Increasing numbers of civilian casualties due to military actions in parts of east, south and south east Ethiopia over the last weeks has now led to fresh protests, more deaths and displacements in several places in eastern Ethiopia.
On the other hand, federal and regional authorities have gone from denial to pointing fingers at one another to explain the root cause of what is visibly becoming an alarming breach of peace and stability in many areas bordering the Oromia and Somali regional states.
In the past few months, Addis Standard has been reporting on several incidents of raids by armed men who casually cross from the Somali regional state to villages and towns under the administrative jurisdiction of the Oromia regional state.
Addis Standard interviewed local residents in several towns and villages, including Chinakson, Mieso, Deder and Gursum in east and west Hararghe; Moyale, Liben and Gumii Edelo in Guji Zone in southern Ethiopia; as well as in Sewena, Meda Wolabu and Dawe Serer woredas (district zones) in Bale, south east Ethiopia, on several occasions since March 2017. Almost all the people interviewed say armed men who are members of the "Liyu police" force were often the culprits of cross border raids that ends in the death of civilians.
Contentious border issues
The boundary between the two neighboring regional states has been a hotly contested affair since Ethiopia became a federal state in 1995. In Oct. 2004 the two regions have conducted a border referendum, which was held to determine the residents' choice for administrative status of villages and towns located adjacent the two regional states.
The referendum was conducted in 420 Kebeles located in 12 different Woredas across five zones of the Somali Regional state. According to the official results of the referendum, residents in close to 80% of the disputed areas have voted to be under the administration of the Oromia regional state. But claims alleging voting irregularities persist. And subsequent ethnic conflicts have led to the displacement in late 2004 and early 2005 of more than 80,000 people on both sides.
Although clashes of various degrees, particularly between the Borana Oromo and the Garii communities (often triggered by meager resources, such as shortage of water and pasture where available,) have remained the hallmark between the two communities in Moyale and its environs, locals in various places claim cross border raids by armed men became much more frequent and have contributed in fueling these conflicts, especially after the establishment of the "Liyu Police" in April 2007.
In March 2017, as attacks against civilians intensified and were solely blamed on border disputes, Addisu Arega Kitessa, head of the Oromia government communication affairs office, said the result of the referendum were "final" and will not be altered. Addisu also blamed the "raids by armed men" as economic in nature. "After attacking the areas, these armed militiamen engage in looting of properties."
And in April 2017 Abdi Mohamud Omar, a.k.a, Abdi Illey, and Lemma Megerssa, presidents of Somali and Oromia regional states respectively, have signed an agreement to end "border hostilities". Three months later on August 19, the Oromia regional state said that as part of that agreement, of the 68 contested towns and villages between the two regions, 48 were returned to be under the administration of the Oromia regional state. And that "border issues were resolved and peace was restored."
As of late however, the somewhat sporadic military raids due to border and economic issues and have not only intensified but took a different shape.
Usman Omar, one of the eight local elders who traveled to Addis Abeba from East Hararghe Zone, Gursum Woreda to file complaints at the federal house of federation warned in an exclusive interview with Addis Standard that "the situation in the region [was] very bad... we have been under the Oromia Regional state since the 2004 border referendum [because] we [chose] to but we are forced to pay a heavy sacrifice for that." By the time the elders were in Addis Abeba looking for answers, an attack by armed men has left seven civilians dead in Chinakson in east Hararghe and its environs. Chinakson has always been under the Oromia regional state and local residents do not believe the attack was motivated by a "non-existing border conflict."
Blames, more deaths, displacement and protests
Residents in all these areas who either contacted or were interviewed by Addis Standard speak in unison and anger regarding the role of the "Liyu police" in fueling the conflict. However, despite growing pressures both from the residents and online Oromo activists, officials from the Oromia regional state have refrained from pointing fingers at this paramilitary elite force, until Tuesday September 12 that is.
On Monday September 11, Selama Mohammed, Gursum woreda administrator, and Mohammed Abdurahman, former security affairs deputy head of Deder town in east Hararghe, as well as a Tajudin Jamal, a member of the Oromia police in Harar, were taken from their car while en route to Harar from Jijiga, the capital of the Somali regional state. According to the locals, they were taken to a police station by members of the Somali police force together with "Liyu police". Selama Mohammed and Tajudin Jamal were found dead in Bombas, half way between Harar and Jijiga, while Mohammed Abdurahman got hurt while escaping. He is now admitted to Dil Chora referral hospital in Dire Dawa.
