Ethiopia: The fight between Oromo and Amhara militants

Ermias Tasfaye
By Ermias Tasfaye

Freelance writer, researcher, and analyst. Reporter at Ethiopia Insight.

Posted on Monday, 13 June 2022 16:32

Residents and militias stand next to houses destroyed by an airstrike during the fight between the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) forces in Kasagita town, Afar region, Ethiopia, February 25, 2022. Picture taken February 25, 2022. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Civilians are caught in the crossfire of violence between rival political camps. Violence in western Oromia often follows a familiar pattern. After security forces withdraw from an area, militants attack civilians.

This article was published in partnership with Ethiopia Insight. 

Then, two starkly different stories are put forward as to who is responsible. Amhara activists claim that Amhara militias are fighting to defend their community in response to Oromo Liberation Army’s (OLA) atrocities against Amhara civilians.

At times, they outright deny the involvement of Amhara militants. Some Amhara opposition parties even implicate the federal government and the Oromo branch of the Prosperity Party in the killings of Amharas.

Oromo nationalists say the OLA’s armed struggle is being waged to assert the region’s autonomy from a repressive political system. The attacks are primarily against Oromo civilians by Amhara militias and the federal army.

Kumsa Dirriba (‘Jaal Maarro’ by his nom de guerre), OLA’s top commander, denies that his army conducts attacks on civilians, and has said that the Ethiopian government is “solely responsible” for the killings of Amhara civilians in western Oromia.

Historical legacy

The ongoing cycle of violence in western Oromia is driven by a central historical and ideological faultline in Ethiopian politics, one that pits a combination of Ethiopian and Amhara nationalisms against Oromo nationalism.

Oromo nationalists depict Oromos as being subjugated by the continuing legacy of oppressive political systems initiated during Ethiopia’s imperial era. Meanwhile, critics downplay the Oromo marginalisation narrative and maintain that the imperial system was effectively abolished in 1974.

The violence occurred between the two communities in the 1990s, including when Oromo people reportedly attacked Amhara “settlers” who were introduced to the area in the nineteenth century by the central government to pacify Oromia.

A wave of protests that began in Oromia in 2014 and spread to Amhara produced an alliance between elites within the two communities that ultimately ended the dominance of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the ruling coalition.

Abiy Ahmed ascended to power in April 2018 owing to the tactical “Oromara” alliance that collapsed soon thereafter. Resurgent tensions were the result of deep ideological fissures reflecting the modern iteration of an age-old violent elite power struggle.

Continuing discontent surged in Oromia after elections were postponed, the opposition was shut out of decision-making processes, and the perception emerged that Abiy planned to impose a centralised and unitarist governance system by embracing Amhara elites.

Armed violence between the federal government and OLA has been ongoing since 2018. OLA was formerly the armed wing of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) but split from this once-exiled political party after OLF signed a peace deal with the federal government.

The assassination of influential Oromo musician Hachalu Hundessa on 29 June 2020 resulted in protests and violence, mostly in central and eastern Oromia. The government responded by arresting opposition leaders and detaining more than 9,000 people.

A prominent view among Amharas maintains that the property destruction and loss of life were planned and coordinated or done with the acquiescence of local authorities.

Meanwhile, Oromo nationalists believe that the authorities were ordered to remain passive as unruly elements committed arson and murder in a premeditated tactic designed to justify the sweeping move against the Oromo opposition.

Amid civil war in the north since November 2020 – and the subsequent formation of an alliance between the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) and OLA – the federal and Oromia governments’ devastating armed struggle with OLA has escalated, while inter-communal violence between Oromos and Amharas has persisted.

Haro massacre

One of the areas where violence has been most serious is in the north of Oromia’s East Wellega Zone, along the border that separates Oromia and Amhara regions.

In October 2021, Oromia’s government reported that OLA and Amhara extremists killed dozens and displaced nearly a thousand people in Haro town of Kiremu Wereda in East Wellega.

Oromo residents claimed that OLA was not present and that such accusations are merely cover for aggressive, expansionist activities backed by the Amhara regional government.

“I don’t know why this happened to me, what my family did to wrong them. They killed nine of my family members,” said one resident, Marga Olani Sima, a man in his thirties.

In a phone interview, Marga told Ethiopia Insight that on 14 October, four days prior to the conversation, Amhara militants attacked Oromo residents in Haro.

Kiremu is one of 17 weredas in East Wellega Zone. It is about 458 kilometres away from Addis Abeba, with a total population of close to 100,000, and is bordered to its north by the Amhara region.

