NAIROBI, Kenya -- As one deadly conflict in Ethiopia begins to calm, another is growing, challenging a government that’s eager to persuade the international community to lift sanctions and revive what was once one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies.
Even as Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attends the U.S.-Africa summit this week to promote last month’s peace agreement between his government and authorities from the country’s Tigray region, the larger region of Oromia appears increasingly unstable.
Africa’s second most populous country, with 120 million people, is again wrestling with deadly tensions between ethnic groups and their armed allies. Both the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups, the country’s largest, allege killings and blame the other. With telecommunications often cut and residents often fearing retaliation if they speak out, the death toll in the violence in Oromia is unknown.
Speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity out of fears for their safety, several residents of Oromia described deadly attacks in recent weeks.
One witness in the region’s Kiramu district said his father and cousin were among at least 34 people killed since Nov. 24. He blamed soldiers under the control of the Oromia regional government, saying he saw their uniforms.
“It all started with a confrontation between a single local militia and members of the Oromia special forces,” he said. “The special forces killed the militia who was a member of the Amhara community, and then a week-long killing followed." He estimated that hundreds of people have since fled the area.
An ethnic Oromo resident of Kiramu, however, accused an Amhara armed group known as the Fano of attacking and killing civilians and said he had seen more than a dozen bodies and buried four of them on Nov. 29.
“This militia group is killing our people, burning villages and looting everything we own,” Dhugassa Feyissa told the AP. “They shoot at anyone they find … be it public servants, police officers or teachers.”
The Oromo and Amara have lived together for years, he said, but they had never seen fighting like this before.
The deputy administrator of the Gidda Ayanna district, which also has seen some of Oromia’s worst violence in recent weeks, also blamed the Amhara Fano fighters.
“Civilians in our area are being killed, displaced and looted. This group is heavily armed, so it is no match for farmers who are defenseless,” Getahun Tolera said, noting that his district now hosts some 31,000 people who fled nearby districts. “We are still going house-to-house and discovering bodies.”
Ethiopian federal government officials declined to comment on the killings in Oromia and have not yet openly spoken about them. The prime minister last week said only that some “enemies with extreme views” were trying to destabilize the country, without giving details.
Ethiopian security forces, Oromo insurgents and Amhara militia are all battling each other in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest region, said William Davison, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“Amid an intensifying government struggle against the rebels, all three have targeted civilians, particularly ethnic Amhara, which has led to an increase in violence by Amhara militia claiming to be defending their communities,” he said.
As Ethiopian federal security forces battle the Oromo Liberation Army, which the government has called a terrorist group, Oromo and Amhara residents and their armed allies also fight each other over grievances old and new.
Amhara settlers first moved en masse to Oromia in the 1980s during a famine in northern Ethiopia. They lived peacefully there until the past three years. The OLA split from an Oromo political organization and reportedly began targeting Amhara, at times as revenge for its losses to government forces. Amhara militia reportedly began targeting Oromos, and regional security forces became involved.
Oromos are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, followed by the Amhara, who have dominated the country’s politics for generations. Many Oromos were jubilant when Abiy, who identifies as Oromo, became prime minister in 2018. But that excitement has changed to frustration with the growing violence.
Rallies protesting the killings have been held in some communities in recent days. Last week, the government-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said “hundreds” of people had been killed in a “gruesome manner” in the past four months across 10 zones in the Oromia region, and it confirmed the presence of government forces, Amhara militia and the OLA in areas where repeated killings occur.
“The deliberate attacks against civilians in these areas are made based on ethnicity and political views … with the assertion that one supports one group over the other,” the commission said, urging the federal government to take urgent action.
Opposition parties also are speaking up. The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party, All Ethiopia Unity Party and Enat Party called for more security for the affected communities, and a senior Ethiopian official from the opposition National Movement of Amhara asked the federal government to intervene.
“The totality of us have become a country that shows no strong aversion to a continued bloodshed of innocents, wherever it may happen,” Belete Molla said in a Facebook post earlier this month.
Another prominent political figure, Oromo opposition politician Jawar Mohammed, earlier this month asserted that at least 350 people had been killed and over 400,000 displaced “just in the last 48 hours” in the Kiramu, Horo Guduru, Kuyu and Wara Jarso areas of Oromia.
“The government needs to quit pretending as if nothing is happening,” Jawar said in a Facebook post. “The conflict is fast becoming a communal war involving civilians. If not contained soon, it will likely spread to other parts of the two regional states and beyond.”