Political Trilogy – Abyssinian Culture, Oromo Identity and the State of ‘Ethiopia’

By T Tolera | July 31, 2013

The last few weeks have marked an elevated political engagement from those who have consistently distanced themselves from the Oromo question; and this, I taught, has paved a way to political discourse [confrontation] and out of the great political depression since the election of 2005. Political conscientiousness is rife; personal blogs, articles, facebook pages, twitter feeds are ubiquitous; and new audiovidual works are made, often in support or simply to invalidate. Yet there are Oromos and non-Oromo individuals who are genuinely confused about the situation and want to delve more in to the core Oromo issue. This is not in anyway directed to the likes of the delusional Abe Tokichaw and  fictional actors such as Professor Fekadu Lamessa who simulate  Oromos and try to jeopardize our noble cause of restoring the dignity, freedom and liberty of the great Oromo nation. It neither addresses those nonsense hard-liner Abyssinians who question where Oromia is or even demand there is none.

Growing up in Urban Oromia that has proved to be an eminent challenge for Oromummaa, I have witnessed malicious attempts to adulterate Oromo values and Oromo identity. To some extent, this has worked to produce and sideline a significant chunk of Oromo nation. At this important junction in Oromo struggle, this chunk is asking pertinent questions and seeking clarification. I don’t claim to be anthropologist by profession; but I hope my essay will help you have some answers about the creation of popular culture, its effect on identity and Oromo struggle.

The creation, continuity and dynamics of culture is subject to manipulations. In natural course of evolution such as to the influence of globalization, one cannot deny the so called ‘high culture’ is under a substantial contraction. Who taught ‘Ghangnam style’ would be popular somewhere in high mountains of Afghanistan or a remote village in Ethiopia? Who taught black rap would be this big almost entirely on the planet? This is a global cultural criss-cross [some call it crisis] that continues to shape the way we live and behave. At this scale, the effect is blanket; and it is completely voluntary processes; and it all depends on how open and close the society is. In this respect, Ethiopia remains closed comparable to Iran and North Korea. Many things that are routine in the West are regarded taboo in this country. It is highly secretive society with deep seated protectionist tendencies. It is ironic though that the Abyssinians that viciously protect their culture [of Ethiopia, as they claim] from Westernization pursue on Abyssinianization of the Oromos and Oromummaa. Contrary to the effect of Ghangnam style or black rap, at this scale, the imposition of Abyssinian cultural values is involuntary and one way processes; the result of which is a cultural genocide.

Cultural genocide is a two-step processes: (1) a complete denial of cultural existence of the oppressed and (2) ethnocentric imposition and enforcement of the expansion of foreign culture in that society. This processes to subjugate subjects in to cultural submission is not a one night phenomena; it is a systematic lifelong operation carried out with utmost detail and care.

In Ethiopia [in its current shape], power struggle have almost entirely concentrated in the North; particularly between the Abyssinian [the Tigrayans and the Amharas]. Few revolts have results in a sporadic takeover of power by the Agew people creating Zagiwe dynasty and Yejju Oromos [Warasek] who ruled Gonder in 17th century. Even then and till late 19th century, mostly due to the geographic advantage of the Red Sea and poor military capabilities, the Abbyssinians could not advance to the vast resource-rich land of the south. The Oromo Gadaa governance, which was organised under common political, legal and religious institutions, also had constituted a powerful military wing that had effectively repelled and neutralized repeated aggressions from the north and east.  At dawn of the 19th century, king Minilik II, a Showa Abyssinian, with a significant firearm assistance from European partners and systematic local elites collaborators, successfully conquered the entire south, west and east and established the State of Ethiopia making Addis Ababa [Finfinne] his capital. The Oromos revolted in Aarsi, Baale, Harargee and many other places but they were quashed and millions lost their life in Calii Calanqoo and Aanole massacres.

Considering the fact that, throughout history, Oromos had never pre-emptively declared any war on the Abbyssinians, one can say the creation of Ethiopia, quite opposite to what Bewketu had to say,  is a function of hundred years of one way violence where the Abyssinians kept a Naftenya military presence in Biyya Oromia through Gebar system and ill-designed colonial policies. This is, in one form or the other, the status quo and still Oromos don’t have anything to do with the ‘Ethiopia’ state the Abyssinians have in their mind.

