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Top Ten Reasons Why Afan Oromo Should Be the Federal Working Language in Ethiopia

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By Birhanemeskel Abebe Segni*
Nowhere in the world has the government of the country refused to speak the language of the majority of its people. It is weird, unthinkable, unjust, undemocratic, immoral, and absolutely unacceptable. Ethiopia is all of these. The Ethiopian Federal Government and two of its largest cities do not speak the language of the majority of the people, Afan Oromo. This is a preliminary outline to say the obvious: make Afan Oromo legally and unconditionally the Working Language of the Federal Government of Ethiopia and the two largest cities of Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa.
Interview with Dr. Birhanemeskel Abebe Segni – Pt 1 – (SBS Amharic)
Here are the top ten reasons why:
1. Demographic reasons: Afan Oromo, the language of the Oromo people, is the single most widely spoken language in Ethiopia and the fourth largest African language in terms of the number and size of speakers. It is spoken in at least three countries outside Ethiopia. Although statistical data may vary, about 50% of the Ethiopian population is estimated to speak Afan Oromo. In comparison, only about 29.1% of the entire population of Ethiopia speaks Amharic, the legally imposed Official Language of the Federal Government, and the two largest cities of Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa. Given this demographic weight, it is unjust, undemocratic, and discriminatory, to say the least, not to use the language of the majority of the people as the Working Language of this multinational and multilingual country.
2. Geographic reasons: All of the segregationist entities, including the Federal Government, the Addis Ababa City Administration and the Dire Dawa City Administration, are based in and hosted in the Afan Oromo-speaking State of Oromia. Yet, due to the discriminatory and exclusionary Amharic only language policy, the federal government institutions and these two large cities do not speak the language of the host people and the host state. These entities, which feel like occupying forces rather than governing forces, cannot continue as an Amharic-speaking island in the middle of the sea of Afan Oromo-speaking population while fully relying on the resources of the Oromo people for their existence, including food, water, electricity, ports, waste disposals and roads – at a very high human, financial and environmental costs to the Oromo people and the State of Oromia.
3. Unity of the country as a reason: The exclusionary Amharic-only language policy is the antithesis of the multilingual and multicultural nature of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Federal Government and the two segregationist cities under its administration have an urgent civic duty, if they care, to abolish this divisive and dangerous policy that undermines the equality, mutual respect and peaceful coexistence of the people. Ethiopia cannot continue as a united whole with its current segregationist policy – which benefits one segment of the population while fully excluding the other segment of the population.
4. Economic and job opportunities. This segregationist and exclusionary Amharic-only language policy of the federal government and the two largest cities (Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa) have fully and completely excluded Afan Oromo speakers from all federal, municipal, corporate, and private jobs as well as all economic and business opportunities, including the right to do business and live in these jurisdictions unless one speaks Amharic. All employees of the Federal Government and these two largest cities are 100% Amharic speakers. Less than 10% of ethnic Oromos, who have been assimilated into Amharic-speakers, are presently employed both by the federal government institutions and by these two segregationist cities. Even worse, none of the federal government offices and offices of these two cities, including hospitals, businesses and all other service providers, provide translation services for Afan Oromo-speaking customers and users. Yet, Afan Oromo speakers and their State, Oromia, is the economic backbone and major sources of exports and tax-revenues for the Federal Government and the two segregationist cities.
5. Representational reasons: The Ethiopian Federal Government institutions and its bureaucracies, and the two major cities of Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa, have legally excluded Afan Oromo speakers by adopting Amharic as their only Working Language. Under this condition, it is very hard to either say Afan Oromo speakers are represented in the Federal Government and these two cities, or to say that the Federal Government and these two cities represent the Afan Oromo speakers. The ruthless Amharic-speaking ethnic Oromo political appointees the government and these two cities flag as representatives of the Afan Oromo speakers are outlaws who don’t even represent themselves. Even the percentage of the assimilated, i.e. culturally and linguistically disconnected, ethnic Oromos employees in Ethiopian federal institutions, and the institutions of these two major cities, as a whole is less than 10%. This is in a country where the Oromo people constitute more than 40% of the total population.
