The killing of an Ethiopian teacher, Kitila Godata, left his family in shock.
The 32-year-old has become a new victim of the ongoing conflict between government forces on the one hand, and the rebels on the other hand, in the Ethiopian Oromia region.
The violence revolves around the demands of a rebel group to liberate “Oromia” – a vast area of land that includes the Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia – and because of the strict security measures that followed.
This caused civilians to be caught in the crossfire, among them Kitila, whose family claims he was killed after ten police officers took him from his home in the town of Sikila, on 19 November.
“They told her he’s coming back.”
A relative of Kittila, who was not named for fear of being subjected to acts of revenge, said, “His wife, the mother of two children, begged them to take her instead, but they told her that he would return after the interrogation.”
The teacher did not return home. His family said that after two days of “crazy search”, they found his body along with the bodies of two others.
Kittila’s relative claimed “they killed him on a rock” by the river. And that he was “shot from the back, with his hands tied in the back. It seems that they used him as a target for practice shooting.”
Attempts to obtain comment from the Oromia Special Police Force on the incident were unsuccessful. However, the spokesman for the regional government, Getachew Balsha, said he was not aware that the security forces were falsely accusing people of allying with the “Uruma Liberation Army”.
He told BBC Avan Oromo, “Measures are only taken against those whose crimes are known and people expose them.”
“But anyone who is found guilty of a crime, including police and government officials, will be held accountable,” he added.
The Oromia Special Police Force is increasingly participating in operations aimed at suppressing the rebellion in southern and western Oroma, after an unspecified number of soldiers have redeployed to Tigray province, since the conflict there erupted in early November.
What is happening sheds light on the security challenges in Ethiopia and puts an end to the euphoria that prevailed in the country with the arrival of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power in April 2018, and winning the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.
Abiy Ahmed adopted comprehensive reforms to end decades of authoritarian rule, including lifting the ban on political parties and rebel groups, releasing thousands of detainees and allowing the exiles to return to the country.
In particular, Oromia welcomed the arrival of Abiy Ahmed to head the government, as the first Prime Minister of the Oromo ethnicity. The Oromo Liberation Front, one of the largest rebel groups, turned into an opposition political party.
However, one of its top leaders, Comsa Deriba, also known as “Jal Maru”, was unable to reach an agreement with the government on disarming the militants.
After a dispute between him and the Liberation Front, Deriba continued his rebellion under the name of “Oromo Liberation Army”, from his hideout in the forests in the west of the region.
It was 2018, and the security forces promised to crush the rebel group within two weeks. But it is still fighting the rebels more than two years later.
“د .فن Without the family’s knowledge
Meanwhile, there are increasing reports of civilian casualties.
Jalana Imana, father of two, is one of the victims. Believing in BBC Avan Oromo, his younger sister, Shalto, told the BBC that nearly twenty armed officers had arrested him at his home in Ambo Town, about 100 km west of Addis Ababa, in November.
She added that she searched for him a lot within four days, until she received news that the police had found a body by the river. She then went to the local police station, where they assured her that they had found a dead body and had buried it.
She said, “After some deliberations, they asked us to bring his picture and description of what he was wearing on the night of his arrest. Then they assured us that the characteristics of the man who buried him matched those that we gave them.”
“They told us to go home, we had no other choice,” she said, adding that the officers confirmed that her brother had died of a gunshot wound.
“We only know about his arrest. We don’t know what crime he committed, we don’t know why they preferred to kill him rather than take him to court,” added Shalto.
She said that her brother was only politically active in the Oromo Liberation Front, and had served on a committee to welcome leaders returning from exile in 2018.
Fears of ethnic tensions
The number of victims of the conflict is unclear, but the state-linked Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said it had recorded allegations of 12 civilian deaths at the hands of security forces in Oromia, only in November.
“Political disputes are costing civilians dearly,” the committee’s advisor, Imad Abdel Fattah, told BBC Radio Avan Oromo.
He confirmed that the “Oromo Liberation Army” fighters are also accused of targeting civilians.
Among their victims were the Amhara, the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and its historic rulers. More than fifty of them were killed in Horo Guduru, west of Oromia, in an apparent attempt to expel them from the area.
The region experienced a relative calm. However, the attacks indicate that the Oromo Liberation Army is now in action, sparking traumatic killings and fears of causing ethnic tensions.
According to government accounts, 13 Amhara people were killed in the Amuru region in November. In a separate attack in the same month, at least 35 Amhara were killed, after the Oromia Liberation Army invited them to a meeting on the campus of a school in the Gulsu region.
Residents said that armed men, who had not verified their identities, used loudspeakers to call the Oromo and Amhara to a meeting on the evening of December 8.
Competing political visions
One of the Oromo residents said, “They were eight armed men, their hair was long and their faces exposed, and they asked the Amara residents to reveal themselves. They asked those who were left of us to go to the house, and they took about ten people who stood up.”
He added, “We waited all night for their release, they did not return. We found seven bodies the next morning.”
While it remains unclear what the PLA means in the slogan “Liberation of Oromo”, the main opposition parties in the region are calling for more autonomy, believing that it is the best way to guarantee political, cultural and linguistic rights for different ethnic groups.
But their critics, especially the elites, are raising fears that this could lead to the entrenchment of ethnic identities and the breakup of Ethiopia into ethnic fiefdoms.
Many Oromos feel that Abiy is inclined to the latter view and seeks to centralize power. This perception grew after the race-based coalition disbanded in 2019. It gave its newly established Prosperity Party power in the center and in Ethiopia’s 10 provinces.
The controversy itself is part of the causes of the conflict in Tigray.
“Enemy of the People”
In addition, the security forces in Oromia arrested almost all the leaderships of two main opposition parties, the “Oromo Liberation Front” and the “Oromo Federal Council”, on charges of fueling violence to push their cause towards greater autonomy. The detainees denied charges related to fueling violence.
Their arrest led many opposition supporters to conclude that the political space that Abiy Ahmed provided in 2018 is now closed. This led to sympathy, if not support, for the rise of the Oromia Liberation Army, especially among young people who are impatient for change.
The PLA mainly attacked government officials and police officers – including commanders – in small towns and villages, as part of a strategy to make them ungovernable to Abe.
However, this led to the spread of a culture of fear among the Oromos. Gunmen raided two banks in the village of Hagamsa in December, setting fire to an ambulance that was transporting a pregnant woman to a medical facility to deliver her baby, and in a private car in the nearby town of Shambo. Local residents suspected the rebels were trying to obtain funds and cars to support their rebellion.
The Liberation Army is the most powerful organization in southern Oromia, bordering Kenya. He suffered a severe blow there in December, when a powerful traditional leader in the region, Cora Garso, denounced him as “the enemy of the people”, after he accused his fighters of killing civilians, raping women and stealing livestock.
The conflict has also spread to Kenya, where tens of thousands of Oromos live and are loyal to Kura. Residents in the Kenyan town of Moyale said in November that Ethiopian forces had crossed the border, looted neighborhoods, and took 10 people accused of sheltering members of the Oromo Liberation Army.
Abiy Ahmed visited the Kenyan side of the border with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in December.
A speech he delivered brought together the Oromo rebels and the Somali-based Islamist militant group Al-Shabab, which is the main security threat in Kenya. He said both should be “eliminated”, although there is no evidence linking ethnic nationalists to the Somali fighters.
This was another indication that Abe intends to pursue a hard-line approach to addressing conflicts in Ethiopia.