The Oromo Studies Association (OSA): An Autonomous Scholarly Organization in the Service of the Oromo People

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By Ezekiel Gebissa*

The vice president of the Oromia regional government is quoted in a recent FBC news report as saying: “OSA’s research studies must be harnessed to support economic, administrative and social transformation. At this time, OSA no longer has the capacity to make as great a contribution as it has in the past.” The statement is a scurrilous attack on an Oromo institution that is bereft of any knowledge of OSA’s present situation. OSA is in fact poised to make greater contribution now than any time in the past.
The Oromo Studies Association is a scholarly organization established in 1986 by Oromo and expatriate scholars to generate and disseminate knowledge about the Oromo. Since its establishment, OSA has been the leading edge of Oromo-centered scholarship. Currently, OSA is a vibrant and productive scholarly association with unrivaled record of achievement in informing and educating the world about the Oromo people. In this respect, OSA stands alone, and the Oromo people are proud of its work, its members and record of accomplishments. Going forward, OSA has unprecedented potential in expanding knowledge about the Oromo and emancipating minds seeking freedom, justice, dignity and human rights.
In its three decades of existence, OSA has been guided by a singular mission to present an Oromo-centered knowledge to the world. Prior to OSA’s establishment, research on the Oromo people was carried out and presented within the framework of Ethiopian studies and premised on the assumption that there is an authoritative, unassailable, and monophonic Ethiopian narrative. Oromo studies scholars were expected to conform to that restrictive narrative and to reinforce the orthodoxy of the prevailing political order. This was a scholarship of domination. OSA’s mission was to counter the vitriolic denunciations and disparagement of the Oromo that self-described “mainstream scholars” passed off as Oromo studies, and ultimately replace it with accurate scholarship that is consistent with Oromo experience and free to employ fresh approaches to framing data and to build a theory of knowledge consistent with Oromo outlooks. This meant generating new knowledge and correcting distortions, misrepresentations and outright lies of Ethiopianist studies about the Oromo people. The desire to be free from the scholarship of domination was the genesis of the Oromo Studies Association.
Academic freedom and loyalty to the canons of the scientific method has always been the epistemological rationale for Oromo studies. When Oromo scholars speak of freedom, it is not just political but also epistemological liberation. From where we stand today, OSA can claim that Oromo studies as a field has successfully been emancipated from the oppressive clutches of that Ethiopianist scholarship whose purpose was to disparage, denigrate and dominate. In this respect, OSA has revolutionized the scholarship on Oromo studies in such a way that it is impossible to return to the pre-Oromo studies narrative. Oromo studies has enabled the Oromo people become authors of the knowledge about themselves. There is no turning back.
It took a long time and a bitter struggle to get to the present moment. It took methodological innovation and revolutionary social scientific perspectives to deconstruct distortions of Oromo history, society, economy, language, and culture continued to be uncritically accepted within mainstream scholarship. In this context, trailblazing studies were carried out by Oromo studies scholars, thus marking a break from the tradition of producing narratives of domination that rendered the Oromo invisible actors in Ethiopianist studies. In the early 1990s, however, Oromo scholars produced a spate of books that redefined scholarship on the Oromo. They not only articulated the views of millions of Oromos but also emancipated Oromo studies from the web of what was experienced by Oromo as oppressive Ethiopianist scholarship.
In its current state, Oromo studies, freed from the scholarship of domination, has undergone a process of diversification and sophistication. This diversity is expressed in articles published in the Journal of Oromo Studies (JOS) which has remained in print since its inception in 1993. The Journal has published articles on diverse issues ranging from the Oromo system of time-reckoning, to Oromo cosmology and conception of the natural order, interpretations of deliberative democracy, to Oromo perceptions of time and space, the Oromo theory of knowledge and other dimensions of Oromo life. This issues were studied from multidisciplinary perspectives by scholars who are trained in various fields ranging from the humanities and social sciences to mathematicians and physicists who apply their sophisticated methods to studying society and culture.
Judged by the standards of its own mission, that is, its conferences, publications and membership, OSA is a stronger and better organization today than any other time in the past. Here are some facts.
