The Habesha elites always reiterate that the adoption of the Latin alphabet as ‘Qubee’ Afaan Oromoo has led to the demise of ‘emiye’ Ethiopia. However, the introduction of Qubee Afaan Oromoo has allowed the Oromos to study in their own language and as a result millions of Oromos have now access to education which they have been denied for more than a century. (Habesha is a term that refers to people from the northern part of Ethiopia (mainly Amhara and Tigre) who dominated the socio-poltical structure of Ethiopia since 1900.)
The Habesha elites fear that if Oromos gets education, they will challenge and resist the dominance of Habeshas that lasted for more than a century. In fact, the awareness of the Oromo people about their identity has increased since they started learning in their own language. It is true that language carries history, culture, faith and values of a society. As a result when one studies in his/her language, he/she will definitely learn his/her history, culture, faith and societal values. Now, Oromo youths are studying in their language and this has helped them to learn about their history, customs, belief and values.
Now millions of Oromo children are studying in schools in Afaan Oromoo that uses the Latin alphabet (Qubee). Afaan Oromoo until very recently was not a written language. After the downfall of the Derg (the military government that ruled Ethiopia from 1974-1991), Qubee that was adopted from the Latin alphabet by the Oromo scholars in the 1970’s was introduced to the Oromos by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). The Oromo Liberation Front has been using Qubee Afaan Oromoo since 1970’s.
After the removal of the military government, OLF participated along with EPRDF in the transitional government of Ethiopia (TGE) that was formed in 1992. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) of course participated in the transitional government for only eight months.
One of the main contributions OLF made to the Oromoo was the introduction of Qubee Afaan Oromoo to the large Oromoo people who lived in illiteracy for years because they had no alphabet of their own. In late 1980’s OLF taught Qubee to the Oromos who lived in areas such as Wollega where OLF was active. However, in 1991 the end of the Military regime created an ideal condition for OLF to teach Qubee to hundred thousands of Oromos in every corner of Oromiyaa.
Later during its participation in the Transitional Government, OLF leaders and Oromo intelectuals held a conference In Finfinne/Addis Abeba and decided to make Afaan Oromoo the medium of instructions and language of work in Oromia. To make it practical, Ibsa Gutema, the minister of Education for TGE, single handedly took the initiative of publishing millions of books in Qubee and distributed to all elementary schools in Oromiyaa. This decision by OLF and its leaders laid the ground for Qubee Afaan Oromoo for what it is now. The introduction of Qubee was welcomed by the Oromos with joy. In the history of the Oromo, for the first time, Oromo children got the chance to study in their first language. Indeed, the adoption of Latin alphabet transformed the Oromos from oral society to written society.
The introduction of Qubee Afaan Oromoo had a lot of meanings for the Oromos whose language had been oppressed for about a century. One, Qubee completely transformed the Oromo language from mere oral language to written language, and this made millions of Oromo children to study in their own language using an alphabet that best suits their language. Second, it showed the end of hundred years’ domination of the Habeshas over the Oromo and its territory. Third, the introduction of Qubee proved that the Oromo people have educated people who are capable of changing the image of the Oromo people, and invalidated the view that the Habeshas held that the Oromos were uncivilized and could not do anything for themselves. If the Oromo elites were given the chance and the freedom, they would commit themselves to get their people out of poverty and domination by others.
All these happened because the Oromo liberation front (OLF) was determined to liberate the Oromo people and their language from hundred years’ colonial yoke. Undeniably, OLF successfully liberated Oromo language though it failed to materialize its main agenda, liberating the Oromo people, and the Oromo land, Oromia.
By the time OLF cadres were teaching Qubee Afaan Oromo, OPDO that now uses Afaan Oromo as a work language in Oromia, used to detain those people who learned Qubee. The Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO), one of the affiliates of EPRDF, absolutely opposed the activities of OLF in Oromiyaa. At the same time, the acceptance of Qubee by all the Oromos was a sad story for the habashas, in particular, the Amharas because they knew that their alphabet (Ethiopic Script), which they always boasted for creating it thousand years ago, would be abandoned by the Oromos.
The Habeshas opposed the use of Qubee Afaan Oromoo, and tried everything to hinder Qubee Afaan Oromo not to be used as a medium of education and language of work in Oromiyaa. The Habesha elites insisted on using Ethiopic script for the Oromo Language. They said Ethiopia has its own script, and all languages in Ethiopia should adopt this script for writing. The truth is, had the Sabean Script suited the phonetic system of Afaan Oromoo, the Oromo scholars would have easily adopted the Ethiopic script as alphabet of Afaan Oromoo a century ago.
Even the priests of the Orthodox Church opposed Qubee because they said it was ‘satanic’ and therefore it should be banished from Ethiopia. Moreover, they said the arch of covenant refused to return to the church until Qubee was banished from Ethiopia. They insisted on banishing Qubee from Ethiopia because they said because God told them so. They said this on one occasion of Epiphany celebration.
