In November 2020, an outbreak of violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray region captured global attention. The conflict pitted Tigrayan forces against forces of the Ethiopian government and its allies.
Since then, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has come under increasing global pressure to negotiate with Tigray officials to stop the carnage in the region.
Even before fighting broke out in Tigray, the government had established military command posts in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest state. The Oromo were protesting and calling for self-determination.
During Oromia’s latest wave of violence in June 2022, Al Jazeera, The New York Times and Reuters reported that hundreds of people were killed by the Oromo Liberation Army in Wallaga, Oromia.
These reports labeled all of the victims as Amharas, members of Ethiopia’s second largest ethno-national group. The Oromo are the greatest.
As a scholar of Ethiopian politics and society, I have researched and written extensively on the Oromo movement, and identified the historical forces that have shaped its current politics.
My understanding – given the history of Oromo oppression in Ethiopia and numerous reports of attacks on the community by rights groups – is that the violence in Oromia is primarily motivated by the federal government and its officers. The Oromo Liberation Army responds to state terrorism and gross human rights abuses.
Oromo voices are not represented in the Ethiopian government, the global system or the media. The federal government and its allies, particularly Amhara elites and forces, blame the Oromo movement for the violence. This is a strategy to delegitimize the Oromo struggle for self-determination.
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The Oromo consider themselves a nation. They are estimated to represent between 35% and 50% of Ethiopia’s 115 million people. An exact figure is difficult to obtain because the government does not provide this data.
Ethiopia has about 80 ethno-national groups. The Amhara make up about 27% of the population. Their language, culture, history and religion dominated other ethno-national groups. Their warlords and rulers have dominated Ethiopia’s political economy for almost 150 years.
Despite their numbers, the Oromo consider themselves colonial subjects. Indeed, like other subjugated ethno-national groups, they were denied access to the political, economic and cultural resources of their country.
Habasha (Amhara-Tigray) warlords colonized Oromia. The region was later incorporated into Abyssinia (the Ethiopian Empire) at the end of the 19th century.
Menelik II, the Ethiopian emperor, established a form of colonialism that settled Amhara, Tigrayans and other ethnic soldiers in Oromia. Most Oromos were reduced to serfs, providing free labor and tax revenue.
The colonial government claimed about three quarters of Oromo land for its officials and soldiers. He gave the remaining quarter to Oromo collaborators.
In the 1970s, to oppose political, economic and cultural marginalization, Oromo nationalists created the Oromo Liberation Front. Its military wing is the Oromo Liberation Army. They wanted national self-determination and democracy and participated in the failed revolutions of 1974, 1991 and 2018.
The Ethiopian state continued to subject the Oromo people to violence and human rights abuses. Successive Ethiopian governments have caused deep social, political, cultural and economic crises in Oromo society.
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Drivers of violence
The government and the Oromo Liberation Front have blamed themselves for the latest outbreak of violence in Oromia, particularly in Wallaga.
A subgroup of the Oromo, the Macha, live in Wallaga. They have been targeted by the Ethiopian government and the expansionist Amharas, who claim to be the original owners of the area.
During the famine of the 1970s, desperate Tigrayans, Amharas and Oromos from elsewhere settled in Wallaga. The Amhara expansionists started calling all these people Amharas to justify their claim to the territory.
Prime Minister Ahmed sided with the Amhara expansionists.
Ahmed came to power in 2018 mainly because of the Oromo struggle but later turned against the movement. His vision is that of a centralized state rather than the self-determination of the various Ethiopian groups.
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The state ideology of “Ethiopism” was used to justify the subordination of the Oromo and other colonized peoples. It has strengthened the class that dominates Ethiopia’s bureaucracy, military, culture, Orthodox Christianity and colonial political economy.
The Oromo Liberation Army, which has been banned and branded a terrorist group, claims the government has created a clandestine security structure posing as the Oromo army. He says that this structure is responsible for the last attack and those that preceded it.
Between December 2018 and December 2019, in southern Oromia, government soldiers displaced 80,000 Oromos and arrested more than 10,000.
An Amnesty International report found that state troopers executed 52 people during this period on suspicion of supporting the Oromo Liberation Army.
The government further took the incarcerated Oromos away for months of mandatory training. These inmates were trained on the constitution and history of the Oromo people. These “lessons” were intended to induce the prisoners to abandon the quest for nationalism.
A Human Rights Watch report from July 2022 called the government’s actions in western Oromia “abusive”. He documented communication blackouts, executions and arbitrary detentions.
The world community must pressure the Ethiopian government to achieve peace with the Oromo Liberation Army. However, this will only succeed if a neutral body mediates on behalf of the United Nations.
Ahmed’s government is ready to negotiate with the Tigrayan Defense Forces mainly due to pressure from world powers. However, he refuses to reconcile with the Oromo Liberation Front and is determined to solve a political problem militarily.
Ethiopia cannot be at peace without an independent reconciliation body that resolves the Oromo political issue in a fair and democratic manner.