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Oromo Students represent Oromia at York University’s Cultural Showcase April 19, 2017

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Decolonizing Development:The Political and Cultural Locations of Nationalism and National Self-determination (The Case of Oromia) January 4, 2015

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 Decolonising Development:The Political and Cultural Locations of   Nationalism and National Self-determination (the Case of Oromia)

Several scholars have argued that national self-determination is a claim for cultural independence and that nationalism in general is based on the right to cultural autonomy, right to a culture. In the Oromo context, national self-determination is about the representation of collective identity and dignity. It is the demand of the Oromo people to govern themselves. Practically, this can be interpreted as let us be governed by people who are like us, people of our nationality or people who accept and respect our value system. For the last hundred years and so, the Oromo nation has suffered from Abyssinian expansionism, social, ecological and economic destruction and continuous and intensive cultural and physical genocide. The Abyssinians and Oromians connections have been the coloniser (refers to the former) and the colonised (refers to the latter) relationships. Contrary to the Ethiopianist discourse, they have not developed a common unifying identity, social and political system. While the Abyssinians feel a sense of glory of their kings, warlords and dictators, the Oromians feel victimisation to these rulers, so they have not emerged a common ancestry, culture and collective memory, which can result in common ‘Ethiopian’ identity. From the perspective of Oromo social construction, the present Ethiopian domination over Oromia is a continuation of what pervious generations of Oromo nation had experienced. Thus, the Oromo people, sees the present political arrangement as illegitimate because it is a rule by the people who have engaged in destroying them. So, they claim not only cultural but also political independence. Oromo nationalism is also very democratic. It follows the UN principles of self-determination for the citizens of Oromia, claiming independence from the tyranny of Ethiopian Empire. The latter has been constructed based on Amhara-Tigre nationalism. The Oromo nationalism also offers democratic solutions to the ethnic minorities in the Ethiopian Empire. Scholars of Oromo studies claim that there is fundamental behavioural, linguistic, ethnic and cultural differences between the Abyssinians (northern) and their subjects (Southern). The Oromo, Sidama, Afar and the Ogaden (Ogaden Somalians) nations, beyond their common Cushitic progeny, they have common experiences of victimisation and illegitimately absorbed by Abyssinian southward expansion. Their collective memory of past experiences and present victimisation are making common identity. This identity is a key to understand politics there and to work together for self-determination, to recover their lost humanity.

For the early version of this article, see Temesgen M. Erena, The Political and Cultural Locations National Self – Determination,  Oromia Quarterly, Vol. II, No.2, March 1999; Temesgen, M. Erena, Oromia: The Nation and the Politics of National Self – Determination, Oromia Quarterly, Vol. I, No.2, December 1997, ISSN 1460-1346.

Man knows himself only insofar as he knows the world, and becomes aware of the world only in himself, and of himself only in it. Every new object, well observed, opens a new organ in ourselves.

-Goethe, Maximen und Reflexionen, VI Build therefore your own world. -Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature


The passions of national freedom and national interest are probably the strongest in the whole political spectrum that characterises the present world. Kellas (1998) holds that it is stronger than the passions aroused by religion, class, individual or group interest. This passion is not all futile, either. In Gellener’s (1983) understanding, nationalism has been considered as essential to the establishment of a modern industrial society. According to Smith (1991), it is ‘the sole vision and rationale of political solidarity.’ For Kellas (1998), it provides legitimacy to the state, and inspires its citizens to feel an emotional attachment towards it. It can be a source of creativity in the arts, and enterprise in the economy. Its power to mobilise political engagement is unrivalled, particularly in the vital activity of nation building. It is intimately linked with the operation of popular democracy. Indeed, the global pattern is a mosaic of political drives, economic interests, linguistic pride, cultural imperatives, psychological needs and nations seeking identity. These factors are manifesting as a powerful staying power in a modern Africa, either. As European colonialism and socialism melted away, the perpetual existence of the backlash against ‘neo-colonial’ colony colonialism and the reviving of national selfdom become more and more significant in social and political dynamics of contemporary multi-ethno-nation African societies. The African experience is motivated by the same aspirations as that of elsewhere. At its root is a need for freedom, dignity, for the right of people of distinct social communities to function freely and independently. In this regard, Oromia represents the case of rejuvenating claim for national freedom and the struggle against more than a century old Abyssinian Empire colonialism in Africa. Oromia is a homeland for an Oromo nation, a group of people with a common culture and value system (seera fi aadaa), language ( Afaan Oromo), political institutions (Gadaa), and historical memories and experiences. Oromia is the single largest, homogeneous and endogenous nation in Africa with a population of 40 to 45 million. Both in terms of territorial and population size, more than two-third’s today’s sovereign states that are making members of UN (United Nations) are smaller than Oromia. The Cushite (see Demie, 1998) Oromo people have inhibited their homeland, Oromia, since pre-history and in antiquity were the agents of humanity’s documented Cushitic civilisation in terms of science, technology, art, political and moral philosophy. The links between the Oromo and the ancient civilisations of Babylon, Cush and Egypt has been discussed in Asfaw Beyene (1992) and John Sorenson (1998) scholarly works. Utilising prodigious evidence from history, philosophy, archaeology and linguistics, Diop (1974 and 1991) confirms that the Cushite Egyptian civilisation was emerged from the Cushite civilisations of North East Africa, particularly, the present day Western Sudan and upper Nile Oromia (also known as Cush or Punt). Indeed, except the name of places, saints and prophets, many of the Old Testament and the Holy Koran moral texts are copies of the Oromo moral codes. The formers are written documents while the latter are orally transmitted. Since the late 1880s the Oromo people have disowned their sovereignty. They disowned their autonomous institutions of governance, culture, education, creativity, business, commerce, etc. Thus, they have been claiming for national self-determination, national-self government and the right to their own state and resist the Abyssinian Empire saver (supremacist’s) nationalism. The Oromians are not only against the quality of Ethiopian Empire governance but also against the philosophy on which it is based: domination, dehumanisation, inequality, double standard, hypocrisy, deceit, exclusion, chauvinism, war institution, rent-seeking, extractive state, conservatism, feudalism, Aste fundamentalism (Aste Tewodros, Aste Yohannis, Aste Menelik, Aste Haile Sellasie), etc. The political goal of national self-determination (national self-government) is asserted in the outlook and attitudes of the Oromo political and social organisations. Of course, the Oromo nationalism, which supports the interests and identity of the Oromo people, is a more subtle, complex and widespread phenomenon than common understanding and observation. It is within this context that we are going to discuss the Oromos’ politics of national self-determination and the search for the national homeland, the demand for reinventing a state of their own in the following sections.

