A Pledge to Struggle for Oromo National Sovereignty
By Mekuria Bulcha
In Part II of this article I have described the trauma and anger caused by the October 2, 2016 massacre and discussed the manner with which the Oromo society has responded to the situation. In this third part of the article, I will explore the role which the Irreecha massacre has played in Oromo mobilization for national sovereignty, and resistance against the TPLF regime. In addition, I will provide a brief discussion of the consequences of the State of Emergency declared by the TPLF regime on October 9, 2016 and the role of the so-called Somali Liyu Police (Special Force) as agents of state terrorism against the Oromo.
The March 2016 “Command Post”
As indicated in Part I of this article, Oromia has been a region where security forces had perpetrated violence against civilians on an appalling scale in 2016. The result was increasing protest by the entire Oromo nation. The TPLF regime’s response to the protests was a declaration of military rule over Oromia. In March 2016, Oromia was subdivided into eight (8) military regions (wetderawi ketena) or “Command Posts”, each to be led by TPLF military generals who was a TPLF guerrilla fighter before 1991. The regional civilian administration was subordinated to and made to report to the Command Posts.The entire Oromo nation of over 35 million people were put under an undeclared martial law. The consequence was the deterioration of the state of human rights and not the restoration of law and order. The martial law aggravated the impunity with which the security forces called Agazi conducted atrocities against the civilian population. In January 2016, Yoseph, a farmer, 52, from West Wallaga zone told a HRW reporter:
I’ve lived here for my whole life, and I’ve never seen such a brutal crackdown. There are regular arrests and killings of our people, but every family here has had at least one child arrested. One family of seven who live near me are all in detention. This generation is being decimated in this town. All the young people are arrested and our farmers are being harassed or arrested. For me, my four sons have all disappeared, my [12-year-old] daughter is too afraid to go back to school, and I fear being arrested at any moment.
Samantha Spooner wrote in August 2016 “Largest ethno-national group has been under martial law with citizens killed and subjected to beatings, torture and detention in concentration camps.” The horrible treatment of a mother who was forced by the Agazi forces to sit on the body of her only son who was killed in a street in Dambi Dollo in September 2016 showed how far the situation of human rights had deteriorated. Captured by social media her pleading to the Agazi to stop beating her, and cry for help was heard by the Oromo at home and across the oceans. In short, the Irreecha massacre is not the first crime to be committed by the TPLF regime. State terrorism has been routine practice under the TPLF regime since it came to power. Its security forces have been conducting raids against Oromo communities, searching private homes without court permits, making arbitrary arrests, torturing men and women, raping, and conducting extra-judicial executions during the last 25 years. Thus, the Irreecha massacre of October 2, 2016 became the culminating height of the unmitigated violence the TPLF security forces were perpetrating against the Oromo people since November 2015.
The pledge to fight for Oromo sovereignty
The Oromo response to the attack on the Irreecha festival was expressed not only through the week-long fury that torched businesses and farms, but was also reflected in a strong pledge made at the funeral ceremonies of many of the October 2 massacre victims. The power of such funerals is that it bonds people unknown to each other for something larger; in this case, national sovereignty. We have seen this phenomenon unfold during the many funerals conducted for the victims of the Ethiopian regime’s crackdown on Oromo youth for many years. The time of funerals was not only an occasion of mourning for the victims and solidarity with their families, but also a moment devoted to the celebration of heroes who had sacrificed their lives for the Oromo cause in the past. Above all, declarations of a collective pledge to fight for Oromo sovereignty were also made at the many funerals that were held across Oromia.
