In November 2020, a civil war broke out in northern Ethiopia. Much of the world is aware of the extreme toll of that conflict on civilians in the affected regions, including the atrocities perpetrated by all parties to the conflict and the de facto blockade on humanitarian aid which led to a man-made famine. In response, the international community came together to pressure the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front to find a peaceful means to end the conflict and lay the groundwork for lasting peace in the country. At long last, in November 2022, a peace agreement was reached between the two parties following a series of talks in Pretoria led by the African Union and supported by the United States and others.
By Alyssa Oravec
While to the casual observer, it may seem that this peace agreement will serve to bring an end to violence in Ethiopia and usher in an era of peace and regional stability, those who work on issues relating to the country are all too aware that this conflict is far from the only one affecting the country. This is particularly true in Oromia–Ethiopia’s most populous region–where the Ethiopian government has conducted a years-long campaign aimed at eliminating the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). The effects of this campaign, which also have been exacerbated by inter-ethnic violence and drought, have been devastating for civilians on the ground and appear unlikely to end without sustained pressure from the international community.
This article serves as an introduction to the current human rights and humanitarian crisis inside the Oromia region of Ethiopia, including the historical roots of the conflict and a discussion of steps that could be taken by the international community and the Ethiopian government to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Above all else, this article seeks to shed a light on the impact of conflict on Oromia’s civilian population.
The Oromia region of Ethiopia is the most highly populated of Ethiopia’s twelve regions. It is centrally located and surrounds Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa. As such, maintaining stability within the Oromia region has long been seen as key to maintaining stability throughout the country and the Horn of Africa, and it is likely that increasing insecurity in the region could have severe economic consequences for the country.
The majority of civilians living inside the Oromia region are from the Oromo ethnic group, although members of all of Ethiopia’s 90 other ethnic groups are found in the region. The Oromos comprise the single largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. However, despite their size, they have faced a long history of persecution at the hands of multiple Ethiopian governments.
Although much of the western world considers Ethiopia to be a country that was never successfully colonized by European powers, it is important to note that the members of many ethnic groups, including the Oromo, consider themselves to have been effectively colonized during the military campaign led by Emperor Menelik II that formed the country of Ethiopia. Emperor Menelik II’s regime viewed the indigenous groups they conquered as “backward”, and utilized repressive tactics to encourage them to adopt aspects of the dominant Amhara culture. Such acculturation efforts included banning the use of Afaan Oromoo, the Oromo language. Repressive measures continued to be utilized against various ethnic groups throughout the lifespan of the Ethiopian monarchy and under the DERG.
In 1991, the TPLF, under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), came to power and took actions that were designed to recognize and embrace the variety of cultural identities of Ethiopia’s 90 ethnic groups. These included the adoption of a new Constitution that established Ethiopia as a multinational federalist state and guaranteed equal recognition of all Ethiopian languages. Although there was, for a time, hope that these actions would help to promote an inclusive Ethiopian society, it wasn’t long before the TPLF began utilizing brutal measures to quell dissent and inter-ethnic tensions began to flare.
In 2016, in response to the years of abuses, Oromo youth (Qeeroo) led a protest movement that would eventually lead to the rise of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power in 2018. As a member of the previous EPRDF government, and himself an Oromo, many believed that Prime Minister Ahmed would help to democratize the country and protect the human rights of civilians. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be long before his government again began utilizing repressive tactics in their efforts to combat the OLA–an armed group that split off from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) political party–in Oromia.
At the end of 2018, Prime Minister Ahmed’s government installed military command posts in western and southern Oromia with the mission of eliminating the OLA. Despite his purported commitment to protecting human rights, since that time, there have been credible reports of security forces associated with those command posts perpetrating abuses against civilians, including extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests and detentions. Conflict and instability inside the region further increased following the assassination of Hachalu Hundessa, a famous Oromo singer and activist in June 2020, six months before the start of the war in Tigray.
War in the Shadows
While the international community’s attention was drawn to the conflict in northern Ethiopia, the human rights and humanitarian situation has continued to deteriorate inside Oromia over the past two years. The government has continued operations designed to eliminate the OLA, even announcing the launch of a new military campaign inside Oromia in April 2022. There have been reports of civilians dying during clashes between government forces and the OLA. Disturbingly, there have also been countless reports of Oromo civilians being targeted by Ethiopian security forces. Such attacks are often justified by claims that the victims were connected to the OLA, and have included physical attacks on civilian populations, particularly in areas where the OLA operates. Civilians have reported cases of homes being burned down and extrajudicial killings being committed by security forces. In July, Human Rights Watch reported that there was a “culture of impunity” for abuses committed by security forces in Oromia. Since the peace agreement between the TPLF and the Ethiopian government was reached in November 2022, there have been increasing reports of military operations–including drone strikes–inside Oromia, leading to the death of civilians and mass displacement.
