As the Ethiopian government grapples with the conflict in the Tigray region, it is also contending with outbreaks of ethnic violence in other parts of the country.
On June 20, rebels from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, thrust another long-simmering conflict into the national spotlight, killing nine people hours before key provincial elections.
The attacks in Metta Wolkite, 40 miles (65km) from Addis Ababa, were carried out by the Oromo Liberation Army, which is engaged in a what it calls a ‘total war’ against the Ethiopian state, after Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy’s government designated it a terrorist group in May.
Tensions in the vast Oromia region have been growing in recent months. Clashes between the Oromo and the country’s second largest ethnic group, the Amhara, left almost two dozen dead in April.
In recent years, the growth in violent ethnic conflict in Ethiopia has been attributed in large part to a spike in militant ethnic nationalism.
According to Rashid Abdi, Horn of Africa specialist, the large-scale uprisings in Ethiopia since 2012, largely driven by the Oromo, and which eventually thrust PM Abiy into power, made the Oromo a potent political force that cannot be ignored.
The violence centres on demands by an insurgent group for the ‘liberation’ of Oromia. It highlights the mounting security challenges in Ethiopia, ending the euphoria that had gripped the nation when Abiy rose to power in April 2018 and won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.
He introduced sweeping reforms to end decades of authoritarian rule, including unbanning political parties and rebel groups, releasing thousands of detainees, and allowing exiles to return.
As Ethiopia's first Oromo prime minister, Abiy's premiership was particularly welcomed in Oromia, with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the biggest rebel group, turning into an opposition party. But one of its top military commanders, Kumsa Diriba, who is also known as ‘Jaal Maro’, failed to reach a deal with the government over the disarmament of fighters. After also falling out with the OLF, he continued the insurgency for what he calls the ‘liberation’ of Oromia from his forest hide-out in the west.
At the time in 2018, the security forces promised to crush his group within two weeks, but more than three years later, they are still battling the insurgents.
‘Oromo nationalism, not unlike other nationalisms, is complex and dynamic. It is fed by multiple streams, taps into a reservoir of potent, accumulated grievances and draws energy and sustenance from a rich repository of cultural memory and aspiration,’ Rashid said.
The June 2020 assassination of popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa triggered protests, a heavy-handed security forces’ response, large-scale property destruction, and violence by civilians against minority communities like the Amhara in Oromia.
The attacks heightened existing social and political tensions, which were further exacerbated by the arrest of dozens of members of opposition parties for their alleged connection with the violence.
According to Human Rights Watch World Report 2021, government counterinsurgency campaigns against armed rebel groups in southern and western Oromia resulted in serious human rights violations and abuses against local communities by all sides.
‘Reports of extrajudicial killings, mass arrests and detentions, and violence against ethnic Oromo civilians, including medical professionals, accused of supporting or being sympathetic to the armed rebel group the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), were widespread,’ Human Rights Watch said.
The situation has been worsened by long-standing tension between Oromo and Amhara.
‘The Oromo think that they have been oppressed by Amhara for the past century, and that the moment has come for vengeance. That’s why they even changed the churches’ language from Amhara to Oromo,’ said Abdallah Ibrahim, Director, East Africa Centre for Research and Strategic Studies.
It’s feared a protracted and serious conflict in Oromia could spill over into much of northern Kenya because Oromia’s politics are closely intertwined with those of northern Kenya.
The immediate risk is massive displacement and a new humanitarian crisis in the Kenyan districts of Moyale, Marsabit and Isiolo. It is also likely that conflict fragmentation in Oromia could lead gradually to proliferation of armed criminal syndicates. There are already many armed smuggling syndicates operating on the border between Ethiopia and Kenya.