Two Centuries of Genocide Against the Oromo: From Sahle Sellasie to Abiy Ahmed


Whether it is called genocide, ethnic cleansing, massacre or mass killings, the Oromo have suffered it all under successive Ethiopian rulers in the last two hundred years. This article provides a chronological sequence of the killings perpetrated against the Oromo nation from king Sahle Selassie (1813-1847)[1] of Shoa to the current Nafxanya[2] prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed. Sahle Selassie launched his punitive campaigns against the Tulama Oromo in the 1840s, looting their properties and, most of all, killing them in hundreds of thousands. Yet, he was unable to force them into submission because of the Tulama Oromo heroic resistance.

While Sahle Selassie and later his grandson, Menilek (1889-1913),[3] were ravaging the Tulama Oromo, another bandit who declared himself Tewodros II unleashed genocidal campaigns on the Oromo of Wallo, killing them in hundreds of thousands during his reign of terror between 1855 and 1868. According to Sven Rubenson[4], in one day alone, Tewodros cut off both hands of over 700 Oromos to avenge the death of his British advisor. His intent to literally eradicate or cleanse the Oromo people from the face of the earth is unashamedly detailed in his letter to Queen Victoria requesting military assistance to wage war against the Oromo, whom he accused of being pagans and Muslims.[5] Tewodros’s successor, Yohannes IV (a Tigre by ethnicity), was no better for the Oromo of Wallo. He indiscriminately mowed them down with the weapons that he got from the British expeditionary force for his help against Tewodros. Yohannes gave the Oromo two choices: convert to Christianity or lose their limbs, status and lives. When they resisted, the killing was so horrendous that people had to be buried in mass graves, the largest being at Boru Meda in today’s Wallo region.

In Shoa, Sahle Selassie’s most important achievement was weakening the Oromo and making them vulnerable to the onslaught of his grandson, the notorious Menilek II, who with the use of firearms he obtained from the Europeans[6] completed the conquest of the Tulama in the early 1870s. Menilek then turned against the Oromo of Wallo whom he subdued by the middle of the 1870s. The tragedy that befell on the Wallo Oromo was that they were simultaneously squeezed between two unforgiving Abyssinian rulers, Yohannes from the north and Menilek from the south, and they suffered unprecedented loss and devastation.

Once he sealed the fate of the Wallo Oromo with the help of Yohannes, sharing the region between them, Menilek turned his campaigns against the Oromo in the south, southwest and southeast. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, with continuous flow of weapons from European powers, Menilek unleashed his ferocious attacks on all Oromo regions, colonizing them one after another. Like other African peoples who fiercely resisted European powers but eventually defeated, however determined they were, Oromo resistance collapsed over time due to lack of modern firearms. Victory did not stop Menilek from killing the Oromo in hundreds of thousands. In 1886, at Anole in Arsi,[7] Menelik committed genocide in the truest meaning of the act when he chopped off the breasts of thousands of women and cut both hands of men who were lured into a meeting deceptively in the name of making peace.[8] In 1887, farther east in Hararge, Menilek committed another major genocide on the Oromo at Chalanqo.[9] At the time when Menilek was ravaging central Oromia in the early 1880s, another cruel Abysinian ruler from Gojjam, Ras Adal Tasamma (whom Menelik later crowned as king Takle Haymanot) unleashed a violent attack on western Oromiya. He defeated the Oromo leader of Horro Guduru, Abishe Garba, and inhumanely buried him alive. The defeat of Abishe opened the way into southwestern Oromiya for Adal’s military commander, Ras Darso, who massacred the Oromo all his way into the Gibe valley. Oral history has it that there are several mass graves yet to be excavated all along Ras Darso’s footprints from Horro Guduru to the Oromo territory in the Gibe valley. It has to be noted here that outside of Oromia, Menilek committed similar genocide against the Walayita in 1894 and the Kaficho in 1898. Once defeated and their capacity to put strong resistance weakened, the Oromo became an easy prey to Menilek’s exploitation. Captives were enslaved and distributed among Amhara lords while hundreds of thousands of them were sold to slave traders. According to historian Harold Marcus (1995)[10], Menilek held the largest share in the business of the slave trade. Recently, historian Sandra Shell has unearthed a history of Oromo slaves exported by Menilek but intercepted by the British navy and brought to settle in South Africa. Descendants of these Oromo slaves in South Africa reminisce the stories their slave grandparents shared with them, about their origin, capture, enslavement and being sold into slavery by Menilek and his naftagna officials.[11]