The creation of Ethiopia also marked the formal commencement of century long repression against the Oromos. For the next successive 120 years, through the Haile Sillassie I reign and Mengistu’s military era, the Abbysinians waged war against Oromo social institutions and values, mainly: Oromo language [Afaan Oromo], the Oromo religion [Waaqqeffannaa], Oromo polity [Gadaa Oromo] and Oromo tradition [Aadaa Oromo]. This resulted in the destruction institutional capabilities, and creation, perpetuation and development of popular culture of state that mirrored the culture of that of the rulers, the Abyssinians. The trouble is that this popular culture of the state is orchestrated and granted to be the identity of ‘Ethiopia’ and ‘Ethiopians’ as seen from outside and within. And they sought ‘Ethiopia’ is whole and ‘Ethiopians’ are all.

Standing now, this crafted popular culture of the state, inevitably, has produced a significant chunk of Oromo nation. This chunk is very much lost with little trace of the two common expressions of OromummaaAfaan Oromo and Aadaa Oromo. However, for reasons that I will elaborate later, the chunk possesses intact Oromo identity and is crucial part of the struggle. In fact, this chunk has increasingly proved to be effective against the Abyssinians in the current socio-political circumstances. At this point, it is pertinent I define the two important concepts used for this essay: culture and identity.

The word ‘culture’ might refer to the material things and non-material ideas and abstracts in everyday life. This does not mean in anyway the kind of cultural events, aggregation and show portrayed by TPLF’s ‘Ethiopian Nations, Nationalities People’s Day’ which can only serve symbolism and camouflage for fake federalism and perpetuation of hegemony. I’m talking about mass culture that encompasses daily routine and civilization. Culturing is an adaptive processes where individuals try to blend in to their surrounding. It is external to the individual. As such, it is learned and one can display complex set or sets of distinct cultural values. An Oromo descent child might grow in England with English culture but he also learns Oromo values from his family and community.  On the other hand, identity is the self. It is about knowing who you are. And who you are would not change even if you want to. The Oromo freedom fighter and legend General Taddasaa Birru was loyal member of the ruling imperial regime serving long military service immersed in Abyssinian culture. But he came to his sense and his identity; he rebelled against the regime and died for his people.

Culture can be mastered in two ways: positively  when learned to gain knowledge, skills and wisdoms to sustain oneself; negatively when learned to avoid repression and ridiculing or any aversive actions against oneself. When Oromos changed their names, thrown their traditional religion and felt ashamed to practice their language, they were desperate to avoid repercussions if otherwise. Against all the odds and state sponsored plot to wipe out what is Oromummaa and replace it with one nation, one religion, one language and one culture, Oromo identity has prevailed through. This proves my early statement that identity is natural and inborn while culture can only be built over it. Obviously, however, as a function of time, ethnic identity can be eroded. But this requires at least five generation to achieve. 120 years of Abyssinian domination could not reach five generation, and the new Oromo generation, including the partly culturally Abyssinianized, is educated and self-conscious putting the Oromo question in perspective.

While political power remains elusive and distant, Oromos have enjoyed some cultural and linguistic freedom supported by ethnic Federalism engineered by OLF.   This is probably among discontents topping in the part of Abyssinians. Oromos would not need to learn foreign culture negatively reinforced. They learn Abyssinian culture as they do Western. They learn Amharic as they do English. If you ask me how many Oromos work in Federal organizations or how often Oromos would flow to other federal states for work, I would say very limited. Having not to practice Abyssinian culture or Amharic has no effect on Oromos at all. Oromia is large, it has one of the fastest growing economy [after looting anyway] in the empire and I strongly believe it is self-sustaining socio-economically and culturally. I think this even can be a more effective and lethal weapon against the cultural hegemony of the Abyssinians.

In conclusion, the state of ‘Ethiopia’ remains myth and hijacked by those who portray it as an ancient Abyssinian reflection. Such people erroneously equate culture with identity to further claim ‘Ethiopian’ culture is to mean ‘Ethiopian’ identity while there is no such thing in practice. Culture and identity are two distinctions. Culture can only be built upon identity while the vise versa is not valid. Abyssinian culture cannot develop over Oromo identity because of irreconcilable fundamental differences; if it does, it only can last temporary. Oromo identity is inborn and it remains naturally inward. It has revealed itself from the brutal cultural genocide pursued by the successive Abyssinian rules in to emerging contemporary way of life.


You can reach the author at toleraat@gmail.com