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The Oromo people (Oromo: Oromoo; English: Oromo) are a Cushitic ethnic group inhabiting Ethiopia. They are one of the largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia and represent 34.5% of Ethiopia's population.[8] Oromos speak the Oromo language as a mother tongue (also called Afaan Oromoo and Oromiffa), which is part of the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. The word Oromo appeared in European literature for the first time in 1893 and slowly became common in the second half of the 20th century.[9][10]

Regions with significant populations
 Ethiopia36,500,000 (2017)[1]
 Kenya470,700 (2019)[2]
 Australia2,030 (2014)[4]
 Canada3,350 (2016)[5]
Islam ~ 67%[6]
Ethiopian Orthodox ~ 33%[6]
and Protestants
Traditional religion (Waaqeffanna)
Related ethnic groups
Afar  · Agaw  · Amhara  · Beja  · Gurage  · Saho  · Somali  · Tigrayans  · Tigre  · Sidama  · other Cushitic peoples[7]

The Oromo people followed their traditional religion[11] and used the gadaa system of governance.[12][13] A leader elected by the gadaa system remains in power only for 8 years, with an election taking place at the end of those 8 years.[14][15][16] From the 18th century to the 19th century, Oromos were the dominant influence in northern Ethiopia during the Zemene Mesafint period.[17][18][19]

Origins and nomenclatureEdit

Map of Ethiopia highlighting the Oromia Region

The origins and prehistory of the Oromo people are unclear, in part because the Oromo people did not have a written history and instead passed on stories orally prior to the 16th century.[20][21] Older and subsequent colonial era documents mention the Oromo people as Galla, but these documents were generally written by members of another ethnic groups.[20][21][22]

Historical linguistics and comparative ethnology studies suggest that the Oromo people probably originated around the lakes Lake Chew Bahir and Lake Chamo.[9][22] They are a Cushitic people who have inhabited the East and Northeast Africa since at least the early 1st millennium. The aftermath of the sixteenth century Abyssinian–Adal war led to Oromos to move to the north.[23] The Harla were assimilated by the Oromo in Ethiopia.[24]

The first verifiable record mentioning the Oromo people by a European cartographer is in the map made by the Italian Fra Mauro in 1460, which uses the term "Galla".[9] The map was likely drawn after consultations with Ethiopian monks (which produced notable monks such as Abba Bahrey) who visited Italy in 1441. Galla was a term for a river and a forest, as well as for the pastoral people established in the highlands of southern Ethiopia.[25] This historical information, according to Mohammed Hassen, is consistent with the written and oral traditions of the Somalis.[26] The historical evidence, therefore, suggests that the Oromo people were already established in the southern highlands in or before the 15th century and that at least some Oromo people were interacting with other Ethiopian ethnic groups.[25]

Irreechaa celebrations

After Fra Mauro's mention, there is a profusion of literature about the peoples of this region including the Oromo, particularly mentioning their wars and resistance to religious conversion, primarily by European explorers, Catholic Christians missionaries.[9] Fra Mauro's term Galla is the most used term, however, until the early 20th century. The earliest primary account of Oromo ethnography is the 16th-century "History of Galla" by Christian monk Bahrey who comes from the Sidama country of Gammo, written in the Ge'ez language.[27][9][28] According to an 1861 book by D'Abbadie. A journal published by International African Institute suggests it is an Oromo word (adopted by neighbours) for there is a word galla "wandering" in their language.[27][29] The first known use of the word Oromo to refer to the ethnic group is traceable to 1893.[30] The historic term for them has been Galla. This term, stated Juxon Barton in 1924, was in use for these people by Abyssinians and Arabs.[26] The word Galla has been variously interpreted, such as it means "to go home", or it refers to a river named Galla in early Abyssinian tradition.[26]

The Oromo never called themselves Galla and resist its use. They traditionally identified themselves by one of their clans (gosas) and now use the common umbrella term of Oromo which connotes "free born people".[31][32]

