“Ethnic clashes” in Ethiopia: setting the record straight
First there are the undisputed events. Then there are the media reactions, and these – apart from a few rare exceptions, among them some of Ethiopia’s private media – have been perplexing.
In their intensity, scale and duration, the big demonstrations of 2015 and 2016 in the country’s most populous states (or regions), Oromya and Amhara, showed the level of rejection of the ruling power. After a respite attributable to the declaration of the state of emergency, they have recently flared up again in Oromya. Furthermore, the so-called “ethnic clashes” in Oromya and in the Somali Regional State suggest that the same ruling power is now coming apart.
Let us briefly recapitulate from the beginning:
– The population of the border zone between the two federal states of Oromya and Somali has long been mixed, with recurrent conflicts over resources, in particular between pastoralists for access to grazing land and water. Sometimes violent, these disputes were generally settled by traditional mechanisms of mediation.
– In 2004, a referendum was held in 420 municipalities (kebele) of this border zone, to decide which region they should belong to. 80% voted to be part of Oromya. However, this preference was never enacted on the ground.
– In 2007, the ONLF (Ogaden National Liberation Front), a secessionist movement that is the embodiment of Somali irredentism in Ethiopia, attacked an oilfield and killed 74 people, seven of them Chinese.
– The government then decided, as it were, to subcontract the struggle against the ONLF by setting up, training and equipping the only regional armed force in the whole federal state of Ethiopia, the Liyu Police. According to sources, this force now consists of between 25,000 and 45,000 men, as compared with the federal army’s slightly over 200,000.
– Gradually, the Liyu Police extended its field of action to the fight against Al Shabaab in Somalia, supporting the regular Ethiopian army that had been operating there since late 2006.
– International organisations have regularly denounced the multiple and serious human rights violations committed by the Liyu Police in its counterinsurgency actions.
– A few years earlier, Abdi Mohamoud Omar, better known as Abdi Illey, a former electrician turned minor security service officer in the region, had begun a lightning rise through the political ranks: Member of Parliament, head of the regional security services and, in 2010, President of the Region, all with the decisive support of local top brass.
– Shortly before his death in 2012, the country’s all-powerful premier Meles Zenawi seems to have realised his mistake. He considered dismissing Abdi Illey and bringing the force that had become his praetorian guard, the Liyu Police, back into line. It is not known whether in the end he was unwilling or unable to achieve this.
– In October 2015, Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn was planning the same move, but was forced to backpedal within just a few days. In explanation, he cited the force’s fundamental role in the fight against the ONLF. In reality, however, the pressure from Abdi Illey’s military backers in particular was too great, and he also made it clear that if he was dismissed, the Liyu Police would continue to obey him and him alone.
– In October 2016, the government justified its declaration of the state of emergency by the need to end protest in Oromya and Amhara state. The task of implementing the measure was assigned to a “Command Post” that was de facto under the control of the heads of the army and the security services. In reality, the country’s entire administration was “militarised”. In particular, authority over all the armed structures of each of the country’s nine states (regional police, security, militias, etc.), shifted from their governments to the Command Post and therefore – at least on paper – to the Liyu Police as well.
– Two months later, i.e. while the state of emergency was in full swing, the Liyu Police carried out its first significant raid in Oromya, and such raids proliferated in the months that followed. Hundreds were killed. According to the Oromo government spokesman, Adissu Arega, “overall, some 416,807 Oromo have been displaced this year alone in a series of attacks by the Somali region’s Special Police Force” (Associated Press, 17/09/2017) – it is not clear whether the year in question refers to the western or Ethiopian calendar (the period between 10 September 2016 and 2017). The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies stated (30/09/2017) that the “ethnic clashes have led to the displacement of more than 45,000 households (225,000 people)”, though without specifying the period concerned. In any case, it is the largest forced population displacement since the one that followed the end of the war with Eritrea (1998-2000).
– For a long time, the Oromo government spokesman remained vague about the perpetrators of these raids, describing them simply as “armed men”, which can mean anyone in an area where carrying a weapon is common. He claimed that their objective is twofold: plunder and at least symbolic annexation, since they raise the Somali flag in place of the Oromo flag (Addis Standard, 14/09/2017).
