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Ethiopia: Understanding Oromia’s mayhem after Hachalu’s murder

By Ethiopia Insight
Posted on Monday, 11 January 2021 18:32, updated on Tuesday, 12 January 2021 15:05

Festival of Oromo people in Bishoftu
Oromo youths chant anti-government slogans as Oromia Special Forces patrol, during Irreecha celebrations, in Bishoftu town, Oromia region, Ethiopia, October 4, 2020. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

In Oromia, mayhem followed the 29 June slaying of beloved singer Hachalu Hundessa. And as Oromo protesters rose up in Batu, security forces stood down.

Published in partnership with Ethiopia Insight.

After seeking out the leader of an allegedly misrun local savings association in Adami Tullu, a small town a few kilometres south of Batu in Oromia, a group of hundreds began heading back towards the main road at around 9am on 30 June.

“On their way back, Geletaw started firing his Kalashnikov into the air,” Meseret Tadesse said about her neighboor, brick-maker Geletaw Awulachew, who lived in an imposing compound about 50 metres from her house across a patch of wasteland, with a large gravel heap piled up almost to the height of the grey walls.

The mob responded by lobbing rocks into the compound. As Geletaw fired, an individual scrambled up the mound. Geletaw shot him near the shoulder. The crowd burst through the gate and, using knives, rocks, and sticks, massacred everyone inside: Geletaw, his wife, two of their kids, and a relative.

Such horrific incidents occurred in parts of Oromia after the nighttime 29 June murder on the fringes of Addis Ababa of Hachalu Hundessa, an Oromo musician revered for his resistance songs. “Hachalu was priceless for Oromo people,” a Batu youth told Ethiopia Insight.

That resulted in protests and violence in mostly central and eastern Oromia, particularly East Arsi, West Arsi, and East Shewa zones, including Batu, a Rift Valley town also still known by its imperial-era Amharic name Ziway, but also Shashamene and Arsi Negelle. The regional government says 167 people were killed, more than two-thirds of them Oromo, and at least 10,000 displaced.

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Despite the apparent targeting of Orthodox Christians, particularly in East Arsi, there was no official breakdown of the victims by religion, and it is unclear how many people security forces killed. Officials said the violence resulted from a plot by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) working with Oromo nationalist opposition leaders, many of whom were subsequently arrested. Party officials deny this and no TPLF members have been charged.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), on the other hand, released a report on 1 January, saying 123 people were killed during the crisis that followed Hachalu’s assassination, of which 76 were killed by government security forces, 35 by individuals and groups, and 12 as a result of explosions or similar incidents.

READ MORE Ethiopia: Popular Oromo musician Hachalu Hundessa shot dead

“The findings show that the attacks meet the elements of a crime against humanity with large numbers of people, organised in groups, having selected their victims on the basis of their ethnicity or religion when conducting a widespread and systematic attack in several different areas over the three days,” EHRC, which is accountable to parliament, said.

In addition to the Adami Tullu massacre, arsonists burned 70 residences, 71 businesses, including 12 mostly non-Oromo owned hotels, and more than 20 vehicles in Batu, Gosa Asefa, East Shewa Zone Deputy Chief Administrator said at a public meeting in the town on 20 August. Just south of Adami Tullu, the generators and roadside-facing buildings of Afriflora Sher, which claims to be the world’s largest rose grower, were also destroyed in the afternoon of 30 June.

All 16 residents Ethiopia Insight spoke to in early September said thousands of people from Batu went to the main street around midnight to grieve Hachalu’s killing, with many blaming the government. Crowds chanted that they would avenge his death and wept. Some burned tyres. A youthful Oromo government employee heard protesters saying they should burn the homes of those that kept killing them, presumably a reference to Batu’s sizable Amhara, or non-Oromo, community.

Later, that is exactly what occurred, although, according to an Oromia region civil servant who lives in Batu, it could have been far, far worse: “I can imagine why Hachalu was targeted: we loved him very much. Everybody came out of their house with emotion. It could lead not just to property damage, it could take a life—it could even have been genocide.”

His viewpoint reflects the fact that Oromia is a political cauldron.

Open wounds

Batu, which sits next to Lake Ziway (or, Lake Dambal), lies 120 kilometres south of Addis Ababa on the main road from Modjo to Hawassa in an area that produces fruit and vegetables. It has also seen flower farms set-up in the last 15 years, and hosts Ethiopia’s only vineyard. The town’s modern era began in 1955 under Emperor Haile Selassie I when a revised constitution created municipal councils.  Like many urban centres in Oromia, it has a relatively large non-Oromo, especially Amhara, population. Given Ethiopia’s open historical wounds, and its ethnicized political scene, that makes it contested.

At the root of Oromo nationalism, which has considerable support in Oromia, is an anti-imperialist ideology that positions the Oromo, Ethiopia’s most-populous ethnic group with around 40 million people, as still striving to overcome the legacy of systemic discrimination experienced in the imperial era that ended with a socialist revolution in 1974 that removed Orthdox Christianity as the state religion and abolished feudal practices. After autonomy was stifled by de facto one-party rule in the federal era that began in the early 1990s, the advent of Abiy Ahmed’s premiership in April 2018 was supposed to mark Oromia’s final liberation.

But, in the eyes of many Oromo nationalists, those hopes have been dashed.

