Features/ Reviews

Three Faces of the Oromo Struggle

Donald N. Levine
University of Chicago

Kabajamtota wa’ela hojii koo, maatiifi hiriyyoota OSA, akkam jirtu? Yeroo dheeraaf wal hin garre. Asitti argamun gammachuu kooti. Waltajjii kanarratti affeeramun koo, akka gumaata, ulfinna, gammachuu guddaa naaf ta’e naaf hubadha. Dubbiin koo kun, marii hegere Oromoofi aadaa mamsiisaa isaaf fayida akka qabu abdii kooti.
The call for papers for this conference–The State of the Oromo Struggle: Critical Investigations on the Challenges & Opportunities on How to Move Forward–adjoins a protest against the targeting of Oromo citizens by the EPRDF regime, alleging widespread abduction and imprisonment of Oromo students and civic organization leaders. That is a charge I take seriously; for years I have assisted Oromo refugees who suffered from arbitrary arrest and torture by security personnel of the Ethiopian Government.
My remarks today aim to broaden the subject to a wide range of issues facing all Oromo citizens of Ethiopia. A topic such as “The Oromo Struggle” is challenging, not only because it stirs passions, but also since it can be interpreted in so many ways. Most valuable conference themes are of this sort; they generate an ambience for hearing divergent voices. Such themes consist of ambiguous symbols, which enable persons with different understandings to exchange views. This notion fits well with the Oromo appreciation of ambiguous language. Gerarsa are full of what in Amharic is known as sem-nna worq–wax and gold; Oromiffa recall the proverb: Dubbiin akka lama–Every story has two versions.
Assuming that those who assemble here to consider “The Oromo Struggle” own divergent views of that struggle, I seek to facilitate dialogue by offering a framework for delineating such views. I do so in terms I presented at the 2006 meetings of the OSA. That presentation (published as “Oromo Narratives” in Vol 14, No. 2, of the Journal of Oromo Studies, July 2007) described three ways in which Oromo spokesman appear to define the present by constructing the past. My comments today focus on how those narratives generate ways of viewing struggles oriented to the future.

Before considering how these divergent narratives generate different scripts for “the Oromo Struggle,” let me say a word about what it means to talk about the stuggle of an ethnic group or a people? One way to gain purchase on that question is to employ a common sociological distinction between the form and the content of a struggle. The form designates both the organizational structure and the means used in the struggle. Organizational forms include, for example, spontaneous gatherings of private persons, activist associations, focused publications, and the mobilization of large communities and resistance groups. The means used include: pursuing goals in accordance with institutional norms; opposing established authorities through violence; and resisting injustice through non-violent means.
In distinguishing different contents of such struggles, one might talk about struggles for political and economic resources; for social status; and for cultural identity. My comments here will deal with these different types of content. To open up this discussion, I suggest that the Colonialist Narrative leads to a focus on resources; the Ethiopianist Narrative leads to a focus on status; and the Traditionalist Narrative leads to a focus on identity.

In my 2006 presentation, I labeled those types of narrative as Traditionalist, Colonialist, and Ethiopianist. The Traditionalist Narrative focuses on the sociocultural system embodied by Oromo in their ancestral homeland in the south central part of present-day Ethiopia. It has always important for Oromo males to possess a living sense of the past. Oromo tradition draws nourishment not only from language and culture, but also from myths of origins, historical memories, and a vivid sense of the continuing impact of the past on present events and fortunes. Ayyantu time-keepers and learned laymen reckon genealogical lineages with depths of up to four to five centuries.
The Traditionalist narrative was embedded in three key institutions: the gadaa system of generational classes of eight years’ duration; the office of the qaaluu; and an octennial general assembly, the gumi gayo, which constituted the ultimate authority for all groups represented in it. The centerpiece of this narrative concerns the sequence of leaders installed and the laws proclaimed in gadaa assemblies every eight years–as far back as the memories of the oldest elders can reconstruct. Its topics include the influence of previous generations on succeeding generations, through a distinctive structure–the gogessa–which links the classes of fathers and sons across many generations, offering a channel for dachi, “the mystical influence of history on the present course of events,” as Asmarom Legesse (1973, 194) has so evocatively worded it. That narrative includes discourses about how Oromo traditions were preserved among the Boran and the Guji up to the present; and how adaptations into other types of social system following the 17th-century expansions involved a falling away from their traditions. The Traditionalist Narrative finds some of the most valuable features of Oromo life today in heroic efforts to preserve and sustain those traditions.
