Oduu Haaraya

Arsii Oromo Political and Military Resistance Against the Shoan Colonial Conquest (1881-6)

The following article is excerpted from Journal of Oromo Studies, Volume II, 1995 by Professor Abbas Haji. It is important political and educational article to read along with the articles by Professor Mekuria Bulcha and Obbo Ibsaa Guutamaa. You can find the articles by Prof. Mekuria Bulcha and Obbo Ibsaa Guutamaa on Gadaa.com.  I specially encourage those in the camp of ‘democratization’ of Ethiopian empire to read these articles.

Thank you,

Leenjiso Horo

Arsii Oromo Political and Military Resistance Against the Shoan Colonial Conquest (1881-6)

         By Abbas Haji, PhD***

“. . .They restored and enlarged the old kingdom of Shoa. But it was not the same kingdom. It was larger, and because the Galla were too numerous to be exterminated or expelled, they had to be incorporated.”

M. Perham


Perham’s (1969) statement above, which has become classic, reflects the prevailing conception of traditional historiography on which much of modem official imperial history is founded, deliberately or not, confuses restoration with colonial conquest, and colonization with internal (civil) war. This imperial ideology is based on the myth of three thousand years of history that Ethiopia was always united, that the whole of Eastern Africa belonged to Abyssinia, and that the peoples who inhabited these regions were their subjects. In fact, it was the Oromo (or their country) who were most affected by this myth as Menelik claimed the “country all the way south to Mombassa” which seems to have corresponded to some Amhara legends of Oromo’s country of origin.

It was on the basis of this false assumption that Menelik wrote the famous circular of 1891 to claim “historic territory” and colonial power status in the “Scramble for Africa” although no one, neither politicians nor scholars took this conjectural letter seriously at that time. It was for the same reason that some imperial ideologists considered other nations and nationalities in the country, the Oromo in particular, as “outsiders”. The invention of “strangers” and “subjects” was nothing more than a continuation (prolongation) of ancient legends, myths and pseudo- historical traditions about Oromo origin, including the name “Galla” as they were fabricated and developed by the clergy for politico-ideological gains. This gave rise to a widely accepted notion and distorted image of the Oromo society, even among some academic circles who depended on (or were influenced by) these sources. On their part, some scholars belonging to such circles contributed to the development of ethnocentric conception of history and scholarship as the following terms of Professor E. Ullendorf indicate: “The Galla had nothing to contribute to the civilization of Ethiopia, they possessed no material culture or intellectual culture, and their social organization was at a far lower stage of development than of the population among whom they settled”.

According to Perham, who uncritically took up the official myth, the destiny reserved for the Oromo was extermination or expulsion. This implied that the Oromo were emigres, and it was in the face of the incapacity of the Abyssinian state to entirely exterminate or expel them that they had to be incorporated. In this context, it was a matter of cultural as well political and territorial incorporation. The conquered peoples were denied their identity, culture, and history. What Perham wrote was taken up by some of her followers who tried to develop the same point differently in order to advocate, in one way or another, assimilation. In so doing, they provided ideological support for the imperial regime and the modem politico-intellectual elite who always claimed that they were building a nation.

Not only did they make superficial comparisons between the social organization of the peoples forming the empire which led them to establish a hierarchy of culture and psychology, but they also came up with a crude idea to justify the domination by one ethnic group over others, leading to the subordination of different cultures to chosen imperial codes. The classification of cultures implies explicitly or implicitly the acceptance of assimilation. Furthermore, the philosophical root of assimilation, although the term may have various meanings depending upon the context, is closely related to the concept of hierarchy of cultures: there are “higher” and “lower” or “weak” and “strong” cultures. Others consider imperial domination and the destruction of identities of nations and nationalities as a process of “nation- building”, an euphemistic term for assimilation?. The paradox is, however, that they claim that Ethiopia is an empire in the formal sense of the term”, and at the same time justify or forecast the advent of coherent nation-state from a multinational empire based on the single “ethnic core,” the Amhara identity.

If Abyssinia, with its Christian state on the northern plateau, has a long and continual history of many centuries, then modem Ethiopia which is three or four times bigger than traditional Abyssinia with its borders and its tens of nations, nationalities and peoples, came into being as a result of brutal military conquest which was facilitated by the collusion of interests between European imperialism and internal Shoan colonialism during the second half of the last century. Here our major thrust is not to discuss the themes we raised, but rather to examine the process of Shoan colonial expansion which started in the first half of the last century, with the conquest of a great majority of the Tulama. The Oromo conquest and incorporation was accomplished by the Abyssinian state under Menelik during the last quarter of the 19th century.

