baba (Finfinne). The regime's security forces killed several students and thousands of school children and teachers are languishing in prisons in the Oromo towns of Ambo, Fiche, Assala, Aqaaqii, Dambi-Dolo and Gimbi for no crime other than being Oromo. In May this year, 700 (seven hundred) Oromo school children fled to Kenya out of fear for their own safety. Oromo scholars and Oromo institutions such as Macha and Tulama Self-help Association are being persecuted then and till now.
Hunger, Environmental Degradation, and Disease as Weapons of Genocide
The recurrent famine in Oromia is a consequence of the ruling Ethiopian regime's policy of genocide against the Oromo people. The TPLF regime has been pursuing environmentally harmful policies in Oromia since it seized power in 1991. With total disregard for the long-term environmental consequences, the government has been awarding contracts to investors. These investors are undertaking unregulated mining and mechanized farming in ecologically sensitive and vulnerable areas. The regime has also adopted from its predecessor, the Dergue, the policy of massive resettlement on Oromo land with wanton disregard for the ecosystem.
According to a government report, the forest coverage of Oromia, which was 40 percent about 40 years ago, has diminished to a mere seven percent at present because of the destruction of between 60,000 to 100,000 hectares of forests every year. The report indicates that this trend, if not checked, would turn Oromia into a desert in the next 30 years. The government pursuit of harmful policies of awarding contracts and massive resettlement of armed northerners on Oromo land without proper protection of the environment is destroying the eco-system and degrading the natural resources of Oromia.
Death caused by starvation and malnutrition is very common among the Oromo society, particularly children, during the recurrent drought. Oromo pastoralists like the Karrayyu in the east and the Borana in southern Oromia are frequently devastated by the severe drought that destroys their livelihoods by killing their cattle. It has been confirmed by a reliable study that, out of the internationally donated food-aid for Ethiopia, only 22% gets to the needy people. Because of TPLF's practice of using food-aid as a political instrument, there is a discrimination against the starving Oromo society in the distribution of the food-aid.
The government is also pursuing discriminatory development policies. Oromia, with a population of about 33 million, produces more than 65% percent of Ethiopian government revenues; but its allocated per capita budget is $50 for 2002/3 fiscal year. Tigray has less than four million people; its per capita budget for the same year is $161. According to a publication of Ethiopian Economic Associations (Degefe and Nega 2000), per capita capital investment in Oromia region in 1999/2000 fiscal year was estimated at 1.43% compared to 12.65% for Tigray.
The most devastating disaster the Oromo people are facing is the deadly disease, AIDS. According to a report dated September 30, 2002, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) puts Ethiopia among five countries where the rates of infection from the AIDS virus are rising so fast that they pose potential security threats to their regions and to the United States. The bulk of the victims are obviously Oromos. Other killer diseases such as tuberculoses and malaria are attacking the population and spreading ever wider without any serious effort being taken by the regime to control them.
Appeal to the International Community
Respect and promotion of rights recognized by the "international bills of rights" is the duty and obligation of the international community. The right of peoples to self-determination is one of those basic human rights recognized by the international bills. Securing respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms is not any longer an exclusive internal affair of a state. It is a sad reality that the i nternational community has failed to take any meaningful action to discharge its international duty and moral obligation to remedy the transgressions of the TPLF regime against the Oromo people by taking appropriate measures, such as:
- protesting violations of human rights of Oromo individuals; . supporting the right of self-determination of the Oromo people;
- intervention on grounds of humanitarian imperatives to save the Oromo people from destruction by natural and man-made disasters;
- intervention to investigate and prevent acts of genocide by the Ethiopian regime against the Oromo people;
- taking international peacemaking initiative to resolve the conflict; bilateral or multilateral exercise of economic leverage to enforce respect for individual and collective rights of the Oromo people.
- use their economic, political, and diplomatic clout to immediately stop the acts of genocide against the Oromo people;
- support UN special investigation of the crime of genocide being committed against the people;
- oppose forcible denial of the Oromo people's right of self-determination;
- support a peacemaking initiative under the auspices of the UN to study and recommend mechanisms for terminating subjugation of the people; " support the release of Oromo political prisoners;
- refrain from assisting and co-operating with the TPLF regime's plunder and destruction of the natural resources of Oromia; " provide the Oromo people international assistance to develop their human resources and democratic institutions;
- support attaching, in any international assistance to the regime, conditionality of respect for human rights and fair allocation.