The turn of the twentieth century was no better for the Oromo. Although the campaigns of the conquest were over, the Naftagna settled in the business of ruling their new colonies. They confiscated the land and turned the people into serfs called gabbars[12] where the Oromo were forced to work on the land they previously owned, pay tribute and attend to all kinds of services their new masters demanded. Killing and displacement of the Oromo continued in all circumstances. The case of Iyasu whom the Naftagna did not like simply because he was the son of a Muslim Oromo led to another round of targeting the Oromo of Wallo and all those who became his friends during the interregnum. His father’s effort to protect him failed at the battle of Sagale in 1917 and what followed was an all-out cleansing of the Oromo from local power in Wallo. In 1930, Ras Gugsa Wale revolted against Ras Tafari, the late Emperor Haile Selassie and the godfather of the Naftagna system after Menilek. Tafari decided to squeeze Gugsa out of power simply because of his Oromo background. Gugsa rallied his Oromo kinsmen from Yejju, Wallo and Raya to confront Ras Tafari’s forces. With immense material resources obtained from the occupied Oromo regions and with use aeroplanes, the outcome of showdown was a forgone conclusion for Tafari. In that grossly lopsided battle, Gugsa was defeated and killed on the battlefield. What followed was reprisal and mass killing of the Oromo whether they supported Gugsa or not.

Defeated by the Italians at the Battle of Maichew in 1936, the emperor and his retreating army indiscriminately massacred the Oromo of Wallo around Lake Ashange, falsely accusing them of supporting the Italians. Because of the continued repression and killings, the Raya Oromo revolted in 1941 (a revolt that the Tigre People’s Liberation Front – TPLF – hijacked and called the first Wayane rebellion) and the emperor appealed to the British for military assistance and secured the help of the British Royal Air Force stationed in Yemen to fight WWII. British warplanes mercilessly bombarded the Oromo. Although the bombardment later expanded to other Tigray regions, it was the Oromo of Raya who fought the heaviest and suffered the cruelest casualties.

When the Bale Oromo raised arms against the Nafxagna system in 1963, Haile Selassie unleashed his modern military from mechanized ground force to an air force armed with the F-15s. The result was a protracted war and the killing of hundreds of thousands of Oromo by Nafxanya soldiers and their local Nafxanya allies.[13]

The foundation of the Macha Tulama Self-help Association in the 1960s heralded another era of persecutions and killings of the Oromo by the nafxanya settlers. Simply because the leaders and the prospective beneficiaries were Oromos, the government of Haile Selassie put this association under its security radar. The founders were labeled terrorists and its leaders were subsequently arrested and given death and life sentences in the “kangaroo” courts of the empire. Any form of social and political organization by Oromo was deemed a threat to the Amhara supremacy. Any attempt to use the Oromo language for official business or writing was outlawed. Among the founders of the Association, Lieutenant Mamo Mazamir was hanged in public; Haile Mariam Gamada was tortured and killed in prison; and General Taddesse Birru was sentenced to death but his sentence was later commuted to life.[14] Nevertheless, he was later murdered by Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1975, with several other prominent Oromo military officers. The result was total elimination of a generation of Oromo leaders and intelligentsia. The communist military government that came to power in 1974 wiped out another generation of Oromo intelligentsia under the guise of class war, while in reality, the intent and purpose was to permanently erase or eliminate the Oromo aspirations for freedom. Exactly ninety years after the genocide at Anole and Chalanqo, Mangistu Haile Mariam and his local Naftagna foot soldiers conducted an all-out massacre of the Oromo of Hararge. Mengistu and his Naftagna allies used the Somali invasion of the region in 1977 as an excuse and killed everyone wearing the jellabiya: the excuse was that they were Somalis.