This particular study is dedicated to the resistance of the Arsii Oromo against Shoan colonialism in the 1880s. This war of conquest and the local Arsii resistance were of vital historical importance for the following reasons. First, it represented one of the most bitter anti-colonial struggles in the Horn of Africa. The long years it took and the human and material losses it provoked largely exceeded that of Adwa which was fought between Ethiopia and Italy. It even led to atrocities and mutilations which none of the contemporary European colonial powers practiced in the Horn of Africa. Second, from Oromo historical point of view, the massive mobilization and fierce resistance clearly indicate higher organizational and military capacities of the traditional Oromo society under its socio-political system, namely the Gadaa. Third, the failure of Menelik’s force to defeat the Arsii for more than five years reinforces the thesis that without the collusion of the Shoan and Italian colonial policies and without the encouragement or understanding of other colonial powers, Menelik would not have won the war nor would he have been in a position to dominate the south in general and the Oromo, in particular. Moreover, Arsii resistance has turned out to be instructive in the sense that when and where the Oromo groups avoided internal conflicts and remained united, they did not lose any war against their adversaries and they were a hard nut to crack. It is worth to compare the Arsii with the Tulama who became weak through internal wars and were used one against the other, and then against other peoples in the south by the Shoan kings.

Last, but not least, the sacrifice of tens of thousands of fighters and martyrs in defense of their dignity and freedom seems to have become a rallying point, a symbol of ancestral struggle against domination and a source of inspiration in the quest for the political identity of the Oromo nation. We will, therefore, see how and why the Arsii managed to resist for such a long period by taking into consideration the social organization and the conception of war in Oromo society. We will briefly analyze the quality of military and political leadership of the resistance through three important leaders. Finally, we will briefly examine the major war engagements, their effects on Oromo society and the carnage perpetrated by the Shoan state, as well as Arsii memorable victories.

Origins of Arsii Strength

One has to ask why and how the Arsii succeeded in mobilizing such a large fighting force for many years and successfully resisted Menelik who easily defeated Italy in a single battle? A variety of factors, in fact, were involved. The first had to do with their unquestionable demographic strength. The extension of Arsii territory and the number of the people who belonged to the Arsii social universe was more important than one could imagine. For the Amhara and foreign observers, the Arsii had been reduced to the smallest province between the Awash and the ShabaleRiver in Ethiopia. But actually, the Arsii constituted the largest single branch of the Oromo nation which comprise a good half of the Ethiopian population, and above all the largest national group in east Africa covering practically the whole territory between the Tulama and the Somali, i.e., a large part of the Rift Valley up to the Guraghe country, around Shashemene and Awassa area, the Arsii-Bale regions, western Hararghe and eastern Sidamo. It is not surprising, therefore, that they managed to raise between 100,000 and 1,000,000 fighters against the colonizing force according to some sources.

The second important factor which enabled the Arsii to put up armed resistance to a degree unknown among the conquered societies of the south, was their remarkable internal peace and unity. Like their neighbors, the Borana, the Arsii did not wage internal war. They even claim that once upon a time, they were not supposed to kill another Oromo, the Guji or Karayyu, etc, since their ancestors took a Kaka Oromoo (Oromo oath) not to kill each other. This important fact, however, was forgotten with the test of time. So, in fact, periodic fighting with their neighbors had been frequent and some time bloody. Internal Arsii conflicts, however serious they may have been, never led to war and military confrontation, nor to retaliatory measures; they always settled their conflicts through arbitration and reconciliation even up to the present day.

The Arsii were divided into two relatively localized sociological, but non matrimonial moieties which in turn were sub-divided into named and politically independent Gossa. All these Gossa, both of “pure” Oromo origin (Arsii) and the “Hadiya,” the adopted pre-Oromo population during the Oromo migration and the subsequent centuries claim that they descended from the same mythical founding father (Arsii). Beyond this myth of common descent, all these Gossa, except the Qaallu and the clans called Miisee who observed strict matrimonial interdiction, are tied to each other by a complex web of marriage alliances. In brief, they saw each other as kinsmen or allied; the absence of internal armed hostility was a key factor in their confrontation with Menelik and his predecessors.

On the other hand, where the Oromo were divided, they were easily used one against the other, as in the case of the Tulama who became an instrument of Shoan expansionism by enrolling as soldiers and military commanders, the best known being Gobana. On this point, one could quote a Shoan source itself:

“The Galla of Galan and the Abichu fought for seven years and every time the Galan were the victors. The war began to be of a great interest to Sahle Selassie. He allied himself with the Abichu and gave them support. By siding with the Abichu he subjugated the Galan, Gidda, Wabari, Galan, Ilamu, Aga, Gerru, Wayyu, Salale…”

