Amid blackout, western Oromia plunges deeper into chaos and confusion
By Ermias Tasfaye,
The government is once more employing repressive tactics to try and stamp out a rebellion, but they may be having the opposite effect
After he was accused of being an insurgent, prisoner Gammachu Garomsa was reportedly beaten to death by Ethiopian security forces and his body thrown into the bush at Yubdo Kebele in Oromia.
The district government said he was shot dead as he attempted to escape, though a photo of him sitting with his hands tied around his back and surrounded by Oromia regional police carrying sticks found its way onto social media.
Ijara Taddese, in his mid-twenties and a father of one, said he was assaulted with sticks and wires after being taken to a detention camp in Dembi Dollo in western Oromia. “Three soldiers forced me to lie on the ground with my back and two of them stepped on my hands and the other poured water on my mouth and nose from a full jerry can that holds 20 liters.” he told Ethiopia Insight. “That almost killed me.”
Such horror stories are familiar from Oromia over at least the last three decades after dissent was de facto criminalized and opponents of Meles Zenawi and Hailemariam Desalegn’s governments were routinely jailed as alleged members of the then-banned Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Under reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the OLF was invited home from Eritrea to partake in a liberated Ethiopia, and the jails were emptied—or so the standard narrative goes.
In fact, for many Oromo, the struggle did not end and the abuses did not stop: both Ijara and Gamachu’s ordeals occurred just a few months ago, in September. Ijara, an employee of Oromia Credit and Saving Association who said he was arrested twice under Abiy’s predecessor, was released on September 23.
The government Human Rights Commission told Voice of America (VOA) that the killing of Gammachu in Ayira Woreda of Western Wellega Zone was a human rights abuse. Ruling party Oromia spokesman Taye Dendea said to Ethiopia Insight that elements in the regional police were paid to defame the government by engaging in violations and then circulating evidence online.
Others, including Ethiopian human rights groups, have detailed a pattern of mass detentions and government abuses, and a group of Oromo academics has also spoken out about continuing repression. Officials have acknowledged applying much-criticised tactics of previous governments: cutting the internet and phone lines as part of security operations and the use of mass detentions followed by indoctrination efforts.
Abiy told parliament on February 3 that due to a security operation there has been a complete telecommunications blackout in Western Wellega and Kellem Wellega zones and partial shutdown in Eastern and Horo Guduru Wellega zones. Since early January, there have been reports of increased violence in western Oromia where the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), formerly the armed wing of the OLF, has been active. A federal “Command Post” has taken over security management from regional authorities in the area since October 2018. The Command Post manages a de facto state of emergency, introducing curfews, prohibiting gatherings, and authorising detentions without routine due process.
Activists and relatives of the deceased said the military killed 59 civilians on January 24 in Mugi town in Anfilo Woreda, Kellem Wellega. The OLF claimed another 21 people were killed in Gidami, Kellem Wellega Zone, on January 30, but the blackout means only limited information has seeped out. A non-OLF Oromo activist said the military retaliated brutally against Mugi’s residents after suffering a deadly ambush nearby. Taye said that although there had been civilian fatalities, the reports of mass killings and displacements were mostly propaganda by OLA sympathisers.
In an undisputed incident, Naol Misganu, a 22-year-old mechanic in Nekemte, was shot dead by soldiers at his workplace on February 2. Town officials told his father that he was killed by mistake and the killers are detained by the Command Post. “My son was not active in politics and he did nothing that can make the Command Post do such a thing,” Misganu Lammi told Ethiopia Insight. Bekele Gerba, the Deputy Chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), announced on Facebook on the same day as Naol’s killing that his two unarmed cousins, Jootee Taaddasaa and Taammiruu Taaddasaa, were killed by security forces on their farmland in Nejo Woreda in Western Wellege and the families prevented from carrying out burials.
Law and disorder
Regardless of such incidents, the turmoil has been overshadowed by the reported kidnapping of mostly female Amhara students returning home from Dembi Dollo University, which last month elicited an incoherent response from the government amid a social media campaign, mass protests in Amhara, and international media coverage. The backdrop to that was deadly ethnic university campus clashes since November primarily between Amhara and Oromo students that has cast another long shadow over Ethiopia’s troubled transition.
After more than three years of unrest and repression contributed to a major change of tack from the ruling coalition in December 2017 and threw up the new prime minister from Oromia in April 2018, turbulence has continued in the west of that region. That has been partly because of the September 2018 OLF return, which presented a renewed threat to the power of authorities in Oromia, despite their role in fomenting national change by backing the protest movement.
