Marginalization of the Amharic speaking majority in cities across the Oromia region of Ethiopia
By Mikael Arage
February 19, 2018

"One of the most important reasons for the protests across the cities in Oromia regional state - reclamation of linguistic rights - is cunningly ignored by the regional as well as the federal government of Ethiopia."

Nazreth (Adama)

Alemu’s grandfather was born in Nazreth. Alemu’s close friend—Tenkir—and over 60% of the natives, and current residents of the city of Nazreth aren’t ethnic Oromo, according to Census 2007 by the Central Statistical Agency of Ethiopia (CSA). Ever since the government of the Oromia regional state passed a draconian law in 1991, Oromiffa has been subjected as the only official language of the administration of the city of Nazreth where Amharic is spoken as a first language by 59.25%, 26.25% speak Oromiffa and 6.28% speak Guragiegna; the remaining 8.22% speak all other primary languages reported, according to Census 2007. Furthermore, the majority of the inhabitants said they practiced Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, with 63.62% of the population reporting they observed this belief, while 24.7% of the population were Muslim, and 10.57% were Protestant , according to Census 2007. Following the introduction of the draconian law in 1991, most public sector workers who demographically co-relataed with the normal population of the city were removed from their job immediately. The entire public services of Nazreth — health, education, judiciary and etc — was enforced to be in Oromiffa while the sweeping majority —over 90% of the population— had Amharic as the most common means of communication.

Figure 1. Languages of Nazreth(Adama), according to census 2007

"It’s very cruel and unfair that Amharic was written off from being an official and working language in Nazreth when it’s reported as the most spoken— and written — language by far at 59.25%, twice more than Oromiffa which is at 26.25%, " said Ahmed, a Gurage business man in the city of Nazreth.

“My sons and daughters can’t work in the city administration. Nor can run for the city council. We are considered inexistent. Our basic human rights in the city we built was stripped overnight since 1991. The name of our city —Nazreth—was changed in to Adama without our majority consent,” continued Ahmed.

Kiros, a business owner who was born in the city of Nazreth says: “The rights of the non-Oromo ethnicity is suppressed by the Oromo who constitute only 26.25% of the languages spoken — and who have a statically insignificant language representation as compared to the Amharic speaking, which is 59,25%.

"Having taken the city council draconically, the Oromo regional government has prevented more Churches from being built while a number of Mosques were erected in the last two decades,” continued Kiros

According to subsequent censuses carried out befor 2007, the percentage of residents in Nazareth speaking Amharic as their first language was even more higher. As a result, systematic displacement tactics and autocratic laws implemented by the Oromo regional government (OPDO), is to blame for the slight decrement since 1991.

Kidest , a young engineer who doesn’t know any other world than Nazreth, said : "we are still the majority despite living through a draconian enforcement of laws aimed at chasing us away. And, the Federal government must look in to the case of Nazareth where the majority is suffering from a crazy suppression of linguistic rights”

Figure 2. Languages of Debreziet, according to census 2007

Amhara and Debub actvists accuse Oromia broadcasting Network(OBN) of being reticent about the demands of protestors— Linguistic rights of the non-Oromo majorities —in the restive cities across the Oromia regional state of Ethiopia.

Ayenachew , a resident in the town of Nazreth, said : "OPDO isn’t counting us at all. It is masking our issues by hyping irrelevant issues that are of a subject of interest and right only to the residents of the chartered city of Addis."

According to the constitution of Ethiopia, regional states are only legally administrative frameworks, and that the entire country of Ethiopia belongs to Ethiopians equally regardless of race, religion, language, sex, disability and etc.  

One of the reason as to why relentless protests engulfed cities across the Oromia regional states, according to the majority of protestors who are non-oromos as far as demographics is concerend, is : “Severe violation of rights of administering our city ”

The same story of severe human rights violations are pertinent in different cities across the Oromia regional states where the Amharic speaking people and non-Oromos are predominant.

Debreziet (Bishoftu) Demographics 

Amharic is spoken as a first language by 71.95%, and 20.12% spoke Oromiffa; the remaining 7.93% spoke all other primary languages reported. Concerning religious beliefs, 87.87% of the population said they practiced Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, 6.93% were Protestants, and 4.02% observed Roman Catholicism, according to census 1994. The name of the city — “Debreziet"— was changed to "Bishoftu" without a full consent of the residents of the city. 

Jimma Demographics

Amharic is spoken as a first language by 41.58% and 39.96% speak Afan Oromo; the remaining 18.46% speak all other primary languages reported. The majority of the inhabitants said they practiced Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, with 46.84% of the population reporting they observed this belief, while 39.03% of the population were Muslim, and 13.06% were Protestant, according to  Census 2007

Figure 3. Languages of Jima, according to census 2007

Legal synthesis :

Linguistic rights are the human and civil rights concerning the individual and collective right to choose the language or languages for communication in a private or public atmosphere. Other parameters for analyzing linguistic rights include the degree of territoriality, amount of positivity, orientation in terms of assimilation or maintenance, and overtness, according to wikipedia 2017.

The majority of the residents in cities across the Oromia regional states —who are non- ethnic Oromo and have Amharic as their first , or the most convenient language, are deprived of their linguistic rights which includes, among others, the right to one's own language in legal, administrative , judicial acts, language education, and media in a language understood and freely chosen by those concerned.

Linguistic rights in international law are usually dealt in the broader framework of cultural and educational rights.

Important documents for linguistic rights include the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights(1996), the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (1992), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities(1988), as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966).

UN, EU, US and ICC don't need to send investigators to check if there’s any sever violation of human rights— 'Linguistic rights' —in the Oromia regional state of Ethiopia as they have enough data which can serve as an evidence to prosecute or sanction the government.

One thing is clear that the current leadership of the Oromia regional state —OPDO— has failed in its ongoing period of prohibition. Despite branding itself as 'quite independent and pro-democratic' , OPDO failed to deliver not only on issues that matter most to the majority of the residents/protestors in Debereziet, Nazreth, Jimma and etc , but also proved that it can systematically suppress , abstract, divert and use the voices of the majority who are relentlessly demonstrating in cities where ‘ reclamation of Linguistic rights’ are being echoed discriminately. 


Mikael Arage is a techprenuer, manager, engineer, strategist, citizen journalist, life long interdisciplinary student and human rights activist based in Helsinki, Finland. He regularly covers on political economy, technology, innovation and business development in Ethiopia.


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