The same author concluded, “The internal war of the Tulama weakened the Galla and strengthened the power of Amhara”. One of the unknown aspects of the Arsii struggle was their clear understanding of this policy of divide-and-rule as it was adopted by the Amhara at early stage and their quest for pan-solidarity beyond their social universe. Naturally, the most concerned by this pressing call were the Tulama clans who enrolled in Ras Darghe’s army who ruthlessly suppressed the fierce resistance of the Salale before becoming the butcher of the South. So they called upon Salale soldiers to desert him and to fight together against their common enemy, the Amhara. But it was unlikely that this desperate call for alliance and solidarity would be accepted, partly because most of the combatants in the Shoan army used to be recruited by force from the defeated Tulama clans. In effect, the Shoan authorities forced every defeated group (clan) to raise a contingent of fighters, in the form of tribute which were used against other Oromos. Secondly, the booty from the south and the promised reward in land after the conquest might have appeared more attractive than the claim of “common descent and common culture.” Likewise, Ras Gobana’s name was very popular among the Arsii who sang in his praise and asked him to stand by them instead of the Amhara by reminding him his origin. At one point they naively believed that he would arrive and rescue them. What they did not understand was that Gobana, whom they called Gobe, had already made his choice and embraced the Shoan cause. So, they were forced to count upon themselves, although some Guraghe, the Chaha under their leader known as Bachi Sabo, were said to have fought with the Arsii against Ras Darghe.

During the conquest of their country in the second quarter of the last century, the Arsii did not develop another form of political authority other than the Gadaa which functioned according to its own logic and ideals. The Gadaa, of course, was not a centralized system and there were many independent Gadaa areas. However, in spite of this apparent fragmentation, the Gadaa provided a very important pole of interaction and cohesion for the Arsii society. In effect, there was an institutional mechanism bringing these Gadaa centers together according to a fixed calendar, ideally every eight years, at Chaffe (traditional parliament and a very important laboratory of Oromo Democracy) where important decisions concerning political and cultural life were taken legislation, amendments of laws, administration of justice, etc.).

To the Chaffe, one has to add the institutional pilgrimage (Muuda) every eight years to a common religious head (priest) in Bale, Dallo, undertaken by the delegates of the outgoing Gadaa class and Gossa representatives (Jila). The Qaallu institution and its head as the guardian of tradition and values remained the symbol of their unity, identity, and peace in particular, whereas the Gadaa-Chaffe guaranteed the process of democratic representation-participation in political life and the harmonious functioning of Oromo society. Finally, the Arsii had another institutional mechanism called qitte (democratic assembly) where the members of the same Gossa or different Gossa gathered, discussed and decided by consensus on issues of common interest. For instance, during an emergency, in this case during a war, it was the qitte (assembly) which decided on the common stand of all Arsii Gossa. All this would suggest that Menelik and his predecessors faced in the Arsii a formidable and united fighting force.

Last but not least was the conception of war and the place it occupied in the social organization of Oromo society. The Oromo are said to have been warriors par excellence and the Arsii cannot be an exception. In particular, the latter were reputed to be formidable combatants and, perhaps, that was why they used to be known under the name of Waranticha (the Warriors). Bahrey himself called them Waranticha in his genealogy of the Oromo and considered them as the fifth descendant of Barentu (Eastern Oromo). The warrior nature of their society won them, therefore, the respect of their immediate neighbors including other Oromo groups like the Borana, themselves distinguished fighters.

All observers of the Oromo underlined the vigorous nature of the Oromo, and even after the dramatic transformation of their institution at the end of the last century, the warrior ideology persists until the present day. The following observation of P. Baxter could be applied every where in the Oromoland:

“Men are constantly compared to bulls and lions in praise. Conversely, to be called a bullock is the ultimate insult. To kill an enemy, lion or elephant is the aim of every young man and was formerly an essential and still is a frequent, preliminary to a respectable marriage which is the first step towards formal recognition as social adult”.

This was possible partly due to the Gadaa system and partly because of the prevailing competition of prestige between Gossa and individuals in the domain of war. Except for the Qaallu who do not belong to the Gadaa system, all Oromo were organized under the Gadaa where male children were initiated, and passed through different and successive Every eight years and recruited for ritual, military and political responsibility according to their biological age and generational model (afurtama abbaa-40 years that separate the father and his son in the Gadaa cycle). In particular, before assuming politico-judicial responsibilities, the age-set between 16-24 and 24-32 were expected to distinguish themselves militarily as junior and superior warriors, respectively and transmit memorable victories to the future generations. The transition from 4th to 5th grade was marked by a grandiose ceremony in which war would become a ritual obligation for the Gadaa classes and successful warriors celebrated these rites of passage with special honors and continued to enjoy great prestige when they were in office, throughout their lives, and even after death.

