Mob killings split Ethiopians as political fault lines test Abiy’s big tent

Fatal attacks in Addis Ababa area represent only the tip of recent violence, as local disputes flare during transition, and an ideological struggle heats up

Between two popular celebratory rallies by contrasting opposition movements, Ethiopia’s deadly communal violence spread to the heart of the federation, shocking Addis Ababa, and fueling recriminations.Local competition over resources and representation, as well an ethnically charged ideological struggle over the federal system, present major challenges for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as he encourages all peaceful parties to participate in a newly open political environment.

On Sep. 13, as residents rigged up Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) flags in preparation for the return to Ethiopia of the group’s main faction two days later, individuals from the Oromo and Dorze ethnicities fought in and around Burayu, a town in Oromia state near the northwest boundary of Addis Ababa, the federal capital.

The events quickly attracted multiple competing narratives

That presaged violence in the Addis Ababa area over the next three days, including the killing of at least 55 people. The events quickly attracted multiple competing narratives. Victims from Southern communities reported killings by Oromo, some residents of Burayu said Oromo were attacked, and the authorities blamed unspecified organized groups.

City police said on Monday that 14 people were killed in Kolfe, five in Addis Ketema, one in Arada, three in Lafto and five in Kirkos districts of Addis Ababa, while the federal government said 27 were killed in Burayu.

Violence unfolded after altercations in northwestern Addis Ababa on Sep. 12 when locals objected to OLF colors. Dorze attacked people putting up the flag the next day in Keta, leading to two Oromo deaths, said Henok Teshome, who lives there. The fighting expanded to other areas near Burayu on Sep. 14. “What we know is that many people were killed from both sides,” Henok said. A group from Addis Ababa then attacked Burayu on Sep. 15, he said.

Ginbot 7’s return rally in Addis Ababa, Sep. 9, Charlie Rosser

As reports seeped out, angry crowds gathered in central Addis Ababa on Sep. 17, with many blaming OLF supporters. “We demand justice, our innocent brothers and sisters were killed,” said Yonas Kefiyalewu, a demonstrator. This was the third large gathering in Addis Ababa after the OLF rally and the Sep. 9 return of former mayor-elect and leader of Ginbot 7 Berhanu Nega. While there were disturbances in advance of the OLF gathering, both events, organized by groups formerly designated as terrorist, were peaceful.

On Sep. 17, after accusations of a negligent response to the disorder, authorities shot dead seven protesters in Addis Ababa, saying five were trying to snatch police guns. Mobile Internet networks were down for two days from Sep. 17 and initially around 300 people were arrested in the city and 400 in Burayu. Yesterday, police said more than 3,000 people have been detained for unrest and petty crimes such as gambling, with 1,200 taken to Tolay camp for remedial training.

The post Amnesty cited as hate speech

Amnesty International condemned the government for using lethal force and mass arbitrary arrests. On Sep. 17 it said that OLF supporters attacked non-Oromos and added: “Social media was awash with hate speech against non-Oromo groups in the three days preceding the rally. However, the security forces did nothing to stop the incitement to violence, or to protect targeted communities despite their repeated pleas for help.”

Amnesty said in an email that the hate speech included activist Tsegaye Ararrsa accusing ethnic Gurage of throwing stones at Oromo. Tsegaye didn’t respond to two emailed requests for comment. Other social media users were accused of making derogatory remarks about the Gamo, of which the Dorze are a sub-group.

Capital crimes

Addis Ababa’s protesters shared Amnesty’s concerns about the attacks and police inaction. Some argued that rampages went unchecked because of official unwillingness to act against Oromo youths. The government corroborated suspicions of negligence by arresting security officials for lapses.

The chaos overshadowed the return of the OLF faction, which is headed by Dawud Ibsa and was based in Eritrea. The insurgency formed in 1973 to fight for Oromo independence and was loosely allied with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the struggle against the Derg. But during the transitional government from 1991 to 1995 the two liberation fronts fell out and the TPLF militarily routed the OLF. Meanwhile, the TPLF had nurtured Abiy’s party to govern Oromia instead of the OLF.

OLF is the founding father of the Oromo struggle

“OLF is the founding father of the Oromo struggle, dealing with the inhuman mass killings and injustices Oromo have been facing. So we are here to welcome our father,” Chemeda Bokora from Harar said at the OLF rally.

Following its sidelining, the OLF factionalized and conducted low intensity insurgencies, which weakened further in recent years. The Oromia and federal governments jailed many thousands of Oromo for alleged OLF activity over the last two decades. The group now wants its armed wing to become part of Oromia’s security apparatus, is willing to work with Oromo parties and seek allies in other states, and stands for ethnic self-determination, spokesman Tolera Adeba said in a Sep. 12 interview.

OLF rally in Addis Ababa, Sep. 15, Ermias Tasfaye

The constitutional right to self-determination including secession is opposed by parties that reject ethno-nationalism, including Ginbot 7, which recently split from Patriotic Front. Ginbot 7, which was also Eritrea-based and ran a low intensity insurgency, wants a restructured federation that is not based around ethno-linguistic identity, according to Ephrem Madebo, head of political affairs.

“Instead of creating a federal unit based on language, why not see their development potential? Why not see the population size?” he said. When pressed for a hypothetical example in the case of Amhara, the second-most populous region after Oromia, he said: “Based on those weighted criteria, Amhara could be broken into three or four.”

That type of thinking about the federation is anathema to Oromia’s governing party, the rest of the ruling front, and also to the Oromo opposition, including the OLF. “The objective of G7 is to divide Oromia, to dismember Oromia,” OLF Central Committee member Kajela Mardasa said on Sep.12.

Instead of creating a federal unit based on language, why not see their development potential

Regional leaders across Ethiopia have clear reasons for opposing the break-up of states, and such changes may well cause violent disputes, as there have been recently over contested areas, such as Gedeo-West Guji, Wolkait in Tigray, Qemant in Amhara, Konso in Southern Nations, and the Somali-Oromo borderlands. From a population of approximately 105 million, 1.1 million Ethiopians are currently displaced due to conflict, according to the UN.

In addition to maintaining regional integrity, the OLF wants Oromia to govern the city they call Finfinnee, which is also the capital of Oromia. The constitution says Addis Ababa’s autonomous city administration is responsible to the federal government. It called for Oromia’s “special interest” in the city to be determined by law.

The political liberalization overseen by Abiy has occurred after Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) rule was rocked by more than three years of youthful Oromo protests over marginalization and authoritarianism. The cause célèbre was a plan for the integrated development of the capital and surrounding areas of Oromia. Activists said it was a blueprint for more annexation and exploitation of Oromo land.

Aftermath of a protest in Wolenkomi, Oromia, Dec 15, 2015, William Davison

Burayu was one of the rapidly growing Oromo towns targeted by strategic planners and occasionally endured strikes and protests. It also faces severe political, economic and social pressures. Its population leapt from around 10,000 in 1994 to an estimated 150,000 two decades later, as people, including many from the Southern Nations, migrated from the countryside looking for work, and Addis Ababa residents pushed outwards seeking cheaper housing. In 2012, more than half of residences were informal, as Burayu’s land agency failed to deal with the demand, according to a 2014 paper by academics from Ethiopian Civil Service University.

Contestation over Addis Ababa and its environs is set to be part of the next political struggle in Ethiopia in the run-up to elections for the city council next year and national polls in 2020. “We claim Finfinnee. It is part of Oromia. The federal government can choose as a seat, but never claim Finfinnee as their home,” Tolera said. In a subsequently deleted Tweet, a new Amhara nationalist party said Addis Ababa will always be the “eternal city” of their community.

Blame game

The violence in Burayu and other areas was preceded by skirmishes in Addis Ababa and a war of words. For example, the statue of Emperor Menelik II, the Shewan king who founded the city in 1886, is a flashpoint, as Oromo activists portray him as a colonizer.

An attendee at the OLF rally, Masresha Kumsa, said Menelik II expropriated Oromo land using modern weaponry obtained from Europe “in the name of Christianity.” The OLF and four Oromo parties said yesterday that the Ginbot 7-linked ESAT satellite channel had falsely framed OLF supporters.

Leading campaigner and Oromia Media Network boss Jawar Mohammed said those instigating violence wanted to dismantle the federal system, as opponents accused him of inciting communal attacks. The National Movement of Amhara said today the Oromo parties’ statement was a continuation of “Expansionist Nationalism.”

Hawassa is under stress from rapid growth

The blame game recalls the past government pattern of labeling political opponents as Ginbot 7 or OLF activists, and also echoes similar dynamics after recent unrest elsewhere.

For example, on Sep. 4 the Benishangul People’s Liberation Movement accused the OLF and Oromos of being behind fatal violence in Benishangul-Gumuz, including the killing of three non-Oromo bus passengers in June, and riots in the state capital, Asosa. Outsiders aggravated protests in the city over the bus attack, with ethnic Berta and Amhara targeted, said Omer Ahmed, an Asosa businessman. Violence also flared this month in the northwestern state.

A year before the Derg regime finally collapsed in 1991, the OLF occupied Asosa. But this time, the OLF and Oromia government said Oromos were attacked in Benishangul-Gumuz, with the media mouthpiece of the former blaming TPLF for stoking ethnic violence on Oromia’s borders.

Similar allegations, which also have not been substantiated, were made against the TPLF when Sidama killed ethnic Wolayta in June in Hawassa amid a renewed push for Sidama statehood. Abiy blamed “daylight hyenas” for the disorder in the Southern Nations capital, but as with Burayu, and many other urban areas, Hawassa is under stress from rapid growth. Even if fanned by political entrepreneurs, an accelerated influx of Sidama into Hawassa—from 10 percent in 1994 to almost half the population by 2007—had already raised the political temperature.

