Oduu Haaraya


From the Forest Fires of 2000 to the Conflict over the AAMP in 2014 and Beyond

By Mekuria Bulcha, Ph.D.


Literature on social movements shows that student activism has been a catalyst in regime change in many countries around the world. In Asia and Latin America it had a significant role in the fall of many regimes. In the West, the anti-establishment student movements of the 1960s had significant effects on both national and global politics. The role of student movements in struggles against colonialism in Africa and Asia is also on record. In Ethiopia, a student movement, in the 1960s and early-1970s, was a catalyst for the revolution that led to the downfall of the Haile Selassie regime in 1974. It is common knowledge that Oromo students from high schools, colleges and universities have been expressing grievances and making peaceful demands on behalf of their people, and that the response of the Ethiopian regime has been violent during the last fifteen years. Although the conflict between them has persisted for more than a decade and half, a holistic picture that shows the complexity of the issues which constitute the demands of the Oromo students and the psychology of domination and fear that underpin the repressive responses of the leaders of the TPLF-led regime to the student demands is lacking.[1] This article attempts to fill the gap.

As indicated in the title of the article, the forest fires of 2000 and the AAMP of 2014 are two of the most conspicuous events in a series of incidents which have instigated the Oromo student protests of the last fifteen years. In the article I will show that the two events did not occur in isolation, but were crucial moments in a trajectory of interconnected episodes that have marked the contentious relationship between the Oromo youth and the Ethiopian regime. The word “beyond” in the title of the article indicates an inevitable continuity of conflict between the Oromo people and the Ethiopian regime. To show the complexity of the conflict over Finfinnee (Addis Ababa) the article describes the vicious circle of the tyrannical characteristics inherent in the political culture and predatory behavior of Abyssinian ruling elites, their psychology of fear, and the impunity of their violence against the Oromo people as the cause of the conflict. Indicating that this vicious circle is deeply rooted in the history of the relations between the Oromo people and the Ethiopian state, the article suggests that the conflict may not find resolution short of achievement of full freedom by the Oromo.  Since the initiators and main actors in the ongoing protests against the policies of the Ethiopian regime have been university and high school students as well as primary school-children the terms “youth” and “students” are used interchangeably throughout the article.

The article has 5 sections. The first two parts take up land-ownership and environmental protection as a locus of contention and tensions between the Oromo youth and the TPLF-led regime. Here, the conflict over resources are discussed on two different levels: environmental protection and the right to a homeland.  Putting the conflict on a concrete, cultural level and in an abstract ethical perspective, the first part will examine the incompatibility of the dominating Abyssinian environmentally hostile values and practices with the environment friendly values and practices of the Oromo people. In part 2, the article examines contradictions between the rights of a conquered people and the interests of conquerors: the right to a homeland and its resources on the one hand, and interest in the exploitation of the human and natural resources of a territory on the other. For the present Oromo youth, this involves a birth right to a homeland and an aspiration of preserving its natural resources, and of passing them over to coming generations. The article shows how, having been instigated first by the forest fires which had destroyed over 150,000 hectares of forestland in 2000, the current uprising of the Oromo youth has developed into a movement over the years. According to the Ethiopian Constitution of 1995, all land in Ethiopia (in this case also all Oromo land) belongs to the state. Therefore, any decision about the exploitation of its resources, its administration including the protection of the eco-system, is the prerogative of the guardians of the property of the state. The guardians are the self-appointed TPLF (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front) leaders. Based on empirical evidence, the article describes the behavior, and the illegal action and predatory behavior of the leaders of the TPLF, as antithetical to the guardianship role which their own constitution confers on them.

The third part deals with the economic policy of the TPLF-led government in relation to its ongoing conflict with the Oromo students. It starts with the massive student protests of 2002. The protests were triggered by a quest for distributive justice and exacerbated by violence which was used by the regime as a solution. The political economy of ethnic-cleansing, which is reflected lately in the attempted implementation of the so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan (AAMP), is explained here. Parts four and five discuss the stratagem used by the Tigrayan leaders of the current Ethiopian regime to stay in power. It shows how George Orwell’s fiction Nineteen Eighty-Four which was published in 1948[2] becomes a reality that affects concretely the lives of tens of thousands of Oromo youth under the present Ethiopian regime. Part four discusses how the fictitious duties of the Orwellian “Ministry of Truth” of the state of “Oceania” (whose role is manufacturing lies) have been adopted by the TPLF-led regime’s ministries of information, propaganda and justice by converting vice into virtue, misrepresenting dictatorship as democracy, demonizing law-abiding citizens as terrorists, falsifying inhabited land as empty and its indigenous populations as squatters. The part discusses the contradictions between the “democratic rights” (which the Ethiopian Constitution purports to grant its citizens) and the vicious treatment which the Oromo are receiving from the TPLF-led regime. Part four explores the consequences of “thought surveillance” conducted in classrooms, lecture halls and on school and university campuses by the TPLF-led regime’s security police in order to “flush out” and persecute suspected holders of dissenting political opinions. The notoriety of the method used by these security agents is analogous to the modus operandi of the “Thought Police” caricatured in George Orwell’s satirical fiction mentioned above.

In its fifth and last part, the article examines briefly Oromo response to the AAMP at home and in the diaspora. It also discusses a new phase which the Oromo struggle has entered because of the dynamics of the contentious interaction between a new generation of Oromo youth, who are determined to restore what their people have been denied under consecutive Ethiopian regimes, and the impunity of the present regime in suppressing them. It raises the deplorable silence of the diplomatic community and the media over the brutal massacre of Oromo youth by its police and military forces in April 2014 and again now, and examines its implications and consequences. In addition, it explores briefly some of the factors that make the Oromo youth movement a dynamic force in advancing the Oromo struggle for freedom to new levels.

