Ethiopia: Inside the Oromia massacre – ‘There were corpses everywhere’

By Fred Harter
Posted on Thursday, 23 June 2022 20:47, updated on Friday, 24 June 2022 09:49

In this photo taken on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016, Ethiopian soldiers try to stop protesters in Bishoftu, Ethiopia. Violence flared again Monday in Ethiopia's restive Oromia region, where dozens of people were killed a day earlier in a stampede when police tried to disrupt an anti-government protest amid a massive religious festival. (AP Photo)

Oromo-speaking gunmen massacred hundreds of unarmed civilians in Ethiopia's Oromia region on 18 June - part of a broader cycle of ethnic-based killings in the country’s western periphery, whose victims have been Oromo, Amhara, Gumuz and Sinaasha.

Ahmed was heading to a local market when he heard gunfire ring out from his village in the Gimbi district of Ethiopia’s Oromia region on Saturday, 18 June. After the shooting died down, he says, he returned to find dozens of bodies scattered among the burnt-out houses.

“There were corpses everywhere,” he told The Africa Report. “I saw 60 people in one grave. In another, I helped to bury 12 people. We only finished burying all the bodies on Tuesday.”

Another witness, Mohammed, said that armed men had passed through his village of Tole several days before the attack, threatening ethnic Amhara, Ethiopia’s second largest group, who are a minority in the Oromia region. Many Amhara arrived in the area in the 1980s and 1990s under resettlement programmes.

“They passed through this village warning us, saying, ‘We will kill you guys from Wollo when we come back,’” said Mohammed. Wollo is an area in the Amhara region where he and many of his neighbours originally come from. “We were scared, and then it happened. They said they don’t want to hear Amharic speakers in their land.”

A third witness put the death toll at around 435, which could not be verified. “God rescued me. I was not inside the village, but my family members were killed,” he said. “We have been burying the bodies for days.”

All three men blamed Afaan Oromoo-speaking militants for the attack. They referred to them as Shene, a nickname for the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an insurgent group that has been accused of human rights abuses while fighting Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government.

Two of the three witnesses accused local officials of colluding with the gunmen. One said: “The administration was a part of it, because when we called for defence, no one responded. They said there is no conflict.” The second said the militants “spoke Oromo, they are Shene, they just came with the woreda (district) and zonal officials.”

The OLA denies responsibility for the killings, claiming they were perpetrated by a government-backed militia group called “Gachana Sirna”. “There is no political or military objective, none whatsoever, that our army would generate by targeting innocent civilians,” the group said in a joint statement with the Oromo Liberation Front, a nationalist organisation promoting self-determination for the Oromo people.

A later statement by the two groups claimed government forces – allegedly disguised in wigs to impersonate OLA fighters – were responsible. The area is off limits to journalists, making it impossible to readily verify competing claims.

Cycle of bloodshed

The massacre is one of the bloodiest to hit Ethiopia in recent memory, but it is not an anomaly. Rather it is part of a broader cycle of ethnic-based killings in the country’s western periphery, whose victims have included Oromo, Amhara, Gumuz and Sinaasha. The bloodshed has ground on for years, often overshadowed by the recent conflict in Tigray, and it is now escalating to a point where it can no longer be ignored.

The attacks include the killing of more than 200 ethnic Amharas, Oromo and Shinasha in the village of Bekoji in Benishangul-Gumuz’s Metekel zone in December 2020, by armed members of the Gumuz group weeks after the Tigray war broke out.

More recently, in January, local officials said that violence in Oromia’s East Wellega zone had uprooted close to 130,000 people. The news barely registered: At the time, 300,000 people were fleeing their homes some 500km (300 miles) to the north-east after Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) launched an offensive into Afar.

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“In some ways, local and foreign journalists have been right to focus on the war with Tigray, as it is on a whole different level in terms of its scale,” says Awet Weldemichael, an associate professor of African History at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. “But we are also seeing these conflicts fester and result in widespread suffering.”

Ethiopia’s kaleidoscope of western, ethnic-based insurgencies and the more conventional conflict in the north do sometimes feed into each other.

