Oromo of Ethiopia

Alternative names: Galla (derogatory name rejected by Oromo)
Location: Southern, south-eastern, south-western Ethiopia and the Highlands; Oromo refugees have settled in Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya and Sudan
Population: about 18 million
% of population: nearly 50%
Religion: various
Language: Oromo (Oromifaa, Oromiffa, Galle)

The Oromo people are the largest ethnic grouping in Ethiopia, which has a total of 74 ethnically diverse language groups. About 95% are settled agriculturalists and nomadic pastoralists, practising archaic farming methods and living at subsistence level. A few live in the urban centres. They are dominated by the minority tribal group, the Amhara, who have controlled the country almost continually for the past 100 years, conducting their own colonialization policies, except for a short period, from 1936 to 1941, when Ethiopia was occupied by the Italians.

In the nineteenth century the Oromos’ land was forcefully annexed into Ethiopia by the Amhara emperor, Menelik II. The Oromo were also severely repressed by Amhara overlords: the majority reduced to tenancy, paying heavy tributes for the use of land; large numbers sold into slavery and thousands killed. Written Oromo texts were destroyed, education of Oromos was continued in Amharic and any social advance was only possible by way of assimilation into the dominant culture. The Oromo culture and religion were denigrated and viewed as inferior or “savage”, and Oromo cultural and religious shrines and places of worship were replaced by those of the Amhara ruling class. It was even forbidden to produce religious literature in the Oromo language. From 1936-41 the Italians occupied Ethiopia, but in 1941 the Amhara administration under Haile Selassie was restored by the British. There had been certain reforms of the unequal treatment of Oromo under Italian occupation, which included land reform, but now the tenancy system was reintroduced, and persisted until 1974 despite continual resistance by the Oromo.

In 1973 Oromo discontent with their position led to the formation of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which began political agitation in the Oromo areas. Also in 1973 there was a catastrophic famine in which over one quarter of a million people died from starvation before the government recognised the disaster and permitted relief measures. The majority who died were Oromos from Wollo, Afars and Tigrayans. There were strikes and demonstrations in Addis Ababa in 1974; and in February of that year, Haile Selassie’s government was replaced by the Dergue, a military junta (later renamed the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC)); but the Council was still Amhara-dominated, with only 25 non-Amhara members out of 125. In 1975 the government declared all rural land State-owned, and announced the end of the tenancy system. However, much of the benefit of this reform was counteracted by compulsive collectivization, State farms and forced resettlement programmes. Also in the Oromo regions 95% of the ex-landlords were Amhara, a proportion that was reflected in the police

Ethnic groups in Ethiopia

force and bureaucracy, so it was relatively easy for them to take revenge on the Oromo peasants for the loss of their land, and from March 1975 to April 1976 there were fierce battles between them. This insecurity and unrest continued into 1977 and 1978. For example, in 1978, according to an OLF report, there was looting and massacre, with 80,000 Oromo peasants killed by former armed Amhara landlords in Hargarie province alone.

By this stage liberation forces were conducting armed struggles in all parts of the country: Eritrea, Tigray, Addis Ababa, southern Bale and the Ogaden and, by the beginning of 1977, Ethiopian Somaliland. Freedom fighters were in full control of large areas. The government charged Oromo peasants with collaboration with the Western Somali Liberation Front. In 1978 the government formulated a resettlement programme. The PMAC planned to resettle three million northerners, mainly Amhara, in the south, which was mainly occupied by the Oromo. After the 1983-84 drought in the north, the government announced an acceleration in this resettlement programme, planning to resettle about 1.5 million people from north and central Ethiopia to the south and west by the end of 1985. Also, at the end of 1984 the government started a villagization programme in Hargarie province, where there is much OLF guerrilla activity, and by February 1986 three million people had been moved into centralized villages, facilitating political control of the region. In late 1985 the government launched a nationwide campaign with the aim of moving 25 million people into consolidated settlements by 1995, and in December 1988 Africa Confidential estimated that by the end of 1989 the villagization programme would have affected nearly 15 million people.

In 1987 the PMAC was abolished and Lt.-Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, chairman of the PMAC, was re-elected as Secretary-General of the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia. Continued war with Tigray and Eritrea and failure to reach a settlement with Eritrea led to an attempted coup by most of Mengistu’s senior generals in May 1989. In September 1989 peace talks between the government and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) began in the United States, although at present neither side seem prepared to compromise on the independence of Eritrea. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), linked with the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (EPDM), are attempting to offer a viable alternative to Mengistu’s government in their programme for an umbrella movement, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, in which OLF has shown interest.

Legal constitution

The People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, established on December 12, 1986, is “a unitary state consisting of administrative regions and autonomous regions based on worker-peasant co-operation”. The economy is centrally planned and purportedly based on socialist principles. The Workers’ Party of Ethiopia is the leading force. The National Assembly is elected by proportional representation (with reserved representation for various nationalities) and the Assembly elects the President. In 1987 the government declared an amendment to the Constitution referring to the villagization programme, which reads: “The State shall encourage the scattered rural population to aggregate in order to enable them to lead a better social life.” There was a similar statement in support of the resettlement programme.

