Constitutionally, Ethiopia is a democratic federal state organized along ethnolinguistic lines. However, the de facto centralization of power, political repression and politicization of ethnicity continue to be the dominant features of the state.
The Oromo national movement began to develop in the 1960s by challenging the policies and practices of the Ethiopian colonial state. Even though the Oromo people are the largest national group in Ethiopia—estimated at 50 million—they were treated as a political minority both by Haile Selassie and by the Derg regime that overthrew him.
From the beginning of Haile Selassie’s autocratic rule in 1941, the Oromo language was banned from use in the education curriculum, in schools, and in the administration. The Abyssinian bourgeoisie viewed Oromo identity and language as a hindrance to the expansion of Amhara identity. Amharic, which is the language of the Amhara, the politically dominant ethnic group, and the mother tongue of less than 20 per cent of Ethiopia’s population, was imposed on the other ethnic groups without considering their sentiments and opinions. The Oromo language ban would remain in place until 1991, resulting in ethnonational domination, political disenfranchisement and exclusion, cultural destruction, and sparking outrage that would lead to radical Oromo nationalism.
Moreover, in spite of their diversity, their numbers and their occupation of large urban and pastoral zones, the Oromo people of Ethiopia have experienced a long history of marginalization, forced assimilation and the loss of their fertile lands, which were annexed and ceded to other ethnic minorities by the ruling Amhara hegemony. This ostracism has resulted in the decline of the pastoralist lifestyle among the Oromo.
The creation of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the 1974 Ethiopian revolution awakened Oromo aspirations to regain their political rights, human dignity and equality. The revolution not only aroused Oromo pride in their national identity, language and culture, but also raised their hopes of regaining their lands; after the 1974 revolution, land reform of some kind was a foregone conclusion.
Two major geopolitical tragedies caused by former Somalia strongman Siad Barre—the 1977-1978 Ethio-Ogaden war and the civil war in 1991 that led to the collapse of Barre’s military regime—produced a massive wave of return of Ethiopian refugees and an influx of newly created Somali refugees.
In 1977, with Ethiopia in turmoil, and the balance of power decisively in Somalia’s favour, Barre had launched a ground invasion of Ethiopia to wrestle the Ogaden—or Western Somalia as Somalis referred to it—from Ethiopian control. This triggered the movement of refugees fleeing the Ogaden war and the drought-stricken regions of the Horn.
The situation was further exacerbated by the massive displacement of Somali refugees fleeing the civil war that had begun in Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia. As the civil war in Mogadishu deepened, other parts of the country fell into the hands of clan-based warlords. Somali refugee arrivals in Ethiopia increased significantly due to the combined effects of drought, famine and political instability in Somalia.
The Somali returnees were assisted by the UNHCR and by several NGOs. In some districts and Kebele (the smallest administrative unit similar to a ward), the returnees overwhelmed the local populations by up to nearly 300 per cent, a figure indicating that the returnees were mixed up with new refugees from Somalia and immigrants from Kenya; by registering as returnees, families could access support from the UNHCR.
The situation was further exacerbated by the massive displacement of Somali refugees fleeing the civil war that had begun in Mogadishu.
Getachew Kassa writes that the Garre (a major Somali clan inhabiting southern Somalia, Ethiopia and northern Kenya) were identified as Qohati (returnee). During their stay in Somalia, and in the course of their repatriation, the “returnees” had developed a higher opportunistic capacity to act in modern politics and to successfully interrelate with international refugee policies and UN organizations. Upon their return, they linked up with the local pastoralists of their own clan, but retained a rather separate identity and lifestyle compared to the pastoralists.
While the Arsi and Guji ex-members of the Somali Abbo Liberation Front redefined their agenda and identity in the terms agreed with the local Oromo and left the organization, the Garre, the Gabra and the Mareexaan returnees changed the name of the organization to Oromo Abbo Liberation Front (OALF).
Claiming an Oromo identity was a way of legitimising their demands to be resettled in an Oromo-speaking region. In both Liiban and Dirree, conflict first broke out in November 1991 between the Gabra Miigoo and the Borana, following an attempt by the former to open an OALF office in Yaaballoo.
The Degodia, one of the major Somali clans, had supported the Borana in checking the movements of the heavily armed and motorized ex-soldiers of Siad Barre that had been supporting both the Mareexaan and the Garre/Gabra Miigoo against the Borana. The Degodia did not side with the Somali owing to their clan affiliation in opposition to the Said Barre-led Mareexaan in Somali politics. The Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) tried to arbitrate between the conflicting parties, while simultaneously re-organizing the administrative set-up and building its local network of alliances.
