Sunday, August 29, 2010

"Bilisummaa" vs. "Walabummaa: The Great Debate

I listened to Dr. Haile Hirpa’s, former(?) OSA president, interview in an Oromo Paltalk room as posted on

As expected, Haile Hirpa defended his action of inviting Berhanu Nega to present at OSA 2010. This much is expected and no surprise there. He talked about how Berhanu Nega, who said very little at the conference besides blaming “identity politics” for the empire’s maladies, is now a changed man. What is the evidence for Berhanu’s change of heart? “He said he was born in Bushoofttu, Oromia.” Amen!

Be that as it may, the subject of my posting for today is not OSA, nor Berhanu Nega. I have said my piece on those two and leave the judgment to my readers.

My subject for today is a factual error Haile Hirpa made in this interview. In this interview, he said something that I believe requires correction and he actually asked to be educated on the subject. I will let you hear it from the “horse’s mouth”, as the English say, a few lines down but let me translate and transcribe it for you.

Question to Haile Hirpa from a PalTalk participant: “You have repeatedly said in your speech that Oromo wants “bilisummaa” and nothing else. As we understand from the Oromo people, what they want is not “bilisummaa” only. … What we want is “walabummaa Oromiyaa ti.” An independent state of Oromia. … So when you say Oromos want “Bilisummaa”, do you mean the Oromo people can be free and live with in Ethiopia or you are substituting “bilisuummaa” for “Walabummaa”? …” (translation mine)

Dr. Haile Hirpa’s response: “The objective of the OLF that I know since 1973/74 is the same one it is sticking to today – regardless of the various difference existing among them today - which is “bilisummaa”. However, to transform this objective from “bilisummaa” to “walabummaa” [independence], those who lead the organization have to come together and establish [walabummaa] as OLF’s objective. [Walabummaa] has never been the objective of the OLF. But, I am willing to be educated on this. However, for as long as I have been part of this struggle and the OLF, the objective of the OLF is “bilisummaa”, nothing else. I think we can agree on this.” (translation mine)

Dr. Haile is correct in asking to be educated. It is also clear from his response that in his book "bilisummaa" does NOT include "walabummaa." What he asserted about the objective of the OLF is absolutely incorrect. For the founding fathers of the OLF, "bilisummaa" included "Walabummaa". Any other interpretation would be a revisionist interpretation.

Listen to Dr. Haile below. Then read part of the OLF political program (from 1973/74 and 1998) also below and you be the judge.

Listen to the Q & A

OLF political programs:

The 1973 OLF political program (VI. Programme for the Struggle, A. Political Objective) States:

“The fundamental objective of the struggle is the realization of national self-determination for the Oromo people and their liberation from oppression and exploitation in all their forms. This can only be realized through the successful consummation of the new democratic revolution by waging anti-feudal, ant-colonial, and ant- imperialist struggle, and by the establishment of the people's democratic republic of Oromia.”

The 1998 OLF constitution (Boqonnaa II, “Kaayyoo Masakaa”, Aangoo 1, “Bilisummaa Oromiyaa”) states:

“Hundeen kaayyoo keenyaa qabsoo farra impaayera Itoophiyaa, humnnoota farra mirga dhala namaa, dimookraasii fi nagaa oofuun fi sagantaa ABO fiixa baasuun, bilisummaa sabaa fi walabummaa Oromiyaa mirkaneessuu dha

Roughly translated, it says, “Our objective is to ensure our people’s freedom and Oromia’s independence by realizing OLF’s program and waging struggle against the Ethiopian empire and anti human rights, anti democracy and anti peace forces." (Translation mine)

For anyone who has read these programs or constitutions, much less for members like Dr. Haile, it would be very difficult to miss that the OLF has always advocated for an independent state of Oromia. In fact, the two constitutions go on to talk about the future independent Oromia state’s defence, economic, health, international relations and other objectives. I urge Dr. Haile to read or re-read these documents.

To try and change the OLF political program is every member's right. However, a revisionist interpretation will not be a usefull route for the mere reason that the founding fathers were crystal clear in what they meant by "bilisummaa". I hope this is now clear to everyone, including Dr. Haile.

Have your say.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Politics of Oromo National Identity: In need of paradigm shift?