Instead of granting Oromo demands for their language to have the same status as Amharic (though a government plan is in place), enhancing Oromia’s autonomy, and giving the region a greater say in the federal and Oromia capital, Addis Ababa, Oromo nationalist critics say Prime Minister Abiy betrayed them and has allied with Amhara-dominated centrists. “Abiy is a neftegna. He is bringing back the iron-fist method, killing people, arresting people,” said an Oromo elder in Batu.

The term “neftegna”, which has become highly controversial, literally means ‘riflemen’ and originally referred to settlers who moved to Oromia and other southern areas during Emperor Menelik II’s expansion in the 1890s and enforced the imperial system locally.

In 2014, protests broke out in Oromia in opposition to a masterplan to integrate Addis Ababa’s development with surrounding areas of Oromia. They grew into a formidable resistance movement that forced the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (ERPDF) ruling coalition into major concessions in late 2017.

Prominent during the uprising was opposition to the TPLF’s control of the security apparatus, including the military, and the ruling coalition it founded, which, in the eyes of critics, denied Oromia the autonomy promised in a 1995 multinational federalist constitution.

Accompanying the Oromo activists’ decolonizing narrative is a strong dose of economic nationalism, reflected in the opposition to Addis Ababa’s horizontal growth, and also in the 30 June attack on Sher, which mirrored innumerous similar incidents during the more than three years of protests that forced the EPRDF to cave to popular demands.

Ethiopia Armed Groups Return
Thousands of Ethiopians gather to welcome returning leaders of the once-banned Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

In rural areas, economic injustice claims often relate to agricultural investments that pay little locally for land, labour, and water—while paying their taxes in Addis Ababa. In urban centres like Batu, they are over non-Oromo business networks that became entrenched during the imperial era.

“The Abyssinian-dominated urban centreed enclave economy nurtures and exacerbates inequality in economic opportunity between the indigenous population and the urbanites,” said the Oromo Liberation Army, an armed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) splinter group, in a 1 October statement. The OLF has pursued Oromo self-determination since 1973 and spent decades in exile until its 2018 return. Its leaders were among those arrested in July.

If Oromo marginalisation narratives were the ideological underpinning to the Oromo uprising, key to the 2018 change was an alliance of Amhara and Oromo EPRDF politicians with each other, and with the street protest movement that was conducted remotely by the likes of then-activist Jawar Mohammed, revered by many Oromo protesters but a hate figure in other quarters.

After Abiy’s ascendance led to the dramatic downgrading of the TPLF’s federal power, those fragile tactical alliances soon collapsed, primarily because of the deep ideological fissures, leading Ethiopia into today’s iteration of an age-old violent elite power struggle.

Polarized perspectives

The intuitive assessment of the violence is that Hachalu’s murder was the spark that set a tinderbox ablaze.

The reasoning is that simmering discontent at Abiy’s rule surged in Oromia after elections were postponed and the government extended its own term and shut the opposition out of decision-making during the interim period. Added to prevailing socio-economic hardship exacerbated by COVID-19, the anti-colonial, anti-neftegna ideological underpinning, the allegations that Abiy was embracing Amhara elites, and the furore surrounding recent comments by Hachalu, elements of the distraught Oromo masses therefore turned on their neighbors when news of the singer’s killing emerged.

In Batu, as in much of Ethiopia, viewpoints on contentious incidents align neatly with political outlooks. While all interviewees agreed that the authorities did little to calm the situation, let alone protect properties, some Oromo residents, however, claim that local officials and security forces were actually complicit in the attacks.

Like others who back the Oromo opposition, the civil servant, who requested anonymity, as did all interviewees, believes the entire affair was a government conspiracy to trigger Oromo youth to go on the rampage. The alleged motivation? To facilitate a crackdown on the Oromo nationalist opposition. “Even my three-year-old daughter thinks” the government killed Hachalu, he told Ethiopia Insight.

Federal prosecutors have charged four individuals allegedly hired by OLF-Shane, which it uses to refer to the OLF and OLA, for killing Hachalu. The rebel group’s commander blames the government.

Amid and after the violence, the government arrested opposition leaders and members in Oromia, accusing them of orchestrating or enacting the violence. That included much of the OLF leadership (including Mikael Boran, Lammi Begna and Gamachu Ayana, who had already been imprisoned and released under this administration) and top Oromo Federalist Congress officials, Bekele Gerba, Dejene Tefa, and Jawar.

The latter was arguably the most influential Oromo opposition actor who was a central figure in the events that led to the previous serious bout of violence in Oromia in October 2019. As well as incitement, prosecutors have charged Jawar with training terrorists in Egypt in order to assassinate Orthodox Christian priests, thus potentially increasing religious tensions.

Jawar and Bekele were arrested in Addis Ababa at the Prosperity Party Oromia chapter head office mid-afternoon on 30 June after they got involved in a dispute over where Hachalu would be buried: Addis Ababa, or his hometown, Ambo. Jawar, who was born in Arsi, is relatively popular in Batu and across central and eastern Oromia where most of the violence occurred, but less so in the western Oromia strongholds of the OLF. Despite the active OLA rebellion in the west, and the fact that Hachalu is from Ambo town, which is 120 kilometrEs west of Addis Ababa, protests were largely peaceful there.

