Self-Determination and Oromo Nationalism

Self-Determination and Oromo Nationalism

By Gizaw Tasissa (PhD), September 14, 2018

Self-determination is popular but seems challenged by counter parts of itself, i.e. alien determinants. Self-determination can be traced back to the late 18th c. However, the phrase self-determination of people “arose first in the middle of the 19th c. Although the right was spoken of, initially it was not a legally actionable right to which a subject-people was entitled. Despite the ruling constitution recognizes self-determination, there are assertions that self-determination in Ethiopia in general and that of Oromia is unjustified and outdated. In this paper I argue that self-determination of Oromo is genuine and justified. To substantiate this, I will examine Oromo nationalism and self-determination in line with theories of self-determination and legal provisions. Secondary and tertiary data as well ethnographic insider  are bases of  evidence.

Theories of Self-determination and Oromo Nationalism

Scholars provide different theories of self-determination. In this section, collective self-determination, individual self-determination and the right of self-determination will be discussed. Before looking into theories of selfdetermination, it is good to make clear what nationalism is.

Takayuki (1999) defines,

Nationalism is a political, social, and economic system characterized by the promotion of the interests of a particular nation, especially with the aim of gaining and maintaining sovereignty (self-governance) over the homeland. Nationalism holds that a nation should govern itself, free from outside interference and is linked to the concept of self-determination.

Others take this definition further and identify nationalism as ideological movement for destiny.  For instance, Anthony Smith  in Bulcha (p 54) stipulates that it is definite ideological movement for attaining and maintaining autonomy , identity  and unity of a social group, some of whose members deem it to be an actual  or potential “nation”. In other words, it is a movement of self-determination.

Thus, one can conclude that Nationalism is further oriented towards developing and maintaining a national identity based on shared, social characteristics, such as culture and language, religion and politics, and a belief in a common ancestry. Nationalism is therefore, self-determination to preserve a nation’s culture, by way of pride in national achievements., which, in some cases, includes the belief that the nation should control the country’s government and the means of production. Related to this is Self-determination.

There is no as such serious differences among scholars in understanding what self-determination is. A research team, National Gate Way (2016) describes self-determination to refer to a characteristic of a person that leads them to make choices and decisions based on their own preferences and interests, to monitor and regulate their own actions and to be goal-oriented and self-directing.

Likewise, Jorg (p18) describes self-determination as in below.

 One must speak of self-determination when the subject who determines and the subject to be determined are identical, regardless of whether it is an individual or collective. If this identity is lacking, if someone determines someone else, then one has a case of alien determination, even if both parties are of the same heart and mind.

The above definitions explain that self determination a natural human behaviour in order to satisfy its their natural and social needs including politics. These needs could be either collective or individual needs to which I turn below.

Collective self-determination

Over time/ the concept of collective self -determination as a technical term became highly politicised.  The right of self-determination of people does not refer to an individual but rather to a collective as the subject of this right. A collective can comprise anything from two people to the whole of humanity and can function in many waysWhereas in the case of an individual, self-determination can be presupposed with the existence of the individual, a collective by no means automatically has the capacity to act or is an entity that has decided to act.

Jorg (p 25) stipulates that Collective self-determination first needs to undertake to achieve goals that require action according to a unitary will. Following that it must achieve a condition in which it is capable of acting, by means of rules for converting the individual wills of the participants into a general will of the collective.

The Oromo nationalism for recognition is underpinned by this theory which emerged as a result of the denial and subjugation of cultural and political rights by the subsequent Abyssinian regimes. The individual national consciousness turned into social movement which is represented by struggle for self determination. Underpinning this Bulcha (52) has to say the following. “Reactions to state denial of the cultural and political rights of peoples is expressed through struggle. Struggles are often conducted collectively by subjects who feel the harm or deprivation caused by misrecognition”.

