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of Dembi Dollo in a Broader Context of the Horn of
From the point of view of the media, the Horn of Africa is a synonym
for instability, conflict and famine. The region itself is much more
diverse than can be put into one category.
Ethiopia, as the largest
country in the Horn, belongs to one of the most complex and
historically complicated states not only in this region, but
Recently, Ethiopia has witnessed enormous growth visible
mainly in large cities mixed with repeating famines, local
small-scale conflicts, as well as war with neighboring Eritrea. Ethiopia has been very much
affected by ecological disasters as well as political mismanagement
for at least the last four decades, which means during three types
of regimes: Imperial (Haile Selassie), socialist (the Derg), and
EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front). With the
rise of “newcomers” such as China, India,
Brazil, Malaysia, Turkey,
and many others, Ethiopia
has also become the primary destination for many companies
developing their agricultural business in parts of Ethiopia. Consequently,
“land-grabbing” has become as common a practice in
as in Africa in general.
This article deals with a neglected region surrounding Dembi Dollo,
a town close to the Sudanese border on the Western fringe of the
Federal State of Oromia, the largest federal state of
Ethiopia. The article is a part of
my research interest in Oromo nationalism and modern/contemporary
Ethiopia. It is based on my visit
to Dembi Dollo in 2009 and the information I have got from my Oromo
friends and informants both in and outside Ethiopia.
Oromia and the Oromo People
Oromia is the largest federal state in
Ethiopia. It spreads across the
Western and Eastern parts of Ethiopia which makes it very
diverse. Diversity can be seen not only in the architecture of urban
areas, but mainly in different topography, and especially religious
Throughout the Oromo land, we can distinguish several types of land,
from very dry and sandy in the East around Dire Dawa and southwards,
to deeply green in the Western parts of Oromia where rainfalls are
not so rare, and where rich soil gives plenty of agricultural
products including coffee and maize.
What is now the Federal State of Oromia is a land inhabited by
various societies speaking many languages. Oromia is the largest and
economically most important federal state in Ethiopia. The
Oromo people are the most numerous from all the ca. 80 ethnic groups
sharing the Ethiopian space. Until the 19th century, Oromo's
inhabited regions were home to many smaller kingdoms including Jimma
Abba Jifar, Limmu Ennarea, Janjero, etc. These were incorporated
into the modern Ethiopian state during the last quarter of the 19th
century. Oromo has traditionally been known as the land of plenty,
even though famines have devastated some parts of its territory many
times in history.
one hand, Oromia does not belong to the most seriously affected
territories in Ethiopia when it comes to recent drought and famine,
but on the other hand, due to certain political heritage, at least
some parts of Oromia are severely affected by the government’s tight
grip on power and politically sensitive issues of Oromo nationalism
and secessionism. In this regard, I especially refer to the town of
which is the last big town along the ‘Western frontier’, and
generally the Western part of the Wellegga region.
Dembi Dollo and the heritage of the OLF
Dembi Dollo, formerly known as Illubabor, is a relatively small town
(approximately 40.000 inhabitants) placed in a very remote area of
Oromia in Western Ethiopia. The
town has historical significance as the former seat of the Oromo
Liberation Front (OLF). OLF has been one of the main ethno-political
organizations which was formed during the Derg regime in order to
fight for emancipation of the Oromo people. After the failure of
transitional government talks in the early 1990s, OLF left the
political arena and took up arms against Tigray People’s Liberation
Front (TPLF)-led army.
OLF’s headquarters in Dembi Dollo were heavily damaged by the
Ethiopian army at the beginning of the 1990s. The town was severely
affected, and even today, unlike for example Dire Dawa, it is
composed of small houses on a very muddy area with no tar road.
OLF was later forced to move its actions to Southern Ethiopia and Kenya from where the majority of
smuggled arms and ammunition come. Since that time, activities of
OLF are limited mostly to diaspora statements and some minor
attacks. For the government, OLF is an ‘important enemy’ used as a
tool of oppression of political opposition. Everyone who is regarded
as a potential threat to the regime can be easily blamed of being
associated with OLF. The government regards OLF as a terrorist
organization. Shortly before the 2005 parliamentary elections Prime
Zenawiblamed OLF of preparation of nine bomb attacks in Addis Ababa.