The Traditionalist Perspective on the Oromo Struggle
Regarding the Oromo struggle today, the Traditionalist Narrative would focus on what is needed to keep the classic Oromo traditions alive and well at a time when they are being eroded by processes of modernization, the seductions of chemical stimulants (Fayissa 2012), and corrosive teachings of Pentecostal missions. The Oromo Struggle becomes a struggle to revitalize whatever can be preserved of the traditional institutions of the gadaa system and of practices associated with the qaaluu. Internally, this involves heightened efforts to transmit those beliefs and values to coming generations. It also involves efforts to retrieve some features of the traditions of gadaa that have been lost. That such efforts are not futile is demonstrated by the remarkable recovery of the Gumii El-dallo, a historically important assembly that was revived, after a lapse of more than 200 years, thanks to the leadership of Gada Liiban Jildessa in 2003 (Elemo 2005, 147-62). This perspective may also emphasize efforts to reclaim land that is being appropriated by outside investors.
Externally, it implies efforts to publicize traditional Oromo achievements and to ensure that the legal and other supporting structures remain solidly in place. Such work is facilitated by the provisions of the Ethiopian Constitution of 1995, in which Articles 34 (5) and 78 (5) stipulate that previous customary laws and courts can continue to function when recognized by the Federal legislature and State legislatures.
The Colonialist Narrative
While the Traditionalist Narrative celebrates the continued functioning of whatever can be preserved of the hallowed practices of the Oromo past, the Colonialist Narrative–a notion I adopt from Prof. Merera Gudina–emphasizes the suppression of past traditions and the people who bore them. This narrative resembles what has been called a lachrymose narrative in accounts of Jewish history, one that makes episodes of victimization and suffering the benchmarks of their historical experience. As described earlier, this account says:
In the course of the 19th century . . . the Oromo were overrun, their traditions suppressed, and their status reduced to that of serfs. . . . Despite the egalitarian pretensions of the . . . Derg and EPRDF, the Oromo to this day remain second-class citizens in a country of which they constitute the second largest if not the largest ethnic minority and have arguably become victims of a disproportionate percentage of human rights violations.
The benchmarks of this narrative would include the martial victories of Tewodros against the Oromo in the 1860s, the defeat of autonomous Oromo regions . . . by Yohannes and Menelik . . . and the consequent appropriation of vast Oromo lands by Amhara and Tigrayan nefteññas . . . They include the centralizing efforts of Haile Selassie who carried out an extensive program of Amharization . . . An effort to redress these grievances was carried out with the Mecha-Tulema Association in the 1960s, but it was brutally suppressed. (Levine 2007)
The Colonialist Perspective on the Oromo Struggle
In the Colonialist Narrative, since the Oromo experience is perceived mainly in terms of being victims of a century-and-a-half of unrelieved subjugation, the heart of the struggle will be focused on resentment against inequities. Its central themes include dispossession of rights to land (as Obbo Makkamuu Jaatee [2012] has described in detail), loss of political autonomy, and restrictions on use of the vernacular language. Accordingly, those inclined to a Colonialist perspective are likely to view the Oromo Struggle as a campaign to attain one or more of three objectives. One objective would be a political effort to ensure more adequate representation in the Ethiopian Government. A second would be an economic struggle to regain control of their land. A third would be to secure more resources for promoting literacy and publications in Afan Oromo.
The Ethiopianist Narrative
In contrast, the Ethiopianist Narrative views Oromo culture as evolving through a multi-millennial process within a Semito-Cushitic cultural matrix, and regards the Oromo expansions of the 16th century as advancing the transformation of Ethiopian Empire into a multiethnic national state. In this view, it was thanks to their openness for adoption, assimilation, and intermarriage that Oromo settlers blended with peoples wherever they penetrated. Oromos became Christians in the north and Muslims in the east; they established kingdoms in the southwest and farming communities in Shoa. Oromos who settled near Gurage adopted the ensete culture and came to be teased by other Oromos as “half-Gurage.” The Otu branch of the Guji assimilated Sidamo culture so fully that many came to speak only Sidaminya. Conversely, Guji incorporated groups of Sidamo and Wallayta people through the fiction of adoptive patrilineal affiliation.