The second factor which contributed to the preservation of warrior ideology was the custom of Farsa (praise) and Geerarsa (war songs). This was an institutional mechanism whereby a hero sang of his exploits and successes in public gatherings, particularly where different Gossa met. In the absence of the hero or for dead heroes (ancestors), it was the duty of their kinsmen or descendants to repeat hymns and praise in their glory:

“Through Farsa songs, eloquent heroes found their poetical expression, which set members of their tribes aflame with pride. Through these powerful songs the dead heroes of the nation were reincarnated and the living heroes were elevated to a higher plane; bravery was almost worshipped as a religion”.

For example, when a member of a given Gossa repeated his Farsa (praise), a member of another Gossa had to respond by praising the achievements of his kinsmen both living or dead. Otherwise he would feel inferior in status and prestige. It is not impossible to evoke heroes from the mother’s side. The Gossa with prestigious past were more respected than others and their descendants tried to maintain this reputation. Like the men, women were imbued with the warrior ideology; they sang on the occasion of different ceremonies in praise of heroes or to ridicule men reputed to be cowards.

One can say, therefore, that the objective of war among the Oromo was above all, a search for glory and fame, and the transmission of their honorable name for future generations although material gains from the war cannot be excluded. The attempt of every generation was not only to keep up the distinguished names of their ancestors, but to do better and to add a chapter to the collective memory of the Gossa. Perhaps, it is in this perspective that one can appreciate the chronology and tempos of early population movements and particularly those the 16th century, according to successive Gadaa grade.

In brief, every male child was prepared for war and confrontation with enemies when and where necessary. Nevertheless, peace remained a pervasive concept which was repeated in all rituals, including those of Gadaa and Muuda. In some cases, war was imposed whenever there was no alternative except killing and dying to protect one’s dignity, freedom, family, and property. The classical example of an imposed war was the Shoan war of colonization, which this article will analyze in more detail.

 Arsii Political and Military Leadership of the Struggle

As we indicated earlier, the Arsii were internally divided into many Gossa who were at peace with each other, but presented themselves to others as one man. For instance, Shoan authorities did not talk of particular Gossa, but the Arsii at large, even when their expedition and raids were launched against a specific territory of a Gossa. Moreover, Arsii reaction to external aggression was always collective and united. The attack directed against one of the Gossa did not remain unpunished. So, demographically weak Gossa felt security during period of crises since others would arrive to their rescue. In consequence, the Arsii did not need to conclude special terms of alliance to help those who were attacked by enemies; collective responses to external aggression appeared to be an informal moral and social contract. This was what happened from the rise of the Shoan kingdom and its colonial expansionism towards the south, beginning in the first half of the 19th century.

After the complete or partial defeat of the Tulama, the next target of colonial expansion of the Amhara towards the south was the Arsii country. As opposed to their neighbors to the north, the raiding, let alone conquering of the Arsii was not an easy ideal. Hence, the first attempt of Haile Malakot was doomed to failure, as Asma Giyorgis notes: “In the fourth year of his reign, he (Haile Malakot) led an expedition to Arsii. They (the Arsii) fought him hard and repelled him. He could neither kill nor take booty but saved himself”.

Other similar attempts failed and Shoan generals and kings, including Menelik, underwent humiliating and shattering defeats and were forced to retreat empty-handed. The important point to be underlined was that the Arsii did not recognize Abyssinian pretensions to rule, nor their myth of Solomonic dynasty. According to Qeransso Baade, one of my principal informants, Menelik and his predecessors were seen as vulgar cattle thieves whom the Arsii chased from their land. The way Menelik led campaigns against the Arsii until the middle of 1880s seemed to have been aimed at capturing booty and cattle rather than permanent occupation. Every time Menelik came to Arsii, he remained for some days or weeks, depending on the rapidity and the magnitude of Arsii mobilization. He lost every battle, although he managed to capture vast numbers of cattle at other times he was chased out without booty.

At that time, and even up to now in some areas, the Arsii were predominantly pastoralists where cattle had a tremendous social, symbolic, and economic importance. For the Arsii, the cattle represented dignity, a source of pride and prestige. So massive mobilization against the cattle plunderers was understandable; no one including the women were ready to see the fruits of their labor, over decades and some times over generations, stolen from them.

After many skirmishes on the Arsii border, the Shoan war of colonization was launched in the first month of 1882, under the leadership of Menelik. He made surprise attacks, killed many people and captured a considerable amount of booty. On that occasion, isolated Gossa resistance did not prove to be effective and Menelik tried to advance further south by sending to Shoa the booty already captured. After a couple of weeks Menelik saw the massive mobilization of the Arsii and promptly interrupted the campaign; he was pursued until he completely left the Arsii territory. From this confrontation, the Arsii realized that the force of their enemy was more important than what they imagined – hattuu loonii “cattle looters”- and were forced to form a strong coalition to better organize and coordinate the struggle.

