Towards Understanding “Oromo First!”
By: Yared Terfassa, September 4, 2018
A twenty-seven-years-old repressive and backward regime in Ethiopia has just been sent to where it belongs – into the dust bin of history. The TPLF regime that has orchestrated the dislocation and dispossession, imprisonment, torture, mayhem, disappearance and death of Oromos has finally been decimated by an incessant, continuous peaceful protest led by the Qeerroo – the Oromo youth.
The Qeerroo of Ginchi ignited the sparks of what was to be an Oromo revolution. The Oromo public refused to be suppressed any longer. Virtually every town of Oromia and every segment of the Oromo population joined the protest by criticizing the TPLF regime, rioting on the streets, and closing streets and highways with stones and trees. The ideals of Haile Fida, Tadesse Birru, Baro Tumsa, Hailemariam Gemeda, Merera Gudina, and Bekele Gerba gradually spread into the wider Oromo population. The Qeerroo believed that change could happen; they were determined and motivated to make it happen. The Qeerroo has made it happen.
The Qeerroo led protest demonstrated the capacity, actual and potential, of the Oromo for effecting social change at a grand scale. Obbo Ibsa Gutema, an Oromo national leader and a prisoner of conscience under previous regimes in Ethiopia, is quoted as saying that the recent social mobilization of the Oromo is one that has not been seen at least since the sixteenth century.
The recent Oromo protest/revolt led by the Qeerroo has put an end to a century of oblivion and dominion of the Oromo in Ethiopia. This Oromo protest is widely dubbed as one of the most resourceful, resolute, and homegrown resistance movements of a people in the history of the world that has successfully managed to remove a well-financed, well-armed, foreign-sponsored, and repressive regime. History would remember that this generation of Oromo has lived up to its historical duty and responsibility by shrugging off tyranny, incompetence, corruption, racism and alien-rule. Now, the task is reclaiming what the Oromo has lost – the Gadaa Civilization.
The Gadaa Civilization is an indigenous African moral order that is founded on the timeless idea of respect for human dignity. It is a civilization that recognizes and celebrates the human capacity and inalienable right to make choices within the framework of laws promulgated by consensus. It is a civilization that is open enough to welcome a variety of human kinds and flexible enough to tolerate differences in skills and opinions. It is this idea of respect for human dignity along with the openness and flexibility of the system that has enabled the Oromo to boast such a large demography, territory, and longevity of existence.
Because of the soundness of its foundational values and organizational structures deliberately constructed to turn these values into reality, the Oromo Civilization is deemed as one of the most sophisticated social organizations ever devised by the human mind. As such, the Oromo Civilization is Sacred. And, it is recognized by the United Nations as the heritage of humanity.
The struggle for the renaissance of the Oromo Civilization has been embraced by the freedom-loving Oromo people. In this endeavor, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) under Daud Ibsa and the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) under Merera Gudina have played critical roles as the spirit and face of the Oromo struggle. The emergence of Bekele Gerba as a charismatic, articulate, courageous moral leader of the Oromo struggle alongside Merera Gudina has reinvigorated the OFC’s political functions in mobilizing the Oromo youth.
Jawar Mohammed and Ezekiel Gebissa immensely contributed to the struggle through media coverage, while Professors Mekuria Bulcha, Assefa Jalata and Mohammed Hassen, Dr. Tsegaye Ararsa and Garoma B. Wakessa have provided refreshing and inciteful articulations of Oromo issues, perspectives, and alternatives. The function of the above ideas, organizations, and individuals as well as the pride and sacrifice of the Qeerroo have paved the way for the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) under Lemma, Abiy, Workneh, Motuma and others to mount a successful challenge to the hitherto violent and corrupt leadership of the EPRDF.
Of the various phrases used in mobilizing the Oromo people against the tyranny of the TPLF, “Abba Biyuma” and “Oromo First!” have been the most potent, particularly in the final stages of the Oromo protest. Of the two, the phrase “Oromo First” has been a subject of vigorous debates and a source of uneasiness, suspicion and fear among some quarters. Hence, it is imperative to demystify the phrase in the spirit of the common union that would hopefully be formed and expanded amongst the peoples of the Horn of Africa.
To begin with, “Oromo First!” does not in any shape or form connote superiority, exclusivity, or bellicosity towards any people, near or afar. It is not a negation of the already established and unbreakable social relations within Ethiopia and beyond. “Oromo First” does in no way minimize the depth of brotherhood between the Oromo and the Amhara, the Sidama, the Somali, the Konso, the Gamo, the Hadiya, the Gurage, the Anuaks, the Agaw, the Afar, the Tigre, the Wolayta, the Benishangul, the Issas, the Dinkas, the Eritreans, the Kikuyu, the Maasai, the Kafficho, the Irob, the Kunama, the Qimant, and many others. Furthermore, “Oromo First” is not a denial of the necessity of forging a symbiotic relationship with all peoples to promote a just political union.
Rather, “Oromo First!” is a statement of conviction about the inherent validity of the Oromo identity which springs from the eternally revered Oromo Civilization. It is a recognition of the permanency of the Oromo identity that is not amenable to dissolution by force, threat or actual, now or ever. It is statement of policy that aims to protect the Oromo Civilization even when joining a larger community of peoples. The practical mode of protecting the Oromo Civilization is through the reconstruction of its history, development of its language, preservation and celebration its cultural traditions, and self-governance of the Oromo country – Oromia.