These political dynamics can only be analysed in the light of the OLF factor where the Boranas were alleged to be OLF sympathizers. At that crucial early stage, the Borana came to be identified as strong OLF supporters, although the organisation was only active in the Borana zones of Dirre, Liiban, Yaaballo and Moyyalle during the short period of campaigning from 1991 to 1992 when it was part of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia.
This impression was later exacerbated by the position of the Borana along the border with Kenya, an area where one of the OLF military branches became active after 1992; several Borana elders were quite critical of the OLF’s decision to withdraw from the 1992 elections, a decision that exposed youths, supporters and sympathizers to harsh state repression.
The Ethiopian constitution grants the Oromia region “special interest” status because the city of Addis Ababa is an enclave in Oromia. However, a law that stipulates how this “special interest” region is to be governed has yet to be promulgated.
Researcher Sara Lister suggests that even in those districts that had remained under Oromia administration (Region 4) after 1994, into which the Borana had been squeezed, the Gabra Miigoo have generally been well-treated by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in order to create a counterforce to the Borana, and have benefited from increased numbers of political positions.
The 1995 and 2000 regional and federal elections, and the 2001 Woreda (district) and Kebele (ward) elections were held without any opposition figures running, with the result that all political representatives and administrators were simply “appointed” by the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) through an internal party process. A few Borana with a low level of education who were affiliated with OPDO managed to get some political positions, mainly at the lower district level (Woreda).
The Ethiopian constitution grants the Oromia region “special interest” status because the city of Addis Ababa is an enclave in Oromia.
By 1995, the Maareexan seemed to have fallen out of sympathy with the EPRDF. In 1998, the pastoral component of the Maareexan gave up Somali territorial claims in the Liiban District of Region 4 and recognized the Borana traditional system of resource management. They slowly re-established themselves in pastoral life.
The Gabra Miigoo retained their Oromo identity and aligned with the OPDO, the Oromo branch of the EPRDF. As mentioned, the Gabra pastoralists slowly re-built their relations with the Borana pastoralists by revitalizing their customary leadership and Yaa’a.
In the spring of 1991, the EPRDF, a Tigrayan-led coalition of rebel organizations under the leadership of Meles Zenawi, began to achieve real successes and defeated the Ethiopian army, forcing military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who had ruled the country since 1994, to flee the country. In the midst of cease-fire talks, EPRDF tanks entered Addis Ababa virtually unchallenged and a transition government was formed soon after, with Meles Zenawi as its president. In July, a new democratic constitution was drafted, and Eritrean independence was acknowledged without incident.
Formed in 1974, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was the first major Oromo political party. However, it was overshadowed by the ruling EPRDF coalition member, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) created by Meles Zenawi. Seeking self-determination for the Oromo people, the OLF pulled out of the interim government with the EPRDF in 1992.
Reality dawned on the Oromia nation as soon as the TPLF leader, Meles Zenawi, ascended to power. The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was proclaimed, the EPRDF was swept to power in poorly contested, sham elections in August 1995, and Zenawi became Ethiopia’s first prime minister. The TPLF dominated the EPRDF ruling alliance. The Tigrayan minority dominated the senior ranks of government and the TPLF promulgated a series of laws crippling the opposition, ethnic-cleansing the Oromos and Amharas, muzzling the media and shackling civil society.
The reality is that the TPLF faced the united opposition of almost all Ethiopian nationalities. This is because, in the nearly three decades that it was in power (1991-2018), the organization had a dismal record of governance and gross violations of human rights
The political emancipation of the Oromo and the ignominious defeat of Tigray/TPLF and their apologists in Ethiopia is a culmination of many years of struggle and sacrifice. Tens of thousands paid the ultimate prize while many others were arrested, liquidated, maimed, or displaced throughout Oromia.
The Oromia region has 21 districts, also called Aanaale or Woreda. The district is the third level of the administrative units of Ethiopia after the zones and the regional states. All the clusters of Oromo groups, which are a combination of the two confederacies, Borana Oromo and Barentu Oromo, contributed to the triumph over Tigrayan oppressors. In particular, the Borana who occupy the Borena zone of southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya that stretches to the Tana Delta off the coast, contributed significantly to this struggle.
The reality is that the TPLF faced the united opposition of almost all Ethiopian nationalities.
The Tigray regime’s sunset days were characterized by politically instigated ethnic clashes and the massacre of Oromos in Nagelle, Udat, Borbor, Moyale, Bale and Hararge. Consequently, over one million Oromos, among them thousands of Boranas, were displaced. Losses from similar sporadic ethnic clashes, where the Tigray government openly sided with opponents, cannot be quantified.
