Sisai Ibssa Dies at 60; Advocate For the Oromo People of Africa

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 15, 2005

Sisai Ibssa, a longtime Washington resident who championed the cause of nationalism for the Oromo people of the Horn of Africa, died Aug. 20 of a heart attack at his home. He was 60.

Mr. Ibssa worked as a cabdriver in Washington for 25 years while building political organizations and pursuing scholarly research on the plight of people in his native land. An activist since the early 1970s, he advocated national liberation for the Oromo people, who number 30 million in Ethiopia.

Mr. Ibssa was born in the countryside of central Oromia, the youngest of 14 children. As a young boy, he took responsibility for herding 120 head of cattle and goats before beginning his formal education.

He arrived in the United States in 1967 and received a bachelor's degree in economics from Federal City College, a predecessor of the University of the District of Columbia, in 1972. He attended American University before returning to UDC to earn a master's degree in political science in 1974.

When Mr. Ibssa was a university student in Washington during the late 1960s, his political fervor was stoked by involvement in the civil rights movement. He joined the Ethiopian student movement in Washington in 1968 and eventually sided with those who supported Eritreans' quest for national self-determination.

In 1974, Mr. Ibssa founded the first Oromo organization in North America, known then as the Tokkummaa Oromo Organization in North America and later as the Union of Oromo Students in North America.

From the formation of that first organization to the establishment of the United Liberation Forces of Oromia (ULFO) in 2000, he played a leading role in establishing and consolidating several dimensions of the Oromo national movement locally and globally. He had served as the chair of Union of Oromo in North America and of the Oromia Liberation Council. He was a spokesman for ULFO at the time of his death.

In 1984, he helped arrange a committee to organize a Horn of Africa conference in Washington and two years later founded the Oromo Studies Association.

He was a member of the Oromo Community Organization of Washington and a founder in 1996 of the Oromo Center Inc., a community cafe and gathering place in the District. He chaired a group that acquired land and a building, which opened in July. Between 2,000 and 3,000 Oromo people are said to live in the Washington area.

An independent thinker, he was involved in establishing and editing several Oromo publications. He also wrote numerous articles and was a regular presenter at the African Studies Association annual conferences as well as at Oromo Studies Association meetings.

He was co-author, with Bonnie K. Holcomb, of "The Invention of Ethiopia: The Making of a Dependent Colonial State in Northeast Africa" (1990).

He mentored many young people in academics, music, business and sports -- particularly soccer. He served as coach of the Renegades U-14, a Montgomery (County) Soccer Incorporated Classic Division Soccer Team in 2001-2002. He also advised Leenca Oromia, the Washington-based team of the Oromo Soccer Federation.

More than 1,000 people turned out in the rain last month for a traditional Oromo memorial ceremony at a horse farm in Potomac. Eighteen men on horses draped in red and white joined in the celebration of the cultural icon's accomplishments.

Survivors include four sisters, Alemitu Ibsa of Falls Church and Dingishu Ibsa, Danse Ibsa and Bizunesh Ibsa, all of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and three brothers, Bekele Ibsa, Tadesse Ibsa and Lema Ibsa, all of Addis Ababa.

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