With the coming to power of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in 1991, the Oromo faced yet another intensive round of massacre. Although the Tigre are ethnically different, they played by the same book as the Amhara Naftagna in their dealings with the Oromo. Soon after it ousted the military junta, the TPLF created a transitional coalition government that included the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). From the start, the coalition between the two was unholy and soon began to crack once the TPLF felt confident that it was in a stronger position. The TPLF then began inciting violence everywhere in Oromia but conveniently blamed the OLF for the violence as a pretext to oust it from the transitional government. The TPLF then used the Amhara National Democratic Movement (the Amhara wing of the EPRDF coalition which morphed into today’s Amhara Prosperity Party) which in turn mobilized local Naftagnas in Oromia and staged series of violence against the Oromo in late 1991 and early 1992. Accordingly, supported by the TPLF from behind, ANDM Amhara militias and the local Naftagna killed hundreds of Oromos at Arba Gugu in Arsi region and thousands at Watar and Baddannoo in Hararge.

Having killed thousands of Oromos at the three places, ANDM and its Naftgna foot soldiers unashamedly blamed the OLF for the killings and asserted Amharas in Oromia as the victims. In effect, in their false narration and twisting of history, they labelled the victims (Oromo) as killers and the killers (the Amhara) as victims. At that time, the OLF was still in the transitional government and the TPLF and ANDM (today’s Amhara Prosperity Party) intimidated the smaller

partners in the transitional government to support the resolution that implicated the OLF as a “culprit.” TPLF and the Naftagnas committed similar crimes against the Oromo people in Sooyama and Saxxammaa districts in Jimma region in the late 1990s. A well-armed government force, fully supported by Amhara Naftagna, also recruited and armed by ANDM, jointly unleashed an all-out massacre on the Oromo of both districts. Clandestinely obtained information from members of the military involved in the operation indicates that the current prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, commanded one of the forces that massacred the Oromo of Sooyama and Saxxammaa. The same sources confide that the TPLF and ANDM appointed Abiy commander of the forces because of his familiarity with the region, his understanding of the culture and the language, and above all his unreserved loyalty to Meles Zenawi.[15] Indeed, he proved to be the most loyal commander by executing the operation with precision per their plan. The worst one-day massacre committed against the Oromo was at Irreecha Hora Arsade in October 2016 where close to one thousand Oromos were mowed down by TPLF-EPRDF security forces with aerial support of TPLF helicopter gunships.[16]

Besides, the ANDM, TPLF established the Oromo People Democratic Organization (OPDO), a puppet political organization filled with captured Derg soldiers to represent them in Oromia. OPDO served as a bridge and ambassador to the TPLF in Oromia and had been engaged in committing all sorts of crimes against humanity on Oromos. Bright Oromos who refused subjugation and servile relationship with the OPDO and TPLF were taken to prison enmasse and tortured or were killed. Oromo University students were isolated and dismissed in large numbers just based on their identity. Oromia sustained a continuous attack by TPLF for at least 28 years and by OPDO and Naftagna (ANDM) to this day.

Under the TPLF, Naftagna persecution of the Oromo was all-round and reached new heights and intensities. In addition to mass killings all over Oromia under the pretext of fighting armed OLF groups, the TPLF, OPDO, and Amhara Naftagnas denied education opportunities to Oromo students in universities controlled by Naftagna officials. Anytime anything happened, Oromo university students were taken as culprits and were dismissed in hundreds. At one time, close to 400 students were expelled from Addis Ababa University alone. Expelling Oromo students from universities turned out to be a persistent policy, and generation after generation Oromo students were denied education. As a result, the Oromo, as a nation, were left bereft of a class of intelligentsia, bureaucrats, technocrats, doctors, engineers, economists, accountants, geologists, planners, university professors, lawyers, and professional businessmen. Added to this was the economic, political and cultural genocide resulting from the land grabs and eviction of Oromo farmers in the surroundings of Finfinnee and several towns all over Oromiya.[17]

