The Case of the Oromo people in Ethiopia

Begna F. Dugassa  Phd


In human  history it is well known that among the many people who  have lived in highly stressful  social conditions,  most  of them are likely to die prematurely,  live in poverty, and experi- ence other  social adversities in their lives (Lang  & Dickason,

1996). A few of them successfully overcome  these adversities and  are  able to  lead  competent lives. Those  who  overcame these difficulties are considered resilient. However, it has not been clearly understood how these individuals and communi- ties  overcame  the stress and  adversities while the others  did not. To  understand how some  communities overcome  stress and violence and lead successful lives, it is important to enquire into  the  conditions  in which the community members  lived and identify the circumstances that are common  to them and take a close look at how these groups rebuild healthy commu- nity following adversity. In addition,  one needs to look at the social  conditions  that are essential for resiliency and  if such conditions can be replicated  in other  places and look for the building blocks of community resiliency.

This  paper  has emerged  from the presentation I made in

2004 in the conference of the Canadian Association for Studies in  International  Development (CASID). In this paper,  using primary and secondary  data, I take a close look to understand what those who overcome stress and trauma  have in common, and  identify  the necessary  social conditions  for resilience. In doing  so, I make an effort  to figure  out  whether  or not  the Oromo people’s healing and resiliency could be cultivated.

It is well known that lived circumstances are a factor  in predicting    achievements.    Researchers in     public          health

identified  the social determinants  of health  (Raphael, 2004; Farmer,  2003) and the conditions  that help protect  people who might be at risk of develop- ing health  problems.  Our  knowledge in this area suggests  that negative life experiences  or living conditions  are linked to poor health. In the past, scien- tists had closely looked into the biological conditions that make the difference between healthy survivors and those who succumb  to diseases. They  discov- ered antibodies  for a number of disorders  (Bock & Sabin, 1997),  and were able to develop vaccinations against deadly infectious diseases. From the time of Virchows work in 1848 in Upper Silesia, a region predominantly Polish but ruled by Germany, the pathogencity of colonial power relations and unhealthy social relations has been well known (Taylor & Rieger, 1985). However, there is still a lack of understanding regarding  community healing and  resiliency processes. Recognizing  the importance of individual  and  community resil- iency or healing processes is recently capturing  the imagination  of research-  ers and policy makers.

The  vulnerability  of a community  to a given risk is a function  of its sensitivity to a potential threat and its adaptive capacities (Farmer, 1999). For  example,  it is well known that  community  social order  is central  to community  resiliency. If there was no social order,  an individual’s selfish desire would run wild and such societies would lead disrupted  life condi- tions. To prevent  this, society has to be empowered  in order  to establish order  in the  community. However,  under  colonial  rule  where  justice  is denied, poverty follows, and when the State is organized  to oppress,  con- spire, rob and degrade,  the community  cannot  maintain  any social order and heal itself.

The  study of community resiliency and healing begins with the ’diagno- sis’  of clear  accomplishments or  resiliency  despite  adversity  and  violence faced by a community. This paper examines resiliency conditions  in Oromia,  touching on the social and economic  problems  that the Oromo  people face. Oromia  is  environmentally prosperous, however,  war, wide spread  human right  violations  (Human Rights Watch,  2006),  famine,  HIV/AIDS, malaria epidemics and Iodine Deficiency Disorders  (Dugassa, 2005, 2006) have rav- aged it. Part one of this paper introduces  the concept of community resiliency or the healing process, collective violence and collective rights. Under  this, I explore the necessary conditions  that are vital for individuals  and the com- munity  to overcome adversity and develop better  community health condi- tions. Part  two of this  paper  examines  the  role played  by individuals  and community resiliency in community health  development. Part three  of this paper takes a close look at the presence  or absence of resiliency conditions  in Oromia.  Capturing the experience and  the realities with which the Oromo people  have lived for over a century,  this paper  reveals the  social and  the economic problems and their root causes. Part four covers how and why resil- iency conditions  have been hampered in Oromia.  Here  I examine  the rela- tionship   between  the  long-term   effects  of  collective  violence  against  the Oromo  people and community resiliency. In part five, I discuss the ways that resiliency or healing conditions  can be cultivated. The  Oromo  people are the single largest  ethno-national group  in the  Horn  of Africa. In studying  the situation  of Oromo  people, this paper  brings of light another  dimension  for the socio-economic and health problems  such as famine, war and instability in the Horn of Africa.