6. Legitimacy reasons: The government that does not speak the language of the people it claims to govern neither it does speak for that people nor it does legitimately represent the interests of that people. For the Ethiopian government to be considered a legitimate representative of the Afan Oromo-speaking population, it must speak Afan Oromo and be the representatives of the interests of the Afan Oromo speakers at all levels of its institutions, not just in nominal political appointee positions and portfolios.
7. Justice, Equality, Equity and Fairness reasons: Justice, equality, equity and fairness demand equal opportunity and equal treatment of Afan Oromo speakers on the same basis as the Amharic-speaking segment of the population. The Amharic-only language policy of the federal government and the two segregationist cities have completely left the Afan Oromo-speaking population outside all economic, social, religious and educational institutional frameworks – creating a country where close to half of its population lives in subhuman situations, without any single institution of their own. The Ethiopian Federal Government and these two largest cities must not only immediately abolish this unjust, discriminatory and apartheid language policy, but also invest financial and human resources to create Afan Oromo economic, religious, cultural and educational institutions; and adopt economic empowerment policies that will remedy and address the historical injustice Afan Oromo speakers had passed through and are passing through right now.
8. Multilingualism to create bond among various nations and nationalities: The Amharic-only policy – that was intended to assimilate over 80% of the Ethiopian population into the Amharic-speaking few or exclude them from the political, economic, religious, and social structure and institutional fabrics of the Ethiopian state – has created a very racist and hateful group which does not accept and respect the equality of various nations, nationalities, languages, and various ethnic identities. This dangerous policy has now lent legitimacy to the development of racist and hate groups which claim to struggle for the ‘unity of Ethiopia in the name of this Amharic-only language policy’ to openly discriminate, propagate hatred towards non-Amharic speakers, and even issue racist political manifestos in a way that will destroy the social bond among various nations and nationalities of Ethiopia. The main targets of these hate and racist groups – which have been incubated and developed through this Amharic-only racist and bigotry policy – are the Afan Oromo-speaking population of Ethiopia.
9. One language and one ethnic hegemony policies will kill Ethiopia: Diverse and pluralistic Ethiopia can only stand on the acceptance of the policy of unity through diversity. The two most important challenges that work against this most important policy presumption to keep diverse and united Ethiopia are the effort to create one ethnic hegemonic country and the Amharic-only language policies. These are two equally cancerous and terminal policies that will kill Ethiopia. Ethiopia will only continue to exist on the multinational and multilingual federal structure – where mutual respect and peaceful coexistence of its multiple nations and nationalities are protected and respected by institutionalizing constitutional system of governance where fair economic power- and political power-sharing mechanism are legally established. Making Afan Oromo the Working Language of the federal government and the two largest cities will open the door to save this sick and disabled country that now operates with less than one third of its potentials.
10. Language as a core factor in Human Development: The only means and avenue through which any human society could produce, develop, exchange and disseminate knowledge and information for self-actualization, economic and social development is language. The Ethiopian Federal Government and the two segregationist cities of Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa have denied the Afan Oromo-speaking population of Ethiopia this fundamental, inalienable and basic right through their Amharic-only policy. No wonder Ethiopia is the tail of the world and at the very bottom in the Human Development Index of the United Nations.
As a conscientious member of the Afan Oromo- speaking society, and because of the above listed reasons and so many others, I call upon the Ethiopian government to immediately and unconditionally abolish the Amharic-only language policy and make Afan Oromo the Working Language of the Ethiopian Federal Government and the two largest cities of Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa.
Birhanemeskel Abebe Segni is an Attorney & Counselor at Law, and a former Legal Affairs Advisor in the Permanent Mission of Ethiopia to the United Nations.