Environmental ethics in Oromo and Ethiopian cultures and politics

The contradictions between the autocratic Abyssinian political culture and the Oromogadaa democratic tradition is well-known among researchers and most of the readers of this article are, to some extent, informed. What is not widely known is the incompatibility of the Abyssinian perception of nature with the environment-friendly Oromo culture. The right to homeland for which the Oromo students have been struggling involves two inter-related rights. The first is right to land as property. It concerns both individual and collective rights to land as a resource. In that sense, their struggle is part of the ongoing Oromo struggle against the exploitation of their resources as well as the dispossession and eviction of Oromo farmers.

The second focus of their contention with the Ethiopian regime is the natural environment. From the very beginning, the protection of the environment per se was the concern of the Oromo students. When they came together the first time and approached the government authorities, the aim of the students was to protect Oromo forests against fire. As will be discussed in the next part of this article, the response they received from the TPLF-led regime was conveyed with a violent crackdown on them. It was that violent response which led to the birth of a movement which I call in this article the Oromo Student Movement (OSM). Today, the same movement is rocking the very foundations of the regime which tried to silence its ever-increasing and maturing members. It must be pointed out from the start that the struggle for the environment is inextricably inter-meshed with every aspect of the Oromo struggle that concerns land, including the eviction of Oromo farmers, be it by land-grabbing commercial farmers or urban “property developers.” Thus, as I will explain in the first two parts of this article, the conflict between the Oromo youth and the Ethiopian regime involves the natural environment. It concerns what I will call an “environmental conflict”, and involves a clash between the environmental values the youth have absorbed from their ancestral traditions and the “development” policy of the present Ethiopian regime which reflects in its implementation values and practices that are harmful to the environment.

In order to demonstrate the differences between the values which the Oromo and the Abyssinians give nature, and the connection they have with the eco-system within which they live, I will cite the observations by European travelers in the nineteenth and the early decades of the twentieth centuries. I will start with the fertility and beauty of the Oromo country which was described by travelers in the past and which in fact is also a reflection of the respect and harmony with which the Oromo co-existed with nature. Describing Oromo “communion” with their natural surroundings, the Dutch traveler Juan Schuver who stayed at the court of Jootee Tullu in the summer months of 1881, wrote

[the Oromo] ought to be one of the merriest and happiest of races, living as they do in one of the most fertile countries, to which the Spanish ideal of a happy land ‘plenty of sun and plenty of water’ can be applied, rare in this part of Africa.[3]

He described the landscape of Qellem as “a charming spectacle of verdant landscape,carefully divided into pasture grounds and different coloured fields strewn with yellow huts and granaries, the whole beautifully studded with dark forest-trees, stretched far away to the distant horizon.” Continuing with his comparison of the Oromo country with European landscapes he stated “the whole scene reminded me of the best part of Bohemia”[4] (emphasis mine). Observations made by other travelers such as the French brothers, the researcher Antoine and soldier Arnauld d’Abbadie (who were both in Abyssinia and in the central-western parts of the Oromo country in the 1840s) reflect a harmonious relationship between the Oromo and nature which were strikingly similar to those made by Schuver. Comparing what he saw during his research sojourns among the Oromo of Guduru and the Gibe region between 1843 and 1844 and in 1846 with what he had observed during his longer stay in Abyssinia, Antoine d’Abbadie wrote that “In crossing the River Abbay [Blue Nile] to enter Oromoland, the traveler is struck not only by the abundance of trees, the change in costume and language, but above all by the dispersion of the houses. That is what we see in Europe in Norway, in Westphalia, and with the Basques.”[5] Noting the value which the Oromo give to nature, his brother Arnauld wrote that “no enemy [would dare] to break the branches or fell the trees the Oromo love so much that they plant them near their dwellings, the greenery and shade delight the eyes all over and give the landscape a richness and variety which make it like a garden without boundary.” Describing Oromo “communion” with the ecosystem, he remarked that “Healthful climate, uniform and temperate, fertility of the soil, beauty of the inhabitants, the security in which their houses seem to be suited, makes one dream of remaining in such a beautiful country.”

Travellers who had visited other parts of Oromoland in the nineteenth century had also described what they saw in similar terms. One of them was the British envoy Major W. C. Harris, who was in the Kingdom of Shawa in 1843. Harris accompanied its ruler, Sahle Selassie, in December 1843 during one of his annual raiding expeditions against the neighbouring Tuulama Oromo and described what he saw in the present site of Finfinnee as “the very picture of peace and plenty.” As he put it, what he saw was a panaroma of “high cultivation and snug [inviting, cozy] hamlets”. Describing the harmony he observed between nature and Oromo culture he wrote,

Meadows of the richest green turf, sparkling clear rivulets leaping down in sequestered cascades, with shady groves of the most magnificent juniper lining the slopes, and waving their moss-grown branches above cheerful groups of circular wigwams [houses, homes], surrounded by implements of agriculture, proclaimed a district which had long escaped the hand of wrath.[6]

The most colorful description of Oromia’s pre-colonial natural environment was penned by Martial de Salviac. In his French Academy Prize wining book Les Galla: Grande Nation Africaine published in 1901 in Paris he describes the homeland of the Oromo as a territory where

Green forests thronged with swarms of bees; thick pastures with giant herbs, where peaceful cows with inflated udders graze, where boisterous horses bounce, lambs frolic by the side of their mothers, short-haired and silken little goats of the Orient shine.[7]

De Salviac mentions meadows “variegated with flowers like French countryside” and valleys which “surround clear streams with banks strewn with white lilies and roses” which in turn thrive “under the protection of the acacia trees loaded with bird nests and intermingled with palm trees.” He noted that “thousands of torrents bounce and sing under the tunnels of entwined branches, crestfallen trunks, one close to the other, or between glacial walls with narrow corridors in the depth of the abyss.” He adds “Myriads of birds with brilliant plumage are the ornaments and the life of this pleasant region.”[8]  De Salviac’s description of the Oromo country was colorful but not over-exaggerated. As will be discussed in the second part of this article, the natural environment De Salviac described more than a century ago was destroyed by a system imposed by Abyssinian kings who conquered the Oromo country at the end of the nineteenth century, to build the Ethiopian Empire.

