A Book Review of Oromo Witness by Abdul Dire

A Book Review of Oromo Witness by Abdul Dire

Dire, Abdul. Oromo Witness. Minneapolis: Flexible Press. Publication Date: 15 August 2020. Pages: 250. Language: English. ISBN: 9781733976350; ISBN-10: 1733976353.

Reviewed by Muhammad Al-Hashimi, PhD

Abdul DireOromo Witness tells the story of the Bale Revolt in Ethiopia that lasted from 1963 to 1970.  It was a revolt of self-determination and liberty by the Arsi Oromo in their lands in southern Ethiopia, a bold thrust for freedom from the oppressive imperial regime of Emperor Haile Selassie.  It is the story of Hangasu Wako Lugo and his participation in that great rebellion and the events that took place afterwards.  Hangasu, now domiciled in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA, tells his story to Abdul Dire, Hangasu’s nephew.

Why Oromo Witness was Written

Abdul Dire informs the reader from the outset in the first two pages of the preface the important reasons for writing the book, the story of his uncle Hangasu:

First, I was dismayed and angry. There are virtually no documents or books that capture the Bale Oromo’s struggle. The few snippets I have been able to find are inaccurate and written from the perspective of the oppressor [i.e., imperial Ethiopian regime].  I wanted to correct this injustice.  Second, I wanted to tell a specific story.  My maternal uncle, Hangasu Wako Lugo, experienced the Bale Oromo’s struggle in many ways.  His father, Wako Lugo, was an early architect of the Bale Revolt.  His uncle, General Wako Gutu was the supreme leader of the Rebellion.  Hangasu was a young boy during the armed struggle of the 1960s, a leader and key contributor in the 1970s and 1980s, a witness to and participant in the elections of 1994. He is now in exile [Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA]….His story provides a glimpse into the struggle of the modern Oromo people.  Finally, I wanted my children to know where we came from.  My children are second-generation immigrants [in America].  Because they primarily speak English, they would otherwise have no access to this important history (pp.1-2).
As a result, Abdul Dire records the riveting story of the oppression and suffering of a people under the domination of an imperial power and their valiant response to it.

An important aspect that sets the tone for the Hangasu story are the historical notes set forth in “Chapter Three: A Brief History of the Oromo People.”  Abdul Dire informs the reader that although the Oromo make up 40-45% of the population of Ethiopia, the discrimination against the Oromo by the ruling Amhara regime was such that “under Emperor Haile Selassie’s Amhara hegemony, it was a crime to write in Oromo, all Oromo print media was banned, and the Oromo language was banned from being used on the radio….Very few Muslims assimilated to get an education and advance their lives.  To gain higher education, one had to give up the Oromo language—Afan Oromo—for Amharic, the only recognized state language” (p. 11).  Assimilation, as Abdul Dire points out, generally required conversion to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, which few Oromo Muslims were willing to do.  This fact was true of the Arsi Oromo, a predominately Muslim clan among whom the Bale uprising originated.  In fact, we learn that although Haile Selassie gave a great deal of lip service to religious freedom in the Ethiopian empire state, “his policies and actions contradicted this.  [For example,] in the Ethiopian media of the time, Ethiopian Muslims were referred to as ‘Muslims in Ethiopia,’ as if they didn’t belong.  Because the media was controlled by the government, it was only reinforcing the will of the emperor” (p. 11).

The 1936 Italian Invasion of Ethiopia

A respite from the discriminatory, oppressive practices of the Haile Selassie rule over the Oromo would come with the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1936.  Italy was determined to establish colonial occupation and rule over Ethiopia.  Abdul Dire tells us that on 5 May 1936,

Italy took the capital, Addis Ababa (also known as Finfinne [the original Oromo name]).  Emperor Haile Selassie was exiled and fled to Palestine and eventually to England.  Mussolini named King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy the emperor of Ethiopia.  Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia was bad for the sovereignty of Ethiopia, but ironically it was good for the subjugated Oromo people of the south.  For the Arsi Oromos in the south, the invasion gave them a break from the oppressive regime [of Haile Selassie]….Because the Arsi Oromos didn’t resist the invasion, the Italians offered them…the use of their own language in court and media.  Both of these things were banned under the northerners’ rule.  In early 1936, far from Finfinne, Ethiopia’s capital, life was good for the Arsi tribe on the Sidamo side of the Genale River (pp. 29-30).
However, the Italians made one mistake with the Arsi Oromo: they tried to force a group of Somali militia known as banda as local leaders over the Arsi.  The Somali militia was part of the Italian invasion force.  The Arsi were having none of this!  As Abdul Dire recounts, “The Arsi wanted someone who could stand up to the Italians.  They decided to send Wako Lugo….He certainly wasn’t the type to take a beating from the Italians.”  Wako’s strength of character, his physical strength, and the support of the Arsi community forced the Italians to back off and accept Wako Lugo as the leader of the Arsi, especially after he was bold enough to defend himself against the physical attack of the Italian governor of the Arsi region.