Today it has come clear that the Oromo collectively reclaim their identity and political goal of self-determination. This political goal came into being through time. Education and migration of Oromo to urban helped the Oromo intellectuals come together and understand the their people as common entity, which had been endangered by the subjugation of the Abyssinians.

Further, Jalata (p 4) argues that,

the Oromo in urban areas gradually overcame their limited perception about their people and began to develop Oromo nationalism and in doing so formed Oromo cultural groups and self-help associations. The emergence of Oromo nationalism challenged the need to be assimilated into the Abyssinian culture and domination.

While common goal is set collectively, the relationship between individual and collective self-determination is open. On other the question of who (who should participate in self-determination of Oromo in this case), and with what weight, should be a participant in the determination of the collective will. The Oromo is a nation and therefore an entity. It only matters that this entity can act with a unitary will externally.

On the other hand, if one regards the collective subject as the sum of self-determined individuals, then all members would have to participate in the decision-making process. The Oromo is the sum of self-determined individuals in Oromia, then all members would have to participate in the decision making of their destiny. That is why referendum is imperative procedure to any level of self-determination. The notion of sum here goes beyond mathematical equation and is the totality of psychologically, culturally and politically self-determined individuals of Oromia.

Here is it essential to understand that full self-determination is first achieved when every possible forms of alien determination has disappeared. Thus, the call for self-determination and independence can ring out if any form of alien determination is given. “A society in which self-determination is comprehensively realized radically egalitarian and thereby domination- free. (Jorg p 26). It is when the Oromo are free of alien determination that they are self-determined and can decide their destiny and realize free democratic nation.

Individual Self determination

Colloquially, to determine or determination can be used both in a descriptive sense, as in description of an object and its nature, and in normative sense, as in the determination or direction of the will or action of one or more persons by these persons themselves or by others (alien determination).

Others or alien determination does not reflect self-determination as it suggests someone who is directed by external force is determining oneself. Alien determination is the relationship between the colonised and colonizer and therefore political.

It is evident that the Oromo used to practice their culture and use personal names typical to their values. The overall subjugation of the Abyssinians humiliated this and manoeuvred it turn to their own culture and place names, Finfinne to Addis Abeba, Ambo to Hagerhiwot, Ciro to Assebe Teferi to mention few. By way of disparaging Oromo nationalism, this is usually expressed by pejorative words and attributing Oromo Nationalism as a “narrow nationalism” which some diehards still echo. Oromo personal names were also alien determined-by Abyssinians. Schools, religion institutions and employment firms were institutional instruments to down play Oromo personal and place names and designate Abyssinian names or respective religion names that is alien to the person or place.

The Oromo Self-determination reclaims these identities and is opposed to alien determination or determination by others. It is freedom, and in fact freedom in the broader sense. Someone who self-determining has both the freedom to do something-to do what one chooses to, as well as the freedom from doing something; the freedom to refrain from an action. the Oromo nationalism promotes that the self-determined individual   and self-determined Oromo people are a free people.

According to Jorgan (ibid) however, freedom and self-determination are not identical. Self-determination is a restricted and simultaneously radicalized freedom. It is restricted in a sense that it does not encompass the freedom to exercise alien determination. One who is free on account of self-determination does not exercise determination of others; to do so would deprive the other of the same freedom.

Self-determination of Oromo is thus, a freedom that is incompatible with the restriction of the freedom of others. This is a restriction that the concept of freedom share. One who is free and commands others restricts the freedom of others or even deprives it completely but does not thereby loose one’s own freedom. Freedom in the sense of command over others simultaneously implies inequality, in that such freedom is at the expense of others. Here self-determination is more radical. Because it excludes alien determination, it also excludes inequality; its full realisation simultaneously implies the realisation of equality. In this view, freedom as self-determination and equality do not compete, but rather mutually reinforce each other.