While Oromo people have lived in the region for a long time, the ethnic mixture of peoples who have lived here is unclear.[33] According to Alessandro Triulzi, the interactions and encounters between Oromo people and Nilo-Saharan groups likely began early.[33] The Oromos increased their numbers through Oromization (Meedhicca, Mogasa and Gudifacha) of mixed peoples (Gabbaro).[33] The native ancient names of the territories were replaced by the name of the Oromo clans who conquered it while the people were made Gabbaros.[33].[34][35][36] The word Oromo is derived from Ilm Orma meaning "children of Oromo",[37] or "sons of Men",[38] or "person, stranger".[39]


Photograph taken during the Magdala Campaign of 1867–68 Queen of the Oromos and Son

Pre-19th centuryEdit

Map showing the location of the five Oromo kingdoms in the Gibe region.

Historically, Afaan Oromo-speaking people used their own Gadaa system of governance. Oromos also had a number of independent kingdoms, which they shared with the Sidama people. Among these were the Gibe region kingdoms of Kaffa, Gera, Gomma, Garo, Gumma, Jimma, Leeqa-Nekemte and Limmu-Ennarea.

The earliest known documented and detailed history of the Oromo people was by the Ethiopian monk Abba Bahrey who wrote Zenahu le Galla in 1593, though the synonymous term Gallas was mentioned in maps[9] or elsewhere much earlier.[17][40] After the 16th century, they are mentioned more often, such as in the records left by Abba Pawlos, Joao Bermudes, Jerorimo Lobo, Galawdewos, Sarsa Dengel and others. These records suggest that the Oromo were pastoral people in their history, who stayed together. Their animal herds began to expand rapidly and they needed more grazing lands. They began migrating, not together, but after separating. They lacked kings, and had elected leaders called luba based on a gada system of government instead. By the late 16th century, two major Oromo confederations emerged: Afre and Sadaqa, which respectively refer to four and three in their language, with Afre emerging from four older clans, and Sadaqa out of three.[17] These Oromo confederations were originally based on southern parts of Ethiopia, but started moving north in the 16th century in what is termed as the "Great Oromo Migration".[17][41][42]

According to Richard Pankhurst, an Ethiopia historian, this migration is linked to the first incursions into inland Horn of Africa by Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim.[43] According to historian Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst, the migration was one of the consequences of fierce wars of attrition between Christian and Muslim armies in the Horn of Africa region in the 15th and 16th century which killed a lot of people and depopulated the regions near the Galla lands, but also probably a result of droughts in their traditional homelands. Further, they acquired horses and their gada system helped coordinate well equipped Oromo warriors who enabled fellow Oromos to advance and settle into newer regions starting in the 1520s. This expansion continued through the 17th century.[44][41]

Both peaceful integration and violent competition between Oromos and other neighboring ethnicities such as the Amhara, Sidama, Afar and the Somali affected politics within the Oromo community.[43][42] Between 1500 and 1800, there were waves of wars and struggle between highland Christians, coastal Muslim and polytheist population in the Horn of Africa. This caused major redistribution of populations. The northern, eastern and western movement of the Oromos from the south around 1535 mirrored the large-scale expansion by Somalis inland. The 1500–1800 period also saw relocation of the Amhara people, and helped influence contemporary ethnic politics in Ethiopia.[45]

According to oral and literary evidence, Borana Oromo clan and Garre Somali clan mutually victimized each other in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, particularly near their eastern borders. There were also periods of relative peace.[46][47] According to Günther Schlee, the Garre Somali clan replaced the Borana Oromo clan as the dominant ethnic group in this region. The Borana violence against their neighbors, states Schlee, was unusual and unlike their behavior inside their community where violence was considered deviant.[48]


The Oromos are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia (34.5% of the population), numbering about 25 million.[8] They are predominantly concentrated in Oromia Region in central Ethiopia, the largest region in the country by both population and area. They speak Afan Oromo, the official language of Oromia.[49] Oromos constitute the fifth most populous ethnic group among Africans as a whole and the most populous among Horners specifically.[50]

Oromo also have a notable presence in northern Kenya in the Marsabit County, Isiolo County and Tana River County Totaling to about 470,700: 210,000 Borana 110,500 Gabra 85,000 Orma 45,200 Sakuye and 20,000 Waata.There are also Oromo in the former Wollo and Tigray provinces of Ethiopia.[51]


The Oromo are divided into two major branches that break down into an assortment of clan families. From west to east. The Borana Oromo, also called the Boran, are a pastoralist group living in southern Ethiopia (Oromia) and northern Kenya.[52][53] The Boran inhabit the former provinces of Shewa, Welega, Illubabor, Kafa, Jimma, Sidamo, northern and northeastern Kenya, and a small refugee population in some parts of Somalia.