To examine the role of collective mourning for those killed by the TPLF security forces in relation to the Irreecha festival, I will take the case of Qaxalaa Dafarsha Ragasaa’s funeral which took place on October 17, 2016 in Metta Roobi, about 70 km northwest of Finfinnee, a week after the declaration of the State of Emergency. The number of mourners who followed his remains to his resting place was estimated to be over one hundred thousand. What makes Qaxalaa’s and other funerals of those who had been killed by the Ethiopian security forces since 2014 remarkable was not just the sheer number of mourners, but also the political mood the mourners were reflecting. Each funeral has been an occasion for oath-taking by tens of thousands of men and women to continue with the Oromo struggle against the TPLF regime. During most of the funerals, of which Qaxalaa’s funeral was a good example, the slogans carried or sang by mourners dealt not only with the massacre but also the demand for the release of their compatriots detained in mass by the regime. Although, forced by persistent Oromo opposition, the regime dropped the Addis Ababa Master Plan in February 2016, it did not release the Oromo youth who were arrested and imprisoned since the protests started. The removal of the TPLF forces from Oromia, and Oromo struggle for sovereignty over their homeland became the crucial issue during the protests. Oromo right over Finfinnee (Addis Ababa) was among the main themes of the slogans. Although Finfinnee is Oromia’s capital city and seat of its government, it has remained alienated from the use of the Oromo language and culture. Ironically, it is called an autonomous region within the federation which means it is not part of Oromia. As pointed out correctly by Dr. Tsegaye Araarsa, the city has retained its garrison characteristics and its imperial cultural heritage. The imperial law which had banned the Oromo culture and language in Finfinnee remained de facto in place, and until now, the Oromo had no school that teaches their children in their language, no museum and theatre in their own capital city. The Oromo are treated as strangers in their own city: they are forced to speak the settlers’ language. The excerpts from their slogans translated and reproduced below indicate the collective pledges the mourners made to struggle for their sovereign rights over their territory.
Finfinnee is ours! …..
Oromia is ours!
We are born on it!
We grew up on it!
We will never quit it!
The barrel of a gun!
Imprisonment or murder!
Will never make our resolve falter!
Oromo tradition does not condone violence that leads to blood-shed. However, the sheer immorality of the assault on the Irreecha festival made a call for armed self-defense against the TPLF regime a necessity. Consequently, sanctifying retribution, the mourning men and women in the funeral processions vowed to avenge the death of their compatriots, pledged to resist the state terrorism unleashed against them by the TPLF regime and die together fighting for freedom. They repeated, again and again, slogans which declared their intentions as they proceeded with Qaxalaa’s coffin to his final resting place draped in the Oromo freedom banner, the OLF flag.
We will avenge the death of our students!
If we don’t revenge the death of our youth!
Let their bones prick us like thorns!
Let their blood drown us like an ocean!
This is an oath we will never break!
Partial view: Qaxalaa Dafarsha Ragasaa’s funeral on October 17, 2016, Metta Roobi (source Gadaa.com, 2016)
Conceiving that collective grief or shared memory of heroic suffering and death is a defining characteristic of a nation. As Renan has suggested in the absence of heroes who were sacrificed for its cause, there can be no nation. He wrote that “Where national memories are concerned, griefs are of more value than triumphs, for they impose duties, and require a common effort.” The duties which the grief for the victims of the Irreecha massacre had “imposed” on the Oromo is reflected in their vows to fight the enemy together, and the pledges which they had made to strengthen their brotherhood. Carrying Qaxalaa’s coffin draped in the OLF flag and calling on the ekeraa (spirits) of the fallen heroes and heroines who sacrificed their lives for freedom in the past as witness, the mourners made their pledges to continue with the struggle and eliminate the system that is causing the suffering and death in Oromia. Consequently, the manifestations at the funerals did not deal in any length with the massacre committed at the Irreecha festival or during the numerous crackdowns, but with the need for the rejection of the TPLF-led regime and finding a lasting solution for the Oromo predicament. The mourning multitude chanted in unison as they moved slowly to the resting place of Qaxalaa’s remains:
Wake up Oromo freedom is calling!
Freedom is for what we are longing!
It is for freedom that we are thirsting!
We are rejecting the Wayyane!
We won’t be ruled by the Wayyanne anymore!
We will be led by the OLF!
OLA (Oromo Liberation Army) will protect us!
We will unfurl our flag in Finfinnee, in the heart of our land!
