Ethiopia’s Tigray war is one of a series of other crises

By The Africa Report
Posted on Thursday, 13 October 2022 17:17

A fighter loyal to the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) walks along a street in the town of Hawzen, on 7 May 2021, then-controlled by the group but later re-taken by government forces, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)

The Tigray conflict has dominated headlines about Ethiopia for nearly two years. Since it broke out in November 2020, the war has seen hundreds of thousands of troops mobilised, wreaked havoc on the economy and at one point threatened to envelop the national capital, Addis Ababa. But it's not an isolated conflict. It is one in a series of crises tearing at the fabric of Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict has also been marked by widespread human rights abuses that have drawn sharp condemnation from international partners such as the United States and European Union, who have suspended budgetary support.

But the Tigray war is one of many that are beset by ethno-nationalist insurgencies, elite competition, intercommunal violence and a severe drought. These have uprooted whole communities and left millions in need of aid.

Ethiopia is also threatened by the spectre of jihadist violence, with Al-Shabaab launching its largest-ever incursion into Ethiopia in July.

There has been a particular flare-up in ethnic-based attacks since 2018 when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power and introduced reforms that opened Ethiopia’s political space but also saw the eruption into violence of many long-standing grievances.

Defending citizens

Ethiopia’s chief ombudsman, Endaile Haile, tells The Africa Report that he believes federal and regional authorities are failing in their constitutional obligation to defend their citizens in many parts of the country.

Endaile partly blames the violence on Ethiopia’s system of ethnic federalism, whereby the country’s regional states are defined by the majority ethnic group. He says the system – which was instituted in the early 1990s by the previous government dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – creates competition for land and resources along ethnic lines and leads to the marginalisation of minorities within states.

But he also says there is “a lack of focus and accountability” from government officials and the security forces. “In my opinion, it is not beyond the control of the security forces to maintain order, but they are failing to discharge their duties,” says Endaile.

As the Tigray war rages in the north, The Africa Report looks at the ‘other crises’ gripping Ethiopia, a patchwork of over 80 ethnic groups that comprise Africa’s second most populous country and one of its most important economies.

Insurgency in Oromia

The most pressing issue facing PM Ahmed after the Tigray war is the ethno-nationalist insurgency from the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) in Oromia, which has left lawless large swathes of Ethiopia’s biggest regional state.

Led by Jaal Marroo, the OLA is a splinter group of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a nationalist organisation that signed a peace deal with the federal government in August 2018.

The OLA claims it is fighting for greater autonomy for the Oromo people, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, who it claims are repressed. The federal parliament has outlawed the OLA as terrorist organisation and refers to it as “Shene”.

The group employs hit-and-run tactics and is known for killing officials. It is especially active in the western area of Oromia, where it has kidnapped several NGO workers.

Charges of human rights abuses have been levelled against the group, including several large-scale massacres of Amhara civilians. In June, OLA fighters were accused of murdering hundreds of ethnic Amharas in the Gimbi area of Oromia’s West Wellega Zone.

Many Amharas in Wellega are originally from the Wollo region and were re-settled in the area following the famine of 1984-85.

The insurgency has prompted a spiral of tit-for-tat identity-based violence in Oromia, with investigators from the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) concluding the Amhara militants have also carried out killings of ethnic Oromos in the state. Security forces battling the OLA have been accused of targeting civilians, too.

Earlier this year, the federal government took advantage of a lull in the Tigray conflict to launch a large-scale offensive aimed at crushing the OLA, but it was not successful.

More broadly, across Oromia there is increasing dissatisfaction with Abiy’s government. Protests by Oromo youth helped propel Abiy to power as the first Oromo prime minister in 2018 and dislodge the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) Ethiopia’s dominant political force.

But many Oromos feel let down by his administration and his popularity in Oromia has taken a hit, especially after prominent Oromo politicians were arrested following a wave of violence sparked by the killing of a popular singer in June 2020.

Gambella

The OLA’s insurgency spilled into the Gambella regional state in June when the OLA and an obscure militia, the Gambella Liberation Front (GLF), launched an attack against police stations and government buildings in the regional capital that lasted half a day.

A recent report by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission concluded that the regional security forces subsequently killed at least 50 civilians in reprisal attacks while searching houses for militants. The regional government rejected the findings of the report, saying the militants were responsible for the civilian deaths.