This  paper  has  two major  objectives. The  first  objective  is to explore  the known circumstances that foster resiliency and  healing which should  bring about fundamental understanding of the ways communities overcome  stress or adversity and recover from collective violence. I am hopping  that under- standing  and identifying  the social conditions  that foster or deter  resiliency would broaden  our current knowledge and thinking. The  second objective is to investigate the relationships between resiliency conditions and chronic and acute collective violence. In doing that, this paper  intends to inquire into the underlying reasons why the Oromo people’s social conditions have been dete- riorating over time.


To avoid ambiguity, I begin the study of resiliency with the introduction of theoretical concepts  of community resiliency, trauma  and collective violence. Understanding the ways collective trauma  is inflicted and raising awareness about resiliency conditions are instrumental in setting policies that would fos- ter healing and resiliency.


Contemporary knowledge about resilience evolved in several stages. Initially the concept  of resiliency emerged from physical and environmental science studies. In physical science, engineers  were interested  in functionality  and durability of physical bodies as they completed  a specific physical duty over a long  period  of  time.  For  example,  engineers  are  interested  in the  way springs  and rubber  maintain  their elasticity while doing specific jobs, and they  called  this  phenomenon resilience.  Forestry  applied  the  concept  of resilience to describe  how forests naturally recover from forest fire or log- ging. Later on the term resilience was used in human  psychiatry. Psychiatry has been using the concept of resilience to understand how individuals over- come emotional and stressful events and lead healthy lives. Since individuals make a community, over time the term resilience came to describe the pro- tective mechanism  and process that fosters community  resilience and com- munity health development.

Valentine and Feinauer (1993)  defined resilience as the ability to cultivate strength  or return to original form or position after being bent. According to Gordon (1995)  resilience is the ability to thrive, mature, and increase compe- tence in the face of adverse circumstances. The  Resilience Alliance (see, the resilience Alliance)  defined  resilience  as (a)  the  amount  of disturbances a system can absorb and still remain within the same state or domain of attrac- tion (b) the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization  (versus lack of organization  or organization  forced  by external  factors)  and (c)  the degree to which the system can build and increase the capacity for learning and adaptation.

Gordon  (1995)  has classified adversities into biological abnormalities, environmental obstacles and /or human  made  social realities. Adverse cir- cumstances may be chronic and consistent or severe and infrequent. Increas- ing  research  from the field of sociology has shown that  most  people  can bounce back from stressful events, crises, and trauma and lead a successful life. The resiliency level of communities  varies according  to the social con- ditions  in  which they live. This  suggests that community  resiliency varies depending  on  the level of stress  and  types  of adversities  the community encountered and their preparedness for such events (Werner,  1994).


In this paper, trauma  is a wound or injury or damage resulting from external force (s). It is known that a violent emotional  blow has a lasting effect. This means  that  trauma  could  result  from  physical wounds  or spiritual  assault. Among colonized people, social trauma  generally results from the exercise of colonial control over them through  destructive, demoralizing, unjust, unwar- ranted and unlawful physical and epistemological violence.

Trauma can  be  acute  or  chronic. Traumas can  vary  in their  severity, acuteness  and onset duration  (Masten, 1994).  Some stresses are natural and others are socially constructed. Some stresses are short-lived  and others are chronic, either persistent or often repeated or endured. The resilience of individuals and communities depends  on the nature of these adversities. It is well known that communities better  overcome  acute, less severe adversities than chronic   and   severe  traumas.   Colonial   traumas   can   be  chronic   if  the communities have experienced  it for several generations or acute if it is for a short term. In terms of magnitude, the colonial trauma  that Oromo  people experience  can be categorized  as severe and  chronic  trauma.  For  example, Abyssinians invaded Oromia  in a bloody and protracted war from 1880s to

1900s  (de  Salviac, 1901/2005) and  since  then  they  have  disregarded the rights of the Oromo people. They have employed physical force to kill, intim- idate, subdue  and destabilize the social structures of the Oromo  people. The Abyssinians functioned within their epistemology, thus, they did not consider that their actions were morally wrong.


Colonialism  is a collective violence and  it constitutes  a long-term  physical occupation. Colonial power relations constitute  socio-economic-political relationships  in which a group  of people  effectively overruns  the political, social, economic,  cultural,  territorial  and  ideological sovereignty  of another people. The  colonial territorial conquests  are inspired  by economic  interests and spring from a belief in racial and cultural superiority. Thus,  colonial pol- icies are designed to control political, economic, cultural and social affairs of the colonized people. Violation of the sovereignty and liberty of people, and the denial of their right to determine  their own affairs are perpetuated  at the collective level. Usually territorial  conquests  are followed by discriminatory racist  social policies which  promote  and  legalize racial-ethnic  inequalities. Individuals  are the ultimate  victims, when the colonized  people  are catego- rized as inferior based  on their skin color, ethnicity  and culture  and collec- tively deprived of their rights. This means colonialism and denial of collective rights is a form of collective violence. A WHO  document (2002)  defines col- lective violence as “political actions committed to advance a particular  social and political agenda  over the others”.  Collective violence is committed by a group  (s) or a state (s)  against  another  distinct  group  (s). According  to a document produced by the WHO  (2002), collective violence could be physi- cal, sexual and psychological, and involve deprivation  or neglect.