In addition, Oromo is neither a tribe nor an ethnic group. Employing terms such as “tribe” or “ethnic group” to the Oromo people is tantamount to blasphemy because the longevity of the Civilization and the universality of its foundational values demands objective nomenclature commensurate with the reality. Arrogance and ignorance of some elements of the Ethiopian literati which obdurately use such terms have caused and would cause so much mistrust amongst peoples, particularly between the brotherly peoples of Oromo and Amhara.
At the individual level, being an Oromo (“Oromoness”) is a declaration of commitment to revere the received traditions of the Oromo Civilization. Being an Oromo is a conscious determination to express oneself as an Oromo before the world. It is an unwavering state of accepting the permanence of one’s Oromoness. One cannot become Oromo one day and shade it off the next. Oromoness is also an acceptance of the responsibility of defending, developing as well as conveying of the Oromo Civilization to future generations. It is accepting the duty of expressing oneself in productivity, acceptance of others as equals, living under the rule of law, and believing in the possibility and desirability of peace.
Besides, being an Oromo is not a skill; it is not acquired merely by speaking Afaan Oromo although the language is the primary mode of expressing one’s Oromoness. Being an Oromo is also not an emotional reaction to a discomforting political reality. Neither is it a fleeting political ideology imported from without. Oromoness is definitely not a psychological state; nor does it refer to personal ethics. Oromo is rather a moral order whereby the dignity of each individual is fully respected, everyone is equal before the law, and each is expected to contribute to sustain himself/herself materially and to learn, accept and defend the Gadaa heritage of the mothers and fathers before.
Lastly, Oromoness is not a biological concept. Although familial and spatial proximity (being born and/or raised in Oromia) as well as lived experiences are the common ways of claiming Oromoness, Oromoness is fundamentally the commitment to the ideals of Oromo Civilization. As such, there is no half Oromo; there is no full or pure Oromo. There is only Oromo. There is no civilization in the history of humanity that has been founded on the basis of purity of bloodline. Oromo is no exception. In fact, the genetic approach to social organization per se is an anathema to the essence of the Gadaa Civilization of the Oromo. Also, Oromoness does not exclude the possibility and inevitability of incorporating other modes of supra and infra identities
Despite its greatness, the Oromo Civilization has been interrupted for a brief period. Several theories have been put forth to answer the question as to how such a great civilization did not manage to resist or accommodate the importation of new political ideas into Africa. Regardless of the reasons for the interruption of the Oromo civilization, the idea of a modern state under one monarch seems to have had a demonstrable impact on certain Abba Duulaas (Oromo ministers of defense under the Gadaa). The seepage into Oromo country of such new political idea may have gave impulsion to the coming into the scene in Oromo political life of strong men who began creating fiefdoms in contravention of the democratic, egalitarian traditions of the Gadaa.
Subsequently, several Oromo Abba Dulaas became king makers and kings in various geographical subdivisions of the Oromo country and beyond. Of these new regional kings, none had as much an impact on the Oromo civilization and the trajectory of Oromo history for over a century to-come as that of Emperor Menelik. The man who spoke Afan Oromo (the Oromo language) at home ironically was the same man who oversaw the relegation of the Oromo language from public usage in Ethiopia. His fear of political challenges from his Oromo contemporaries seemed to be the reasons behind de-emphasizing or minimizing his Oromoness. Record of whether Emperor Menelik had publicly denounced his Oromo heritage is unavailable.
What Emperor Menelik began in the 1880s was continued by Emperor Haile Selassie, who went a step further in covering, nay denying, his Oromo heritage by claiming the so-called “Lion of Judah.” It was also under his reign that the deconstruction of Oromo history was officially sanctioned. Motivated by insecurity and a desire to assume a national leadership role, Emperor Haile Selassie not only changed his own identity but also employed corrupt and inefficient political operatives who were determined to destroy anything Oromo. Fortunately, however, history tells us that the evil scheme has now failed. In the wake of Haile Selassie’s demise, Colonel Mengistu came to power espousing Marxist ideology to which he was a neophyte. After eradicating his mentors and opponents alike accusing them of being “narrow nationalists,” Colonel Mengistu is said to have claimed his Oromoness recently from his home in exile in Harare, Zimbabwe.
None of these individuals had the moral courage even to frown at the injustice perpetrated against the Oromo during their times. Because of their participation in the destruction of Oromo heritage and deconstruction of Oromo history, the Oromo people in general and the Oromo intelligentsia in particular have disowned these political leaders. Oromos are particularly offended because each of these individuals came to power on the shoulders of the Oromo people. Once at the helm, however, they exhibited a political vision and modus operandi unbecoming of the Oromo idea of merit, uprightness, fairness, justice, and peace.
“Oromo First!” is a rejection of such political promiscuity. “Oromo First” is a declaration of loyalty and commitment to the ideals of Oromo Civilization. It is an assertion of the Oromo’s collective right of expression in the wider family of nations in equality and peace. It is an expression of the fact, relevance, and permanence of Oromo identity regardless of time and space.
Whereas Oromumma (Oromo nationalism) is a means for mobilizing the Oromo people to preserve and develop Oromoness and Oromia, “Oromo First!” is the recognition of the fact, relevance, permanence, renaissance and reverence of the Oromo Civilization.