Heritage of struggle between the ruling TPLF, which is a part of the
Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and OLF
is still visible in Western Ethiopia. Atmosphere of fear and mistrust is one
of the main features of Dembi Dollo. The Meles Zenawi government, in
an effort to break remaining seeds of resistance in this area, has
frozen any investments including closure of the Dembi Dollo airport.
Catastrophic stage of infrastructure only deepens devastation of
social and economic life in the town and neighborhood, especially
when compared to actual flourishing of some other regional centers
including Ghimbi, Nekemte, or Ambo.
The only visible development of Dembi Dollo comes from the diaspora
and the various churches whose presence in this region has a long
tradition coming back to the end of the 19th century. According to
locals, the former saying ‘Dembi Dollo, bïrri aka bokolo’ (Dembi
Dollo, where maize is like a bïrr – the Ethiopian currency) is now
meant only as a bitter joke though once the town and the
neighborhood was known for its fertility. For example, in 2009,
there was only one hotel in Dembi Dollo, and another was under
construction, both financed by the diaspora.
Identities, Development and the Church
Dembi Dollo, one may encounter a relative ethnic homogeneity with
strong predominance of Oromo people. Religiously, the area is
composed mainly of Protestants, followed by Catholics, Orthodox and
Muslim believers. Generally, the Oromo people tended to convert to
Islam or followed their traditional religion Waaqefaana, due to
historical animosity against the Ethiopian Orthodox Church since the
17th century. In the Wellegga region, Protestantism, and to a lesser
extent Catholicism is dominant, while in other parts of Oromia,
Islam is the leading confession. Since the end of the 19th century,
local Oromo people have been mostly educated by Christian
missionaries, particularly German, Dutch, Norwegian, and Swedish
Evangelical Missionary secondary school in Dembi Dollo.
is the case of many Oromo Muslims in the East, also in Dembi Dollo,
many people regard their religious affiliation and association as
their primary identification. Therefore, ethnicity is somewhat less
discussed since almost everybody here is Oromo, except for a
minority of newcomers and foreign missionaries. ‘Religious naming’
is, on the other hand, a matter of everyday life. People usually
categorize themselves along religious lines, so it is more usual to
hear that somebody is ‘a Protestant’, or ‘a Catholic’, or ‘a
Muslim’, rather than ‘an Oromo’ or ‘an Amhara’.
Obviously, on one hand, one explanation is that due to ethnic
homogeneity there is no need to talk about ethnicity. On the other
hand, it shows one remarkable aspect of the complexity of daily life
? the strength of religion.
The Oromo diaspora usually emphasizes the ethnic side of the
‘perpetual conflict’ in Ethiopia which
has historical and political roots and consequences. However, the
role of ethnicity is, despite the existence of ‘ethnic federalism’,
very often exaggerated while the importance of religion is seen
rather as a minor part of cultural heritage. The opposite is true,
as the author of this article is convinced. Religion is in many
African societies a primary source of identity and identification.
Religious identities are often more deeply rooted in societies than
ethnic identities which may be seen as artificial, politicized, and
most of all, very recent phenomena. Despite all the scholarly works
regarding ‘ethnic’ rivalries, what is happening now in
is the rise of religious fundamentalism which may negatively
influence group relations in heterogeneous regions such as Oromia. Ethiopia is often said to be a
country where politicized ethnicity stands behind many of the local
or latent conflicts. But this would be a simplification as some new
rather religious disputes in the public show.
For ordinary people, i.e. those without direct access to power
regardless of their ethnic identity it is more important to satisfy
their basic needs than to feed their potential nationalist
Due to the catastrophic underdevelopment in Dembi Dollo, caused by a
direct decision made by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to punish former
headquarters of OLF, the development in this area is mainly managed
by churches, both Protestant and Catholic. For instance, the only
public library in town was built in 2007 with the help of the
Ethiopian Full Gospel Church Development Organization. Famous Bethel
Secondary School is run by American
Presbyterian Church while state run schools are desolated or in very
State-run secondary school in Dembi Dollo.
is thus no surprise that many people with whom the author spoke were
very thankful to Christian Churches. This feeling of reverence for
religious organizations and groups makes ethnic identity less
important in the eyes of locals since there is no Oromo association
which would directly be involved in the development of Dembi Dollo.