De Salviac mentions that, referring to their political culture, Antoine d’Abbadie had called the Oromo “African conservatives.” Drawing a parallel and underlining his own view that the Oromo are firm environmentalists, De Salviac states that the Oromo are Africa’s conservatives “also from another point of view. Their land is the one from all of Ethiopia which best preserves the gracefulness of nature. The travelers who only go to Addis Ababa would not realize the splendor of the virgin forests which decorate the land.”[9] (italics mine)

Travellers who had visited Oromoland at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century made observations similar to the ones mentioned above. Commenting on the understanding and care with which the Oromo interact with nature, a Russian, Alexander Bulatovich, who  followed the armies of the Abyssinian conqueror Menelik and had seen much of Oromoland at the end of nineteenth century, wrote that the Oromo “loves nature, lives with her, and to him, it seems that she likewise is endowed with a soul.”[10]

In his book Indigenous and Modern Environmental Ethics: A Study of Oromo Environmental ethic and Modern Issues of Development, Workneh Kelbessa notes  that “The Oromo atraction to the natural environment and recognition of the right of non-human creatures to exist” suggests Oromo “biophilia.” He defines biophilia as “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. Innate means hereditary and hence part of the ultimate human nature.”[11]

In the traditional Oromo religion God is omnipresent in the form of ayyaanaa or spirit. As perceived by the Oromo, God’s omnipresence is in every living thing; it does not exist in the air separate from nature. Humans and all living things are edowed with ayyaana or a spirit. For a people to live happily, there should exist a balance not only in social relations (relations among humans) but also between the social and the natural world. The sources or foundation of this balance are the safuu and nagaacodes of conduct which, in Oromo thought, define not only relationships between human beings, but also harmony between humans, nature and God.  These codes of conduct constitute the core of the Oromo environmental ethic. In general, ethics denote principles that inform cultures, shape peoples’ values and guide the behaviors and practices of their societies. In many cultures, ethics concern only social relations. In Oromo culture, ethical principles are holistic: the Oromo see immorality not only in harm done to humans; they also consider the ill-treatment of animals and destruction of trees and forests morally problematic.  It goes against the Oromo sense of safuu, which, in Oromo thought, defines the ethical principle that links humans to the living world around them. In other words, the safuu code of conduct is holistic and connotes a culturally expressed respect for all living things. This all-embracing respect is motivated by a number of interconnected concerns: one is philosophical and religious. In the Oromo worldview, there is an inherent worth in all living things because they are endowed with ayyaana as mentioned above.

The Dutch Catholic priest and cultural anthropologist, Father Joseph Van de Loo notes that safuu relates to the individuals sense for well-tempered inter-relations with fellow humans, with Waaqa, with cattle and the environment. He wrote that mishandling animals and disturbing the ecological balance with acts such as felling large trees without reason are considered violations of the safuu moral code.[12]Therefore, the safuu ethic reflects an attitude of “live and let live.” It prescribes respectful co-existence with nature. The message the attitude seems to convey can be interpreted in two ways. First, it seems to says implicitly: “we do not know why the eco-system is what it is; we are not its creators, hence we do not have the right to be its destroyers. We are part of it and must seek to co-exist with the life world that constitutes it. Furthermore, Mother Earth is not to be conquered or dominated but to be revered, protected and enjoyed.” As expressed in an oral poem often recited by Oromo peasants Faarsuu Dachee (Hymn to Mother Earth), the Oromo see themselves as part of Mother Earth and not as beings who are “above” her. Survival is the second concern of the Oromo environmental ethic. Like many indigenous communities around the world, the Oromo understand that their well-being is dependent on a “healthy relationship” between them and the living world around them. Traditionally, plants and animals are protected in Oromia, not only by the safuu code of conduct, but also by an elaborate legal system. These laws are not only remembered, but still exercised in Borana were the gadaa system is functional to some extent. One can only exploit nature provided that the use is reasonable and respectful. There is no doubt that the “charming spectacle of verdant landscape” and the delightful greenery which made the Guduru landscape look “like a garden without boundary,” described by the d’Abbadie brothers described in the early 1840s,  “the meadows of the richest green turf,” the “sparkling clear rivulets leaping down in sequestered cascades” and the “shady groves of the most magnificent juniper lining the slopes” which Harris saw as he looked at the rich scenery of Finfinnee from standing on a hillside during the same period, reflect the environment-friendly nature of Oromo culture.

Oromo adoration of nature is indicated in the manner which they integrate it in their cultural expressions. A large percent of Oromo parents give their children names which connote positive qualities in nature, or are nature “friendly.” The value the Oromo accord to nature is reflected also in numerous sayings and maxims. One of these says is “Biqilaan ilmoo ofti” (“That which grows is one’s offspring”). The maxim denotes the Oromo sense of connectedness to nature and the care and protection which their culture accords plants. The odaa tree symbolizes not only Oromo gadaademocracy, but also Oromo reverence of nature.

