Piercing the Veil of Atrocity: Abiy Ahmed’s Policy of Ethnic Cleansing in Ethiopia?


Moges Zewdu

Abiy Ahmed Shimeles Abdissa“Cuius regio eius natio−who rules the region decides on the nation”

Ethnic cleansing is a defining feature of modernity in the sense that it is neither the thing of the past nor the by-product of uncivilized world. Fundamentally, ethnic cleansing is, to use Ther’s expression, the dark side of modernity and nation states.(1) Indeed, as witnessed throughout modern history, an endless quest for creating a nation-state has led to the worst form of atrocities against minorities, ethnic cleansing being the notable one.

In Ethiopia, too, it is ubiquitous that an unimaginable level of and various forms of atrocious crimes have been committed by successive regimes over the past decades; ranging from the red terror during the Dergue regime to widespread human rights violations by the TPLF dominated totalitarian government to the unceasing wave of ethnic-based massacres under the watch and /or with the acquiescence of the current regime. So manifest are the atrocities that have been and are being committed against the ethnic Amhara in some parts of the country. The attacks against the Amhara ethnic group are well-organized, systemic, and could be tantamount to an ethnic cleansing campaign. In this short piece, I will discuss the definition and nature of ethnic cleansing policy, its ultimate purpose, and the means used to achieve the purported aims, by shedding some light on the ethnic cleansing policy in the Oromia and Benishangul Gumuz Regional States.

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What is (is not) Ethnic Cleansing?

Ethnic cleansing is the most widely used and abused terminology, owing to its indeterminate nature and invariable usage. This, in turn, has partly made it difficult to properly define its constitutive elements and delineate its actual contour. Before the onset of the ethnic conflict in former Yugoslavia, the term ‘etnicko ciscenj’ (‘cleansing of the region’) had been used to describe an organised campaign of creating ethnically homogenous homeland. It was used for the first time by Slobodan Milosevic, in April 1987, to ‘‘characterize Kosovar Albanian commanders’ violence towards Serbs.’’(2)The danger of using politically romantic and legally vague terms such as ethnic cleansing is that, while politically descriptive, it ‘‘conceals the failure to investigate, collect and report the evidence of genocide, and worse, to prevent it.’’(3)

Be that as it may, some scholars have attempted to provide working definitions for ethnic cleansing. Petrovic defined ethnic cleansing as ‘‘a well-defined policy of a particular group of persons to systematically eliminate another group from a given territory on the basis of religious, ethnic, or national origin.”(4) Similarly, Bell-Fialkoff, who has extensively studied the historical genesis of the ethnic cleansing policies and practices, defined it as ‘‘a practice of expulsion of an ‘undesirable’ population from a given territory due to religious or ethnic discrimination, political, strategic, or ideological considerations, or a combination of these.’’(5) A rather comprehensive and widely accepted definition is that of the United Nations Commission of Experts, which defined ethnic cleansing as ‘‘a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”(6)\


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Thus, if ethnic cleansing is a purposeful policy of removing a particular ethnic group from a geographic area, what differences are there between ethnic cleansing and the crime of genocide? There are two main differences: (1) ethnic cleansing is aimed at forcibly removing an ethnic group from a particular geographic area, by using all means available, with the ultimate purpose of creating an ethnically homogenous community whereas a crime of genocide is committed with the clear intention of destroying the population. As a result, if the targeted ethnic leaves the geographic area and most importantly, if the group’s settlement pattern is dispersed throughout the country, there may not be an existential threat to the ethnic group. And (2) the legal characterization of the acts is distinct regarding establishment of criminal intent. Even though the crime of genocide could be committed in the course of carrying out the policy of ethnic cleansing, there should be established a ‘dolus specialis’ or a special intent to exterminate the group, in part or in whole, as such, for the crime of genocide to materialize. In practical terms, however, both ethnic cleansing policies and a genocidal campaign may coincide, if the ethnic cleansing policy also encompasses a clear plan and intent of gradually exterminating the group in its entirety.

In short, ethnic cleansing is not a legal characterisation for there is no such a thing called a crime of ethnic cleansing. That is to say, ethnic cleansing is not an independent crime under international law, but based on its manifestations under each circumstance, it may constitute any of the elements of international crimes (crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide). Hence, the designation of ethnic cleansing is a political term used to explain a campaign of large-scale atrocities. Indeed, it has become a euphemism for genocide in the contemporary discourse of diplomacy and international law and in most cases, it justifies large-scale atrocities because the victims are treated as a speck of dirt to be wiped out to cleanse the nation from unwanted aliens.