The essence of self-determination and Oromo nationalism is that it is free of alien determination and cannot be both at the same time. As Jorgan (ibid) stipulates, “ self-determination and alien determination are mutually exclusive. A human being is either self- determining or determined by others. One cannot be both self-determined and determined by others at the same time and in the same respect”.

This view presupposes that determination be it by oneself or by another, is always human action.   Politically, self-determination can be deployed against other people who exercise alien determination over an individual/people, who thereby throws off the yoke of domination. Alien determination or determination by external body can’t favour self-determination of its subjects. That is why the tenet of Oromo self-determination is for Oromia by Oromo.

The Right of Self-determination

The Right of self-determination of people is one of the successful legal-political regulators of the 20th   and 21st centuries.  It is one of only few slogans that have an exclusively positive connotation. Those who publicly reject it appear as deniers of a human right. (Ibid 45)

The right of self-determination of peoples is based on a twofold regulative idea. The first is that it grants every people the right to form an independent state. And as prerequisite for this, it gives every individual the right to live in the state of one’s own choosing by means of a free choice of the people to which that individual wishes to belong.

A world in which one or both ideas are realized is thinkable, but not realizable. A complete division of the world into states in which only one people lives in each state presupposes that all inhabitants of a sate taken together count as a people. In reality, there are always states in which members of several peoples live together, as well as cases in which members of one state and the same people do not live in one and the same state.  One can approach such an ideal, but never reach it. This happens through the progressive partition of the already existing states when groups that consider or constitute themselves as people or a part thereof but have lived for a long time with other people attain their own states. Nevertheless, if this to be reached, then one would have to expect that new people would develop whenever certain collectives begin to understand themselves as people.

Instead of separation of subsequent separation from a state, a people can also join another state or a part of another state. This right can also partially have exercised, as for example with the demand for autonomy instead of full independence.

It is hard to imagine the global situation that would result from the individual foundation of the right of self-determination as a regulative idea. Technically this can be realizable in the age of global transportation, if all states guarantee freedom of movement.

The right to self-determination of Oromia is justified by three categories of theories of thinking about the right to self-determination identified by Megret (2016, p 47). The first focuses on who ‘a people ‘for the purpose of self-determination; the second focuses on the just means that a people ought to use to achieve self-determination; and the third focuses on what type of self-determination ( i.e. internal or external). Accordingly Oromo are people for which the purpose of self-determination is , and the strategy follows  self-defence and political where the former was under compelling circumstance and the latter is desirable means and now opted for. The type of self-determination in line with this theory  is determined by the Oromo people through referendum.

The right of Self-determination as all human kind enterprise

The right of self-determination can be seen in line with  the theories of human motivation and political needs. I will deal only on the latter one.

For historical events which caused considerable progress in human rights, one could mention the American Revolution and the French Revolution in the 18th century.

The American Declaration of Independence of 1776 states:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Also in the midst of the French Revolution, the French constitutional convention adopted in 1789 the “Declaration of Human and Citizens’ Rights,” which states:

Men are born and exist free and with equal rights. The purpose of all political unions is to preserve men’s inalienable natural rights. These rights are freedom, ownership, security and opposition to repression. All principles of sovereignty reside in the citizens. Liberty means the ability essentially to take any actions without hurting others.

In these two Declarations human rights are deemed universal rights shared by the whole of mankind. However, the infringement of human rights such as discrimination against races and nationalities continued for many years both in post-independence America and in post-revolutionary France.

In the colonies, the ruler and the subjugated were divided by nationality, and the notion of universal human rights was completely ignored. The height of imperialism, when the advanced nations colonized most of Asia and Africa, was at the end of the 19th century, one century after American Independence and the French Revolution (Ibid).

In the 20th century, human rights were mercilessly violated in various regions of the world due to wars and disturbances (including the two World Wars) and the advent of dictatorial regimes with credos of class discrimination or racial discrimination.

