Over the course of two weeks, up until the moment Ethiopian authorities identified members of the Oromo Liberation Front as suspects in the murder of a highly revered Oromo singer-activist, more than 200 lives have been lost in acts of violence motivated by the Oromo people’s grievances against the government and their desire for a separate ethno-state.
While some Ethiopians of the Diaspora such as Yonathan Mengistu empathize with the Oromo people’s strife, they argue that their destruction of buildings, homes and towns, along with the Oromo-backed desecration of Ethiopian cultural landmarks in Ethiopia and the United Kingdom, show a lack of knowledge about the global, elitist forces keeping the majority of Ethiopians impoverished and divided.
“Ethiopia is made up of ethnic states. Each region is the semi-autonomous land of a particular group, of which the Oromo people boast the largest size,” Mengistu told The Informer as he explained how the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) divided Ethiopia during the passage of a new constitution more than 30 years ago.
In 1987, EPRDF, a coalition of Ethiopian ethnic and political factions, defeated the Derg, the Marxist-Leninist group whose oppression of the Ethiopian masses sparked more than a decade of civil conflict and invasions. The Derg’s penchant for imprisoning hoards of people and inflicting widespread violence unified various ethnic groups, including the Oromo, in an effort to topple the military government.
For centuries, the Oromo, an independent, indigenous people with a system of governance known as the Gadaa, unsuccessfully resisted pressure to unite under the paradigm of a slightly smaller Amhara group.
By the 1900s, the Oromo population was reduced in half in encounters with the Amhara. In the years leading up to the Derg’s 1975 overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie I, remnants of the group’s language and culture had been suppressed.
Though there had initially been some embrace of the Derg, the Oromo people, along with other groups of Ethiopians, continued to suffer under their rule, and some argue well beyond the installation of the modern-day government. By the early to mid-2010s, the now-deceased Oromo singer-activist Hachalu Hundessa wrote and produced revolution-themed songs that inspired a mass movement, and eventually compelled the appointment of Ethiopia’s first Oromo prime minister in 2018.
Around the world, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali’s appointment showed some promise of progress, but some Oromo said they remain under siege in some of the military-occupied portions of the country they’ve made their home. Hundessa’s June 29 death at the hands of an armed assailant again unearthed feelings long harbored by the Oromo ethnic group.
Mengistu, however, said there’s no sense in going after other oppressed people.
“Oromo are certainly a large group that is spread out in the country,” he said. “Given their size, they have more people in impoverished conditions [but] no one group is particularly advantaged other than the elites.
“As far as I’m concerned, Western-style pedagogical approaches in the country, by and large, have played a neocolonial role in miseducating the masses as well as robbing them of the depths of their roots,” Mengistu said.
As communities in Ethiopia reel from violence, public officials in Ethiopia and around the world continue to condemn the recent killings, and the desecration of Ras Makonnen Wolde Mikael’s statue in the city of Harar, that prompted the Ethiopian government to shut off internet access up until earlier this week.
To the chagrin of followers of the Rastafari faith, dissidents in London also destroyed a statue of Emperor Selassie, who many Rastas see as the second coming of Jesus Christ.
In response to the desecration of his grandfather and great-grandfather’s statues, Prince Ermias Sahle-Selassie challenged the notion that the monarchy oppressed the Oromo people, namely by referencing Oromo pioneers who served important roles in the development of the East African country.
Meanwhile, Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat from California and chair of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, called for a solution that held instigators accountable, restored internet access to Ethiopia and continued the country along a path of reforms.
Whether those reforms would provide full Ethiopian citizenship for members of the Rastafari community living in the town of Shashamane has yet to be seen.
Throughout the 1960s and 1990s, legions of Rastas from around the world relocated to the 500-acre plot of land in Shashamane that Emperor Selassie designated for people of African descent. For them, that political move fulfilled a biblical prophecy of Rastas’ return to the Motherland, what they called Zion.
Over the years, as Rastas struggled to integrate into Ethiopian society, the population of Shashamane has dwindled with the movement of inhabitants to Addis Ababa or another country. While residence permits identify Rastas as foreign nationals, many repatriates said that designation isn’t sufficient.
As of press time, spurts of violence haven’t touched the Rasta community in Shashamane.
Such events, however, as seen in a recent communique sent to Rastas living in the U.S., have sparked concerns about the hurdles in realizing a Pan-African vision championed by Emperor Selassie.
“Hundreds of Ethiopians have lost everything in Shashamane. Businesses, shops, schools, markets, houses [are] burnt down, [and] people [are] sheltering in churches by the hundreds,” said a portion of a report compiled by Dr. Giulla and WunZooyah Queenmother Moses.
“All shops around [the] bus station [were] destroyed except one shop just opened by a sister,” the report continued. “Shashamane looks like it’s the only place in Ethiopia where [the] town [was] destroyed so. Army arrived yesterday by parachute, and is stationed close to [us] around NOC station as it is [the] gate to town.”