At the national level, Oromos became significant actors. The Ethiopianist Narrative stresses Oromo penetration of the national arena from the late 16th century on. They served Sertsa Dingil (1563-97) in battles against invading Turks. Through Oromo companions, Susneyos recovered the throne in 1603 (Hassen 1994). Future Emperor Bakaffa escaped from the Wohni prison fortress to live among Yejju Oromo in Gojjam, became became fluent in Oromiffa, filled his court (1721-30) with Oromo friends, and sent Oromo fighters to control rebels in Begemdir and Gojjam. His wife Empress Mentwab arranged for their son Iyasu II to marry an Oromo princess, Wubit (Wabi), daughter of the Wallo Oromo chief Amito. Their son Iyoas, Ethiopia’s first emperor with Oromo blood, assembled a Royal Guard of 3,000 Oromo soldiers under two Oromo uncles, and introduced Oromiffa as language of the court and imperial administration. Queen Wubit appointed her kinsmen to high positions throughout the empire.
When the imperial center declined after Iyoas, power shifted to Tigrayan Ras Mikael Sehul and then to Yejju Oromo chieftain Ras Ali I of Wallo, who commanded Oromo supporters in many regions. Ali’s brother and his nephew Ras Gugsa maintained that strength. Ironically, one part of the so-called Amhara homeland–Amara Saint in Wallo–was occupied by Oromo for most of the 19th century. From intermarriage with royal lines, high positions, and military appointments, Oromo became central to Emperor Menilek’s project of expanding the Ethiopian state. Menelik’s historic encounters with invading Italians before and at the Battle of Adwa depended crucially on Oromo warriors, including Ras Gobena, Ras Mekonnen (son of Fitaurari Wolldemikael Guddessa), Dejjach Balcha Safo, Negus Michael of Wallo, and Fitaurari Habte Giorgis. Ras Gobena was also famous for many services under Menilek, including conquests of some Oromo areas and battles against Mahdist invaders at Hinbabao and Gute Dilie. Before Adwa, Bejirond Balcha served as royal treasurer under Menilek; after Adwa, Dejazmatch Balcha served as governor in Sidamo and Hararge provinces. In 1916, he played a key role in defeating the supporters of Lijj Iyasu; twenty years later, he mobilized a large force to attack the Italians in Addis Ababa. The fact that eminent Oromo figures like General Mulugeta Buli and Minister Yilma Deressa played central roles in the government of Emperor Haile Selassie–himself three quarters Oromo–simply manifested what had long functioned as a multiethnic ruling elite.
The Ethiopianist Perspective on the Oromo Struggle
For those holding an Ethiopianist perspective, the Oromo Struggle is perceived differently. Viewing the Oromo as participants in a five-century process whereby diverse peoples interacted to form a multiethnic society, this version of the Struggle includes efforts to promote awareness of the Oromos’ integral role in building modern Ethiopia. It regards the issues of scarce economic and political resources as an issue for Ethiopians all over the country. The Ethiopianists will strive to change the Oromos’ self-understanding, from occupying the status of second-class citizens to that of players historically essential to Ethiopia’s survival as an independent nation–in Gojjam and Gonder, at Adwa, in Eritrea and in Wallo, and in Finfine aka Addis Ababa.
In addition, they will assert their full entitlement to enact laws and build institutions in the constructive and collaborative mode that informs Oromo political process. As many scholars have taught us, these include a robustly egalitarian ethos; a strong sense of communal solidarity; customs that ensure democratic governance; separation of powers; and cultivated civility in deliberation (Levine 2007, 46-50). In this view, then, one important part of the Oromo Struggle appears as a struggle to lend the resources of Oromo political culture to strengthening democratic institutions in modernizing Ethiopia.