1) In its early years, OSA held its annual conference in select North American universities. Since 2006, it has added a midyear conference. Since 2015, the midyear has been held in Europe at such prestigious universities as the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich (2015), the London School of Economics and Political Science (2016) and the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences (2017). OSA-sponsored occasional symposiums and workshops were also conducted in both North America and Europe. This year, the annual conference will be held July 28-30, 2017 at The George Washington University in Washington DC. Its theme is “Gadaa as an Organizing Theme of Oromo Life: Tradition, Knowledge and Contemporary Significance.”
2) The first issue of JOS came out in 1993. For several years thereafter, JOS was an annual journal, a single issue or double volume in a single issue. Since 2007, OSA has published two separate issues of JOS. As such, JOS is arguably the most successful academic journal in the Horn of Africa region. Twenty-three issues of JOS have come out so far. This distinguished record will continue.
3) In terms of membership, OSA now has members counted in the hundreds. More important than the increase in numbers, OSA is now in the hands of young scholars who are educated in some of the most prestigious universities in the world. Cosmopolitan and multilingual, this generation of scholars is taking Oromo studies to a new stage of sophistication and diversification. They have brought new topics, tapped into cutting edge new technologies, and sustained the discourse in innovative ways. OSA is in good hands and has a vibrant future.
It is obvious that OSA is thriving as a scholarly organization dedicated to studying Oromo life in its many dimensions. Even our critics acknowledge that OSA has produced sufficient empirical knowledge to be employed for development purposes. We think that they are just waking up to self-evident truth.
To wit, Oromo scholarship generated by OSA members has already produced tangible results. There has been a dialectical relationship between Oromo studies and Oromo national consciousness. The recent Oromo student-led protest is rooted in a deeper understanding of Oromo indigenous historical and cultural knowledge systems. Among other things, the work of OSA members on the gadaa system in all its complexity has been crucial as scholars acknowledged and elevated key components of what existed as a strong cultural and experiential foundation for social consciousness. That consciousness undergirds the cultural renaissance that gave rise to the popular actions of recent years.
More importantly, members of OSA widely believe that the multilayered knowledge we now possess about the Oromo gadaa systems-complex, produced over time by many OSA members, is what made it possible to elevate awareness and understanding necessary for UNESCO to make an informed decision to inscribe the Oromo gadaa system as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity in November 2016.
Finally, the notion cited at the outset, that “OSA no longer has the capacity to make as great a contribution” is exposed as a politically-motivated claim targeted to diminish a respected Oromo institution that has been sustained intact for over thirty years. OSA is in fact better equipped now to generate and disseminate knowledge about the Oromo than in the past. The high-profile dismissal of OSA’s future is the result, at the very least, of willful and utter ignorance of OSA’s record of achievement in the service of the Oromo people. Most likely, however, it is an overt political attack framed in faint praise. It is quite absurd for an official of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), a subsidiary of the ruling Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), to praise OSA for its legacies while the regime of which it is a part charges Bekele Gerba with the crime of terrorism, presenting as evidence a keynote speech he delivered at OSA’s 2015 annual conference attended by 500 people and openly carried internationally via live-streaming.
In sum, the attempt to denigrate OSA as an organization that has run its course can have only one implication. That is, the regime wishes to supplant OSA with the regime’s own instrument of control in the name of creating an ostensibly “more productive” scholarly association at home. A government-approved scholarly association can only do the bidding of the government under current conditions. At present OSA remains the only academic organization free from political sanctions and restrictions to promote Oromo-centered scholarship. That scholarship is drawn upon by many in the pursuit of several dimensions of freedom for Oromo – freedom of expression, freedom for investigation, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom to decide on resources – freedoms of which Oromo in Ethiopia are currently deprived.
As a scholarly association, OSA stands on its record. No amount of surreptitious disparagement or insidious public posturing can take that away. To those in Ethiopia who now suggest that Oromo intellectuals need another scholarly organization, OSA has a simple message: OSA now operates in exile because of your oppression and persecution. If you step aside, you would witness an influx of Oromo intellectuals in that country joining OSA. What Oromo intellectuals in the country need is not another instrument of control parading as a scholarly organization. What they need is academic freedom, the very basis of OSA’s raison d’etre.
Ezekiel Gebissa is president of the Oromo Studies Association, ’16-17.