While the authorities and OLA accuse each other of the killings, and Amhara groups blame both, the facts—as far they’re known—suggest a more convoluted story.
As with other similar incidents in Oromia, the recent massacre at Tole only adds to the outrage and intrigue that shrouds the brutal politics of Ethiopia’s largest regional state.
Reportedly, Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) rebels killed hundreds of Amhara civilians on 18 June in Tole, a kebele in Gimbi Wereda of Oromia’s West Wellega Zone.
Yet that account is disputed by OLA, Oromo activists, close observers, and now a ruling party lawmaker.
The first report of the massacre was streamed live by Amhara Media Center (AMC), a private outlet that focuses on Amhara rights, on 18 June at around 3:30 pm.
According to its report, the attack started at 8:30 am in five neighborhoods in Tole Kebele and two neighborhoods in the bordering areas of the Benishangul-Gumuz region.
A purported Tole resident told AMC that over 6,000 Amhara residents fled into the forest, that many were killed, and that the OLA burned at least 500 houses.
The AMC report alleges Oromia and local security forces left the area two days before and local officials left a day before the massacre and on the morning of it.
At 6 pm, an AMC journalist, Melkam Molla, reported that 71 Amharas, including women and children, had been killed. The reported death toll has since significantly risen.
While all sides agree that a massacre took place, theories abound as to who is responsible.
The federal government accuses OLA exclusively, while many Amhara activists say federal and Oromia regional government forces were either incompetent, complicit, or somehow worked with OLA on the attack.
On the other hand, OLA accuses a local militia formed by the Oromia government.
Another theory is that the OLA is ill-disciplined, its leaders cannot effectively control their forces, and some OLA fighters operating autonomously committed the massacre in retaliation after Amhara villagers fired on them.
The OLA—or, as the government calls it, ‘OLF-Shene’ or just ‘Shene’—is a rebel group active in Oromia that was previously an armed wing of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).
The association between the OLA and OLF formally ended after the OLF signed a peace deal in Eritrea with the federal government and agreed to disarm in May 2019.
OLF then became a legally registered political party, while OLA was designated a terrorist organization, along with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), by Ethiopia’s parliament in May 2021.
OLA established its own command in April 2019, after the government’s attempt to disarm it and Oromo elders’ attempt to integrate OLA fighters who came from Eritrea failed. Since then, it has been actively fighting government forces, primarily in Southern and Western Oromia.
In August 2021, OLA formed an alliance with TPLF against Abiy’s government.
A few days before the Tole massacre, OLA clashed with government forces in Gambella town, the capital of Gambella region, in a joint operation with the Gambella Liberation Front (GLF)—a year-old rebel group—while also launching raids on its own in Oromia, including in Gimbi town.
These attacks were partly in response to a renewed government offensive against OLA that began in March. Since the Tole massacre, yet another federal and regional operation has begun to try and degrade OLA, and yet another massacre of Amharas has been reported.
According to Oromia’s government, OLA committed the Tole massacre when it retreated following its inability to stand against government security forces in the area.
In a Facebook post, Oromia Communications Bureau said, “The Shene terrorist force, which is hated and condemned by the Oromo people, mercilessly attacked civilians in the Tole village of Gimbi Woreda.”
Shafe Alemu, the deputy Gimbi Wereda administrator, said on 20 June, “OLF-Shene killed civilians, including children,” in an interview with VOA Afaan Oromo.
Shafe added, “There’s no doubt that the attackers were OLF-Shene, there are no other enemies,” but admitted that they had not detained any perpetrators. He alleged that OLA said it had taken action against the “extremists”, the term often used by Oromia’s government to refer to Amhara Fano militants.
Following the attack, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed tweeted, “Attacks on innocent civilians & destruction of livelihoods by illegal and irregular forces is unacceptable…There is zero tolerance for horrific acts claiming lives recently in both Beninshangul & Oromia regions by elements whose main objective is to terrorize communities.”
On 30 June, Abiy’s spokesperson, Billene Seyoum, said OLA fighters carried out the attack in Tole and told reporters the death toll stood at 338.
In a brief press release on 19 June, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), a legally autonomous federal institution, said that the attacks were committed by OLA militants and that it was related to the armed conflict in the area between OLA and government forces.
Similarly, on 20 June, the Federal Government Communication Services said that OLA turned against civilians while retreating after sustaining heavy losses on the battlefield during its 14 June attacks on Gambella, Dembi Dollo, and Gimbi.
OLA denies committing the massacre. Instead, it accuses a state-backed militia.
Odaa Tarbii, OLA’s spokesperson, told VOA Afaan Oromo that government forces fled from Gimbi town following the OLA offensive there and then traveled 50 kilometers to Tole village.
“We don’t know why they did it, but the government militants are the ones that attacked the Oromo civilians displaced from Wello and resettled in Tole,” he said.
