Genocide against the Oromo people of Ethiopia?
Dr Trevor Trueman.
The Ethiopian government, using its extensive and sophisticated security apparatus, is deliberately and systematically destroying all serious political opposition. The Oromo and other southern peoples believe themselves to have been colonised and oppressed since the incorporation of their territory into Ethiopia at the end of the 19th century. They were initially represented in the transitional administration, established at the downfall of the Derg military dictatorship in 1991, by their nationality-based liberation fronts. Since 1991, Oromo nationalists have been targeted for human rights violations. Oromo peasants, academics and businesspeople who are suspected of supporting the nationalist movement have been killed, disappeared, tortured and detained. The Oromo region is being impoverished and its environment degraded. The Oromo people, who number 25-30 million and constitute at least 40% of the population of Ethiopia, have been further persecuted by famine, fire and forced conscription.
According to criteria included in the 1951 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, the Ethiopian government is committing genocide against the Oromo and other oppressed southern peoples of Ethiopia.
Dr Trueman is a medical practitioner and has been chair of the Oromia Support Group (OSG), since it was established in 1994. OSG receives information on human rights abuses from informants within Ethiopia and from refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries and the West.
Dr Trueman trained health workers for the Oromo Relief Association from 1988 to 1991 and travelled in rebel held areas of Ethiopia before the government was toppled in 1991.
The Oromo and other non-Abyssinian peoples of Ethiopia claim they have been colonised and oppressed since the incorporation of their territory into present day Ethiopia at the end of the 19th century
Stated government policy
Oromo nationalism is perceived as the greatest threat to the ruling government party (the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front – EPRDF – an umbrella party, led and dominated by the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front – TPLF).
Extra-judicial killings, disappearance, arbitrary detention, torture and rape
Since 1991, suspected Oromo nationalists have been killed, tortured, raped and made to disappear. The Oromia Support Group has received credible reports of 2,754 extra-judicial killings and 842 reports of disappearance, since it was established in 1994. Representative accounts are given in the Appendix to this paper.
government ‘continued to detain persons suspected of sympathizing with or being involved with the OLF’.
Detentions of Macha-Tulama Association members continued. The vice-president was detained incommunicado for two weeks in August 2000 and eight other members were kept in detention.
Successive US State Department country reports state that prolonged pre-trial detention is partly due to a shortage of trained judges.12 Judges report intimidation, dismissal and detention, if they release or attempt to release detainees suspected of supporting the OLF. For example, all of the Oromia Region Supreme Court judges were dismissed in March 2000.
The government, using an ambiguous press law, has succeeded in forcing most of the private press, which flourished in 1991, into dissolution. Frequent fines, detention of journalists, punitive bond payments and escalating prices of material have got rid of every indigenous Oromo magazine and newspaper. and
Use of the Oromo language has been discouraged for over 100 years. In 1991, when the Minister of Education was an OLF official, text books in the Oromo language became available for the first time in Oromia Region.
Cassette tapes of Oromo songs are confiscated from shops and premises often destroyed. Oromo singers have been killed, tortured, detained and raped. Ebbisa Addunya was shot dead in his home by security forces in Addis Ababa, in August 1996. Amnesty International has reported the detention of Oromo musicians and singers.
Development and commerce
Government budget allocations to Oromia Region are less than those to the smaller Tigray Region and, as most projects are cancelled in Oromia, most of the allocation is returned to central coffers. Roads are deteriorating in Oromia and electricity is restricted in Addis Ababa. In Tigray, new hospitals, universities, medical schools and an airport have been built and Tigreans enjoy continuous electricity.42
Educational establishments flourish in Tigray, while the famous school of agriculture in Haromaya, Oromia Region, has been dismembered and parts transferred to Tigray.
Rural Ethiopia has never enjoyed adequate access to health care. Two incidents indicate that medication and supplies are deliberately withheld from Oromia Region. An Oromo doctor, exiled to the USA, reported by interview in August 1998, that vital intra-
venous fluids were withheld by the Health Ministry from Hararge Zone, Oromia Region, during a cholera epidemic. A helpful NGO supplied the fluids.
Famine in Ethiopia has long been associated with and believed to be due to warfare and denial of human rights. In 2000, the Ethiopian government stated, with agreement from the World Food Program, that at least 10 million were in need of food aid in Ethiopia. Areas which had never before lacked food were affected and the population was said by NGO officials to be more at risk than during the 1984-5 famine.
Local correspondents and foreign journalists corroborate information obtained from prisoners of war. Youngsters, as young as 13, were rounded up from schools, markets and public meetings. Many schools closed because students stayed away, fearing conscription. Even Sudanese and Somali youths were caught up in forced conscription. At least two were killed for resisting conscription. and
Any of the Oromia Support Group press releases and the report from Sue Pollock’s information gathering trip to Ethiopia in December 1995 and January 199642 portray the extent and depth of penetration of Oromo society by the government security apparatus. Whenever farmers take their produce to markets, they are liable to harassment and confiscation of their goods and vehicles. Many who report being arrested from their homes, also report their goods and vehicles being confiscated.11
The government security apparatus is able to track suspects across the breadth of Ethiopia within one or two days. Nearly all accounts from former detainees include that their release is conditional on signing documents, agreeing that their life is forfeit should there be OLF activity in their area or they be showed to have involvement with the OLF. They are usually ordered to attend security offices every week. (See any press release from Oromia Support Group).
