In the Ethiopian popular imagination, emperors and rulers are lionized and monumentalized while the stories and histories of those who resisted their oft-brutal rules are silenced.
The oral histories of Ethiopia’s peoples overflow with rich stories of resistance and resilience. And they have much to teach us about the country’s complex history and the way its populations have struggled to preserve their ways of life.
One such story involves the life, legend, and legacy of Waqo Gutu Usu, which is ubiquitous in the oral Oromo chronicles.
General Waqo, who died in 2006, was the leader of the Bale Oromo movement, which fiercely challenged three successive Ethiopian regimes: Haile Selassie, the Derg (the communist regime of the 1970s and ’80s), and the EPRDF (the dominant one-party establishment that ruled Ethiopia from 1991 to December 2019).
In the extraordinary 1960s decade, the Bale freedom fighters skillfully eluded and weighed down Haile Selassie’s well-armed, well-trained and well-equipped army—making the province virtually ungovernable. It was an unprecedented and remarkable feat in the annals of that period. The emperor was so fearsome, and his power so absolute, that his subjects prostrated themselves before him. Waqo and his compatriots defied this mythical norm in launching an organized armed rebellion against the monarchy’s oppressive feudal system.
Unfortunately, the history of the Bale people’s revolt (1963–1970) and its resolute protagonists remains largely undocumented. In his debut book, Oromo Witness (released this week on Flexible Press), Abdul Dire, himself a descendant of the Bale resistance leaders, recounts an epic saga of courage, resistance, perseverance, and sacrifice as told to him by one of Waqo’s faithful disciples, Hangasu Waqo Lugo.
Hangasu’s experiences span nearly six decades. He was born into a family of warriors and a life of struggle. As a boy, he accompanied his father to clandestine meetings and strategy sessions with the Bale freedom fighters. As a teenager, he met and argued with Haile Selassie in a manner that the nobility considered disrespectful. As a young man, he worked with a regional administrator in Bale to build an underground network of dissidents. He was imprisoned in Somalia after he went to Mogadishu to solicit support for the Bale movement. In the 1990s, he ran for office in Ethiopia representing his hometown. He came to the U.S. as a refugee in 2000.
Abdul, a Minnesota-based tech leader and philanthropist, recounts the ups and downs in Hangasu’s life. And through him, a living witness of the Bale movement, Abdul presents the story of the intergenerational struggle of the Oromo people. Oromo Witness is not a literary or a research-based historical account. It is an oral history, in 24 brisk and accessible chapters, based on recorded interviews with Hangasu between 2013 and 2020. In fact, it could have benefited from a thorough consultation of the historical record to better understand the context behind the personal stories in the book. Nonetheless, it is an important contribution to preserving the stories and narratives of the Bale movement, one of the defining episodes in Oromo history.
Ethiopianist historiography depicts the Bale region as “ye shifta Ager” (land of bandits or outlaws) and trivializes the history of the movement as an inconsequential “peasant” uprising. Oromo Witness, a subjective memoir of Hangasu’s experiences in the Bale revolt, is the first narrative written from the perspective of the people. It brings to life, in over 235 pages, the underdog history of an extraordinary struggle for justice and equality through the lens of a participant observer.
The book narrates, (re)members and memorializes the bravery and heroic exploits of Waqo Lugo, Muhammad Gada Qalu, Hussein Bune Darara, Isaq Dadhi Tarre, Adam Jilo, Kadir Waqo Shaqe, Aliyyi Cirri and other compatriots of the Bale movement.
Voices lost to history
My grandfather, Ademo Cirri, died in the late 1960s fighting in the Sowra Dhombir or the Dhombir war against Haile Selassie’s imperial regime. Growing up, we heard the names of the Bale revolt leaders and fragments of their stories as a household tale. Abdul’s marvelous book documents, contextualizes, and gives voice to the people and stories I heard from my father, who also participated in the sowra. These heroes and their stories are conspicuously absent from Ethiopian historiography and collective remembering. (The revolt is known by the Bale people as Sowra/Weyra Dhombir, meaning the Dhombir revolution or war. Dhombir was the basic rifle used by the Bale fighters).
Oromo Witness vividly captures not only the deeds of these freedom fighters but also the hills and valleys they traversed in pursuit of justice and diplomatic support for their struggle.
The Bale Oromo fighters rebelled after being denied a dignified existence on their ancestral land. They opposed an exploitative system of government that expropriated land and reduced the native population to the status of serfs. They resisted a feudal, gabbar system that looted their livestock, butter, and honey.
The Bale fighters knew that the existence of the Oromo people as a collective depended on their conscious acts of resistance. They had a simple motto: To root out tyranny in all of its forms in their lifetime, or, failing that, to raise a generation to finish the task. But the fighters lacked the hardware or training they needed to take on a fearsome monarchical army.
So, they turned to a friendly neighbor, Somalia, using people-to-people connections and exchanges. Their diplomatic maneuvers helped for a time. But they soon encountered the fact that Somali authorities wanted to use the Bale fighters as pawns in their expansionist ambitions for a greater Somalia.
It was a dilemma of epic proportions. The state requires you to give up your identity to exist; the ally requires you to give up your identity to resist. It was, of course, a bargain the Oromo rebels could not accept. Undeterred, Waqo and his struggle stalwarts soldiered on, convinced by the righteousness of their cause.
In the end, after several failed attempts to crush the movement, Haile Selassie signed a truce to put down the rebellion. The intergenerational Oromo struggle did not end there. Waqo’s generation had to start over a couple of times.
Much has changed for the Oromo people since Waqo’s death. The EPRDF regime that exiled him is no more. But Abdul reminds us that there is still much work that remains to be done.
One of the last witnesses to a revolution
The author first met General Waqo Gutu when he was 15 years old. The battle-tested leader impressed upon him the importance of education as a tool to fulfill the dreams of Oromo emancipation. Abdul recalls that he “did not have an answer” for the revered General’s questions at the time. By writing Oromo Witness, Abdul has now honored his ancestors and fulfilled his own dreams, and theirs, too.
Hangasu, the protagonist in the book, is now in his 60s. He’s one of the few remaining living witnesses of the Bale people’s struggle. Abdul has written a profile-in-courage of Hangasu and those who inspired, shaped, and molded him.
Even in snowy Minnesota, where his experiences and his lifelong struggle for liberty did not always work in his favor, as Abdul notes, Hangasu continues to organize the Oromo. Like his uncle Waqo Gutu, Hangasu has championed education as a tool for liberation. He now builds schools and sponsors young students.
Abdul has challenged us to bear witness to the sacrifices of Bale resistance leaders; to memorialize their victories; to pick up the torch and move the goalpost further downfield. I hope this book inspires others to write about other silenced struggles—as a reckoning with our complex past and as an enduring tribute to the broad shoulders that have enabled my generation to proudly sing, Jirra: We are here. We exist.