The OLF, which formed in 1973 to struggle for Oromo self-determination, was part of the post-military regime transitional government in the 1990s. But soon the OLF clashed with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that dominated the transition and the Oromo movement was forced into exile in 1992. The government formally classified it as a terrorist organization in 2011, although suspected supporters had suffered state repression for years.
The OLF’s re-entrance in 2018 two months after the terrorist designation was removed was followed by a largely failed attempt to integrate thousands of OLF fighters into regional forces, which were overseen by Oromia security chief Kemal Gelchu from October 2018 until he was fired seven months later. Kemal’s appointment perturbed OLF and its supporters as he was the leader of a rival OLF splinter group,
The failed integration—which included 1,300 encamped rebels that had returned from Eritrea— contributed to the solidifying of an insurgency in western and southern Oromia throughout 2019 by the armed wing of OLF, which last April formally split from the movement’s political leaders in Addis Ababa. Since, there have been continuing mass detentions by authorities at indoctrination camps and tit-for-tat claims of atrocities, such as grenade attacks, by both the OLA and government forces.
In recent months, there have been signs of increasing Oromo support for OLA, and its prominent western commander known as ‘Jaal Marro’, amid an intensifying government campaign to eliminate the group. “There cannot be two-armed forces or two governments,” Abiy said in parliament last week. “The attempt will still continue [to reduce civilian casualties], but to prevent the country from having two governments, legal action should be taken by the legal government.”
Detained and indoctrinated
In the past six months alone, at least 5,000 Oromo from all over the region—but mainly from the four Wellega zones, both Guji zones, Borena Zone, Burayu town, and some from Oromia Special Zone in Amhara—were detained in Senkelle Police College near Ambo, according to Ijara and other former detainees who did not wish to be identified. Ages ranged from thirteen to 76, these victims told Ethiopia Insight. Students, farmers, civil servants, drivers, religious leaders, Abbaa Gadaas (Oromo elders), traders, and others are among those held at Senkelle, a police training camp used as a detention and indoctrination facility, they said.
“It is difficult and costly for the government to go through legal procedure” because of the large numbers of people detained and instead “training” on the constitution is given to detainees who otherwise could be imprisoned for at least one year, said spokesman Taye. He said more than 1,000 people were held in Senkelle but only those being prosecuted remain.
In another apparent repeat of tactics employed by the government during the period of protests, Ijara and other victims at Senkelle, some of whom are disabled, have faced an ordeal. They said prisoners were physically and verbally abused, under fed, and denied adequate medical treatment. For example, a 14-year-old boy, Obsa Zewde, who was shot in his leg with a semi-automatic rifle, was denied treatment and so had his limb amputated. Detainees said they are forced to do onerous exercises and beaten. Women were not provided with sanitation materials and at least one, Darim Gayo, is said to have had a miscarriage.
Some were accused of robbing banks or being “Shaane”, which means supporting the OLA or OLF, or “Abbaa Torbee”, the semi-legendary assassin—or group of assassins—in the Dembi Dollo area whom locals said began executing government informants in 2017 during the Oromo protests. Since the OLF was among exiled groups invited home in 2018, “Shaane” has been accused of taking hostages, destroying property, and mobilizing people to dismantle government structures. Some of those who were charged as terrorists before 2018 were threatened with the revival of those prosecutions and questioned over incidents during the past protests that helped bring Abiy to power, victims said.
Thousands of Oromo dissidents are said to have been held in Kumsa Moroda Palace Museum in Nekemte, which is 200 kilometers west of Ambo. With bitter irony, the museum is now known among Oromo for its similarity with Maekelawi, the notorious Addis Ababa investigation center that authorities turned into a museum last year, declaring an end to abuses. According to multiple locals and activists who spoke to Ethiopia Insight and other media, over 3,000 people were detained in the museum for months without trial. Many were kept in underground rooms, Ijara said.
Colonel Gamachu Ayana, an OLF Central Committee member, who returned from exile in September 2018 had charges pressed then dropped for organizing assassinations of officials and was then accused of terrorism along with 19 others. He was freed on December 24, after spending eleven months in ‘sostenga’ Addis Ababa police station, which is close to Maekelawi, and Kilinto prison. Fikadu Ayana, a representative in Western Wellega of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), which is led by Merera Gudina and recently joined by activist Jawar Mohammed, was released on December 19, after being arrested for about six months. Fikadu told VOA that he spent four months in Kumsa Moroda before a transfer to Nekemte police station. He said he was charged with links to “Abbaa Torbee” but after two months found not guilty and released.