Apparently Menelik went to war against the Arsii without giving the famous “terms of peace” which were supposed to be given to the subject people in accordance with the principle of Feteha Nagast partly because he might have underestimated the capacity of the Arsii to defend themselves and partly because the war would bring more booty than a fixed tribute imposed on an autonomous king or chief. Perhaps that was why Sahle Selassie, his grandfather and who largely initiated the conquest and harsh policies against the Oromo, plundered at least three times a year before accepting the submission of the Tulama clans.

Nevertheless, Menelik did not take time to change this policy after he saw the Arsii fighters in action during his campaign of 1882, which was a partial failure. He invited Arsii representatives to Finfine to give the “terms of peace,” and local autonomy in exchange of submissions”. The Arsii, not having a king nor a paramount chief, democratically elected two of their prominent leaders known for their intelligence and eloquence. Suffa Kuso and Damo Uso represented all the Arsii before Menelik, but they were not given a mandate to negotiate on the question of independence. Menelik proposed peace and autonomy if they agreed to submit, recognized him as their king and paid a fixed tribute. Naturally this condition was unacceptable, but they were not in a position to refuse categorically for they were at the palace of their host, Menelik. So they informed the latter that they needed time to consult the people on the issue; they argued “according to the custom the chief(s) cannot decide alone on such important issues such as submission, war and peace.” Menelik agreed and the delegates went back home. They convened a general assembly (qitte as it is called in Arsii) attended by thousands of elders and delegates, who came from every corner of the Arsii country, to convey the message and what they saw. After a long and acrimonious debate, the participants unanimously decided to fight against the invaders together as one man. At the same time, peripheral Gossa susceptible to be attacked and plundered were given assurances that the whole Arsii would stand by them.

Moreover, the Arsii discussed the possibility of coordinating the three coalitions which were to play a very important role during a series of battles although they did not form a strong centralized command structure which would have rendered this immense coalition more effective and above all durable. The Arsii might have believed that they would win the war and they were prepared for the struggle. The readiness of every man and Gossa for the combat raises another question about leadership: how did the Arsii principal leaders react to the new situation? Needless to say the quality of leadership becomes central and even crucial in such a war, although the merit of victory — or making history in general — goes to the people (actors). In the case of the Arsii, to choose a handful leaders appears to have been a risky business since there was no a single commander or a chief in this bitter struggle. Secondly, to concentrate on one war leader would appear to prejudice the role and contribution of tens of Abba Duula who fell or were mutilated fighting the enemy in every corner of their country. For comparative reasons, we will briefly analyze three names, the best known during and just after the war.

1.  Suufaa Kuso

All Arsii leaders, like all their men, were undoubtedly committed to the war of resistance. Their concrete contribution to the struggle, however, varied. This implied that they did not leave the same impact or enjoy the same prestige among Arsii society. Perhaps, of all the Arsii eminent personalities, the greatest loser was Suufaa Kuso. On the eve of the war, Suufaa was the best known and most brilliant (political) orator in most parts of the present Arsii administrative region. His knowledge of laws and rhetoric, his extraordinary capacity to convince his interlocutor and his experience as an unparalleled negotiator made him a very serious candidate to represent the Arsii before Menelik. According to local tradition, he even easily outsmarted Menelik. In fact, Suufaa Kuso, with his colleague, Dammu Usu, apparently more radical than Suufaa in opposition against Menelik, did not compromise over their independence and formally decided to resist against Shoan colonialism.

As a charismatic person, Suufkaa’s leadership was expected by his people. However, no sooner had the war began than Suufaa disappeared from the political scene for reasons that remain unexplained. Was he more inclined to surrender than resistance? Was he attracted partly by Menelik’s promised autonomy and partly because the Arsii were poorly armed to defend themselves against their enemy? Whatever the motives for his reluctance to resist, he was not in a position to persuade the Arsii not to go to war. Perhaps, no argument would have prevented them from doing so, when they felt strong and were ready to fight against the invaders. Suufaa was unable to prepare and coordinate them for the struggle either. In brief, his political and military role during this crucial period of history appears to be insignificant if one compares it to his popularity and audience in Chilalo. He seems to have lacked the courage to adopt a clear stand, although he formally pledged himself to resist.

Nevertheless, Suufaa never betrayed the cause of his people, nor collaborated with the enemy in any way. At the height of the 1886 war when the Shoan army massacred the Arsii massively and indiscriminately, he submitted to Menelik. He expected that he would be followed by the Arsii Gossa, who had not yet renounced the struggle. He launched his campaign of explanations in favor of submission. His lack of motivation during the war and premature surrender when Arsii warriors were falling in every corner of the country was still considered by many people as an unpardonable crime. In the end, on the occasion of one of his tours in Dide’a to convince the fighters to stop hostilities, he was simply killed by members of the Kasheda clan hostile to the idea of submission. His assassination was resented, however, by many of the Arsii, and particularly by his admirers in Chilalo who lost in the same year (1886) the war, their independence and one of their prominent leaders.