– The tension escalated after the arrest by the Liyu Police and subsequent murder of two Oromo officials (denied by the Somali government spokesman) followed, perhaps in direct response, by a massacre of 18 to 32 people (depending on the sources), the large majority of them Somali, in Awaday in Oromya. Ethnic cleansing was unleashed, essentially in Oromya since, according to the federal government spokesman, 70,000 Oromos and 392 Somalis have been “displaced”, once again with no clear identification of the period involved (The Reporter, 7/10/2017)
– Interviews with “displaced” Oromos confirm that their departure was mostly forced by Somali officials: Liyu Police, Somali militias, local authorities. Some even report that their Somali neighbours tried their best to protect them. On the other hand, there is no reliable information on what role, if any, their Oromo counterparts may have played in the expulsion of Somalis from Oromya.
– On either side, the Somali and Oromo spokesmen are engaged in a war of words, but the leaders of the two states remain silent. On the Somali side, there are claims of “mass killings and torching of villages” by members of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF, a long-standing armed secessionist movement, described as “terrorist” by Addis-Abeba) “in coordination with officials of the Oromo regional state”, the latter having “direct links” with the former (Voice of America, 12/09/17). But no proof has been forthcoming. On the Oromo side, the finger was eventually pointed directly at the Liyu Police and the Somali militia, but the Somali authorities are never implicated (Associated Press, 14/09/2017).
In response to these indisputably documented events, the media reactions – apart from a few rare exceptions, among them some of Ethiopia’s private media – have been perplexing. First, a long absence of information. Then a one sentence summary: “the events triggering the recent violence between Oromo and Somali remain unclear” (Africa News, 7/10/2017). Overall, these events are presented as a resurgence of ordinary “clashes”, as “tribal border conflict”, “fighting between two ethnic groups”, “interethnic violence”, motivated by a long tradition of “territorial competition which often leads to disputes and conflicts over resources, including wells and grazing land” (BBC, 18/09/2017), in short just another revival of the old conflicts typical of border zones.
As if, one fine morning, for no particular reason, a few overexcited Oromos had decided to turn on their Somali neighbours, and vice versa, to act out an ancient and unresolved “ethnic conflict”. This account of things has one essential outcome: these events are attributed to ancestral tribal urges, responsibility for them to unstable locals, and the regional or federal authorities are ultimately exonerated from all responsibility other than their failure to contain the violence. And though the role of the Liyu Police in the raids and expulsions is sometimes mentioned, nobody points out the obvious: they can only act on the orders of the Somali authorities, and therefore of Abdi Illey in person.
However, the Ethiopian authorities have adopted precisely the same position. First, months of deafening silence. Then, at the end of April, news of the signature of an agreement between Oromya President Lemma Megersa and Abdi Illey, “to bring an end to the hostilities stemmed from the recent border disputes” (Ethiopian Herald, 21/04/2017), hostilities to which no high-ranking official had previously referred. Lemma’s declaration on this occasion – “it is unacceptable to fuel unrest in the pretext of border dispute” – can be interpreted as a veiled criticism of the Somali authorities. Abdi Illey denied all direct responsibility, likewise turning it back on “those who instigate violence in these two states”. We know what became of this agreement.
It was not until 16 September, by which time the “displaced” could be counted in tens – and even hundreds – of thousands, and the dead in hundreds, that a leading political figure took a position on the events. Given the gravity of the situation, it was expected that the Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, would prove energetic and lay down the law. In fact, his words were vague, timorous and sounded like a confession of impotence. At “a meeting with community elders, tribal and religious leaders” of the two states concerned, in other words without their respective leaders, he began by refraining from a precise assessment of the crisis, despite the fact that he should undoubtedly be familiar with all its ins and outs. He couldn’t do differently: this deliberate omission was his only way to avoid recognising that the situation had moved beyond his control.
According to agency reports (Africa News and Fana, 17-18/09/2017), he stuck to the story that a “boundary dispute arose between the regional states”, resulting in “clashes” between “feuding parties”. At no point would any member of the government say anything more explicit. In his speech to Parliament on 9 October, President of the Republic Mulatu Teshome again spoke of “rabble-rousers who have triggered violence in both regions” (Walta, 9/10/17). Even Lemma Megersa would reduce the “conflict” to the “criminal activities of some individuals” (Walta, 18/09/2017).
Sole slim exception: government spokesman Negeri Lencho’s acknowledgement that those “displaced” from the Somali region had not been driven out by the Somali people, but by “some organized groups” (The Reporter, 7/10/2017). For his part, the Oromo government spokesman implicated only the Liyu Police, never the Somali authorities, let alone Abdi Illey.
