May 24, 2004

The Great State of Minnisootaa

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- When you talk to men and women from the Oromo tribe of Ethiopia who have fled persecution there to live in Minnesota as refugees, the conversation often takes a surprising turn.

Lencho Bati, who lives in Mankato and teaches African geography at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, says that over the past six years he has periodically returned to live in Ethiopia.

But he won’t say where. That’s because when he goes back he does it with the utmost secrecy working for the Oromo Liberation Front, the guerilla militia that’s fought a bloody civil war with Ethiopia for the past decade.

And when Bula Atomssa, the president of the Oromo Community of Minnesota, sits down to explain why some 15,000 refugees from the Oromo tribe of Ethiopia have settled in the state over the past decade, he doesn’t start by explaining what happened in Ethiopia ten years ago.

He starts by describing the Abyssinian conquest of the 1880’s. Then he segues to more than a century’s worth of guerilla conflicts and civil wars, continuing to this day, in which the Oromo have consistently tried to reestablish their independence from the central Ethiopian power.

It makes Ethiopia sound like Ireland, where heated political arguments in pubs still start with the 1649 Cromwell invasion. Ireland, as the saying has it, is a place where more history is produced than can be consumed locally.

"No America, No Me"

The point being that the spillover produced from the age-old conflict between the Oromo people and the Ethiopian government is now, via the refugee stream it produces, directly affecting the state of Minnesota.

Or Minnisootaa, as it’s spelled in Oromo on hand-written signs throughout the Oromo Center, the social service center for Oromo immigrants run by Atomssa in Minneapolis. Its four-person staff runs refugee and employment services, after-school programs, elderly outreach, and HIV/AIDS prevention.

A 34-year-old with a degree in soil and water conservation from Haromaya University in Ethiopia, Atomssa came to the U.S. in 1998 after taking part in an anti-government rally and getting jailed and tortured for his trouble. He won political asylum status here in 2000 after proving, in part with physicians’ reports that the torture had inflicted permanent physical damage, that he would likely be executed if he were forced to return to Ethiopia.

“America is my second country,” he says. “It saved my life. If there is no America, there would be no me.”

Yet he admits that despite now being married in America, and having an infant son, and running all the Oromo Center programs that he does in the Twin Cities, his heart and mind are usually more in Ethiopia than the U.S.

Journalists in Jail

“Irish Americans think about Ireland, and Jewish people think about Israel,” he said. “It’s the same with Africans. It’s hard to forget. You still want to go there, you still want to help there.”

Before the Abyssinian conquest, the Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, had evolved a unique political and social system called “Gada.” The Gada system included a constitutional government, universal male suffrage, protection of women’s rights, and checks and balances including the mandatory replacement of the entire governing body every eight years.

Atomssa’s goal is to one day return to Ethiopia to help the Oromo people revive the Gada system, modernizing the ancient laws so they fit easily into the global network of democratic nations.

Human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have published reports detailing the rising persecution of the Oromo people by the Ethiopian government. The abuses include press censorship, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, and the expulsion of thousands of Oromo students from national universities.

Even the U.S. government, which is generally uncritical of Ethiopia because it is considered a close partner in the war on terror, said in a 2003 report that thousands of Oromo are presently being held in jail without charge on the mere suspicion of involvement with the Oromo Liberation Front.

Faraway Mayhem

Lencho Bati says that the recent slaughter of Anuak people, a tiny ethnic group of 100,000 in Ethiopia compared to the Oromo’s 28 million, at the hands of the Ethiopian military shows that the present Ethiopian regime is losing its grip on power and is resorting to desperate measures.

It’s a clear sign that Ethiopia is heading towards disaster,” he said.

In a world where persecuted foreign ethnic groups are closely linked to their politically active and increasingly affluent U.S. immigrant diasporas via cell phones, the Internet, and air travel, it will increasingly be the case that mayhem and trouble in faraway places will result in increased ripples, and at times flood tides, of immigrant political activism in the U.S.  

So far, California has led the nation in this trend. But with our large refugee and immigrant populations, look for the trend to spread here to Minnesota.

Er, Minnisootaa.

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report