The Return of the Ethiopian Emperor

By April of 1941, the Italian colonial occupation of Ethiopia would come to an end and Haile Selassie, with the help of the British, would be restored as the head of the Ethiopian imperial government. As Abdul Dire states,

Haile Selassie’s return to [the] throne in 1941 was celebrated by the Ethiopian feudal [regime] and their international allies….For the Arsi Oromos in the south, his return was a nightmare.  It meant the northerners’ [i.e., the Amhara and the Tigrayans] rule was back, which meant that [Ethiopian] colonialism was back.  The Arsi Oromos were not about to accept that.  At the same time, the emperor wanted to punish those who had sided with the Italians….The Arsi couldn’t imagine accepting the Amhara rule again.  As soon as the Italians were gone, Wako Lugo…knew the only place with a chance of resisting Amhara rule was Bale (p. 34).
By 1943, the Ethiopian imperial government began to militarily move on the Arsi Oromo in order to restore their former colonial control over the lives of the people.  Wherever and whenever they could, however, the Arsi Oromo fought back in various ambush and resistance campaigns.  Nevertheless, the imperial government continued their oppressive intrusion into the Arsi Oromo region for the next two decades.  During that twenty-year period, Hangasu would be born to Wako Lugo and his wife Fatuma in 1956 (pp. 35-48).

Arsi Oromo Guerilla Struggle against the Ethiopian Imperialists

The massive colonial crackdown on the Arsi Oromo reached a point where it became absolutely unbearable.  By 1963, the Arsi had decided to organize a guerrilla rebellion under the leadership of Wako Gutu, a cousin to the older Wako Lugo.  Wako Lugo, still highly respected by his people, would use his wealth to support the rebellion lead by his cousin Wako Gutu and others for the next seven years.

As the struggle unfolds, the author recounts the daring guerilla encounters of the Arsi Oromo against the invading Ethiopian imperial army.  Wako Gutu’s several dangerous trips eastward into Somalia for weapons and supplies to sustain the rebellion are depicted in graphic detail.  The story of the rebellion includes the barbaric aerial bombardments by the Ethiopian military fighter jets. Abdul Dire recounts the story of Makka Bariso, an Oromo mother who survived one of these attacks.  Makka, now living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, tells Abdul Dire what happened:

The jet dropped bullets like hail.  We all ran away in different directions.  I ran with my children.  The land was open, there were no trees to hide under.  Running out of options, I lay my children down, and I dropped on top of them to cover them from the bullets.  I took shahada [(the Islamic) testimony of faith: There is no deity worthy of worship except God].  I asked, “Oh God, kill me before my children. I can only think about my children.”  I was also pregnant at the time.  Two bullets missed my right rib by a few inches.  The jet came back again, dropping more bullets.  This time the bullets pierced the ground to my left, creating a huge dust cloud.  My husband’s mule was right next to us.  The mule was scared and jumped around, stuck in one place since it was tied up.  The [air] strike continued.  I kept repeating the testimony of faith and my prayer to kill me before my children” (pp. 81-82).
Makka goes on to tell the horror story of her friend, Ahado, who was cut down so badly by the strafing of the low flying Ethiopian jet fighters that her body was completely cut in half by the bullet fire.  Emperor Haile Selassie’s airstrikes inflicted irreparable harm and damage on the lives of many innocent civilians and their property.  “The goal was to terrorize the population and destroy their morale and livelihood” (pp. 80-83).  But with all of their superiority in weaponry, the Ethiopians were never able to subdue the valiant Oromo in their struggle against the oppressive imperial rule. By 1969, Haile Selassie, realizing that it was impossible for him to completely subdue the Arsi Oromo to the level of quasi-slavery that he desired, initiated peace talks with the Arsi leadership.  By 1970, they had successfully negotiated the concessions from the imperial government that restored some level of freedom and dignity under imperial rule:
Finally, the Bale Arsi Oromo struggle for freedom came to an end….They didn’t have a comprehensive strategy or vision for the struggle.  They had no plan for taking arms against the government, yet they were forced to fight the government to restore their liberty and dignity.  Still, they shook up the mighty Ethiopian imperial army and sustained their guerilla war for almost eight years.  According to some estimates, more than thirty thousand Bale people lost their lives.  Almost all their livestock was destroyed, estimated in the millions….Thousands of people were stranded in Somalia and became refugees as a result of the war….The Bale Revolt caused significant damage to the Ethiopian government as well.  According to Hangasu, material and property damage was more than $75 million USD.  Thousands of government soldiers were killed (pp. 109-110).