Rights and wrongs
Human Rights Commissioner Daniel Bekele said the watchdog was monitoring detentions. “Parts of western Wellega is an area of an active military operation and we are following up reports of extended detentions in police stations and other unofficial places of detention such as military bases without due process of law,” he told Ethiopia Insight. “We understand that the military has handed over several detainees to the police but the authorities have not yet completed investigations and pressed charges, resulting in quite extended detentions without a legal due process”
Laetitia Bader, Human Rights Watch Africa Division Senior Researcher, said in a January 14 Ethiopia Insight interview she has been receiving reports of numerous “abusive arrests” of alleged OLA members and has also documented a handful of reprisals against relatives of individuals with alleged links to OLA fighters. “This region is under an informal state of emergency, under federal military command, and has been the site of fighting between suspected members of the OLA and the military.” She added that residents have told HRW they face restrictions on movement due to 6pm to 6am curfews.
In September, Amnesty International called for the release of five Oromo journalists arrested on terrorism charges and on January 27 it criticized a “crackdown on dissenting political views” after 75 arrests in Oromia. Gammachu Girma, a former Assistant Sergeant at the Oromia Police Commission was fired on January 13 a week after publishing a book of 62 poems titled ‘Loltuu Haqaa’, which means ‘Warrior of Justice.’ He said authorities suspected him of rebel links because they thought the cover image of a misty forest was reminiscent of guerrilla warfare.
The OLF, a registered party that plans to compete in upcoming national and regional elections, complains about continuing state repression and being unable to engage in political activity in areas under Command Post rule. Executive Committee member Mikael Boran told Ethiopia Insight on January 13 that since July last year, more than 10,000 members were arrested and, for example, 42 of those detained in “dark rooms” in Kumsa Moroda Palace Museum, with over 600 imprisoned in Gimbi at military camps. He said that over 140 OLF officials, members, and supporters are held in Kaliti and Kilinto prisons and Addis Ababa’s ‘sostegna’ police station. Around 350 OLF members were arrested this week, mostly in Oromia towns near Addis Ababa, Mikael said today.
UK-based advocates Oromia Support Group (OSG) reported on December 13 that there have been 64 extra-judicial killings and the arbitrary detention of over 1,400 Oromo in the past six months, with most of them suspected OLF supporters. A local official acting as Nekemte mayor said public services are suffering as many government workers are detained by the Command Post, including the mayor.
The Human Rights League of Horn of Africa (HRLHA), another advocacy group, reported in November the names of over 100 civilians killed by federal forces; thirteen rape and other sexual harassment cases; and detentions and forceful disappearance of hundreds of civilians. A report released by OLF on October 23 said western and southern Oromia have been under federal Command Post control for more than nine months and the Oromo people in these regions are suffering killings, arrests, abuse, and expropriation. The OFC has also complained about the Command Post arresting its officials.
Since the Command Post was introduced, there have been reports of 12 government officials being killed in clashes after soldiers tried to disarm OLA. Taye said that around 20 government officials, including kebele administrators, were killed by “shifta” (bandits) in the past six months. Insurgency and counter-insurgency in western Oromia has contributed to a severe humanitarian crisis. According to a report released last November by the UN Humanitarian Agency, heavy fighting took place in West Wellega Zone in September in Kiltu Kara and Guliso weredas, and several incidents were reported in Gimbi and Mandi towns, as well as in Mana Sibu, Bila, Chalia and Gulisso districts.
Preceding the recent turmoil was a January 2019 intervention by an Abbaa Gadaa Council that led to talks between OLF and the government. Oromo activists and party members then formed a committee to oversee OLA’s integration into regional forces. The committee delivered 827 OLA members but the Western Region Commander Dirriba Kumsa, aka ‘Jaal Marro’, turned down the offer after doubting mediators’ independence and Southern Commander Gollicha Dhenge listed prerequisites.
On April 1, OLA formed its own command to continue armed struggle saying that it had lost communication with OLF leaders in Addis Ababa. It released a report in July saying that OLA can discuss with the government, in the presence of a third party, if authorities stop arresting people for supporting OLF/OLA, agrees to a ceasefire, and allows OLA to encamp until free and fair elections, but under its own command.
On October 8, Berhanu Jula, the military’s Deputy Chief of Staff, told VOA that the government is ready to reach a settlement and integrate the OLA, but refused to involve third party, saying Abbaa Gadaas were appropriate. Taye told Ethiopia Insight on February 7 that security operations would continue until all “shifta” were eliminated, claiming that OLF fell back on armed resistance after failing to infiltrate the government and choosing not to compete democratically.
In an allegation partially echoed by a senior Oromia official, OLF’s Mikael argues that the government does not want the war to end as it fears free elections. He said: “The ruling party is using ‘enforcing the rule of law’ as its excuse to suppress the people and hinder the movement of the OLF because they know people love and see OLF as its own government.”
