The Oromo language issue is more than a question of its status in Ethiopia
By Mootii Baarboo (PhD), September 14, 2018
The conspiracy to subjugate the Oromo people by denigrating their language, afaan Oromo, and destroying their identity and denigrating their identity has been an open secret that perpetuated for generations. Past Ethiopian regimes used open and sometimes subtle means to suppress the Oromo language with a goal that the people would be assimilated to the Amhara culture and language. Decrees and proclamations were used by previous Ethiopian governments to promote Amharic and suppress all other languages in the country. It was not so long ago that speaking afaan Oromo attracted the label “narrowist” to describe one as ‘a narrow’ nationalist in their political and social outlook. You are an Ethiopian only if you speak a perfect Amahric, in the views of many Ethiopianists. It was a requirement to learn Amharic and pass exams in it to proceed on to higher education, to gain official jobs or even to participate in the country’s political system. All this in a country which hardly afforded to provide a condition for the Amharic language to be taught effectively as a second language to enable non-native speakers of that language to learn it and use it well. The end result was people whose first language was not Amharic ended up as second-class citizens because they were forced to use a second language which they were not good at it because of not their fault.
When the language issue comes to the fore, the answer the centrists or those who advocate for Amharic to be the only official language in Ethiopia give invariably is: “Language is only a tool for communication. So, it is advisable to use Amharic, which is developed, which has its writing system”, and so on. But is it true that language is a means of communication only?
Well, even if we accept it is a mere means of communication, what gave the centrists the right to dictate what language other people should or should not use? Yes, language is used for communication, to pass a message (verbal or written) to others and from generation to generation. But language is not a means of communication alone. It makes who we are, how we perceive the world, how we think, how we express our feelings be it happiness or sadness, and it is a major element in defining the society, its culture, custom and how it relates with other human beings and the nature. Taking away one’s language from a society is destroying that society, its world view, its existence as a society.
The main reason the centrists want to promote Amharic at the expense of the other languages in Ethiopia emanates from their hidden objective of ruling over the Oromo and the other peoples in the country. Whilst Amharic is currently the federal official language in Ethiopia, Oromo and the other ethnic people are prevented from accessing federal jobs because most of them are not equipped with Amharic, the required language. Even those non-native Amharic speakers who get official jobs may not progress in their roles because, comparatively, they cannot be as fluent in Amharic as those for whom it is the first language. Blatant discrimination and lack of equal opportunity in what is supposed to be your own country. Generation after generation you remain a second-class citizen, unless of course your decedents give up their language, name and identity to adopt and assimilate with the Amhara language and culture. It is this that the new Oromo generation is struggling forcefully against. It is mainly this that was the cause for the establishment of the Oromo Liberation Front, some fifty years ago.
Open or subtle discrimination is a strategy that has no future in this era of advanced internet technology and social media. People are not only aware of how and by whom they are discriminated against but also have easy tool in social media of sharing information thus raising their consciousness of resisting and fighting back. Thanks to Qeerro, the days have gone when the Oromo people were fooled and made to submit to the sabotages of the Minilikians.
Now, what is the way forward? This is simple. The Oromo people, which make around 40 per cent of the total population of Ethiopia, should not beg for their language to be an official language. It must be the federal language without a delay. It should be used side by side with Amharic at federal level as an official language. If this is not acceptable to people or the government, the other option is to adopt a foreign language such as English as a federal official language, to make the playing field level for all. The third option, which may not be in people’s favour is for everyone to go along their own ways, that is, several independent states which may make arrangements to live peacefully and democratically together. My preference is the first option, of course, with Oromo and Amharic as official federal languages, and the other languages cultivated, developed and used officially in their respective states and regions.