Abiy Ahmed’s campaign against Oromo: a new Red Terror?
The lack of judicial integrity and the increasing use of violence against citizens bodes ill for Ethiopia’s future. An all-inclusive dialogue is essential to avoid state collapse.
‘Oromia is a slaughterhouse now’ was how Teshale Abera, former president of Oromia Supreme Court, described the carnage in Wallaga, Arsi, and Hararge in August 2020. These words were quoted at the beginning of the 53rd report on human rights abuses in Ethiopia by the Oromia Support Group, published on 24 September.
(awashpost)—The contents of the report do not make light reading. It describes in gruesome detail incidents of shooting, raping, and torturing to death. Compiling and recording more than 1100 deaths at the hands of government forces since December 2018 leaves one disturbed, unbalanced, and anxious for the future. A regime that attacks its citizens on this scale is not stable. A significant collapse of law and order underlies and underlines this instability.
The onslaught on Oromo in Qellem, Southwest Wallaga, and in East and West Guji zones of the Oromia region was initially justified as a crackdown on the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), rebel fighters who broke ranks with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), after the latter’s triumphant return from exile in September 2018. Since then, there has been a concerted campaign to obliterate OLA and its supporters, especially in these three Oromia zones.
Attacks by government forces began in October 2018 with the killing of three students in Jimma Agaro. It accelerated with the establishment of military command posts at the beginning of 2019.
The campaign quickly broadened. Officials and members of the OLF were killed and many detained. Oromo Federalist Congress politicians and supporters and Oromo journalists were detained and media houses closed. But it is the Qeerroo and Qarree who are bearing the brunt of the killings. They are young, energetic, bright, optimistic Oromo; movers and shakers whose horizontal movement propelled Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power in April 2018. More than 1000 were killed in peaceful protests which accomplished this change.
These same youngsters, budding leaders, scientists, professors, playwrights, musicians, and artists, are again subjected to lethal persecution. Oromo whose only crime is to be proud of being Oromo and who showed their support for Qeerroo/Qarree, the OLF or Oromo media outlets – during the first few months of Abiy’s premiership, are now being systematically eliminated or detained.
In Wallaga alone, 421 have been killed since December 2018. Out of these, most (322) have been killed in 2020 , as the pace of killings has accelerated. Across Oromia, 166 were killed in demonstrations after Haacaaluu Hundeessa’s assassination on 29 June. Only 67 have been named so far by OSG and included in its published figures.
Government forces killed at least 16 in Arsi and 55 in Hararge during and following protests 17-19 August. These protests were sparked by the apparent illness of Jawar Mohammed, a prominent opposition leader who was arrested on 30 June, when he appeared in court, but the majority of protests, and the lethal force with which they were met, were more likely pre-planned.
Abuse on a scale of Red Terror
Abuse and lawlessness have not been seen on this scale since the White and Red Terrors of 1977 and 1978. Young men and women are being shot dead on the street, in their homes, and on their farms. Gruesome torture and gratuitous violence are reported, including the removal of eyes and genitalia during torture and the mutilation and beheading of corpses.
Among those shot dead are innocent children, mothers out shopping, a nursing mother in her compound, those with mental disabilities, beggars, and bystanders. These casual and incidental killings of innocent people are not integral to the targeted campaign to eliminate Oromo activists and Oromo media but are merely a symptom of the scorn for the value of Oromo lives exhibited by those carrying out the killings and arrests.
There has been complete contempt for the rule of law too. Judges are being dismissed or imprisoned for not bending the law in the government’s favor, despite constitutional safeguards against the arrest of judges unless they are found carrying out a criminal act or after being sanctioned by a Judicial Commission. Judges are living in fear. People do not know where to go or to whom to turn for legal redress. Court orders to release prisoners on bail are being ignored by police but detainees are being taken from prison by government soldiers and killed – as in 1977/8. This deterioration in judicial independence and rule of law means that the future of the Ethiopian state is at risk.
OSG Report 53 describes soldiers dragging detainees out of police custody and torturing, killing, and mutilating them. It describes the gang-rape by soldiers of an eight-year-old girl in a military camp in Mandi and the rape of five schoolboys, aged 14-17, in an East Guji military camp; Oromo children used as disposable sordid entertainment. It describes the casual shooting of a nursing mother for target practice. These are examples of behavior not seen, at least for over 40 years, in Oromia.
Media bias: Blaming the victim
Despite the weight of evidence of government atrocities against Oromo, the media inside and outside Ethiopia give fewer column inches to this persecution than they give to claims, without evidence, that the Oromo youth, and not hired agents provocateurs, were responsible for the violence in Shashamane, Dhera, and elsewhere, which followed the killing of Qeerroo/Qarree icon Haacaaluu.
Despite eye witness reports that perpetrators of the violence were transported in from outside the area; despite evidence that security services and kebele officials were complicit with the violence; and despite at least two-thirds of the victims being Oromo, in a remarkable demonstration of cognitive dissonance, media blamed the violence on Oromo youth, specifically Qeerroo.
Claims of Oromo violence are often made in response to sophisticated and deliberate fabrications that are aired in right-wing Amhara circles such as Abbay Media. The effect of well-connected lobbyists using this material must not be underestimated.
In my opinion, deep-seated, racist hostility exists between citizens identifying with ancient Abyssinia and those living in other parts of modern Ethiopia. Whatever one’s views on the colonial narrative in the history of Ethiopia, there is no denying the existence of racist attitudes and beliefs about Oromo and other peoples. These attitudes are ingrained within the culture of urban elites.
Changing public beliefs and attitudes is especially difficult if they are culturally and ethnically assigned. The attitude of the people of Britain towards its colonial or postcolonial subjects took decades to swing from the paternalistic and racist belief in innate British superiority and privilege to the present, at least professed, ideals of fairness and equality. Similar changes are necessary for Ethiopia.
It is important not to ethnicize human rights and it is especially important not to weaponize human rights. But abuse must be called out and must therefore be accurately reported. The Ethiopian government is concocting a thin veil of legality to mask its detention of Oromo politicians and silence Oromo media while conducting a concerted campaign against supporters of self-determination in Oromia, Sidama, Wolaita, Qimant, and Benishangul-Gumuz areas.
In conclusion, the collapse of whatever remained of the integrity of the judiciary and legal custodial system in Ethiopia is alarming. This and the increasing use of violence against its citizens token ill for Abiy’s regime. If the possibility of collapse into Somali-style chaos is to be avoided then moderation and dialogue are essential.
It is the people of Ethiopia who must decide how they are ruled and by whom. The role of the present Ethiopian government should be to facilitate those decisions by holding elections. Meanwhile, establishing a transitional government with representation from all parties – as in 1991- is a feasible option. However flawed such a transitional arrangement may have been and may still be, it could still prevent Ethiopia from descending into lawless anarchy.
Above all, the integrity of an independent judiciary is essential for the future of Ethiopia. A strong independent judiciary and ending the impunity of the security forces for abuses against citizens would be enormous strides forward for stability in Ethiopia.