The Oromo respect and revere nature for a variety of reasons. As we know, the Oromo irreecha birraa festival or Thanksgiving is unthinkable without its natural “paraphernalia” and “décor.” It cannot be celebrated in a desert, or a place without green grass, or without flowers and plenty of water. It is a festival in which a living culture and nature are inextricably interlaced. It is conducted to celebrate life and thank God for that. Workneh Kelbessa had identified more than eighty plants in two sites, one in Borana and the other in Ilu Abba Bora, where had carried out field research and concludes that the preservation of forests is extremely important to the Oromo for almost an endless number of utilitarian reasons.[13]

The Oromo have a tradition of planting trees. They planted trees on the graves of family members and relatives. In the past, the Abba Muuda, the high priest of the traditional Oromo religion, Waaqeffannaa, advised the multitudes of pilgrims who visited his galmaa (seat) every eighth year to plant trees when they return home. Such trees were seldom cut down. They grew to immense size and remained standing, not only telling the life histories of their planters, but also symbolizing the pilgrimage they had made to the muuda centre on behalf of their clans. My guess, based on casual observation in many parts of Oromia, is that there were in the late 1960s and the 1970s masses of very large trees that were apparently several hundred years old standing majestically in the middle of farms and pastures in the neighborhood of hamlets.. Many of them had cultural significance and have names. They link nature and culture. Besides the five major odaas (Odaa Nabee, Odaa Bultum, Odaa Bulluq,Odaa Robaa and Odaa Bisil), there are thousands of other trees all over Oromia that bear names of persons. [14]   Such trees are not cut because they symbolize the sacredness of nature, have cultural significance or represent memory. They consistitute an ecological heritage of considerable depth and importance. In addition, Workneh Kelbessa notes that

Various informants indicated that trees have aesthetic value. The Oromo believe that some trees satisfy an aesthetic of the sublime and the beautiful. They say that green nature is required for the health of eyes. Beautiful trees around one’s homestead and in open fields also symbolise individual self-images and aspirations.[15]

In general, it seems that a large proportion of the ancient trees are preserved and protected because of what they represent for the Oromo communities. A small survey I have conducted by telephone about trees, the names of which I knew since childhood in the vicinity of Naqamtee, showed that most of them are still existing. Based on that, one may conclude that a large proportion of ancient trees that, as I have indicated above, thrived decades ago scattered across Oromia could also have  escaped the “hand of wrath.” Unfortunately that is not the case with the pristine forests which once covered much of the Oromo territory. As a subjugated people, the Oromo have not been in a position to protect them.

The dualism of culture and nature in Abyssinian culture

As indicated above, the Abyssinians’ informal set of attitudes and behaviour toward nature are quite different from those of the Oromo. While the Oromo worldview is holistic, Abyssinian perception of nature is dualistic. They believe that humanity and the natural living world belong to separate spheres. Their understanding is that God created humans to dominate and exploit the other creatures. Therefore, the safuucode of ethic which the Oromo extend to the relationships between humans and nature is alien to their thought system. In fact, they deride Oromo respect for nature as primitive paganism.  Reckless exploitation of nature is not a sensitive issue in their culture as it is in Oromo traditions. The marked differences between the environment-friendly attitude of the Oromo described above, and the overtly exploitative attitude and behavior of the Abyssinians toward nature had caught the attention of those who visited the region in the past.

Long before Arnauld d’Abbdie’s implicit comparison of what he saw on both sides of the Blue Nile, the predatory characteristics of Abyssinian contact with natural environment were reflected in observations made by two Europeans, Andrea Corsaly, a Florentine merchant, and Francisco Alvarez, a Portuguese priest, who were in Abyssinia in the sixteenth century.[16] The two men were guests at the nomadic “tent capital” of the Abyssinian king. They were astonished by the destruction the king and his entourage were causing on the environment wherever they went. The image which their descriptions of royal entourage portray brings to mind a swarm of locusts that flocked from one green spot to another, destroying the environment and afflicting the human population. Corsaly reported in 1517 that the retinue of the Abyssinian king Lebna-Dengel consisted of hundreds of thousands,  that he did not stay in one place for more than four months or return to the same place in less than ten years. He noted that those who “took part in the expeditions which [often] turned into military raids did not hesitate to plunder or take prisoners.”[17] Those who were taken captives were enslaved. A similar picture of the Abyssinian king’s entourage was portrayed by the Portuguese envoy, Alvarez who arrived in Abyssinia a few years after Corsaly and stayed at the nomadic court of Lebna Dengel for several years, reported that “The Court cannot move with less than 50,000 mules; usually it uses as many as as 177,000.” A century later, the Portuguese Catholic priest Manuel d’Almeida, who stayed in Abyssinia from 1626 to 1633, described the destruction caused by the roving court wherever it had halted. He wrote that the king had stayed in five or six places in 14 years and the resources of each place were totally depleted and its inhabitants impoverished beyond any hope of immediate recovery making the places unattractive destination for the court in the near future.  He wrote that this “has been the custom of this empire” and when the emperor changes these places one would see nothing in those he left, but a land that is totally devoid of trees. The Abyssinian kings, he commented, “choose primarily a place near which firewood is found in plenty, but as they have no method in cutting down forests and groves, the neighbouring hills and valleys are bare in a few years.”[18] By and large, what Corsaly and d’Almeida described were ravenous hordes of predators and destroyers of the environment who, as pointed out by a historian, were constantly on the move “led by the kings, in search of loot.”[19] The driving force behind the royal expeditions was the search for booty in cattle and products for consumption and captives to be channeled into the slave market of the Middle East.  Court chroniclers and historians have ascribed the task of law and order maintenance to the roving tent courts of the Abyssinian kings. Needless to say, ascribing such an honor to bands who plunder, kill, take captives for enslavement, and destroy the environment beyond recognition, is a travesty.

