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

13 mins read

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.


  1. Doesn’t this man look like Mengistu Haile Mariam specially when he is speaking? Are they related? I am not lying. I had attended one of his speeches and I had asked folks with me then. They also thought the same. One of them told me that he knew him during the days of Mengistu and he was one of his students. I did not understand by what he meant ‘one of his students’. The shape of his head, his lips and his body language when speaking looks very much the same as Mengistu. If he is related that won’t affect my impression about him. But just wondering!!!

  2. From GETACHE REDA (Editor Ethio Semay)

    Bogale; Yes indeed, he resembles like Mengistu.The thing about this corrupt and ignorant OLF’faytist mind that differed him from Mengistu is that,this guy openly confessed that he is proud to cultivate his children condemning from speaking Amharic language. This showed us the rise of a decadent Oromo elites’ how far to the extent their mind is trapped in a fascistic ideology and hate. And this guy is a real example of it. When I hear about this guy, the first thing that comes to my mind is ” the face of fascism”. what a corrupt and decadent wasted mind!

    GETACHEW REDA (Editor Ethio Semay)

  3. Bogale Gemeda,
    It is so foolish of you to compare apple with orange. You can tackle the ideas Izkiel has presented for the discussion. He did not gossip or he did not do a back bite. He brought it to a forums for a civil discourse. As little minded bigot as you are, you started with likening him to a brutal dictator other than confronting his ideas. Izkiel has no resemblance nor relations with Mengistu Hailemariam. Izkiel was born and raised in the heart of Wallaga, Naqamte. He is an acclaimed academic whom we are all proud of. He has no where to start with fools and idiots like you. Do not expect reaction.
    Getachew Reda, you have been ding very well lately. But it seems now that you have stopped taking your pills, right? Do you have a PCA (personal care attendant) that could remind you to take the appropriate dose. You look, you have either over or underdosed your pills. The public health system in your area needs to be alerted as you are becoming a liability for public safety. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have uttered words such as the ‘decadent Oromo elite’ at a time when the world is witnessing the rising Oromo intellectual giants across the globe. Please, please, take your pills.

  4. Unfortunately, both the above commenters failed to respond to Ezkiel’s article. Yet another sign of why we never could learn to talk straight because we don’t think straight.

  5. Sadik:

    I thought my comment was the reason for your misguided impression about it. But it was you, yourself who misled Sadik. I did not post my comment tongue-in-cheek. I was serious. After attending one of his speeches my friends and I were having the same impression about him. His facial expressions and all of his body language looked strikingly similar to that of Mengistu. He was a good speaker. Then my friends started talking about his resemblance and someone who heard us talking said something to the effect that he was one of those students who had the provisions to go to school all the way to college. That was when Mengistu was killing other Oromo students and intellectuals by having them strangled with a piano wire. I did not take that comment very seriously though. But his resemblance still baffles me. I was just asking he is related to Mengistu. That was all. Nothing more and nothing less.

    By the way, who is complaining about OSA? He is saying that someone is denigrating OSA. Who? An official of the Oromia region? How does it come as a surprise to him? OSA still around. Right? So where is the problem? Or is he just looking for personal publicity? But that is beside the point in my comment.

    Do you know if he is related to Mengistu? Tell me if you know. I am just curious.

  6. ‘JOS- arguably the most successful journal in the horn of Africa’, doc with due respect kindly verify that statment of yours; what is the impact factor score of JOS. without doubt JOS is one of the less cited, less broused, less issued academic journal in east Africa. rather check upon EAMJ, JEAS and so on,

  7. Bogale Gemeda

    In your eyes Dr Ezekiel may resembles Mengistu, I don’t judge you on that. In my eyes does not resemble at all, far from it. Dr Ezekiel is better looking than monstrous ghastly Mengistu. I, as Amhara activist may not agree with some of his driving agenda, but he is calm personality and civilized manner to have dialog to reach to a settlement by mutual concessions.

  8. Shama,

    Thank you for shedding some lights on my question. I do not know this man personally but I was coming from what I heard from others during one of his fiery presentations. Those who commented as such were bona fide Oromos. Believe me there are a lot of news and allegations going around in our Oromo communities about some of these outspoken leaders and scholars. If he is a relative of Mengistu, well that is his God given status and should have no bearings on how we regard him. Equally the same is my right to ask the question I queried. Nothing more and nothing less! Above all no harm intended. That’s all.