Unrest in central Addis Ababa, Sep. 17

The TPLF, which was the most powerful party in the EPRDF and largely controlled the security services, has lost federal power since Abiy’s arrival. Elements of the military and Tigray’s ruling party are thought to have backed Abdi Iley, the authoritarian ruler of Somali region. TPLF politburo member Getachew Assefa, the former intelligence chief removed by Abiy, are said to have tried to rein Abdi in, according to sources close to the security sector.

Abdi was replaced after a federal military intervention last month, which generated fatal attacks on non-Somali residents of state capital, Jijiga. As well as being victims of atrocities committed by Abdi’s clan-based paramilitary force, such as an Aug. 14 attack in Mayu Muluke district, Oromo have killed Somalis in a protracted conflict.

Early post-Derg years also saw a surge in ethnic conflicts in the south

An Oromo militia reportedly killed civilians around Moyale in July, while more than 500,000 Gedeo people suffered displacement this year from fighting with Oromo from West Guji Zone. Territorial contestation in the area has roots in the late 19th century amid Menelik II’s expansion. Tensions increased in the 1960s after a Gedeo rebellion against feudal landlords and resettlements onto predominantly Guji land. Conflict then occurred twice in the 1990s after a contentious referendum over disputed areas.

In addition to the unrest in Sidama and Gedeo, 16 people were killed in three locations in Southern Nations in July and August, according to the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (HRCO). August violence in Tepi that killed five people stems from the Sheko people’s desire for political autonomy, HRCO said.

Early post-Derg years also saw a surge in ethnic conflicts in the south. Commentator René Lefort thinks recent unrest nationwide is partly explained by a fragmenting sub-federal security apparatus amid weakening central authority.

Same game?

After the disorder spread to Addis Ababa’s environs, accusations were leveled not only against Oromo activists for incitement, but also against Ginbot 7 for orchestrating the attacks. One theory claimed a letter requesting a demonstration in Southern Nations city Arba Minch on Sep. 14 shows there was a plan to provoke Oromo to attack southern communities, as the letter was sent before attacks occurred. “This is absolutely false and a recklessly cynical conspiracy theory intended to drive a wedge between Oromo organizations and G7,” said Neamin Zeleke, Ginbot 7’s deputy head of political affairs, about accusations against the movement. Federal Police Commissioner Zeynu Jemal promoted the Arba Minch letter theory without blaming G7, and said there was an attempt to provoke conflict between the movement and OLF. HRCO said fighting began in Burayu on Sep. 12.

Zeynu, Oromia Chief Administrator Lemma Megersa, Oromia spokesman Negeri Lencho, head of Burayu security office Solomon Tadesse, and the OLF’s Tolera said unspecified groups working against reforms organized the violence. “Those who hate OLF and those who don’t want Oromo people’s right to be fulfilled are the ones that created this and they are those multiplying it,” Tolera said on Sep. 23. Oromo activist Solomon Ungashe and others openly accused Ginbot 7, and several of its members have been arrested.

Recently, Abiy has been focused on his own organization, which changed its name to the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and voted younger firebrands and security officials, including new national domestic intelligence chief Demelash Gebremichael, onto the Central Committee at its Congress. The latter move reneges on a pledge to depoliticize the intelligence service by its new director.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, August 25, Petterik Wiggers
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, August 25, Petterik Wiggers

In an opening speech, Abiy called for Oromo unity, suggesting two or three Oromo parties was sufficient, said destabilization to impede reform was futile, and promoted the generational Gadaa system as a solution for African democracy. “We passed through fire and brought today’s victory with struggle. The new generation has to transition to a higher level,” he said.

But the ODP faces a challenge in Oromia from the OLF—a renewed struggle which has already featured politicized violence in Kellem Wollega Zone before OLF decamped from Eritrea—and allied parties, just as the ruling coalition does in Addis Ababa from Ginbot 7, which has its own struggle brewing in Amhara.

If you look at the gulf separating various positions, things look very pessimistic

The country’s predicament was encapsulated on Sep. 14 by OLF co-founder Leenco Lata, who has also returned from exile as leader of yet another Oromo party. He said that problems caused by population growth would soon be out of control unless addressed, and acknowledged that fundamental disagreements existed between political camps.

“If you look at the gulf separating various positions, things look very pessimistic,” Leenco said. “On the other hand, Ethiopia’s challenges are massive, and if the political actors really feel responsible they have no choice but to negotiate a compromise, or else the alternative is a total breakdown of order.”

Query, or correction? Email us

Additional reporting by Solomon Yimer

Main photo: OLF supporters, near St Paul’s Hospital, Addis Ababa, Sep. 12, Ermias Tasfaye

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished.

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