Ethnic Violence Threatens Ethiopia’s Peace Process
Ethiopia is awash in ethnic violence.
At a time when the prospect of peace talks to end the bloody civil war between the federal government and the Tigray region in the north is materializing, age-old wounds have blasted open in the west.
“Well before the conflict [with Tigray] in northern Ethiopia, there has been widespread impunity for ongoing rights abuses in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, including in areas already suffering from conflict,” international organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a July 4 report. “Many of these abuses still persist and require urgent international attention.”
Two massacres in late June and early July targeted the Amhara, the country’s second-largest ethnic group but a minority in the Oromia region. The Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.
Reports on the death toll from the June 25 attack varied from 340 to more than 1,500, making it one of Ethiopia’s deadliest incidents of ethnic violence in years.
A little over a week later, it happened again in the Kellem Wollega zone, around 400 kilometers west of the capital Addis Ababa.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed blamed the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a militant splinter group of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) political party.
“We will pursue this terrorist group to the end and eliminate it,” Abiy wrote in a series of tweets after the second massacre on July 4. “There is zero tolerance for horrific acts claiming lives recently … by elements whose main objective is to terrorize communities.”
OLA spokesman Odaa Tarbii denied Abiy’s accusation and blamed government-aligned militias, alleging that federal forces deployed in the towns stood by and took no action.
“The prime minister’s accusation is an attempt by the regime to deflect from the fact that it is struggling to maintain order in its own forces,” he told Reuters news agency.
A lawmaker from Abiy’s Prosperity Party, Hangaasa Ahmed Ibraahim, supported Tarbii’s claim, saying during a live social media video on July 5 that senior government officials in Oromia helped organize the attacks.
Ibraahim said those officials included the region’s leader and police commissioner.
“We are tired of seeing rest-in-peace and condolence statements,” he said, directing his ire at Abiy. “Do your work to lead the country.”
Confusion and conflicting reports have become the norm because of a government-imposed communications blackout in Oromia that limits access for the media and rights groups.
HRW said “an abusive government counter-insurgency campaign against [OLA],” which included atrocities, rights abuses and mass detentions, was part of the problem.
“Civilians [are] caught in between suffering numerous abuses,” HRW reported, adding that government security forces routinely round up young Oromos, keep them in custody and accuse them of supporting the OLA without trial.
However, Nagessa Dube, former attorney-general of Oromia Region, said in July 2021 that “OLA does apparently target civilian government employees to instill fear in the public.”
The conflict dates to 1973 when the OLF and its armed wing, the OLA, formed to fight the Ethiopian Empire and establish an independent Oromia. Since a peace agreement in 2018, Ethiopia considers OLF a legal political party.
But the OLA, which the federal government now calls Shene, was designated as a terrorist group in May 2021 after it aligned with Tigrayan forces.
After the July attack, the head of the African Union Commission as well as the United Nations Human Rights Commission chief called for an investigation. On July 6, Ethiopian lawmakers set up a committee to do just that.
The two massacres sparked international condemnation and inquiries into the government’s responsibility and its ability to address ethnically motivated violence.
“A problem repeats itself a hundred times because there is no accountability,” State Minister of Peace Taye Dendea wrote in a July 4 Facebook post responding to the second attack. “Solving the puzzle by establishing accountability is now a matter of survival! If this goes on, the danger will be out of control.”
Abiy’s preferred solution of eradication failed to persuade lawmakers who questioned him on July 7.
“The killings that have happened in Ethiopia should not be considered, as some are describing, to be due to negligence, that it is because the government didn’t do its job or that government does not uphold its responsibility,” Abiy responded.
“This government is trying to protect its citizens 24 hours a day.”
In its annual report released on July 8, the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) blamed “all parties” for the ethnic violence that has engulfed the country.
EHRC Chief Commissioner Dr. Daniel Bekele responded to the recent massacres in Oromia by echoing the demand for a buildup of government security forces to protect civilians.
“The continued insecurity in the area and what appears to be the ethnically targeted killing of residents must be put to a stop immediately,” he tweeted on July 4.