  9. Thank you Bogale Gemeda

    Look, Oromo communities are divided like Amhara communities and other communities, but the bigger the communities the more the divisions. Oromos are a lot more diverse than Amharas, I am not here to play division game or to play facebook Enka-Selamta. There is reality on the ground which we can not hide, if we just butter it up, the problem will not go away. At the moment Oromo nationalism is built on victimhood, there will be a time victimhood will expire, what next? black south Africans are a good example. In my opinion, Oromo nation itself should be a federation of Oromo people, otherwise one group or two will come out the dominants. I don’t believe in forcing Gadaa system upon every Oromo, the same way I don’t believe in forcing Ethiopiawinet on every Amhara, I believe in bottom up power structure like meskel Chibbo. Yeah, I follow afan Oromo conversations on facebook and other websites, I heard it all, some side with one political group attacking the other group, the same goes in Amhara communities, I noticed that in recent months speaking Amharic has become an advantage rather than a liability, I think Oromos have come closer to common ground, the so called Ethiopianists stepping on the same old ground.

  10. Shama:

    Thank you for your response. I am glad I brought up here what I heard during one of the gathering about this individual. The one about Mengistu’s era status was bothering me all along. I was not there because I was going to school in Britain before Mengistu came to power. As a son of a low income farmer I was lucky to have the opportunity to go to Britain on scholarship. May sad things happened in Ethiopia to many others including a few members of my own family. One of my own cousins was taken in the dead of the night and never heard of again. He was a child of a poor farming family. His body was never found and the story is that his corpse was eaten up by predators. I also heard that those who accused him of being an Oromo nationalist were other Oromo students who were organized by Mengistu for the purpose of telling on others. Those snitches were so pampered by Mengistu to go to schools through college. A lot of those snitches were given generous scholarships and high salary government jobs after graduation. Then I heard that those Mengistu’s ‘children’ had managed to flee the country and grouped to ‘talk’ about my Oromo people. They had become the most hateful individuals poisoning our communities in the Diaspora. Mengistu was not that stupid to be so generous to them without any favor in return. It seems that these former Mengistu’s ‘red cubs’ have come to a conclusion that the only reason they will every go back is after Oromia becomes a a separate nation and to their choice only. They have a one-off version of that. I am not alone on this one. A few of us have been gathering past history of all of these individuals and on one of more occasions had asked a few of them to explain. The response we got was very angry push backs like ‘non of your business’ kind. We did not have the chance with this individual. We always ask them in private. Two of such individuals who are now professors were so angry with us for raising questions that we thought they were going to lose their composure. I tell you these former ‘collaborators’ have tainted our communities so bad that you can tell our Oromo people struggle is not going anywhere. Contrary to our longtime tradition they are preaching nothing but hatred to others.

    Again, I have the right to ask questions. Thank you for recognizing my right.

  11. Thank you again Bogale Gemeda

    Earlier today I was just listening to Mesfin Feyissa daily speech on facebook/youtube, today’s speech 23rd July brought tears in my eyes, I feel like he is my other half brother, the story was he lost his father during the Arbagugu massacre.

    Our political outlook shaped by our background, childhood, experience in life(good or bad), etc. My political outlook shaped by the environment I grew up, the hardship, innocence of the local people, mixture of everything. My current political stance is shaped by childhood experience during Ethio/Somal war, in the Wereda about 10% were christians, the rest were Muslims, there was one Qorqoro-Chiqa church in the town about 10km away from my village, my family are christians, we used to visit the church once or twice a year perhaps for Timket or something. Our lifestyle no difference from local people, other than our names no difference. when Somalia militias invaded the area, hunted down christians, the church full of bazooka holes, they slaughtered oxen in the church forced the priests to eat it by saying Ashiadu Laella Alela Mohamodu Ressulela, one priest but all refused, executed them. All adult christians hunted down from hideout using local banda cadres, tightened their legs and hands upside down in front of Somali militia lying down chewing khat, we were little kids watching, really bad, in those days all christains were considered as Amharas, nobody knew the difference, our distance neighbor was Legese Urge lived with his family in a fenced sar-bet compound, he had old rifle, he fought back and killed about four militias but overwhelmed by modern automatic ak47 and bazooka launcher, christian girls were rapped very badly, when Somalians lost the war they took hundreds of christian girls with them, there was no christian family who did not lose one or two girls.