The Qeerroo movement in the 2010s particularly following the fiercest engagement beginning in 2014, heralded the demise of the TPLF in 2018. Unfortunately, the struggle was immediately usurped by the Amhara Naftagna and today the Oromo people have one again fallen into the hands of their historic and worst enemies. Unbeknownst to the Oromo, a one Abiy Ahmed who speaks Afaan Oromoo but a narcissist and sadist Naftagna, publicly claimed an all Oromo ethnic identity at one time and a half Oromo and half Amhara identity at other times, usurped the power and created a state that unleashed the reign of terror on the Oromo people, with

unprecedented betrayal of his closest allies and constituency. Unashamedly, and without due process of the law, he killed the Oromo in a way that is only comparable to Germany under Hitler and the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin. He has no comparison in Africa except his predecessors, Tewodros and Menilek. Indeed, he outsmarted both of the in the level his cruelty and the number of Oromos he killed. He suspended civil liberties and created military command posts (or marshal law) and brought death to every Oromo house and every human being, including nursing mothers and the very elderly. He openly vowed to hit the Oromo hard enough and set them backward by thousand years. This is an open declaration of genocide on a nation of over forty million. Emboldened by his statements and his open support for them, the Amhara Naftagna living all over Oromia are at this very moment killing Oromos with impunity while the Amhara Prosperity Party is commanding their actions from Bahr Dar. With his typical textbook fascistic behavior and actions, Abiy Ahmad has unleashed the Amhara Naftagna on the Oromo. Interestingly enough, he gave a green light to the Amhara ruling party in Bahr Dar (capital of the Amhara) to arm their Naftagna friends in Oromiya and to intimidate Oromiya’s nominal leaders. Today, the state of Oromiya is effectively ruled by directives coming from Bahr Dara (Amhara Prosperity Party) and the local Naftagna collaborators who pose as Oromos and operate under directives from the Amhara Prosperity Party.

To conclude, Amhara rulers and their local Naftagna surrogates have committed massacres and genocide on the Oromo in the last two hundred years. During Menilek’s initial conquest, hundreds of thousands of Oromos were killed. “Between 1868 and 1900, half of all Oromo were killed, around 5 million people.”[18] One European traveler who visited the region[19] at the height of the conquest estimated the dead at five million. And over two million Oromos were evicted from the Finfinnee and its surroundings, the process that started when the city was founded in 1887 and continued unabated to-date. Ironically, with their actions, the Amhara Naftagna are not only destabilizing the empire that their grandfathers created but they are speeding up the process of its disintegration.

We are witnessing history repeating itself in the 21st century manifested by Abiy Ahmed’s acts of genocide against the Oromo people in all corners of Oromiya. Just after the assassination, on June 29, 2020, of Hacaaluu Hundeessaa, a renowned singer, song writer, a musical genius and Oromo rights activist, over 800 Oromos have been murdered, thousands injured and tens of thousands sent to jail for demanding justice for the singer and for the release of political prisoners. Many of the prominent political opposition figures and Oromo nationalists are currently languishing in Covid-19 infected prisons with no proper sanitary facilities. The government of Abiy has weaponized Covid-19 and has subjected opposition figures and nationalist to this deadly viral infection. All independent Oromo Media outlets are shut down. Their properties are looted. Journalists and their staff are imprisoned. The Oromo nation continues to be a voiceless majority.

Such is the unfortunate history of the Oromo suffering under Naftagna rule requiring solutions that match the 21st century -justice, equality, freedom and exercising the right to self-determination. Sadly, Aby Ahmed is instituting the system that Menilek founded 150 years ago, the very system which is responsible for Ethiopia’s current problem.

[1] William Cornwallis Harris, The Highlands of Ethiopia, (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1844).

[2] The word “Naftxanya” refers to the armed invaders of the north, mainly the Amharas and their descendants who still are beneficiaries of their brutal rule over the southern nations for over 150 years. These are the people who enjoy the highest socio-political and economic superiority while forming a deep state in Ethiopia’s government structure.

[3] Harold G. Marcus, The life and times of Menelik II: Ethiopia 1844-1913 (Originally published: Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.)

[4] Sven Rubenson, King of Kings: Tewodros of Ethiopia (Addis Abeba: Published by Haile Sellassie I University in association with Oxford University Press, 1966.

