- The Italian Invasion, the Ethiopian Empire, and Oromo Nationalism:The Significance of the Western Oromo Confederation of 1936
In 1916, a palace coup d'état led by the Shewan nobility brought to power Ras Taffari Mekonnen as the regent and heir apparent to the throne of the Ethiopian empire.1 Soon Taffari began to take measures to make himself the de facto ruler of the empire. In the 1920s, he focused on removing Menelik's stalwarts from office and cutting them off from their power base. After his accession to the throne in 1930 as Emperor Haile Sellassie, he embarked on a program of political centralization to end the limited autonomy of the regions that had maintained semi-independent status since their incorporation into Ethiopia. As he worked to concentrate power in his own hands, Haile Sellassie reversed the political arrangements of Emperor Menelik. The latter had ruled through a combination of coercion and consent, appointing military rulers where he encountered resistance and granting internal autonomy to hereditary rulers who agreed to accept his suzerainty peacefully and pay annual tributes.2 Haile Sellassie found his predecessor's administrative system incongruent with his vision of an empire ruled from the center by an all-powerful sovereign. He abolished the semi-independent status of such regions as Tigray, Gojjam, and Jimma, and appointed only Shewans to rule the subordinate regions.3 [End Page 75]
When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, the deposed hereditary rulers felt that their time had come to settle scores. They defected to the Italian side in the hope of regaining their positions. Indeed, the Italians appointed them as governors of their former domains. In 1941, when Haile Sellassie returned to power, they were once again excluded from power. In response, they made common cause with the oppressed people in their regions and rebelled against an apparently "irreversible centralization under the hegemony of the Shewan Amhara nobility."4
In Oromo areas, grievances against the initial conquest and loss of autonomy ran deep. Ever since they had been conquered by Menelik, Oromos had expressed their rejection of Abyssinian rule through acts of defiance, ranging from embracing Islam to outright rebellion. When Italy invaded Abyssinia, Oromos seized the moment to reclaim their lost freedom and sovereign existence. In 1935, the Raya and Azeboo Oromos attacked the Abyssinian armies going to and returning from the Battle of Maichew. Even the fleeing emperor felt threatened enough to avoid passing through their land. In 1936, the Oromo of Jimma attacked and expelled Amhara officials and thereby demonstrated their rejection of colonial rule. In western Abyssinia, the hereditary rulers of the Oromo declared the establishment of an independent polity called the Western Oromo Confederation (WOC) and offered themselves as a mandate territory of the League of Nations.5
These acts of resistance have not been adequately documented in Ethiopian historiography. The neglect is not due to a lack of adequate sources. Contemporary observers have left a thorough record of events in the Oromo areas during the Italian invasion. British consular reports from Goré, for instance, maintain that several Oromo regions took advantage of the Italian invasion to reclaim their lands. According to one such report,
the various factions (provinces) were always on the point of open war . . . with the Taffari party which was only a family government operating in Addis Ababa as events clearly proved on the Italian invasion every single province either going into open rebellion like GOJAM-TIGRE and OGADEN or passive rebellion by refusing to take part in the war like the western Galla provinces and the [End Page 76] southern provinces held in subjection with a light Amhara garrison of feudal soldiery holding the occupied provinces in serfdom. These Amhara garrisons were withdrawn to Northern front and the whole country has been seized by whatever tribe the province contains.6
As the above statement shows, most of the Oromo resistance movements have always sought freedom from Amhara domination, restoration of their land, and recognition of their cultural identity and political autonomy. These objectives ran contrary to the political desires of the Ethiopianist elite to maintain Ethiopia as a unified country. Documenting Oromo-led movements as worthy historical phenonema...