True, Hailemariam announced that the government would send federal police to patrol the main roads, “the deployment of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission to investigate rights violation in the conflict” and humanitarian aid for “displaced persons”. He added that he would do everything to “disarm weapons in the area of the conflict” and that “security forces of both regional states will withdraw from the conflict areas”, thereby equating the Somali region’s seasoned military force with Oromya’s simple regional police force. However, the essence of the message sounded like a cry for help addressed to “civil society”: “the Premier called on all stakeholders to assist the government’s efforts to resolve the boundary dispute” (Fana, 18/09/2017). In short, the federal authority, at least in public, exonerated the main instigator and actor of this unprecedented crisis – the Somali authorities – and assigned responsibility equally to unspecified Oromo and Somali actors.
Except when the Somali spokesman went a step too far, just three days after Hailemariam, this time in the presence of the Presidents of both regions, had declared that “the ongoing efforts to fully stop the border conflict need to be further consolidated” (Walta, 5/10/2017). Speaking on behalf of the “regional state” and the “traditional leaders”, the spokesman wrote, under the headline “Oromo People’s War on Ethiopian Somalis”, that “Oromo is going forcibly for land expansion and creating relationship to neighboring sea ports such as Somaliland and Somalia for importing heavy weapons for federal government destruction which Somali region become the only existing barrier confronted”. He continued: “Ethiopian Somalis opposed Oromo illegal upraising and re-establishing cruel Derg regime and also violating federal system and the supremacy of constitution. This illegal upraising was aimed to collapse current federal government”. The government responded that “the statement violates the federal government’s direction” and threatens the “sustainable peace and security of the nation” (Addis Standard, 8/10/2017). Ultimately, according to a recent story in The Reporter (07/10/2017), “Somali-Oromya conflict persists”.
To understand why, two factors need to be highlighted. The first, to put it succinctly, is that ethno-nationalism is intensifying to the point of detonation, triggering centrifugal forces in the federal system of power. Like it or not, the regional authorities are increasingly asserting their autonomy vis-à-vis the federal centre – Addis Ababa – where the Tigrayan elite has long played a disproportionate role and kept them too long under its control.
As a result, this federal centre is disintegrating.  Not only is emancipation supported by numerous Oromos and Amharas, as well as others, but many want to go much further. It is no accident that the slogan that dominated their protests in 2015-16, and again this year, is “Down Woyane!”, a Tigrinya word that has come to refer to Tigrayan power.
This ethno-nationalism is particularly strong in Oromya. The region was subjugated by force, then quasi colonised, in the last era of Ethiopian feudalism. The ethnic Oromo party, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), was for a long time swallowed up by the TPLF (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front), to the point that it was not until 2015 that it was able to elect its own leaders without external pressure. Finally, the top-down, authoritarian mode of development has gone down particularly badly here. As Ethiopia’s richest region, Oromya has been heavily affected by the brutal eviction of small farmers, with derisory compensation, to make way for investors (“land grabbing”).
Within this general context, the Somali state has followed the same trajectory, but with its own characteristics and objectives. No other state has seen anything like the rise of Abdi Illey and the Liyu Police: none of them is led by such an all-powerful figure, supported by this kind of regional armed force. It was a development that faced opposition from the federal authority, but in vain since the latter was overmatched, as events have shown: the support of part of the military top brass, especially within the command responsible for Somalian operations and at the head of the military security service – at daggers drawn with its civilian counterpart – and probably also the support of part of the TPLF.
Three factors are at work. First, Abdi Illey and the Liyu Police have become irreplaceable in the overcoming of any armed dissidence – the ONLF is now only a shadow of its former self – and in the war against Al Shabab in Somalia itself. It is equally indispensable in the iron grip it maintains over the Somali state: not a hint of protest is tolerated there. Irreplaceable, but also a threat: Abdi Illey makes no secret of the fact that the Liyu Police answers to him and him alone, and that its destiny is indissociably bound up with his own.
Next, the business links between the leading clans and this military group are as profitable as they are interwoven, entailing above all the smuggling of khat, technology products such as mobile phones or household electric appliances, arms, and even basic food products. And finally, they are now coupled with a shared political goal.
The Somali authority justifies itself by claiming to be “the only existing barrier” against those who, “violating federal system and the supremacy of constitution”, seek “to collapse current federal government”. The first target here is obviously the Oromo authority: overtaken by “narrow nationalism” and ultimately in sympathy with the OLF, it is claimed to seek nothing less than “federal government destruction”.