Fires and protest in 2000
Possibly the most serious abuse of human rights, because of its long term effects on the environment and livelihood of civilians, is the deliberate burning of one sixth of Oromia’s forest and of forests in Sidama Zone (Southern Peoples’ Region), Ogaden (Somali Region) and in Benishangul Region. Deforestation for commercial purposes already claims 100,000 hectares per year, according to the Ethiopian Agricultural Bureau.
The government claimed that the fires were started by farmers clearing land or honey collectors smoking bees out of their hives. However, these practices are long established and have not caused large fires before. Areas which have previously never been subject to fires were involved. Furthermore, it is not normal practice to clear land by fire at the end of January, especially if the December rains have been poor. Similarly, honey collectors only operate in October and November. The fires only occurred in areas which support armed opposition movements (Oromo Liberation Front, Ogaden National Liberation Front, Sidama Liberation Army).
Initially, government spokesmen stated that the fires would have to be left burning until the rains began in April. One month later, responding to pressure from students and media, international assistance was sought and 350 Addis Ababa University students were allowed to help. They reported being harassed and intimidated. Thousands of students from other educational establishments were refused permission to help extinguish the fires. Villagers put out the majority of fires in inhabited areas but inaccessible tracts of primary forest in the Bale mountains continued to burn until put out by the onset of rain on 10 April.
The fires precipitated unprecedented civil disturbance across Oromia. Four were killed at the first student demonstration, in Ambo on 9 March, including 12th grade student Getu Diriba, who was beaten to death by police.
Subsequent demonstrations were not only against the government’s complicity in the fires. Students protested against forced conscription for the war with Eritrea, killings and beatings at other demonstrations and the organising and arming of Amhara settlers (the Galla Gadaye - ‘Oromo Killer’ - groups).
Despite the use of violence to prevent demonstrations, including the killing of at least one student, Alemu Disassa, in Jimma, Illubabor Zone, protests occurred in Guder, Ginchi, Gedo, Mandi, Nekemte, Gimbi, Dembi Dollo, Nejo, Arjo, Horro Guduru, Ayra Guliso, Gori, Qilta Kara and Begi. Secondary schools and higher education establishments were closed ‘from Addis Ababa to Asosa’ and only re-opened in August.
At least seven students were killed. Diribee Jifaar, a young teenager, was among two shot dead in Dembi Dollo on 2 April 2000.
Many were injured and hundreds of demonstrators were detained, especially after a widespread round up of demonstrators at the end of April 2000.
At least one of the 350 Addis Ababa University students, Terefe Ejere, disappeared. Terefe was taken from his dormitory on 2 May and was held incommunicado for several weeks. Other students who attended the fires have been intimidated, had their ID cards confiscated and restricted to the campus.
The unrest continued into June. In May 2000, there were killings and detentions in Wollo and Hararge when civilians resisted forced conscription. Demonstrators were also detained in Shashemane.
On 5 June 2000, after the fifth extra-judicial killing of a civilian within two weeks in Waliso, Showa, 6000 demonstrated at the funeral. Soldiers were called in from Ambo and Sabbata and ‘there was gunfire all day’, with many wounded. Over 100 were detained.
On 11/12 June 2000, civil unrest in Ambo, Guder and Gindaberet resulted in severe damage to army barracks and the police station.
Police attack on students
Amnesty International appealed on 12 January 2001 about police invading the campus of Addis Ababa university and severely beating Oromo students in their dormitories. After being severely beaten at least 150 students were detained. Several were hospitalised. The action was precipitated by a clash between Oromo and Tigrean students, following which ten Oromo students disappeared from the campus, according to a statement issued by the students. The statement continued ‘The same night turns into a nightmare when Tigrean police and security . . . break into the dorms through doors and windows terrorizing the students. Doors that led out of the dormitories get locked and students from the other building cannot respond to the screams and cries of students in the locked rooms.
Provocation of violence between Oromo and other nationalities
Formal inauguration of Hagere Fikir groups has occurred, at least in Nairobi, Kenya, and Johannesburg, South Africa. Hagere Fikir means ‘love of motherland/country’. The organisation was initially established by Haile Selassie, re-juvenated by the Derg in 1989 and again re-established by Ethiopian embassies, during the war with Eritrea, in 1998. Its
stated purpose is to oppose any opposition to the Ethiopian government. Although it is run by the TPLF, it uses Amhara opposition to Oromo nationalism; its functionaries are mainly former Derg members or soldiers. The group has been responsible for killing, robbing, harassing and intimidating Oromo refugees in Kenya and South Africa. and
The government refused to publish investigations into the reported massacre of Amhara in Bedeno in 1992, by the OLF. The OLF asked for the investigation, claiming that advancing government troops, fighting the OLF, had committed the atrocity. Many Amhara believe the massacre was the work of the OLF. Amhara settlers are encouraged to go to Oromia Region and have precipitated violence from Oromo peasants because of environmental damage they have caused in Wallega zone.
