Tsegaye R Ararssa
21 September 2017
The Liyyu Police aggression in Eastern and South Eastern Oromia has caused the death of hundreds and the displacement of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. Needless to say, it has immensely exacerbated the already fragile conditions of human security in the region. Human suffering is piling.
The actual impact of the aggression is yet to be accounted for. The real story of the conflict is yet to be told. To date, the aggression has been (mis)conceived by many as an ethnic conflict, a border dispute, a counter-insurgency measure, etc. In part, this is because of the deliberate mischarachterization of the aggression by TPLF as a conflict between ethnic Somalis and ethnic Oromos.
In this piece, I consider the question of how to make sense of this phenomenon. In so doing, I shall try to explore what Abdi Ile’s war is and what it is not. I will also explore the actors and interests involved, the motivations behind their involvement, what challenges there are to solve the problem, and what needs to be done as we look ahead.
2. Making Sense of the Conflict: What it is not
Contrary to what apologists of TPLF say, the atrocities perpetrated by the Liyyu Police are NOT about ethnic conflict. Nor are they about a border conflict. Granted, there have always been low key conflicts among pastoralists living in the border areas. Often, these conflicts are over shared water wells or grazing land. When these occur, elders from both sides of the border (usually the Gurtii from the neighbouring Somali villages and the Abba Gadaas from the neighbouring Oromia villages) settle the disputes in accordance with the traditional laws (known also as Xeer in the Somali region and Seera Aadaa Oromoo in Oromia) of the two groups.
As numerous studies by anthropologists and other social scientists routinely show, such conflicts over shared resources do occur frequently and seasonally, especially in times when drought affects one or the other, or both, sides of the borders.
They are never perceived and performed as border conflicts between Oromia and Somali regions. They never involved regional (and federal) forces with heavily mechanized military facilities. Security forces of the formal sector appear on the scene only when the conflict escalates beyond the capacity of the elders and the local security actors (Peace Committees, local militias, district police, and other law-enforcement agents including the social and district courts). There has never been a time when a mechanized military formation invades local towns; perpetrates unspeakable atrocities on residents (including arbitrary executions, rapes of women and children, forced disappearances, eviction of residents, looting and vandalzing offices of local administration, etc); hoists the Somali region’s flag in the place of Oromia flags in Oromo towns; issues new Somali identity cards; etc. There has never been a time when a paramilitary force brutalized civilian local population claiming that the territory belongs to the Somali, and not to the Oromia, region.
Granted, the inter-state borders in the Ethiopian federation are porous. And that is as it should be. Granted, given most of the borders are drawn top-down (often without any consultation of the consent of the local populations), there are spots where peoples’ settlement pattern do not fit the political map of the regions. There are thus demands for reassignment of people into regions that they have been cut off at the moment of forming the regional self-governments (as per Proclamation No 7/1992) and later sates (as per the provisions of the 1995 constitution).
The fact that the boundaries are not properly delineated at the time the states were constitutionally recognized as such made inter-state and inter-ethnic borders open to adjustments through ad hoc political negotiations and/or decisions, constitutional litigations, and/or referendum. There have been areas between the Somali and Oromia regions where such border-related issues were variably politically negotiated, constitutionally adjudicated, and popularly decided through referenda (in 2004). However, none of these areas were raised even as a pretext for the current Liyyu Police aggression in East and West Hararghe Zones, in Baale Zone, in Gujii Zone, and in Borana Zone. The only towns at issue in the referendum were Mi’essoo (in Hararghe Zone) and Moyyaale (Borana Zone). None of these warranted such a vast aggression that, in time, led to the murder of hundreds of peoples and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of peoples.