By Gumaa Guddaa


Identity has a strong connection with individual sense of self. In psychology, the self is often used for the set of attribute that a person attaches to himself or herself most firmly, the attributes that a person finds it difficult or impossible to imagine himself or herself without. One’s nationality is a prime example of one’s identity. The primacy or importance of national identity is another quality that affects its contribution to the perception of the self.

Developing a sense of self is an essential part of every individual becoming a mature person. Each person's self-conception is also collective - identities extend to countries and ethnic communities, so that people feel injured when other persons sharing their identity are injured or killed. Sometimes people are even willing to sacrifice their individual lives to preserve their identity group(s). Palestinian suicide bombers are a well-publicized example. People who share the same collective identity think of themselves as having common interest and fate.

In the case of subjugated people, identity political formations typically aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within its larger context rather than organizing solely around belief systems, programmatic manifestoes, or party affiliation. Members of that constituency assert or reclaim ways of understanding their distinctiveness that challenge dominant oppressive characterizations, with the goal of greater self-determination.

This essay examines Oromo identity politics in the context of the recent discourse by some suggesting that the Oromo need to make a paradigm shift vis-à-vis Oromia and Ethiopia.

Oromo National Identity

Before answering whether Oromo people can be Ethiopian it is necessary to examine the difference between being Oromo and being Ethiopian in the first instance. Oromo national identity refers to the identity of the Oromo people, the representation of their country Oromia as a whole, encompassing its culture, traditions, language, and politics contrary to the Ethiopian discourse that tends to present Oromo national identity as part of the multiple identities that the Oromo people enjoy with the greater Ethiopian identity.

The Ethiopian identity on the other hand means different things depending on if you are Abyssinian or not. For an Abyssinian the term Ethiopian means the same. For the rest, however, Ethiopian is filled with ambiguity and dissonance. This confusion emanates not only from difference in cultural and ethnic identity but also from politics. The political history of Ethiopia for the non-Abyssinians is nothing but exploitation, subjugation and cultural genocide. The current Ethiopian regime has raised the stake further from cultural genocide to real genocide that one Oromo social scientist dubbed it as ‘the final solution’.

Since no one has ever suggested that the so called Ethiopianess is biological, one has to look for its evidence in the spheres of political identity. Unfortunately, so far the political system in Ethiopia has not been one of inclusion. Simply put, the system the Abyssinians and their foreign supporters created is an extremely repressive regime. Ethiopia is a prison house if you happen to be non-Abyssinian. It would be impossible for anyone to develop affinity to this type of identity let alone loyalty and allegiance, except through dehumanization and self-denial, both very unhealthy for the people that tender the identity and the receiver.

Ethiopian is not a national identity. Ethiopia is a state, the worst man kind has ever seen. Ethiopia as a political entity is a forced marriage. If one allowed freedom, Ethiopia will cease to exist immediately. The same thing that happened in former Yugoslavia will manifest itself. Oromia will definitely be a fully independent country. Ogandenians might merge with Somalia. Abyssinia will revert back to its former size in the north. Others in the south will either merge with Oromia, Abyssinia or declare independence. This outcome would be so natural and offer the best chance for lasting peace and development.

Some allege that the Oromo people have no noticeable national identity that set them apart from Abyssinians as they have intermixed with others through intermarriages and culturally influenced each other. Let us examine the demerit of such a claim.

Findings from population genetic studies conform to data from linguistic, cultural and social history of distinct Oromo national identity. Population genetic studies show no evidence of significant intermarriage between Oromo and Amhara or primordial closeness at all. The Oromo are homogenous as a genetic group. The Oromo are genetically much more close to other Cushitic, including Afar, Agaw and Somali. The Oromo and Abyssinians are genetically distinct. They occupy distinct geographical areas of Oromia and Abyssinia respectively.

The Oromo people have a distinct national cultural identity of well established democratic system known as Gada. The Abyssinians who dominate the Ethiopian political system have never known democracy in their entire history, and they do not seem to be receptive to the idea of free and democratic society either. The Oromo use force as a last resort, whereas the Abyssinians are warlike.

For an Oromo to assume Abyssinian identity would not only mean a total change of identity so different that will be unrecognizable but simply unachievable. Those who advocate Ethiopianess to the Oromo are swimming against the tide. Moreover, today the Oromos are forcibly evicted from their ancestral land and their land is being given away to foreigners and the proceeds line up the Tigre ruling class pockets; millions of Oromos are dying of manmade famine – a green famine created to reduce the number of Oromos. It is under these circumstances that some are suggesting a paradigm shift from Oromia to Ethiopia in the guise of multiethnic democracy. In any case, what is multiethnic democracy? I am afraid no one can tell you what the model would look like.