What is known for sure about the events in Kiremu is that days after the Oromia Special Force withdrew on 7 October from Haro, an armed group attacked civilians in the town. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reported an attack in two kebeles of Kiremu after security forces withdrew.

According to an 18 October EHRC press release, families of victims and local officials said that informal groups of locals and people from nearby towns in Amhara killed many people in response to the 10 October killings of civilians by OLA in Haro.

On 24 September, the EHRC detailed a prior attack that occurred in which unspecified militants killed 11 civilians in Ulmaya Kebele on 18 September and 18 civilians in Boka Kebele on 17 and 18 September.

On 26 October, the OLA responded to the repeated accusations against it – such as those regarding recent killings in Eastern Wellega- saying: “OLA has not committed any massacres whatsoever.” The OLA has repeatedly called for immediate independent investigations of all human rights atrocities committed in Ethiopia.

On 18 October, the EHRC said that a total of 43,139 people have been displaced from five weredas in East Wellega Zone and Horo Gudru Wellega Zone since August. EHRC said that access to basic services and medical care has been severely curtailed, as access roads to these areas are closed and tensions remain high.

Conflicting narratives

While the two sides accuse each other, the government and EHRC have blamed both OLA and Amhara militias for the attack in Haro, and admitted that security forces withdrew before the killings took place.

The narrative presented by Amhara organisations and activists is that OLA and armed Oromo locals are the sole culprits of the violence.

The National Movement of Amhara (NaMA), an opposition party, says that thousands of Amharas have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced by the violence in East Wellega over the past three years.

In one instance, the EHRC reported that violence erupted in Kiremu on 18 August 2021 after security forces withdrew and OLA-affiliated gunmen arrived.

EHRC said that “OLF-Shene” militants killed 150 people and that residents from the area and the neighbouring region subsequently killed more than 60 people in ethnic-based reprisal attacks. In a 13 October statement, NaMA condemned what it called “ethnic-based” killings of innocent Amhara civilians in Haro town.

The Amhara Association of America (AAA), a pressure group, has accused the OLA of killing Amhara civilians. In a 10 February report, AAA said, “At least 15 ethnic Amhara villagers were killed and 18 others wounded when OLA terrorists, backed by armed local Oromo residents, attacked ethnic Amhara villagers in Kiremu Wereda.”

On the other hand, the Oromo narrative is that Amhara militias and Fano forces are responsible and that the government is assisting them.

In its 26 October report, the Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa (HRLHA) said: “We have time and again confirmed unequivocally from an eyewitness … cross-border deployment of militias and special forces by the Amhara Region to the adjacent areas of the Oromia region.”

On 4 December, Ija Oromia, a non-profit that aims to promote human rights in Oromia, released a detailed investigative report about the October killings in Haro, accusing Fano militants from Amhara. Reports from eyewitnesses and family members of victims indicate that Fano militias killed 69 civilians.

On 15 October, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a registered political party, released a statement that denounced “repeated massacres of Oromo civilians by the central government budgeted Amhara Special Forces.”

For its part, OLA blamed government forces for having secured an open path for Amhara militants to conduct the killings. OLA’s spokesperson, Odaa Tarbii, said: “There is a concerted propaganda campaign meant to disparage and sideline not only the OLA but the Oromo people as a whole.”

Odaa said that 25 innocent Oromo civilians were killed in the Haro massacre, of which 17 belonged to one family. He claimed that OLA has warned several times that the Amhara militia crossed into East Wellega to spark conflict between Oromo and Amhara civilians.

“OLA, in August, drove back an earlier contingent of Amhara regional militia that committed heinous killings and attempted to stir ethnic conflict,” he said. The OLA spokesperson did not address whether OLA was present in the area.

Confirming narratives

Reports by several Amhara media outlets claimed that Amhara residents accuse “OLF-Shene” of committing targeted attacks against Amhara civilians.

For example, an Amhara resident told Amhara Media Corporation on 13 October that they had recently buried five people following a day filled with armed clashes. He said that an armed group from his side was engaged in the fight and had not yet returned.

While Amhara activists on social media allege that Amhara residents were the victims of the October Haro killings, the families of victims tell a different story.

According to eight victims contacted by Ethiopia Insight, Amhara militiamen started moving around the town on 10 October. They proceeded to kill Oromo civilians, burn properties, and loot their possessions.

Several Haro residents also told Ethiopia Insight that at least 30 civilians were killed on 10 October and 12 October, and at least 10 houses of Oromo residents were burned.

