War biopic, political history and family memoir frame ‘Oromo Witness’

In the opening pages of “Oromo Witness,” author Abdul Dire drives from engineering classes at the University of Minnesota to a restaurant on Minneapolis’ Lake Street to pick up his uncle, Hangasu Wako Lugo, who is busy mopping floors at his second job.

The humble setting is an unlikely new battlefield for the St. Paul Public Schools food service worker and grandfather of 12. Hangasu Wako Lugo, a former rebel strategist, is better known in some circles for playing no small role in the Ethiopian Civil War of 1974-1991.

It’s a path his father and uncle forged before him when they engineered a peasant uprising against Ethiopia’s feudal government in the 1960s from the country’s Oromia region in the south.

Hangasu Wako Lugo was still a child during the Bale Revolt of 1963-1970, one in a long line of frustrated attempts to win new freedoms for the nation’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo people. By the time the emperor is jailed in a military coup, he’s already come of age in the capital city of Addis Ababa, educated in military academies and ready to help lead a movement of his own through the Oromo Liberation Front — a movement he would later part with in anger and frustration.

(Courtesy of Flexible Press)

Hangasu Wako Lugo’s harrowing personal story frames the first book-length nonfiction work to roll out from Minneapolis-based Flexible Press (flexiblepub.com), which has been publishing Minnesota-centric novellas, short stories, essays and poetry since 2017.

“I think it’s an important story,” said publisher William Burleson. “Here’s a guy pushing a broom in a Minneapolis restaurant, but look at the life he’s led.”

Part ethno-political history, part war biopic, part family memoir, “Oromo Witness” reads like a love letter to both the Oromo people and to a beloved mentor whose resourcefulness is built on that of generations of tribal leaders before him.

Dire, a Woodbury resident and technical service specialist at 3M, relied heavily on interviews with his uncle and other Oromo refugees in their 70s, 80s and 90s to paint a compelling ethnic and political biography of Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous nation after Nigeria, told from the perspective of its suppressed ethnic majority.

“Our community is really invisible to most Minnesotans,” said Dire, who came to the U.S. as a teen and frequently participates in mission trips back in his homeland. “I was hoping this book would provide a little glimpse on who the Oromo people are to our friends and neighbors.”

The Bale Revolt would span seven years of fighting, forming an important precursor to a student movement that continues to this day. It would also be a close precursor to the Cold War-era civil war, which combined with Ethiopia’s infamous famine would kill more than 1 million Ethiopians and force many ethnic Oromo to flee the country.

With the Soviet-backed Communist Derg and later the Tigray running the government, thousands of Oromo refugees, including Hangasu Wako Lugo, would eventually land in the Twin Cities, many of them in and around St. Paul. The metro is now believed to be home to as many as 40,000 Oromo, the largest concentration outside Ethiopia.

While “Oromo Witness” revolves largely around the Bale Revolt and Oromo efforts to regroup in Somalia during the civil war, Dire traverses at least 120 years of history — from imperial rule to the bittersweet freedom represented by his uncle’s mop bucket in 2006 — with conversational ease.

Abdul Dire (Courtesy of Flexible Press)

“My uncle comes from an oral tradition, where history is primarily passed on through stories,” Dire said. “But now in Minnesota, there’s a language gap. He really sees this book as bridging that gap.”

That’s not to say the details are pleasant. One story has it that after subjugating the southern tribes of the Oromia region in the 1890s, a northern emperor made an example of those who resisted his rule by mutilating the hands of the men and the breasts of the women.

Fast forward more than a century, and the book’s cautiously optimistic epilogue takes the reader through 2018, when Ethiopia greeted the arrival of its first Oromo prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, to oversee a nation still beset by political corruption and ethnic strife.

Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for ending a two-decade border conflict with neighboring Eritrea, but the past few weeks have been more turbulent. In late June, an unknown assailant shot and killed acclaimed Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa in the capital city, setting off violent riots that have in turn left dozens dead.