Barentu/Barentoo or (older) Baraytuma is the other moiety of the Oromo people. The Barentu Oromo inhabit the eastern parts of the Oromia Region in the Zones of Mirab Hararghe or West Hararghe, Arsi Zone, Bale Zone, Debub Mirab Shewa Zone or South West Shewa, Dire Dawa region, the Jijiga Zone of the Somali Region, Administrative Zone 3 of the Afar Region, Oromia Zone of the Amhara Region, and are also found in the Raya Azebo Aanaas in the Tigray Region.


The Oromo speak the Oromo language as a mother tongue (also known as Afaan Oromoo and Oromiffa). It belongs to the Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic family.

According to Ethnologue, there are around 17,465,900 Oromo speakers worldwide.[54]

The Oromo language's main linguistic varieties: Borana-Arsi-Guji Oromo, Eastern Oromo, Orma and West Central Oromo.[54] Onesimos Nesib was a founder of the Oromo modern literature.[55]

Modern writing systems used to transcribe Oromo include the Latin script. The Ethiopic script had previously been used by Oromo communities in west-central Ethiopia up until the 1990s.[56] Additionally, the Sapalo script was historically used to write Oromo. It was invented by the Oromo scholar Sheikh Bakri Sapalo (also known by his birth name, Abubaker Usman Odaa) during the 1950s.[57][58]


Christianity was adopted in Ethiopia early in 330 CE by the Kingdom of Axum. Ethiopia was an early Christian kingdom that remained in power through the modern era. Islam arrived from the coastal region during the medieval era, across the Gulf of Aden, and led to the creation of warring Islamic sultanates such as Hadiya, Bali, Fatagar, Dawaro and Adal. These kingdoms and sultanates ruled or influenced the history of Oromo people.[35][36] The influential 30-year war from 1529 to 1559 between the three parties – the Oromo, the Christians and the Muslims – dissipated the political strengths of all three. The religious beliefs of the Oromo people evolved in this socio-political environment.[35] In the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, neither the Muslim-controlled areas, nor the areas where the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was dominant, would allow Protestant or Catholic missionaries to proselytize among them, and these missions focused their efforts in the southern provinces of Greater Ethiopia where Oromo people following the traditional religions (Waaqeffanna) lived.[59]

In the 2007 Ethiopian census for Oromia region, which included both Oromo and non-Oromo residents, there was a total of 13,107,963 followers of Christianity (8,204,908 Orthodox, 4,780,917 Protestant, 122,138 Catholic), 12,835,410 followers of Islam, 887,773 followers of traditional religions, and 162,787 followers of other religions. Accordingly, Oromo is 48.1% Christian (8,204,908 or 30.4% Orthodox, 4,780,917 or 17.7% Protestant, 122,138 Catholic), 47.6% Muslim and 3.3% followers of traditional religions[60]

According to a 2009 publication of Association of Muslim Social Scientists and International Institute of Islamic Thought, "probably just over 60% of the Oromos follow Islam, over 30% follow Christianity and less than 3% follow traditional religion".[61]

According to a 2016 estimate by James Minahan, about half of the Oromo people are Sunni Muslim, a third are Ethiopian Orthodox, and the rest are mostly Protestants or follow their traditional religious beliefs.[6] The traditional religion is more common in southern Oromo populations and Christianity more common in and near the urban centers, while Muslims are more common near the Somalian border and in the north.[51]