One claimed: “If some Oromo local militias did not try to hold them back and gave some time for our people to flee from the area, they would have killed thousands.”

He said that although there might have been some casualties on the Amhara side, the main targets were Oromo civilians. Marga said that the family members he lost included his father Olani Sima Boro (55), mother Senait Mokonin Deressa (50), brother Leta Olani Sima (12), uncle Kibrit Sima Boro (45), uncle’s wife Bakune Beyene, uncle’s daughter Arare Kibrit Sima (18), and uncle’s child Nagara Kibrit Sima (under 5).

According to him, Amhara armed groups started attacking on 10 October around midday and reached his parent’s house around 5 pm.

“They also killed an employee of ours, whose ethnic background is Amhara, because he had been living with us for a long time, and he was treated as a member of the Oromo family,” he said.

Marga said that the attackers went to his grandparent’s house two days later and murdered his grandmother, Werkitu Gemeda, who was over 90.

His grandfather, while on the run with the help of neighbours, died due to a lack of food and water. He died on 13 October and was buried on 14 October in Kiremu town since his birthplace, Haro, was occupied by Amhara forces.

Marga said that OLA forces were not in town and he thinks that reports of the rebels attacking civilians were used as a pretext. Another resident told Ethiopia Insight that the Amhara militia would not have attacked if OLA was active in the wereda. “They wouldn’t have chased us out of our birthplace and raised their flags in our town,” they said, requesting anonymity.

According to Marga, Amhara residents of Haro started preparing three months ago. “When we asked them why they were training, they responded that they are preparing themselves to fight off OLF-Shene,” he told Ethiopia Insight.

Another resident said: “They were training their youths in Bagin Kebele. They were armed by the government, in the name of protecting themselves against Shene, while the government disarmed the Oromo residents.”

In a press release on 18 October, the EHRC offered a similar account of government-armed local residents in Horo Gudru Wellega Zone preparing for a fight against OLA. ​​

According to several interviewees, the armed Amhara group was equipped with heavy weapons such as machine guns. The head of Kiremu Wereda affirmed the accusation, saying that Fano groups are armed with heavy weapons.

Amhara irredentism?

In Kiremu, clashes between Amhara and Oromo occur frequently. The violence started in earnest in 2000 and has claimed the lives of many people from both sides.

Such violence resulted in the displacement of more than 12,000 Amhara residents from over 4,200 households, who had mostly been resettled to the area in the early 1980s from what is now the Amhara region.

Though they contest such accusations by Oromos, Amharas have allegedly made territorial claims, breached local land deals, changed place names to Amharic names, and demanded their own zone. They are also accused of misusing forest resources, carrying illegal firearms, and cattle rustling.

Oromo residents told Ethiopia Insight that Amharas want to incorporate the area into Amhara. They say Amharas claim that Amhara’s border extends to the Hangar river. BBC Afaan Oromo reported a similar accusation.

the only option is to join the front line.'”]

Some influential Amhara activists have been regularly campaigning to organize and arm Amhara civilians in Oromia, in part to “reclaim ancestral lands.”

Mekonnen Kebede, a founder of Amhara Foundation – an organisation registered in Georgia that is openly supportive of both NAMA and Fano – claimed that all of Shewa and Wellega are Amhara’s ancestral land and called for Amharas to “reclaim” these territories.

Such calls increased following an October 2020 attack on Amharas in the Metekel Zone of the Benishangul-Gumuz region. Most notably, Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen remarked: “For the local residents, organizing and arming themselves with necessary weapons and building their capacity to defend themselves is the only option.”

Since then, several diaspora activists have debated how they can help to arm Amhara civilians and called for the Amhara people to focus on “reclaiming” their “ancestral land.”

Late last year, graduating members of the Amhara militia pledged to avenge every Amhara killed: “If one Oromo kills one Amhara, we will kill a hundred Oromos. If one Gumuz kills one Amhara, we will kill a hundred Gumuz.”

The Ethiopian Human Rights Coalition, a civil society organisation, told Ethiopia Insight on 24 October that the Haro massacre was part of the plan by Amhara forces to annex parts of Wellega into Amhara, as evidenced by the attackers planting the symbolic (red, yellow, and green) flag in the areas they took over.

In October, a 45-year-old Haro resident said: “Currently, no Oromo is in Haro Town. They are either killed or fled to the surrounding areas to save their lives … The Amhara militias have invaded the town and hung the ‘Menelik’ flag in the middle of the town.”