Flawed federal system
By posing as the keeper of the flame, Abdi Illey gains the support of anyone opposed to reform of the federal system. The flaws of the federal system have been at the heart of the protests that have been raging for three years, in particular among the Oromos and Amharas. To redress them is deemed inevitable and urgent by the reformist section of the leadership, even within the TPLF. Opposition to reform, Abdi Illey’s support, comes first from the military group mentioned above, essentially Tigrayan, unlike moderately or unequivocally reformist senior officers, including army chief Samora Yunus and head of the civilian security services Getachew Assefa, both pillars of Tigrayan power. However, this support probably also encompasses a fringe of the Tigrayan ruling elite, which is ready to fight – by force if necessary – for the status quo, i.e. the reestablishment of a highly centralised authority de facto under Tigrayan dominance.
Numerous websites that say out loud what is being said in private in certain TPLF circles call for this approach. They claim that the protests are being surreptitiously stage-managed by foreign countries – headed by Egypt and Eritrea – who want “Ethiopia to break up into fiefdoms”. They argue, for example, that “the state of emergency should have been kept for a few more years”. “Unless the government in Ethiopia makes a major policy change towards domestic security, things will get worst and the integrity of Ethiopia will be in danger.” The proliferation of gestures of friendship made by the Somali authorities to the Tigrayan population is obviously no coincidence.
This state of affairs explains why Abdi Illey retains a sufficiently free hand to advance his own pawns, including his pursuit of the ancestral goal of Somali expansionism. In so doing, he serves the aspirations of his supporters, who do not shy away from worst-case political scenarios. Weakening the new Oromo leadership, markedly more nationalist and therefore autonomous than its predecessors, by showing that it is unable to protect its population. Proving that the federal authority is incapable of containing protest and, beyond this, maintaining law and order. With the implication that law and order must be reinstated at any price, and the subtext that if the government does not do it, others will have to do it in their place.
However, the attempt to discredit the Oromo leadership seems to be coming back to bite its promoters. According to reports, chants of “Lemma Megersa is our president!” were heard at the most recent demonstrations in Oromya, though this has not been confirmed. In any case, the slogan “Down Woyane!” continues to dominate.
In the eyes of the demonstrators or Oromo’s “displaced persons”, there is no doubt that behind the Somali authorities and the Liyu Police, it is the TPLF that is pulling the strings (Le Monde, 13/10/17). In this view, the manoeuvre is yet another version of the so-called “triangulation” operations the Front uses to set the Oromo against the Somali, in order to defuse the tension between itself and the Oromo. Oromo opposition websites have always advanced this thesis: Abdi Illey and the Liyu Police are TPLF creations, toeing the TPLF line to the letter; the leadership of the Liyu Police includes numerous Tigrayan officers.
The reality is more complex. First “the” TPLF no longer exists as a homogeneous organisation: Tigrayan domination within the EPRDF has eroded, the military and security command has become more independent of political authority, and is moreover deeply divided. Abdi Illey has a hold over the federal authority and the military and security apparatus because his armed support is irreplaceable and answerable only to him. Reciprocally, those forces, including the group closest to him, have a hold over him, because the Liyu Police could not operate without the support, at least material, they provide. Neither is subordinate to the other. They are bound together by a convergence of political, military and material interests, and reciprocal support.
The most powerful wave of protests since its instatement (the demonstrations of 2015-16 in Oromya and the Amhara Region) threw the ruling power into disarray for months. However, it eventually found the necessary inner resources to respond, albeit after months of internal prevarications and rifts, and albeit by largely handing over control to the military and security forces.
But the state of emergency would seem to have brought no more than a respite: after a marked reduction in the intensity and scale of protest, it has just resumed on a large scale, as evidenced by the wave of demonstrations in Oromya since 10 October. More significant still: “Local officials and police officers either joined the protests or were submerged by it.” And while a consultation process was undertaken with the opposition, its scope is unknown and its outcomes so far unseen.
In response to an “ethnic conflict” which, in reality, is nothing less than armed aggression by one federation state within another, triggering ethnic cleansing on an unprecedented scale, the federal authority initially remained silent. When it finally took a stance, it was so far from reality that it was little more than an admission of its powerlessness to play one of its fundamental roles: to impose a minimum of respect for the constitution on one of the federal states, at least by preventing its aggression.
