Ethiopia: Dark side of Oromo expansions and Menelik conquests
January 3, 2014
by Abera Tola
Through out history; people have migrated and expanded seeking greener pastures and more land. Globally, most countries have endured and were created thru expansions, wars, assimilation, migration; slavery etc. Even the most developed countries in the world today have dark pasts. For example; millions of Native Americans were exterminated or removed from their homelands while millions more African-Americans underwent the most cruel slavery in world history before the great democracy; the USA; was born. If not for the gradual improvement of human rights in America and its military superiority triggering an economic powerhouse; United States would have been just another poor country facing fragmentation and internal division due to its dark history of conquest and slavery. While Ethiopia did not have as much a bloody history as America; it did experience some conflicts and small level of slavery. Considering how extremely diverse Ethiopia is ethnically, linguistically, politically and religiously, Ethiopia still has been a relatively peaceful country. And that has been one reason why, despite all its problems, its citizens are proud. Case in point: how many poor countries with over ninety native languages and a near 50/50 Islam/Christian population have managed to co-exist or live in relative peace for over thousand years? Not many. But still, Ethiopia has had its share of problems as well. As an Oromo; the two most violent and most important events that impacted my people are the Oromo expansion in the 1500s and the Shewan Menelik expansion of the 1880s. These two events represent the two stages of Ethiopia’s ethnolinguistic evolution.
Stage one: Oromo expansion
After the 1540s; the ethnolinguistic and political shape of the horn of Africa changed forever when the Oromo expanded north into territories dominated by the Amharic speaking people of Abyssinia/Ethiopia as well as the Sidama and the Adal kingdoms. Historians credit our unique Gadaa system for being suitable for warfare and for the successful conquest of present day central; west and eastern Ethiopia by the Oromo. According to Oromo oral accounts and historical records; the Oromo expansion into Abyssinia was disorganized but Oromo raids and attacks of the neighboring people lasted for many decades; leading to the killing of tens of thousands of Amharic speaking people. The powerful Oromo benefitted from its large population and better developed battle strategy. The Oromo expansions were also similar to that of the Ottoman Empire expansion because they both did not always change the religion of their new subjects. With the only exception of the Yejju Oromo imposing Afan Oromo on Amharas in Gondar; the Oromos also never enforced their language on other people. Nonetheless; many Somali, Amharic and Sidama speaking peoples became “tax-paying serfs” for the new Oromo rulers. And having already been weakened by the Adal/Somali conquest of southern Abyssinia; the Amharic & Tigrayan speaking population of Abyssinia lost more lands to the Oromo; including the Shawa and Dawaro regions (Arsi area) that have been Abyssinian territories since the days of their ancient Aksum empire. Today; the descendants of these Oromo settlers makeup the dominant population in Shewa and Arsi. Not only the eastern and southern edges of the Abyssinian highlands but; gradually; even some northern pockets of Abyssinia got conquered by Oromo warlords: which explains why small Oromo communities can still be found as far north as Tigray even today. Thus; in the late 1500s; having lost substantial territories to the Oromo; the Solomonic Dynasty/Abyssinia declined in power for decades. But that century also started the transformation of Abyssinia into a more multi-ethnic entity: one that was forced to incorporate Oromo as one of its citizens.
Stage Two: Menelik/Shewan expansion
Another significant event that greatly impacted the ethnic and political situation in Ethiopia and the region was the Shewan/Abyssinian expansion led by Emperor Menelik II during the late 1800s. Just like the Oromo expansion; the Abyssinian expansion was disorganized since many parts of Abyssinia were in conflict amongst each other. The Shewan part of Abyssinia have been in various small battles against Gondar and Gojjam parts. However; using relatively modern weapons purchased from European countries; the Shewan Abyssinians defeated other Abyssinian regions and then they continued on to re-conquer Oromo territories that were settled by the Oromos since the 1500s. Proportionally; about the same percentage of people might have perished during the Shewan expansion (stage 2) compared to the Oromo expansion (stage 1). However; seen in raw figures; many thousands more were killed during the bloody conquests by Menelik’s Shewan army. As the sign of the times, not many international laws of war exists to stop the atrocities during these wars, or for that matter during any wars around the globe. Yet one undeniable key fact of this war was that the Shewan army was ethnically diverse, even if Amharas were the militarily dominant group in it. Because Oromos settled in Shewa since their 1500s expansion; Shewa was already a melting pot of Amhara and Oromo by the late 1800s. Therefore; the multi-ethnic Shewan army of Emperor Menelik was able to easily defeat various Oromo and southern areas of present day Ethiopia.
Both of these historical events of the 1500s and the 1800s shaped the ethnolinguistic identity of the new Ethiopia.
The most glaring difference between the two events is that one happened in a recent memory and thus it influences the current politics of the region more powerfully. Otherwise; both events are dark and equally violent parts of our history. De-emphasizing or ignoring one event over the other only creates confusion and bitterness among the new generation. An Oromo should not ignore “stage one” and only talk about “stage two.” Similarly; an Amhara should not ignore “stage two” and only talk about “stage one.” The blame game by bringing a biased version of the past only poisons the present. No one side should play the victim game or live in the past, instead of working for a better future; otherwise everyone will fall together.
-US Library of Congress Country study: Ethiopia history
– Pankhurst; Richard K.P. The Ethiopian Borderlands: Essays in Regional History from Ancient Times to the End of the 18th Century. The Red Sea Press; Asmara.
– Oromo Oral history