The initial shock came with the cold-blooded murder of the legendary former governor of the Borana region in Ethiopia, Jatani Ali Tandhu, by TPLF operatives in a Nairobi Hotel on 2 July 1992. Former Saku Member of Parliament Jillo Falana reported that two assassins were holed up in the Ethiopian Embassy in Nairobi. The two men accused of killing Jatani were arrested, tried in the Kenyan courts and released under unclear circumstances. On 3 April 1996, Hussein Sora, the lawyer handling the Jattani case at the time, was also murdered. In April 1994, the Supreme Leader of the Borana, Boruu Guyyoo Boruu, was assassinated shortly after attending a peace meeting arbitrated by the TPLF. The assassination created differences and distance between the Borana customary leadership and the EPRDF officials.
By 1995, the Borana had been excluded from institutional politics and had lost important seasonal rangelands in Liiban and crucial water and pasture resources in Dirree.
Killings of Oromos were reported in the 1996 Kenya Human Rights Commission Report and in Oromo Commentary (1997). Other lists of the Oromo who were either killed or disappeared under the brutal TPLF regime appeared in Madda Walaabuu Press on 5 June 2018. Several Oromo refugees who sought asylum in Kenya under UNHCR protection were arbitrarily arrested and deported to Ethiopia on suspicion of being members of the OLF. “These recurring incidents have convinced many Boran leaders in Kenya that the Ethiopian agents are after the elimination of Borans both in Kenya and Ethiopia,” stated Oromia online.
There is no question that all the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia suffered under the TPLF dictatorship. However, the intensity of oppression experienced by the Oromia nation was exceptional in that the regime was bent on neutralizing Oromia’s vast human and natural resources and its centrally located landmass that shares boundaries with almost all the nations and nationalities of Ethiopia. This exceptional subjugation of the Oromo demands an exceptional solution if it is to end.
Oromos who fled repression internationalised the Oromo struggle through massive demonstrations in various countries. In particular, the Oromo Olympian, Fayissa Lelissa became an international icon of the Oromo liberation movement, catapulting the Oromo struggle to the global arena with a simple symbolic sign of Oromo resistance as he approached the finishing line.
Oromo musicians have kept the fire burning during the high and low moments of the struggle. Oromo professionals have changed the toxic TPLF narrative and provided guidance. Oromo religious leaders have been steadfast in their prayers. This recognition of the impact of the Oromo diaspora would be incomplete without the mention of Jawar Mohamed and the Oromia Media Network, and Hamza Borana and Radio Daandii Haqaa (RDH) both of which have provided visibility and galvanised the struggle through sustained strategic communication. Sadly, both Jawar and Hamza Borana are now behind bars in Addis Ababa.
The Boranas rejected TPLF adventurism in favour of the Oromo Liberation Front. Consequently, for 27 years, the Borana endured state-sponsored terrorism (admitted by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in the Ethiopian Parliament in 2018). Their oppression left a scar on all Borana leaders, individuals, and institutions. Everyone suffered, especially those kin at the frontline in Ethiopia and in Moyale, Sololo, Marsabit and Isiolo in Kenya, and in the entire Waso belt, Sololo, Moyale, Saku, Waso, southern Ethiopia and in the diaspora.
There is no question that all the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia suffered under the TPLF dictatorship.
The TPLF regime and their surrogates sought to disempower the Borana in all their dimensions including in politics, the economy, culture and security, and punished them by annexing their land, in particular the Wayama belt, which was grafted onto Region 5 of Somalia, a tactic to create a protracted and perpetual war in southern Ethiopia. The losses cannot be quantified.
The Borana made this great sacrifice out of their fervent desire to uphold and protect the overarching interests and heritage of the Oromo people. Borana leaders, elders and individuals of goodwill provided open and public diplomacy for the Oromo national liberation struggle. One example is the meeting between Gen. Hussein Mohamed Farah Aideed and the Borana leadership organized by the late Hussein Sora and Waso leaders from Isiolo. General Aideed, who was on an official visit, met elders from Moyale, Sololo, Marsabit, and Isiolo. It was a cordial meeting during which the Borana elders requested Gen Aideed to support the OLF. Gen Aideed, and later his son Hussein Aideed, established rear bases for the OLF in central and lower Shabelle in Somalia near the Indian Ocean port of Merca. These bases were the target of the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in December 2006.
Boranas have therefore been at the forefront of the Oromo national liberation struggle. The next step is to now join their compatriots in consolidating the struggle by seeking comprehensive redress for the historical injustices manufactured by the TPLF, especially the territorial disputes concerning the Wayama belt that was annexed by the TPLF regime. This will put an end to the perennial conflict in that zone and sustain peacebuilding between Oromia and Region 5. The resolution of Borana grievances should be led and owned by a committee of Ethiopian Boranas with the tacit support of Kenyan Boranas.