By Gishinga Njoroge
Nairobi, Kenya (Standard) — If the Oromo of Kenya, who are larger in number than the Elgeyo Marakwet, could up their game in sport, the Kenya-Ethiopia long distance rivalry would be a ‘no-contest’ in favour of Kenya…
It is startling when you hear that the Oromo people of Ethiopia want to secede; leave the rest of the country and go it alone. Those not surprised perhaps imagine that the Oromo are a mistreated, marginalised minority.
Who are the Oromo? If you are a sports devotee, these are the most famous athletes in Ethiopia, if not in Africa and the world in general. As if not enough, these group of people are so ‘big’, they are almost half — approximately 45-50 million — of a country recently estimated to have a population of 102 million.
Now, let’s talk Oromo names. Do they come any bigger than Abebe Bikila, Mamo Wolde, Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele, Derartu Tulu and the beautiful Dibaba sisters Tirunesh and Genzebe? All these are Oromo. There is perhaps only one other great Ethiopian track star who happened not be Oromo; 1980 double Olympic (men’s 5,000 and 10,00m) Gold medallist Mirutz Yifter, a man from Tigray in the north of the country bordering Eritrea.
Yet, the poster image of Ethiopia, other than Emperor Haile Selassie and ‘Rastafarian colours’ is that of strikingly looking women from the north of the country, Tigray. The Oromo are a shade less light and appear close relatives of neighbours in the northern part of Kenya and northwestern Somalia.
Why would the Oromo want to cut links with Ethiopia? Is it because the rest do not pull their weight in building the country? In athletics alone, you would be inclined to think “the rest” everything to the Oromo.
Before I go any further, I would like to take issue with some Kenyans; for not heeding to the call to take up arms against Ethiopia in our war of long distance running supremacy. These are our own Kenyan Oromo. Did you know our Kenya Oromo, spread out in Marsabit, Mandera, Tana River and Garissa. These are otherwise known as Borana; people like our Cabinet Secretary of Sport Culture and Arts, Dr Hassan Wario.
Recently in Ethiopia, I was to learn that the Borana are prominent Oromos; in fact a leading light of the larger grouping making up the Oromo — Borana, Arsi and Guji. If the Kenyan Oromo are that many, more in fact than Elgeyo Marakwet (approximately 390,000) who provide many of Kenya’s long distance running heroes, why would we even have a problem with Ethiopia if our Oromo could take up seriously what appears to come so natural to them; run. We would have no problem with the Dibaba girls, one of whom, Genzebe, going by her performance last season seems the hottest farourite for the Olympic 1,500m and 5,000m Gold double at the Olympics in Rio in August.
I can recall only one promise that a Kenyan Oromo would scale the top heights of world athletics. Atoi Boru was a teenager (17 and 18 years) when in 1988 and ’89 he challenged for Kenya’s top place in the 1,500m. He was, in any case, tipped to take over from Peter Rono, the man who won the 1,500m gold in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. But our great Oromo prospect never bloomed; his best mark left at 3:34.12 in 1994, followed by an early retirement at only 23.
But back to Ethiopia’s Oromo. Are they marginalized and abused like the politics of the country suggest? Recent history reads a country under the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie (Amhara with some Oromo roots), the military junta (Derg) of Mengistu Haile Mariam (Amhara/Konso), overthrown by Meles Zenawi (Tigray) and now under Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe (Wolayta of the Southern Region) Zenawi’s successor.
Clearly no Oromo has ever been at the top of political power in Ethiopia. But that is grudge not shared by most of the Oromo who, are despite that, key figures politically, economically and socially in Ethiopia.
Nevertheless, agitation by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), hardliner secessionists is often visible and heard in the sporting world, especially when the great Oromo athletes conquer the world.
Some within the OLF say the rest of Ethiopia limits Oromo’s ownership of success as an Oromo nation, “to create awareness and to recognize Oromo identity, which has implications on how they (rest of Ethiopia especially those in ruling power) treat us as human beings. When (we) are denied basic rights of, at least, freely speaking in our mother-tongue when they (athletes) win. The current trend seems to be that the athletes fear to speak Afan Oromo because they fear losing their careers due to the racist attitude from (non-Oromo Ethiopian) rulers who would only want us to identify as Amharic-speaking Ethiopian champions.”