Religious Division Among Oromo – Fact or Fancy?

By Oromsis Adula*

In recent years, the OLF has seen multiple splits. The most damaging one came in 2008 when the “change group” announced their fallout with the Asmara based faction better known as “Shane.” After two years of attempts at reconciliation, a unity agreement was signed in Washington DC on September 25, 2010.

As a follow-up of the event, last week, I posted a brief editorial along with a short video segment, a speech by Obbo Ahmed Hussein, one of the founders of OLF – who is also part of the panel of elders leading the current reunion.

In retrospect, my editorial remarks could have been clearer. Or a better choice of the title would have done the trick. But still, I was staggered that two Ethiopian websites – namely Addis Neger Online and Jimma Times – purposely or perhaps owing to language barriers (the video is in Afaan Oromo) – have erroneously suggested the video purports to point out a “religious division” among the Oromo. Or presented our report as if Mr. Ahmed said “religious division” has undermined the Oromo struggle suggesting a religious division between religious sects (Christian vs. Muslim Oromos).

Clearly, even taking the short clip from a much longer speech by the respected elder as a whole, Mr. Ahmed Hussein did not talk about religious or any other division. Also, I am not sure where I alluded to the division that the editors of the aforementioned websites noted in their cross-posting. I am especially troubled the editors of the two websites, who have in the past failed to publish much more informative articles, chose to take up this particular issue.

First off, I commend our friends over at Gadaa.com for issuing a well-timed media watch. At a complete loss, I am obliged to recalibrate my editorial remarks and also expand on the message contained in the video hoping that a language barrier was the devil’s advocate in the case. Granted we are all watching the same video, Mr. Ahmed began his remarks citing a personal anecdote where two Oromo individuals have expressed to him the view that Oromummaa (the Oromo identity) supersedes religious beliefs. Mr. Ahmed stated what a Muslim confidante once told him and I warily rephrase; I am Muslim and wear a religious hat, a hat that can always be taken off but my Oromummaa is something that I cannot wash or take off – much like the expression that a blood cannot be cleansed. The Christian counterpart told Mr. Ahmed the same but used a cross worn around neck as a symbol of Christianity in place of hat.

As far as I can understand, Mr. Ahmed used the two examples – simply to state that one is born with an identity (Oromummaa in our case) while religion is a choice individual’s make later in life. Or learn as they grow older. For instance, Christians go through a religious indoctrination and get baptized. Similar practices also exist among Muslims where people undergo an initiation of sort. Mr. Ahmed went on to say, the Oromo Diaspora communities are becoming too religious (either too Christian or too Muslim) which according to him is a worrying trend. Yet, becoming too religious or valuing one’s religion more than nationalistic sentiments is not the same thing as religious division – as alluded to by the duo as a division say between Christian and Muslim Oromos. To say the least, that is an ill-fated mischaracterization of both Mr. Ahmed’s position and my editorial comments.

For the record, Oromo people (at every level of all Oromo organizations) run their affairs with complete disregard to individual’s religious backgrounds and without any known problem. As such, the jinxed choice of an eye-catching title by JT and ANO is an ominous prophecy. The mother of all ironies, as precisely pointed out by Gadaa.com’s editor, is the speakers (pictured above) religious backgrounds which is self-evident of the fact that Oromia is a religious “rainbow nation” – perhaps a good one at that.

I hope the editors of the two websites cross-post this and Gadaa.com’s comments, amend their earlier positions and/or issue a clarification. Failure to correct such a blatant misappropriation will lead us to conclude that there are some subtle messages the editors sought to communicate. In the backdrop of a falsified Ethiopian history and the current efforts to mitigate an ethnic apartheid system, Ethiopian media outlets should remain uninterested and unbiased commentators on events.

Given this opportunity, I call upon all Oromos to come forward and discuss the issue of religion that is often less talked about in our community. I posted Mr. Ahmed’s candid remarks in an attempt to kick off a constructive dialogue. It is unfortunate that some have taken a far-fetched detour from the issue at hand. I still hope a constructive discussion can be built around the issue granted I made my case abundantly clear.

Religion among Oromo People: A Synopsis

Oromo people make up a significant portion of Horn of Africa’s population. Estimated at 40 million in Ethiopia alone, the Oromo occupy the most fertile areas in Africa’s second populous country. Ethiopia, formerly Abyssinia, is one of the oldest states on the continent. Ethiopia’s historical past characterized by a protracted rampage and pillage of the northerners against most of the south haunts its contemporary politics.