The comments made by the European visitors in the sixteenth century about the behavior of Abyssinian kings are interesting, not only as anecdotes from the Abyssinian history, but also as descriptions of values and behaviors that have persisted for centuries and, in the longue durée, led to the environmental crisis we see in Ethiopia today.  Thus, the behavior of the Abyssinian settlers in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century in Oromia was, in many ways, similar to that of the medieval roving courts of the Abyssinian kings. In the late 1870s, when Menelik conquered the districts of Gullalee, Finfinnee and Ekka, where he built his capital city (Addis Ababa) in the mid-1880s, the surrounding hills were covered with forests of junipers and other indigenous trees and vegetation. But “[a]fter a decade and a half, Finfinnee and the surrounding mountain ranges were reduced to barren land.”[20]Menelik who had already changed the seat of his government three times (Ankober, Liche, and Dildila on the Entotto ranges), was about to continue with the tradition of his ancestors when “[t]he introduction of eucalyptus trees saved the new capital from an already initiated transfer to Addis Alem, some 60 kilometres away to the west.”[21]The eucalyptus trees may have solved Menelik’s firewood problem partially and saved him the trouble of transfering his capital city to a new site, but did not prevent the destruction of forests by the naftanya he had settled in the newly conquered south. The French Catholic missionary and scholar, Martial de Salviac who had observed the behavior of the naftnya in the early days of the colonial conquest wrote,

The Amhara devastate the forests by pulling from it the laths for their houses and make camp fires or firewood for their dwellings. They do not have the foresight to reforest or respect the root of trees, which would grow new off shoots.[22]

Among those who commented on how the Abyssinian settlers in the south related to nature, Martin de Saliaviac was most critical. He pointed out that the Abyssinians are not only  known as “great destroyers of trees,” but are also accused by some people of “exercising barbarity against the forests for the sole pleasure of ravaging”(italics mine). He adds that “All of highland Ethiopia offers bautiful landscapes, pleasant sites, luxuriant prairies, and vigorous vegetation. But there, where the Abyssinians live, their cultivation and pasture ground are surrounded by bare heights [with] naked flanks … stripped off the magnificence of trees.” He wrote that, by contrast, where or when the Oromo were still in control, “nature springs up with superb and luxurious pride.” [23]  Pointing out the laxity of fire management by the Abyssinians, he wrote

the Ayssinians do not care to stop the progress of the fire at the edge of the forests, and I have seen, broken hearted, many trees burn with hives they carried; gigantic conifers, which, for four hundred years, prospered under the wing of the Oromo generations, carbonized and tumbled down, from 50 meters of height, like the steeples of a cathedral whose base had been sapped by a mine. [24]

As another critical observer who had visited parts of the central and eastern Oromo territory in the beginning of the 1930s stated:“The Abyssinians imposed what was, by nature, a deadly and hopeless system” on the people. He summarized the behavior of the agents of the Ethiopian government as “idle and domineering, burning the timber, devouring the crops, taxing the meagre stream of commerce that seeped from outside, enslaving the people.”[25] Thus, Abyssinian conquest and occupation has been harmful not only to Oromo society and culture, but also to nature in Oromia. The eco-system which was fostered for centuries by an environmentally friendly Oromo culture was destroyed gradually by a system which is hostile to the environment. The Christian clergy who accompanied the forces of conquest interpreted the environmentally benign practices of the Oromo as nature worship and cut down revered trees.  Workneh Qalbessa has, for example, reported that in Borana in southern Oromia, the Abyssinian conquerors tried to convert the people to Christianity. However, as most people opposed the new religion the “Abyssinians cut down Dakkii [sacred] trees, burned Galma [the ceremonial places of Waaqeffannaa],and they threw ritual beads into the river. They cut down trees from traditional graves.”[26]

The destruction of the environment under the previous Ethiopian regimes, if not documented exhaustively, was raised by many observers and examined by scholars. Therefore, it suffices here to note that a large part of the Oromo territory was covered by forests when the Abyssinians conquered it at the end of the nineteenth centurty. The rich and bountiful natural environment which the European travellers and missionaries had observed in the Oromo country was still intact. Destruction of the natural environment and the exploitation of the Oromo people were felt soon after the conquest. However, it was estimated that more than forty percent of the forest cover was still undamaged half a century later in the 1950s.

The deforestation of Oromia and degredation of the environment accelerated with the expansion of commercial farming in the 1960s. The land reform of 1975, which abolished the feudal land holding system, did not contribute to the preservation of the natural environment. Land was nationalized, the regime replaced the naftanyalandlords as de facto owner of all land in the country. It used the land for large-scale state farms and settlements schemes for hundreds of thousands of people from the famine-affected regions in northern Ethiopia. Consequently, as the regime cleared hundreds of thousands of hectares of land for state farms and resettlement programs, the depletion of the forest areas in Oromia and the south-west was exacerbated. It was not only the activities of the regime that had been harmful in this case; the behaviour of the settlers was not environment-friendly either. Describing the behavior of northerners who were settled by the Dergue in Metekel north of the Blue Nile in the 1980s, a researcher noted:

The Gumuz retreated to low lying, remote areas within Metekel and across the Blue Nile, and their society turned even more introverted and xenophobic. They were appalled by the highlanders’ destruction of the forest and the wiping out of wild animals. The settlers, who always carried an axe on their shoulders, were said to cut even the tree ‘under which they sit while defecating.’[27]

An axe for a gun

The land reform of 1975 destroyed the natanya (gun-carrier), who carried a gun as a weapon of domination,and brought settlers who carried an axe as a weapon of deforestion. Not only among the Gumuz, but also the Oromoo, settlers with “an axe on their shoulders” became an expression for reckless contact with nature. The settlers cleared not only bushes and woodlands for farming: they cut down trees or burnt prime forests just to get rid of them. Incompatibility between the settlers’ recklessness and Oromo biophilia was inevitable. In one case, the indigenous Oromo population complained to the authorities but did not get their attention. As settlers continued to cut down trees, including those which were used for bee hives, the local population took their own decision and destroyed crop fields planted by the settlers. In Oromo culture, one cannot just pick up an axe and chop down a tree because one gets the opportunity. One has to follow ethical principles handed from Oromo ancestors. What the settlers did violated these principles. At last, the government was forced to resettle the migrants elsewhere. The incident took place during the 1973-74 famine.