Defining Nation, Nationalism and Self- determination

To define nation and nationalism is as Benjamin Akzin (1964, pp. 7-10) discussed five decades ago, to enter into a terminological jungle in which one easily gets lost. Different scholarly disciplines have their own more or less established and more or less peculiar ways of dealing with nation and nationalism. Ideally, our definition of nation and nationalism should be induced of elements of nationalist ideology. Getting at such a definition has confirmed phenomenally strenuous. Hugh Seton-Watson, an authority in this domain, has deduced that ‘no scientific definition’ of a nation can be concocted. All that we can find to say is that a nation exists when significant number of people in a community consider themselves to form a nation, or behave as if they formed one (Seton-Watson, 1982, p.5).Van den Berghe (1981) defines a nation as a politically conscious ethnic group. Several attempts have been made at making a cardinalist definition of the term, pointing out one or more key cultural variables as defining variables. Among those tried are language, religion, common history/descent, ethnicity/race, statehood and common territory (homeland). For a group of people to be termed a nation, its members typically have to share several of these characteristics, although historically, one criterion may have been predominant (for example, language in Germany, or culture and history in France). In the case of Oromo, common language (Afaan Oromo), common territory (Biyya Oromo, dangaa Oromiyaa or Oromia), common historical experiences (victimisation to Ethiopian Empire rules or Abyssinocracy) are particularly very significant. Stalin made his undertaking in 1913. His definition includes four criteria: the members of a nation live under the same economic conditions, on the same territory, speak the same language, and have similar culture and national character (Seton-Watson, 1982, p.14). Neither Ernest Gellner nor Eric Hobsbawn, two influencials, gave definite definitions of the nation in their major achievements. Indeed, they are very hostile towards what they define as nationalism. ‘…For ever single nationalism which has so far raised its ugly head…’ (Gellner, 1983, p.45), this is a Gellner’s conception and sees the world as naturally divided into nations, each with its own individuality. This implies an acceptance of the nationalist self-perception. There are also other conceptualisations. A social anthropologist, Thomas Hylland Eriksen (1992, p. 220) says ‘a nation is an ethnic group whose leaders have either achieved, or aspire to achieve, a state where its cultural group is hegemonic’, Anthony H. Birch (1989, p.6) considers that a nation is best defined as ‘a society which either governs itself today, or has done so in the past, or has a credible claim to do so in the not-too- distant future. Kellas (1998) defines the nation as a group of people who feel themselves to be a community bound together by ties of history, culture and common ancestry. Nations have ‘objective’ characteristics, which may include a territory, a language, a religion, or common descent, and ‘subjective’ characteristics, essentially a people’s awareness of its nationality and affection for it. In the last resort it is ‘the supreme loyalty’ for people who are prepared to die for their nation. The definition of ‘nation’ which we will make use of in the following is one suggested by Anthony D. Smith (1983,pp. 27-109, 1991, p. 14; 1995); a definition mastering well the ‘sounding board’ dimension. Smith here defines a nation as ‘a named human population sharing a historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members. A recent definition of Smith holds nationalism, one manifestation of national-self-determination, as ‘an ideological movement for attaining and maintaining autonomy, unity and identity on behalf of a population deemed by some of its members to constitute an actual or potential ‘nation’ (Smith, 1991, p. 73; 1995). For Smith nationalism has a deep ethnic roots and rejuvenates itself in response to global and domestic impulses. While the phenomenon of globalisation and technocratic culture are there, nationalism is an eternal nature and nourishes and propels itself on technocratic innovations. In this context, national self-determination may be defined as many part aspirations of a nation: To be free to freely determine one’s own national identity, culture, including language, education, religion, and form of government, to be free of rule by another ‘nation’, that is to overcome social and political systems of domination and exclusion in which nations other than one’s own wield predominant power. To be free to select its own form of government; and those governed within it have the right of unflagging consent.

