The federal and regional governments’ response is insufficient, and some of their actions worsen an already dire humanitarian situation.
The two Bale zones in Oromia are currently dealing with a multiplicity of problems. Alongside five years of drought, other severe and inter-related challenges in Bale include a recent outbreak of viral diseases such as cholera, state-sponsored and communal violence, and mass conscription of youth into the military.
Baliyos (people from Bale) have long held the belief that Madda Walabu, a town 230 kilometers from Bale’s largest urban center, Bale-Robe, is the exact location where a collective Oromo identity was formed and the Gadaa system of indigenous democratic governance emerged.
Baliyos fought valiantly against Emperor Menelik II’s brutal expansion campaign in the late nineteenth century but eventually succumbed to the Abyssinian empires’ superior weaponry. Since then, they have participated in revolts against successive Ethiopian regimes, most notably the 1963-1970 Bale insurgency.
After Emperor Haile Selassie suppressed this uprising, many of its leaders became founding members of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF)—one of many ethno-nationalist movements that fought in the Ethiopian civil war (1974-1991) and overthrew the communist Derg regime.
Bale was the second largest zone in Oromia after the Borana Zone before being divided into two zones, Bale and East Bale.
The zones did not fare well under the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Dissatisfied with the economic situation and aggrieved by state violence, Baliyo youth participated in the protests that weakened the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) hold on power and resulted in the 2018 transition.
Bale has faced a multi-layered crisis since the transition, ranging from drought to state-sponsored violence and communal violence to a deteriorating economic situation.
According to a popular narrative among Baliyos, the region has been excluded from development projects, its leaders have been barred from political participation, and the state has sanctioned violence as a means of keeping its population under control.
In this view, though each aspect is somewhat distinct, Bale’s multi-layered crisis is—at least in part—an outgrowth of the region’s history of challenging the central government. Whether or not such beliefs have merit, what’s clear is that such issues are not being adequately addressed by federal and regional authorities.
Residents are warning of an impending disaster and have pleaded with the regional and federal governments to respond adequately to the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Bale and East Bale zones.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Horn of Africa is experiencing its worst drought in decades, affecting more than 36 million people.
The majority of those affected are in Ethiopia, where over 24 million people require emergency assistance across multiple regions. East Bale is one of the most affected areas in Ethiopia, with a water shortage reported for the fifth consecutive rainy season.
Due to the drought, tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes. Many people are looking for work in the less affected Bale Zone. Even those who have not been directly affected have chosen to relocate to Bale-Robe and Ginnir, the administrative capitals of the two zones, in search of better economic opportunities.
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Communities continue to help one another and significant support comes from abroad as well. Many Baliyos are forced to rely on remittances from the Baliyo diaspora, primarily in the Middle East.
Community leaders are dissatisfied with the regional government’s slow response. “It’s supposed to be an Oromo government working for our interests, but all we’ve gotten is lie after lie about their response and how they’re handling the situation,” said Sufyan Mohammed, a teacher and community organizer.
Government employees warn that the situation is only getting worse. “The number of cattle perishing sank and reached a low point before returning to similar levels reported earlier this year,” said a researcher at the East Bale zonal disaster risk management bureau.
UN OCHA has recorded at least 2.2 million cases of malnutrition across Ethiopia. In East Bale, severe cases of malnutrition are overwhelming local health centers. “We are on the verge of famine and people may die if action is not taken immediately,” the researcher added.
Drought and viral disease outbreaks go hand in hand. Earlier this year, Bale and East Bale zones reported a cholera outbreak, with 191 confirmed cases and four deaths. Across the Horn of Africa, 11,500 cases of cholera have been recorded, along with 22,000 cases of measles.
The outbreak is being addressed by federal and regional health institutes, as well as the World Health Organization (WHO). In the case of Bale, however, the response has been insufficient. This is due to poor infrastructure, inaction on the part of local officials, and sporadic clashes in the area.
Residents continue to complain about the impediments to humanitarian assistance. According to humanitarian partners, the response is hindered by a lack of supplies and inadequate cholera case management technical expertise.
This includes an insufficient number of water trucks, water quality test kits, ambulances, and medical supplies, coupled with a lack of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services and limited distribution of WASH items, especially water treatment chemicals.
According to the report, a lack of resources is not the only issue that humanitarian partners face. “Some of the cholera-prone locations are also considered hard-to-reach areas due to poor infrastructure as well as sporadic clashes that are impacting the prompt delivery of vital supplies and access for medical teams,” the statement details.
Local medical professionals are also concerned. “We get contacted by a lot of NGOs, but due to the poor state of infrastructure in Bale and East Bale, the response is delayed, and many people are forced to go to big towns for access to services,” said a health professional named Taha.
“We have officials who are preoccupied with party meetings and workshops while we are in the midst of the worst multi-layered crises in decades,” he lamented.
Bale is home to several communities. The Arsi, one of the largest Oromo clan confederations, and Gura, a major clan confederation with Oromo and Somali ancestry, are two of its indigenous peoples.
Historically, the two communities co-existed peacefully, though they occasionally clashed over land and resources. Violent conflicts erupted once again earlier this month, though the exact number of people killed in the clashes is unknown.