As many of you will recognize, my depictions of the three Narratives and their derived versions of Oromo Struggles consist of what sociologists refer to as Ideal Types: abstract constructions that rarely appear in pure form–and indeed, can often be held conjointly by the same person–but are useful for teasing out the logic of intellectual and normative positions. These depictions represent what I believe to be genuine differences, differences that at times can generate heated conflicts. So now I want to offer four considerations that bear on ways in which Oromo holding different positions on these matters can communicate with one another productively.
Two of these considerations represent old Oromo customs. First, keep in mind that norms associated with public discourse in the Gumis encourage all stakeholders to set forth their arguments plainly and sincerely. Thus:
Dubbi qarumman dubbatani miti/ Warri qaro qarumman laf keyyaddha.
That is not the place for clever talk. Clever people should leave their cleverness behind. (Legesse 2000: 213)
In addition, Gumi norms encourage respect for diverse positions and discourage egoistic, disputatious responses. Gadaa assemblies do not tolerate villifying speeches and bellicose rhetoric; they expect participants to abstain from attacking opponents to score points. In the memorable words of Rophii Kubii: Dubbin ka gumii/ Murtiin ka gumii. Freely translated, this means: The gumi deliberation is not personal, but public. The decisions made here are not partisan; they are made by and for the entire assembly.
A third consideration is to acknowledge living in a time of rapid change implies a need to move beyond old thoughtways and find ways to make all three perspectives relevant for today. And fourth, we nust recognize that our global era entails expanded forms of association. More and more spheres of life come under universalistic rather than merely particularistic norms, and all associataional forms feel pressures to beome increasingly inclusive. What might we discover if we apply these considerations to each of the three perpectives I have sketched?
Reconfiguring the Traditionalist Perspective
What would it mean to generalize the Oromo struggle for identity within the Traditonalist perspective? One way to do so would be to understand and celebrate the gadaa system as an exemplar of value for all Ethiopia and beyond. (As a corollary, this could entail getting all Oromo to acklnowledging Borana as the ancestral matrix of all Oromo culture, of “the Gada system in its entirety and both the great moieties of the Oromo” [Legesse 2000:171]).

Doing this would also reinforce a claim that recent scholars of sociocultural evolution have been making: that cultures at all evolutionary stages hold enduring value and make distinctive contributions to complex societies which include representations of diverse evolutionary grades (Levine 2012). Accordingly, this could mean not just preserving the gadaa system for its own sake, but also studying it to see how some of its achievements in the practice of democratic governance could be transferred to the Ethiopian nation as a whole–or at the very least serving as a world cultural treasure if the kind of social order that human societies could achieve before the rise of chiefdoms and kingdoms. For this to happen, Boran and Guji Oromo must make sacrifices to avoid the temptations associated with the conveneinces of modern urban life.

Reconfiguring the Colonialist Perspective
What would it mean to reconfigure the Oromo struggle for freedom and justice as foregrounded in the Colonialist perspective? For one thing, it would mean viewing the Oromo struggle as part of a larger struggle of all the peoples of Greater Ethiopia for freedom and justice. It would mean, for example, extending the sense of privation and loss to all those–Afars and Aris, Gojjamis and Gondares, Gambellans and Gurages, Tigrayans and Tsamakos, and so on–who have residual claims from prior losses and/or suffer new grievances under the current regime.
To make their claims credible and balanced in an era that is moving toward a time of restorative justice, it would also mean to acknowledge actions against others committed in its own “colonialist” past. Oromos who hold the Colonialist perspective might reconsider the assumption that the great expansion of the Oromo from the 16th century onward was a peaceful movement of peoples, and that it involved destructive conquest of civilian populations; brutality against those conquered; and a legacy of enslavement that persists in some areas, such as Wollega, until today.
Reconfiguring the Ethiopianist Perspective
What would it mean to generalize the Oromo struggle for recognition within the framework of an Ethiopianist perspective? For one thing, it would involve paying more attention to Oromo figures who have contributed signally to Ethiopia’s national heritage, figures such as Emperor Iyoas; Ras Ali; Itege Taitu; Ras Gobena; Dejatch Balcha; Abebe Bikila; Tadesse Liban; and many others. It would emphasize ways in which one can take pride in being Oromo and still champion the idea of Ityopiyawiyan ethnicity, especially in view of the countless multiethnic marriages in which Oromo Ethiopians have participated.
