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  • Conquest, Tyranny, and Ethnocide against the Oromo:A Historical Assessment of Human Rights Conditions in Ethiopia, ca. 1880s–2002
  • Mohammed Hassen

This article attempts to assess the human rights conditions of the Oromo people under four Ethiopian regimes. Beginning with the conquest and incorporation of Oromia into the Ethiopian empire, it provides an overview of the brutality and depredations that Oromos suffered at the hands of Ethiopian soldiers and administrators under Menelik (r. 1880s–1913) and the concerted attacks on the Oromo cultural heritage, language, and national identity during the six decades when Haile Sellassie dominated the Ethiopian political landscape (1916–74). Then it examines the violence against the Oromo national identity and the attempt to alter the demographic makeup of Oromia by the Ethiopian military-socialist regime (1974–91) and the massive human rights violations perpetrated against the Oromo since 1992 in the name of democracy and federalism. In all, the article shows that for more than a century, the Oromo have endured unrelenting attacks on their individual rights, their national identity and cultural institutions, and their independent organizations. Ethiopia has yet to produce a government that respects Oromo human rights.

Before I proceed, a few caveats are in order. First, the definition of human rights varies depending on cultural, historical, political, economic, and ideological considerations. In this article, I will follow the definition of Mahmood Monshipuri: [End Page 15]

The concept of human rights . . . refers to . . . civil and political rights; rights to life, privacy, a fair trial, humane treatment, prohibition of torture and slavery, freedom of movement and residence; the right not to be arbitrarily arrested or detained; freedom of association, political participation, and equal protection under the law.2

Second, "Historians, in general, are most at home when dealing with events that have been allowed to settle over time."3 It is easier to discuss Oromo human rights conditions before 1991, an era that belongs to history, than in the period since 1991, a highly contested period of history in the making. As I have noted elsewhere, "the present is an emotionally charged psychological moment."4 While it is possible to present a relatively objective picture of Oromo human rights conditions based on the record produced by both Ethiopian and foreign writers,5 one cannot escape being accused of exaggerating the Oromo people's plight and indulging in anti–Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) propaganda. My purpose is nevertheless to document the human rights conditions of the Oromo as a scholar loyal to the canons and standard practices of my discipline. If this article encourages others to write about human rights conditions in Ethiopia, its purpose will have been served.

Third, the Oromo do not have influential friends in positions of power among Western governments and the Western media. Diaspora Oromos do not have the numerical strength and resources necessary to capture the attention of either the governments or the media. Consequently, the sufferings of the Oromo have received little international attention. The apparent Western indifference to the misery of the Oromos has encouraged the TPLF authorities to continue their Oromo human rights violations with impunity. I believe my duty to the victims of human rights violations is "to record their plight so that they are not forgotten by history, and that history is not rewritten to conceal or distort embarrassing facts."6 This article is an attempt to contribute in a small way to the effort of recording the past in its totality so that future generations will not have to relive their tortured past. Space does not permit me to provide a thorough account of human rights conditions in Ethiopia between the 1880s and 2002. Instead of a detailed discussion, I will outline the salient features of the human rights conditions experienced by the Oromo people [End Page 16] during the century after Menelik's conquests in the 1880s, and I will focus especially on the period after 1991.

Conquest, Exploitation, and Deculturation: The Imperial Period, 1880s–1974

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the steady flow of European warfare technology into Abyssinia and its virtual absence from Oromia facilitated and increased Abyssinian raids for slave and cattle into Oromo territory. This...


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