While residents blame the renewed clashes on the deteriorating humanitarian situation, they suspect political factors—such as agitation by the Somali regional government to incorporate parts of East Bale Zone into its region—may also be at play.
Terje Østebø, author of Islam, Ethnicity, and Conflict in Ethiopia: The Bale Insurgency, 1963-1970, believes that the pastoralist way of life of both communities is a factor behind the conflict. However, he, like many residents, thinks that the worsening humanitarian situation could be the spark that renewed the clashes.
“We have long co-existed and intermarried with the Arsi. We fought alongside the Arsi during Menelik II’s expansion campaign and the Bale Revolt,” said Ali Ayale, a Grra businessman. “It is not in our best interests to fight with the Arsi, but something is driving the youth toward violent confrontation,” he added.
According to Ali, elders from both communities are working to resolve the conflict through traditional conflict resolution methods. While he believes that political factors are exacerbating the situation, he believes that drought and resource competition could be the catalyst of violent conflict.
“The Gura are our brothers both by blood and faith. It’s just some bad elements who are using the worsening situation in East Bale to re-open old wounds,” Awol Dula, a religious teacher agreed.
“Someone is benefiting from this conflict, and it is not the Arsi or the Gura,” Awol believes, adding, “I will let others decide who they think benefits from our infighting.”
So far, the response by federal and regional security forces has been limited. Many residents blame the federal government for the resurgence of tensions between the communities.
“I do not have evidence to confirm or deny the federal government’s involvement,” Ostebo says. “However, it is well-documented that the EPRDF regime has fostered hostility between the two communities. We don’t know if this is the case here, but we cannot dismiss people’s concerns.”
“Nothing but trouble and controversy comes from that area,” an influential Oromo politician said of the situation in Bale. Similar perceptions have contributed to a policy of state-sponsored violence against protesters.
Throughout the Oromo protest movement from 2014 to 2018, mass arrests, violent crackdowns on protesting youth, and other forms of state-sanctioned human rights violations occurred in Bale, as was the case in other parts of Oromia.
This continued after the arrival of Abiy Ahmed’s government in 2018. Most notably, 17-year-old Awol Abdurru was gunned down on the streets of Bale-Robe after protests erupted calling for the release of political prisoners Jawar Mohammed, Hamza Borana, and Bekele Gerba.
“It wasn’t just about Awol. Many others died, and their stories are unknown, hidden, or ignored,” a youth in Bale-Robe said.
Baliyos accuse the Oromia government of using its fight against Khawarja—an Islamist militant group the government claims is linked to al-Shabaab and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA)—as a cover for its continued crackdown.
The regional government declared victory over Khawarja several times but failed to produce details about its operations against the group. During the campaign, arrests and harassment of religious teachers and students became the norm. Most were released after days of detention and interrogation.
Since last year, there have been sporadic clashes between members of OLA and regional special forces in different districts of the Bale and East Bale zones, particularly in the Dallo Mena district. Last month, residents accused regional security forces of torching the homes of families suspected of supporting OLA in the area.
Elders and community leaders warn that, faced with a multi-layered crisis, Bale could become a hotspot for large-scale border conflicts between Oromo and Somali communities, and clashes between OLA and federal forces.
Mass conscription of youth into the military to fight in the northern war was put in place last year, and, to a lesser extent, has continued this year.
Thousands of youth from Arsi, West Arsi, Bale, and East Bale, as well as other parts of Oromia, were rounded up and sent to training camps across the region, then sent to the war front, which at the time had expanded into Amhara region.
Most of their families have not heard from them since. Some were able to flee but were unable to return home for fear of retaliation from security forces.
“The regional government uses whatever excuse they want to crack down on the youth and justify their conscription…One day it is Islamist extremists, the next day it is OLA,” said a youth who escaped from a conscription camp a few months ago.
He described being taken to a training center outside of Shashamane, 188 kilometers west of Bale-Robe, before escaping. “When we arrived at the camps, they told us that serving Ethiopia was preferable to staying at home or joining the OLA,” the 19-year-old stated.
The Oromia government has long denied the conscription of youth. It again denied these allegations when residents of the East and West Hararghe zones, which border East Bale Zone, accused it of conscripting youth for military service.
In sum, the crises in Bale—notably, the deteriorating humanitarian situation owing to prolonged drought, inter-communal violence between Oromos and Somalis, a counter-insurgency against OLA and allegedly al-Shabaab-linked militants, crackdowns on protesters, and conscription of youth—despite being of a different nature are also inter-related.
As such, the response required to face this critical situation needs to be multi-layered as well. In the short term, regional and federal authorities ought to step up efforts in the delivery of humanitarian assistance to East Bale. In this respect, procuring additional aid supplies and supporting partners’ logistics should be the highest priority.
Unfortunately, these efforts will prove fruitless unless all layers of government rethink their approach to security, play a constructive role as mediators between communities, and engage with them to solve these inter-related political problems.
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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
Main photo: Corpses of cattle died because of the drought; Bale Goba; 7 Feb 2022; Nahom Tesfaye, UNICEF Ethiopia; Oromia region drought 2022
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