Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Population: 25.4 million (2007 National Census).
The Oromo community constitutes the largest ethnic group in the country, with some estimates suggesting they comprise between 25 and 40 per cent of the population. Though socially, economically and religiously diverse, Oromo are united by a shared language, also widely spoken in northern Kenya and parts of Somalia. Despite their large numbers, Oromo have suffered a long history of exclusion and forced assimilation by the Ethiopian government, leading to the decline of their pastoralist lifestyle.
Historically Oromo have never formed a single state but were organized in small societies of clans and villages. There are four main groups: western Oromo, mainly in ‘Wollegha’, many of whom have been Christianized by missionary churches; northern Oromo, of Mecha-Tulam, modern Shoa and the area to the south, who are more integrated into Amhara culture than other Oromo groups, are mostly Christians of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and speak Amharic; southern Oromo, who often have semi-nomadic lifestyles and are not incorporated into any larger regional or religious unit; and Borana, believed by some to be the seminal branch of the Oromo because of their rigid observance of the gada social system, and who live in an arid area of Ethiopia along the border with Kenya. Eastern Oromo of Haraghe include the Muslim population of Harar and Dire Dawa, among others. This group has strong links to the Arab world and its local leaders have a strong Muslim orientation. The term Oromia, signifying an independent Oromo state, is important to the Oromo allowing them to consolidate their various regional and related groups into one Oromo nation.
Oromo have a long history of oppression, land loss, and marginalization by the central government in Ethiopia, dating back more than a century. In the 1970s, this long discontent gave birth to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), initially a student organization that evolved into an armed resistance and political advocacy group dedicated to the promotion of Oromo self-determination. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the current ruling party in Ethiopia, was formed in January 1989 and an Oromo journal claims it set out to gain new recruits from captured Oromo conscripts who had been forced into the Derg’s army, to create the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). Most of the Oromo abroad and the intellectual leadership, in contrast, were pro-OLF. The extension of EPRDF control over Oromo territory during operations by the Ethiopian army in spring 1991 induced a negative response from the OLF, who feared a new colonization of Oromo land. Following the harassment and intimidation of its supporters ahead of 1992 parliamentary elections, the OLF took up arms. The rebellion was quickly subdued, but has continued to smoulder ever since. During the 1998-2000 border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea the OLF was allied with Asmara.
The OLF has competed with other militant organizations for popular support, including the Oromo People’s Liberation Front and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of the Oromo, sometimes generating intra-group violence.
The government has frequently pointed to OLF actions, or its mere existence, as reason enough to suppress the broader Oromo population. Accusations of terrorism have provided cover for the government to stifle political dissent. For example, in January 2004, government forces arrested 349 Oromo students in Addis Ababa during a protest for their right to stage an Oromo cultural event at the university. The Ethiopian Human Rights Council reported that the detainees were forced to march over gravel for hours, barefoot or on their knees. In the run-up to May 2005 parliamentary elections, government repression was especially harsh in Oromia, one of the opposition strongholds, including torture, arbitrary detentions, beatings and harassment by security forces.
Since then, the wider crackdown on political activists and journalists in Ethiopia has particularly affected those accused of supporting the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) or the OLF. In March 2011, for example, over 200 members of the Oromo Federal Democratic Movement (OFDM) and the Oromo People’s Congress (OPC) were arbitrarily arrested, and at least 89 were charged with various offences. Recent protests against government repression have similarly been met with violence.
An ongoing source of anger is the government’s proposed expansion of the capital city of Addis Ababa into the politically autonomous Oromia Region, which could lead to the displacement of thousands of Oromo farmers and remove the annexed territory from Oromo control. Reminiscent of earlier displacements of Oromo communities by the government, as well as forced resettlement of other communities into Oromo territory, the plan has provoked a series of protests by Oromo demonstrators, culminating in a student protest in December 2015 in which 10 people were killed and several hundred injured.
Oromo student protests over development plans for the capital city, Addis Ababa, have grown consistently since then. The protestors objected to plans by the government to annex lands held by Oromo farmers to expand the urban areas of the capital. In January 2016, in an apparent victory for protestors, the government announced it would cancel the controversial expansion plans. Despite this concession, the protests have continued and intensified. Ethiopian Oromo marathoner Feyisa Lilesa gained worldwide media coverage when he expressed solidarity with the Oromo protesters at the Rio Olympics after winning a silver medal. The government crackdown has led to ongoing human rights violations against the protesters and dozens of deaths.
Updated January 2018.