Ethiopians forced into exile in Kenya after abuses by the army

TRANSLATED BY MARIE PELTOMÄKI AND PROOFREAD BY ALICE DOWEK

For several weeks a colossal emigration movement of members of the Oromo community to Kenya has been going on, subsequent to what the former Ethiopian government has named a “blunder” on the part of the army. Keep in mind that this “blunder” has led to the death of a dozen Ethiopians from the Oromo community.

The Oromo community represents 35% of the population in Ethiopia. It is the most represented ethnic group in the country. However, the power is in the hands of the Tigrayans; a minority ethnic group (6% of the population). Until very recently, the Oromo people had never been in a position of power in Ethiopia, yet they are the most represented ethnic group in the state.

A long-lasting political and communal conflict

In November 2016, people of the Oromo community began demonstrating in Ethiopia, opposing an extension project of the capital Addis Ababa. The Oromo people feared that, as a result, some farmers would have their ancestral lands taken from them. These demonstrators were met with many forms of violence conducted by the army. Following these events, the Oromo community has faced many repressions for many years in Ethiopia. Felix Horne, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, commented on the subject: “No one can say with certainty that 140 people were killed, the number could just as likely be much higher or lower. But what is certain is that the repression ongoing, and on a much larger scale than what we have reported in the past.”

Abuses by the army in the city of Moyale

More recently, abuses by the army have forced many thousands of Ethiopians living in the region of Moyale – a border city shared between Ethiopia and Kenya, situated in the Oromia region – to exile on the Kenyan side of the city.

The border city of Moyale.

Officially the government puts the blame of the events that resulted in the death of 9 Ethiopian civilians on the army, calling it a “blunder”. The deadly shooting took place in a district of Moyale known for its opposition to the government. Tensions were strained between soldiers deployed in the city and the inhabitants after the announcement of the declaration of the state of emergency in the country in mid-February. It banned, among other things, any demonstration. The army has reportedly confused these civilians with rebels of the Oromo Liberation Front – an Oromo political group that the government does not recognize as an opposition party. However, the refugees have reported a larger number of deaths and ensured that the army knew exactly what it was doing.

All of this has triggered a climate of fear within the ethnic group. Numerical surveys are still in progress, but there are thousands of refugees who have crossed the Kenyan border. Many of them are now in the Sololo camp, where the refugee census is still being carried-out. Sadi Hassan is one of these refugees. In an interview for RFI Africa, the Ethiopian woman said: “I saw twenty people being shot with my own eyes. The soldiers came in vehicles, stopped and killed people randomly on the street, without any distinction”. There is apparently a clear discrepancy between the version of the government and that of the Oromo refugees.

A tumultuous exile

In a statement on March 31, the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported more than 8,000 exiles to Kenya. In addition, the agency reported that, in total, more than 39,000 people were forced to move at the end of March because of unrest in the region of Moyale.

In the Sololo camp in northern Kenya, the first days of arrival the exiles were identified by members of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Kenyan government. From now on, it will be done in a biometric way, to be able to compensate for possible frauds on the part of Kenyan residents, for example. The latter could try to benefit from the food distributed to Ethiopian refugees. We know that the census is still in progress, but there are around 10,000 refugees. However, many exiled Ethiopians refuse to register because they also have Kenyan papers and are therefore afraid of losing their nationality or being reprimanded by government authorities.

In these emergency conditions, measures are taken and the camp is being organized. The Kenyan Red Cross has set up a telephone service for refugees who have relatives on the Ethiopian side of the border. One person from the camp testifies: “It’s a useful service. I can know who is dead, who is still alive. And I know my family is safe.”

In the camp, the refugees are trying to organize themselves: a market has been set up. The sale of khat in particular allows a few families to survive. This is the case of Dabogoro Diga, interviewed by RFI Africa, who borrows the shrub from a wholesaler to sell it. In the same way, some people try to accumulate some money in order to find a better place to sleep and to eat better. However, this initiative has its limits: the sale of khat overshadows the sale of everything else, and the very small amount of money available to refugees makes this market very modest.

An Oromo prime minister: a hope of appeasement?

After the resignation of its former prime minister on February 15, Ethiopia discovered the name of its new leader on March 27, 2018. He’s Abiy Ahmed. He is the first from the Oromo community to attain this position since 1991 and the fall of the communist regime in the country. Considered by many as a reformist, he is expected to renew the relationship with Eritrea – a country with whom Ethiopia has been at odds with for decades – but also to ease tensions between communities within Ethiopia.

However, the election of an Oromo as the head of the government is not perceived as an opportunity by the refugees. The Tigrayans still continue to dominate the political field in Ethiopia, as Borgolo Bargole Gonaya, a teenager at the Sololo camp, explains: “The Tigrayans dominate everything. As long as they are in power, the prime minister cannot help us. ”

If the Ethiopians have not crossed the border to Kenya for a few days, the Oromo people already settled in the camp “will not sign a voluntary return” reported Henok Ochalla, coordinator at UNHCR. Refugees may therefore be waiting, sceptically, for a serious move by their prime minister that would allow them to rebuild hope. His nomination alone is not enough.

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