Oromo in Borana zone complain that their land and water resources are being given to Somali Region and report eight being killed by Garre tribesmen in March 2001. Over 150 were reported killed by Garre tribesmen earlier in the year.
In June 2000, the Ethiopian press reported the massacre of 39 Oromo by Issa tribesmen in Harage zone.
Whenever clashes of this sort are investigated however, Ethiopian government troops are implicated. Degodia settlers who clashed with Boran Oromo in northern Kenya, which resulted in over 50 young men being killed by Kenyan ground troops in May 2000, are reported by Oromo residents to have been urged on and armed by the Ethiopian government. Fighting apparently between Guji Oromo (Borana zone) and Gedeo people of the Southern Peoples Region in 1994 was found by an investigating journalist to have been attacks by disguised TPLF soldiers on Guji Oromo. Captured soldiers, found killing animals, could not speak the Gedeo language and Gedeo people resided many miles from the incident.56 In December 2000, 12 Oromo were killed in North Wajir, Kenya, by Garre tribesmen, according to the Ethiopian embassy in Nairobi. Two soldiers who were killed in the fighting were wearing Ethiopian army uniforms.
One UN definition of genocide, from the convention on its prevention and punishment, is that the term ‘means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group:
Killings members of the group
It is the author’s view that events in Ethiopia are consistent with its government committing genocide against the Oromo and other peoples of Ethiopia.
In The Roots of Evil, Professor Staub lists pre-conditions for genocide, including:
Difficult life conditions
These conditions exist in Ethiopia today. As the third poorest country in the world, with a declining standard of living, Ethiopia may be said to have difficult life conditions.
Stereotypically, Abyssinians, i.e. Amhara and Tigrean people, regard the Oromo as ‘animals who don’t eat grass’. Anti-Oromo racism is a fundamental part of Abyssinian culture and of the conflicts between the Amhara and Tigrean peoples and the Oromo. Racist attitudes towards Oromo became more integral to Amhara/Tigre culture when Oromia was colonized in the late 19th century. As it became necessary in Europe to justify the colonization of Africa as a ‘civilising mission’; regarding Oromo as animals became necessary for Abyssinians. The devaluation and scape-goating of Oromo, especially those with nationalist views, is still inherent in ‘Ethiopian’ society.
Ethiopian culture, as presented to the west, is Abyssinian culture. Unlike the long-standing democracies which belong to Oromo and other peoples’ cultures, Abyssinian culture is based on feudalism and imperialism. No Abyssinian leader has assumed power peacefully. Their society, at family and civil levels, is strictly hierarchical.
Under the present TPLF regime, zero-sum, winner-takes-all, politics prevail. People are punished unless they show uncritical allegiance to the dominant party whose agenda is narrow and whose control is extremely profitable to a tiny elite.
Society in Ethiopia is militarised and brutalised. The TPLF-controlled media whipped up frightening hatred of Eritreans during the recent conflict. Over 80,000 were deported. The ideology of ‘Ethiopia first’ struck familiar chords throughout Abyssinian society.
Deep wedges are being driven between different peoples of Ethiopia, especially between Amhara and Oromo. The TPLF have rejuvenated the ultra-nationalist Hagere Fikir organisation – whose targets are primarily Oromo.
At the Oromo Studies Association meeting in Toronto in July 2000, Dr Mekuria Bulcha estimated that up to a quarter of a million Oromo died needlessly in the previous year, because of TPLF oppression. The scale of abuse is greater than at any time since the Oromo population was reduced from ten to five million in the late 19th century, by the Amhara hero, Menelik II.
Bystander effect: western influence
The role of bystanders is critical, as pointed out by Professor Staub.79 Criticism from western countries about human rights abuses has been muted because of their strategic interests in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.
According to investigative journalist and director of a consortium of Swiss NGOs, Peter Niggli, two thirds of Ethiopia’s budget comes from foreign aid. Ethiopia enjoys more aid from the European Union than any other country in the world. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Dr Susan Rice, stated in 1997 that Ethiopia was the second largest recipient of aid from America in sub-Saharan Africa and that Ethiopia was to be praised for its progress in human rights and democratisation. The UN arms embargo against Ethiopia was lifted in May 2001. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Paris Club of creditor nations have cancelled and rescheduled most of Ethiopia’s debt and the remainder is to be alleviated by the Highly Indebted Poor Country initiative of the World Bank and IMF. If the present situation is allowed to continue, that is if the west continues to prop up the TPLF regime, genocide on a much larger scale is a real possibility.
Economist Intelligence Unit, Country profile: Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti. 1994-5.
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