The state of emergency, which lasted from October 2016 to August 2017, did not extinguish the civil unrest in Ethiopia. As soon as Parliament lifted it, demonstrations, clashes and killings resumed. A few weeks ago, 61 people were killed in a new wave of violence, according to the government, which refers to “hundreds of deaths” since September. The clashes broke out mainly along the “border” between the Oromia and Somali regions — an area whose access is forbidden to journalists and observers.
This fall, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn spoke of a “land quarrel between the two regions.” The authorities refuse to link the Somali-Oromo clahes of recent months with anti-government riots that took place the Oromo and Amhara regions in 2015 and 2016. The demonstrators denounced the confiscation of power by the Tigrayan minority (6% of the population), which draws its historical legitimacy of the overthrow of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. The Tigrean ruling party, Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), now retains control over all the levers — political, economic, military — of the regime.
The federal government chose to crush the protest movement by force: 940 Ethiopians were killed in the crackdown, according to the official record, and more than 26,000 were incarcerated, according to the UN. Many cases of extrajudicial arrests, torture and disappearances have been documented by international human rights groups. “The protests of 2015 and 2016 were triggered by a land dispute: the plan of expansion of the capital, Addis Ababa, which encroached on the Oromo land, was viewed as an attack on regional balances, recalls geographer Alain Gascon, professor emeritus at the French Institute of Geopolitics at the University of Paris. Since this autumn, clashes have also been linked to land disputes. The Oromos, traditionally farmers in the highlands, a demographically dense area, descended in the lowlands of Somali herders, reviving ancestral rivalries.
But the blaming of inter-communal conflict by the authorities is misleading, according to historian Ezekiel Gebissa of Kettering University, Michigan. “What was presented as border incidents is not really an ethnic conflict. Somalis and Oromos have been living side by side for hundreds of years and they have traditional crisis-regulating mechanisms that work well,” says the Oromo scholar. These disturbances are a ploy of TPLF to create a chaos that would justify declaring the region ungovernable, and gaining control over it by force. The conflict began when hundreds of Oromos were killed in the Somali area by the Liyu Police, and nearly 685,000 of them were displaced and pushed to the Oromia region. In an apparent retaliation, but to a lesser scale, thousands of Somalis have been driven out of Oromia.
The Liyu Police is a Somali special force of between 25,000 and 40,000 men. This formidable “regional army” was equipped, trained and used since 2007 by the federal government to fight the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a rebel group. The Liyu Police is also used in the fight against Islamist Shebab in Somalia. It obeys only one man: the president of the Somali region, the all-powerful Abdi Mohamoud Omar, known by the nickname of Abdi Illey, explains Rene Lefort, independent researcher. It has become so indispensable to the federal government that Abdi Illey is given free rein to Somali expansionism, and Liyu Police to act against the Oromos on the pretext of the threat they pose to the Ethiopian federal system.
However, the main claim of the Oromo movement (35% of the population) is precisely the application of the Ethiopian Constitution, which has been misapplied for the benefit of the Tigray elite, according to Oromo activists. “The question of nationalities [term used since the end of the imperial era to designate Ethiopian ethnic groups] is at the heart of the dispute. The Oromos fight for self-rule , self- governance, explains René Lefort. For the first time, the Oromo party, the ODPO, was able to elect its own leaders without outside intervention in 2015 and emancipated from the tutelage of TPLF. [both parties are members of the EPRDF, the ruling coalition in power since 1991]. For the first time, the President of the Oromia region, Lemma Megersa, has a very wide popular support. He embodies in the eyes of all the undisputed leader of the Oromo cause.
So far, the Oromo revolt has remained largely peaceful, a novelty in the history of Ethiopia. As a sign of symbolic resistance, protesters cross their fists over their heads, a gesture popularized by marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa during the Rio Olympics in 2016. Since then, the athlete has never returned to Ethiopia, where he said he feared “to be arrested, or even killed. He now lives in the United States, and was able to bring his family.
“The movement against the one-party dictatorship has not run out of steam with the state of emergency,” says Ezekiel Gabissa. It has even broadened its base by including parties in the ruling coalition: the ODPO and the ANDM. These two formations now explicitly support the demands of their peoples, defying the TPLF. Majority in Parliament, they oppose a new imposition of the state of emergency, which would place all regional security forces under the authority of the federal government. The rapprochement already observed in 2015-2016 between the ANDM, representing Amhara ethnic group (27% of the population), and the ODPO, constitutes a realignment of power.
“The Ethiopian administration is so resilient that the state continues to function as if nothing had happened, but in reality the system is going through a revolution,” insists René Lefort. The coalition, that has been in power for twenty-six years, is collapsing from the inside. As the EPRDF congress, which is scheduled for March, prepares behind the scenes, the next few months will be decisive, says the researcher, who points out that the most senior leaders from the country have themselves said and repeated that Ethiopia would be threatened by a scenario similar to Yugoslavia if the ruling coalition broke up.
By Célian Macé