Culture and the Politics of Self-determination

Nation, nationalism and national self-determination are commanding attentions. One of the perennial issues within nationalism is whether national self-determination can stand alone, or whether it requires a ‘qualifier’ from within cultural or political ideas or both to clarify its precise cultural and political location. Several scholars have argued that national self-determination is a claim for cultural independence and that nationalism in general is based on the right to cultural independence and that nationalism is based on the right to a culture. Nielson, for example, peers a nation as groups of people whom ‘perceive themselves as having a distinct culture and traditions’, and Tamir presents that a nation is a community in which individuals develop their culture, and they therefore regard their place within a nation as membership in a cultural group. Indeed, she argues that ‘the right to national-self determination stakes a cultural rather than a political claim, namely, it is the right to preserve the existence of a nation as a distinct cultural entity.’ Will the people who demand national self-determination be satisfied with such an arrangement? Tamir gives credence to that the idea of basing the right to self-determination on the right to a culture is the one that has best conformity with a liberal internationalist viewpoint. That is thinkable, but international liberalism is incompetent on this particular matter. A nationalism, which is based on culture and cultural distinctions, was not very long a go. It is a concept that characteristic the thesis of right wing, or romantic theorists such as Herder. Indeed, Herder’s nationalism was not political, and it distrusted a state as something external, mechanical, not emerging spontaneously from the life of the people. Nevertheless, in the Oromo context the claim for national self-determination is a political rather than a cultural one. If we look at the distinction between the two, it would seem that the claim for national self-determination involves more than a demand to be tolerated while the cultural question is. For example, the Catalan’s and Quebecois’ culture and identity have been tolerated and respected to some extent, and yet many of them thought that this did not reflect a situation of self-determination. Indeed, meeting their claim would involve legislation and redefinition of institutions within the state, and perhaps even a new state. In the Oromo case the demand is actually the claim to have control over their lives. This does not mean over every individual’s private life, but over the public aspect of one’s existence, i.e. the system of mutual relationships, which reflect and sustain one’s membership of a certain collective. Here the self is conceptualised within the context of community, but one that has to be real, actual, and functioning and performing. Otherwise these communal ties are too abstract, which makes it impossible for the self to be defined by them. The statement of Cohen has to be recalled: ‘A person does not only need to develop and enjoy his powers. He needs to know who he is, and how his identity connects him with particular others. He must… find something outside himself which he did not create… He must be able to identify himself with some part of objective social reality’ (Cohen, 1988). Moreover, self-realisation, however, cannot be merely a mental situation; thus this community cannot be only cultural. It must be a political situation at least so that, in order for the Oromo people to realise themselves, they must not be dependent on the goodwill of a second party. They then must be certain that their self-realisation in all spheres of life will not be prevented by the Abyssinian government, the TPLF, the Orthodox Church, and so forth. They should therefore be politically active and watch such institutions carefully. In addition, they must participate in politics in order to decide collectively upon public matters, which influence their self-realisation. So the Oromos claim for national-self determination is about the realisation of their potential status, ability and collective character, which may be achieved only through participation in autonomous political institutions. But for more than a century Oromos have been denied access to these institutions, either officially or in practice. In other words, if  Oromos as a nation achieve self-determination they will better able to participate, better represented, better able to deliberate, gain much more control over their life than formerly and more autonomous. The Oromos demand for national self-determination thus, aims at establishing those institutions, which are needed for the realisation of the self-determination. When an Oromo demands national self-determination, he/she is not asserting that he/she would like to control his/her private life, e.g. his/her job, his/her shopping activities, his/her love affairs. Many Oromos do not control these aspects of their lives and yet nevertheless demand national self-determination. But the same principle also applies to cultural life. The Oromos may be allowed more-or-less to use their language, have their own newspapers and theatre, and the freedom of worship, etc. which are making cultural freedom. Actually, these rights are hardly exist at present. But when they claim national self-determination they are not only referring to these aspects of life, as political community: they want to be able to form and choose among and vote for the Oromo political parties, to observe the Oromo constitutional laws, to pay taxes to an Oromo authority, and to have a history (and indeed, myth) of independent Oromo state, from which their identity and self-determination can derive. Thus, the Oromo’s Declaration for Independence will emphasise parliamentary participation and the need to form a constitution, rather