Another middle-aged resident said: “Those who were able to run survived the attack, and the rest, mostly women, children, the old, the disabled, and the sick, were massacred in cold blood. I took my family with me and ran to Kiremu town as soon as they started the attack.”

On 19 April, Belay Desale, Kiremu Wereda Administrator, said that the Amhara extremist group is still active in areas of the wereda that border Amhara and that it has established itself in Haro, Chaffe Gudina, Sombo, and Bajin kebeles of the wereda.

According to Belay, the group indoctrinates Amhara residents by saying that all Oromos are ‘Shene’ in an effort to turn Amharas against Oromos.

Lugo attacks

Similar incidents occurred in other weredas of East Wellega Zone. Residents of Kiremu, Gida Ayana, Guto Gida weredas in the zone told Ethiopia Insight in October that, as a result of numerous attacks since 10 October, at least 100 civilians have been killed, tens of thousands displaced, and properties destroyed or looted in East Wellega.

For example, residents of Lugo town of Guto Gida Wereda were attacked on 12 October, just a day after Oromia forces withdrew from the area.

According to the residents, the attack started on 12 October at around 10 am at Angar Dalle Kebele of Gudeya Bila Wereda when a group of Amhara residents armed themselves and went to Lugo town.

One resident said that these groups were threatening locals before the attack. “They came to the town on two market days with all their armoury, claiming that they will soon sweep us out of the area,” he said.

Mitiku Isho, a 21-year-old victim who lost his father and brother, said that the Amhara group that came to Lugo “slaughtered my father, Isho Tolosa, and my brother, Guta Isho.”

He also said they shot his 15-year-old disabled brother in the shoulder after ridiculing him by saying “who considers a crippled like you as a person?” Mitiku’s brother, Yosef Isho, was being treated in Nekemte Hospital.

Mitiku and other residents who fled from the area witnessed the killing of at least 30 people on that day in Lugo town. One resident claimed to have witnessed a grave that contained five bodies.

Spreading violence

Following the 10 to 12 October attacks, ethnic violence spread throughout the areas in Oromia that border Amhara, especially after a state of emergency was declared in November.

Since then, over a dozen incidents have been reported by local and social media. In one instance, armed Amhara residents carried out an attack on 18 November against Oromo civilians in Nonno Wereda of West Shewa Zone, killing at least 18.

According to residents and local officials BBC Afaan Oromo spoke to, the armed men attacked Oromo civilians in reaction to the killings of four Amhara civilians in other kebeles of the wereda, allegedly by the OLA. The attack was carried out after the local government disarmed Oromo civilians, fearing that OLA would take their weapons.

The Amhara militants reportedly started attacking the Oromo civilians, saying, “All Oromos are ‘OLF-Shene’”, a name the government uses to refer to OLA. The Ethiopian parliament designated OLA as a terrorist group in May 2021, along with TPLF.

In late November, an attack by Amhara militants targeting Oromo residents reportedly resulted in the death of numerous people and the kidnapping of over 200 Oromo civilians in Gida Ayana Wereda of East Wellega Zone.

Residents told BBC Afaan Oromo that they blame Amhara militants for the attack and the government for its inaction, while officials accused Amhara ‘extremists’ and the OLA.

Similar incidents happened in two kebeles of the wereda on 16 February. The Wereda Communications office accused Amhara militants of killing civilians and destroying several houses. Some local residents corroborated the accusations and said at least eight people were killed.

In January, Alemayehu Tesfa, East Wellega Zone Administrator, told Oromia Broadcasting Network (OBN) – a regional government-owned broadcaster – that over 128,000 people have fled their homes because of the violence in several weredas of the zone, of which around 58,000 were resettled.

Additionally, over 197,000 residents were displaced because of similar attacks in several weredas of Horro Gudru in Wellega Zone.

Alemayehu said that people fled because of security issues caused by Amhara extremists, the Benishangul People’s Liberation Movement (BPLM), and OLA. He then said the operation to dismantle these groups is underway and will continue until the zone is free of their presence.

Oromia Communication Bureau released a report on 4 April saying the Oromia government is paying a great sacrifice in fighting OLA. According to the report, Amhara “extremists” have been crossing over the border and attacking civilians and security forces.

The report followed the 29 March attack by Amhara militants who ambushed 26 members of local militia and the Federal Police in a place called Qorke in Tututa Kebele of East Shewa’s Fantalle Wereda.

Lalistu Angar Kebele

Another notable incident occurred in Lalistu Angar Kebele of Gida Ayana Wereda in April 2021, resulting in the death of at least 13 civilians and the destruction of dozens of houses.