The complaints about “axe-carrying settlers” did not find resolution with the end of the 1973-74 famine. The Dergue resettled hundreds of thousands of people in the south-west following the 1984-85 famine. Regarding settlers in the forest areas in Ilu Abba Bora, Alemneh Dejene wrote that, besides clearing for farmlands, the settlers’ habit of cutting trees not only for fuel, house construction and farm equipment, but also “just to get rid of forests” was accelerating deforestation. He reported that “the sights of ‘integrated settlements’ easily stand out throughout Illubabor because they occupy a bare land, one that is devoid of their natural vegetation, and is in the midst of thick forest”[28] Another researcher, Workneh Kelbessa, also notes that “[t]he settlers indiscriminately destroyed natural forests and [wild] coffee  plantations. Millions of trees were cut down …This has led to local climatic changes and soil ersion.”[29] It is interesting to note here that a research committee set up by the Council of Ministers of the military regime also found that the resettlement program was a great menace to the environment.  According to Alemneh Dejene, the warning conclusion of the committee’s report was that, at the ongoing rate of environmental destruction, the resettlement zones of the south-west will degenerate, in less than a decade, to conditions similar to the northern highlands.[30] It seems that the military regime, to which the report was directed, did not consider the content of the report. It was overthrown three years later in 1991.

Ironically, the TPLF-led regime did not learn from the mistakes of its predecessor. The resettlement started under the Dergue did not cease. According to Workneh Kelbessa “About 2000 household heads from the Amhara region have settled in Illu Abba Bora in 1998. They have controlled 2068 hectares of land and destroyed 367 hectares of forests. About 66,000 peasant farmers from the Amhara Region have moved to Wallaga and settled illegally.”[31] This ‘legal’ and illegal settlement has continued since Workneh made the observation cited here. Combined with the lease of the forest land to coffee planters, miners and logging firms, it has brought the few patches of natural forests which existed twenty years ago, not only in the south-west but also in south and central Oromia, to the verge of total destruction.  Today Ethiopia’s annual rate of deforestation is among the top ten countries in the world. A survey conducted by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), noted that Ethiopia’s forest cover decreased from 15.11 million hectares in 1989 to 12.2 million hectares in 2010. That means a decrease by about 20 per cent of the forests that existed when the TPLF came to power in Finfinnee in 1991.  Between 1990 and 2010 Ethiopia lost on average 140,900 hectares of forest  per year meaning around 2,818,000 hectares in total during these ten years. The same source indicates that the rate of deforestation had actually increased to 214,000 hectares per year between 2005 and 2010. Needless to say, the largest part of the destruction had occurred in Oromia, where most of the remaining patches of natural forests exist.

In recent years, the major causes of deforestation in Ethiopia are mentioned by observers as a combination of government development policy, “uncommon” or “mysterious” forest fires, population growth and climate change. A paper presented by Olie Bachie at the 29th Annual Conference of the Oromo Studies Association (OSA) held at the Howard University, Washington D.C. in August 2015, reveals an alarming environmental crisis which is now facing Ethiopia and particularly the Regional State of Oromia. It showed that in Oromia, the hills and mountains which, some decades ago, were covered by lush forests and vegetation, are now deforested and barren. The myriads of cooree (small springs), which sparkled from countless groves and everglades and provided fresh water to myriads of hamlets throughout the highlands of Oromia and mingled forming numerous creeks and rivulets, are gone. Ravines, through which creeks and rivulets cascaded throughout the year, and had been the life-sustaining arteries of the eco-system in the past, are today stretches of dry brown earth and rocks. The river banks which were covered by majestic trees, lush vegetation, often decorated by varieties of flowers and teeming with birds, bees, butterflies and other living things, are now bereft of life. De Salviac has noted that “In Oromo regions, covered with forests, the flow of the rivers is quite constant; but there is nothing irregular and more sudden than the regime of torrents, in the deforested parts of Abyssinia.”[32] Regretably, the rich natural environment which European travelers and missionaries such as De Salviac had observed in Oromia in the past has gone. The main tributaries of the Blue Nile such as the Angar, Gudar, Mugar and Dhidheessa which carried large volumes of water throughout the year in the past and which De Salviac had in mind, are reduced to small creeks, particularly during the dry season, today. Although population growth and global climate change have made their contributions, the TPLF-led regime’s land policy must carry a  large share of the blame in causing the impending disaster.  Workineh Kelbessa notes that some of the informants he interviewed for his study mentioned above told him that “if their ancestors were alive, they would commit suicide for they could not lead a happy life on this degraded environment. They would not want to see the present state of the land.”[33] The statements of these Oromo informants may sound exaggerated, but they are important. They reveal their own feelings about the ongoing destruction to the environment that their ancestors had known and cherished. As peasants, whose lives are being adversely affected by the ongoing destruction, they are extremely unhappy and desperate. The preservation of the forest is extremely important to them, but they are powerless to prevent its destruction.  Their voice is not heard. The Tigrayan ruling elite, who are the de facto owners of the natural resources of Oromia today, are interested in the exploitation of the forests. Ecological protection is not in the priority list of their policy of “development”.

Student concern about forest fires that are ruining Oromia

By and large, the TPLF had a tension-filled relationship with the Oromo people from the very moment its forces crossed the Blue Nile and stepped onto Oromo soil in May 1991. However, tension between the regime and Oromo students started to crystallize first in 1998 in connection with the regime’s forcible recruitment of youth (including high-school students) to fight in the Ethio-Eritrean war. The Oromo youth did not see any reason to fight against the Eritreans, arguing that the war was not an Oromo affair.  Not surprisingly, their position on the war was not without repercussions on their lives. Some ended up in jail and others went into exile.