    So I accepted my Amharannet ever since before I went to modern school, before I watched TV, before hearing about Adwa war. This is my personal choice, I have brothers who converted, married to local muslim women, nothing wrong with that. I have nothing against the religion or the local muslim oromos. But Amhara people have been under attack for long time based on hatred propaganda history against poor Amhara people, from north to south, east to west, displaced, killed, systematically marginalized, people like prof Mesfin claimed no Amhara, what evidence does he need? Which is why the political elites are either from Addis or from similar big cities, they have no clue, the same applies to Oromo political elites, such as Tsegaye Ararsa, he interprets his experience in Addis and applies to all Oromos living other parts of the country, his hate toward others also comes from his own personal inadequacy or dissatisfied experience where he grew up in Addis. However, I found most people from big cities like Addis arrogant, name calling ignorant, manufactures of insults, akrari Ethiopianists.

  12. Shama and Bogale:

    The conversation between you two is very interesting and engaging. Some of the things Obbo Bogale mentioned about some of the individual have been going around for quite some time now. I have myself heard that certain individuals who are now acting like rabid leaders of Oromo and other ethnic liberation movements were some of the staunchest supporters of Mengistu and also the current regime. I have been told that Mengistu had let them group themselves under the guise of people organizers and land reform delegates. They used that position to have other opponents arrested and as a consequence murdered in cold blood. If you are not an Oromo of their region and are not an open supporter of the Mengistu regime, you have 9 out 10 chance that you would be thrown in jail. You would be out of luck if they find you to be a child of what they call ‘neftegna’. You are as good as dead. These bottom feeders of Mengistu have this unique qualities for being good talkers. Some of them talked too much and that got them in trouble with both Mengistu and the current regime. They have been working very hard to conceal that secret from us. Just try to find their biography such as on LinkedIn or Wiki or even at the institution where they work. You can’t find when and where they were educated and their entire work history. Like Obbo Bogale said that Mengistu was not that stupid. You don’t tell on others, you don’t get biscuits baby!!! I don’t have to tell you this because a lot has been written about it. What I suggest to Bogale is to keep pressing until these individuals come out clean. Like you said this particular individual who is the author of the article here may be an innocent person or even not from that era but we should find out more about it. Leadership of such a very large ethnic group must be ultra clean in his/her past history. If someone was by any standard a supporter of Mengistu or the current regime, he/she should vacate the leadership role to others with no such background and stand back in line. Our Oromos are too dignified people with earth shattering glorious history to be led by former timeservers. No sir!!!!

  13. Dear Gebissa
    Why would you try to take credit away from the people who fought the current regime with their own initiative as a result of your groups efforts instead. The reason for the resistance has nothing to do with your group at all and every one knows it. But you needed to be there or your group to give yourselves credibility. That is not fair to the hundreds who lost their lives and the thousands jailed and who are still jailed. Trying to capitalize on others work and misery is despicable and shameful to say the least.
    You are again taking credit for UNESCO’s decision, I am pretty sure the woyane opdo conglomerate will disagree with you, unless of course your group has worked hands and cheek with those groups. Then your claim will be legitimate. May be that is why the opdo hierarchy felt obliged to give osa credit. Is this piece a damage limiting exercise?
    Holding your meeting at the listed universities just means your group paid the respective institutions fees for use of space at most and should not and does not in any way give osa any prestige at all. You must assume you readers are stupid or something as every one knows any group who wants to meet at those places can do so after paying necessary fees and fill a form.
    You just told us the osa is a fabrication factory similar to that of the woyane machine (woyane scholars) is doing. This type of activity actually damages oromo identity and reinforces the bantustanisation prinicple that the current regiem is following. It also lowers and drags scholarly in the mud and makes people who go to school and gain knowledge loose credibility. The similarity with woyane thinking and action is alarming and does raise questions about the osa’s independence.
    You are also suffering a great deal from inferiority complex issues as shown by your reference to other writers and not letting your children learn Amharic. But believe me inferiority complex issues do not get solved by lies or aggressiveness but buy proper psychological treatment and thankfully their are treatments for it. If you are a reasonable person you will let your children decide what to do.
    Lastly your group is working hard to maintain the current regime which to your dismay the people of Ethiopia will bring down together soon.

  14. First of all I would like to thank you then I want to mention some problems facing us now regarding scholarships we already got the scholarship now we are studying in India wen we come here we expect some things better from our home but in actual what is going on is opposite we are not in good place we are found in the village where education quality is very low we lost every thing so we need you support as much as possible please help us thank alot I am Dhugoomsa Shemshedin Omer from India please we need argent solutions

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