A TIMELINE:

— 1890s: Using colonial weapons, Emperor Menelik and the Tigre and Amhara ethnic communities invade the Oromo region to their south, incorporating the nation’s largest region into modern Ethiopia as a feudal society.

— 1895-1896: After a treaty dispute erupts in fighting, Ethiopia’s emperor defeats Italian forces and Ethiopia remains a sovereign nation.

— 1890s and 1900s: Oromo language is banned in official state transactions, and the Oromo become pastoral tenants to their northern landlords, the Tigre and Amhara. The Oromo to this day remain the nation’s largest single ethnic group, representing 40 percent or more of the nation’s population.

— 1930 to 1974: Emperor Haile Selassie rules Ethiopia, though his reign is interrupted for five years by Italian conquest prior to World War II.

— 1936: Italy invades Ethiopia. Emperor Selassie flees to England. The Arsi Oromo in southern Ethiopia side with the Italians. Despite sham local elections under Italian governors, the Oromo briefly regain the freedom to use their traditional language in court, on the radio and in other aspects of civil society.

— April 6, 1941: During World War II, British and Ethiopian troops drive Italian forces out of Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa, traditionally known as Finfinne. Emperor Selassie is restored to power.

— 1943: Oromo leader Muhammad Gada Quaallu, the people’s representative in the Bale region during Italian rule, organizes 60 to 70 men to block the Ethiopian army’s return to the Bale city of Dello. The national army returns days later to reoccupy Dello. The uprising is crushed.

— 1960: After a decade in the Goba prison, Muhammad Gada Quaallu and his allies are executed by hanging at the order of the emperor. Dire Irressa, the author’s grandfather, dies among them.

— 1960: While Emperor Selassie is visiting Brazil, military leaders seize the capital city of Addis Ababa and hold the prince hostage. The military coup fails when the emperor returns.

— 1963-1970: The Bale Revolt. With weapons provided by the Somali government, ethnic Oromo guerrilla rebels from the Bale region combat the larger Ethiopian Army, keeping the emperor’s military forces from dominating the tribes along the Genale River.

— 1974: Led by military forces, the Derg coalition overthrows Emperor Selassie in 1974, abolishing feudalism. Rather than usher in a new era of political stability, the coup marks the beginning of the Ethiopian Civil War, during which at least 1.4 million die from famine and violence.

— 1974-1991: Rebels from a variety of ideologies rise up against the Soviet-backed Derg in a civil war that ropes in neighboring Eritrea, which had fought its own war of independence against Ethiopia. The Soviet Union withdraws its support from the Derg in the late 1980s.

— 1977-1978: With Soviet and Cuban help, Ethiopia defeats Somalia’s efforts to invade the disputed Ogaden region and claim it for its own. The Ogaden War, which greatly weakens Somalia’s military, is a precursor to the Somali Civil War.

— 1980: The Oromo Liberation Front moves its base of operations to Somalia, an on-again, off-again ally.

— June 1991: The left-wing Tigray People’s Liberation Front end the civil war and establish a transitional government. One governing party dominates Ethiopian politics to this day.

— 2014: Amnesty International documents rampant discrimination in a report entitled, “Because I Am Oromo: Sweeping Repression in the Oromia Region of Ethiopia.” The report finds that 5,000 Oromo were jailed by the Tigray-dominated government from 2011 to 2014 on suspicion of planning protests. Many were jailed without charges.

— 2015-2016: Protests in Minnesota and around the world call attention to the plight of the Oromo people, who have been shut out of top jobs in Ethiopian industry and government. Highlighted are government efforts to displace Oromo farmers by annexing farmlands around the capital city of Addis Ababa.

— April 2018: Abiy Ahmed, the first Oromo chairman of Ethiopia’s ruling party, becomes national prime minister. He will go on to end a border war with Eritrea and win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

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