An important aspect of the book is the story of the aftermath of Bale Rebellion in terms of the political interaction of Hangasu Wako Lugo with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).  After the 1974 military overthrow of Haile Selassie as the result of his attempted coverup of the devasting famine in the Wollo province of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian military took control of Ethiopia.  This military dictatorship became known as “The Derg.” After some internal leadership changes, it ultimately was led by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam.  Concomitantly,

the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was established in 1974 in Finfinne.  From the start, the organization’s true mission was unclear.  Some believed it was to pursue total independence from Ethiopia’s oppressive rule and establish an independent Oromo country, Oromia.  Others believed that the mission was to seek freedom and equality for the Oromo people within Ethiopia.  The organization was put together in a very short period of time during the transition (p.127).
From the beginning, the Bale Rebellion leaders did not differentiate between the Derg and Haile Selassie’s regime.  Over time, the Bale leaders would be proven to be correct in their assessment of the Derg:
On February 3, 1977, Mengistu called a committee meeting.  He excused himself and stepped out of the room.  Then his bodyguards opened fire on the other Derg members….Mengistu essentially purged all of his formidable opponents at once.  After he consolidated his power, he started the Red Terror campaign to uproot all his opponents.  For the next two years (1977-1978), the streets of Finfinne were littered with the dead bodies of young people.  The streets turned into mass graves.  By this time, the Derg had already begun eliminating opposition based on the slightest rumor….Hangasu recalled that the names of the OLF leaders and members were on the Wanted List….[Additionally,] the Derg government discovered the Bale fighters’ whereabouts and dispatched sixty-eight truckloads of militia to deal with them.  The Oromos…fought back hard and resisted the government militia (pp. 151-154).
Thus, the Derg became as adversarial to the Oromo as the imperial government had been.

The story continues with Hangasu’s efforts as an OLF member to organize the OLF among the Arsi Oromo.  Along the way, the Somalis prove to be a constant thorn in the side of the Oromo as they claim part of Oromo lands as belonging to Somalia.  Ironically, in 1980, the OLF would move its headquarters to Somalia for a time, as some form of rapprochement had been reached between the Oromos and Somalis.  Eventually, Hangasu reaches the conclusion that

the OLF’s real mission is to destroy [the significance] of the Bale Oromo rebellion that had come before it in order to establish the OLF as the only Oromo organization committed to liberating the Oromo people.  The OLF’s struggle was one for dominance in the hearts and minds of the Oromo people.  This meant that their guns were aimed at other Oromo organizations, including General Wako Gutu’s organization (pp. 173-174).
Ultimately, the contradictions within the OLF would prove too much for Hangasu.  As a result, in 1982, after eight years of service to the OLF, Hangasu cut his ties with the OLF and went into a self-imposed isolation and focused his energy and time on his family.  However, Hangasu would soon break off his self-imposed isolation to join General Wako Gutu who had assembled “an army of 800 men from different regions of Ethiopia, including Bale and Borena” in order to stand up against the tyranny of the military dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam. This small force proved to be no match for the much larger government contingent.  General Wako was forced to disperse and General Wako, Hangasu, and a few others sought refuge in Somalia.  The OLF used this setback to disparage General Wako and recruit Oromos to its ranks (pp. 176-183).

The TPLF and Hangasu’s Desire to Advocate for the Religious Rights of Muslims

By 1991, Mengistu’s military dictatorship had been overthrown mainly by the armed combatants of the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) led by Meles Zenawi.  In the process, with the hope of freedom on the horizon, several Oromo political parties took shape, including the United Oromo People’s Liberation Front (UOPLF) established by General Wako Gutu.  At this time, Hangasu was invited back to join the OLF but refused, responding “I won’t be tricked twice by the same people” (p. 193).

By 1994, a new federal constitution was devised by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).  The EPRDF became an ethnic coalition of pro-TPLF political parties.  The constitution “guaranteed the right of each ethnic group in the country to govern its own affairs through its own autonomous regional government within the framework of a federal Ethiopia” (p. 198).  Hangasu would join the coalition of two non-EPRDF parties: the United Oromo People’s Liberation Front (UOPLF) and the Islamic Front for the Liberation for Oromia (IFLO) (pp. 198-199).  As a member of this new political party, Hangasu decided to run for parliament.  If elected, “Hangasu hoped to bring the issue of Muslims’ religious rights to the Ethiopian parliament” (p. 202).

