Agarii Tullu: from serfdom to a revered Oromo hero

by Mohammed Ademo

agariitulluOctober 3, 2013 (OPride) – The history of the Oromo people, Ethiopia’s single largest ethnic group, is marked by socio-political oppression and a continuous resistance against it.

Every Ethiopian ruler, especially starting with emperor Menelik II, has devised systematic campaigns aimed at making the Oromo aliens in their own homeland, impoverishing millions by expropriating their land, and denying them the most basic human rights.

The Oromo, in various locales of Oromia – the Oromo country –have also put up powerful resistance at different times. The modern Oromo movement evolved from loosely organized local resistance(s) such as the Bale Oromo movement, the Macha Tulama Association, and the Afran Qallo musical group to name just three – culminating with the formation of a pan-Oromo movement, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). However, there were also several other popular movements against imperial Ethiopia and its social injustices, albeit less known even among the Oromo or sometimes erroneously misconstrued as economic or social banditry (shifta).

In undated segment of Maaliin Beekkaman, a program on the state-run Oromiya Radio, journalist Ababa Magra profiled one of those lesser known movements: Agarii Tullu’s fierce resistance against Haile Selassie’s monarchical rule.

Agarii was born and raised in Salale, Central Oromia, near, as they call it, Leman Selassie. Born to poor farmers, the short and light-skinned Agarii grew up witnessing the Oromo people’s serfdom and their mistreatment in the hands of feudal landlords. Following his father’s untimely death, Agarii, who never set foot in school, began working as a serf at a very young age for the local landlords. He started his service first as a herder and later worked in the farm for landowning bourgeois, including some who were Oromo.

He soon began rebelling, although then only a young teenager, against Haile Selassie’s absolutist rule which ruled under the banner of Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia, Elect of God. A great swimmer and an avid climber, Agarii knew that the Salale mountain range was conducive for resistance and the Salale Oromo had had enough of the feudal lordship imposed upon them. But he also understood that he needed some sort of military training and began devising strategies to acquire it. Subsequently, Agarii joined the imperial army in early 1950s, while he was in his late teens, and received military training – quickly becoming an armed bodyguard at the imperial palace in Finfinne (Addis Ababa), Ethiopia’s capital.

Background on Salale

Salale is home to the five clans of the Bacho Oromo tribe: Warab, Metta, Darra, Bacho, and Borana, according to Tigist Geme who conducted an ethnographic study in the area. Several Bacho subclans including Urru, Garasu, and Wajjitu also stride Salale particularly the districts of Garba Gurracha, Abote, and Goha in the North Shewa zone of Oromia region.  Following the conquest of Oromo land in the second-half of 19th century by Menelik II, Geme writes, “the Salale Oromos scattered around the Ethiopian ‘Diaspora’ uprooted from their original home.” In this context, the Ethiopian diaspora refers to areas where the Salale Oromo were forced to resettle within Ethiopia but outside of the Salale proper, according to Geme.

Although the name Salale is sometimes used interchangeably in reference to both the people and the place, the etymology of the word derives from a mountain found west of the Dagam town, Geme explains in her book length thesis, the Themes and Patterns of Traditional Oromo Marriage Counseling.

The Salale Oromo practice mixed farming by dividing their livelihood between growing crops and rearing livestock. Like other Oromo tribes, the Salale were once followers of Waaqeffannaa, a belief in a monolithic God they call Waaqa or Waaqayyoo. Today they are largely Orthodox Christians. However, Geme observes, even among the Christian populations, Waaqa serves as “a point of reference in every aspect of the Salale day-to-day life activities deemed as religion, worldview, and social and moral order.”

“Children are told not to swear by Waaqa when they know they lie. Waaqa is believed to be Dhugaa (True), hence ‘Dhugaa’ is a word of swear to show one is‘True.’”

–Full report Opride

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