The sense of national identity has already reached the national collective consciousness of the Oromo. A paradigm shift seems to be at least two decades behind the curve. The idea of struggle for independence has passed the point of no return for the Oromo. The Oromo society has changed beyond recognition. Children born in Oromia over the last two decades have grown up knowing very little about Ethiopia. Paradigm shift makes no sense to them. Charles Taylor argues that the modern identity is characterized by an emphasis on its inner voice and capacity for authenticity — that is, the ability to find a way of being that is somehow true to oneself (Taylor in Gutmann, ed. 1994).

As Sonia Kruks also puts it:

  • What makes identity politics a significant departure from earlier, pre-identarian forms of the politics of recognition is its demand for recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which recognition has previously been denied that groups demand recognition. The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of “universal humankind” on the basis of shared human attributes; nor is it for respect “in spite of” one's differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different (2001, 85).

Likewise the Oromo national question is not a request for respect for recognition as equal partner or acquiring Ethiopian identity but demand for liberation of Oromia. There are some who either pretend they do not understand the aim of Oromo national movement or attempt to misrepresent it as a demand for democratic governance.

Adversarial Identities

Certain conflict's intractability depends upon the identities of the adversary. Identities can mesh with each other in ways that are more or less destructive. Two groups with ethno-nationalist identities and with attachment to some of the same land are prone to engage in an intractable conflict. Moreover, a group with an ethno-nationalist identity and even a high sense of superiority may attempt to eliminate the other. The recent example of the tragic genocide attempt by the Hutu against the Tutsi in Rwanda is a grime reminder of what can happen. The Ethiopian Empire sits on a volcano. The eruption, when it happens, will certainly dwarf the Rwandan conflict. The author strongly believes that these conflicts are avoidable by allowing separation of adversarial identities. The Oromo and Ethiopian identities are adversarial and I have not come across, yet, any sociologist who argues otherwise. Hence, it is in the best interest of all concerned to disentangle the two mutually exclusive adversarial identities of Oromia and Ethiopia.

Above all, over the past four decades the Oromo nation, as a whole, has and is paying a heavy sacrifice in terms of human life in the fight for liberation. Thousands of freedom fighters have lost their lives, fighting against Hailesillase, Mengistu and Meles. Thousands more have been subjected to exile and destitution. Moreover, as we speak, Oromia is bleeding in terms of economic exploitation, eviction from land, underdevelopment, epidemic diseases and famine.

Meles Zenawi, in particular, is conducting genocide against the Oromo through systematic destruction of the livelihood of Oromos. He has reduced the entire Oromo country to hell on Earth perpetuating untold repression, killings and exploitation of the natural resource of the Oromo. It would appear that he has a sinister plan in mind.

Furthermore, the Oromo insist on using their own language but successive Ethiopian regimes insist that Amharic, the language of the minority, be the official language. Abyssinian heroes such as Tewodros, Yohanis, Menelik, Halesellasie, Mengistu, Zenawi etc are viewed as criminal mass murders by the Oromo since that is exactly what these warlords did to the Oromo. Qubee is anathema to Ge’ez for the Abyssinians, albeit they have started using it widely learning from the Oromo. The Ethiopian flag is seen not only as a national symbol but a religious icon for an Abyssinian but is a nasty reminder of Abyssinian chauvinism to the Oromo. The OLF is a symbol of, freedom, emancipation, unity and revered as an ideology by the Oromo; whereas it is a threat to an Abyssinian ideology.

The fallacy of the so called multi-ethnic democracy in Ethiopia is epitomized by the only African female political party leader in prison, Birtukan Midhegsa. She has sadly no public sympathy let alone followers. She is seen as an Oromo and attract nominal support from the ‘multi-nationalists’ and at the same time wholly forsaken by the 40 million strong Oromos for not leading an independent Oromo movement. Imagine if she went to prison for being one of the OLF leaders. She would have been our Aung San Suu Kyi. Her apparently ignored immense sacrifice remains a stark warning for the advocates of multi-ethnic democracy as a remedy for the Ethiopian empire.