Officials in Oromia have accused their counterparts in Amhara of helping Amhara militias known as Fano to carry out attacks against ethnic Oromo. The Fano played a key role in fighting the TPLF last year. Its ranks and political influence within Amhara have been bolstered by the Tigray conflict, despite a recent crackdown against them. Much of their support derives from activists who claim a genocide is being perpetrated against Amhara, citing OLA and TPLF attacks.

Most notably, the OLA formed an alliance with the TPLF in August. This alliance later expanded to include seven other groups in regions such as Gambella and Somali, although the coalition is fragmentary and most of its members hold little sway in their respective states.

Having not fought against the TPLF since December, the federal military is currently engaged in an offensive against the OLA in western Oromia, fighting alongside regional forces. Its stated objective is to “exterminate” the OLA, but witnesses have accused government forces of slaughtering civilians and burning down villages. There have also been reports of innocent people killed in airstrikes.

Last week, as Abiy was telling parliament that a negotiation committee had been formed to resolve the northern Tigray conflict, gunmen from the OLA and the Gambella Liberation Front took control of half of the Gambella region’s capital, raiding police stations for arms, as well as banks, before withdrawing. Local security forces have been accused of targeting ethnic Oromo in a subsequent crackdown, with one Gambella city resident telling The Africa Report he could hear sporadic shooting from his home in the two days following the rebel attack.

On the day of the assault against Gambella, OLA also launched attacks on Gimbi and Dembre Dallo towns in Oromia.  The operation was the group’s most sophisticated to date and was likely intended as a show of strength aimed at demonstrating the government offensive has not succeeded.

Root causes

The conflict in Oromia stems back to the late nineteenth century, when the Oromo and other groups were conquered in a series of wars by Emperor Menelik II, whose expansionist Abyssinian empire was based on the highland culture of the Amhara.

Tens of thousands of Amhara known as naftanya, meaning gun carriers, were subsequently settled in Oromo lands in an attempt to pacify them. Under the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie, the Oromo language was banned from schools, an injunction that remained in place until the Amhara-dominated Derg regime was toppled in 1991.

Formed in the 1970s as the armed wing of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the OLA fought alongside the TPLF to oust the Derg, working with them to capture the capital, Addis Ababa. But the two groups quickly fell out. In 1992, the OLF withdrew from the TPLF- dominated government and the federal forces raided camps of the OLA, which later relocated much of its operations to Eritrea.

Oromo discontent continued to simmer and members of the ethic group played a central role in the protests that brought Abiy to power in 2018 as the first Oromo prime minister. Hopes were high that he would address their deep-seated sense of economic and political marginalisation, especially after he signed a peace deal with the OLF months after assuming office.

These hopes were shattered in June 2020 after the death of a popular Oromo singer sparked a wave of deadly unrest across Oromia. In the resulting crackdown, several prominent Oromo politicians were imprisoned, further inflaming Oromo ethno-nationalist sentiment and fueling growing discontent with Abiy’s government.

At the same time, the OLA was staging attacks in western Oromia after splitting from the OLF. Tensions also flared in Amhara, Harar, Gambella and Benishangul-Gumuz as Abiy forged ahead with his reform agenda and dismantled the status quo.

“The grievances in peripheries like western Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz and Gambella are historical and cannot be blamed on Abiy or any recent leader,” says Queen’s University’s Awet. “But Abiy’s government is responsible in terms of its inability to provide security to its citizens.”

Destabilisation

A key sticking point between Amhara and Oromo communities is land, particularly the disputed border between the Amhara and Oromo regional states. Large swathes of Oromia have also been subjected to land grabs and converted for foreign agri-businesses, feeding a sense of economic exclusion.

Ahmed Soliman, a researcher on the Horn of Africa with the Africa Programme at Chatham House in London, describes the conflict in Oromia as “extremely complex and longstanding, tied up (in) issues of ethnicity and influenced by shifting elite alliance.” He adds that it has “been expanding since Abiy came to power, as we have seen increasing contestation at the local and regional level in the state.”

Soliman described the recent attacks in Gambella and Gimbi as “significant” indicators that deeply entrenched insecurity in western Ethiopia appears to be getting worse.

“Not only do you have the OLA growing in capacity as an insurgent force, but you also have a proliferation of ethno-nationalist insurgencies across the country,” he said. “That is a big worry when it comes to the long-term stability of Ethiopia.”

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