Society and cultureEdit


Oromo people were traditionally a culturally homogeneous society with genealogical ties.[62] They governed themselves in accordance with Gadaa (literally "era"), an outstanding democratic socio-political system long before the 16th century, when major three party wars commenced between them and the Christian kingdom to their north and Islamic sultanates to their east and south. The Gadaa system elected males from five Oromo miseensa (groups), for a period of eight years, for various judicial, political, ritual and religious roles. Retirement was compulsory after the eight-year term, and each major clan followed the same Gadaa system.[62] Women and people belonging to the lower Oromo castes were excluded.[63] A male born in the upper Oromo society went through five stages of eight years, where his life established his role and status for consideration to a Gadaa office.[62]

Under Gadaa, every eight years, the Oromo would choose by consensus an Abbaa Bokkuu responsible for justice, peace, judicial and ritual processes, an Abbaa Duulaa responsible as the war leader, an Abbaa Sa'aa responsible as the leader for cows, and other positions.[64]

Social stratificationEdit

This photo represents the varieties of dressing and hair style of the Oromo culture. the kid sitting in front of the group dressed Gujo Oromo cloths. the four girls at the back from left to right, dressed Harar, Kamise, Borena and Showa styles and all are Oromo style

Like other ethnic groups in the Horn of Africa and East Africa, Oromo people regionally developed social stratification consisting of four hierarchical strata. The highest strata were the nobles called the Borana, below them were the Gabbaro (some 17th to 19th century Ethiopian texts refer them as the dhalatta). Below these two upper castes were the despised castes of artisans, and at the lowest level were the slaves.[65][66]:254–256

In the Islamic Kingdom of Jimma, the Oromo society's caste strata predominantly consisted of endogamous, inherited artisanal occupations.[67][68][69] Each caste group has specialized in a particular occupation such as iron working, carpentry, weapon making, pottery, weaving, leather working and hunting.[70][68]

Each caste in the Oromo society had a designated name. For example, Tumtu were smiths, Fuga were potters, Faqi were tanners and leatherworkers, Semmano were weavers, Gagurtu were bee keepers and honey makers, and Watta were hunters and foragers.[67][71][72] While slaves were a stratum within the society, many Oromos, regardless of caste, were sold into slavery elsewhere. By the 19th century, Oromo slaves were sought after and a major part of slaves sold in Gondar and Gallabat slave markets at Ethiopia-Sudan border, as well as the Massawa and Tajura markets on the Red Sea.[73][74]


The Oromo people developed a luni-solar calendar, which likely dates from a pre-16th century period and before the great migration because different geographically and religiously distinct Oromo communities use the same calendar. This calendar is sophisticated and similar to ones found among the Chinese, the Hindus and the Mayans. It was tied to the traditional religion of the Oromos, and used to schedule the Gadda system of elections and power transfer.[75]

In the 5000m women: Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia sets new world record time 14:11:15

The Borana Oromo calendar system was once thought to be based upon an earlier Cushitic calendar developed around 300 BC found at Namoratunga. Reconsideration of the Namoratunga site led astronomer and archaeologist Clive Ruggles to conclude that there is no relationship.[76] The new year of the Oromo people, according to this calendar, falls in the month of October.[77] The calendar has no weeks but a name for each day of the month. It is a lunar-stellar calendar system.[78][79]


Some modern authors such as Gemetchu Megerssa have proposed the concept of Oromumma, or "Oromoness" as a cultural common between Oromo people.[80] The word is derived by combining "Oromo" with the Arabic term "Ummah" (community). However, according to Terje Østebø and other scholars this term is a neologism from the late 1990s and has been questioned to its link to Oromo ethno-nationalism and Salafi Islamic discourse, in their disagreement with Christian Amhara and other ethnic groups.[81]

The Oromo people, depending on their geographical location and historical events, have variously converted to Islam, to Christianity, or remained with their traditional religion (Waaqeffanna). According to Gemetchu Megerssa, the subjective reality is that "neither traditional Oromo rituals nor traditional Oromo beliefs function any longer as a cohesive and integral symbol system" for the Oromo people, not just regionally but even locally.[80] The cultural and ideological divergence within the Oromo people, in part from their religious differences, is apparent from the constant impetus for negotiations between broader Oromo spokespersons and those Oromo who are Ahl al-Sunna followers, states Terje Østebø.[82] The internally evolving cultural differences within the Oromos have led some scholars such as Mario Aguilar and Abdullahi Shongolo to conclude that "that a common identity acknowledged by all Oromo in general does not exist".[83]