The incident triggered mass protests in several cities on Tuesday, the sternest being in Deder and Gursum, the later where Selama Mohammed and Tajudin Jamal were known by the locals as "men of the people", according to Abdi Dulee Mohammad, a resident of the town who spoke to Addis Standard by phone. Protesters were chanting "down, down Woyane," the Tigriyna term used to refer to TPLF, the all too powerful member of Ethiopia's ruling party EPRDF. "The young people who went out to the streets to protest know that "Liyu Police" is the creation of TPLF as a gift to Abdi Illey. We all know that," Abdi Dulee said.
According to Abdi Dulee, the locals have increasingly become resentful of the extrajudicial stretch by members of the "Liyu Police." "Sometimes girls as young as 12 are taken by these men even in peace times," he said, "there is a lot of anger and no peace will come unless they are removed."
The "Liyu police" was created in 2008 to operate in the Somali Regional State (SRS) which had its own regular police force of its own. Its creation preceded an attack in 2007 by the Ogaden National Liberation Army (ONLA), the armed wing of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in a Chinese oil field that killed 74 members of the federal army and nine Chinese engineers.
(ED's Note: For more on the dynamics involving the role of "Liyu Police", please read this analysis published on Addis Standard as part of our continuous coverage).
But, the role of the "Liyu police" came to another twist when online activists posted an ID card of a captured armed man called Shune Kherow Abdi, who is described on the ID as a member of the National Army of the neighboring Republic of Somalia. The information was later on confirmed by Addisu Arega Kitessa, head of the Oromia government communication affairs office, who posted the ID with short note saying that the person is indeed a member of the Somalia National Army.
"This incident not only complicates matters but also calls for a careful reading of the dynamics of the conflict in the area that involves more than 1000 km shared border between the two regional states in Ethiopia," said a political science professor at the Addis Abeba University (AAU), who wants to remain anonymous. According to him, the creation of "Liyu Police" has "outlived its purpose, if there were any. It is time the federal government revisits the presence of such police force in the region not only because members of the "Liyu Police" are repeatedly accused of rights violations previously in Ogaden and now in Oromia, but also because of the regional dynamics and Ethiopia's relationship with the neighboring Somalia."
Blames and counter blames
Officials from the Somali regional state do not only loath allowing access to mainstream media but also maintain a habit of selectively granting access to pro-government journalists, bloggers and commentators to disseminate choreographed information. Our repeated attempt to get interviews in the past two weeks bore no result so far.
But on Tuesday Sep. 12, the VOA Amharic held a rare interview with Edris Ismael Abdi, head of the Somali regional state Communication Bureau. What he said during the interview gave many a chill.
Edris Ismael Abdi was not only willing to provide adequate response to the questions, but threw alarming accusations of mass killings and torching of villages orchestrated by what he claimed were members of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in coordination with officials of the Oromia regional state and Oromo online activists, particularly Jawar Mohammed. Edris also personally criticized Addisu Arega Kitessa of partnering with OLF and Jawar to "destabilize Ethiopia". He also accused Addisu of "forging evidence" in reference to the ID card; and went on to accuse the Oromia regional state of being staffed by "officials who sympathize with OLF's ideology."
However, Edris's tirade fell flat when asked if he was willing to provide solid evidence. "I don't have it compiled at the moment," he said, but insisted "their deeds bear witness." He also said he can provide evidence of captured rebels who were held under police custody.
Addisu on his part countered the statement from Edris and spoke about the "negative role" being played by members of the "Liyu Police." This was the first time Addisu spoke of the involvement by the "Liyu police". "What is happening is not what Edris said was happening. Members of the "Liyu police" are crossing over to villages under the administration of the Oromia regional state and are attacking civilians. The people are witnesses for this." He also denied that there were areas where the OLF was active. "We are conducting investigations and are compiling a detailed report which will be released in the near future."
Addisu further explained about the progress of redrawing contested areas, which were the sources of previous conflicts. Later on, he wrote on his Facebook page with a link to the VOA interview and said: "It's surprising to hear my friend Edris Ismael Abdi... is trying to defend Shune Kherow Abdi, a soldier from Somalia Republic captured in Moyale while killing innocent people. I hope this irresponsible statement is not an official statement from Somali National Regional State Government. It rather seems Edris Ismael's personal opinion."
But on Wednesday September 13, the Somali Regional state communication affairs bureau proved Addisu wrong when they posted on their official Facebook page a contemptuous statement accusing the Oromia regional state of having direct links with the OLF, an organization labeled by the federal government as a terrorist organization.
"This is a troubling turn of event", said our interviewee from the AAU, who has written several academic papers on the fault lines of Ethiopia's federalism. "Whoever did that knows that this is an accusation the federal government will not take lightly given past experiences. They know that every Oromo dissenting voice within the country has been dealt a severe blow in the pretext of membership to OLF. So, if you are not concerned by this turn of event so far, you should now."
