Assimilative language policy in Ethiopia and ethnic tensions. The case of the Oromo language and ethnic identity

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

15 Pages, Grade: A-


Table of Contents


Literature Review

Who are the Oromo?

Chronology of Assimilative processes and The place of the Oromo language

Applicable Diverse Theory




The study detailed in this paper is digging into the assimilative language policy of Ethiopia and how this language policy is fueling ethnic tensions. As the study elucidates based on scientific facts, it elaborates the Oromo language, here after Afaan Oromo and how the speakers of the language are marginalized so as to be included into the Ethiopian identity, an identity believed to be of civilization, through assimilative language policy. This assimilation countered pluralism or diversity in a brutal way to homogenize the diverse Ethiopian population particularly the largest Ethnic group, the Oromo, into the Ethiopian identity or Ethiopianism. As the Ethiopian identity, an identity emanating from and of the ruling class, the Amhara population and the Amharic language, it was a solid-State building instrument with the creating power of belongingness and loyalty to the State. Although this policy of assimilation was seemed to be countered by the communist regime soon after the communists came to power in 1974, it did not deter from the predecessor’s language policy of centralization. The centralization process through the Ethiopian identity making via language suppression and depriving one’s identity seemed to come to an end in 1991 with the down fall of the communist regime and the end of singularity, which is one nation with one language. As pluralism was cherished, facts on the ground did not guarantee the assimilative policy’s beam into the dust of history but constitution of the country and the general picture with diverse languages reviving and the Oromo language growing coming out of the shackles of the Ethiopian identity stress the facts. Although pluralism is growing, still ethnic tensions are high to the boiling point accompanied with vast past grievances and how the current regime handles ethnic tensions, language issues especially Afaan Oromo, a predominately spoken language in Ethiopia where the language speakers are deprived of getting job placement in the Federal government and systemic means of marginalizing the language. Language is the maker of identity and it is quite difficult if not erroneous to separate ethnic identity and language. To claim an identity of certain group or to designate oneself into a group of language owner needs ability to speak the language and expression of culture.

Key words: Afaan Oromo, Amharic, Amharization,Arabization, Communist regime, EPRDF, Ethiopia, Ethiopianism, Haile Silassie, Mengistu, the FDRE, Oromo, Oromia


Accounts of the history of Ethiopia depict that homogenization or assimilative approach centering on language played the greatest role in State building. Mekuria Bulcha (1997, p.325) elucidates this as “suppression of ethnic identity to create homogenous State.” Bulcha (p. 325) farther details that this was done to create loyalty and belongingness to the State. This notion reflects that State building can be attained with crushing language diversity, as diversity and belongingness to one’s own language unlike the national one threatens the loyalty and belongingness of citizens to the State they belong. Added, Bulcha (p. 326) elaborates that languages “are the virtually exclusive carriers of Ethiopian Civilization” which in this case is the language of the ruling class or ethnic group and any diversity of language (p. 326) is a barrier to Ethiopian identity and nationalism called Ethiopianism. In this case, language has been political (Smith, 2008, p.207) precisely because as depicted by Smith (p. 209) it represents nation building benefiting native Amharic speakers disproportionately. This disproportionate aspect disclosed itself in power and education in a copy-paste way of the Sir-Lankan civil conflict that had language as its root causes (Perera, 2001, p. 8).

The Ethiopian State formation was culminated in the late 19th C printing the ideology in Bigelow’s words as “one language, one flag and one country.” In Ethiopian case, until 1991 this philosophy of nation building was loud even with the ideology of having one religion and dresses although minor adjustments were done during the community regime. Zahorik (2009, p. 92-93) details this in the journal of Asian and African Studies as policy of “one language one nation” where others were deprived from opportunities due to language barrier and assimilative homogenization policy.

The Ethiopian assimilative language policy favored Amharic language in opposition to the other only for the reason that the royal families and subsequent leaders of the country were from the Amharic speaking ethnic group. As a major Ethiopian language, the language of the majority ethnic group in Ethiopia and in the entire horn of Africa, the Oromo is deprived.

Speakers of the Oromo language account for 40% of the total population according to Hussien (2008, p.33) quoting Hamesso in the Australian journal of linguistics. Jalata (2001, p.1) states that the Oromo make up 40 percent and 60 percent of the Ethiopian population of 60 million. Jalata (2001, p. 1) details that there are discrepancies in the percentage of the Oromo people in Ethiopia because of the Ethiopian colonial politics. The term colonial here refers to internal colonization.

Bulcha (1997, p. 341) elaborates that the Oromo language is a lingua franca in Ethiopia. Bulcha (1997, p. 326) narrated that Afaan Oromo is the fifth biggest indigenous languages in Africa by far exceeding Amharic speakers in population size and number of speakers. Hussien (2008, p. 33) depicted that only 20% of the Ethiopian population speaks Amharic which is the language of the government. The Oromo language was banned by law until the communists took power in 1974 and even naming children in Oromo language was considered barbarian and uncivilized. Zone coincidentally (2008, 224) explain that Russians were depicted as “evil,”by Ukrainians which was also true in the Ethiopian context in which the Oromo people and language were considered evil.

In this paper, I will be detailing chronology of the homogenization process in Ethiopia and its impact on the subjects. I will also shallowly explain aspects of the ethnic based federalism after 1991 and where the Ethiopian State is heading. As I explain, I will detail evolving ethnic tensions and language with the future of Ethiopia in relation to social constructive and identity theories.