READ MORE Ethiopia: Turmoil over Hachalu’s burial reignites mass Oromo protests

In July, more than 9,000 people were detained in police stations, warehouses, and offices in the region, and more than 4,000 people are being prosecuted in total. The authorities have also arrested and charged non-Oromo politicians, including Eskinder Nega, an opponent of the multinational federal system and Oromo nationalism, for incitement and plots in Addis Ababa.

Lidetu Ayalew, a veteran centrist, is being charged for calling for a transitional government after the federal parliament in June delayed elections beyond the federal and regional governments’ term limits due to COVID-19. Oromia police had also repeatedly failed to release him on bail in accordance with court orders. “That is the quintessential case where the justice system failed,” said an insider referring to political interference in Lidetu’s prosecution.

The government closed Oromia Media Network and Oromia News Network bureaus and detained their journalists and others that have been critical of Abiy’s administration. Authorities arrested 1,200 officials for allegedly failing to discharge their responsibilities and 500 government employees for participating in the violence.

On August 15, after an Oromia Prosperity Party meeting chaired by Abiy, the branch ditched the premier’s former closest ally, ex-Oromia president Lemma Megersa, former Shashemene mayor Teyba Hassen, and Milkessa Midega, an outspoken academic-turned-politician, over failure to discharge their duties, though a senior party figure said they were also involved in orchestrating the violence.

The three officials came out against the formation of the Prosperity Party, which ethno-nationalist critics, including Jawar, TPLF, and the OLF considered an unwelcome step towards a more centralised federation at a time when they sought more regional autonomy and devolution of powers.

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The Prosperity Party was created in December 2019 by merging three out of four regional ruling parties from the EPRDF, and adding ruling parties from the five other regions, which had been affiliates of the front that had monopolised political power since 1991.

Although that system was widely considered broken, Jawar and other EPRDF opponents believed that a standalone regional ruling party was still needed to protect Oromia’s autonomy and collectively bargain at the centre for Oromo rights. After Prosperity Party’s creation, Jawar entered politics himself by joining OFC, which then allied with the OLF and, initially, another OLF splinter group, creating a potentially powerful Oromo nationalist bloc to take on the ruling party at the ballot box.

As Prosperity Party is national and its membership is therefore open to any Ethiopian, which generally was not the case for the ethnic-based regional EPRDF parties, it raises the prospect of the large Amhara communities in Oromia urban centres becoming politically powerful locally, thus possibly creating a new arena for power struggles.

However, despite the formal unitary structure, the party’s different regional chapters appear to have remained discrete and ethnically homogenous so far—though that may change after its first convention in the next few months, a party official said.

The government’s post-Hachalu moves against opponents, as with other events, have been interpreted in markedly different ways.

The party line is that officials who were negligent, disloyal, or complicit in the violence were removed. The counter-narrative is that the unrest was stoked and then used to purge opponents and ruling figures who sided with Lemma, or with the opposition, by falsely blaming them for orchestrating the violence.

The versions of events offered by people in Batu offer some support for both theories.

Passive government

An Oromo youth said that the authorities’ inaction even when Terefe Hotel, which is close to Batu police station, was torched, indicates their culpability. Another resident, who, in order to protect his identity, Ethiopia Insight cannot describe further, was told over the phone by Batu’s mayor during the chaos that local officials were ordered not to act. The mayor even told him to return home.

Some Batu residents accuse the government of arresting youths and elders who tried to calm the situation. “Since the incident, we have no rights, they are killing people. But we were the ones trying to solve the problem,” an elder told Ethiopia Insight. One interviewee said the government arrested two judges outside the courtroom for denying police 14 days’ additional investigation time.

“Their only crime was using judicial independence and doing their job properly,” they said, a claim contradicted by another insider, who said opposition-sympathising Oromia prosecutors and judges often dealt leniently with their ideological bedfellows. Sources in Batu said that the police told people not to take photos and confiscated mobile phones from those in the streets during the unrest, even from some who were not detained.

As they were doing in early September to enforce a curfew and guard against disorder, the resident saw Oromia Special Police doing nothing except patrolling the main road in a pickup. At around 1am he ran towards the burning Shuferoch Hotel on Batu’s main road with others to try and save it, but three armed town militia in front of the building blocked them.

Later in the morning, in his neighbourhood, a short drive from the main road, he said low-level officials were the ones leading the attackers into residential areas. As he was standing outside his house along with others from his road trying to protect their Amhara neighbours, he said that he was told by one ketena-level representative who was with the attackers that he should let the arsonists pass, or he might be punished.

Days later, the same individual was reportedly promoted to the head of the ketena structure. In Oromia, following the 2014-18 protests that rocked the Ethiopian State, the ruling party and authorities reworked sub-kebele structures. Now, gare is the lowest; got the second and ketena the one below kebele. Formerly, it was 1-to-5, gare, and got next to kebele.

A Batu resident and a manager at a nearby investment, who is highly critical of Oromo nationalist leaders—he thinks Jawar wants to create an Islamic state—also said that the local authorities did nothing to protect properties or calm the situation, while 20 police officers were said to be captured on CCTV looting Haile Resort.