Several books have been written on the differences between the Oromo and the Abyssinian nationalism but I have not seen any book or article on the similarities or common interest between them in favour of forging closer ties. It is preposterous to suggest a paradigm shift without exploring a common denominator between the two peoples. It is a suggestion that someone’s national identity is dispensable. In any case, it would be cost effective for the minority to make the shift rather than the majority. Why do they think that the majority has to conform? One would ask why not the Abyssinians adopting Oromo identity, if it is democracy. The unification between Oromo and the Abyssinians would only benefit the latter and it is logical for them to change in search of that advantage. Not the other way round. I challenge those who suggest a paradigm shift to come up with a single potential benefit for the Oromo nation from the marriage they recommend.

Whether and how identities contribute to intractable conflicts depends on their particular qualities. Of course, identities can and do change in ways that may help prevent, limit, and end intractable conflicts. These changes are brought about by the way the adversaries interact, and by the conduct of persons and groups who intervene or otherwise affect the primary adversaries. However, I have not seen any meaningful change of attitude within the Abyssinian culture that might suggest they can make a shift of any kind any time soon. They continue to cold-bloodedly attempt to destroy the Oromo identity, livelihood and existence. I do not sense change of heart from their allies, so far, in making the necessary intervention to stop the conflict either.

Harsh Political Treatment

The proponents of the notion that the Oromo must abandon their quest for an independent homeland of their own tend to evoke the example of the closer economic union in Europe. They tend to tell us that in the era of unity we should not move apart. The reality that their rhetoric seems to have conveniently ignored is the political reality on the ground that works against nurturing friendship and trust. Ethiopia is the most repressive regime in the entire universe. The reality is that the Oromo, due to the paranoia of the Abyssinian elite, are treated as potential threats. The current Ethiopian regime is ruling Oromia by means of state terrorism, no different from its predecessors. Oromia is an occupied territory and the people are demanding independence. According the International Crisis Group report the Zenawi regime has deployed 1 million spies in the state of Oromia alone to suffocate and terrorize the Oromo people (Africa Report No. 153; September 2009).

The current Ethiopian regime is busy passing death penalties and life long imprisonment against the Oromo almost exclusively. These innocent Oromo people suffer for no other reason than being Oromo – their identity. Arbitrary detentions, killings, rape and torture are common place. The majority of prisoners in the hell on earth Ethiopian prisons and jail houses speak ‘Afaan Oromoo’ as attested to by even some Abyssinians. You could say Oromia itself has become and open air prison. The Oromia Support Group (OSG), a UK based human rights group, has compiled credible reports of 4,185 extra-judicial killings and 944 reports of disappearance, since 1994 ( The systematic attempt by the Tigrean dominated regime to reduce the number of the Oromo can only be correctly characterized as genocide (HERE). This is a product of adversarial identity politics in its naked form.

Now, those who call for a paradigm shift from Oromia to Ethiopia fail to acknowledge the fundamental reality on the ground of lack of favourable political environment that may foster any shift towards unification rather than polarization. History teaches us those who try to appease evil will only strengthen the hands of the evil. The proponents of the so called paradigm shift seem to think that they might save life by abandoning Oromoness. They need urgent critical appraisal of the premises of their change of heart. In the meanwhile, the rest of us should continue building the Oromo nation.


Identities can greatly contribute to conflict intractability. The history of conflict between Oromia and Ethiopia dates back to the 11th century. How adversaries think about who they are and who and what their enemies are profoundly influences the course of any conflict between them. The way the Oromos and the Abyssinians think of each other has irreparably changed and being maintained to date, by the support from the world powers to the Abyssinians since the end of the nineteenth century. Their sense of identity and conceptions of each other contribute to their conflict's destructive quality as well as to its long duration.

I do not think the conflict between Oromia and Ethiopia ends by paradigm shift by the Oromo. The author argues that the conflict is likely to have a lasting solution if the paradigm shift was made by the Ethiopians to stop claiming that the Oromo are Ethiopians and let them go. Those who call for the Oromo to convert to Ethiopia are not only condoning our loss of freedom but invite us to even loose our national identity and it must be resisted by Oromos by any means necessary. What saddens me most is that some of our own have jumped on the bandwagon of multi-ethnic democracy without bothering to clarify what it means, not to mention a well thought out strategic vision to achieve it. Clichés such as paradigm shift are barrier to clear thinking. Forget multi-ethnic democracy – as an Oromo, its survival against genocide that one must worry about.

Have your say!



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