However, the issue which sparked off the first major conflict between the regime and the Oromo youth was an “uncommon” forest fires which devastated large portions of the existing forestlands Oromia in February and March of 2000. The news about the fires reached the public during the second week of February. Ironically, for more than five weeks, the government did not take any concrete action to stop the fires. The students volunteered to fight the fires which were destroying particularly ancient forests in the highlands of Bale and Borana regions. However, the regime did not allow the students to travel to the sites. Its spokesman told the public that the April rains would put out the fires and that therefore he did not see the reason to worry much about the problem. Unsatisfied by this response, the Oromo students at the Addis Ababa University (AAU) took the first step to fight the fires. Hundreds of students from different colleges of the AAU organized themselves and travelled to the Bale and Borana regions where the fires were threatening to consume ancient forests and to destroy rare plant and animal species that are found only here and nowhere else.[34] The concern over the forest-fires was not confined to university campuses, but was also shared by secondary and elementary schools in many parts of Oromia. The students asked the government to act and to put out the fires, but also stated their own readiness to participate in the action. The government authorities did not listen to them. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) research team noted that on March 9, 2000, high school students in Ambo demonstrated after authorities arrested four students who were sent to express their concern about the spreading forest fires and their desire to travel to the sites and help in extinguishing them. In Naqamtee, they staged a demonstration after their request for a letter of support from local officials to travel to the fire sites and participate in putting it out was rejected.  Overall, ignoring the students’ concern about the environment, the TPLF-led regime used violence to silence their voice. In Ambo, its security forces cracked-down on the demonstrators, beating one student to death and wounding nine others. In the same city, 300 civilians were detained following the event. In Naqamtee, several students were wounded by police fire and dozens of them were arrested, jailed and beaten. In Dembi Dollo in western Oromia, a student was killed in a similar chain of events.[35]  The death of these students did not terrorize and silence the Oromo youth. It strengthened their collective will to defend the environment against the reckless destruction caused by the policies of the present rulers of the Ethiopian state as well as to oppose the eviction of the Oromo from land they had inherited from their ancestors. Since the majority of them came from peasant households, the question of land and the environment was a question of life and death to Oromo students.


According to researchers from the UN-Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia (UN-EUE), while the regime’s crackdown on the protesting students went on between January and early April 2000, the fire consumed between 150,000 and 200,000 hectares of forests and killed thousands of livestock and wildlife in Bale and Borana alone.[36] In Bale, unique plant and animal species were also destroyed.  The reactions of the Oromo people and the ruling Tigrayan elite to the forest fires reflected the difference in values they give the environment. The UN-EUE report notes that “The effectiveness of the local fighting response and the communities’ willingness to devote time and effort despite endangering their own lives demonstrates the immense value the Ethiopian [in this case the Oromo] people place on land.”[37] In addition, the report indicated that the forest fires had also revealed that it is the communities who live on the land—those who know it, care for it and have an interest in its conservation—who will fulfill the responsibility of ownership.[38] Be it consciously or not, the UN-EUE researchers underline an irony in their conclusion. Although the Oromo are deprived their rights of ownership to their land and forests, yet they were the initiative-takers, while the TPLF-led regime, which in the name of the state, had usurped ownership of the land, was not only letting the fire burn the forests, but was even preventing the students from putting it out. It is no wonder that the authors of the UN-EUE report had recommended that land ownership be taken from the state and given to local communities. The TPLF leaders and their surrogates, the leaders of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), did not share the students’ concern and sense of urgency to put out the fire. The UN-EUE researchers reported that “The fires started at the end of January and raged for three months.” The fires were put out during the first week of April. It is not certain whether they were extinguished by the heavy rains of March 24 and 25 which fell in some areas in Bale and on March 29 and 30 in the Borana and Bale zones, or by the contributions of the tens of thousands of local people, or by the input of international fire-fighter teams from South Africa and Germany who had participated in putting out the fires. However, the UN-EUE report pointed out that “Due to the delay in government’s response and the minimal resources available to it, the most effective fire-fighting tools were community members themselves.”[39] A report from the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC) also acknowledged the significance of the input made by the local population in fighting the forest fires. It did not say much about the input made by state authorities and institutions.[40] Ironically, the regime did not apologize for its own inadequacy to fight the fires, or repent the harm its security forces had inflicted on the students. It blamed the cause of the fires on local inhabitants and kept student leaders in detention. The tension between students and the regime was still high when the summer vacation started in June 2000.


The students were not left alone during their vacation. The agents of the regime followed many of them wherever they went and harassed them. Many of them were arrested or abducted from their parents’ homes and jailed or “disappeared.”  Solidarity with imprisoned and abducted students, and the memory of those who were killed, kept the student grievances alive. Consequently, when they returned from vacation, the students took to the streets in September 2000, demanding the release of their compatriots.[41]  Dozens of people were killed or injured, many were imprisoned, or disappeared between March 2000 and early 2001. By then the pattern of impunity with which the regime reacts to peaceful protests was clear to the students.

Did the silence ‘speak’ the truth?

Forest fires are common in Ethiopia. But there were many things that made the forest fires of 2000 in Oromia, “mysterious,” “controversial” or “uncommon” as many observers had put it. The first question was, who lit the fires? If human hands were behind the fires, who were the culprits of the crime? Writing about “controversy over the origins of the forest fires” the authors of the UN-EUE report noted that “During this study some key informants, including farmers, gave the impression of not wanting to openly comment on the causes of the 2000 forest fires.”[42] The authors added that they “could not collect any valuable information on this obviously politically very sensitive issue as officials and farmers alike were reluctant to provide any information concerning the forest fires.”[43] Why? Why were they unwilling to speak about the fires? Were they afraid? If so of whom or what? The farmers could fear the local officials, but what was the cause of the local officials’ fear? Why was it “politically sensitive” to speak about the forest fires? Why did the regime react brutally when the students took the initiative to put out the forest fires? Was the regime of Meles Zenawi trying to cover-up the cause of the fires? The UN-EUE report does not give any clue as to what can be an answer to any of these questions.  It is silent. Apparently, the silence indicates the truth as its accusing finger is pointing at the regime itself. 