Drought

The drought affecting the Horn of Africa is the worst in 40 years and has hit Ethiopia hard, uprooting 345,000 people, most of them in the Somali regional state and the southern part of Oromia, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

In total, around 21.1 million people in Ethiopia are affected by the drought, which has wiped out 3.5 million livestock. Four rainy seasons have already failed in parts of Ethiopia, and a fifth failed season is predicted.

“The 2020-22 drought has now surpassed the horrific droughts in 2010-11 and 2016-17 in both duration and severity and will continue to deepen in the months ahead, with catastrophic consequences,” said UN OCHA in a recent report.

Metekel conflict

Hundreds of people have been killed by identity-based violence in the Metekel zone of the Benshangul-Gumuz state in western Ethiopia since 2018, many of them ethnic Amharas targeted by unidentified ethnic militias.

It is not clear who is behind the violence, although researchers from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) say “they are almost certainly made up of Gumuz ethnic militias who may be associated with more officially organised ethno-nationalistic movements”.

Like western Oromia, many of the Amharas in the Metekel zone were re-settled from Wollo following the 1984-5 famine. This resettlement programme sparked conflict over land and resources, which was made worse when ethnic federalism was introduced in the early 1990s, as the new system legally enshrined the dominance of the Gumuz in the area and led to the economic and political marginalisation of the region’s Amhara.

Faced with growing violence in the area, the federal government declared a state of emergency in the Metekel zone in January 2021, and in many areas armed escorts are required to deliver humanitarian aid. At one point last year, 180,000 people – equal to almost one third of the zone’s population – were displaced by clashes.

Several prominent Amhara media outlets, politicians and activists have called for the Metekel to be absorbed into the Amhara regional state, due to its large ethnic Amhara population, and the Amhara regional government has threatened to send troops there.

Al-Shabaab’s penetration

The Somali-based Islamist group has long sought to take their jihad to Ethiopia, which is the largest troop contributor to AU’s peace force in Somalia, AMISOM. Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 to oust the Islamic Courts Union from Mogadishu.

So far, the security services have prevented Al-Shabaab from carrying out terror attacks in the country, but in July several hundred fighters from the Islamist group launched an incursion into Ethiopia’s Somali state, resulting in days of clashes.

Four rainy seasons have already failed in parts of Ethiopia, and a fifth failed season is predicted.”

Officials claimed the force had been completely destroyed, but diplomats in Addis Ababa say a contingent of Al-Shabaab militants is now present in the Bale mountains of Oromia. “They have penetrated deep into Ethiopia,” says one.

Islamist radicalisation is a growing concern for security officials, with some Ethiopian migrants bringing extremist Sunni ideologies home after returning from the Gulf.

Inter-communal violence in southern Ethiopia

Various parts of southern Ethiopia have witnessed outbursts of ethnic-based violence in recent years, driven by competition over land and resources between groups.

In the Konso zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR), long-running administrative disputes are behind periodic clashes between communities. These led to armed groups displacing 37,000 people earlier this year, while 100,000 were uprooted during clashes in Konso in November 2020.

The drought affecting the Horn of Africa is the worst in 40 years and has hit Ethiopia hard.”

Competition over land and resources between Gedeos and Guji Oromos has also fuelled ethnic-based conflict in West Guji, a zone of the Oromia regional state bordered by the SNNPR and Sidama states. In 2018, some 800,000 mostly ethnic Gedeos fled ethnic violence in the area, amid rapes, lynchings and beheadings. The area has not seen violence on this scale since then, but minor attacks on communal leaders and farmers continue.

Localised disputes are threatening to break up the SNNPR region. Both the Sidama and South-West areas have peacefully formed their own regional states, having taken advantage of a clause in Ethiopia’s constitution that gives ethnic groups the right to vote on forming new federal states. They could be followed by others.

Afar-Somali border conflict

The border between the Afar and Somali regional states in eastern Ethiopia has seen periodic eruptions of violence over disputed land. The clashes are centred on territories within Afar that are home to ethnic Somalis who want to join the Somali regional state.

“The disputed areas have important resources, including the Awash river and the highway and railway between Addis Ababa and Djibouti,” according to the ACLED project. “Violent conflict over these resources has increased since 2018, with major clashes occurring in the context of heightened political tensions during the run-up toward the national elections in 2021.”

In April 2021, border clashes between the two regions killed at least 100 people. Officials from the Afar region blamed the violence on the Somali regional forces.

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