The war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region has cooled down since the signing of a peace deal on 2 November. But a separate conflict is intensifying further south in Oromia, where civilians are suffering as anti-government rebels step up attacks.
Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) rebels were previously confined to the fringes of western and southern Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest region. But analysts say the Tigray war created a security vacuum that has helped the OLA expand its long-running insurgency.
The security situation is now “fast deteriorating”, the UN’s aid coordination agency, OCHA, warned in a report last month. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been uprooted and essential services are not functioning in some conflict-affected areas.
“We were afraid [that] the kinds of things you see in the media were happening in our city,” said Oromia resident Naol Tesfaye, describing an OLA attack in November. He said the group briefly seized his town, Nekemte, before melting into the countryside.
The OLA feeds off grievances among the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. They account for around 40% of the population but claim a history of oppression. Resentment has festered futher under current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who is himself an Oromo.
The government has responded to the rebellion with a counterinsurgency offensive. But the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has documented extrajudicial killings by government troops.
Ethnically based massacres are also increasing. The OLA is accused of targeting Amharas who live in Oromia, while ethnic militias from the Amhara region – which borders Oromia – have killed Oromo civilians. Many hundreds, if not thousands, have died.
Frustrated at the situation, Oromo lawmakers from Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party wrote a letter last month to the prime minister’s office and the speaker of the national parliament, demanding a peace deal similar to the one in Tigray.
Among the authors was Buzayehu Degefa, whose constituency in Oromia’s East Wollega region is badly affected by the conflict. Degefa told The New Humanitarian that the situation cannot be resolved through military means.
“The government has been trying to defeat the group through military operations for three or four years and still there is no solution,” he said. “That is why we need another plan. We are demanding a peace deal brokered by a third party like the African Union.”
Until recently, the OLA mostly conducted small-scale hit-and-run operations. It has raided banks and conducted kidnappings to fund operations that include targeted assassinations against government officials and police officers.
The conflict has gone mostly unnoticed outside of Ethiopia amid heavy focus on the northern Tigray war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and dominated headlines about the country for the past two years.
But as implementation of the Tigray peace deal shows signs of progress – Tigrayan forces reportedly handed over their heavy weapons this week – Oromia has morphed into Ethiopia’s "most volatile region", according to ACLED, a conflict monitoring group.
Violence is spreading to rural areas not far from the capital, Addis Ababa, and “the conflict is more or less engulfing the whole of the Oromo nation,” Merera Gudina, the chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) party, told The New Humanitarian.
In western Oromia, the OLA is now controlling territory and pulling off increasingly complex attacks. And whereas it previously turned down new volunteers due to limited training capacity, it now holds big graduation ceremonies for recruits.
In recent months, there has been a flare-up in OLA attacks that may be linked to the Tigray peace deal, said a diplomat in Addis Ababa, who requested anonymity to preserve working relations with authorities.
“The OLA are stepping up their operations and expanding their control over some areas to score propaganda points before battle-hardened federal troops redeploy from the north,” the diplomat said.
‘I had never heard gunshots before that day’
Several Oromia residents who spoke to The New Humanitarian described deadly OLA raids in recent months. Naol from Nekemte – an urban hub centred on a major road junction – said it was dawn when he awoke to the sound of gunshots.
He said he spent six hours lying on the floor of his home as the OLA clashed with security forces. When he went outside, he saw the bodies of three people caught in the crossfire. “I had never heard gunshots before that day,” Naol said.
Nekemte residents said hundreds of OLA fighters took part in the November attack. Their target appeared to be local jails and police stations, where the rebels stole weapons and claimed to have released an unknown number of prisoners.
The regional government's clumsy counterinsurgency strategy has made the conflict worse. Poorly trained soldiers have abused communities accused of harbouring rebels, while federal airstrikes have killed scores of civilians, rights investigators say.
Also complicating matters is the involvement of the Fano, an Amhara militia. The group claims to be defending Amhara civilians and interests and has launched several attacks into Oromia.
