Oromia: Ethiopia’s War in the Shadows

By Alyssa Oravec, Oromo Legacy Leadership and Advocacy Association, February 14, 2023

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.

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.

Historical Context

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.

Take action at https://worldbeyondwar.org/oromia

10 Responses

  1. Excellent article bringing me up-to-date and fairly about what is happening in Ethiopia. I have been considering going there to tour around and given talks as a wildlife ecologist to highlight the great number of amazing species of plants and animals including especially the equids and rhinos and their great contribution to the various ecosystems of Ethiopia.

    1. Thank you for reading our article and taking the time to learn about the situation in southern Ethiopia. We hope that it can help to enhance your perspective during your upcoming trip.

  2. Thank you for publishing this. In reading your article, I am learning for the first time of the conflict in Southern Ethiopia. I think that in dealing with this situation and other problem situations on the African Continent, the best approach for us in the Western nations is to work together with the African Union. By taking that approach, we will still be capable of making mistakes, but we will not have as much chance of making disastrous mistakes, as we would by going in there on our own and getting involved as if we knew what we were doing.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read our article. We appreciate your comments and thoughts about the best way to pursue lasting peace in Ethiopia. OLLAA supports efforts by all stakeholders, including the African Union, to press for lasting peace throughout the country and recognizes the role the AU played in leading the peace talks in northern Ethiopia. We believe the international community can play an important role by helping to raise awareness of human rights abuses throughout the country and by encouraging all parties to find a way to end this conflict, alongside other conflicts in the country.

  3. This piece presents the perspective of Oromo ethno nationalists. It carries falsehoods from top to bottom. The Oromos have a big role to shape the modern day Ethiopia with Emperor Menelik. Many of Menelik’s highly influential generals were Oromos. Even Emperor Haileselasie himself is partly Oromo . The main reason for the instability of the region are those hateful semi-literate ethno nationalists that are behind this article.

    1. We thank you for taking the time to read our article. While we reject the assertion that we are “hateful semi-literate ethno nationalists,” we do share your opinion that the history of modern Ethiopia is complex and that people of all ethnicities helped perpetrate abuses against Oromos and members of other ethnic groups that continue to this day. We are sure you share our aspiration for lasting peace in Ethiopia and justice for victims of human rights violations across the country.

      Ultimately, we believe that comprehensive transitional justice processes, which focus on truth-seeking, accountability, reparations, and guarantees of non-recurrence, will need to be initiated following the resolution of the conflict in the Oromia region. We hope that these processes will help Ethiopians of all ethnicities to address the historic drivers of conflict within the country and lay the groundwork for genuine reconciliation and lasting peace.

  4. Ethiopia is complex – as would be the case with any empire trying to turn itself into a modern multi-ethnic state.
    I have no special knowledge, but I do work with refugees from several parts of the Horn of Africa. They include Oromo people who have indeed been subjected to many of the abuses described in the article. They also include people from small southern Ethiopian nations which armed Oromo groups are trying to expand into. And Somalis who were scared to travel through Oromo territory and therefore sought refuge in Kenya when things got impossible at home.
    There is clearly pain and hurt in all ethnic groups – and a need in all ethnic groups to understand and practice just peacemaking. I’ve met some extremely impressive people, from several of Ethiopia’s nations, who are doing just that. But it’s not an easy job at a time when climate change impacts intensify conflict over resources, and when power-holders choose violence rather than cooperation. The peacebuilders deserve our support.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read our article and respond based on your perspective working with refugees from throughout the Horn of Africa. We agree with you that the situation in Ethiopia is complex, and there is a need for genuine dialogue and peacebuilding throughout the country. As OLLAA, we believe that victims of human rights violations throughout the country deserve access to justice and that the perpetrators of abuses must be held accountable. In order to lay the groundwork for lasting peace, however, there is a need for the current conflict in Oromia to first come to an end.

  5. Last year I went to Ethiopia and Eritrea, where I reported on the war in Amhara and Afar. I did not travel to Oromia except to Addis, which is, I believe, and independent city within Oromia.

    I visited IDP camps in Amhara and Afar, including Jirra Camp in Amhara for Amhara civilian refugees of OLA violence in Wollega and I don’t think it can be denied that they had suffered greatly.

    I’d like to know what you understand to be taking place in Wollega.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts and for taking the time to visit and report on the situation in IDP camps in the Amhara and Afar regions.

      We note that this article focuses on rights abuses perpetrated against civilians by state agents, who continue to commit serious violations with impunity and a lack of attention from the international community as part of their ongoing campaign against the OLA. However, the article does acknowledge the inter-ethnic tensions and violence that are prevalent inside the Oromia and Amhara regions, including reports of attacks against civilians by non-state armed actors. The Wollega zones are one of the areas where we receive frequent reports of such attacks, which are reportedly perpetrated by a variety of actors against civilians of all ethnicities. Unfortunately, it is often impossible to independently verify the identity of the group that perpetrated any single attack. These attacks have led to hundreds of deaths and the mass displacement of Oromo and Amhara civilians. As a reporter, we hope you can also visit Oromo IDP camps in the near future to gain a fuller understanding of the violence in the Wollega zones.

      At OLLAA, we believe that the victims of such attacks must have access to justice and that the perpetrators should be held accountable. However, we note that, as the primary duty bearer under international law, the Ethiopian government has the duty to protect civilians, launch independent and effective investigations into such attacks, and ensure the perpetrators face justice.

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