Almost everyone Ethiopia Insight spoke to claimed security forces said they did not get orders from higher officials to act, although it is not clear why local officers required orders to combat criminality. For instance, locals told Ethiopia Insight that the Valley Land Hotel owner went to the police station to ask them to at least save his other hotel, Valley Land 2, but officers said they did not have orders to respond. According to another youthful Oromo activist, often known as Qeerroo, police advised protesters “don’t rob the property, but burn it”.

A Batu policeman told Ethiopia Insight that on June 27 and 28 East Shewa Zone called all the wereda and town administrators, security heads, and police commanders in the zone for a meeting, disarmed them, and took their telephones until the violence erupted.

The officer, who believes Ethiopia’s overall government system is being restructured so that it resembles Emperor Haile Selassie’s unitary state, said that the police and security officials were not available after they returned and that after getting their phones back they still did not give orders. “Even militaries that were brought to the town from Butajira stood there and watched the houses burning.” He said that at least 30 police were subsequently removed and sent to other weredas and zones, which was confirmed by a senior officer, and around four police officers arrested.

Although the problem is “multi-faceted”, including a lack of clear understanding on Prosperity Party’s objectives, a concerted propaganda campaign against the Prime Minister and the ruling party was primarily responsible for the confusion and division among the regional authorities that led to the security failures in a few locations, including Batu, during the unrest, an Oromia government official told Ethiopia Insight.

“Due to false propaganda, which was not properly countered, local authorities including some police became two hearted: ‘Why would we defend a failing government’ some of them thought. Those ones bought the narrative that this is a neftegna government. Then, when innocent people were being killed, they failed to protect them,” the official explained.

Systemic security failure

All other media, political parties, and civil society groups who reported from the ground from Batu and nearby areas of Oromia made similar findings about the lack of an effective security response.

In a September statement, opposition party EZEMA, or Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, which stands against ethnic nationalism, made the same complaint about police inaction after its researchers visited Shashamene and Dera: “Victims at the visited areas told the team that the region’s Special Forces and the National Defense Forces were unable to stop the attacks on innocent civilians because they ‘have not received an order’.”

On 17 July, Addis Standard reported atrocities against local minorities, including attacking Gurage- and Amhara-owned businesses in Batu, as well as against Orthodox Christians elsewhere. It wrote: “All of the victims interviewed for this story share one thing in common: they were left unprotected by law enforcement agents they were pleading with. ‘They did nothing’ was the collective answer from many.”

On August 6, local rights group, the Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD), reported eyewitnesses in Arsi Dera, Asella, Gedeb Asasa, Robe, Goba and Agarfa saying that the police had been passive for hours during the attack, claiming that they were not ordered.

In Dera, around 70 kilometres northeast of Batu, the Mail & Guardian spoke to Amhara victims sheltering at a church for 14 July article: “Residents of Dera who spoke to the M&G claimed that the regional Oromia Special Police Force did not intervene to stop the violence.

According to another survivor, at least 150 members of the force were housed at Dera’s stadium, minutes away, as the carnage unfolded. ‘We kept calling them and begging them to help,’ he said. ‘They told us that without orders, they couldn’t get involved’.” An Agence France Presse reporter received similar accounts from Shashamene, as did The Guardian.

The lack of response from the police in Batu occurred during previous bouts of unrest, according to a local businessman. As in the past, although with longer delays then, the military’s arrival mid-afternoon on 30 June led to order quickly returning. “Some people said police are not getting orders, some say they are sympathising with protests, some police are also afraid that they will be victimised,” they said.

Although it is unclear, the businessman believes that people arrived in Batu overnight, possibly from the surrounding countryside, and were then told which properties to attack by people with lists.  “There are too many rumoris. It’s really hard to know what’s going on. The feeling is there was a plan, that was kind of obvious, but maybe for September,” they told Ethiopia Insight, referring to the original date for the expiry of the government’s term.

Though a training college for Oromia Special Police is located around 15 kilometres away from Batu in Bulbula town, and police were present in Batu in the hours after Hachalu was killed, residents accused the government of responding only after attackers destroyed properties. The Batu mayor was said to be removed from his position in the aftermath, but there is no evidence he has been arrested or investigated. According to a source with connections to senior Batu officials, the police officers that looted Haile Resort were detained.

Opposition party the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) said in a September report entitled ‘Recent genocidal violence in Oromia region’ that: “The Oromia security apparatus did nothing to stop the violence. In fact, many members of the Oromia Special Forces, the local paramilitary police, have taken part in the killings in various towns.” Although it considers the multinational federal system an anti-Amhara design, NaMA’s goal is to ensure a strong Amhara region and protect Amhara minorities who live elsewhere in Ethiopia that they say are particularly threatened by the Qeerroo movement and Oromo nationalist ideology.

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Critics of Oromo nationalism downplay the Oromo marginalisation narrative and highlight that Oromo tribes subjugated other groups as they expanded across central Ethiopia in the 16th and 17th centuries, that Oromo elites were integrally involved in Menelik II’s imperial conquests, and that the neftegna system disappeared with feudalism in 1974. They also point out that the Oromo claims to historic ownership of the Addis Ababa area are weak, as there is evidence it being inhabited by other communities in the preceding centuries.

Regarding Batu, where NaMA said only Orthodox Christian and Amhara properties were targeted, the report found: “Security forces were bystander observers who did nothing to prevent the mayhem throughout the day.”