Contemporary eraEdit

Ethiopian Civil WarEdit

In 1973, Oromo discontent with their position led to the formation of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which began political agitation in the Oromo areas. That year there was also a catastrophic famine in which over one quarter of a million people died from starvation before the government recognised the disaster and permitted relief measures. The majority who died were Oromos and Amharas from Wollo, Afars and Tigrayans. There were strikes and demonstrations in Addis Ababa in 1974; and in February of that year, Haile Selassie's government was replaced by the Derg, a military junta led by Mengistu Haile Mariam (a mixed Ethiopian with ethnic Konso heritage); but the Council was still Amhara-dominated, with only 25 non-Amhara members out of 125. In 1975 the government declared all rural land State-owned, and announced the end of the tenancy system. However, much of the benefit of this reform was counteracted by compulsive collectivization, State farms and forced resettlement programmes.

In 1991, the Derg was replaced by the EPRDF. Initially, Oromo intellectuals and the OLF joined the transitional government alongside EPRDF. However, the TPLF branch of EPRDF created an Oromo party (OPDO) to marginalized the OLF and eventually expel it from the country. Despite increased harassment on Oromos, the OPDO presided over the advancement of Oromo language and culture over the last two decades. The TPLF is widely known to use this progress in Oromo cultural and linguistic empowerment as an achievement and a mandate for EPRDF rule the nation. However, most Oromos still do not believe they have political rights and many of them support the OLF and other opposition parties including the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC).

Human rights issuesEdit

In December 2009, a 96-page report titled Human Rights in Ethiopia: Through the Eyes of the Oromo Diaspora, compiled by the Advocates for Human Rights, documented human rights violations against the Oromo in Ethiopia under three successive regimes: the Ethiopian Empire under Haile Selassie, the Marxist Derg and the current Ethiopian government of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), dominated by members of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and which was accused to have arrested approximately 20,000 suspected OLF members, to have driven most OLF leadership into exile, and to have effectively neutralized the OLF as a political force in Ethiopia.[84]

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Oromia Support Group (OSG) recorded 594 extrajudicial killings of Oromos by Ethiopian government security forces and 43 disappearances in custody between 2005 and August 2008.[85]

Starting in November 2015, during a wave of mass protests, mainly by Oromos, over the expansion of the municipal boundary of the capital, Addis Ababa, into Oromia, over 500 people have been killed and many more have been injured, according to human-rights advocates and independent monitors.[86][87] The protests have since spread to other ethnic groups and encompass wider social grievances.[87] Ethiopia declared a state of emergency in response to Oromo and Amhara protests in October 2016.

With the rising political unrest, there was ethnic violence involving the Oromo such as the Oromo–Somali clashes between the Oromo and the ethnic Somalis, leading to up to 400,000 to be displaced in 2017.[88] Gedeo–Oromo clashes between the Oromo and the Gedeo people in the south of the country led to Ethiopia having the largest number of people to flee their homes in the world in 2018, with 1.4 million newly displaced people.[89] In September 2018 in the minorities protest that took place in Oromo near the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, 23 people were killed.[90] Some have blamed the rise in ethnic violence by the Oromo on the new Oromo Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for giving space to groups formerly banned by previous Tigrayan led governments, such as the Oromo Liberation Front.[91]

Political organizationsEdit

Most Oromos do not have political unity today due to their historical roles in the Ethiopian state and the region, the spread-out movement of different Oromo clans, and the differing religions inside the Oromo nation.[92] Accordingly, Oromos played major roles in all three main political movements in Ethiopia (centralist, federalist and secessionist) during the 19th and 20th century. In addition to holding high powers during the centralist government and the monarchy, the Raya Oromos in the Tigray regional state played a major role in the "Weyane" revolt, challenging Emperor Haile Selassie I's rule in the 1940s.[93] Simultaneously, both federalist and secessionist political forces developed inside the Oromo community.

