Oromia Is Ethiopia’s Achilles’ Heel

Oromia Is Ethiopia’s Achilles’ Heel

Sarah Tseba Sarah Tseba

 The continual unrest involving Ethiopia’s most populous and centrally positioned ethnic group has highlighted that the Oromia have the power to make or break the country’s tenuous federation.  

 The Ethiopian authorities have publicly recognized that the Oromo-Somali clashes earlier this month between two of the country’s eponymous federal units killed hundreds of people on both sides, thereby confirming what independent reports have already claimed for a few weeks. Given the heavy information war against the country, orchestrated jointly by the US government and some of Ethiopia’s politically inclined diaspora communities there and elsewhere, those numbers couldn’t have responsibly been taken for granted until the state verified them, though it must be said in the same vein that some people suspect that the government regularly underplays the unrest in the country and often rounds down casualty figures as a result.

 No matter what the specific details are about the Oromo-Somali clashes in Ethiopia in mid-September, the fact is that this incident highlights the role that the country’s most populous and centrally positioned Oromo ethnic group has in driving destabilizing events within the state. That’s not to discredit every instance of Oromo unrest, but just to draw attention to how this group has more often than not found itself at the center of the most debilitating instances of violence in the country over the past few years. The most noteworthy example of this occurred in October 2016 when rioting Oromo forced the government to implement a state of emergency that was only lifted a few months ago in August.

 The group was incensed by the central government’s expansion of the capital into their ancestral lands, something which is inevitable when considering that the Oromia Region fully surrounds Addis Ababa and would sooner or later have to cede territory to one of Africa’s fastest-growing cities. Partially instigated by fake news reports coming from their Western-based diaspora lobbies and virally spread across social media in what appears to have been an orchestrated infowar campaign, many Oromo were convinced to resort to mob violence against local police and federal troops, which in turn explains why the Ethiopian authorities cracked down with their state of emergency as a last-ditch measure to prevent the unrest from snowballing to civil war-like proportions.

 There are global geostrategic implications behind all of this as well, since foreign forces want to utilize the Oromo factor to destabilize Ethiopia in order to offset the Chinese-built Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway, which essentially functions as the Horn of Africa component of Beijing’s One Belt One Road global vision of New Silk Road connectivity. However, Hybrid Wars are always sparked by the exploitation of some sort of preexisting identity conflict, and it’s the same when it comes to Oromia. Despite being the most populous ethnic group in Ethiopia and the most strategically positioned of its many people given its central location, some Oromo believe that they’ve been "triply colonized” – first by the Amhara during the imperial period, then by the Tigray after the Cold War-era civil war ended, and now in some cases by the Somalians who they believe are encroaching on their eastern territory.  

 Whether objectively true or just a matter of (carefully crafted) perception, it can’t be denied that this narrative plays a powerful role in stoking Oromo nationalism and contributing to some of its peoples’ anti-government sentiment. It’s also fostered something of a "siege mentality” whereby they feel surrounded and "ganged up upon” by the rest of the country’s comparatively smaller and less strategically positioned groups. Because of the de-facto centralized nature of the nominally decentralized("federalized”) Ethiopian state, some Oromo believe that they don’t have any reasonable recourse for venting their frustrations and having them taken seriously. From the reverse perspective, however, multicultural Ethiopia doesn’t want to empower the Oromo too much because it could easily lead to them taking advantage of their "kingmaker” status to advance their own self-interests to the detriment of the collective whole.

 This tricky arrangement is the source of Ethiopia’s latest instability, as the Oromo are agitating for more political power at the same time as Addis Ababa is trying to balance out the situation for what they believe to be the greater good of the entire nation. The two positions are seemingly irreconcilable as of now because too many government concessions to the Oromo (whether seen as being to the general public or to the nationalists) might encourage copy-cat destabilizations by the country’s many other ethnic groups and foreign-supported nationalist organizations, all of which could predictably be exploited for Hybrid War purposes in "Balkanizing” Ethiopia following a Congolese-like civil war. That said, the government can’t be seen – whether rightly or wrongly – as turning a blind eye to violence against the Oromo out of its interests in "balancing” national affairs, particularly as it relates to the Somalians in the latest example.  

 The most dangerous aspect of the recent Oromo-Somali clashes is that they came to involve three separate levels of society. If the reports are to be believed, the unrest began because the Somali Region’s special police arrested and killed two Oromo officials, which in turn prompted Oromo civilians to undertake retribution violence against Somalis along the contested federal border, consequently leading to the dispatch of federal forces to enforce peace between the two sides after the large-scale bloodletting between them. Addis Ababa is sensitive not only to the situation of the Oromo, but also to the Somalis, because they understand that the perception of the central government being against them might give rise to pro-separatist inclinations which could frighteningly manifest themselves through larger Al Shabaab recruitment in the region. Similarly, if the government is seen as being against the Oromo, then this might encourage more nationalist violence along the lines of what was seen last year.  The authorities are truly in a quandary, and one which suggests that the de-jure decentralization ("federalization”) of the country along broad ethno-regionalist lines is no longer as sufficient of a solution to Ethiopia’s identity-driven conflict vulnerabilities as it once was given that the state still remains a de-facto centralized one where power is vested with the (supposedly) Tigrayan-influenced Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ruling party. Nevertheless, the knee-jerk "populist response” of implementing an actual decentralized/federalized political administration isn’t the "solution” either, since the situational dynamics strongly point to this being the structural precedent which could easily be exploited to spark a destructive Hobbesian Hybrid War that could unravel the entire country into a collection of identity-centric statelets.

 Just like the US is trying to forge an independent "Kurdistan” out of the Mideast because of its centrally positioned location, so too is it trying to do the same with Oromia in Ethiopia for precisely that reason, and in both instances it’s taking advantage of preexisting problems in order to stoke the flames of conflict in the direction that would best serve its grand strategic interests. There’s no telling whether this geopolitical plot in the Horn of Africa will go as far as the one in the Mideast, but no matter what happens, one thing is certain, and it’s that Oromia is Ethiopia’s Achilles’ heel and absolutely integral to determining the future stability (or lack thereof) of this ultra-diverse and strategically located country.


DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.  

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