Apologists of the TPLF regime in Addis Ababa often invoke the Ethio-Somali war of 1977 to revive a remembered sentiment widely held among the habesha public that there is a covert measure orchestrated by ONLF to satisfy the irredentist dream to secede from Ethiopia and form ‘Greater Somalia’. Given Somalia itself is a failed state whose future is yet uncharted at this point in time; given Somaliland is a quasi-sovereign state waiting to be recognized by the international community; and given the ONLF is denied a space by years of brutal attack by the Ethiopian military and Abdi Ile’s Liyyu Police (especially since 2007/8); any casual observer of the region knows that the Liyyu Police aggression on Oromia has NNOTHING to do with the urge to suppress irredentist movements. Nor does it have any semblance to the ethio-Somalian war of 1977. That it is NOT a war conducted to form ‘Greater Somalia’ (the propaganda in some circles aside) cannot be overstressed.
TPLF seeks to portray this as a counter-insurgency war against the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), operating in the area. It is NOT! It was a memory of a short time ago that Prime Minister Hailemariam and the then spokesperson of the Ethiopian government, Getachew Redda, asserted that “the OLF is dead and buried in Oromia.” These phantoms of OLF and ONLF as ‘terrorist organizations’ are deliberately ‘produced’ at will in order to justify the state violence in the areas.
While the President of the Somali region, Abdi Iley officially talks about border issues as the reason for his soldiers’ aggression, the TPLF government in Addis Ababa claims that the cause of the violence is the existence of “insurgents, terrorists, and extremist forces” bent on destroying “the constitutional order.” (The question to ask in this regard is: if the constitutional is in danger, what then is the Federal Government doing to avert the danger? Of course, the answer is too obvious to need reflection: this is TPLF’s war on Oromos, this time, from the outside in.)
It should also be clear that, contrary to the TPLF propaganda otherwise, this is NOT a counter-terrorist war. If it is a counter-terrorist war, according to law, it is not a regional force that is supposed to act unilaterally to wage war on another region. As per the counter terrorism law and the general principle that terrorism is a matter of national concern, combatting terrorism is primarily the responsibility of Federal Security Forces (Federal Police, Federal Army, and the Federal Intelligence, alias National Security, office).
3. Making Sense of the Conflict II: What it is
If, as we have seen above, the violence is not about inter-ethnic rivalry, border disputes, suppressing irredentism, counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, combatting extremism, etc), what then is it about? How should we understand what the conflict is about? First and foremost, one needs to understand the Liyyu Police aggression in juxtaposition with the ongoing Oromo revolution and the political dynamics emerging in Oromia. Pressed by a survival instinct, the ‘ruling party’ in Oromia, OPDO, has started to make a few symbolic concessions (albeit feeble ones at that) to some demands of the Oromo Revolution. Whether OPDO is doing this as a strategy of co-opting the revolution to calm down the region for TPLF rule, or as a populist alignment of interests with the revolution so that they can have a better bargaining capacity vis-à-vis TPLF, or out of a genuine interest to see the just demands of the Oromo be heard and vindicated is rather dubious.
Spearheaded by the Qeerroo Oromiyaa, the Oromo Revolution had demanded, inter alia, autonomy from TPLF in administering the region; more self-rule in the federation and better representation in the country (shared rule), protection from eviction from one’s own land, evacuation of the Agazi from Oromia, withdrawal of the infamous Master Plan, greater representation (cultural, socio-economic, and political) in Finfinnee, implementation of constitutional ‘Special Interest’ (I Article 49(5), land justice for the displaced, linguistic justice for Afaan Oromoo (the demand to make Afaan Oromoo a co-equal working language of the Federal Government), accountability of the federal forces for the Irreechaa Massacre of 2016 and the over 1000 killings since October 2015, release of all political prisoners, etc.
These demands were all made manifest peacefully in demonstrations, boycotts, strikes, and other forms of civil resistance. Very soon, OPDO’s gesture of wanting to address these demands, albeit reluctantly, and its gaining a hearing among some sectors of the Oromo public, started sending shockwaves to the TPLF’s leaders and a measure of tremors in the TPLF patchwork of coalition called EPRDF. The populist rhetoric of the new team of OPDO leaders (of the relatively more visible Lammaa Magarsaa, Dr Abiy Ahmed, and Addisu A Kitessa) started to unsettle the TPLF officials. The gestures towards economic empowerment of the Oromo youth through a program they called ‘The Economic Revolution’ agitated TPLF’s special interest groups (whose largely illicit business empire is based in Oromia). In this new OPDO, the TPLF saw more a threat than an ally who rules Oromia for TPLF. If the Oromo Revolution has to be crushed or tamed somehow, then this OPDO team must be sabotaged, distracted, or removed altogether. Abdi Ile’s war on Oromia, aimed as it was at achieving these goals easily, was TPLF’s response to the threat the Oromo demands posed against their interest in Oromia.