Home to over 83 different ethnic groups, Ethiopia boasts a long religious tradition (Coptic Orthodox Christianity once an enforced state religion), a distinct culture and escaping the curses of western colonization. Abyssinia is one of the oldest Christian states in the region dating back to the conversion of King Ezana to Christianity about 4th century B.C. Likewise, long before Islam took roots even in Arabian Peninsula, the epicenter of Islamic expansion, Ethiopia welcomed the first Muslim émigrés. The Quran makes a reference to Prophet Mohammed (PUB) seeing off Muslim expatriates to Abyssinia who were received and granted refugee by a certain king of Abyssinia.

Ethiopia was once referred to as a Christian island in the sea of pagans (a deprecating reference to traditional believers). The current minority rulers subtly portray Ethiopia as Christian Island in the sea of Muslims – hence a cushion between the Muslim and Christian world. (Sounds familiar? Consider the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia and the war on terror).

Before Islam and Christianity reached the Horn of Africa, Oromo people worshipped a supreme being called Waaqa or Waaqayyo (an Oromo equivalent of God). Oromo people call their belief system Waaqefanna (also called the Oromo religion). In nature, Judeo-Christian religions actively seek out adherents. But in Ethiopia, historically, the conversion of non-Christian subjects to Christianity orchestrated by the state had more of political undertones than religious dogmas.

Non-Christian subjects (such as the Oromo) were baptized en mass at public gatherings. History also tells us that the Oromo took up Islam in protest and faced even more atrocious campaigns. However, notwithstanding religious differences (Christians, Muslims and Waaqefatas) regular folks in whole of Ethiopia lived peacefully side by side for as far back as records go. Of all the wars that the Abyssinian/Ethiopian state waged against one or the other group (it is innumerable) – there is no record of religious war. The historical closest is perhaps Ahmed Al-Ghazi (Gragn)’s invasion of Abyssinia but evidently with non-religious triggers at its roots.

Predominantly Muslim, Oromo people also embrace various denominations of Christianity and Waaqefanna. Despite that fact, the Oromo intermarry and serenely coexist as a close-knit society guided by a magnanimous cultural tradition. Religious and tolerances of all kind is an intrinsically Oromo virtue. At the core of Oromo worldview is the respect for individual rights and the idea of a free will of individuals. The Oromo civilization is full of stories where even POWs are taken in as equals. Oromo elders settle even murder cases through an elaborate system of conflict resolution in accordance with established customs. In whole, the Oromo tradition is built around harmony among people and between people and nature. Also, the Oromo socio-cultural institution – the Gadaa system that once guided the life of every Oromo from birth to death reinforces tolerance, harmonious and consensus based living.

The Oromo struggle dates back to the days of Abyssinian incursion into Oromo territories.  It is a legitimate quest to restore the shattered Oromo identity, institutions, and traditions and to enable the Oromo people to exercise inalienable rights on their own homeland. History is testament to a long Oromo resistance against all overt and covert campaigns by Abyssinian and later Ethiopian state.

The need to effectively coordinate an all-out Oromo resistance and confront the ever growing marginalization of the Oromo brought about the formation of Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Established in the second half of 20th century, the OLF is a pan-Oromo organization – perhaps the only one, even with acknowledged weaknesses and leadership failures, that commands an overwhelming support among Oromos from all walks of life. To date, OLF enjoys an undivided support among Oromos of different faiths and beliefs. Perhaps an amicable support those OLF leaders have failed to galvanize and effectively coordinate towards an ordained goal.


Update: After I issued a clarification on our editorial and Obbo Ahmed Hussein's speech at the OLF reconcilliation forum, Addis Neger Online, apologizes, yet leaves the original comments on its page. 

The editor wrote, Opride.com and Gadaa.com took us to task for alluding in one of our links that Ahmed Hussien talked about religious division among Oromos. We apologize for the honest mistake we made. A review of Ahmed’s speech linked on Opride shows that Ahmed was expressing his concern that the Oromos in diaspora were becoming too religious at the cost of nationalist sentiments; not that they were divided on religious lines.

I welcome the apology, the speedy response and take the ANO Editors at their word.



* Oromsis Adula is the Editor of OPride.com a multimedia weblog that aggregates Oromo, Ethiopian and news about the Horn of Africa. Oromsis writes regular commentaries and Op-Eds on events that affect the Oromo people and on Ethiopian politics.

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