It was only after World War II that the notion of universal human rights became widespread based on retrospective understanding of the grievous historical reality.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (DHR) was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. The preamble of this Declaration states:

…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…

It was declared that the affirmation of human rights as universal rights common to all mankind, regardless of any differences in race, national origin, religion and class, is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

Likewise, the Oromo as a nation are constituents of human kind and deserve to exercise these rights.  Their claim for self-determination is not something hypocrisy, but sincere that comply with DHR.  Thus, the so-called Ethiopia unionists regard  Oromo self-determination as a narrow nationalism is pointless and a mere nostalgia of subjugation.

In recent years concern for human rights problems has heightened and policies of guaranteeing human rights are being developed. However, this development is due to the leadership of the advanced countries. According to Takayuki (1999) however, not all developing nations are actively dealing with human rights problems. He further observes that, when the world human rights conference was convened in Vienna in 1993, the advanced nations asserted that “human rights are a universal concept applicable to the whole of mankind,” but the developing nations opposed this position, saying “the concept of human rights varies by region.”

The International Covenant on Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 defined in detail the substance of human rights and stipulated the obligations of each signatory state to promote the observance of human rights. This International Covenant on Human Rights is divided into  Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” (A Covenant) and Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” (B Covenant). The language in Article 1 of both A Covenant and B Covenant shows the same “peoples’ right of self-determination.”  Article 1, item 1 is as follows:

“All peoples have the right of self-determination. By that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”.

Why is the peoples right of self-determination emphasized to this extent?  Because if the right of self-determination of people as a group is not secured, then the basic right of everyone in the group will not be secured. Group rights are great in theory, but they can be used to suppress individuals who do not fit the hegemony of that group.  By protecting individuals, human rights do not diminish the group, but merely ensure the protection of each individual within it. Takayuki (ibid) . So, let us consider the historical origin of the right of self-determination.

The Right of Self-determination and the Right to Freedom

It is possible to argue that the origin of both the right of self-determination and the right to freedom to be the same thing.

The ancient Greeks were the first to reflect most deeply on freedom. As a result, ancient Greeks considered that nothing was as important as freedom and they invented a system of society called democracy to protect their freedom.

The ancient Greeks, who considered having or not having the right to freedom as the difference between free men and slaves. Takayuki  (ibid) is right when he says,

 for a people to determine their own way of life, it will be necessary for them to decide the laws and policies of their nation by themselves. To ensure their own right of self-determination, a people must hold in their grasp the right to decide on laws and policies of their country.

Therefore, the ancient Greeks created the democratic system. Because the ancient Greeks deemed freedom precious above all and were proud to be living as free men, they resisted the invasion by the superpower Persia, proclaiming “liberty or death.”  . Miraculously the ancient Greeks beat back the Persian force and won the war. But for this historical event democracy would have been forgotten in human history.

Like the Greek democracy, the Oromo have had democratic Gada system. The Oromo political culture is based on a system called gada (Legesse, 1973, 2006).  The right of individuals including social groups is respected by Gada system. This applies to all people living in the nation. According to this system assuming authority does not mean to suppress but serve the public. There is no dispute in assuming power as the system itself is self-regulated and disciplined. Members of Oromo nation respect and implement what the Gumi/council passes as regulation. However, as Bulcha (obcit, p 72) rightly observes, “between the early 1900 and end of 1950s, the gada system suppressed and weakened. The Oromo were subjects of the Abyssinian-cum Ethiopian empire”. Not only this political and social identity was withered away, but Afaan Oromo and its territory also threatened, and resources looted. The prudent Oromo nationalism claims these belongings back and self-determined, without threatening the rights of others.

Legal Grounds of self-determination

In the above sections, I have demonstrated that the Oromo nationalism and self-determination is theoretically underpinned. In this section I will show that it is also based on legal grounds derived from these theories.

The distinguished legal-political ideal concept developed, a concept that no one could afford to view negatively. The ideal formulated therein is that every human being has the right to live in the state or in the politically organised community, of one’s choice.

