The Qube Saga: Another Attack on the Oromo People

By: Tullu Liban

The change to Qube sequence has gone virial on social and mainstream media this time around. OPDO officials came out on TV screen to deny and or defend the change in a hair-raising way. One of the defenders who appeared on Oromia Radio and Television (who presumably presented himself as a language scholar), tried to explain the “rational” of the Qube change, though implausibly. He mentioned 5 points, defined as reading components viz. phonological awareness, grapho-phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.
There are plenty of reasons that retrigger linguistic and pedagogical questions in these claims. Are they really the causes to change the sequence of Oromo alphabet? The OPDO officials/experts denied the change to ABCD sequence in Afan Oromo curriculum. However, they couldn’t hide that the teaching method for Afan Oromo from grade 1 to 8 has been changed as far as Oromo language teaching is concerned. What does that mean? On the one hand they say Oromo alphabet order is not changed. On the other they tell us the order is changed from ABCD to LAGM? Are they confused or try to confuse us? Leaving aside the denial tricks, let us raise some mechanical (writing), linguistic and pedagogical points.

1. The issue of mechanics (grapho-phonemics)

The OPDO TV panellists said “L” letter is the simplest sign for children to write. As we all know, Qube alphabet has got two sets of signs, which are different in shape-small and capital (lower case and upper case). Which of the signs the OPDO linguists are talking about “l” or “L”? If they are talking about small “l”, yes, one needs to write only one vertical line and if that is the case what should logically follow is ‘i’ not “a” or A, then “j” not, “g” or “G”. If they are talking about capital “L, it needs to draw two lines, vertical and horizontal and connect them at the bottom end, and the logic of simplicity becomes questionable. In that case one may probably accept the logic of drawing two lines to write “A” capital. But it needs three lines, the two which form a coned shape and connected them at the middle by another line. Worse, yet, “g” or “G” are entirely different in shape from both “L” and “A”. Where is the mechanics of simplicity, then? This fact automatically dismisses the simplicity of visual and mechanical logic claimed for writing the letters.

2. The issue of frequency of “L” sound (phonological awareness)

The magic of “L” sound in Afan Oromo is simply a surprise for one to believe. What is the magic for frequency of an “L” sound in Afan Oromo? What special linguistic quality makes it appear repeatedly when all sounds have equal value in the language? Moreover, in which text and in how many written materials the magic sound occurred in the so-called Primerpro software? What is the factor that triggered the recurrence of an “L” sound? Even if that is true, can an expert experiment become a cause to change a nation’s curriculum? There is no sufficient evidence as yet provided by the OPDO “experts” to defend their “discovery”.

3. Reading components?

The OPDO “expert” claimed fluency, vocabulary and comprehension has stirred the change to alphabetical order. These concepts have nothing to do with alphabet teaching or ability of alphabet discrimination. Alphabet is learned in preschool classes and in the case of rural Ethiopia in grade one. Alphabet teaching is not an all time exercise (from grade 1-8). However, fluency in reading, vocabulary mastery and comprehension skills are a lifetime exercise. How on earth these components serve to change sequence of a language alphabet. How much can kids read at grade one in a country like Ethiopia and what does it have with the shapes of alphabets?

4. A Counter argument

If one tries to group sounds, here is linguistic argument. One can arrange sounds based on linguistic features, in their point and manner of articulation instead of the shape of the letters that represent them. For instance, one can argue “K”, “G and “Q” are produced in the same area in oral cavity, so it is easy for children to memorize them if they are put in sequence in alphabet teaching. The same logic works for “T” and “X” of Oromo Qube and “S” and “Sh” alike. Thus, the change made to Afan Oromo alphabet has nothing to do with linguistic features.

5. Confusion of alphabets in two languages

The OPDO officials/experts talked that English alphabets will continue to be taught to children in the natural order of ABCD. As we all know, English teaching starts in grade one in Ethiopian schools. One can imagine the benefit of learning the alphabets in the two languages alike. Why do they create this confusion to children, while it is not in the interest of the children (as we watched on Oromia Television a teacher in Sululta reflecting students’ dissatisfaction and that of the teachers with the confusion of changing the alphabets)?

6. The psycholinguistic factor

One of the TV interviewees was heard saying psycholinguistic method was one of the factors that triggered the change (means, cognitive faculty captures simple words than complex ones). Apparently this claim sounds logical. But what has it got with learning “l” first and “a” next? Is “a” difficult than “l”? Dr. Firdisa Jabessa, an established educator at Addis Ababa University, told a journalist while asked the change OPDO made to Qube, that children first pronounce “A” and “B” when they learn talking at toddler stage, not “L”. They start with “Aba”. This is true for all children in the world.

7. The socio-linguistic factor
Since the coming to effect of Qube, Oromos know Qube in the order they have learnt it from day one of their acquaintance with the writing system. Kids chanted ABCD, renowned singers including Ali Birra, produced pieces of lyrics and Oromos across the world cherished ABCD unanimously. Why the TPLF masters and OPDO surrogates want to intervene in this public business? Don’t they know, the level of Oromo attachment to the Qube issue?

8. Detachment from the world
One would hardly believe that Oromo children are less intelligent than the children around the world to learn their alphabet. There is no a story of similar step where countries or communities changed their regular alphabet to teach them to their children. Alphabet teaching is not a rocket science. It needs a lot of elements to help children identify alphabets and read texts properly. Therefore, to alter the order of alphabets known to the world has nothing to do with teaching letters.
Aleqa Kidanewold Kifle, an Amharic lexicographer argues (may be before 50 years back) that Amharic should change its alphabet order from “ሀ ለ” to “አ በ ገ ደ” because the world alphabets start with “A”.

9. The true reason for kids to fail to identify alphabets

One of the scary reasons is that the majority of kids in Oromia are unable to read and write when they complete first cycle school (grades 1-4) is a policy issue. This fact is boldly told to the public by one of the OPDO officials during the TV briefing, though those who are aware of the current Ethiopian education system prettily know it. The major problem here is the so-called self-contained system where one teacher is assigned for the kids to teach all subjects in the first cycle.
Moreover, there are a lot of factors that affect the learning-teaching process at this formative stage, some of which are lack of well trained teachers, teacher-student ratio (up to 80 students in a class room), textbook-student ration, lack of pedagogical facilities such as teaching aids, (fillip chart, flash card, picture books, realia, paly boars etc.), lack of motivation from the part of the teachers, lack of incentive and party membership nepotism, lack of academic freedom among others

10. Preschool policy
The Ethiopian education system is devoid of a preschool policy. There are no publicly funded preschools or kindergartens in Ethiopia. Cities have an assortment of private preschools and kindergartens but there are fewer or no institutions in rural areas. Typically, the children from poor, urban families or those living in rural areas do not attend preschool at all. That means, children enter grade one before learning how to pronounce and spell sounds. This is a country where 85% of the population lives in rural areas and there is not policy as to how to teach basic alphabets and arithmetic to the kids and there are no preschool institutions. Therefore, one can see no liability in the order of Afan Oromo alphabet for the failure of children to read or write.

11. The undercover project
The fact lies somewhere. The change that OPDO made changes to Qube is a political intrigue, which is part and parcel of destabilizing the Oromo society. Known to all, the OPDO goons would not take any policy initiative by their own be it bad or good. The project owners are the TPLF masters. They want to narrow every space they believe benefiting and promoting Oromia. Afan Oromo is a big capital and a unifying force. TPLF wants to infiltrate in this business and disrupt the pace and progress of Afan Oromo development.



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.

Qubee1 Qubee2
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.