The NaMA perspective highlights another point where polarization leads to wildy divergent versions of what occurred and why.

The allegations of Oromia government involvement in attacks buttress claims of atrocities like genocide, as state incapacity or security forces’ mobilisation against a protected group, population, or individuals is one of a number of common risk factors present in Ethiopia for crimes against humanity to occur.

According to Zelalem Moges, an Ethiopian international human rights law expert, “there is evidence from victims in Bale and Arsi areas that perpetrators had an intention at the time of the attacks to destroy parts of the Amhara and Orthodox Christian groups and what is reported to have happened in those areas is a textbook example of genocide.” He said that in some instances the attackers identified, knew and had a list of names of their victims, and told them that ‘Amhara/Orthodox children can’t be born in Oromia’.

“The magnitude of the loss of life and property destruction revealed that the attacks were planned, coordinated and done with the support or under the acquiescence of local authorities,” he told Ethiopia Insight. “It is also important to note that the tragic incidents were preceded by media campaigns which openly called for an extermination of ‘neftegnas‘, a code term to refer to Amharas/Orthodox Christians.”

Meanwhile, Oromo nationalists, who consider Oromia to be controlled by a Prosperity Party that acts against fiercely guarded regional autonomy, believe that the authorities remained passive in order to allow unruly elements to commit arson and murder—thus justifying the subsequent sweeping move against the Oromo opposition and malcontents within the ruling establishment.

Some activists also allege that religiously diverse central and eastern areas of Oromia were the focus of provocateurs in order to increase the perception that the Qeerroo movement targets Orthodox Christians, an impression also enhanced by the charge that Jawar plotted to assassinate priests. Tension rose between the Orthodox establishment and Oromo activists in September last year when a plan by Oromo clerics emerged to create an administrative branch of the church that catered specifically for Oromo worshippers.

The government has said on a number of occasions that ineffective security responses are partly because it is trying to avoid the heavy-handed tactics routinely applied before the Prime Minister came to power. There is also the possibility that the personnel changes and restructuring that have taken place since then—for example, the Ministry of Peace was created in October 2018 and tasked with overseeing all federal security agencies—have resulted in an increasing lack of coordination of the federal and regional apparatuses.

Still, the federal government has also regularly used force, such as to intervene in Somali region in August 2018, in July 2019 to control unrest stemming from Southern Nations autonomy demands, to combat the ongoing OLA insurgency in western and southern Oromia, and now, most consequently, to remove Tigray’s leadership.

That said, despite its reputation for possessing a strong and authoritarian State, Ethiopia is relatively under-policed, with perhaps only around 40,000 Federal Police for a population of approximately 110 million.

With violent protests springing up in multiple locations, it is logistically difficult for regional and Federal Police, and the military, if called in, to respond—although Batu does lie on one of the country’s main arterial roads, and the authorities should have planned ahead for how to respond to another outbreak of mass unrest given the political situation in Oromia.

Batu was among 15 locations where damage was extensive, EHRC found, and security forces did not respond to requests for help, sometimes claiming they only had orders to protect property or that they were overwhelmed by the scale of attacks.

For an independent security analyst, who requested anonymity, the rigid organization of the Ethiopian security apparatus may partially explain such inaction as it hinders an officer’s ability to exercise an important aspect of their public duty: discretion.

“Given the very regimented structure, if leadership determines that not using force is the way to go, for whatever reason, e.g. solidarity with Qeerroo, or the belief that a securitized approach might further escalate tensions, officers can neither question such decisions nor make a different assessment and act on it,” he said.

“In essence, the structure discourages individual agency on the part of officers. Mind you, if you look at the laws and regulations governing the Federal Police, failing to act when there is a clear violation of law and order should result in an officer being held accountable, although it’s not clear when Oromia’s authorities requested federal assistance.”

However, the Federal Police told Ethiopia Insight that they cannot intervene without regional invitation and that in areas like Shashamene they did not receive a timely request from the Oromia authorities. A ruling party official said Oromia requested federal support around 9am on 30 June. When asked, a Federal Police spokesperson referred Ethiopia Insight to Oromia’s Police Commission.

Adami Tullu terror

Despite the chaos, destruction, and swirling conspiracies in Batu, there was no incident anything like as gruesome as the massacre in nearby Adami Tullu.

According to Meseret, the neighbour, the crowd arrived at the predominantly Amhara neighbourhood called Addis Ketema, which is about 200 metres off the main road down a muddy track, at around 9am, searching for her husband Belay Woldemichael, the new chairman of Amanuel Idir savings association. The idir that has 300 members and some children of members were not happy with its leadership.

Meseret said that the crowd—whose composition Ethiopia Insight was unable to confirm though interviewees implied it was Oromo–came with a list and asked for her husband. She and her neighbours begged them not to attack, saying Belay is a newly appointed chairman and had not participated in any of the idir’s alleged misdeeds. Meseret thinks the properties of 23 members of the idir were attacked, including the murderous invasion of Geletaw’s compound, which four people have been arrested for, according to the Batu civil servant.

Yohannes Abebe, a priest who moved to Oromia five years ago, another neighbour of Geletaw, confirmed Meseret’s story and said the attackers targeted Amhara people, although it was also reported that Geletaw was Gurage.