[5] This letter and many others are available at:

[6] For a groundbreaking work on Europe’s assisting of Menilek in his colonization of the Oromo, see Bonnie K. Holcomb and Sisai Ibssa, Invention of Ethiopia: The Making of Dependent Colonial State in Northeast Africa, (Trenten, NJ: The Red Sea Press, 1990).

[7] For an insightful and firsthand account of Menilek’s conquest and genocide in Arsi, see Abbas H. Gnamo, Conquest and Resistance in the Ethiopian Empire, 1880 – 1974: The Case of the Arsi Oromo (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2014).

[8] It appears Menilek had learned this from Moammed Ali of Egypt who used the same deceptive method to kill the Mamlukes enmasse in 1806 to fend off their threat to his authority. Perhaps he combined his knowledge Mohammed Ali’s history and his personal observation of Tewodros’ brutality on the Oromo, made Menilek a killer of historical proportion at least in Africa. No African leader, including Shaka, whom Europeans present as a monster, has killed as many people as Menilek.

[9] For a brilliant firsthand account on the battle of Chalanqo and Menilek’s genocide in Hararge, see, Mohammed Hassen, “Conquest, Tyranny, and Ethnocide against the Oromo: A Historical Assessment of Human Rights Conditions in Ethiopia, ca. 1880s–2002” Northeast African Studies, 9, 3, (2002. 15-49); Mohammed Hassen, “A Short History of Oromo Colonial Experience, 1870s-1990s: part One, 1870s to 1935” Journal of Oromo Studies, 6, 1-2: (1999), 109-158.

[11] Harold G. Marcus, The life and times of Menelik II: Ethiopia 1844-1913 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975).
11) Sandra Rowoldt Shell, Children of Hope: The Odyssey of the Oromo Slaves from Ethiopia to South Africa (Ohio University Press, 2019).

[12] For incisive analysis of Menilek’s colonization of the Oromo, his imposition of the gabbar system that resembles Medieval European serfdom, see Addis Hiwet, Ethiopia, from autocracy to revolution (London: Review of African political economy, 1975).

[13] For the history of the Bale rebellion, see Gebru Tareke, Ethiopia: power and protest: peasant revolts in the twentieth century (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[14] For the early history and apparently turbulent years of the association, see Mohammed Hassen, “The Macha-Tulama Association 1963-1967 and the Development of Oromo Nationalism”, Being and Becoming Oromo: Historical and Anthropological Enquiries, ed. P.T.W. Baxter, Jan Hultin and Alessandro Triulzi (Lawrenceville, NJ; Asmara, Eritrea: Red Sea Press, Inc., 1996).

[15] Abiy Ahmed was the most loyal OPDO cadre to Meles Zenawi. The vast majority of the cadres never lasted long; only Abiy and a very few Oromo cadres outlived their master, Meles. Abiy joined the TPLF as a 14-year boy in 1991 and has survived TPLF “use-and-throw” strategy simply because of his unwavering loyalty and murderous personality. Today, Ethiopians cannot believe their ears when they hear Abiy criticizing the TPLF, the party of his Godfather, Meles Zenawi. Abiy Ahmed, “Poem Eulogizing Meles Zenawi, August 2012”,, accessed 09/10/2020

[16] Conor Gaffey, “Ethiopia: Mourning Begins for Scores Killed in Oromia ‘Stampede’”, Newsweek, (10/3/16).

[17] A well-informed source on genocide committed to the Oromo on multiple fronts is Gizachew Tesso. For example, among his many media interviews, listen to the one he made with the Ethiopian Satellite Television on Oct 23, 2015., accessed 09/10/2020

[18] See, accessed 09/10/2020.

[19] Akbar Ahmed & Frankie Martin, “The Oromo and the War on Terror in the Horn of Africa”, accessed 09/10/2020. For an eyewitness account of Menilek’s killing of the conquered peoples enmasse, see J.-G. Vanderheym, Une expédition avec le négous Ménélik; vingt mois en Abyssine (Paris: Hachette, 1896).



  1. Dereje Birbirso

    Very scholarly & enlightening. Thank you

  2. Dambali Hailu

    the most impressive issue

  3. Nigatu E

    Real and true information. Oromo cleansing is continuing. wallo region has already extinct except Kamise zone

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *