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Extrajudicial killings by Ethiopia’s security forces: rule or exception?

9 mins read

International focus on the war in northern Ethiopia has obscured state violence elsewhere.

Video footage of security forces burning a man alive found its way onto social media on 9 March. The excruciating five-minute video showed security forces burning people, including someone still alive, while dozens watched and taunted.

The Ethiopian government confirmed the incident and claimed it took place in the Metekel Zone of the Benishangul-Gumuz region. But, it did not identify the perpetrators.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reported that members of government security forces carried out the extrajudicial execution of eleven civilians on 3 March in Ayisid Kebele, Guba Woreda and then burned them. This included at least one person who was tied up and thrown into a burning fire while still alive.

The report has identified members of the Ethiopian army and Liyu police members of the Amhara and Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNP) regional states as being in the area of the killing, and stated that they have participated in the crime in varying degrees.

Explaining the video

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) report confirms the presence of ENDF and other regional security forces in Metekel. The government scaled up its security operations in the area by deploying ENDF and forces from Amhara, Gambela, Sidama, and SNNP regions in 2021.

According to OCHA, these operations are explained by the precarious security situation in Benishangul-Gumuz. In addition to inter-communal conflicts, Benishangul People’s Liberation Movement (BPLM) rebels are also active.

OCHA, in its report, said unknown armed groups in Metekel targeted government officials and security forces as well as other ethnic minorities, while Gumuz communities were attacked in Jawi Wereda of Agew-Awi Zone of Amhara region, and in urban centers such as Gilgel Beles town, prompting their displacement to rural isolated areas throughout the zone. ​​

According to EHRC, security forces were reacting to an attack by armed militants on a bus being escorted by military forces that resulted in the death of three civilians and 20 soldiers, including their commanding officer, on 2 March.

The EHRC report says that government forces burned the bodies after searching for suspects in passing vehicles and finding eight Tigrayan civilians carrying a pass letter showing their release from prison. The men were tortured to force a confession and then killed along with two Gumuz civilians who reacted to the situation. Another Tigrayan suspected of having a relationship with those killed was tied up and burned alive.

The government condemned the murder and labeled it a heinous, inhumane crime that deviates from Ethiopian culture and values.

Tigray’s government accused the Federal Police, Special Forces, Fano, and accompanying security forces of the crime. In a 16 March statement, it said, “Dr. Debretsion has revealed that it is the country-selling traitors, primarily the expansionist force and the elite of Amhara region, that are tearing apart existing relationships and social values that exist among people as well as giving leadership so that neverending injustices keep being committed”

According to the report, two more Tigrayans were killed on the same day in Gilgel Beles town and 19 other Tigrayans were killed in a place called Mankush days before, while 250 fled to Sudan.

The report says, “These barbaric militants applied the monstrous statements the officials had been preaching to the public over the media.” It also claimed they have evidence of Ethiopian government officials proclaiming, “The presence of Tigray people makes a place hell.”

Benishangul-Gumuz violence 

The incident in Metekel is only the most recent manifestation of security forces’ extrajudicial punishment.

Security forces were heavily deployed there partly because the region is home to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) construction site, it borders Sudan, and it has been a hotbed of internal conflicts and violence. Instability has been most pronounced in areas surrounding other regional states and areas with geopolitical significance, like Metekel.

Land disputes and claims for political autonomy have intensified conflicts in the area, opening the way for increased deployment of security forces. The Gumuz people feel that the ‘non-indigenous’ people—mainly Amhara and Oromo—threaten their right of ownership of the region. Amhara nationalists, including some Amhara ruling party officials, have exacerbated conflict in the area by claiming ownership of the Metekel zone.

The government responded by declaring a state of emergency in the area because of the GERD construction, inter-ethnic conflicts, and the presence of armed militants. This has resulted in recurring ethnic-based violence in the zone, mostly between, on the one hand, the Amhara and Gumuz people, and, on the other, BPLM clashes with Ethiopian military forces.

Over the past few years, hundreds of lives were lost, tens of thousands were displaced, hundreds of houses burned, and properties were destroyed by several actors—including government security forces.

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However, the situation in the area worsened even after government security forces were deployed and accusations against security forces continued appearing on social media and independent media outlets.

For instance, on 26 February 2021, members of the military opened fire, killing 26 civilian members of the Gumuz community, including women and the elderly, in the Albasa kebele of Dibate Woreda, Metekel zone.

Oromia violence

Oromia is one of the regions where extrajudicial punishment and ethnically motivated conflicts are commonplace. The government dispatched its security forces to western Oromia in 2018, following the intercommunal conflict around the Benishangul-Gumuz border. It then extended its operation to hunt for Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) fighters and deployed its army throughout western Oromia.

Similarly, government security forces were deployed to southern Oromia to hunt for OLA following an outburst of conflict around the border of the Gedeo Zone of the SNNP region in the first quarter of 2019.

OLA is accused of committing crimes in Oromia by the government, but OLA accuses the government forces and demands an independent investigation.

The situation in the region gradually deteriorated as OLA expanded its activities throughout Oromia and the government intensified its operation against OLA. Whenever the situation worsens, the government forces have intensified the use of extrajudicial punishments such as targeting suspected members, supporters, and relatives of members of OLA and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a legally registered political party.

Though the report of such abuse gets posted regularly on social media, the situation in the area has received insufficient attention due to the focus on the civil war in northern Ethiopia.

Many photos, videos, and reports of atrocities allegedly committed by security forces appear on social media, but most of them are not verified or given proper attention. Even those that get verified are ignored.

According to the 2 February report by EHRC, members of Oromia security forces extrajudicially killed 14 Gadaa leaders on 1 December 2021 in Fantalle Woreda, East Shewa Zone of Oromia. This took place a day after security forces dispatched to hunt for OLA were attacked by “unknown armed men” on the way back to their station, resulting in the death of eleven members of security forces and injuring 17 others.

The EHRC report says that security forces arrested 16 Gadaa leaders who were holding a traditional ceremony. After taking them into the woods, they killed 14 while two escaped. The Gadaa system is ​​a traditional system of governance used by the Oromo people.

Similarly, in December, Oromia security forces killed four youths in Nekemte, western Oromia after alleging they were members of Abbaa Torbe. Abbaa Torbee is a semi-legendary assassin, who, after issuing warnings, is said to have executed rogue officials that were standing in the way of the 2015 to 2018 Oromo protests.

Similar video footage of Oromia Liyu Police executing youths in the southern part of the region was posted on social media in October last year. The youths were reportedly released from prison before they were taken far from residential areas and killed.

In May 2021, Oromia security forces executed a 17-year-old named Amanuel Wendimu in public in Dembi Dollo town of western Oromia after summoning the public to the town’s main street square and accusing him of being a member of Abbaa Torbee.

Though it has yet to be verified, video footage was released on social media in February this year showing members of Oromia security forces burning the bodies of several people—reportedly in the West Guji Zone. In the video, the security forces were calling the victims ‘Shene’, a name the government uses for OLA. The footage shows a group of Oromia Liyu Police ordering local militias to gather the bodies and pour gasoline on the burning bodies.

Violence elsewhere

Extrajudicial punishment is not limited to Benishangul-Gumuz and Oromia. Security forces are accused of committing extrajudicial executions throughout the country, though the government mostly tries to blame other groups for the crimes or justify the actions of its forces.

According to OCHA, nearly every region in Ethiopia has been experiencing similar conflicts, though the hotspots are Benishangul-Gumuz, Oromia, and northern Ethiopia. The government has responded to political opposition, the presence of armed groups, and intercommunal conflicts by deploying security forces.

In November 2021, nine political and armed opposition groups from eight of Ethiopia’s eleven regions signed an agreement to cooperate in fighting against the Ethiopian government to remove the current regime.

The signatories were the TPLF, OLA, Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front, Agaw Democratic Movement, Global Kemant People Right and Justice Movement, Kemant Democratic Party, BPLM, Gambella People’s Liberation Army, Sidama National Liberation Front, and Somali State Resistance.

Since 2018, there have been conflicts around regional borders, along with the insurgency and counter-insurgency operations between the government and rebel groups. The armed resistance in Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz are increasing exponentially, and the deployment of government forces has kept pace.

Ethnic conflicts have been reported in Afar, Amhara, Benishangul-Gumuz, Oromia, SNNP, Somali, and Tigray. Ethnically targeted attacks and profiling have become the norm. Though government forces were deployed to restore peace in these conflict-prone areas, they were often accused of committing extrajudicial executions themselves.

Minorities in Amhara have also been experiencing extrajudicial killings by security forces and ethnically targeted attacks by a mob of Amhara youths and the Amhara Fano militants for years. Amhara forces are involved in the war in Tigray and federal forces have been deployed in Amhara during bouts of intercommunal violence. Amhara has not, however, experienced the deployment of security forces from other regions.

In 2021, the Ethiopian military and allied militias carried out attacks targeting Qemant civilians and destroyed several villages of their communities in Amhara.

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In December 2021, another horrific video appeared on social media that showed dozens of civilian bodies dumped in one place. These were reportedly Oromo civilians killed by federal and Amhara security forces, including Fano militia, in Artuma Woreda of Oromia Special Zone in Amhara.

Amhara security forces were accused of killing civilians, including youths and elders, and destroying homes in the Oromo Special Zone of Amhara during the March to April 2021 conflict that resulted in the deaths of hundreds and the displacement of thousands.

Video footage of the Amhara mob pulling eight Oromo passengers from an ambulance and beating them to death in Shewa Robit town of Amhara region was released in March. The footage of the brutal attack, which was geolocated by Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), also suggested the presence of Amhara security forces in the area.

Northern Ethiopia

Rights groups and credible media outlets are mostly focused on reporting about the war in the northern part of Ethiopia. They have documented many atrocities against civilians committed by all warring parties in the Tigray, Afar, and Amhara regions.

For example, on 16 December 2021, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said, “Amhara security forces are responsible for a surge of mass detentions, killings, and forced expulsions of ethnic Tigrayans in the Western Tigray territory of Northern Ethiopia.”

Tigray’s forces were also implicated in reports of extrajudicial executions of Amhara civilians. Human Rights Watch has accused Tigrayan forces of summarily executing dozens of civilians in two towns they controlled in Ethiopia’s northern Amhara region between 31 August and 9 September 2021.

Crimes targeting ethnic Tigrayans in Afar were reported, documenting claims that allied forces of Eritrean troops and Afar security forces killed 278 unarmed Tigrayan civilians.

In February, Amnesty International reported several accounts of killings targeting Amhara civilians by Tigrayan forces in the Amhara region since August 2021.

Though international actors have been expressing their concerns about crimes committed by security forces during the war in the north, the world has largely ignored the crimes being committed elsewhere in the country.

As a result, the extrajudicial punishments by security forces appear to have transformed from an aberration into a concerted strategy and are spreading widely throughout the country.

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Main photo: Amanuel Wendimu on the main traffic circle in Dembi Dollo with his hands tied behind his back and a pistol hanging on his chest, minutes before he was publicly executed by Oromia security forces in 2021; social media.

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