However, as mentioned above, the regime blamed the local people for setting the forests on fire and arrested 146 men: 70 in Bale and 76 in Borana.[44] This parading of an incredible “army of arsonists” by the regime did not convince the people regarding the identity of the culprits. The allegation was that the fires were lit by the agents of the regime to drive away the Oromo Liberation Front’s (OLF) guerrilla fighters from the area. Consequently, the general conclusion was that the regime was covering its own felonious activities by holding innocent civilians responsible. In addition, its attempts to pose as the keeper of law and order, while killing students who demonstrated peacefully to bring the damages of the forest fires to public attention had also exacerbated Oromo distrust of the regime. Furthermore, the negligence of duty reflected in the regime’s failure to put out the fires and protect resources in the Oromo and other territories in the south put under question the currently dominant Tigrayan elite’s legitimacy to rule the country. Thus, as the report by the UN-EUE researchers aptly suggested, the forest fires “exacerbated social tensions that lay dormant beneath the surface of the daily activities of Ethiopian life.” Indeed, as we will see in the next part of this article, that was what has been happening progressively during the last 15 years.

Mekuria Bulcha, PhD and Professor of Sociology, is an author of widely read books and articles. His most recent book, Contours of the Emergent and Ancient Oromo Nation, was published by CASAS (Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society), Cape Town, South Africa, in 2011. He was also the founder and publisher of The Oromo Commentary (1990-1999). He is an active member of the OLF and has served in the different branches of the national movement since the 1970s.

[1] OPride’s article “OPride’s Oromo Person of the Year 2014: Oromo Student Protesters” published on January 1, 2015 is an excellent contribution in this respect. [Online resource] http://www.opride.com/oromsis/news/3783-opride-s-oromo-person-of-the-year-2014-oromo-student-protesters
[2] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel, first published in London by Secker & Warburg in 1949.
[3] Juan Schuver, Juan Maria Schuver’s Travels in Northeast Africa 1880-1883, translated and edited by Wendy James et al., (London: Hakluyt Society, 1884/1996), pp. 76, 51.
[4] Juan Schuver, ibid.
[5] Cited in Mohammed Hassen, “The Significance of Antoine in Oromo Studies”,Journal of Oromo Studies, Volume 14, No. 1, 2007, p. 150
[6] C. W. Harris, The Highlands of Aethiopia, (London: Longmans, 1844), Vol. 2, p. 192.
[7] Martial de Salviac, Les Galla: Grande Nation Africaine, Un Peuple Antique au Pays de Menelik (Paris: H. Oudin, 1901), p. 111.
[8] Ibid. pp. 111-12
[9] Ibid.
[10] Alexander Bulatovich, Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes: A Country in Transition, 1896-1898,  (Lawrenceville, N.J: The Red Sea Press, 2000), p. 61
[11] Workneh Kelbessa, Indigenous and Modern Environmental Ethics: A Study of Oromo Environmental ethic and Modern Issues of Development (Washington, D.C.: Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 2008). p.123
[12] Joseph Van de Loo, Gujii Oromo Culture in Southern Ethiopia: Religious capabilities in rituals and songs (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 1991).
[13] Kelbessa, Indigenous and Modern Environmental Ethics, p. 131
[14] Some of those I know are Bakkaniisa Robee, Dambii Wandii, Bakkaniisa Qeesee and are found near my birth place.
[15] Workneh Kelbessa, Indigenous and Modern Environmental Ethics, p. 123.
[16] Cited in Y. M. Kobishchanov, “The Gafol Complex in Ethiopian History,” inProceedings of the Ninth International Congress of Ethiopian Studies (Moscow: Nauka Publishers, 1988).
[17] Ibid. p. 103
[18] See Almeida, “The History of High Ethiopia or Abassia”, in Some Records ofEthiopia, 1593-1646. (Translated and edited by C.F. Beckingham and G.W.B. Huntingford), London: Hakluyt Society. 1954, p. 82
[19] Teshale Tibebu, The making of modern Ethiopia: 1896-1974 (Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1995), p. 34
[20] Sutuma Waaqo, “Ecological Degradation in Ethiopia”, Oromo Commentary, Vol. IV. No. 1, 1994, p.
[21]  ibid.
[22] De Salviac, ibid. p. 20
[23] Ibid. 20-21
[24] Ibid. p. 120
[25] Evelyn Waugh, Waugh in Abyssinia (London; New York: Longmans, Green, 1936), p. 26.
[26] Workneh Kelbessa, “The Utility of Ethical Dialogue for Marginalized Voices in Africa”, Discussion Paper, 2005, p. 16.
[27] John Markakis, Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers, James Curry, 2011, p. 160
[28]  Alemneh Dejene, “Peasants and Environmental Dilemma in Resettlement”, energy and Environmental Policy Center, John F. Kennedy School of Government. Typescript 1989: 7-8
[29] Workneh Kelbessa, ibid. 2011, p. 73
[30] Alemneh Dejene, ibid.
[31] Workneh Kelbessa, ibid.
[32] De Salviac, ibid. p. 122
[33] Workneh Kelbessaa, 2011, ibid.
[34]  Letter from Geresu Tufa to Mekuria, February 2000
[35] Among those who were killed were three high school students, Dirribee Jifaar, a young female student in Dembi Dollo, and Alemu Disaasaa, a teenager from Jimma, were gunned down by government soldiers in April 2000. Another high school student, Getu Dirriba, was beaten to death in a military detention center in Ambo.
[36] In economic terms the damage was estimated by researcher to amount to “The total economic damage caused by the forest fires in Bale and Borana zones of Oromia Region alone amounted to approximately US$ 39 million or 331,179,405 ETB”, Dehassa Lemessa & Mathew Pernault, ibid, pp. 110-111
[37] Ibid. pp. 108-9
[38] Ibid. p. 122.
[39] Ibid. p.108
[40] J. G. Goldmanner, “The Ethiopian Fire Emergency between February and April 2000”, IFFN No. 22, 2000: 2-8.
[41] Oromia Support Group (OSG) Report No. 45
[42] Ibid. p. 98
[43] Ibid. p. 102.
[44] BBC World News, Africa, ”Arrests over Ethiopian forest fires”, February 29, 2000


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