Interviewed by Michael Caplan
Amaan, a recent refugee to the United States, participated in the Institute For Social Ecology’s Ecology and Community program in the summer of 1999. Amaan is of Oromo decent. Like most Oromos, he lived in oppressive circumstances under the rule of the “Ethiopian Empire State.” As a people the Oromo make up a significant portion of the population within the Horn of Africa, and constitute about 30 million of the 55 million inhabitants of the Ethiopian Empire. Even though the Oromo nation is one of the largest in Africa today, it is relatively forgotten or utterly unknown to the majority of the world.
Ethiopia and Oromia. Green and beige areas represent present day Ethiopia. The green highlights the area of Ethiopia that Oromo nationalists claim as being their homeland.
Until the last quarter of the 19th century, the Oromo people had lived in an independent nation. Since then they have been colonized and annexed under the Ethiopian State, with the support of Western colonial powers. Between 1870 and 1900 this process of colonization resulted in the Oromo population being reduced by half, and being subjected to cruel treatment under the various emperors and their successors.
Since the days of colonization, the Oromo have been involved in a struggle for their freedom which is continuing in the face of the present realties of an IMF backed Ethiopia. Their demands are simple, but fundamental. They wish the right to national self determination as a means to liberate themselves from a century of oppression and exploitation. This means being able to institute a historical form of self-government they call Gadaa, a form of participatory democracy. Their struggle as a liberation movement has been two fold; resistance to the tyranny of Ethiopian rule, and the preservation of their cultural practices.
Harbinger: What were the circumstances that led you to the Institute for Social Ecology and North America?
Amaan: I am (was) a lawyer by profession, [did] my Bachelors at the University of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. But, ever since my graduation I have not been practicing law just for my personal ends. I was involved in a number of alternative politico-socio-economical projects and movements aimed at changing the wrong foundations and directions of the empire state of Ethiopia. This involvement made me reach out to various like-minded individuals, movements, and institutions. And the ISE is one of them.
H: What sort of activities were you involved with before and after the ISE?
A: Before coming to the USA, I used to work with (and for) the Oromo Grass Roots Initiative – focusing on integrating modern and traditional concepts of environmental protection schemes and micro financing projects in resource poor communities. Professionals for Justice, which I co-founded, was focused on raising the human rights consciousness of the people, gender equality and the provision of pro bono legal advice and representation for needy women and the elderly. Just before coming to the U.S. and the ISE, I was in the process of forming an educational, political and environmental protection organization in line with the basic precepts of a traditional Oromo concept of sustainable development and justice in cohort with the principle of the teaching of social ecology. Unfortunately nobody took over this organization and [brought it to realization] since I left. The security threat was (and still is) becoming very intense.
Life after the ISE was very tough on me. Due to a sudden shift of political and military power of balance in my home country I could not go home. I had to deal with a totally culturally different environment and for the most part an unfriendly one. For months I was not allowed to work and had to toil in the illegal labor arena in the worst neighborhoods in the District of Columbia. But after the government of the U.S accepted my case [of] political asylum I started to be active in the field of my heart’s desire.
I started working with Oromo political and community organizations in North America with a view of popularization of the Oromo movement to the international community. Also I worked with a Mississippi based law firm on the case of the U.S. Navy bombardment of Vieques, Puerto Rico and a case of similar level against big tobacco involving African nations. Apart from the above mentioned activities, I actively took part in the formation of the Dallas FortWorth Green Alliance at the end of the [previous] year.
H: Can you elaborate on the shift in the military and political power in Ethiopia that did not allow you to go home?
A: Since 1996 – 1997, the Oromo resistance movement has been growing and there [have] been a lot of confrontations with the Ethiopian Government’s army. Many important strategic locations were being hit by the Oromo army’s underground squads. At the same time, the Ethiopian army was fighting a major war with Eritrea. Actually, it was the biggest war in the world at that time, but there was a war going on in Europe, so it was not covered that much internationally. The government was really worried at that time about maintaining its power. The security measures that they took were really strict and serious. Curfews were imposed on some towns. The government was really threatened by all this. The Oromo movement was also fighting with the government, and Oromo guerrillas were also increasing. There were a number of frequent clashes. That’s what I mean by the shift in political and military power. The Ethiopian state was being weekend and [was] feeling very threatened.
They keep on taking actions to suppress the Oromo people. Now they have arrested more than 150 Oromo students from the University. This was in January. They were demonstrating. The problem goes back to the time when the Ethiopian government set fire to the whole of the natural forest of Oromia because they thought the Oromo Resistance Army was hiding out there. It was almost totally destroyed. Oromo students everywhere demonstrated against that and attempted to assist in putting out the fire, but the government did what they could to make this as difficult as possible. They appealed to the world community. It was only the states of South Africa and Germany who intervened begging the government to put out the fire.
After that there was an incident in the University where one professor said something derogatory about the Oromo movement. There were demonstrations against him. The government intervened by beating [the demonstrators] up and arresting them. This was one month ago.
H: You have been targeted by the Ethiopian state. Can you elaborate upon this?
A: For as [far] back as I can remember since my childhood I have suffered the oppression of the Ethiopian state for three main reasons: for belonging to the Oromo nation which has been resisting Ethiopian imperialism for more than half a century; for belonging to a big and strong radical and revolutionary family whose members have repeatedly been subject to threats, harassment, detainment, torture and extra-judicial killings at the hands of the Ethiopian government security forces. My father was among the founders of the Oromo Liberation Front in the early Seventies and was martyred. The third reason is for all my activities I was engaged in for the betterment of the lives of the disenfranchised people of my country of birth, Oromia, as mentioned in this interview elsewhere and those I did not mention for the safety of those people still fighting the decaying Ethiopian imperialism supported by irresponsible western nations.
H: What do you think social ecology has to offer to the struggle of the Oromo people and the reconstruction of a just and ecological Oromia?
A: That is actually the main reason why I attended the ISE. I have a lot of interest in the Oromo Gadaa democratic system and the theory of social ecology. When I came to the ISE, my aim was to try and see how I could use social ecology as a reference point to further expanded upon the Oromo democratic system, and see how I could make a synthesis out of the two. I wanted to see how the two systems complement each other, and expand upon the Gadaa system using social ecology theory. I still believe that social ecology will play a big role in helping the Oromo people and reconstructing their democracy. That is my main reason for pursuing social ecology.
H: How did the ISE and the ideas of social ecology impact you?
A: Though I was well familiar with the basic concepts of the principle of Social Ecology before, attending the ISE has profoundly influenced me and made me aware of how far world capitalist system is tramping up the very nature of humankind and destroying every human virtue. Most importantly, the ISE has shown me there are still some people out there determined to fight back.
For further information on the Oromo struggle the following books and web sites come recommended.
- Legesse, Asmarom. Oromo Democracy: An Indigenous African Political System. Eritrea: Red Sea Press, 2000.
- Jalata, Asfa. Oromo Nationalism and the Ethiopian Discourse : The Search for Freedom and Democracy. Eritrea: Red Sea Press, 1998.
- Baxter, P. T. W.. Being and Becoming Oromo : Historical and Anthropological Enquiries. Eritrea: Red Sea Press, 1996.
- Holcomb, Bonie and Ibssa, Sisay. The Invention of Ethiopia: A Dependent Colonial State in North East Africa. Eritrea : Red Sea Press.