Understanding history provides us a theoretical  tool to critically glimpse the past, identify the wrong, and comprehend the need of the society and change


Voice against Torture – the Case of Ethiopia

Victims of Torture are still suffering

No Impunity for Torturers

Presented on;-Torture Abolition Survivors Support Coalition

Survivors Week – Washington DC, 23 – 29 June 2009

Presented By:- Garoma B. Wakessa   HRLHA Executive Director

Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa/HRLHA


Torture survivors are uniquely strong and amazing people. They endured and survived the most unthinkable acts of physical and psychological torture and showed the strength to reclaim their right to life once again.

As most of us have witnessed at different times in our lives, the vast majority are civilians who, until their incarceration and torture, had been living ordinary lives and had no relation with what they were suspected of and tortured. What happened to them left them and their loved ones in life of darkness.

Even though not all survivors bear visible scars or wounds on their bodies, all of them undoubtedly have heavy wound in their minds. Psychological torture, which never leaves noticeable scars or wounds behind, is the most widespread method in secret and illegal detentions in Ethiopia. Some torturers tend to favor psychological torture simply because it is easy to deny its occurrence and escape responsibilities; as it does not leave behind any physical signs, which makes it harder to verify and document.

In Ethiopia, torture survivors have no access to medical treatment. Most of them die after a while because of the lack of treatment. Another important point to note is that not all survivors are at the same level of mental state or stage of revival. Besides, there are no rehabilitation centers of torture survivors in Ethiopia. Almost all torture survivors in Ethiopia suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms include flashbacks, severe anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, depression and memory loses.

It is important for journalists and human rights activists who come in contact with torture survivors to recognize their particularities and approach them with sensitivity and professionalism.

The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Tr

eatment or Punishment (10 December 1984) under article 2 clearly states the absolute prohibition of torture, and requires parties to take effective measures to prevent it in any territory under its jurisdiction.

Although this prohibition is absolute, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever”, countries like Ethiopia have ignored the convention and practice the intentional infliction of extreme physical suffering on some non-consenting defenseless citizens.

Ethiopian Government Torture Survivors and Victims

  • Credible domestic and International  human Rights Organization including, US state department and EU member countries, have repeatedly confirmed that the Ethiopian Government is one of the top  few countries who, in contrary to the UN convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, uses torture for the purpose of obtaining information or a confession from her/him or a third person.
  • Some recent Torture reports on Ethiopia

1. Amnesty International Report 2009, Human Rights Situation in Ethiopia,

2. Human Rights Watch, Ethiopian Events of 2008

3. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

February 25, 2009

4. Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa/HRLHA  and Others

Recent Torture Victims

The following are some of the many most recent torture victims in Ethiopia. These individuals, males and females, have been suffering either directly or indirectly from the practice of torture by Ethiopian authorities in the past. (Source: HRLHA periodical reports)

1. Mr. Abdulrashid;- The security agents subjected Mr. Abdulrahsid to such harsh torture to coerce him to confess that was a member of an opposition political organization, OLF in particular, and to reveal alleged secrets he knew about the Front.  Mr. Abdulrashid died from the brutal torture inflicted on him on May 08, 2009.

Abdurashiid Ibraahim Aadam

2,         Mr. Hassan Ibrahim Tuulee,(Photo not available) was  a 57-year old businessman and a father of seven, who used to live in  Baddanno Town in Eastern Hararge. He had been in and out of prison so many times since 1992 on the same alleged political grounds – that he was a member of opposition political organizations. Mr. Hassan Ibrahim died in prison on unspecified day in Fabruary, 2009 from harsh torture he too was subjected to while he was in prison.  The possessions of Hassan Ibrahim, money, a car and other valuable items, were confiscated by members of the security forces of the Ethiopian government.

3. Ms Biraanee Dhufeeraa and Mr. Asfaw Banti were members of Oromo Federalist Movement (OFDM) killed in Kiltu Karra district of Western Wollega Zone of Oromia region on 21 December, 2005 by the security forces.

Iziqeel Gammaddaa

4. Abdulmalik was an Ethiopian refugee living in Somaliland. He was abducted by Ethiopian insurgents from the town of Hargessa and taken into a solitary confinement in a military camp in the border town of Bombasi . Abdulmalik was severely tortured with electric wire; and, as a result, died and thrown in to the bush in the night time. Abdulmalik fortunately survived the torture and emerged from the bush and fled to Hargessa.


