Dozens of people have been killed in a “massacre” in western Ethiopia in a fresh bout of ethno-nationalist violence that poses a critical challenge to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s pan-Ethiopian agenda of political reforms.
Survivors of the shootings told human rights groups that mainly elderly people, women and children of the Amhara ethnic group were killed in an attack on Sunday. The survivors told Amnesty International they had counted 54 bodies in a schoolyard in the west of the Oromia region, adding that the attack took place a day after the Ethiopian military withdrew from the area “unexpectedly and without explanation”.
“This senseless attack is the latest in a series of killings in the country in which members of ethnic minorities have been deliberately targeted. The fact that this horrendous incident occurred shortly after government troops abruptly withdrew from the area in unexplained circumstances raises questions that must be answered,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s regional director for eastern and southern Africa.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said in a statement that 60 attackers targeted people from the Amhara ethnic group. They “were dragged from their homes and taken to a school” where they were killed. According to the commission, there is preliminary evidence the real tally “is very likely to exceed” the official death toll of 32 civilians. “No amount of grievance can justify such brutality,” said Daniel Bekele, head of the EHRC.
The Oromia regional government blamed the killings on members of the OLF Shane, an armed, breakaway group of the Oromo Liberation Front — an ethno-nationalist opposition party that spent many years in exile but was allowed to return to the country when Mr Abiy took office in 2018. No group has claimed responsibility.
Since coming to power, Mr Abiy, a Nobel Peace laureate, has sought to push through liberal economic reforms while stressing Ethiopia’s national identity in a way that critics say threatens the autonomy of the ethnic-based states in a country with volatile ethno-nationalist rivalries.
“I am deeply saddened by the ongoing identity-based attacks,” Mr Abiy said on social media, adding that Ethiopia’s “enemies” wanted to “either rule the country or ruin it, and they are using every means at their disposal to achieve this. One of their goals is to break the spirit of our people. One of their tactics is to arm civilians and carry out barbaric attacks.” He said security forces had been deployed to the area, which is close to South Sudan.
Coupled with the rise of previously suppressed ethno-linguistic tensions after decades of authoritarian rule, strains within Ethiopia’s federal system — particularly between the federal government and Tigrayan and Oromo leaderships — has led to months of deadly violence in parts of the country of 110m people.
“The country is in considerable turmoil, as shown by this latest atrocity, which will increase tensions between the Amhara and Oromo. In addition, conflict between the federal and Tigray governments looks almost inevitable,” said William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst at Crisis Group.
Critics say the prime minister’s emphasis on national unity clashes with the current constitutional federal system that guarantees significant autonomy for ethnically defined territories, such as Tigray, Oromia and Amhara.
Dessalegn Chanie, a senior member of the opposition National Movement of Amhara, told the Financial Times that Mr Abiy “has not fulfilled his responsibility of protecting civilians” under a federal system which allows members of one ethnic group to live in another ethnically defined region.
Mr Chanie added that those Amhara who live in Oromia “have been systematically attacked” adding that “the root cause of all these ethnic attacks is an ethnic language-based federalism which has polarised Ethiopian society”. He said the number of victims could be as high as 200.
Moussa Faki Mahamat, chair of the African Union Commission, said in a statement on Tuesday that he “strongly condemns the killing of innocent civilians” noting a worrying “rise in intercommunal violence” in Ethiopia.
According to the EHRC, the attack in Oromia at the weekend was the latest in a “spate of massacres” that have taken place in Ethiopia over the past four weeks, including the killings of a dozen civilians in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s region and “several” deaths in the northern Afar region.