Today afternoon, Addisu issued his response in his personal Facebook page in which he expressed his frustrations about, among others, the use of poor and inflammatory language in the statement from the Somali regional state, which "helps nothing but further fuel the situation."
More death and displacement
Protests have taken place in several cities in eastern Hararghe yesterday and to a lesser extent today. Although reports indicate of heavy causalities, the exact numbers are hard to come by. According to Addisu, 18 people - 12 from Somali and 6 from the Oromo ethnic groups - were killed in just one day yesterday during a protest by angry local residents in Awoday, a commercial city in eastern Hararghe. The protesters took to the street after news of the killing of Selama Mohammed and Tajudin Jamal came out, according to Addisu. Some 200 suspects were placed under police custody.
On Friday September 01 residents of Mieso town, west Hararghe zone, took matters into their own hands and engaged in a daylong fighting with members of the "Liyu Police". The clash left "more than 30 people", including "more than a dozen army members", dead and several others injured. "We couldn't take the killings our men, the raping of our girls and the lootings of our cattle by bandits openly supported by the Liyu Police," wrote Abdulatif Kererro, a resident of the town in a message sent to Addis Standard.
As chain of similar events followed, a fighting between local residents and what they continued insisting were members of the "Liyu police" quickly spread to the south and south eastern Ethiopia and has claimed unknown numbers of lives.
The youth in Moyale town of Guji zone, 795 km south of Addis Abeba, have come out en mass to fight against the taking of "our holy sites," according to one resident. "For example, Gofa and Ia'ee are among our nine Tulas (deep wells) taken by the Garee community - a Somali pastoralist clan." According to him, the taking over of these areas were not entirely driven by the Garee, "who lived alongside us for generations and, who, despite occasional competition for resource, never touched our sacred places," rather, he says, it was "orchestrated and supported by the "Liyu police" and members of militia belonging to the Somali regional state for sheer reason of capitalizing on chaos." Relative calm has returned since the last "three days," he said.
But one cannot say the same about eastern Ethiopia. Yesterday, around 600 ethnic Oromo residents of Tog Wajale (Wachale) in eastern Ethiopia towards the border with the Republic of Somalia, as well as hundreds from Jijiga town, the capital of the Somali regional state, were forced to flee their homes. Some have made it to Harar while others are arriving in several places such as Gursum in east Hararghe to take refugee.
The displacement has continued throughout today with some of the displaced telling disturbing stories of mutilation and killing of a woman and detention of men, according to DW Amharic.
The federal government has deployed members of the federal army in parts of eastern and western Hararghe as well as Jijiga. But the displacement has continued with thousands more said to have already been on the road.
Our interviewee from the AAU concurs with the decision by the federal government to send federal army members, but he is critical of the "root cause of the problem, which is the presence of a special force in a fragile region and the hope that it will serve as checks and balances - it is delusional. You cannot maintain peace and stability by a proxy force which operates in impunity."
Other Ethiopians have taken to Facebook to denounce the special elite force. "The Ethiopian government can no longer justify the continued existence of the paramilitary force called 'Liyu Police,'" wrote Awol Kassim Allo, a lecturer of law at Keele University. "There can be no legitimate reason for a country that plays an active part in regional and global peacekeeping operations to keep its own peace with a notorious paramilitary force known for its lethal ferocity."
Although many, including Abdi Dulee and the professor from AAU, agree that removing the "Liyu Polcie' may be the solution, other critiques are skeptical of the federal government's willingness to do just that. "The federal government instigated the conflict to compromise Lemma [Megerssa], divert attention and consolidate the minority coalition," wrote one such critique in a message. "The escalation would legitimize the federal government's intervention in the person of Samora Yenus, [the federal army chief]. This would discredit OPDO, emboldens the military and equates Oromia, the biggest and largest national state with an aspiration to be a mainstream political force with Ethiopian Somali state, Ethiopia's Chechnya." He said he believed the federal government was "behind the escalation and the calculated neglect of the crisis."
On Friday September 08, during a New Year press conference, Dr. Negeri Lencho, head of the federal communication affairs bureau, admitted that "there were other forces" operating in some parts within the two regional states. "We have information that recently lives were lost in some areas due to fresh conflicts. These fresh conflicts have nothing to do with border issues between the two regional states. Our information is that officials from both regional states are working on implementing to resolve the border issues. However, there are some instigation by some forces assigned by unknown actors," Dr. Negeri said. He also said the federal government has placed the situation "under control." But events in eastern Ethiopia until the publishing of this article prove him wrong. AS