As shown above, Self-determination is legally enacted as the first international law by The UN  General Assembly resolution 2200 (XXI) of 16 December 1966. Article 1 of this covenant reads.

All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic co-operation, based upon the principle of mutual benefit, and international law. In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.”

The covenant urges that the States Parties to the present Covenant, including those having responsibility for the administration of Non-Self-Governing and Trust Territories, shall promote the realization of the right of self-determination, and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations.

Widespread ratification of the Covenants has not occurred, although this is probably not because of Article 1. Without such ratification the Covenants remain a not insignificant piece of evidence suggesting that self-determination is a legal right as well as a political principle. This assertion still prevails, despite the organization’s impotency to effect it.

In Ethiopian context, it appears that self-determination is expressed for the first time in the 1987 Ethiopian constitution. The preamble section reads “… the unity of our country and the equality of nationalities based on our right to self-determination is ensured… basic freedoms and rights are guaranteed…” 1. The 1995 – current constitution takes this further. Article 39 sub article 1 of the constitution states ‘ Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession.

Sub article 4 of this article states the right to self-determination, including secession, of every Nation, nationality and People shall come into effect:

(a) When a demand for secession has been approved by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Legislative Council of the Nation, Nationality or People concerned;

(b) When the Federal Government has organized a referendum, which must take place within three years from the time it received the concerned council’s decision for secession;

(c) When the demand for secession is supported by majority vote in the referendum;

(d) When the Federal Government will have transferred its powers to the council of the Nation, Nationality or People who has voted to secede; and (e) When the division of assets is effected in a manner prescribed by law.

According to sub article 5 of this article   ” A Nation, Nationality or People” for the purpose of this Constitution, is a group of people who have or share large measure of a common culture or similar customs, mutual intelligibility of language, belief in a common or related identity, a common psychological make-up, and who inhabit an identifiable, predominantly contiguous territory.

Article 39 of this constitution intends to address long standing nations and nationalities questions for self-determination in Ethiopia, of which Oromo is one. It is imperative instrument that helped these nations and nationalities remain together in the country, despite the practice is at the other side of the story.

Self-determination and Session:

If a right of self-determination of people is to be more just an empty promise, this requires that state borders can be changed based on the wishes of the people affected. the core of the right of self-determination lies in the possibility of creating new independent state, and this requires territories.  If territorial changes are prohibited, then the people cannot realize its right of self-determination, at least not in lawful manner. However, the possibility to exercise it at any time to its full extent must be guaranteed. (eg Ethiopian const. article 39). This implies that an existing state must be willing to grant independence to a part of its territory in which a people or part thereof forms most of the population. This territory can opt to form its own state or join an already existing state or part of it.

Dissolution of a state into two or more states, the separation of a part from a whole i.e. from an existing state is called secession (p43). The exercise of the right of self-determination is secession if it leads to a territorial change. Thus, the right of self-determination is the right of secession. This applies especially to the unrestricted right of self-determination as codified since 1966.

At the same time no state would voluntarily consent to unrestricted right of self-determination. Here discrepancy exists. Everything that has to do with secession and the right of secession is resolutely rejected by most states.

In most cases, states constitutions have no formalized prohibition of secession, such prohibition follow indirectly from other legal considerations. For instance French tradition states that state is indivisible (more exam Ethi).  Time and again secession attempts have brought civil wars; for example  in Katanga (congo) 1960-65,  Biafra (Nigeria)  1967-70, Eritrea 1970-91 etc. The classic war of secession is the bloodies war  in US (1861- 65). In such tradition, today one cannot speak of a right of secession. On the contrary a rigorous prohibition of secession is presupposed.. in the case of U.S.,  it is an internal constitutional matter, but due to the US international prominence, the  impact on international law  is unavoidable.