The Ethiopianist perspective, moreover, would move quickly to announce that meaningful justice for one group must entail justice for all. Liberating all the Oromo prisoners is not enough; to be true to Oromo traditions entails liberating ALL political prisoners. And once that more inclusive step is taken, it can lead to a determination to band together with all Ethiopians to address the rash of critical issues that face the entire nation: chronic food insecurity; malnutrition; epidemics, not least HIV/AIDS; a massively deficient educational system; continuing abuse of the rights of women; the plight of orphans and underground children in the cities; the despoliation of Ethiopia’s beautiful lakes; the destruction of her forests; the dependence on toxic forms of energy use; the lack of a decent nationwide rural road network; the blindness to forms of Green Technology that could revolutionize Ethiopia’s standard of living; and the promise of enabling all of Ethiopia’s citizens to live free of the terror imposed both by Government agents and by the fear of all against all.
It is easy to imagine a heated debate among Oromo holding these different perspectives. The Traditionalist could say to the others: “You are traitors to the heart of Oromo identity. You have abandoned the principles and practices of gadaa.” The Colonialist could say: “Both of you are shutting your eyes to reality. You are denying the terrible wrongs done to Oromo people.” And the Ethiopianist could say: “You are both self-centered, narrow, and ignorant. This is a time for bold action on behalf of the larger nation which protests and nourishes us.” The debate may get so heated that each side will want to tell the other to shut up.
But wait. Would that not contradict a widely held Oromo saying–“Dubbi baha hin dhowwan” (Never close the door on ideas)? Even though you may believe totally in your own point of view, do you not owe your brothers and sisters some respect for what they understand to be true? Oromo elders say, “Garaa balladhaa” “Have a big belly”. Have the guts to listen to something you personally disagree with or dislike. Even when you don’t like their opinions give others a chance to air them.
In broader perspective, the three Narratives and their implications for the future can be seen as divergent but not inherently incompatible. They can be seen to represent, rather, complementary ideas all relevant for the reconstruction of Oromo destiny. Does this not make sense to you? Yoo akkana murree, nagaa malee maal qabna? (Would there be anything but peace if we can come to such and such a resolution?)
What stands in the way of moving in such a direction? I think it is fear, the fear that handicaps so much of Ethiopia’s progress. I think here of what a respected analyst wrote recently about the situation in Egypt: “The Arab awakenings happened because the Arab peoples stopped fearing their leaders–but they stalled because the Arab peoples have not stopped fearing each other.” The type of infatuation with ethnic self-determination launched by the EPRDF regime has serious costs as well as benefits. The costs include an inward turning in which Ethiopians who could be living harmoniously as brothers and sisters come increasingly to turn against one another, accentuating the atmosphere of suspicion and fear that permeates Ethiopian society as a whole.
How can Oromo traditions of courage can help surmount that culture of fear? Like most other Ethiopians, Oromo have vibrant traditions of marial courage. Oromo celebrate such virtues in the stirring war chants known as gerarsa, quite parallel to what in Amharic are called zeraf. It was this courage in battle that enabled troops from all regions to join forces in the historic attack on the Italians at Adwa, and to maintain resistance throughout the period of Fascist Occupation in the 1930s. Remember, for example, how Dejach Balcha rose up out of retirement and aroused thousands of fighters to attach the Italian forces as they were on the verge of capturing Addis Ababa.
That said, let me point out that the entire world exists today at a time when physical courage on the warpath is less relevant than something that may be much more difficult: moral courage. As the Dalai Lama suggests: “The 20th century was a century of bloodshed and all of us have the responsibility to make the 21st century a century of dialogue and co-operation.” The preoccupation with ethnic identity throughout Ethiopia since the late 1960s may be seen to promote fear and inhibit dialogue among Ethiopian groups. So where can Ethiopians turn?
