By Dr. Stephanie M. Burchard
In mid-December, a series of violent clashes between ethnic Oromo and ethnic Somalis in the Oromia region of Ethiopia resulted in at least 61 fatalities. This outbreak of violence followed the deaths of 16 protesters who were shot by state security forces on December 12 in Chelenko, located east of Mulu in northern Oromia. Ethiopia was previously under a state of emergency from October 2016 to August 2017 in response to waves of protest that originated in Oromia and swept the country beginning in 2014. What is driving the recent spate of violence in Oromia, and is it indicative of potential larger unrest?
Origins of Unrest
Despite commonalities in language, religion, and culture, Oromo and ethnic Somalis have experienced intermittent conflict for at least the past 25 years. Their two regional states, Oromia and Somali, share a border that is poorly demarcated. Much of the conflict between the Oromo and Somali groups has historically centered on access to resources and land.
Both ethnic groups complain about being marginalized by the Ethiopian government, which has been dominated by the Tigray ethnic group. Ethiopia is ethnically heterogeneous, with more than 80 recognized ethnic groups. The Tigray are one of Ethiopia’s smaller ethnic groups, representing about 6 percent of the total population. The members of the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, which comprises an estimated 35 percent to 40 percent of the population, feel particularly underrepresented by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.
Although tensions between the Oromo and ethnic Somalis are long-standing, the most recent conflict needs to be contextualized against the backdrop of previous unrest in Oromia that began in 2014. After the announcement of a development scheme in 2014 (detailed in the August 25, 2016, issue of Africa Watch) that would have enabled the government to incorporate parts of Oromia into the capital city, Addis Ababa, protests broke out across Oromia. During the initial phases of the project, Oromo leaders accused the government of taking over land and forcibly evicting families. Protests continued and the grievances expanded to include concerns over human rights abuses, political representation, and limitations placed on freedom of expression. The government ultimately abandoned its expansion plan in January 2016 in response to the unrest, but anti-government protests continued to spread to the Amhara community, Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group, and the capital. The government imposed a state of emergency in October 2016.
Details are sparse about the most recent clashes, but reports indicate that members from the Oromo ethnic group were killed first, which then triggered reprisal killings of ethnic Somalis. The clashes are alleged to involve the Somali Special Police, the Liyu. The Liyu are a paramilitary group created by the government in the mid-2000s to deal with a previous secessionist group located in the Somali region, the Ogaden National Liberation Front. The Liyu have been accused of using excessive force and engaging in extrajudicial killings. Coincidentally, in October, government forces were accused of killing four people in Oromia who were protesting the delivery of a shipment of arms to the Liyu. While some are attempting to define the recent clashes as primarily ethnic in nature, activists in Oromia claim that the involvement of the Liyu indicates that it is actually state-sponsored violence.
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The December 2017 clashes appear to be part of an escalation of violence and protest in the region. From October 1 to November 30, around 118 violent events took place in Oromia, almost 50 percent of which were protests. An estimated 200 fatalities occurred and tens of thousands are believed to have been displaced. This increase in violence follows a lull from April to July. Roughly 30 percent of all conflict activity in 2017 has involved the Liyu in some capacity; almost 50 percent has involved state security forces (military or police).
Government Response to Unrest
The Ethiopian government responded to the 2014 Oromia security situation with a heavy hand. Ethiopian police were responsible for hundreds of deaths during protests from 2014 to 2016. In 2016, at the height of the conflict, more than 1,000 fatalities were reported in Oromia. The government arrested protesters en masse and attempted to control the flow of information into and out of Oromia. During the state of emergency, at least 29,000 persons were arrested, many of whom are still awaiting trial. The government arrested scores of journalists and frequently jammed nonstate news sources to prevent them from broadcasting. According to Human Rights Watch, the government also routinely cut cell phone service in areas where the military was deployed, presumably to prevent information about the military’s actions from being publicized widely.
The Ethiopian government announced in August 2017 that it was lifting the state of emergency due to an improved security situation, but recent events suggest a resurgence of violence and protest in Oromia. The uptick in violence may signal the beginning of renewed unrest in Ethiopia. This should serve as a reminder that the core issues underlying the previous unrest, namely state repression and political representation, were never adequately addressed.