“In my village alone, 37 civilians were killed.”
Three Oromia residents and an official from Oromia’s Kiramu district, close to the border with Amhara, told The New Humanitarian that Fano fighters have killed ethnic Oromos and torched villages in a series of raids since mid-October.
Lemessa Jabessa, a hotel owner, said his father was wounded by a bullet on 18 November during a raid by what he called “Amhara extremists”. His wife was killed eight days later in a separate attack, he said.
“I told her to take the children to the bush, and it was during this that she was hit,” Lemessa said. “In my village alone, 37 civilians were killed.” He added that, “many homes, government offices, and [other] properties were burned and looted.”
In total, 214 civilians and 244 members of Oromia’s regional security force were killed in Kiramu between 15 October and 10 December, according to a local official, who did not want to be named. They said over 80,000 people were displaced during this period.
The OLA are accused of atrocities too. The Amhara Association of America (AAA), an advocacy group, claims the rebels, Oromo youth, and Oromia security forces killed 27 Amhara civilians in Kiramu between late November and mid-December.
Overall, the AAA estimates that at least 1,566 Amhara civilians were killed in Oromia last year. This includes a massacre in Gimbi district in June that saw Oromo-speaking gunmen – identified by residents as OLA – kill hundreds of Amharas.
Roots of the rebellion
The OLA is not a new group. It was formed in the 1970s as the armed wing of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). The rebels fought the communist Derg regime, and maintained a low-level insurgency against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front-dominated regime that came after.
In 2018, the OLF signed a peace deal with Abiy’s government that saw it invited back from exile in Eritrea. But a band of hardline OLA commanders held out, choosing to continue their guerrilla campaign rather than disarm.
Oromo anger at Abiy has aided their cause. Abiy rode to power on a wave of mass Oromo-led protests and his early reforms created “an exaggerated expectation from the youth that all their problems would be solved”, said an analyst of Oromo politics.
“Obviously that was unrealistic, and [the Oromo] were disappointed,” added the analyst, who asked for their name to be withheld, citing a risk of reprisals.
The OLA got a further boost in 2020 following the murder by unknown individuals of Hachalu Hundessa, an Oromo pop icon. After Hachalu’s death triggered protests in Oromia, the state cracked down and arrested prominent Oromo figures.
“The major influx of young people into the OLA happened after Hachalu’s death,” said the analyst of Oromo politics. “People were angry and the OLA was portrayed as the champion of the Oromo cause.”
The roots of this cause stretch to the late 19th century, when lowland Oromia was conquered and violently absorbed into the highland empire of Ethiopian emperor Menelik II. To cement his hold on the area, Menelik II introduced armed Amhara settlers to rule on his behalf, and for many Oromo this sense of oppression is still felt today.
Activists claim the Oromo remain insufficiently represented at the highest levels of government and business, despite comprising Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. Other flashpoints include border disputes with Amhara, allegations of land grabs, and the status of Addis Ababa.
A threat to Addis Ababa?
Though the OLA is gaining strength, its political and military structure is murky. The group is led by a veteran bush fighter known as Jaal Marroo, but it lacks command and control and has voiced no political agenda beyond claiming to fight for the Oromo people.
It is not clear how many fighters are in its ranks, and the rebels are thought to lack heavy weaponry. Analysts therefore caution against overstating its strength and ability to threaten Addis Ababa.
“The OLA does not come close to being what the Tigrayan rebels are fighting-wise.”
“The OLA does not come close to being what the [Tigrayan rebels are] fighting-wise,” said another analyst, who has deep knowledge of Oromo issues but also did not want to be named. “I don’t think they will ever be in a position to walk into Addis one day; we are talking about guys with AK47s.”
Still, for Buzayehu, the Oromo lawmaker, there remains much to worry about. “People [in Oromia] are dying on a daily basis, but the world is silent,” he said. “We will not keep quiet until peace comes and the suffering of our people ends.”
Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.