Similar events were recorded during Ethiopia’s last transition in the 1990s, according to Africa Watch, which later became part of Human Right Watch. “Some of the worst incidents of violence occurred when Oromo people attacked Amhara settlers in their vicinity. The Amhara settlers were originally introduced to the area to pacify it on behalf of the central government in the nineteenth century. Generations later, the legacy of communal antipathy remains,” the group said in a 1993 report. Some Oromo activists claim that those events were also staged in order to defame Oromo nationalism.

Meseret, who was brought up in Adami Tullu, says she has nowhere to go now, but due to the threat of more ethnic targeting, Yohannes plans to move back to Amhara. “No Oromo property was destroyed. We are not feeling safe. We are ready to sell,” he told Ethiopia Insight.

A friend of one of Geletaw’s sons said in an interview in Adami Tullu that he was attacked because of a dispute with a community member who exploited the chaos. Geletaw’s son, Terefe, told Addis Insight that he doesn’t know why his father was targeted, and that he was a respected local figure. Abinet, another son, said in the same report that the bodies stayed on the ground until the military arrived at around 3 to 4pm. On the same day, security forces killed at least two people in Adami Tullu, locals said.

On Adami Tullu’s southern fringe, Afriflora Sher suffered a serious attack after lunch on 30 June. Oromo opposition supporters in Batu said the managers were not Oromo and people in nearby Bulbula town have complained that the company’s water usage led to shortages for residents for up to three months a year, while there have also been unproven allegations that chemical discharges led to birth defects.

“The damage is much bigger at Sher than in other similar attacks before in Ethiopia,” a businessman told Ethiopia Insight. In a move that angered foreign investors and diplomats, Jawar had stoked opposition to the flower farms in a 2 February election campaign speech in Batu by promising to return the land to the people if his party won power.

Chaos, conspiracy, confusion

Though no convincing evidence and few details were presented, Batu residents interviewed believe that the attackers came from outside the town. Some said from Shashamane, others that people came from Maraqo in the Gurage Zone of the Southern Nations region, and also villages surrounding Batu, though some said that the town’s youth predominated.

Some residents said both Afaan Oromo speakers and others were present, and one said that a property was attacked after guards failed to respond in Afaan Oromo. A Qeerroo member and Jawar supporter said a robber who exploited the chaos was unable to speak Afaan Oromo, while residents reported that people displayed green leaves, a sign of peace in Oromo culture, outside their houses to try and identify them as Oromo-owned homes.

Away from the main road, with police nowhere to be seen, an Afaan Oromo-speaking teacher said a large group of youths entered his neighbourhood three times from 9am, but he and others were able to convince them not to attack, partly by stating they were not Amhara. He said the main motivation of the disorganised mobs that were speaking multiple languages was to loot clothes, jewellery, and other goods. “Some homes, after they had robbed them, they burned them,” he said. “Some come as if they are revenging what happened to Hachalu, but you cannot get revenge for Hachalu just by robbing.”

This contributed to his belief that someone directed the mob, which he said contained Wolayta language speakers who may have worked at Sher, in order to divide Batu’s Amhara and Oromo residents. “I think there are people who want to see the failure of the current system and want to come up with a new policy or new situation,” he told Ethiopia Insight. That view was shared by one of the Oromo government opponents in Batu: “We are intermingled. The government does not want us to live in stability.”

The civil servant was among a number of interviewees from Batu’s Oromo community—from Abba Gaadas (male elders) to Qeerroo (bachelors)—who said they tried to prevent attacks on Amhara-owned properties, as was also reported in Dera. Qeerroo members told Ethiopia Insight that on the night they gathered to discuss how to calm the situation, while the long-term Amhara resident of Batu said: “Oromo saved my house. The Oromo were divided into two groups. Not all Oromo are against the government.”

One of the people whose properties were destroyed said that they did not know where the arsonists came from and that they had never seen them before. The owner of Valley Land Hotel, a lifelong Batu resident and native Amharic speaker, who lost two hotels, a warehouse and his house, told Amhara Mass Media Agency that he doesn’t know why he was targeted as he had a good relationship with residents and steered clear of politics.

Despite widespread arson, in Batu, protesters did not attack people, including after three of them were killed near Kera Mosque around 3pm by a grenade thrown by an Amhara resident presumably concerned about his property. Attackers mostly targeted hotels and houses owned by Amhara and Gurage, though properties owned by Oromo and foreign companies were also set ablaze. “The Qeerroo were saying the neftegna killed Hachalu, but they did not attack Amhara to kill them,” said the opposition-sympathising civil servant.

Some Qeerroo claimed that properties were attacked only after shots were fired at protesters. Town elders and those who lost property said the attackers do not represent any ethnic group in their discussion with Shimelis, Oromia’s president and Abiy’s former chief of staff. Oromia police said in a statement that the attacks were not ethnic-based but listed that out of the 167 killed, there were 114 Oromo, 46 Amhara, two Gamo, a Sidama, a Gurage, and three of unknown ethnicity. Six police and five militia were among the dead.

The civil servant was adamant that funds collected by Oromia’s government for Hachalu’s family are being funnelled towards compensation for arson victims. Oromo opposition supporters said some of the targeted Amhara hotel owners in Batu backed NaMA and were arrested around a year ago by the government for covertly organizing. The Amhara nationalist party denied any of its members have been arrested in Batu.

