Oromia is the largest Region in Ethiopia. Stretching across Ethiopia from East to West, the Region consists of 34% of the land in Ethiopia and is home to over 37 million people (FDRE Central Statistical Agency, 2013,Population Projection of Ethiopia for All Regions At Wereda Level from 2014 – 2017). It is divided into 20 administrative Zones, 30 town administrations, 287 rural and 46 town Woredas. According to the last census, more than 65 ethnic groups and people from neighboring countries live in Oromia Region (FDRE Population Census Commission, 2008). The majority of the Oromia Region is inhabited by the Oromo ethnic group, followed by Amhara, Gurage, and Gedeo ethnic groups.
Oromia Region has been the site of anti-government protests and insurgency for many years. Mass mobilization through protests swept through the Region between 2014 and 2018, this movement was instrumental in bringing the current prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, to power. Despite having little in the way of set organizational structures, the ‘Qeerroo youth movement’ in Oromia Region were able to enforce economic strikes, hijack government-sponsored events, and disrupt government activities on a regular basis during the pre-Abiy years. All of this was done in the face of heavy repression from state forces, which only seemed to fuel the protest fervor whenever they engaged in disproportionate amounts of violence against protesters.
The Qeerroo is a broad term for a social movement that is not coordinated vertically/regionally/nationally, but manifest as local movements, predominantly composed on young men (but not exclusively) who appointed one or more local coordinators (i.e. not ‘leaders’) from the local area. The participants are motivated by (a) sense of Oromo grievance about exclusions and marginalization; (b) local politics and faultlines and (c) an engagement in redefining ‘Oromo-ness”. Yet this latter category has sub-regional distinctions, particularly amongst Shewa, Bale, Harar and Wollega Oromo who have distinct and hierarchical cultural and historical interpretations and understandings of Oromoness. These groups coalesced into a regional wide – but atomic- movement during the protests of 2014-2018; still without a leader. As a social movement with localized expressions, it is not an organization form that can be coordinated nationally.
At the outset of Ethiopia’s political change through Abiy Ahmed, a number of Oromo politicians and activists living abroad returned to Ethiopia and began to engage in politics. Among them were diaspora actors like Jawar Mohammed – self proclaimed leader of the “Qeerroo” – who returned from Minnesota and joined with other Oromo federalist parties in the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC). OFC leaders have since been jailed over their role in violent riots that occurred in June of 2020 and have dropped out of the 2021 election.
Also included in the political return was the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which fought an insurgency with the target of self-determination for the Oromo people from its base in Eritrea for nearly three decades. The OLF’s political “struggle” has since been marred with leadership crisis, and has dropped out of the election citing the arrest of members and the closing of political offices. Importantly, some commanders of the OLF viewed the transitional theatrics with distrust and opted to continue insurgent activity in the western part of the country. In an absence of political space for opposition figures, repressive violence during the election runoff period is to be expected. In a context where the legal and organized opposition failed to seriously challenge the regime, both extremist armed movements and youth riot/protest movements have emerged to contend where political parties failed.
Dynamics of political violence in the region are determined in two main violence types; battles being fought between government troops and splinter factions of the OLF dubbed “OLF-Shane” in the west of the Region as well as violence against civilians perpetrated mostly by state forces, including the Oromia Special Forces.
Active “hotspot” areas of conflict within the Oromia region include West and Kellem Wollega, West Guji, and East and West Hararge. Conflict dynamics in these specified locations are discussed in greater detail in their respective pages.
The Region is considered a vital and difficult area for political parties to carry in the June 2021 elections. However, the volatile and contentious politics of the Region prevents citizens therein benefitting from the size of the electorate. As Oromia is first and foremost recognized for the recent protest movement that upended power dynamics within the state, a brief on these patterns is below.
Protest Dynamics in the Oromia Region
By tracking all reported demonstration events in Oromia, EPO identifies three distinct phases that have shaped the region’s political environment.
- A short phase of protest and riot events that occurred directly after Abiy took power, mostly occurring in areas where willingness based on grievance was extremely high, and political space was variable based on location. Examples of protest and riots that occurred at this time were the Somali protests against former Somali Regional President, Abdi Illey or the Burayu riots touched off by the return of OLF fighters to the city. During this phase, elite and public grievance were generally not aligned, protests were not sustained and quickly died out.
- A phase of ethnic agitation. Protest/riot events that occurred throughout the country during this phase all contained a similar ethnicized theme; crowds agitating for greater ethnic autonomy or protection in reaction attacks on identity. These protests/riots occurred in a context of both high opportunity and willingness but moved toward high willingness and low opportunity, resulting in heavy levels of violence. During this phase, major riots occurred on campuses across the region and culminated in two extremely violent events in 2019 and 2020. First, in late October 2019, rumored attempts to harm Jawar Mohammed sparked days of violent protests across the Region, resulting in dozens of fatalities throughout the Region. A second incident occurred with the killing of a popular Oromo musician, Hachalu Hundessa, in the summer of 2020 in Addis Ababa; this prompted waves of youth to mobilize for protests and riots. During both of these incidents, rioters blocked roads, destroyed infrastructure, and attacked ethnic minorities throughout Oromia state. According to local sources in East Hararge, during both of these incidents federal police were delayed in their abilities to mobilize and respond to crisis, and in some cases local Qeerroo militias were mobilized to provide security and even make demands over resource allotment and utilization. OFC and OLF officials were arrested at the end of this phase, accused of inciting the riots that led to high numbers of fatalities.
- Finally, a last phase of intense government repression where both willingness and opportunity are low, and thus mobilization is rare. Attempts by protesters to demonstrate against the arrest of Oromo politicians (dubbed “Yellow Movement”) were quickly and violently dispersed by security forces.
- On 30 April 2021, protesters gathered in Limu Gandoti Arekumbe Woreda in East Wollega Zone to denounce the loss of life and property as a result of attacks on ethnic Amhara communities in the area (Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, 30 April 2021).
- On 30 April 2021, suspected members of OLF-Shane shot and killed 15 people and injured an unidentified number of people after pulling them off a bus in Amuru Kebele (Horo Gudru Wollega Zone) (Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, 30 April 2021; Amhara Media Corporation, 30 April 2021).
- On 27 April 2021, unidentified gunmen attacked a convoy of trucks (locally known as Isuzus) traveling from Addis Ababa to Gojjam around the Kuyu/Degem Woreda border area near the town of Gebre Guracha and killed five people (Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, 28 April 2021).
- On 23 April 2021, OLF-Shane militants attacked Amhara ethnic civilians in Ket’cho Kirkira and Gale Kebeles of Limu Kosa Woreda (Jimma Zone). According to local officials, at least 20 civilians were killed in the attack, although some sources put the fatality toll at 29 persons (Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, 25 April 2021; DW Amharic, 28 April 2021; Reuters, 30 April 2021).
- On 10 April 2021, suspected militants from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF)-Abba Torbe faction threw a grenade at security personnel in Nekemte city, East Wollega, killing one civilian and wounding nine others (VOA, 12 April 2021; DW Amharic, 12 April 2021).