In a tradition of how to engage respectfully and harmoniously in public discourse in the Gumi, Oromos offer good lessons in the way of dialogue and mutual respect. They strive to live up to the ideal: hamaa nama nu olchini–“Make us not to hurt others.” At times, pursuit of this ideal may lead to the personal sacrifice; we think today of Bekele Girba and Olbana Lelisa. At times it may lead to the ultimate sacrifice: I think of Abuna Petros, who inspired a dispirited nation by defying the Italian Fascists; or of Rev. Gudina Tumsa, who defied the Derg and left a legacy of inspiring spiritual messages. More often, it involves persons speaking out honestly and constructively even though they fear what others will say. Whatever the form of the larger struggles take, I hope the nurturance of this dialogical view of the Oromo Way will become an increasingly prominent part of the Oromo struggle–for the Oromo people among themselves, and with their brothers and sisters throughout Ethiopia–at home and in the Diaspora.
Let me conclude with two evocative sayings. One is from the great 13th-century poet known as Rumi, who wrote: “A man crawls for years on his stomach with his eyes closed. Then one moment he opens his eyes, and he’s in a garden. It’s Spring.” The other is of course the Oromo invocation of blessings: Ebbis. Ebbis.
Abir, Mordecai. 1968. Ethiopia: The Era of the Princes. New York: Praeger.
Bassi, Marco. 2005. Decisions in the shade: political and juridical processes among the Oromo-Borana. Red Sea Press.
Elemo, Ibrahim Amae. 2005. The Roles of Traditional Institutions among the Borana Oromo, Southern Ethiopia. Finfinne (Addis Ababa).
Fayissa, Bichaka. 2012. “Borana Pastoralism: Analysis of the Household Economy and Expenditure Patterns of a Tradtional Pastorilst Societty.” Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Oromo Studies Association. Minneapolis, MN: July 14-5.
Harris, W. Cornwallis. 1844. The Highlands of Aethiopia, 3 vols. London: Longman, Brown Green and Longmans.
Kassa, Geremew Nigatu. 2012. “Gada theory and practices. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Oromo Studies Association. Minneapolis, MN: July 14-5.
Legesse, Asmarom. 2000. Oromo Democracy. Red Sea Press.
Levine, Donald N. (1974) 2000. Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution fo a Multiethnic Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
______________. 2007. “Oromo Narratives.” Journal of Oromo Studies 14, No. 2. July.
______________. 2012. “A Revised Analytical Approach to the Evolution of Ethiopian Civilization.” International Journal of Ethiopian Studies.
Lewis, Herbert. 1993. “Ethnicity in Ethiopia: The View from Below (and from the South, East, and West).” In The Rising Tide of Cultural Pluralism: The Nation-State at Bay? Madison: University of Wisconsin.
Weldemariam, A. F. 2010. Legal Pluralism in Contemporary Ethiopia. Lambert Academic Publishing, Germany


Donald N. Levine
University of Chicago


Assuming those who assemble to consider the “Oromo Struggle” theme own divergent views of that struggle, I seek here to facilitate dialogue by delineating ideal types of such views, in terms proposed in my “Oromo Narratives” at the 2006 OSA meetings. These comments focus on how those narratives generate ways of viewing struggles oriented to the future.
What I called the Traditionalist narrative stresses the preservation of a distinctive legacy of hallowed values. This perspective calls for efforts to publicize traditional Oromo achievements and to energize the transmission of related beliefs and values to succeeding generations. The second view, which I called the Colonialist Narrative, recounts the experience of Oromos as victims of a century-and-a-half of unrelieved subjugation. This produces a view of the Oromo Struggle as including a political effort to ensure adequate representation in the Ethiopian Government, an economic struggle to recover ownership of land, and a cultural struggle to promote literacy and publications in Afan Oromo. The third view, the Ethiopianist Narrative, sees Oromo as participants in a five-century process in which diverse peoples interacted to form a multiethnic national society. In this view, the Oromo Struggle includes efforts to change Oromo self-understanding, from that of second-class citizens to that of players historically essential to Ethiopia’s survival as an independent nation, and to move toward lending the resources of Oromo’s democratic culture to strengthening the institutions of a democratic society in modernizing Ethiopia.
The questions of how these divergent faces of the Oromo Struggle can be reconfigured in a more universalist direction and be related to one another form the subject of a concluding discussion.

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