Dozens of people were confirmed dead in a “brutal” terrorist attack in the West Wellega Zone of Ethiopia. It occurred after government forces left unexpectedly on 1 November. Following their departure, survivors said rebels identifying themselves from the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) arrived and claimed authority to the area. According to Amnesty International, “[M]ilitants [then] gathered people who did not manage to flee, mainly women, children, and the elderly, and killed them,” while a witness speaking to Amhara Mass Media recalled the group gathering “200 people for a meeting around 5pm” and then “shooting at them.” Supporting Amnesty’s claim that Sunday’s attack was the latest deliberation against ethnic minorities, Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission (EHRC) cited reports of Amharas “dragged from their homes and taken to a school, where they were killed.” Although the EHRC officially stated the death toll at 32, the “actual number could be much higher,” in addition to at least 120 homes burned and 200 families fleeing the area. Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed denounced these identity based killings and assured that “measures have started to be taken against the attackers.”
Along with the EHRC’s urging the government to “shed light on the reasons behind the military’s withdrawal from an area long known to be vulnerable to attacks,” Amnesty International regional director Deprose Muchena said, “[T]he fact that this horrendous incident occurred shortly after government troops abruptly withdrew from the area in unexplained circumstances raises questions that must be answered.” On Facebook, Ahmed said that “[E]thiopia’s enemies are vowing either to rule the country or ruin it, and they are doing everything they can to achieve this.” Although no one officially claimed responsibility for the attack, Ethiopia blamed the OLA, despite their denying similar past allegations and the Oromia region’s spokesperson Getachew Balcha calling the assault a “brutal terror attack” aimed at creating havoc and inducing psychological pressure on citizens. In addition to government failure “to protect” safety, National Movement of the Amhara party senior member Dessalegn Chanie cited Ethiopia’s language-based federal system as impetus for the killings. He also remarked to the Associated Press (A.P.) that “[E]thnic Amharas residing outside of the Amhara region are being labelled as outsiders and are exposed to repeated attacks.”
The Oromos comprise Ethiopia’s majority ethnic group with approximately 35% of its population, slightly more than Amharas – the second largest. As Abdi Latif Dahir of The New York Times wrote, since Ethiopia’s opening “in recent years,” conflict between these groups has intensified over political power, resources, and borders. Although Prime Minister Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for “sweeping political reform” for restarting peace talks and resolving border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea, Elias Meseret of the A.P. wrote that Ethiopia’s ethnic violence poses his greatest challenge. In addition to “taking measures,” Ahmed must address Muchena and the EHRC’s demands to investigate government forces leaving the West Wellega Zone unexpectedly, and how this relates to attackers arriving shortly thereafter claiming ownership of the area. Public confidence in the government may falter if it fails to discover these details. While the massacre occurred a month ago, Ethiopia’s government has shown little progress with investigating the attackers and unexplained occurrences.
According to Yohannes Gedamu of Quartz, ethnic tensions between the Oromos and Amharas can trace back to 1991, when former president Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam’s military regime was overthrown from power, and a slapdash coalition seized control in the capital. They were known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, comprised of four ethnic parties: The Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, Amhara National Democratic Movement, Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, and the Tygerian People’s National Front. After assembling, the coalition proposed an ethnic federal governing system to address ethnic grievances by allowing regions opportunity to administer themselves along tribal lines. This led to increased ethno-nationalist movements, weakening national unity. Since then, Ethiopia has been engulfed in ethnic violence, with varying factions encroaching another’s land. One example is when the Oromo Democratic Party, the most powerful group from the coalition, politically and constitutionally claimed Addis Ababa in the state of Oromia. Despite less than 20% of the city population being Oromos with an overwhelming Ahmara majority, it became Oromia’s capital, causing tension between both groups.
Before the massacre, violence against Amharas surged in recent months. In September, 45 Amharas were killed by armed youth groups in Benishangul, and another 31 in October in the Southern Nations Nationalities and People’s Region. In his article, Gedamu also proposed that the ethnic federal arrangements gave “ethnic parties and their politics the chance to flourish.” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose reforms focus on individual rights and citizenship politics, should find an area of commonality for constitutional reform among Ethiopia’s various ethnic groups, who emphasize group-rights. Perhaps by promoting constitutional amendments, laws that focus on ethnic distinctions can shift to individual rights, changing the constitution’s precedent of ethnic violence.