5. Sheik Mohamed Kalif (photo not available) was an Ethiopian Oromo who had been in Somaliland for over 30 years. He recently traveled to Ethiopia to visit his relatives in Eastern Hararge, Kombolcha/Falana town. According to HRLHA reporter in Somaliland, Sheik Mohamed was killed by hanging by Ethiopian army, in a military camp found in the border town of Bombasi on his way back to Somaliland. Besides, Sheik Mohammed was severely tortured by the members of the Ethiopian army before he was killed by hanging, according to HRLHA reporter. The Ethiopian army in the area, who exrtrajudicially killed Sheik Mohamed Kalif, has been trying to convince the public that Shek Mohamed committed suicide

6.Abdala Osman Adam ,a 19 year old young man from  Baddano District in Gara Mulata Region in East Hararge/Ethiopia was tortured and thrown in to the bush in October 2007and later found by friends.

7. Dirirsa Biqila, a fresh graduate of Law from Mekele Univeristy.

. Dirirsa Biqila,

Dirirsa was one of the fourteen Oromo students who have been denied their degrees and diplomas upon graduation from the same (Mekele) university for allegedly organizing what was termed as “OLF-affiliated anti-government movement” within the university. Dirirsa, who came to Addis Ababa immediately after the graduation in July 2006, was first kidnapped by unidentified men in civilian clothes on November 30 2006 around 2:00p.m from the area known as Megenanya in Addis Ababa. HRLHA reporter has later confirmed in an interview with Dirirsa that his kidnappers were government security forces. Dirirsa, after being kidnapped, was taken to an underground prison (handcuffed and blindfolded), where he was severely beaten up and tortured (please see the picture). Dirirsa told HRLHA reporter that he temporarily lost his consciousness as a result of the severe torture. After two days, he was taken to the Air Force base in Debrezeit/Bishoftu, where he was subjected to further torture and harassments. Then, Dirirsa was brought back to Addis Ababa and held at Lafto Sub-City police station before he was driven to and dumped in Walo Safar area in the Capital very early in the morning on December 5, 2006. Dirirsa Biqila, age 25 was born in West Wallaga/ Oromia .

Torture  specialists

  • Torture is often committed by security forces, soldiers, intelligence officers, prison guards or other agents of the Ethiopian Government. As any torture victim could imagine, these torturers were well trained not to prevent torture but to practice different mechanisms of torturing,
  • Common torturing methods the Ethiopian Government agents apply include such practices as searing with hot irons, burning at the stake, electric shock treatment to the genitals, cutting out parts of the body, e.g.  entrails or genitals, severe beatings, suspending by the legs with arms tied behind back, etc..all of these practices presuppose that the torturer has control over the victim’s body.

Reasons for the Torture

  • Being a member and/or supporter of  any opposition party,
  • Those who fight for the freedom of opinion,  journalists, human rights activists, university students, high school and university teachers.

When and where torturing takes place

  • In Ethiopia, there are only few prison facilities known to the public. More than half of the total detainees  in the country are kept in military camps, public offices, residential building (basements/under grounds).

Such detenees are always at risk of being tortured or even killed any time,

  • Maikelawwi – the well known detention center is the center for the torture. In Maikelawi torturing usually take place after mid night after every detainee lies down to sleep.


§  The Ethiopian Government should sign and respect Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution 39/46 of 10 December 1984
  • The government of Ethiopia should provide in its penal code for all forms of torture, fully incorporating all elements of the definition contained in article 1 of the Convention.

We recommend that the government of Ethiopia should establish machinery for a systematic review of interrogation
rules, methods and practices, particularly in police premises, in order to honour its commitments under article 11 of the

  • We recommend that, while paying particular attention to the protection of the rights of persons arrested and detained,
    State party should intensify the educational, training and information programmes provided for in article 10 of the
    Convention, for all the officials concerned.
  • We recommend that the Ethiopian authorities should undertake and expedite serious investigations into the conduct of the police forces in order to establish the truth of the many allegations of acts of torture and, if the results of the investigations are positive, bring the persons responsible before justice; and issue and transmit to the police
    specific and clear instructions designed to prohibit any act of torture.
  • We recommend that the government should allowed a neutral human right committee to make random visits tojails, custodies, detention centers and any other places where the authorities keep detainees.
  • We recommend that the government of Ethiopia should give full statistical information about the number of detainees from the 1991 until 2009 as well as the number of those killed under torture.
  • We recommend that the government of Ethiopia should compensate those families who lost their relatives under torture or through excessive force used by the police or security agents.

Thank You


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