The two competing narratives – Amhara activists accusing OLA of killing Amhara civilians, and the Oromo accusing Amhara militias of killing Oromo civilians – circulated on social media, as usual.

On 15 April 2021, Gida Ayana Wereda and East Wellega Zone communication offices came forward stating on Facebook that a group of Amhara residents from Kamashi Zone of Benishangul-Gumuz region and Limu Wereda of East Wellega organised into groups and attacked Oromo civilians of Lalistu Angar Kebele. In total, 13 Oromo civilians were reportedly killed and dozens of houses were burned or robbed.

According to the wereda and zone reports, the Amhara militants were wearing pale uniforms and carrying the green-yellow-red flag that has a lion emblem. Following the deployment of security forces, Amhara activists accused Oromia Special Forces of attacking Amhara civilians.

The East Wellega administration responded to the accusations by saying that the media campaign by “extremists” trying to frame the conflict as an attack on ethnic Amhara is a fabrication.

In January this year, Fite Baqo, a Kebele in Limu Gelila Wereda of East Wollega Zone, was turned to ashes. BBC Afaan Oromo verified the incident with satellite imagery and reported that the town was attacked by Amhara militants who claim ownership of the land.

Beyond Oromia

These incidents are not limited to Oromia. For instance, in March and April 2021, there was deadly violence in the Oromo Zone of the Amhara Region, where most of the casualties reported were Oromo residents.

Another centre of violence is Metekel. As Tom Gardner reports, Metekel “has been afflicted by an endless stream of gruesome, ethnically targeted massacres” in which the victims have included Amharas, Oromos, Gumuz, and Shinashas.

In a recent incident, an armed group, reportedly consisting of Amhara militants, killed two and injured one, after kidnapping at least 15 Oromo civilians, mostly youths, in Berber Kebele in Dibate Wereda of the zone on 17 March.

The Dibate Wereda administrator confirmed the incident but was unaware of the identity of the kidnappers. According to witnesses and testimonies of the families of the released, the kidnappers are Amhara Liyu Police and Amhara militias.

BBC Afaan Oromo reported that the kidnapped civilians, including a 14-year-old youth and an elderly person in his 60s, were released the next day and the bodies of the deceased were taken to a hospital for investigation.

Government response

Despite its repeated accusations against both OLA and Amhara militants, the government has so far overwhelmingly targeted OLA.

In November 2021, the government started reporting that its forces had been successful in the operation against OLA and that it had regained control of numerous weredas that were under rebel control.

On 18 November, the Federal Police announced a coordinated attack against OLA forces. According to the statement, the action by the federal and Oromia security forces, including local militias, was successful.

Assistant Commissioner Gali Kemal, Oromia Special Police Western Command Commander, announced on 5 January that security forces killed 1,643 members of the groups it referred to as ‘destruction forces’,  and captured 106 during the operation undertaken by federal and regional security forces.

The groups it claims to be taking action against consist of OLA, BPLM, and ‘extremist forces’ from Amhara that “do not represent the Amhara people.”

Similarly, the Horro Guduru Wellega Zone Administration announced on 11 January that security forces killed 433, captured 115 members of OLA, and arrested 623 alleged informants during an operation designed to destroy OLA.

Last February, the Oromia and Amhara governments announced that they have agreed to work together and destroy OLA and TPLF, especially around border areas between the two regions.

The government publicised that it had renewed its operation to fight OLA and eventually admitted that numerous weredas were under the control of OLA.

For example, officials from Kellem Wellega Zone admitted in February that Gidami Wereda had been under OLA’s control for over two months. One member of parliament recently said in the House of People’s Representatives that over 396 rural village areas and towns are still controlled by OLA.

Currently, the government is undertaking a renewed offensive against OLA, which it called “an organised operation to exterminate OLA forces.”

The government’s operation is accused of being aided by airstrikes. In several places where they suffered losses, government forces have summarily executed civilians and destroyed properties of civilians in retaliation.

They killed dozens of civilians in Abuna Gindeberet Wereda of West Shewa Zone, including 25 who were killed in an airstrike on 22 April. A week later, Oromia Special Police killed at least 21 civilians in Ada’a Barga Wereda of West Shewa Zone and 18 civilians in Wara Jarso Wereda of North Shewa Zone three days after that.

Beyond the central government’s mission to exert its power and eliminate OLA’s armed resistance, persistent violence in western Oromia and the competing narratives around it reflects a worrying increase in tensions between the Amhara and Oromo communities.

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