At present a number of ethnic-based political organizations have been formed to promote the interests of the Oromo. The first was the Mecha and Tulama Self-Help Association founded in January 1963, but disbanded by the government after several increasingly tense confrontations in November, 1966.[94] Later groups include the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM), the United Liberation Forces of Oromia (ULFO), the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia (IFLO), the Oromia Liberation Council (OLC), the Oromo National Congress (ONC, recently changed to OPC) and others. Another group, the Oromo People's Democratic Organization (OPDO), is one of the four parties that form the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. However, these Oromo groups do not act in unity: the ONC, for example, was part of the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces coalition that challenged the EPRDF in the Ethiopian general elections of 2005.

A number of these groups seek to create an independent Oromo nation, some using armed force. Meanwhile, the ruling OPDO and several opposition political parties in the Ethiopian parliament believe in the unity of the country which has 80 different ethnicities. But most Oromo opposition parties in Ethiopia condemn the economic and political inequalities in the country. Progress has been very slow, with the Oromia International Bank just recently established in 2008, though Oromo-owned Awash International Bank started early in the 1990s. The first private Afaan Oromoo newspaper in Ethiopia, Jimma Times, also known as Yeroo, was recently established, but it has faced a lot of harassment and persecution from the Ethiopian government since its beginning.[95][96][97][98][99] Abuse of Oromo media is widespread in Ethiopia and reflective of the general oppression Oromos face in the country.[100] University departments in Ethiopia did not establish a curriculum in Afaan Oromo until the late 1990s because they lacked the technical expertise and resources.

Various human rights organizations have publicized the government persecution of Oromos in Ethiopia for decades. In 2008, OFDM opposition party condemned the government's indirect role in the death of hundreds of Oromos in western Ethiopia.[101] According to Amnesty International, "between 2011 and 2014, at least 5000 Oromos have been arrested based on their actual or suspected peaceful opposition to the government. These include thousands of peaceful protestors and hundreds of opposition political party members. The government anticipates a high level of opposition in Oromia, and signs of dissent are sought out and regularly, sometimes pre-emptively, suppressed. In numerous cases, actual or suspected dissenters have been detained without charge or trial, killed by security services during protests, arrests and in detention."[102]

According to Amnesty international, there is a sweeping repression in the Oromo region of Ethiopia.[102] On December 12, 2015, the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported violent protests in the Oromo region of Ethiopia in which more than 20 students were killed. According to the report, the students were protesting against the government's re-zoning plan named 'Addis Ababa Master5 Plan'.

On October 2, 2016, between 55 and 300 festival goers were massacred at the most sacred and largest event among the Oromo, the Irreecha cultural thanksgiving festival.[103] In just one day, dozens were killed and many more injured in what will go down in history as one of the darkest days for the Oromo people. Every year, millions of Oromos, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, gather in Bishoftu for this annual celebration. However this year, the festive mood quickly turned chaotic after Ethiopian security forces responded to peaceful protests by firing tear gas and live bullets at over two million people surrounded by a lake and cliffs.

Notable peopleEdit

Oromo distance running champion Kenenisa Bekele.
Oromo track and field athlete Maryam Yusuf Jamal.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Central Statistical Agency, Ethiopia. "Table 2.2 Percentage Distribution of Major Ethnic Groups: 2007" (PDF). Summary and Statistical Report of the 2007 Population and Housing Census Results. United Nations Population Fund. p. 16. Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 March 2009. Retrieved 29 October 2014.
  2. ^ "Population and Housing Census: Ethnic Affiliation". Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. Archived from the original on 12 May 2013. Retrieved 21 May 2019. 210,000 Borana, 110,500 Gabra,85,000 Orma, 45,200 Sakuyye and 20,000 Waata
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  24. ^ "Frankfurter afrikanistische Blätter". Frankfurt University Library (1). 1989. Retrieved 24 July 2017.
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Further readingEdit

External linksEdit