The Oromo First Movement: A Struggle that Went Wrong


This is a call for unity from someone that has the blood of the Amara, Oromo and Tigre people flowing in his veins. This is a call for unity from an Ethiopian.

You are here. You are reading my article. First of all, I want to thank you for taking the time. Secondly, I would like to point out that this is my own personal opinion. You may find things that you partially agree with or some things you do not totally agree with, and if any of that happens, just know that my opinions emanate from an intense need to see a united Ethiopia. I do hope “agreeing to disagree” is something we can do, like the civilized people we all are.

I used to not like politics. In fact, I still don’t. There are two reasons for that. On one part, I don’t think my preconceptions of politics as a “boring discipline” has ever completely left me, despite trying hard to be highly interested in it. Secondly, I hold the notion that if one needs to be honest; one needs to be as far away from politics as possible, before one starts rationalizing away lies for the sake of the common good. In light of that, this is an article that I did not enjoy writing. But sometimes, we have to write even when something is not enjoyable. We have to write when something needs to be stated out loud. When those that don’t enjoy politics start feeling compelled to say something, it means that something has gone seriously wrong.

The Oromo people are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. They consist of more than forty percent of the population, and speak the “Affan Oromo” language. Beside Ethiopia, some Oromos live in Kenya, and a small refugee population exists in Northern Somalia. Oromos have lived in peace with people of other ethnicity for a long time. They have intermarried, they have studied each other’s language, and they have struggled together for a common cause. But today, this unity is threatened. It is not only threatened, but it seeks to completely break. If successful, Ethiopia as we know it will seize to exist. The reason is an ideology of one man; Jawar Mohammed. Note that this is not a personal attack on Jawar Mohammed himself, but a critique of his ideology.

I first heard of the Oromo First movement about three years ago, when I was studying in Addis Ababa University, 4kilo Campus. While I was in the computer lab, I glanced at the Facebook news feed of a friend of mine seated next to me, and saw a flag I had never seen before. It featured the big tree that I know from the Oromo flag, but consisted of different colors. I asked my friend what it was, and he told me that is the “future flag of the Oromo people”. I was confused. I asked him for clarification, and shortly after, I wished I hadn’t. The flag, it turns out, was the result of the “Oromo first” movement spearheaded by Jawar Mohammed. My friend told me that the movement’s goal was to “liberate” the Oromo not only from an oppressive government, but from Ethiopia as well. “I am Oromo First”, he told me. I was completely shocked. How have I never heard of this before? Even though I was shocked, though, the initial shock passed. I told myself it is not a serious movement. Surely, the Oromo people do not want to separate from Ethiopia. I dismissed the thought that they might be contemplating such an idea.

In light of the recent Oromo protests though, the matter came to focus. I discovered that the idea is far more serious that I had first anticipated. It has set its roots planted deeply in young Oromo students. Therefore, I set out to find more about the “Oromo First” movement. I researched. I asked my friends, read different articles, and listened to many different opinions. I wanted to know more about the founder of the movement; Jawar Mohammed. I read his articles; I saw his talks and different interviews he had conducted. I wanted to form my opinions anew. I wanted them to be as free from any bias as possible.

I think I have been fairly successful in achieving my goal. Here is the verdict.

I cannot deny that the “Oromo First” movement has its roots in genuine problems within the Oromo people; problems that did not start with the appearance of the current ruling party. Anyone that knows a little Ethiopian history would know that the Oromo population has suffered through the ages. Despite being the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, Oromos have been subjected to racial prejudices. They have been forced to feel ashamed of their language and culture. To put it bluntly, they have suffered a lot. Perhaps that is why the “Oromo First” movement registered quickly with the Oromo youth. It talked of liberation. It talked of justice. It talked of being proud with one’s identity and culture. It is no wonder that the youth is absolutely mesmerized. It is no doubt that Jawar is hailed as a hero. Perhaps, that is exactly the reason why the Oromo First movement can’t be seen for what it really is; a once genuine question for freedom which has later on mutated into a dividing ideology.

If anyone sees the interview of Jawar Mohammed with Al-Jazeera, then the ideology becomes starkly clear. Jawar holds the belief that the Oromo people have been conquered by Abyssinia and incorporated into the state against their will. He says that being Oromo was considered as being equivalent with being “enemy”. If such exaggerations were not bad enough, he unites them with actual problems of the Oromo people. He speaks of how the Oromos were exploited for speaking their own language, and how they have been robbed of their resources. When the journalist asked “Jawar, are you Oromo first or Ethiopian first?”, he answered “I am Oromo first. Ethiopia is imposed on me. We are forced to denounce our identity”.

That is what the “Oromo first” question holds within it. That being Ethiopian is something that is imposed. That to be Ethiopia is to somehow not be Oromo. It has become an ideology that seeks to concoct contradictions where there are none. It is something that sets being Ethiopian and Oromo at the same time as an invalid choice. Is it not stark clear that the movement that started with roots in real problems has somehow mutated into an ideology that seeks to separate Oromia from the whole of Ethiopia? How would separation help the struggle? Separation is almost always a last resort. One would choose that when all other proposed solutions have been tried and failed. Is it not a little suspicious when one proposes separation as a solution, and at the same time refuse to hear the ideas of others? Perhaps most Oromo youth are caught in the hype and can’t see the ideology for the harmful “honey laced with poison” that it is, but at least those of us that do need to be aware of the real threat.

The Oromo people demand that their resources be used for their development. They demand that they be free to express their viewpoints. They demand that they not be persecuted because of their ethnicity. As far as that goes, I am with the Oromo people. I am all for their freedom. But I am not going to support an ideology that seeks to divide. I will not support an ideology that will stop us being a people. I will not stand for an ideology that seeks to destroy strong bonds between the Oromo people and people of other ethnicity by seeking out history that is potentially harmful. We could use history to learn from our mistakes and better ourselves, rather than to preach hatred and divide. If People like Jawar keep talking about the injustice that the Oromo suffer, then they need to be fair and mention the injustice that their own forefathers committed! But again, why do that? Why mention history to injure when one can use it to heal?

Most of all, why use it to divide when one can use to unite?