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A profile on Ethiopia's Oromo ethnic group

  Jerry Franklin A

The Oromo ethnic group, also known as the Galla, is the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, which is 35.8 per cent of the country's population. The Oromo people primarily inhabit the Ethiopian highlands, the Oromia region, which is the largest and most populous state in Ethiopia. Additionally, Oromo communities also reside in neighbouring countries including Kenya and Somalia, particularly in the northern regions of these countries. The Oromo people speak the Afaan Oromo language, which is part of the Cushitic language family. Afaan Oromo has its unique script and is used extensively in literature, media, and everyday communication within Oromo communities. The Oromo are not a homogeneous group; they can be further divided into numerous clans, each with its distinct cultural practices, dialects, and historical narratives. The significant subgroups within the Oromo include the Borana, Guji, Arsi, Bale, and others. Despite these differences, Oromo identity is generally defined by shared linguistic and cultural traits.

The Oromo people in Ethiopia had long-standing grievances related to political and economic marginalization, cultural repression, and land dispossession. They felt that their rights and interests were not adequately represented or protected by the Ethiopian government for decades. The Abyssinian Empire colonized and uprooted the Oromo in the 19th century which resulted in the loss of their ancestral lands and the suppression of their cultural traditions. They are known for the decentralized system of governance known as the Gadaa system. However, as Ethiopia began to centralize and expand its regime in the 19th century; the Oromo faced subjugation and land dispossession. The Ethiopian government, dominated by the Amhara ethnic group, imposed its language and culture on the Oromo. Throughout the 20th century, the Oromo people actively resisted Ethiopian rule through various means including armed uprisings and political activism. This historical experience has influenced their collective memory and political aspirations. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which was established in 1973, played a crucial role in promoting the autonomy and rights of the Oromo people. However, the Ethiopian government responded to these efforts with harsh repression. The administration has used allegations of terrorism as justification to suppress political opposition.

The Oromo people have played a crucial role in shaping Ethiopia's political landscape, advocating for greater recognition of their rights, preservation of their culture, and representation in the political sphere. This has been a consistent effort throughout the 20th and into the 21st century by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). For a long time, the Oromia region has been at the centre of anti-government demonstrations, social unrest, and insurgency. The Oromo protests in 2015 and 2018 were prompted by issues related to land ownership, political representation, and human rights violations. The initial protests emerged due to the government's intention to expand the capital city, Addis Ababa, into Oromia territory. This move was perceived as a violation of the land rights and cultural identity of Oromo farmers. The “Addis Ababa Integrated Master Plan” was interpreted as a manifestation of Oromo marginalization and sparked the first demonstrations in 2014. During the demonstrations, protesters demanded greater autonomy, political reform, the release of political prisoners, and an end to systematic discrimination. The Ethiopian government, led by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn at the time, used force to suppress protests resulting in significant casualties and human rights violations. The protests continued to evolve and intensify resulting in the resignation of then Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and substantial political adjustments. In April 2018, Desalegn stepped down and Abiy Ahmed became the new Prime Minister. To address some of the demands made by the Oromo protesters, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed implemented political reforms such as releasing political prisoners and ending the state of emergency. The political reforms that the Ahmed administration aimed to implement stirred ethnic tensions and power struggles.

Since 2019, the Ethiopian government and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an armed group that emerged and separated from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), have been involved in an armed struggle in the western region of Oromia that led to severe abuses towards the Oromo and other minority groups in Oromia. Military command posts were established by the government in western and southern Oromia, where federal and local security forces conducted joint military operations against OLA. The situation has resulted in displacement, loss of life, and destruction of property in the region. On 18 June 2022, an armed group massacred hundreds of Amhara villagers in western Oromia while Ethiopian security forces made few efforts to keep them safe. The Ethiopian administration and OLA blamed each other for the massacre. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), more than 400 Amhara civilians have been killed, including women and children. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the fighting in western Oromia has caused more than 500,000 people to be displaced, including 4,800 from Tole, a small administrative unit in Ethiopia. The conflict has led to severe violations of human rights. Government authorities have been responsible for arbitrary detentions, summary killings, and arrests of Oromos, as well as occasional disruptions to local connections. In response, the OLA has assaulted non-military government offices and executed government employees. Additionally, armed groups and unknown perpetrators have recently increased their attacks on Amhara villages in western Oromia.

About the author

Jerry Franklin A is a Postgraduate Scholar at Madras Christian College, Chennai.

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