In western Oromia, the telecoms blackout has been in place since January 3 as the fight between OLA and government soldiers ramped up. There are also reports of renewed fighting in the two Guji zones and Borena Zone. Students in several universities and people in other parts of Oromia rallied on January 9 and 10, protesting against Command Post rule in western and southern Oromia and the blackout.
In reaction to the protest, 77 Oromo students at Haramaya University, of which 68 are from Wellega, were dismissed by the university for vandalism on January 11 and taken to Addis Ababa by security forces where they were dropped on the roadside. In addition, security forces shot dead a protester and injured 10 at Bule Hora University in West Guji on January 9.
From defending against repressive Command Post measures, the OLA said it moved to attacking military camps. On December 21, OLA Central Command claimed that the military was overrun in Borena Zone. An Ethiopian armed forces spokesman did not respond to an Ethiopia Insight request to comment. ‘Jaal Marro’ told Kush Media Network (KMN) that western Oromia is largely under OLA control because most people are on its side and government structures are non-functional.
Although that may be an exaggeration, support for OLA and ‘Jaal Marro’ does indeed seem to have grown in the past six months as public hopes faded for the government to address popular Oromo demands. Protests against the ruling party and expressions of support for OLF/OLA, along with the growing gap between officials and influential activists like Jawar, convinced people to reconsider OLA’s resistance. The government’s handling of OLA who encamped is presented by sympathisers as another reason for continued armed struggle. The fatal shooting at a camp for OLA leaders in Bishoftu of Hunde Deresa, known as ‘Dinaras’, who submitted his fighters and himself for reintegration, caused particular outrage, with Jawar demanding an explanation.
Generally, this means more people putting their hope in the rebels for solutions to the still pending requests of Oromo on, for example, equal federal language rights and action on the status of Finfinne/Addis Ababa. U.S.-based Oromo rights activist Fatuma Bedaso said that while OLA did seem to have gained ground in western Oromia, the growing popularity of ‘Jaal Marro’ was mostly among “die-hard OLF supporters”.
The growing insurgency adds to Prime Minister Abiy’s challenges. The creation late last year of the Prosperity Party (PP) widened the distance between the government and Oromo nationalists. Plenty of Oromo activists and politicians believe that Abiy, since taking office, has disparaged the ethnic nationalism that paved his way to power. His speech at a public discussion in Bahir Dar on April 21, 2018, saying “Oromo nationalism has made a great nation as small as a village”, is cited as one example.
The merger is widely taken in Oromia as an extension of his perceived intention to undermine multinational federalism. Former Oromia President Lemma Megersa, currently Defence Minister, has slammed PP and the dissolution of the Oromia ruling party. Oromia Land Administration Bureau Head Milkessa Midega has also spoken out against PP and Lemma said many other ruling Oromo politicians supported his position. That intensifies the political challenge for federal and regional authorities in Oromia that were already confronted by the OLA resistance. This week Oromia’s government said it would seek talks with OLA while also maintaining the security measures against the rebels.
Ratcheting up the pressure further is the reported kidnapping of Amhara students from Dembi Dollo University, which led to mass protests in Amhara. On January 10, opposition party National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) released a statement saying that 17 students, 13 female and four male, had been kidnapped and held hostage for over a month in an unknown location. According to NaMA, the kidnappers demanded the transfer of Oromo students studying in Amhara state universities to those in Oromia after reports they had been held captive and abused.
However, on January 11 Nigusu Tilahun, PM Office spokesman, said that 27 were kidnapped and 21 students, 13 females and eight males, were released after authorities, with the help of elders and religious leaders, negotiated with kidnappers. He said that five Dembi Dollo University students and a Dembi Dollo resident from another university are still held and that the government is negotiating for their release. Families have said that those Nigusu reported released have not returned. Federal Police Commissioner Endashew Tassew said on January 29 that 12 out of 17 students have been identified. He said an armed group in the area was destroyed although ‘Jaal Marro’ has denied any OLA involvement.
Taye informed Ethiopia Insight that a female student who spoke about the kidnapping has disappeared. He said eight out of the 17 reported kidnapped are not Dembi Dollo University students, while two of the actual students were found living with their families, and two others had signed for university meals on a date after their names had been listed by NaMA.
In his comments to lawmakers, Abiy cautioned that the politicization of the kidnapping story could create worsening conflict between Amhara and Oromo. But others blame the premier for triggering violence by mishandling the transition in Oromia.
“At a time when the country needs peace and stability as it moves closer to the national elections scheduled to take place in August 2020, the Ethiopian government is expanding its military operations in Wellega, Guji and Borena zones,” ten Oromo rights organizations said in a January 21 statement. “While we understand that Dr. Abiy has inherited a troubled country, instead of addressing the problems, he added fuel to the fire.”