Pro-government residents interviewed, mostly non-Oromo, say people seeking to capitalise on Hachalu’s murder trucked in protesters, some claiming the intention was to force out Amhara, while others said those who arrived had received combat training from TPLF.

An elder said at the discussion with Shimelis that the attack was carried out by a group trying to overthrow the government, to portray Oromo as “monsters”, and isolate them from other Ethiopians. Shimelis agreed the intention was to overthrow the government, saying: “Those pushing our youth towards destruction to fulfill their own desire by putting our youths into fire, making them emotional and confusing them from various directions, are the ones that desire power, or were removed from power,” which was probably a reference to, respectively, Oromo opposition leaders like Jawar, and TPLF.

When intercommunal violence occurs in Ethiopia, often people blame TPLF-backed agent provocateurs. “They were paid money and trained to destroy the town by Woyane,” one long-term Amhara resident of Batu said, using a common term for the TPLF, while also arguing later that Jawar’s supporters torched the town. This narrative featured during the 2014-18 Oromo protests when any inter-communal violence was blamed on shadowy TPLF-linked forces, and has continued since Abiy took power. No evidence has been presented to back-up the allegations.

Throughout its decades in office, TPLF was accused of using divide-and-rule tactics to pit Amhara and Oromo against each other in order to maintain its pre-eminence. Assigning blame for Ethiopia’s transitional traumas to TPLF has contributed to Tigray’s isolation from the rest of the federation, and growing secessionist sentiment in the region—although opponents simply say the bitterness stems from TPLF’s being forced from power. Those tensions fuelled the ongoing conflict in Tigray.

Cover of darkness

Prosperity Party Oromia branch spokesman Taye Dendea said the TPLF funded and worked with Jawar and OLF-Shane to plan Hachalu’s killing and prepare destruction in Batu and other towns by providing flammable items and organizing mobs. “The plan in agreement with TPLF was to cause religious and ethnic violence which would lead to a security collapse. TPLF wants to disintegrate Ethiopia and told Jawar they would put him in power. Once there is a security breakdown, genocide starts, the fire cannot be stopped, and it’s over for Ethiopia. It would be paradise in a lost state for TPLF,” he told Ethiopia Insight. TPLF officials have dismissed all similar allegations, as have the OLF and Jawar.

The claims are harder to assess because, as with almost all of Ethiopia outside of Addis Ababa, including major cities, there are no private media organizations or rights-focused civil society groups based in Batu, nor are there any active political bloggers or citizen journalists probing local affairs. The government also shut down the internet on 30 June for three weeks, a move that had the effect of curtailing incendiary propaganda, but also denying Ethiopians reliable information. As documented by Foreign Policy recently, Hachalu’s killing is by no means the only recent murky act of political violence in Ethiopia since the TPLF’s fall from grace and Abiy’s rise.

READ MORE Ethiopia: Defining Amhara nationalism for a better country

One slightly brighter spot is the recent activity of the EHRC, which was established by proclamation in 2000, and has been run by former Human Rights Watch Africa Director Daniel Bekele since last July. It sent investigators to 40 Oromia towns that were affected by the violence that followed Hachalu’s killing for its recently released report.

On 14 September, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said her office would support a “thorough, independent, impartial and transparent investigation by the Government into the killing [of Hachalu] and subsequent violence.” That could mean supporting an EHRC inquiry (although that would have to take place after related court cases have concluded) or the establishment of an independent inquiry, perhaps including opposition figures, accountable to parliament. Given the opposition allegations of government involvement, an investigation run by the Attorney General’s Office would do little to establish any kind of consensus on what took place.

On the political front, opposition groups and others are pushing for a National Dialogue, a formal, structured, inclusive process to try and heal deep societal fractures, that would address Ethiopia’s historical divisions and contemporary political trauma. The Prime Minister has signalled his support, although there are doubts over the government’s commitment to the type of process the opposition want, before the war the TPLF laid down conditions there was no chance of Addis Ababa agreeing to, and the chances of a successful process will be significantly reduced if key opposition leaders are under custody.

READ MORE Ethiopia delays elections: Is COVID a valid excuse?

The postponed elections are now set for 5 June, but government opponents in Batu derided the idea of a satisfactory vote while their leaders are imprisoned and repression is ongoing. That is now also the position of the two main opposition parties in Oromia. Meanwhile, there is no sign of an independent inquiry. And with no agreement on who ordered Hachalu’s highly consequential killing, each side will continue to blame another—either for trying to foment instability, a revolution, or a crackdown.

This means the brutal ethnicized politics and elite intrigue are set to continue to take centre stage.

Politics is all about doing tricks, nothing else. It is all about how much you are able to do a trick. It is about how much you can play the intrigue. It is about how much you can use the power calculus properly,” said President Shimelis in a recording leaked in August of a meeting from around nine months before, which other officials have referred to in a manner that suggests it is genuine.

Divisive narratives

Shimelis is the prime example of an Abiy loyalist who has found himself being attacked from various corners of Ethiopia’s sharply demarcated political map.