Why? The federal government executes the decisions of the Executive Committee of the EPRDF, where the four major ethnic parties – Oromo, Amhara, South, Tigrayan – have equal representation. It is hard to believe that a majority of the Executive Committee wouldn’t be aware of the danger and wouldn’t like to bring Abdi Illey back into line. The most plausible explanation is that even if it has the will, it no longer has the means, because it has had to give way to at least a part of the military and security apparatus that opposes such a move.
It was known that the power balance between the politicians and the military/security apparatus had shifted in favour of the latter, in particular with the declaration of the state of emergency. There were questions about whether ethnic nationalism had also penetrated the ranks of the military/security forces and hence undermined their cohesion. There is now reason to wonder not only about their degree of autonomy and ethnic cohesion but also the scale of their divisions, and even their internal conflicts over how to respond to the many-sided crisis that Ethiopia faces. In these circumstances, can the regime still count on the use of force as the ultimate guarantor of its survival?
Behind an appearance of normality, based on the continuing day-to-day operation of the state apparatus, there lurks a question: are the political and executive federal institutions simply in a deep slumber, or already plunged in an irreversible coma?
The more the four major ethnic parties that form the dominant coalition play their own cards, the emptier the shared pot becomes, and the greater the fragmentation of the federal authority responsible for supranational interests.
The OPDO is looking at the possibility of the resignation of some of its senior officials after its strongman, Abadula Gemeda, stood down from his post of Speaker of the House of Representatives, on the grounds that “my peoples and party were disrespected” (AFP, 14/10/2017). If he doesn’t go back on his protest gesture, with almost no precedent in the recent Ethiopian history, this bluntly means: the leading coalition being incapable of fulfilling the legitimate aspirations of the Oromo, to the point that Oromya’s elementary right to be protected is flouted, why continue to support this impotent structure by remaining one of its key figures? But taking into account the very role of the Speaker, this gesture is more symbolic than consequential. From what is known, Abadula remains a member of OPDO’s Central Committee, so de facto its bigwig.
But if the OPDO were to formally distance itself by the resignation of some top officials from key posts, as internally discussed, what would remain of the coalition’s legitimacy if a nation that accounts for more than a third of the country’s total population were no longer represented?
In these circumstances, the Amhara party, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), could be a key player. Amid the multiple faultlines that divide both the EPRDF and each of its components, three clusters can be identified: OPDO, ANDM, and an alliance of the “peripheries”, i.e. TPLF and the South, which are attempting to win over other peripheral nations. Historically, there has been a longstanding rivalry between Amhara and Tigrayans, but – as fellow Abyssinians sharing the same culture and Coptic religion – they would bury the hatchet when they perceived an Oromo threat. Will this alliance continue, or will ANDM join forces with OPDO? And if so, at what price?
At least four scenarios merit consideration. The EPRDF is in the midst of preparations for its next Congress, set for March 2018. The first possibility is that it reaches an agreement on a way out of the crisis that is sufficiently substantive, credible, innovative and unifying to defuse at least the most radical opposition and to rally the various ethnic governing elites. Its primary focus will need to be a response to the eternal “national question”, or rather the “nationalities question”.
To this end, the only road to success is for the ANDM and OPDO to join forces, acquire allies among Tigrayans and Southerners in the upper levels of the EPRDF, perhaps also take advantage of their majority in the Parliament, and begin to establish a remodelled federal system consistent with the spirit and the letter of the constitution.
To do so, they could capitalize on two strengths. First, the unprecedented size and scale of the popular protest. Second, even the most activist of the younger generation have at least until now largely proved their non-violence and that they are not lured with a call to arms like the revolutionaries of the 70’s and 80’s, while they could have plenty of reasons and opportunities to do so.
If this were to fail, even leading lights of the EPRDF have been predicting for years where the country might be headed: towards a Yugoslavian scenario. That’s the second scenario.
However, a third scenario is possible, arising from a relative balance of forces: none of the elements in place – the civil opposition or the regime as a whole, the federal centre or the centrifugal ethnic forces, the “reformists” or the “hardliners” – would be strong or determined enough to get the upper hand. The power system would continue to stumble along, the country would more or less hold together, and thus the key problems would remain if not deepen.
Unless – fourth scenario – the military decided that it could and should take responsibility for countering the remodelling of the federal system, the risk of a Yugoslavian outcome, or the decay of the regime. Which raises another question: the military as a whole, or one of its factions?
 See for example R. Lefort, Ethiopia’s crisis. Things fall apart: will the centre hold? 19 November 2016, https://www.opendemocracy.net/ren-lefort/ethiopia-s-crisis