2. Leenjiso Diiga

The second and the most important leader of the Arsii struggle was Leenjiso Diiga. As we said earlier, Arsii resistance cannot be reduced to the actions and role of one man or a few men; it was rather a collective and popular anti-colonial war. But if any individual personified the struggle, it was Leenjiso Diiga, a quasi mythical figure among the Arsii. Leenjiso belonged to the Koloba clan who formed a confederation of Gossa known under the name of Jidda. He was from a humble family; he was said to have experienced a hard life when he was young; he lost his father in his early childhood and his uncle who was responsible for the family of his deceased brother by custom, did not take care of him as he should have done. So, having a strong personality and character Leenjiso moved to his maternal Gossa (Abeeta,)-i.e., he abandoned his patrilocal residence — a practice rare among the Arsii, as men are born, grow up, get married, live and die among their fathers’ Gossa, given the patrilineal descent rules.

Then Leenjiso had to prove to his Gossa in general and to his uncle in particular, that he was a man who merited better treatment and consideration. He killed a lion as very young man, but refused to pronounce a Geerarsa glorifying his exploit until the Koloba would come. When the members of the Koloba arrived, Leenjiso uttered the following famous words in his Geerersa:

“Koloobni gadii gatee
Abeetni guddifatee
Waan boru biyyaa tayuu
Waan boru Arsii tayuu
Leenjoon ardhumaa mul’dhifatee.”

Which means:

“The Kolloba did not care of him
The Abeeta reared him up
What he will do tomorrow for the country
What he will do for the Arsii
Leenjiso showed it today.”

By so doing, Leenjiso attained two objectives. First, he won the sympathy and admiration of all Gossa of the region and proved that he a was a man of challenge (nama morkaa), one of the essential traits of his personality. Second, he prophetically confirmed that he was a potential leader who would serve the Arsii and the country in general. With the declaration of Shoan war of colonization in early 1880s, the time had come, therefore, for Leenjiso to prove, once again, that he was a man of challenge who can fulfill his promise to defend the Arsii against the invaders, a mission to which he dedicated his life. Of course, it was a time when tens of Arsii Gossa needed a true hero who by his name and action would unite them more than ever before. Thanks to his determination and military genius, Leenjiso was the right man to fill the void, (the absence of centralized political authority) and incarnate the struggle. One has to add that Leenjiso was not reputed to be a distinguished orator nor negotiator, but a warrior in the strict sense of the tern; this, in fact, corresponded better to the rebellious attitude of the Arsii combatants of the time.

Leenjiso spontaneously initiated the resistance in the early 1882 against Menelik’s highly organized campaign and forced him to retreat before arriving at the Chilalo mountain. This campaign had important consequences both for Menelik and the Arsii in the sense that the former realized that it was difficult to defeat the Arsii militarily and made the offer of peace, whereas the Arsii recognized the vulnerability of isolated Gossa resistance in the face of the enemy and formed three big coalitions or fronts including all Gossa claiming to be Arsii. It was from that coalition that the Front of Tchancho commanded by Leenjiso emerged. Tchancho is the collective name of Arsii Gossa inhabiting northern and eastern Arsii.

As Abba Duula of the Tchancho, Leenjiso confronted with the Shoan forces during the second campaign when he encircled them at Doddota, south of Awash, and annihilated Menelik’s soldiers after a fierce fighting and captured the Negarit, the royal drum. A fraction of his force pursued Menelik as far as Modjo who narrowly escaped death. The Negarit was taken to Burkunte around present day Dheera. The Arsii celebrated this remarkable victory, took an oath to continue the struggle up to the end, and Leenjiso became an undisputed leader (father) of Arsii resistance. From this time onwards, he dedicated his life to the struggle and at the head of determined fighters, he fought the enemy in most parts of the present Arsii region although his principal base was Doddota, where his usual strategic retreat. That was why the Amhara called it Doddota ya wond bota (Doddota place of men or heroes).

The second, but least known, strategy of Leenjiso and the Arsii was to get back their looted cattle and to force the conquering army to return home empty handed. The Shoans captured cattle by tens of thousands in every campaign, usually by surprise. Whenever they came back from southern and central Arsii with a huge booty, Leenjiso sent determined fighters who entered the camp during the night and created a terrifying noise using undressed skins tied on the back of untrained horses, which completely dispersed the cattle. Whenever they failed to prevent the capture of their animals, the Arsii got them back by these methods and forced the conquerors to leave their country empty handed. The 1884 campaign was confirmed by two contemporary accounts, although they did not give the details. For example, Asma Giyorgis wrote: “The Negus, however, led an expedition at the head of a small army against Arusi on 30 Tahsas. They retrieved the cattle he drove and forced him to leave in humiliation. He escaped the Arusi attacks with difficulties and came to Entoto”. On his part, H.Audon, who followed some of Menelik’s campaign against the Arsii from Menelik’s palace, underlined the failure of the 1884 expedition, the return of Menelik for the third time in humiliation without any booty and how his three generals lost half of their soldiers as well as their camping materials.