than cultural activities. In general the Oromos demand for national self-determination entails that the individuals in this nation should be citizens, engaged in politics as members of a community committed to the realisation of certain (their own) common goods, rather than participating as individuals who seek their self-interests, as it is implied by the right- to- culture school of thought and Liberal Internationalists. Perhaps for this reason Margalit and Halbertal revise the right-to- culture argument, arguing that the right is to a certain culture rather than to culture. A certain culture, then, becomes a common good. And yet, this is not enough, because they still regard the common good in cultural rather than political terms: ‘shared values and symbols… are meant to serve as the focus for citizens’ identification with the state, as well as the sources of their willingness to defend it even at the risk of their lives (Margalit and Halbertal, 1994). Why, then, do theories adhere to the culture discourse? Of course, for most of the Western theorists, the term national self-determination is affiliated to the strive to become part of humanity, to regain the human condition of autonomy; it is adjoined to the struggle to be part of the free world, of the more progressive forces; it is seen as decolonisation, as civilisation, as an attempt made to become part of the world of liberty, rights, and justice. But, it is seen as part of centrifugal forces, from the centre to the global, universalism or what Lane (1974) calls as ‘total situation’ or citizenship based on individual freedom and social justice. These theorists, therefore, universalise the notion of national self-determination: they make it part of liberalism. The liberals’ universal approach tends to be uniformist. This makes a society rootless and a citizen far removed from those who control his/her destiny. On the other hand, the notion as it is put forward and used by the Oromos that the demand for national self-determination is also centripetal, from the global and the greater units to the smaller ones. These groups demand the disengagement from the ‘other’, the global, the colonist, even from other humanity, by asserting that ‘we are not merely the essential equal and part of humanity, but rather we are also different and distinct: we have our own political identity, which we want to preserve, sustain, and establish institutionally, like the Scottish vision in multi-nation state Europe. This is the language of liberation from colonisation. It is also the language of particularisation within the universal or the global, and it seems that the uniformist approach is not sensitive enough to the real Oromos problems. Thus, the Oromos quest for self-determination involves the ultimate goal of particularism (its own unique space), reinventing the Oromia State, owning the national homeland. Of course, in a heterogeneous society of the Ethiopian Empire, though uniformity may simplify system of control, social justice will not be attained in one vast monolithic block of oppressed by colonial legislation, bureaucrats and its armies. An important work of Professor Asafa Jalata, an authority in the study of Oromo nationalism kindly quoted as’ The Oromo question involves both colonialism and ethno nationalism. Ethiopian colonialism has been imposed by global capitalism on the Oromo nation. Ethiopians, both Amharas and Tigrayans, through establishing settler colonialism in Oromia, have systematically killed millions of Oromo and expropriated their lands and other resources from the last decades of the nineteenth century until today. Ethiopian colonialists already destroyed the people called Agaw by taking their lands, systematically killing them, and assimilating the survivors. They attempt to do the same thing to the Oromo by destroying the Oromo national movement, confiscating Oromo lands, and forcing the remaining Oromo into ‘settlement villages’ or (reservations). Many times, some Oromo organisations attempted to democratize Ethiopia so that the Oromo would achieve equal citizenship rights and maintain their ethno cultural identity. Determined to maintain their colonial domination and to destroy the Oromo cultural personality through ethnocide or assimilation, Ethiopian colonialists destroyed or suppressed those Oromo political forces that attempted to transform Ethiopia into a multinational democratic society. Therefore, most Oromos are convinced that their rights and freedom cannot be obtained and respected without creating their own state, or state that they can create as equal partners with other ethno national groups interested in forming a multinational democratic society to promote ethno cultural diversity and human freedom. Hence, Oromo nationalism is an ideology of the subjugated Oromo who seek human rights, freedom, justice, and democracy’ (Jalata, 1997). In fact social justice can be attained when and only when the oppressed majority able to rule its homeland. The Oromos work for national self-determination is the great humanist and historical task in terms of Freire (1993) argument ‘To liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both. Any ‘attempt to soften the power of the oppressor in difference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifest itself in the form of false generosity; indeed, the attempt never goes beyond this.’ In this context, for Oromos in order to have the continued opportunity to express their ‘generosity,’ the Habasha colonist must perpetuate injustice, too. Tyranny is the permanent fount of this ‘generosity,’ that sustains at the price of death, dehumanisation, despair and poverty. ‘True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity.’ (Freire, 1993). For further discussions on Oromo nationalism, universalism, globalism, Ethiopianist discourses and Oromo Nationalism, see Sorenson (1998) and Sisai Ibssa (1998).