The Liyyu Police aggression should thus be characterized as nothing but a counter-protest war on Oromia. In addition to deflecting the questions being asked, the war is planned as a vengeful act of destabilizing and eventually dismembering Oromia. The TPLF’s portrayal of this as an ethnic clash between Oromos and Somalis was a deliberate act of mischaracterizing and hyping the conflict so that TPLF comes intervene in the name of ensuring peace and security in Oromia (thereby authorizing itself to remove the administration, and decide unilaterally on the boundaries and reconfigure the standing of Oromia as a constituent unit in the Federation in such a way that it benefits the economic and political power of TPLF and embedded Tigrayan elite).
The war conducted by Liyyu Police is TPLF’s usual act of trading in fear and terror. As the major conflict entrepreneur in the Horn of Africa in the last several decades, TPLF has made it a habit to contrive sub-national conflicts and manipulate them to its advantages. It instigates, or directly enacts, violence and creates a narrative that entrenches hostility and mistrust among groups. When the conflict escalates, it acts as a peace-maker and entrenches its presence as a peace keeper. In this way, it circulates hostilities intermittently and manipulates the groups to view each other as permanent enemies.
This rule through fabrication of conflicts is TPLF’s mode of operation as the party that has captured the state that literally embodies the rule of violence. The inaugural violence encoded into the body politic known as the modern Ethiopian state continues to simmer and boil. The State is still saddled with political contradictions that it never found a resolution for. TPLF’s rule, instead of finding the much needed resolution, conserves the contradictions and cashes them out as needed to play groups against each other.
For TPLF, war is—and has always been–a way of doing politics. This war by Abdi Ile now is TPLF’s way of repressing dissident politics through war. One can even go further to say that it is TPLF’s governance style to fabricate contrived, often low key, conflicts as a way of galvanizing (international) legitimacy as a peace-maker.
More concretely, we need to remember that Abdi Ile’s war is TPLF’s method of destabilizing the Oromia regional government in order to undermine its efforts to check contraband trade trafficking in weapons and small arms, illegal export of commodities such as caat, food items, sugar, etc to neighboring countries and importing various other commodities therefrom.
Owing to the heavy investment of TPLF’s economic elite in the region’s illicit trade and trafficking, this can as well be characterized as a war of special interest groups against accountability. The people with these ‘special interests’ are linked to, or are themselves, senior political, intelligence, and military officials.
As such, it is also a war of lawlessness against incipient forces of legality. That is why even the OPDO repeatedly invokes legality, respect for the constitution, and justice as a justification and a vindicating ground in its power struggle with the ‘gentry’ in TPLF’s business, political, and military complex.
To the extent that it is also a war against OPDO, as Abdi Iley makes it look like, the war may be the first signs of a ‘house divided against itself’. It may be the beginning of the end of TPLF and EPRDF as we knew it so far.
From statements by the regime’s propaganda machine (online and offline), TPLF now has developed a distaste for federalism pluralism, and democracy (even as a rhetorical tool). Federalism checks its unbridled power in the regions. The TPLF media machine flirts with the rhetoric of national unity and territorial integrity as more paramount than federalism. The recognition of diversity and the rhetoric of plural (almost consociational) democracy is seen as an obstacle to ‘unipolar rule’ by TPLF as a hegemon.
Seen in this light, Abdi Ile’s war is a war against federalism and the plural democracy it promises in the light of popular demand for democratic self-expression at the regional level.
In the remaining sections, I will explore the actors involved, their interests, and their motivations in greater detail. I will also reflect on what needs to be done to resolve the problem and submit some ‘modest proposals’ for the ‘way forward.’