With the passage of time, Leenjiso became extremely popular throughout Arsiiland and as such symbolized the struggle for dignity and sovereignty. Conscious of this, Menelik and Ras Darghe deployed all means to find Leenjiso, to deprive the Arsii of his crucial leadership, but without success. “While he was there (in the Arsii country), news came that Leenjiso was at Dide’a and that he was looting and storing grain at Gelle. When an expedition was launched against him, he could not be found. This Leenjiso was the major head of the Arsii”. Paradoxically, according to one of my best informants, to kill or capture Menelik was also the obsession of Leenjiso and his force represented a real physical danger to Menelik who escaped with great difficulty, by miracle, on three occasions. If the capturing or killing of Menelik turned out to be an impossible ideal after 1886 when the Arsii lost the war, Leenjiso found consolation by personally killing Menelik’s representative, Fitawrari Wosane at Bollo, Dide’a. This happened after the end of the war when Leenjiso himself submitted to Menelik, partly because he did not have the means to continue the struggle after years of intense fighting and partly because the continuation of the war implied the continuation of an abominable crime of mutilation of women and children, introduced by Menelik’s forces as a method of pacification.

The submission of Leenjiso seemed to have heralded a complete Shoan victory and Menelik was said to have pardoned him for the only crime of which he was accused: to resist Menelik. There was an attempt to use his name to maintain the Arsii under the yoke of colonial order. But this proud man who was fully dedicated to the cause of the Arsii was incorruptible and was not susceptible to making shady deals with the conquerors; he did not want to see the injustice, the arrogance and cruelty of the Shoan soldiers to continue, and hence decided to organize what was to become the last coordinated revolt of the Arsii in the 1880s. He disarmed the Naftagna tactically at the Katama of Bollo, which the Arsii cavalry attacked by surprise and during the battle, Leenjiso personally killed Wosane, the governor, when he was in Chilot and the strategic camp (Katama) was completely devastated.

This achievement added tremendously to his popularity and reputation for bravery. Leenjiso, a man of humble origin, became not only an incomparable national hero, but also a mythical figure, a sort of reference to many fighters. For instance, what was considered as strong and extraordinary in human qualities were compared to Leenjiso. For instance, Ijaa Leenjiso (Leenjiso’s eyes), Harka Leenjiso (Leenjiso’s hand,) Qoonqa Leenjiso (Leenjeso’s voice), etc. All this mystification signified bravery and strength. After the death of Leenjiso, the Arsii lost the symbol of their pride, the father of their struggle and their hope to dislodge their colonizers. After and without him, the Arsii became “food eaters” — a term which sounds “ordinary men” — whose principal preoccupation became simply to assure their survival as one of the chiefs declared on the occasion of Leenjiso’s funerals:

“Waan akka Leenjiso homuu qabnee

Ka akka midhaan nyaatuu nuhuu hafnee”

Which means:

“No one is comparable to Leenjiso

As ordinary men we continue to live.”

This clearly shows the absence of charismatic leadership as most of the brilliant Arsii military leaders were killed during the war or systematically eliminated after the Shoan victory. To mention one example, Waqo Bororo, the famous leader of Raitu, who completely harassed Dejazmach W/ Gabriel’s battalion in Eastern Arsii, was hanged in Ghinir. This does not mean, however, their struggle was over with Leenjiso’s death. They continued to resist against injustice and domination by every means and whenever they could, although they had to wait for many decades to see their organized and durable uprisings, the most important one being that of Bale (1963-70). Leenjiso’s name and actions were not forgotten, either by the Arsii or the Naftagna descendants, as a symbol of their proud and public enemy number one of their ancestors, respectively. I was surprised when one of my Amhara informants recited some war songs in praise of Leenjiso Diiga.

