By Tego Wolasa
What if the Burji population was supposed to be 1.2million today? Looks farfetched right? Historical events which happened during the reins of Menelik II and Haile Selassie between 1894 and 1941 explain the likelihood.
The death of Emperor Yohannes of Ethiopia in the Battle of Gallabat in March 1889 led to coronation Menelik II as his successor in November of the same year.
It is during Meneliks rule between 1889 and 1913 that Abyssinia expanded southwards from the original four provinces of Amhara, Shoa, Tigre, and Gojam.
As the King of Shewa, a position he held until his coronation as the emperor, Menelik had already started conquering and subduing areas of Arusi, Harar, Jimma, Kefa, and several kingdoms of southern Ethiopia.
Meneliks conquering army led by Dajjach Luel Seged locally remembered among the Burji as Lusagadi entered Burjiland between 1894 and 1895. Oral traditions placed the conquest to a period just before the battle of Adwa which took place in March 1896.
At that time, the Burji leader was Woma Sode Guyo, who, upon consultations and assessment of the situation, resolved not to resist the superior invading army.
After his historic victory over the Italians at Adwa and signing of the peace treaty in October 1896, Menelik sent a second expedition led by Dajjach Balcha to undertake a reorganization of the administration in the conquered areas.
The generals, under the new leader, became ruthless in their dealing with the Burji. They were so brutal that the Burji traditional administration system (womisso), as well as the gada system, ceased to function smoothly.
The regime incorporated those who served in traditional roles like womisso, woma, Dayna, and Masha into the new government system. Consequently, the government promoted womas to the status of balabats. At the same time, most of the daynas and mashas received the position of qoro whose roles were responsible for collecting taxes at the village level.
The balabats office, which acted as intermediaries between the government and the community, slowly became part of the exploitative and oppressive system. Consequently, the Burji slowly but surely lost their freedom.
Mude Dae Mude, in his book, adds that “In a very short time the Burji were reduced from proud independent to humble, depressed status of Gabbar or serf: the entire ‘tribe’ was rounded up and counted divided up and allocated among the generals and soldiers for free labour.”
With southerly expansion of Menelik came dramatic reduction of population of the south. According to the French missionary, Martial de Salviac, for instance, the Oromo population alone was reduced from 10 million in 1870 to only 5 million in 1900.
The Russian military officer who accompanied one of Menelik’s campaigns of conquest, as written by Alexander Bulatovich, said that the conquest led to the annihilation of more than half of the Oromo population.
The above reports were echoed by Ivan Lukas, who says that the nation of Oromo was during Meneliks invasion reduced from 10 to 5 million, Kaficho from 1.5 million to 20,000, and The Burji from 200,000 to 15,000. He attributed the reduction to mass killings by the conquering army.
Further, Sir Arnold Hodson, who was Consul at Gardulla, not far from Burji, in his book ‘Seven Years in Southern Abyssinia’ wrote that ‘The Burji had been sadly devastated quite recently, and very few natives were left there. The responsibility for this rests with a former Governor of Sidamo, named Ato Finkabo, who appears to have carried on a very flourishing business in slaves from these parts. He became so enterprising that most of the natives who were left fled to Konso and Boran to escape falling into his clutches’. The population dropped to a paltry twenty thousand.
Hot on the heels of Meneliks devastation came Emperor Haile Selassie’s coronation and the Italo-Ethiopian war of 1935 to 1941. During the war a section of the Burji accepted the Italians as their liberators while a section supported the Ethiopian army.
After defeating the Italians, the Ethiopian army in 1941 stormed Burji areas, which sided with the Italians killing many while some Burji fled with the Italians or to other regions of Ethiopia.
Although Emperor Haile Sellasie abolished slavery in Ethiopia in 1941, the Burji didn’t see reprieve as they continued to be subject to discrimination through excessive taxes. That made the Burji flee to other areas, thereby dealing further blows to the dwindling population.
The above assertions are further clarified if we look at the Highland East Cushitic (HEC) speaking tribes. The HEC languages comprise of the Alaaba, Burji, Gedeo, Hadiyya, Kambaata, K’abeena, Libido/Marek’ o, Sidaama, and T’imbaaro. Only Burji is spoken both in Kenya and Ethiopia leading to conclusion that something must have caused the massive outmigration of the Burji.
Since there is no accurate report on the population of the Burji, the best estimate of the population we have is 20000 which remained at the end of Meneliks rule.
In Kenya, presence of Burji was first reported in 1906 by Philip Zaphiro, the first British frontier agent in Moyale. He recorded one Burji person by the name of Hille Ume.
The report further explains that Hille went back to Burji and later came back with Nawe Gube during the Great War. The next available report dated 1920 placed the Burji population in Moyale at 150 and 310 in 1930.
Various Marsabit District Annual, as well as handover reports, have accurately captured the Burji population in Marsabit. There were reports of 20 Burji found in Marsabit in 1920. 60 in 1929, in 1930 they were 62, 101 in 1931, 410 in 1934, 454 in 1935, 252 in 1954, 302 in 1956, 440 in 1957, 444 in 1958, 448 in 1959 and population of 330 in 1960.
The 1978 Kenya National Housing and Population Census deliberately eliminated the Burji and coded them as ‘others’. The subsequent census of 1989 put the Burji population in Kenya at 5,975.
In 1999, the Burji were denied a code and enumerated either as ‘others’ or under the Borana. The 2009 and 2019 census put the Burji population at 23,735 and 36,938.
In Ethiopia, Burji population in The Burji District was 25,176 in 1984 and 35,700 during the 1994 census. The 2007 Census in Ethiopia put the Burji population in Burji District at 56,681 and that in the whole of Ethiopia at 71,758. Ethiopia is yet to conduct another census by 2020.
So What Is The Current Global Burji Population?
The population in the Burji district during the 1994 Ethiopian national census was 35700. The same grew to 56681 in 2007 that translates to average annual growth of 4.5%. The Burji Population in the whole of Ethiopia during the 2007 National Census was 71,758.
Going by, an average growth rate of 5% per year translates to a population of 118,595 persons as of 2020. The 2019 census in Kenya placed the Burji population at 36938 persons. Summing up the two gives us an estimated global population of 155,533.
And now what if the reports that the Burji population in 1897 was as high as 200,000 was accurate? Again going by the average growth was 5% per annum, over the 123 years would translate to a population of 1,230,000 today. Looks farfetched right?
Let us test the reports by reversing our calculations. Sir Arnold Hodson, above, says that the Burji were reduced to paltry 20000 during Meneliks invasion.
Again going by the annual average growth rate of 5% over the last 123 years gives us a population of 123,000 as compared to our current estimated population of 155533. Not a bad estimate for 123 years if you ask me.
Over to you!