Literature Review

Assimilative language policy is widely written by scholars. For example, Pereze, 2001, p. 10) states that Sir-Lankan language problem was largely benefiting the Sinhala against the Tamils where it marginalized the Tamils in education disproportionately benefiting (2001, p. 8) one over the other.

Zouhir (2015, p.284) elucidates that there is what is called language imperialism in which case as argued by Zouhir (2015, p. 284) certain languages dominate others. In his argument Zouhir (2015, p. 284) depicts spread of certain languages for political and economic reasons suppressing the others. Zouhir (2015, p. 284) elaborates this quoting Schmidt that in a dominating and assimilative ways certain languages perish pluralism and acculturating subordinates into identity crisis.

While Zouhir (2015, p. 284-285) narrowly distinguishes between domination and assimilation, it is vivid that both play the role of double sword which are domination-marginalization and assimilation both of which wipe down one’s identity and language. In this case, both the dominative and the assimilative strategies of State building are described as “perpetuating social inequalities,” (2015, p. 285) promoted by policy makers (2015, p. 285).

In the Ethiopian case, linguistic homogenization (Bulcha, 1997, p.333) was a central government policy towards suppressing language and cultural identity of those who were non-Amhara meaning those who were not Amhara, an ethnic group to which government language belongs and where power and education lies. In this homogenization process, language was used as a push and a pull factor where it is influenced by political elites controlling power and influenced by political ideologies as Zouhir (2015, p. 285) narrates.

According to Zouhir quoting Sharkey (2015, p. 289), Arabization of the Sudan was promoting linguistic intolerance and State centered vision of culture and power. In a similar fashion, Amharization of the subject people in Ethiopia was a State centered linguistic intolerance. Language homogenization techniques are also observed in Eastern Europe and African countries succumbing other languages and even leading some into extinction.

Who are the Oromo?

Accounts of history illustrate that the Oromo make up third of the 100 million Ethiopian populations (Allo, 2016). Jalata accounted the population number of the Oromo between 40 percent and 60 percent but stressed that the number varies on the Ethiopian “colonial” discriminatory policy (Jalata, 2001, p. 1). According to the Huntington post, the Oromo population accounts for 35 percent of the Ethiopian population (Woldemariam, 2015). Laccino confirmed this number depicting on the International Business Times (2016).

According to Laccino (2016) the Oromo population inhabit in the Northern East of Africa. The Oromo predominately inhabit in Ethiopia and North Kenya as well as Somalia. Laccino (2016) explained that the population speaks Afaan Oromo and they inhabit on their own land called Oromia. Oromia is the name derived from the Oromo nation and language.

Afaan Oromo is the language they speak although the population also speaks other languages as the second language. Smith (2008, p. 215) quoting Hudson reported that about 16, 777, 975 people speak Oromo language as a mother tongue. It is highly contested that this number is accurate or if it is a sample of the population. Given the huge geographical stretch the populations owns in the Ethiopian State and beyond with also other statistical accounts of scholars referenced above, Smith’s conclusion is unacceptable.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1 Map of Oromia, the land of the Oromo in Ethiopia

Taken from:

Despite accounting for the largest portion of the Ethiopian population, the Oromo language and the Oromo people have been marginalized due to the assimilative language policy of successive Ethiopian political leadership. Successive political leadership centrally officiated one language as a single unifying measure of the country and as a means of State building strategy.

Historical findings confirm intolerant linguistic marginalization towards the Oromo. This marginalization took effect with Amharic as a central power consolidation machine (Smith, 2008, p. 217). This consolidation of State power through Amharic language against subjects was fostered through religious conversions and foreign missionaries who also worked for the homogenization of the Ethiopian population (2008, p. 217). This homogenization had great impact on the Oromo population in particular because of the bulkiness and population number which means that the homogenization was intense with “dehumanization and subsequent alienation,” (2008, p. 218). Smith depicts this quoting Keller that the assimilative language policy of the State was accompanied with cultural degradation and forced conversion and banning of Afaan Oromo (p. 219). Homogenization was also accompanied by the rejection of the cultural identity of the Oromo and propagation of the self hatred of the Oromo (Hussein, 2008, p. 37) considering the Oromo as barbarian and, uncivilized (Tibebu, 1995, p. 17). Even Oromo names were considered uncivilized and backward where children born Oromo were forced to change their names into Amharic names (1995, p. 17).

According to Tibebe (1995, 18), the Oromo suffered a huge humiliation in the assimilative processes of State building. Which also as argued by Tibebe depicts (p. 16-18) inferiorizing the population in cruelty and brutality. The State did not counter any of this dehumanization process targeting Oromo nationals which verifies that the State was behind all sorts of such derogatory sayings targeting one ethnic group over the other. This dehumanization was involving of depicting the Oromo people as barbarian and evil which coincides with the Ukrainian labeling of Russians as narrated by Zon (2001, 224-225) as evil and those who massacre Russians were treated as national heroes. This way of depiction “consolidate linguistic derogation and provoke animosity,” (Ioratim-Uba, 2009, p.443).


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Assimilative language policy in Ethiopia and ethnic tensions. The case of the Oromo language and ethnic identity
University of Baltimore
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assimilative, ethiopia, oromo
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Wasihun S. Gutema (Author), 2016, Assimilative language policy in Ethiopia and ethnic tensions. The case of the Oromo language and ethnic identity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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