Concluding Thoughts

Man as a social animal always seeks his own territory and belongings to a social group in which his identity and sense of community is observed and respected. In the defence of the cause for social justice and social ecology, these are basic tenets to backlash against the danger of the rhetoric of universalism, polyarchy and false perspectives of social uniformity, which appear to appreciate the social problems from a single privileged point. Georg Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind ( New York, 1967 edition), in his famous philosophical discussion of the relationship between ‘lordship and bondage’ maintained that a single consciousness could know itself only through another, even in a condition of totally unequal power relationship. According to this philosophical model, the lord (the oppressor) is lord only through the relationship with a bondservant (the oppressed, the one whose humanity is stolen). In the relationship, however, the other is annulled. The self of the mastery, the lord, derives from the conquest and negation of the servant, the bond. Only recognition of the selfhood of the other permits for its annulations. Thus, lordship covertly recognises the separate identity of the dominated. They are normally equal selves locked into unequal hierarchy. Metaphorically, Hegel’s dialectics of lordship and bondage is very important to understand the Ethiopian domination over Oromia. However, in the Ethiopianist discourse, the essential equality of the selves has been escaped totally. Rather, the persisting hierarchy has taken for granted. According to Sorenson (1998), Ethiopianist scholars like Clapham, Sven Rubenson and Levine because of their attachment to one version of the Ethiopian past and present make them either or unwilling to engage with the full complexity of the problem. From this point of view, to accept the unchanging polarity of Ethiopia and Oromia in the lordship-bondage relationship is to succumb to a structure of Ethiopian aggression and colonialism. The Oromians demand for national self-determination is, however, the civilised step out of the polarity upon which the coercive hierarchy relies, it is the collective political demand, as its main purpose is to achieve the good of the social whole, humanisation, the essential liberation of the Oromo national identity, dignity and the reinvention of Oromia as a sovereign state. The Abyssinian occupation of Oromia, the existence of the Abyssinian Rule, war-lordism and their armies in Oromia and the making of Finfinnee their garrison station, the centre of their crowds is not only an act of conquest, aggression and colonialism but also, from Oromo perspective, such elements are symbols of bondage and slavery that negate the Oromo selfhood as equal essential. For the last over hundred years, the Oromo nation has disowned selfhood, its own state or administration, and lived as a bondage of Abyssinia. The Abyssinian administration which has undermined the Oromo national traditions, exploited it economically, and maintained order through mechanical and repressive means- such a nation actually must seek national self-determination to foster within its politics, to bring dignity, justice, freedom and democracy and to survival as essential equal, as a nation and as part of humanity and its civilisation. It is necessary for Oromians to build the world of their own, a world which make them capable to sustain as a group of human people. They must able to liberate themselves and the violent, the oppressor too. In this context, the Oromo issue is a test case to the deceptive ‘democracy world-wide’ which is being advocated in the USA foreign policy and manipulated by the neo-nafxanyas (see Ibssa, 1998). It is a challenge to contemporary theories of democracy and polyarchy (Robinson, 1997) and actors of post cold war Ethiopian politics who simply take for granted that the boundaries and powers of political community in the ‘Horn’ have already been settled. Thanks to the dedicated works of human rights activists, particularly the OSG (the Oromia Support Group) and its UK based publication, Sagalee Haaraa, we have been well informed on plights of human population and their environment in the entire region. We are interested to recommend this publication to all actors of the region. In this context, we are confident to say that Ethiopian democracy rhetoric or federalism sham politics is nothing more than a fig leaf, covering up the continuation of an extraction of the ‘politics of the belly’, in terms of Bayart (1993) from ‘prudish eye of the West.’ Its democratic rhetoric is a new type of rent seeking (extracting economic rent). By making believe, it enables the collection of international aid that includes diplomatic, military and humanitarian. It enables the seizure of the resources of the modern economy for the benefit of the Tigrayan elites. The situation is not in democracy’s favour, rather it is a situation that the Tyranny is retaining control over the security forces, economic rents and the support of the West. Such manipulation is not new for Africa. Menilik, Haile sellassie, Mengistu, Mobutu, Biya, Senghor and Diouf did the same thing either in Ethiopia or elsewhere in the continent at one time or another. The Quote from Bayart’s (1993) African analyis comes to our mind ‘…The support of western powers and multilateral institutions of Bretton Woods and the Vatcan, who despite having waved the flag of democratic conditionality and respect for human rights, have not dared to pursue such sentiments to their logical conclusion and have continued to think in terms of ‘Mobutu or Chaos’ where Gorbachev given up saying ‘Ceaucescu or chaos’…’. Indeed, very recently, we have read the deceptive descriptions to neo-Mobutu, neo-Mengistu, etc.: democratic, new generation, confident and pragmatic, etc. Sadly, everything changes so that everything stays the same. Nevertheless, the oppressed Oromos are not passive objects, either. They have not allowed themselves to be ‘captured’, as in the past they have demonstrated their historical ability to resist dehumanisation, despair and poverty, and predictably will continue to resist until the justice will come to them. An everyday Oromo coins the following: ‘Victory to the Oromo people! Oromia shall be free!’ We feel moral and social responsibility to support the just cause of fellow humanity.

Listen to Oromo Voice Radio (OVR) Broadcast Afaan Oromo interviews with Dr. Almayayyoo Birru on topic of Self-determination:


‘External self-determination, in particular, seems to carry dual meaning. On the one hand it is taken to mean full independent statehood, while on the other hand it is taken to mean external recognition by other states within the
international community.’


‘Every individual/group possesses a moral right to secede. The burden of proof rests with the opponents of secession.’ 

This article is mainly credited to Oromia Quarterly 1997 & 1999.

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