Past and present developments

The 20-year Eritrea war has been very costly for the government and the Oromo people have suffered as a result. There are reports that taxes per capita were levied on the Oromo three years in advance, with imprisonment or threats of imprisonment if there was no compliance. It is also common for Oromo men to be abducted to serve in the army — there are about 10,000 urban families whose breadwinners have been victims of war and political oppression. The Oromo have also had to help provide agricultural products consumed by troops in Eritrea and elsewhere and in 1980 the government forced local people from Wollo and Gondar to work on state agricultural farms. According to government sources 1,626 people died in these camps, although other estimates are that 4,000-6,000 people died or were seriously ill.

After the Land Reform of 1975 the government declared that the land was to be controlled by local Peasant Associations. One report states that these have developed into Government controlled labour organizations, with local farmers obliged to work for the militia and collective farms for two to five days a week. As a result peasant harvests have declined by two-thirds to three-quarters since 1974. Many Oromo were displaced from their land to allow for the resettlement of armed Amharas from Shoe and Wollo provinces, so that the Oromos are left with no means of subsistence. There has been a succession of poor harvests as a result of drought (ORA Report). It is estimated that the number of displaced farmers reaches about 220,000. The Oromo were also forced to provide the new settlers with tools, furniture, food and even labour, while they themselves were frequently despised and denigrated by both the new arrivals and their camp officials.

By September 1987, eight million rural Ethiopians (about 20% of the total rural population) had been moved to centralized villages. Africa Confidential reported in December 1988 that in 1989 the government planned to collectivize nearly three million peasants into new centralized villages. This would bring the total to nearly 15 million, about 40% of the rural population. There is no conclusive evidence of forced removal of people, but the programme moves people away from arable land to areas on main roads which are easier to control politically, and there have been claims that these new settlements are in very poor condition. An eyewitness account in February 1988 states that in Gada Dissi in the Ghimbie region in western Ethiopia an estimated 1,500 people, the entire population of a new village centre, died from cold-related illnesses. There are reports of arrests, imprisonment and killing by the government of hundreds of Oromos because of their “unreliability”. Thousands of Oromo have fled to land inaccessible to the government or army, but they are subject to air raids; in March 1981 the military sprayed flammable chemicals over an Oromo populated valley in southern Ethiopia and jet fighters launched rockets and incendiary devices to light the chemicals. Over 2,000 Oromo were killed, and animals, buildings and crops were destroyed. Over 20,000 Oromo fled the area. Médecins sans Frontières claim that 15,000 refugees, forced resettlers and displaced locals, fled to the Sudan, and Cultural Survival estimate that over 600,000 Oromo have fled to neighbouring countries.

In 1982 the government offered alphabetization programmes in five languages, but reportedly 99% of the programmes are in Amharic. There is a compulsory alphabetization campaign in the school vacation during harvest time using pupils as teachers. This has been claimed as one of the causes of starvation in West Wollega. Educational discrimination has meant only a very small minority of Oromo have good jobs in skilled and professional fields. Less than 10% of Oromo children go to school, and all Ethiopian schools function in Amharic. In 1982 Cultural Survival reported that some refugees they dealt with had fled because they were wanted by the police for teaching Oromo in village schools. A separate report states that in the summer of 1978 Oromo people were afraid to talk in their language in Addis and in 1982 Cultural Survival noted that it was now illegal to speak Oromo for public purposes.


The main reasons for the flight of refugees, Oromo and other groups, are: Amharization; large-scale militia conscriptions with loss of strong labour leading to famine; heavy taxes to pay for the war; compulsory agricultural collectivization; displacement of indigenous non-Amharic populace in the south, east and west of the country in order to settle Amharas from the north; legal instability, arbitrary arrests, torture and religious persecution. Cultural Survival estimated in 1982 that more than half of the 2.5 million refugees from Ethiopia were Oromo.

Hundreds of thousands of Oromo refugees have sought refuge in Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, the Sudan — in the Blue Nile or Upper Nile provinces and also in urban areas — and the Middle East. The major settlement in Sudan is in the Blue Nile. In 1984 famine conditions developed in eastern Oromo regions, but little international aid has reached these areas. There were at least 15,000 Oromo in the Sudan Blue Nile province in 1986. They had mostly fled because of the Ethiopian resettlement programme. In 1984 60,000 new refugees entered Somalia, which had 35 camps with 600,000 to two million refugees; it is estimated that there are 20,000 in Djibouti, 15%-20% of whom are Oromos. By September 1984, 26,900 Ethiopians were repatriated from Djibouti, many unwillingly. There are also a few thousand refugees in Eritrea.

Other minority groups

When the government introduced its resettlement programme, the Anuak, Berta (Barta) and Komo people were also displaced from their traditional lands. The Anuak has an estimated population of 40,000-50,000. They were agriculturalists and fishermen in the fertile Gambelo region of Western Ethiopia, when, at the end of 1979, their land was seized by the government. There were also attempts to draft them into the army. The Anuak fled to the bush

1 Ironically, the alphabetization programme won the UNESCO prize in 1981.

in an attempt to reach Sudan. One report claims that the total Anuak population has halved from a generation ago.

The Berta had an estimated population of 50,000 in 1975. They comprise three language groups and are hoe cultivators of grain. Komo speakers had an estimated population of 7,000 in 1975. They practise family cultivation in Wollega and Illubabor.

(See also Eritreans; Tigrayans)