I will reiterate some of the main points presented and discussed above before embarking on the discussion of the State of Emergency declared by the TPLF-regime in the aftermath of the Irreecha massacre. Together with the massacre, a long list of other atrocities committed before and after October 9 making as mentioned before, 2016 the darkest year in Oromo memory since the conquest of their homeland at the end of the nineteenth century. Ironically, there were even positive achievements in relation to the tragedy described in this article. As I have stated in Part II of this article, the Oromo defeated fear definitely in 2016. It was a year when the Oromo poured into the street in their tens of thousands to protest against the implementation of the so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan with one voice. The Irreecha massacre united the Oromo nation more than ever. It renewed their common history and heightened their resolve and yearning for freedom. Furthermore, in relation to Irreecha, the year 2016 will also be remembered for both tragedy and joy – namely the massacre and the recognition of the Irreecha and related Oromo traditions by the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The State of Emergency (SOE) of October 9, 2016
The declaration of the state emergency on October 9, 2016, legalized the martial law, which was in de facto in practice since January 2016. Article 28 of State Emergency gave the security forces the power to (1) arrest anyone without court order, (2) detain in a place assigned by the command post until the end of the state of emergency, (3) present them before the court when necessary, (4) secure any property that was either used or is to be used for crime, (5)censor and block any information, publication, picture, video or movie transmitted using television and radio, (6) search stolen properties without warrant and return to the owners, (7) take legal measures and order the institutions to take administrative measures on students and staff protesting and instigating violence in education institutions, (8) detain and block people suspected of disrupting peace and security and at risk groups from specific places and (9) take other necessary measures. In its legal analysis of SOE, the HRW wrote “the sweeping provisions effectively codify measures that the security forces have been committing unlawfully in response to the protests.”
Nobody knows exactly how many people were arrested and imprisoned following the declaration of the SOE. According to the government between 20,000 and 27,000 people were imprisoned during the first three months following the declaration. According to Mulatu Gemechu, the Deputy Secretary of Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), the number of those who were imprisoned in Oromia alone during those months was more than twice that; the estimated number of detainees was 60,000 to 70,000. Writing about the consequences of the State of Emergency declaration, Felix Horne, HRW’s senior researcher for the Horn of Africa, noted,
The scale of the arrests is overwhelming. Many lives have been lost or forever altered. “Iftu,” a 16-year-old girl from Hararghe in Oromia, described the toll on her family – security forces shot and killed her father during an August protest. Several days after his funeral, two of her brothers were arrested and taken to Tolay military camp, and have not been seen since. Her mother and two other brothers went missing when the military went door to door in November “arresting every young person they could find,” she said. Her uncle cannot walk because of torture he suffered in Ziway prison following protests in Oromia in 2014. Iftu’s school administrator suspended her for one year after the military found a “protest song” on her phone. Her family and her future have been torn apart because she, her fellow students, and her father took to the streets to protest against government policies.
The declaration not only legalized but gave the Agazi even more power to rob, repress, rape and kill the Oromo. Consequently, there are tens and thousands of Iftus in Oromia today whose families were torn apart since October 2016. Although it was declared under the pretext of restoring law and order, the SOE put every Oromo at risk. It legalized harassment, murder, rape and confiscation of property which, hitherto, were being committed against the Oromo by the regime’s security forces. A judge in Ambo told a journalist from News24 that the SOE meant “that even in villages in Oromia people would arrest people just for walking together.” The choice given to those the regime targets has been between surrender and death. Unfortunately, surrender often did not save the target from rape, plunder or death. The Horn of Africa Human Rights League (HAHRL) reported that over 1,200 Oromos have been killed in the streets and in their homes between October 2016 and February 2017. Thus, the crimes which the TPLF security forces have been committing against the Oromo involved not just superseding the rule of law but included the violation of basic norms that govern decent human behavior in every culture.
Terrorism as a state doctrine
In many ways, the SOE declared on October 9, 2017, is comparable to the so-called Red Terror of the Dergue regime. Article 28 of the SOE gives the TPLF regime’s security forces prerogatives which are similar to the so-called netsa irmijjaa of the Dergue gave its militia to conduct Red Terror in the late 1970s. In the late 1970s, the militia were given the power to arrest and execute anybody they suspected of being “anti-revolutionary”. They were not constrained by any law. They were the law. In practice, the netsa ermijja became the instantaneous execution of thousands of suspects without any pretence to the rule of law. However, the use of terror did not eradicate resistance against the military regime. It exacerbated conflict as many men and women, particularly the young, took up arms and joined guerrilla forces to fight the Dergue regime, or flee from the country and conduct political struggle from exile. The end result was a disgraceful demise of the military regime in May 1991.