Odaa was referring to the fact that most Tole residents were resettled to the area from Wello, which makes them ethnic Oromos, according to the Oromo nationalist narrative OLA subscribes to.
In a press release on 20 June, OLA said, “The recent massacre in Tole is committed by the regime organized militia group called ‘Gachana Sirna’, which means ‘the guardians of the regime’ that wear artificial wigs to impersonate members of the OLA.”
‘Gachana Sirna’ is a security structure established by Oromia’s government in August 2021 following mobilization against advancing Tigrayan forces. The militia is accountable to kebele administrations and is overseen by the militia office and local security council.
Although there’s no solid evidence of ‘Gachana Sirna’ impersonating OLA, there is a history of the regional authorities using such tactics.
For instance, in a 2021 Oromia report, EHRC detailed one such incident where government forces filmed prisoners after forcing them to dress in military-style uniforms, wear artificial hair, and carry weapons.
OLA said the government committed the attack in Tole to shift attention from massacres of Oromos in Gambella and elsewhere, and also to discredit the OLA in the eyes of Ethiopians and the international community, so justifying its military tactics and denying OLA a seat at the table of planned peace talks.
Oromo activists, elites, and political parties, notably the OLF and Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), and the OLA itself want an independent investigation into the Tole incident and other crimes in Oromia.
Oromo activists who agree with the OLA that government forces may be behind the attack point to the fact that the killings—similar to past incidents in Oromia—overshadowed other atrocities.
Following the GLF-OLA offensive on 14 June, security forces killed Oromo residents in Gambella town.
Furthermore, an hour after reports of the Tole massacre appeared on social media, the EHRC published its investigation into video footage showing security forces executing at least 30 Oromo civilians accused of being OLA members in Dawa Chaffa Kebele of the Oromia Zone in Amhara region.
According to the EHRC report, security forces loaded the suspected OLA members onto a truck and took them to a place called Antoli, where they were told to disembark and then summarily executed.
Both of these incidents that implicate the authorities were under-reported as a result of the Tole massacre.
This is similar, among others, to the mass killing of Oromo residents in Anfillo Wereda of Kellem Wellega Zone in 2020 that was overshadowed by the report of kidnapped Amhara students of Dembi Dollo University by the OLA.
Another related theory by Oromo activists is that the government could, in some capacity, be behind these attacks so as to mobilize people against the OLA and garner support for its counter-insurgency operations in Oromia.
Proponents of such theories point to the killing of 16 Karrayyu Abbaa Gadaa leaders in December that the Oromia regional government initially tried to pin on the OLA.
A further explanation offered to Ethiopia Insight by a well-placed individual was that Oromia government actors used mercenaries to commit the atrocity in order to ensure that impending federal plans to offer talks to OLA were for now taken off the table. They said the community in question in Tole was not armed and had decent relations with the OLA.
Partially corroborating this, Hangassa Ibrahim, a Prosperity Party member of parliament from Oromia, went live on Facebook on 5 July saying that it is not the OLA committing massacres across Oromia, but rather another group formed by actors in the regional government.
He accused Shimelis Abdisa, Oromia’s president, Fikadu Tessema, head of Prosperity Party’s Oromia office, and Ararsa Mardassa, the Oromia region police commissioner, of being behind the group committing the killings.
“It is rather the Shene organized by these people who have massacred citizens. It is not Jaal Maaroo’s Shene [OLA] which has been massacring the people,” Hangassa said.
Hangassa did not condemn Abiy, but instead urged him to take action against officials from Oromia’s Prosperity Party branch and the region’s authorities.
Oromo groups also accuse media and rights groups of echoing government allegations against OLA without verifying reports.
Amhara activists, lobby groups, and political parties accuse both OLA and the authorities. They flooded social media with reports of the massacre and expressed outrage.
Mass protests denouncing the 18 June killings and criticizing either the government’s complicity or its inability to prevent such attacks began in Addis Abeba on 25 June before larger demonstrations were held in Amhara through 1 July.
On the day of the attack, Balderas For True Democracy, a political party founded by Eskinder Nega that focuses on Addis Abeba, said, “More than 80 Amharas were massacred by ‘OLF-Shene’, which is said to be supported by some government officials.”
The Amhara Association of America (AAA), a lobbying organization, reports at least 554 Amhara civilians were killed in ten villages and named 455 of the victims.
AAA alleges OLA works with Oromia officials, and accuses Oromia Prosperity Party members of either allowing the massacre to happen or organizing it.
It accused OLA while also maintaining the killings were “enabled, sanctioned, and supported by regional and federal government authorities.”
As evidence, it claimed local government militia guarding the area left a few days prior to the attack, that internet and phone coverage was shut down in the locale at the time of the incident, and that when state militia returned to the area after the killings, they threatened survivors and told them not to record the burial process or the mass graves.
The lobby group claims the intensity and scale of massacres against Amharas have escalated since Abiy came to power in 2018 because he “allowed the OLA to return to Ethiopia,” giving them a base to recruit and train.
AAA claims that, in 2021 alone, 1,688 people were killed in OLA attacks, which it says are committed with official support.
It has called for the resignation of Abiy and Oromia President Shimelis, and an independent investigation into the “ongoing, state-sanctioned Amhara genocide.”
On the other hand, rather than directly implicating government officials, the opposition National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) expressed outrage at their negligence.
On 21 June, four members of parliament representing NaMA walked out of a parliamentary session in protest of the speaker’s refusal to include a discussion of the killings in Western Oromia on the agenda.
NaMA requested that Abiy appears before parliament to discuss the Tole massacre and explain why his government is “unable to stop the ongoing genocide against the people of Amhara.”
Abiy appeared in parliament on Thursday morning, but his defensive responses to his government’s failures have further angered Amhara activists.
Although an unimpeded international investigation would be necessary to actually identify who was responsible, some things can still be said with relative certainty amid the murkiness.
First, the OLA’s denial is contrary to several witness testimonies and reports from Tole, including witnesses who said that the OLA was present but didn’t attack civilians.
But, this is tricky as plaited hair is the only way locals can identify OLA troops, and thus witness testimonies would remain the same even if the accusations about the ‘Gachana Sirna’ using artificial hair to impersonate OLA were true.
Based on an Ethiopia Insight interview with a Tole resident who fled to Arjo town following the incident, armed local Amharas and “the ones from the forest” fought, starting from 8:30 am on 18 June, and civilians were killed in the crossfire.
Meanwhile, it appears there were prior clashes between an OLA faction active in the area and armed Amhara locals.
The situation is complicated by the fact that—as confirmed by a leaked phone conversation between OLA leaders—OLA has had serious discipline problems, while the OLA and close observers believe mercenaries are used to commit atrocities that the government then pins on OLA.
This means it’s unclear if the OLA High Command led by Jaal Marroo is responsible for the OLA faction that may have been involved, as it’s possible a disgruntled element committed the atrocity independently, or did so at the behest of someone else.
It’s also not clear what the OLA High Command would have gained from ordering the massacre, given the events that preceded it.
This is further complicated by reports that local authorities supported the attackers.
For instance, in an interview with AMC, a Tole resident said Oromia special forces attacked civilians first and that “the ones from the forest” came afterward.
Even if there was no involvement of government forces, other forms of state support may have been provided.
In its 3 July report on the massacre, AAA said Nigatu Ometa, the kebele administrator, left Tole three days before the massacre along with Kidanu Wakoya, the kebele security head, and an unnamed chief of the kebele militia.
Furthermore, locals report tension between Wello Amhara civilians and Wello Oromo civilians in Tole, and there are reports that the 18 June massacre also involved civilians’ participation.
On Facebook, an Oromo claiming to be a Tole Kebele resident said government forces attacked civilians to trigger a clash between Wello Amhara and Wello Oromo residents. On the other hand, AAA said that local Oromo residents participated in the killings.
Then there is the question of how this OLA faction was able to attack civilians without resistance from the local militia or the newly established security structure ‘Gachana Sirna’.
Federal and regional forces stationed in nearby Didessa military camp also arrived afterward, despite the attack taking place over several hours.
Given that a security and development pact funded by the UNHCR was signed between Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz’s adjacent weredas and villages, including Tole, just two weeks before the massacre, the ponderous reaction from local security forces in the area is questionable. The same problem occurred in the violence that swept Oromia following the murder of Hachalu Hundessa on 29 June 2020.
The slow security response lends credibility to the otherwise implausible AAA view that OLA and government actors collaborated in the massacre, or to the OLA claim that its fighters weren’t involved.
On the other hand, government suggestions that retreating OLA fighters from the 14 June Gimbi town conflict committed the massacre are also dubious.
Tole is around 50 kms away from Gimbi, and Gaara Abbaa Seenaa, a mountain known for being an OLA stronghold, lies between Gimbi town and Tole. As such, it’s not clear why retreating OLA fighters would bypass their stronghold and go to Tole.
At the moment, the government’s plan appears to be to try again to annihilate OLA at any cost, although there are rumblings about an imminent peace offering. So far, however, the Abiy administration’s belated openness for negotiations with the TPLF has not been extended to OLA.
But, the military push will most likely fail again as OLA’s insurgency enjoys popular support and more brutal counter-insurgency will only continue to multiply this.
Further muddying the waters, dozens of Amhara civilians were reportedly massacred on 4 July in two villages of Hawa Gelan Wereda in Kellem Wellega Zone.
This tragic incident took place two weeks after Tole and mere days after the government announced all weredas in the zone are under its forces’ control.
Abiy, however, is unwavering.
In his tweet following the second massacre, he said, “We will follow this terrorist group to the end, and, along with our people, eliminate it.”
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Main photo: OLA fighters in training; January 2021; France 24.
Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.
This article was first published on Ethiopia Insight.