Many Oromo nationalists consider him a sell-out who was foisted onto Oromia by Abiy after the prime minister removed Lemma by naming him Defense Minister in April last year. Yet, opponents of ethno-nationalism revile Shimelis for saying at last year’s Ireecha celebrations that holding them in Addis Ababa (The Oromo name is Finfinee) showed Oromo had overcome the oppressive “neftegna” system. Making matters worse,  in the leaked recording he said:

“The second reason why we are building Prosperity [Party] is for nation building. Their nation building is aborted. The one that is based on one nation, one language, one culture and one religion, has failed, after being attempted for 100 years. Now we, as Oromo, have a chance to reconstruct Ethiopia that resembles us and to plant Oromummaa within the superstructure.”

Within hours of Hachalu’s killing, Abiy had blamed domestic and foreign enemies, and Shimelis had pinned  the assassination on TPLF, and OLF-Shane, lumping together the federal government’s main adversaries.

This view, of course, just reflects one perspective among a multitude.

An opposition activist told Ethiopia Insight that blaming OLF-Shane was an effort to create divisions between Oromo from OLF’s Wellega stronghold and those from Shewa, which surrounds Addis Ababa. In line with the views of OLF and the OLA, Oromo youth and elders interviewed in Batu believe that Hachalu’s killer was the government or “neftegna”.

The term’s original application to an imperial settler class now refers–especially when “neo-neftegna” is used—to those who hold attitudes that were prevalent during that era, indicating that they insufficiently acknowledge the suffering that many Ethiopian ethnic communities suffered during the State’s expansion from its northern highland core and under subsequent periods of homogenization.

As have views on Menelik II himself, the term has become an important marker of position in Ethiopia’s rancorous political divide. Amhara nationalists, anti-ethnic federalists, and other critics perceive ethno-nationalists’ use of neftegna as referring to Amhara people. They therefore consider it a racist dog whistle that encourages and legitimizes attacks on innocent Amhara civilians under the guise of the Oromo liberation struggle.

On 30 June, the Oromia Media Network (OMN), which Jawar used to run, broadcast comments live where some interviewees talked about taking down Menelik II’s status in Addis Ababa and of “neftegna” responsibility for Hachalu’s killing. Since the late June maelstrom, some Oromo nationalist activists have doubled-down in their use of the term, and OFC’s Bekele Gerba employed it in court. While Menelik II is considered a modernizing state-builder by his backers, the civil servant in Batu captured the “incompatible ideologies” fuelling the debate: “To many people, Menelik is a Hitler.”

Batu youth argue, as other Oromo government opponents do, that “neftegnas” attempted to attack Hachalu several times, as he described in his OMN interview broadcast on 22 July where he expressed opposition to Abiy’s embrace of Amhara and other centrist elites.

Explaining that it was not acceptable to make tactical alliances with sworn enemies, as some Oromo opposition elites showed signs of doing with the TPLF, Hachalu said on OMN: “Neftegna is Oromo’s enemy! It is Oromo’s enemy today; Oromo’s enemy yesterday; and Oromo’s enemy in the future!”

In October 2019, video footage of youths assaulting Hachalu in Addis Ababa started circulating on social media. BBC Afaan Oromo interviewed Hachalu about the assault and he said was used to being assaulted for his identity in Addis Ababa. According to Hachalu, he was followed by four youths and was insulted with words he didn’t even want to repeat and he was also called “owner of the season”, reflecting the sentiment that it is Oromo’s time to dominate as there is an Oromo premier. “The reason behind the assault is their hate for Oromo,” he said.

The Batu Oromo youth highlighted social media posts of activists threatening Hachalu for opposing neftegna, and criticizing Menelik II, who was king of Shewa (the area around Addis Ababa, now part of both Amhara and Oromia) before becoming emperor, including calling him a “notorious criminal” and saying he stole his horse from an Oromo in Gelan, where the authorities say Hachalu was shot dead.

On the flip side, a regional official says Hachalu had friendly relations with Shimelis (they are both from Ambo), Abiy, and other government leaders, which led, he claims, to OLF and OLA verbal attacks and even an assassination attempt in Ambo.

Hachalu, who was an Orthodox Christian, seems to have found himself in the middle of an intra-Oromo struggle, which plays out along ideological but also sub-regional lines. In the interview he expressed concern for the Oromo dying in the conflict between the government and the OLA in Wellega, and said people from that area had warned him he may not be safe.

Along with Shimelis and Hachalu, Abiy also faces criticism from multiple directions.

In Batu, most Oromo interviewees believe he has allied with “neftegnas” and intends to revive elements of the imperial system, such as a unitary state, despite his government’s formal commitment to maintaining multinational federalism.  This narrative gathered such momentum that it was explicitly rejected by the Prime Minister’s Office in an 8 July statement:

“These and other similar false claims, half-truths and disinformation spree have misled sections of the public into thinking that the old-centrist, anti-federal force is lurking behind the person of Abiy Ahmed…They repeatedly bombarded the public with the false claim that ‘the comeback of neftegna is a real political danger’…The main goal of setting this agenda was to fuel ethnic conflict in Ethiopia, particularly between the most populous ethnic groups in Ethiopia: the Oromo and the Amhara.”

Still, some of Batu’s residents will take some convincing.

A 70-year-old told Ethiopia Insight that he grew up listening to his grandmother’s stories about the cruelty of Emperor Menelik II’s forces, such as cutting women’s breasts off and poisoning cattle.

“Abiy is bringing something that is worse than Menelik,” he said.

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