Oromo civilians also routinely face arbitrary arrests and detentions. At times, these arrests are justified by claims that the victim has provided support to the OLA or has a family member who is suspected of joining the OLA. In some cases, children have been detained based on suspicion that their family members are in the OLA. In other cases, Oromo civilians have been arrested because of their connection to opposition Oromo political parties, including the OLF and the OFC, or because they are otherwise perceived as being Oromo nationalists. As recently reported by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, civilians are often subjected to further human rights violations once detained, including ill-treatment and the denial of their due process and fair trial rights. It has become a common practice inside Oromia for prison officials to refuse to release detainees, despite a court order for their release.
Inter-ethnic tensions and violence are also prevalent inside Oromia, particularly along its borders with the Amhara and Somali regions. There are routine reports of various ethnic militias and armed groups launching attacks against civilians throughout the region. The two groups most frequently accused of launching such attacks are the Amhara militia group known as Fano and the OLA, although it should be noted that the OLA has categorically denied reports that it has attacked civilians. In many cases, it is impossible to determine the perpetrator of any single attack, owing to limited telecommunications access in areas where these attacks occur and because the accused parties frequently exchange blame for various attacks. Ultimately, it is the government of Ethiopia’s responsibility to protect civilians, launch independent investigations into reports of violence, and ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice.
Finally, Oromia is experiencing a severe drought, which when coupled with mass displacement due to instability and conflict in the region, has led to a deep humanitarian crisis in the region. Recent reports from USAID suggest that at least 5 million people in the region require emergency food assistance. In December, the International Rescue Committee published its Emergency Watchlist report, which placed Ethiopia as one of its top 3 countries at risk of experiencing a deteriorating humanitarian situation in 2023, noting both the impact of conflict–in northern Ethiopia and inside Oromia–and drought on civilian populations.
Ending the Cycle of Violence
Since 2018, the Ethiopian government has attempted to eliminate the OLA from the Oromia region through force. As of this time, they have failed to reach that goal. Instead, what we have seen is civilians bearing the brunt of the conflict, including reports of explicit targeting of Oromo civilians for purported–and tenuous–connections to the OLA. At the same time, there has been a stoking of tensions between ethnic groups, leading to violence against civilians of various ethnicities. It is clear that the strategy utilized by the Ethiopian government inside Oromia has not been effective. Therefore, they must consider a new approach to address the ongoing cycle of violence inside the Oromia region.
The Oromo Legacy Leadership and Advocacy Association has long advocated for the Ethiopian government to adopt inclusive transitional justice measures that consider the root causes of conflict and unrest throughout the country and lay the groundwork for lasting peace and regional stability. We believe that it will be necessary for the international community to conduct a thorough investigation into all credible allegations of human rights violations throughout the country, and to ensure said investigation feeds into a process that will allow citizens to obtain justice for the violations they have experienced. Ultimately, a country-wide dialogue that includes representatives of all major ethnic and political groups and is led by a neutral arbiter will be key to charting a democratic path forward for the country.
However, in order for such a dialogue to take place and for any transitional justice measures to be effective, the Ethiopian government will need to first find a peaceful means to end conflicts throughout Ethiopia. This means entering into a negotiated peace agreement with groups like the OLA. Although for years it seemed like such an agreement would be impossible, the recent agreement with the TPLF has given the people of Ethiopia hope. Since it was signed, there have been renewed calls for the Ethiopian government to enter into a similar agreement with the OLA. At this time, the Ethiopian government does not seem willing to end its military campaign against the OLA. However, in January, the OLA published a Political Manifesto, which seems to indicate a willingness to enter into peace negotiations if the process is led by the international community, and Prime Minister Abiy has recently made comments that indicate some openness to the possibility.
Given the longstanding nature of the Ethiopian government’s efforts to eliminate the OLA militarily, it seems unlikely that the government will be willing to lay aside its arms and enter into a negotiated peace agreement without pressure from the international community. For its part, the international community did not stay silent in the face of brutality during the war in Tigray, and their continued calls for a peaceful resolution to that conflict directly led to a peace deal between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF. We, therefore, call on the international community to respond in a similar fashion to this conflict and to use the diplomatic tools at its disposal to encourage the Ethiopian government to find a similar means to resolve the conflict in Oromia and to ensure the protection of all civilians’ human rights. It is only then that lasting peace can come to Ethiopia.
Alyssa Oravec with Oromo Legacy Leadership and Advocacy Association