Few constitutions contain a right of secession. But the fate is Scanty. Although the right of self-determination was elevated to the highest human right, the right of secession is restricted, directly or indirectly. This can be traced back to Bolshevik party (Lenin )-1903. Later incorporated into Soviet Union constitution of 1918, 1924 1936.

In these constitutions, the right of secession is undisputed. In Yugoslavia it contained ambiguous. Following the breakups of USSR and Yugoslavia after 1989, the respective successor states did not incorporate a right of secession into their constitutions. That means tradition of U.S prohibition of rigorous secession remained stronger than that of Bolshovic (Lenis). However, some states still have formulated article of secession in their constitution. Eg Article 39 (I)  of 1994 Ethiopian constitution. Fish (p45) asserts that “ …This at least outwardly generous provision is primarily a consequence of the difficulties in holding the country together”.

Both the right of self-determination and the right of secession contain far-reaching promises. But the right of self-determination is taken up and accepted, although the right of self-determination demands a right of secession. As generously as the right of self-determination is granted, so resolutely is the secession at time restricted and at times refused. (Eg 1987 Eth constitution and Catalonian). If no secession is permitted, then no right of self-determination can be permitted either (Fish p45). Law and politics must live with this fact.


Self-determination implies the possibility of full, sovereign statehood for the bearer of the right, its opposite, full alien determination, implies the complete lack of rights. Between these two extremes is, any amount intermediate stages with any amount of autonomy is thinkable. Autonomy signifies self-legislation within pre-existing political structure. The central importance is the transition from internal autonomy to sovereignty, to external independence. People that enjoy external self-determination simultaneously has internal self-determination, whereas, internal autonomy by no means implies external self-determination.  As long as self-determination does not fully encompass external relations, one can only speak of   a limited extent of self-determination. Internal self-determination is thus only partial self-determination, and only to a certain point, beyond which alien determination begins.

This implies that the right of self-determination could also be exercised in the form of autonomy or integration is half-truth.

 To recap, In the above discussion, I have explained individual and collective self-determination as main theories of self-determination.  I also explored legal tenets of self-determination including session and autonomy. By doing so I demonstrated that the Oromo self-determination is theoretically and legally justified. Thus, it is possible to conclude that Oromo struggle for self-determination is basic human right   and legitimate that should be determined by themselves. This conclusion underscores, Jargon (ibid p10) assertion that reads, “Without the right of self-determination there can no human rights”! No exception for Oromo.


Bulcha Mekuria (2016). Contours of The Emergent & Ancient Oromo Nation; Dilemmas in the Ethiopian Politics of State and Nation-building. Creda Communications, Cape town.

Jalata Asfafa (1998). The Emergence of Oromo Nationalism and The Ethiopian Discourse; In Asafa jalata (edr), Oromo Nationalism and the Ethiopian discourse, The Search for Freedom and Democracy. The Red Sea Press, inc.

Legesse Asmerom. ( 2006). Oromo Democracy: An Indigenous African Political System, Lawerenceville, N.J: Red Sea Press.

Megret F. (2016). The Right to Self-Determination, Earned not Inherited. In Fernando R Teson (edr.), The Theory of Self Determination, Cambridge University Press.

UN (1966) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; General Assembly resolution 2200 (XXI) of 16 December 1966.

1, Martinus Nijhoff pub.(1988).Review of Socialist law 1988, No 2 181-208. The Constitution of  the People’s  Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, 1987. ( (25/07/2018).

National Gate Way (2016). What is self-determination, July 2/2018).

Takayuki M. (1999). Human rights, the right of self-determination and the right to freedom, the international journal of peace studies, volume 4, number 1.




  1. It is timely and good evidence for those who stand against human right. It would have been good if you have Afaan version to reach out Oromos

  2. Thank you Dr Gizaw. Well explored and analysed. I wished this paper would have presented on September 17 symposium in ECA. Could you please flag up. You mentioned about autonomy . What is its relationship with self determination where it is not full independence.

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