As peace talks progress in Tigray, tensions are mounting in Oromia.
People gather during a demonstration in support of Ethiopia’s armed forces in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Oct. 22. AMANUEL SILESHI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Violence Continues in Ethiopia’s Oromia Region
Fighting between the Ethiopian army and rebel forces have intensified in recent weeks in Ethiopia’s Oromia region just as a peace deal between the federal government and Tigrayan leaders is being put in place in the north of the country. The recent clashes have been condemned by rights groups, which warn that the conflict in Tigray has overshadowed the need for peace negotiations in Oromia.
In July, Human Rights Watch released a report criticizing the government’s counterinsurgency campaigns. “The authorities have sporadically cut communications,” and fighting has led to “serious abuses by government forces, including summary executions and arbitrary detentions” while armed groups have also “abducted or killed minority community members and government officials,” it said.
Disarmament of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) began on Tuesday. Yet in the latest round of offensives in Oromia, witnesses say federal government airstrikes on Nov. 9 killed dozens of civilians in the town of Mendi, the Addis Standard reported.
Odaa Tarbii, spokesperson for the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an armed splinter group of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) opposition party that is calling for self-determination, said the drone strikes hit market areas and bus stops, killing more than 30 civilians.
OLF members returned to Ethiopia in 2018 after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed invited exiled groups and political figures back to the country, promising political reform and reconciliation. However, although the OLF became a formally recognized political party, its military faction—the OLA—refused to lay down arms and soon began fighting federal forces, prompting the Ethiopian government to redesignate the rebels a terrorist group in May 2021.
Many Oromo nationalists had assumed that Abiy’s election win would lead to greater regional autonomy for Oromia because he is from the region. Abiy came to power in part due to mass protests by the Oromo, the biggest ethnic group within Ethiopia. But instead, Abiy increasingly argued for a centralized state rather than federalism for Ethiopia’s various ethnic groups.
“There have been more than a dozen drone strikes in Oromia in the last two weeks that have killed 300+ civilians,” Tarbii wrote on Twitter. Meanwhile, the OLF said in a statement on Nov. 10 that there were more than 100 civilians injured—many of whom died—in four rounds of airstrikes in two places in Mendi town and near the Daleti area. According to the Ethiopia Peace Observatory, drone strikes conducted by federal forces in at least three towns in the Oromia region between Oct. 29 and Nov. 4 resulted in more than 55 reported deaths.
The federal government and its allies blame the renewed hostilities on the OLA, whose forces reportedly temporarily regained control of key areas after clashes with the government and local security forces.
On Nov. 6, residents said OLA members broke into a prison after heavy fighting between Ethiopian forces and the rebels in the town of Nekemte in the East Wollega area, about 200 miles west of Addis Ababa, the capital. The OLA tweeted that the group’s fighters “rescued over 120 political prisoners” from Kumsa Moroda, a museum turned military camp and prison, and “destroyed several regime military installations in the city.”
The U.S.-based Amhara Association of America argues that the agreed peace process with the TPLF “lacked inclusivity,” which could ultimately be its undoing. Robel Alemu, a spokesperson for the lobby group, told Foreign Policy that in Oromia, where the Amhara are a minority ethnic group, residents have reported a deliberate and “concerted effort by the OLA and elements within the Oromia regional government to ethnically cleanse Amharas” from the region.
“The telecommunications blackouts also make it difficult for residents to reach our investigators, independent media, and others to call for help and alert them to the situation.”
Another key point of contention that the agreement failed to recognize was contested Amhara areas within Tigray or the reintegration of internally displaced people into their ancestral lands.
As Ethiopian lawyer Zelalem Moges wrote in Foreign Policy in February, although Amhara forces, working with federal government troops, took control of Tigrayan areas with “reports of killings, sexual violence, and other serious human rights violations by Amhara militias,” the Amharas had also been “victims of oppression alongside most other groups in Ethiopia for decades under the TPLF-led Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime,” particularly after the TPLF took control of contested land called Western Tigray by Tigrayans and Welkait and Tegede by Amharas.
“Any arrangement or outcome that doesn’t recognize these lands as Amhara means there will not be lasting peace in the region,” said Dessalegn Chanie Dagnew, an ethnic Amhara leader and a member of the Federal Parliamentary Assembly representing the National Movement of Amhara party.
On Nov. 3, Abiy indicated that identity-related and territorial administration requests would be resolved through “talks and the country’s law.” But many civil society groups have criticized the government for failing to address long-standing regional grievances.
(c) 2022, Foreign Policy