But parties and candidates not a part of the EPRDF would be discriminated against during the first government election in 1995.  At the polls, soldiers connected to the EPRDF were intimidating the voters who wanted to vote for non-EPRDF candidates and parties.  Thus, the EPRDF as the new face of Ethiopian governance was showing its oppressive tendencies in spite of a very forward-looking federal constitution.  Ultimately, only parties belonging to the EPRDF won the various posts up for election.  Once again, Hangasu would withdraw from political activity and concentrate on his family.  Eventually, Hangasu found the situation in Ethiopia oppressive enough that he managed to seek asylum for himself and his family.  He wound up in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the fall of 2000 to start a new life in America.

The Epilogue: Why No Mention of Jawar Mohammed?

The cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis in the American state of Minnesota make up what is known as the “Twin Cities” because of their close proximity to each other, only 7.5 miles apart.  St. Paul is the state capital of Minnesota while Minneapolis is the state’s most populous city.  As Abdul Dire points out in the Epilogue,

the twin cities of Minnesota have the largest concentration of Oromos outside of Ethiopia.  Actual population data is difficult to obtain, but it is estimated that more than twenty thousand Oromos live in the Twin Cities.  That’s why Minnesota is referred to by many Oromos as “little Oromia.”  A street in Minneapolis, Oromo Street, was dedicated in recognition of the people (p. 228).
The Twin Cities area has seen the establishment of arguably the most important media outlet among the global Oromo community.  This media outlet is known as the Oromo Media Network or OMN.  It was established by Jawar Mohammed, a scholar-activist who has been very outspoken about the oppression and degradation suffered by the Oromo and other non-Abyssinian peoples in the Ethiopian empire state.  In the St. Paul-Minneapolis area and around the world, Jawar has risen to become one the most important leaders among the Oromo.  One indication of his impact and popularity on the global Oromo community is that at one point, Jawar had more than 1.2 million followers on Facebook.  Even though Jawar was domiciled in Minneapolis, his outspokenness through his media outlet helped sparked the Qeeroo—or Youth—street protests that induced Prime Minister Hailemariam Desilegn to resign in February of 2016 and open the door for Abiy Ahmed to come to power in Ethiopia in April of 2018.

Jawar went back to Ethiopia in August of 2018 to take a more direct involvement in the Oromo movement for justice and freedom from oppression.  While attending the funeral activities of the assassinated Oromo activist-singer Hachalu Hundessa, Jawar and other Oromo leaders were arrested and incarcerated as political prisoners on 30 June 2020 by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.  Jawar and the other arrested leaders were seen as threats to Abiy’s growing autocratic rule of Ethiopia.

Now, the reason for discussing Jawar Mohammed at this point is that any mention of Jawar is conspicuously absent in the Epilogue of Oromo Witness, although the author discusses the Qeeroo—the Oromo youth protests—and Abiy’s ascension to power at length in the Epilogue!  Now, Jawar Mohammed is looked upon as the primary intellectual inspiration and, therefore, the most significant leader of the Qeeroo.    This absence of any direct mention of Jawar Mohammed in the Epilogue of Oromo Witness is very hard to understand given the importance of Jawar Mohammed and OMN to the global Oromo movement.  The issue of Mr. Jawar’s absence of any mention in the Epilogue is even more perplexing given that Hangasu Wako Lugo, the protagonist of the book, Abdul Dire, the author of the book, and Jawar Mohammed, arguably one of the most important if not the most important leader in Oromo struggle, were all domiciled in the Twin Cities area right up until Jawar decided to leave for Ethiopia in August of 2018 for a more direct involvement in the Oromo movement.

Oromo Witness is a Must-Read!

In spite of the glaring absence of any discussion of Jawar Mohammed in the Epilogue, Oromo Witness is an important book that should be read by all those who are desirous of increasing their knowledge about the heroic Oromo struggle for justice and freedom from oppression.  Abdul Dire records a very riveting narrative in retelling the story of his uncle, Hangasu Wako Lugo, as he lived through and participated in the Bale Revolt and its aftermath.  Hangasu’s insights into what he perceives as the political posturing of the OLF are most revealing, especially for those who may have tended to look at the OLF through rose-colored glasses.  Also, the unmitigated treachery of Emperor Haile Selassie—representing the Amhara Abyssinian ruling class—against the Oromo people should expand the reader’s understanding of important aspects regarding the historical roots of the ethnic violence in Ethiopia today.  Above all, Oromo Witness is to be regarded as an important asset in the educational process that strengthens the resolve of the Oromo for the struggles ahead.

Muhammad Al-Hashimi, PhD, is Senior Lecturer of Islamic Finance and Economics at Euclid University (Pole Universitaire Euclide) of Washington, DC, USA and Banjul, Gambia, West Africa, at www.euclid.int.  Dr. Muhammad is by descent a member of the Oromo Warra Shaykh community of North Wollo, Ethiopia, and by marriage a member of the Oromo Warra Affalli community of Illubabora, Ethiopia.

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