Oromoo scholars such as Sheik Bakiri Sapphalo strived to adopt the Ethiopic script for Afaan Oromoo. However, it was found that this script could not represent all phonetic system in Afaan Oromoo. An attempt to use the Ethiopic alphabet for Afaan Oromoo began when Abba Gammachis (also known as Onesmos Nasib, an Oromo who was sold as slave but turned out to be an intelligent scholar after he joined the Swedish mission in Massawa, Eritrea) translated the Holy Bible into Oromoo using the Ethiopic alphabet though he ran into a lot of challenges in using this alphabet. At that time all these developments were not welcomed positively by the Abyssinians because they knew that if the Oromos get education in their own language, their domination of the Oromo would be over.
After the Habeshas conquered the Oromos, and occupied their land Oromia, Afaan Oromo was banned from use on the Oromo Land and was replaced by Amharic, the settler’s language. The Habesha settlers forced the Oromos to abandon their language, and accept Amharic instead. To enforce this, they declared Amharic the national language of the Ethiopian Empire. The decree did not, however, stop the Oromos from using their language in their localities. The Oromo in those days had to hire someone to translate their ideas from Afaan Oromo to Amharic (those who used to translate Afaan Oromo into Amharic were called ‘astorgamii’ (Amharic), ‘tirjumana’ (Oromo)) in courts. An Oromo who could not speak Amharic as fluently as the Habeshas would be named ‘tebtaba’ (one whose tongue is tied).
The Habeshas always thought that Oromo language was inferior to their language. They always held the view that not only their language but also their culture and values are superior to that of other nations in Ethiopia. Because of the hate they have for Afaan Oromoo, they would say ‘kuankuachu wanz ayashagirim’, literally translated into English it means ‘your language does not help one to cross a river’. Amharic, which they always boasted about, is barely a language of science and technology. In high schools, colleges and universities, Amharic is not used as a medium of instruction. Researchers use English not Amharic (the language that is praised as the most advanced language in Ethiopia). These instances clearly explain that Amharic language by itself is not ‘a language that helps one to cross a river’.
Amazingly, Afaan Oromoo that was scolded by the Habeshas as a language that doesn’t help one to cross a river is now helping many Oromos to cross many rivers to get into neighboring countries. Oromo language is spoken in North Kenya (considerable number of Borana Oromos live in north Kenya bordering Ethiopia), Somalia and Sudan.
In schools, when Oromo students failed to speak Amharic, the teachers (even Oromo teachers) punish them by beating them with sticks. I experienced this when I was in primary school. By this time, we learned every subject in Amharic. My first language was Afaan Oromo, and I knew no Amharic words when my grandmother enlisted me at the nearby primary school. One day my Amharic teacher (he was Oromo himself) took me out to the front of the class to read Amharic alphabets posted on the class wall. He gave me a stick with which I had to show the letters as I was counting the letters. I directed the stick to the first letter of Amharic alphabet. But I was dumb silent; I could not say the letter. It was simple to guess what the teacher did to me. He beat me harshly and expelled me from the class. I was not the only Oromo student to experience such anguish but also other Oromo students who failed to recite the Amharic alphabet. Of course, this situation lasted until 1991, the year the Military government of Ethiopia was removed by EPRDF and other forces such as the OLF.
Oromo language was not a written language until 1970’s. Many attempts had been made by Oromo scholars such as Sheik Bakiri Sapphalo to create phonetic transcription that represents Afaan Oromoo. Some Oromo scholars (e.g. Bakiri Sapphalo) tried to use Saba script (script used by Amharic, Tigrigna, Ge’eez and other sematic languages in Ethiopia).Some documents have been produced in Afaan Oromo using the Sabean script. For example, Onesmos Nasib used the Sabean script to translate the Holy Bible into Afaan Oromo in 1889 in Massawa, Eritrea. Onesmos and his friend, Aster Ganno wrote poems and praise songs in Oromo language using sabean script. This was possible because these Oromo scholars lived outside Ethiopia at that time.
However, in Ethiopia any attempt made by the Oromos to use even sabean script for writing had been considered unacceptable and illegal. The Habesha kings wanted the Oromos to continue living in illiteracy and poverty forever so that they could rule over them unchallenged. By the way, the Sabean script was not a perfect one for Oromo language for writing. The Oromo scholars such as Sheik Bakiri Sapphalo, Dr Haile Fida and Sheik Mohammed Reshad spent their life time advancing the study of Afaan Oromo. Young Oromo intellectuals such as Abdulsamed Mohammed, Askale Lemma, Tilahun Gemta (PHD) and Mahadi Hamid Mude have made invaluable contributions to the doption of Qubee for Afan Oromo as it was proved through researches that it would fit the Afaan Oromo for writing effectively and efficiently.
The Oromo scholars of the time also proved in their research that Sabean script is unfit for Afaan Oromoo as it can’t represent each phonetic system in Oromo. This is the main reason why the Oromo scholars adopted Latin alphabet for Afaan Oromo. It was not because the Oromo intellectuals hated the Ethiopic script. The reason is purely linguistic. The adoption of Latin alphabet as alphabet for Afaan Oromoo has nothing to do with hatred for the Sabean script as some Habesha elites would like to explicate.