Reading news headlines or statements indicating the loss of countless lives to ethnic violence in different parts of the country is becoming the new normal in Ethiopia. While the public demands a swift solution to ongoing killings, displacements and destruction of property, the response from the government has become all too similar: claiming the attacks are corroborated by this and that group and announcing that the government is working to dismantle them. However, the recurrence of such identity based attacks against innocent civilians has increased.
The Ataye area in Amhara region once again came under attack last week. The attacks reportedly happened as the security units in the area were withdrawn and deployed into other parts of the region. Ataye, Efrata & Gidim, Majete, Jille Timuga, and the Oromo zonal administration in the Amhara region are among targets of the attacks that transpired late last week.
The area witnessed similar incidents that reportedly claimed the lives of over 300 people just weeks ago. Like previous episodes of violence, contradicting narratives were presented. Last time, local authorities in Ataye blamed armed militiamen “affiliated with the Oromo Liberation front (OLF)” for the violence. Authorities in Kemise blamed the regional state’s Special Forces as the initial cause of the violence. This time around, witnesses blamed the Oromo zonal administration in Amhara region, the regional government accuses both OLF-Shene and TPLF while the Oromo zonal administration blames the region’s Special Forces.
These recent episodes of violence in Amhara region have led to the Oromo and Amhara wings of Prosperity Party (PP) publicly blaming each other. Despite the blame game between the leadership of PP, the areas that witnessed bloodshed are now under the control of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF).
In a statement issued last Sunday, the Ministry of Defense stated that the preceding three days saw a deadly armed violence in the town of Ataye and several other areas in the Oromia zonal administration. The statement also stated that gunmen killed an unspecified number of people in the attacks and property was destroyed. It added that many civilians fled the armed conflict. Furthermore, the Ministry said that the federal army, in collaboration with the people of the area, is successfully working to quell the violence.
To this effect, the Ministry of Defense banned carrying firearms within 20 kms of the main road between the Amhara towns of Kombolcha and Debresina. What makes the recent attack in Ataye different from previous ones is that residents of many towns in Amhara region took to the streets to voice their anger over the atrocities committed.
Protestors flooded the streets in the regional capital, Bahir Dar, and other major towns including Gondar, Dessie, Debre Birhan, Weldiya, Debre Markos and Lalibella. The protests have also continued from Tuesday to Friday with more expected today. Students in various universities including Addis Ababa University (AAU) here in the capital and Debre Markos University, also staged protests.
Protestors also voiced their anger against targeted killings, attacks and displacement of members of the Amhara community residing in areas such as western Oromia and Metekel Zone of Benishangul Gumuz regional state.
Even though the Amhara regional government stated that the attack was carried out by OLF-Shene, name used mostly to refer to the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), the spokesperson of the group downplayed such claims in an interview with Reuters and said it was not present in the area where the fighting took place. OLA spokesman, Odaa Tarbii said in an emailed response to the Reuters that “The Amhara regional state government is seeking justification to commit another act of ethnic cleansing by claiming they are fighting OLA in Wollo. The fighting has been between heavily armed and battle hardened Amhara Special Forces and Oromo farmers who carry AK-47s as part of their tradition.”
Meanwhile, on Sunday, the opposition National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) issued a serious criticism of the PM, accusing him of aiding and abetting the “OLF/Shene” rebels, whom the Amhara regional authorities blame for all the attacks against the Amhara community. NAMA also classified the attacks as “state sponsored terrorism” against the Amharas. The party also walked out of a political parties’ debate platform in protest of the killing of innocent Amharas.
Researches indicated that the majority of conflicts in Ethiopia that are dubbed ‘ethnic conflicts’ are about land and boundaries between territorialized ethnic groups. The federal structure, which is based on ethnicity, contributes to ethnic tensions and conflicts, widening the disparities among ethnic groups.
Had it not been for ethnic federalism, there could have been symmetric model federalism with proportional territorial and population size in the various sub regional states. That might raise the potential to reduce conflicts, researchers suggest. Now, however, ethnic groups are competing with each other and several interethnic conflicts have been ignited across boundaries of regional states that are drawn along ethnic lines.
Over the past three years, the federalism system that politicizes ethnic identity saw a number of conflicts, cases of ethnic cleansing and unspeakable crimes committed against humanity, and all of these have taken place without proper response from the government.
Ethnic politics generates hostility amongst Ethiopians from different ethnic groups, hindering group interaction and eventually leading to ethnic conflict. The latest statement by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission raised such concerns as it called on the government to protect civilians and condemn the attacks that, according to it, emanate from longstanding socio-political cleavages.
“The ethnic based attacks and counter attacks against civilians in Amhara and Oromia regions particularly in North Shoa and Oromia Special Zones of recent weeks have claimed numerous lives and should be condemned. These tragic incidents emanate from deep-rooted socio-political and institutional problems that require long-term sustainable solutions – measures that can break the cycle of gruesome violence that is taking place with impunity. The government should deliver on its responsibility to protect people,” The Commission urged.
Even though the PM did not condemn the attack or express his condolences, he said in his discussion with administrators of the regions on Thursday, April 22, 2021 that the only way to power is through elections and warned groups that try any other mechanism. Without mentioning specific names, the PM also stated in the meeting that some groups are working day and night to create a weak government that they want to control and twist its arms. However, the PM highlighted that such attempts are futile and impossible.
On the same day, President of the Amhara Regional State, Agegnehu Teshager told the media that people in governmental structures were involved in the recent attacks in Ataye. He further pointed out that the region, together with the federal government, is undertaking investigations to identify the perpetrators.
Furthermore, the President questioned “Where the security apparatus was when such gruesome violence was taking place?” In a bid to have clarity on the matter, he said that the region is scrutinizing its own administrative structure. Regarding the demonstrations that took place in the region, the President said that even though expressing one’s own views via peaceful demonstration is a civilized approach, there were some activities to “hijack” the demonstration by some groups in an effort to fulfill their hidden agenda.
The President said that some were trying to loot private property and force residents of the regional capital Bahir Dar to stage a sit at home strike. He underscored that all necessary measures will be taken to stop such unacceptable developments.
Despite the ruling party’s claims that it is creating a favorable condition to restore trust between political actors in different regions by bringing the sidelined to the center, mutual suspicion, hostility and conflicts remain the rule of the day. In ethnically polarized countries, political groups organized along ethnic identity urge citizens to vote along ethnic lines. The situation increases the chance for ethnic grievances and civil war. The politicization of ethnic identity could cause deep ethnic divisions that bring multiple problems such as secessionist movements and a culture of mistrust. To get rid of challenges related to ethnicity, countries tend to prohibit discrimination on the basics of ethnicity, and provide individuals with equal rights regardless of their ethnic identity.
Notwithstanding the effort to restructure the ruling party, the ever increasing internal conflict is challenging the assurance of sustaining peace and security in the country. Thus, it is high time for the government to check its own organizational structure, reinforce the security apparatus and stage a dialogue that incorporates all political actors and stakeholders.