It does not mean that ethnic rivalries and historical tensions are
not seen in Dembi Dollo, but that this viewing of
Ethiopia’s past and present is not
the only one. Even in Dembi Dollo, many people are aware of the fact
that any potential independence of Oromia would be impossible and,
what is more, there is no direct need for it due to cultural
emancipation which has indubitably taken place in Ethiopia in the last couple of
Humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa
and Oromia – some historical reflections
2011, the world was struck by the scale of the humanitarian crisis
in the Horn of Africa. It affected mostly southern
and some parts of
– mainly those in semi-desert areas. Famine is not a new phenomenon
in the Horn of Africa. History knows disastrous examples of famines
which killed large numbers of people. Because almost the entire
population is dependent on agriculture, and because agriculture
depends on regular rainfalls, it is obvious that any shortage in
rainfalls may have direct impact on harvests and the lives of people
in the countryside, especially when they are dependent on one
Despite its natural causes the humanitarian crisis may have an
unfortunate political dimension. In the 1980s, the
Sudan and Ethiopia were
affected by a devastating famine which attracted attention of the
international public. Its prolongation was caused by political
decisions coming from the central governments of both countries. The
reason was simply to punish regional rebellions and cause harm to
Both in the Sudan and Ethiopia, the 1980s were largely
characterized by perpetual conflicts in many regions. South Sudan
was fighting against the regime in Khartoum,
and Ethiopia was
disintegrated due to the Eritrean struggle for independence, and the
fight of many ‘liberation fronts’ against Mengistu in order to
support their ethnic and political emancipation.
Regions such as Ogaden and Benishangul/Gumuz as well as some parts
of Oromia and northern Ethiopia were
badly affected by drought and famine. Humanitarian aid, coming from
the West, could be (and in many cases certainly was) under such
circumstances blocked or simply not delivered to the most affected
‘rebel regions’. Recently, some parts of
face serious crises not that much because of lack of rainfalls, but
due to the direct impact of the central government as well.
Various internet sources bring almost daily new information
regarding the phenomenon of ‘land-grabbing’ and displacement of
people in the countryside as well as in Addis Ababa. Such one-sided acts done by the
government agents can only weaken the already very fragile
socio-political situation in
Ethiopia. Like in Dembi Dollo, due
to forceful government policy leading to oppression of opposition
and civil society, non-democratic and one-sided acts of
land-grabbing and displacement can lead to further social
frustration and lack of affiliation with the state.
Richness and beauty of Wellega.
Dembi Dollo and the neighboring areas of the Wellegga region belong
to the historically important trade routes but their recent history
overshadows the once famous past. Due to very tense ethnic politics
in Ethiopia, and
the existence of a non-democratic regime in the country, Dembi Dollo
has become a marginalized and disadvantaged ‘frontier’ town in
comparison with similar towns in
Face-to-face with the contemporary humanitarian crisis, the
Ethiopian state only shows a policy of ethnic and regional
favoritism. It has become a daily practice in Ethiopia, but
may result in severe crises which are not new to these regions. An
example is the Ogaden region. When accumulated, such phenomena as
land-grabbing, displacement, ethnic rivalry, religious tensions, and
regionally imbalanced development make the future of
remain fragile and uncertain, especially when the vast majority of
people still depend on agriculture and rainfalls, and when the state
is not able to save all the regions from poverty and famine.
The author is Ph.D. and a member of a new Centre of African Studies
at the Department of History, University of West Bohemia
in Pilsen, Czech Republic. His research is
focused mainly on modern and contemporary history of
Ethiopia, ethnicity and nationalism in Africa,
position of Africa in international relations, and socio-economic
problems of Africa. He has
published numerous articles in English and Czech, including three
books (in Czech).
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