Ironically, the TPLF regime did not learn from history, but has recycled the failed methods of its predecessor thinking that it can defeat or pacify a defiant population. Although the regime has turned Oromia into a vast prison house and permanent killing field, the Oromo have refused to surrender. The state of emergency was lifted in August but the brutalization of the Oromo has continued in different forms. Consequently, Oromo resistance is becoming even more organized and radicalized than ever before. With increasing brutalization of their life, the Oromo response is inevitably transforming from peaceful protests to armed resistance. The self-defense campaign the Oromo are conducting against the allegedly TPLF-engineered invasion of parts of eastern and southeastern Oromia by the Somali-speaking Liyu Police (Special Police Force), which I will discuss later, reflects such a development.
The Oromo question?
One of the questions asked by journalists and others following the Irreecha massacre was “What is behind the Oromo protests?” Why didn’t the protest stop after the Addis Ababa Master Plan was withdrawn? Many gave the “marginalization of the Oromo people in Ethiopian” as an answer. The dictionary meaning of word marginalization is “sidelining”, “demotion”, “downgrading” and “disregarding”. But “marginalization” is not an adequate description of the “Oromo question” or in the words of the late Paul Baxter “Oromo problem”. The question is: What are the causes for Oromo marginalization? Why are the Oromo whose regional state lies in the heart of Ethiopia and produce most of Ethiopia’s wealth marginalized?
We cannot deal with all the answers to these questions here. One can say briefly that state terrorism, which involves the appalling acts of violence that has been committed against the Oromo people by the state since the creation of the Ethiopian Empire at the end of the nineteenth century, is the main problem of the Oromo people. In other words, the Oromo question is primarily about freedom from the violence perpetrated against them by the rulers of the Ethiopian state. The TPLF regime’s violence against the Oromo is the reflection of a political system that was in place for more than a century. As pointed out by many scholars, ever since the creation of the Ethiopian empire, abiding fear and vulnerability describe the animosity of the Habesha (Abyssinian) ruling elite toward the Oromo people. Giving fear of Oromo demography as an explanation for the atrocities perpetrated against the Oromo in imperial Ethiopia, the British historian Margery Perham wrote that the Oromo were “estimated to outnumber the Amharas and the Tigrayans, and they quite literally embrace half of the Ethiopian empire”, while “The other conquered southern peoples are of far less importance in number or in power” and were not a “source of danger.” Concerning the Oromo policy of the Dergue, Paul Baxter, Jan Hultin and Allesandro Trulzi stated that because the Oromo would not be assimilated and were too numerous to be ignored, they not only offered a political challenge like the Tigrayans and Eritreans, but also a cultural and national one. Baxter et al wrote, “The Oromo movement seemed to be doubly subversive because it stood for a sort of different moral order to that of the Amhara elite; which explains why the regime used its cruelest and crudest forms of violence against any signs of distinctive Oromo identity.” Here, what they refer to as “crude form of violence” is state terrorism. Normally, this is a reality which many observers, who argue the Oromo are not differently treated, and therefore cannot have grievances that are different from the grievances of the 80 plus peoples, often miss. The problem of the Oromo is not mere economic exploitation or political domination but also state terrorism which had been and is being used by Ethiopian rulers to keep them under control.
The TPLF is not the first Ethiopian regime to show animosity against the Oromo, but it is the cruelest of all its predecessors. Its policy may not be essentially different from that of its predecessors, but it has adopted a harsher form of state terrorism as a doctrine to suppress and dominate the Oromo. The numerous known and unknown concentration camps at Dhidheessa, Hurso, Bilaten, Ziway, Tolay, etc. through which tens of thousands of Oromos have passed since early the 1990s, or are being kept today, are novel repressive structures added by the TPLF regime to those used traditionally by the Ethiopian regimes.
The crimes committed by the TPLF against the Oromo were systematically conducted. Here, we are not talking about sporadic cases of rape, rare cases of mass killings, or occasional disappearances of few individuals, but systematic acts of state terrorism that have been consistently committed against the entire Oromo people for more than two decades. The victims of extra-judicial killings which the TPLF forces carried out in Oromia were not just a few individuals, but thousands of men, women and even children. In short, the killings, repression and all forms of violence against the Oromo have developed over time into large scale death. Unless this crimes against humanity are stopped immediately, there is the danger that it can develop into a genocide.