3. Roba Butta

Another style of leadership during and after the war was represented by Roba Butta whose territory was located in the southern and southeastern part of the Arsii country, far from Shoa as compared to Leenjiso’s territory. Roba was said to have enjoyed a tremendous influence up to the present day Gobba. He was not a warrior nor a military commander as was Leenjiso. His true name was Goro Bubbe, but adopted the name Roba Butta, a mythical Arsii hero. Roba Butta was a shrewd politician who impressed his European visitors by his intelligence and his generosity. He met, among others, with Baron Erlanger and particularly Du Bourg de Bozas, a French traveler, who recorded most of his widely cited declarations. Roba was one of the rare Arsii leaders who understood, from these contacts, international politics and particularly the collusion of European interests and Shoan colonialism i.e., European sympathy for the Ethiopian empire. In other words, Roba realized that the Amhara dominated the Oromo because of their guns which they did not manufacture themselves. This, in fact, was the opinion of all European contemporary observers, “It is certain were the Ar(u)si armed with rifles they would be a hard nut for Menelik to crack” wrote Wellby. So, he attempted to have friends across the sea who would give or sell him rifles, without which the Oromo would not be in position to reconquer their dignity.

Naturally, when Menelik began to conquer the Arsii country, Roba refused to recognize Menelik’s authority and attempted some resistance. But he quickly realized that the Arsii force would be no match for the well-armed colonizing forces and decided to submit to save his country and people from devastation, without giving up, however, his hope to restart the fight whenever it was possible. But at that time, this political position was seen as treachery and he was considered as a dupe of Menelik by the Arsii, who were determined not to compromise with the enemy. What appeared paradoxical was that from that time, Roba was not officially at war against Menelik, but his men, the Arsii living in the country over which he claimed authority or influence never hesitated to come to the rescue of their compatriots in Dide’a, northern Arsii. Thus, one can argue that the direct involvement of Roba would not have modified the balance of force in favor of the Arsii.

By submitting, Roba aimed to exempt his country from pillage. For this autonomy, he annually paid to the Negus 100 beef cattle (sanga), 1000 goats, 1000 elephant musk, 900 talers and an immense contribution in kind, honey, butter, flour, etc. This policy was, in fact, to buy time and better organize his men, whom he called “my warriors of tomorrow” to fight against the occupying force. He critically analyzed the factors contributing to the defeat of the Arsii: lack of firearms and foreign aid (even though these were not the only ones) from which the Amhara had profited. It was for this reason that he attempted to obtain foreign support. He received nothing, however, except a collection of certificates of friendship, from his “European friends” who, nevertheless, did not hide their sympathy with his cause. He confided to Du Bourg de Bozas:

“I would like to attempt an adventure to have friends among the Frendjis (whites). I proposed an alliance with the one who came here before you (Baron Erlanger). But he did not agree . . . Even if the Frendjis wanted to help me, the time of revenge has not yet arrived. Because the Frendjis are far, they have interest elsewhere: they may forget Roba Butta. We have to count upon ourselves . . .The hour has not come, but it will come; perhaps, our children will see the departure of the oppressor”. (The translation is mine).

Roba Butta always hoped to rise again and become more resolute when the promised autonomy and fair treatment due to him as a peacefully submitted chief were not respected. He bitterly recounted: “I am the vassal of the Negus. I accepted this status freely. But, Menelik is not willing to consider me as a shum (official). Sometimes, however, I admit that my submission is inadmissible”. The frustration of Roba was that at the turn of this century he was getting older, (about 55 years), and the Arsii after their shattering defeats, massive extermination and mutilation in the 1880s and early 1890s were not prepared — in spite of their hostility and rebellious sentiment vis-à-vis their colonizers — to take arms. Finally, his endeavor to get rifles and foreign diplomatic support failed. In the end, Roba Butta’s autonomy was purely and simply abolished. The Naftagna successfully controlled the country and did not need his service or influence and he became a simple colonial subject, like millions of Oromo in Arsiiland and elsewhere in the country.

In brief, Roba and Leenjiso struggled each in his own way against colonization, injustice, and oppression in the interest of their people. The strategy of Leenjiso was above all not to let the enemy enter the Arsii country and he did all he could to resist. On the other hand, Roba Butta adopted a longer term strategy of liberation in order to better organize himself although he was the first to regret his gesture, his premature surrender, when he failed to attain his objective. What is remembered, however, is not so much Roba Butta’s diplomacy, but rather the popular Arsii resistance sustained by Leenjiso and other Arsii leaders against the conquerors and the tens of thousands of unknown soldiers and martyrs who died or were mutilated in defense of their dignity and liberty.

Note: This article is excerpted from Journal of Oromo Studies, Volume II, 1995. ***Abbas Haji, PhD and Professor of history.


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Bulchiinsa gabrummaa diddaaf wal’aansoon godhaamaa turte tan ifatti mul’atte, bara 1962.

Abbaa Urjii tiin: Hawaasa Oromoo kanneen bulchiinsa gabrummaa Minilik jalatti buluu diddaaf lolanii injifataman keeysaa …

One comment

  1. From this tangable history we can learn that a single clan of Oromo could have lead Oromo victory. To do that what all we need to do is upholding our unity and avoiding the culture of mistrusting one another the antrax from our enemy with in us. Think it twice do it once.