The deployment of Liyu Police against the Oromo
To contain Oromo resistance and stay in power, the TPLF is promoting a dangerous civil war. In addition to its Agazi squads and its police and military forces, the notorious Somali Liyu Police have been attacking and looting Oromo property since 2016. The Liyu Police force was established in 2008 by Meles Zenawi as part of a counter-insurgency unit against the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) which is fighting for autonomy of the Somali Regional State in eastern Ethiopia. Since then, human rights organizations have recorded horrendous abuses of human rights committed by the Liyu police against the Somali inhabitants, their own people. Ironically, the president of the Somali regional state, Abdi Omar commands and controls the Liyu Police in collaboration with the TPLF military commanders in the region.
What makes the incursion of this the para-military force into Oromia incredible is not only that they are abusing Oromo human rights, but also that it is occurring with tacit understanding and, according to many observers, command of the TPLF military, their bosses. For several months, the Liyu Police have been robbing, killing and uprooting Oromos in many districts in eastern, southeastern and southern Oromia. Although the region is under the control of TPLF military, the Liyu Police have been crossing in many places, the more than a thousand kilometers long border between Oromia and the regional Somali state, and looting and burning villages, murdering people, and raping women. The number of people killed runs into hundreds. The extent of Oromo property that has been looted or destroyed is unknown. According to the Ethiopian authorities, about half a million Oromos have been displaced from their home districts by the Liyu Police cross-border raids since 2016. Over 50,000 Oromos were deported from the Somali state during the last two weeks. According to deportees many were killed by the Liyu Police. The ethnic cleansing of Oromos from the Somali region continues. The farce in this so-called ethnic conflict is mind-boggling: the tragedy is orchestrated by the Ethiopian regime itself. The question is, can the Oromo see themselves as Ethiopian citizens? Or, is the TPLF/EPDRF their legitimate government?
The Oromo have been defending themselves against the Liyu Police for several months. Their appeal to the regional and federal authorities did not stop the Liyu Police from crossing borders and killing and robbing them. However, the greater their brutalization, the harsher the retaliatory response of the Oromo will become. They see the engineers of state terrorism, the TPLF regime, and not its instrument, the Liyu Police, as their main enemy. In other words, to ignite conflict between the Oromo and their neighbors as the TPLF is doing, is to play with fire; it will burn the regime itself.
The way out
The Oromo are brutalized; Oromo children are killed in front of their parents, and women are raped before their families. The Oromo are unarmed and defenseless. Their very survival is under question, and requires armed self-defense. To go back to the question of marginalization, the Oromo have been marginalized since the occupation of their land which occurred because of lack of means of self-defense—
firearms. History tell us that it was the Abyssinian elite’s access to European firearms and Oromo lack of it that brought death and humiliation on them in the late nineteenth century. The Oromo were marginalized because they were also voiceless. Outright denial or distortion of its history can hide an occupied nation from the rest of the world. This has been the fate of the Oromo people for a long time. They were made ‘invisible’ and voiceless through control of information about them. Evelyn Waugh, a renowned British novelist and journalist, after a couple visits to Ethiopia in the early 1930s, wrote that the “peoples of the south and west were treated with wanton brutality unequalled even in the Belgian Congo. Some areas were depopulated by slavers.” According to Waugh, Abyssinian imperialism “was not a question of a tolerable system being subject to abuse, but of an intolerable system.” What the “Abyssinians imposed was, by its nature, a deadly and hopeless system.” Waugh argued that “The significance of the Congo atrocities is not so much that they were committed as that they were exposed and suppressed.” He meant that in contrast, the atrocities committed by the Abyssinian rulers were hidden and unopposed. The Oromo lacked not only firearms, but also voice to defend themselves. Today, they are speaking for themselves; but they lack firearms to defend themselves. The way out is the strengthening of Oromo self-defense and immediate stop to acts of state terrorism. The TPLF-led state terrorism must be exposed, and its financial, military and diplomatic supporters must acknowledge their mistakes and withhold their support to the regime.