Ethnic cleansing is a means, not an end in itself

Although the practice of ethnic cleansing dates back to ancient times and traversed through the medieval period, with greater secularisation and the rise of nationalism in the late 19th and 20th centuries, ethnic cleansing took a different form, with the overriding aim of ‘purifying’ the nation from aliens or unwanted group of people. For instance, the declining Ottoman Empire gave rise to the massive ethnic cleansing during world war first (in 1915), ostensibly in fear of the potential alliance between the Ottoman Armenians and the Russian Force, resulting in the perishing of close to a million people and the entire population wiped out from the eastern Anatolia region. The pattern has continued throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, which remains to be the defining feature of our contemporary world politics. While ethnic cleansing is a gross human rights violation and could fall within the realm of international crimes, when seen from a political point of view, an overriding purpose of the ethnic cleansing policy and practices is to create ethnically homogeneous territory or population. Virtually all ethno-nationalists and ethnic entrepreneurs of our time pursue a policy of creating a homogenous political community, a community with identical culture and language, cohesive political views, and common dreams−an ideal imagined community. But for the dream of creating a homogenous community to come true, the unwanted ‘others’ should be dealt with.

As Gellner (7) succinctly pointed out, there are only three ways, inter alia, assimilation, extermination, and expulsion of the unwanted ethnic group(s), through which the madness of creating a homogenous community out of multicultural societies could be realized. Of course, the modern-day obsession with building a homogenous nation is predicated on the never-ending search for a ‘self’ in the quest for self-determination. So, what leads to ethnic cleansing is competing claims for distinct ethnic groups to self-determination within and across states’ boundaries, argues Wolf.(8) Furthermore, Amanda Taub, in the New York Times article, argued that ‘‘when multiple groups lay claim to nationhood within the same territory, “ethnic cleansing” can come to seem like a grim but effective solution, a way to make ethnic and national borders line up by forcing out members of competing groups.’’

Consequently, intending to create a homogenous political community, if not a cultural community, political elites use various ‘purification’ strategies, in some cases resorting to extreme measures. The tools used are multiple, varying from one context to another, and the campaign of successful ‘purification’ depends on the enabling environment. The cleansing mission could be achieved by all practicable means, from discrimination to extermination; which entails violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Some of the notable methods employed to carry out ethnic cleansing include but are not limited to, mass killing, the expulsion of the members of the ethnic minority, systemic rape and dehumanization, summary executions, civilian targets in war situations, ethnic profiling, constant intimidation and humiliation on daily basis, blocking humanitarian aids and making living conditions difficult, exclusionary language policies, systematic discrimination, and most generally, exclusion of the targeted ethnic group(s) from participating in social, economic and political affairs and nurturing the culture of impunity for crimes through failure to render justice or active acquiescence.

At this juncture, it is worth discussing whether some or all of the above-mentioned strategies of ethnic cleansing have been used in some parts of Ethiopia, by taking the case of ethnic cleansing practices against the Amhara people. I argue that is the case, and here is why.

Ethnic Cleansing against the Amhara: the Case of Wollega and Metekel Zones

Most people tend to portray the massacres of Amhara ethnic group in various parts of Ethiopia as if they are isolated incidents of communal violence. This view is deliberately reductionist and conceptually misguided, at best. Leaving a historical account and the widespread attacks against the ‘Neftegna’ in other parts of the country(9), what have been unfolding in Wollega and to a lesser extent, Metekel Zones, in Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz Regional States, respectively, are the textbook examples of ethnic cleansing. Seen in light of the political structure put in place, the nature of the atrocities committed and the responses of the state (both at regional and federal level), the attacks are nothing but ethnic cleansing campaigns.

As it should be obvious for everyone by now, the regional constitutions bestow exclusive ownership of the respective regions to some ethnic groups while blatantly ignoring the very existence of other ethnic groups within the region.(10) According to the regional constitutions, Oromia exclusively belongs to the Oromo while Benishangul-Gumuz is the homeland for five ethnic groups, even when the demographic facts speak otherwise. As a result of the structural design, millions of Amhara ethnic groups are excluded from the political affairs of the regions and since the regions do not belong to them, they live at the mercy of the sole owners of the states. This is not some sort of fiction, but a fact of life for the politically disenfranchised people. Hence, the conspiracy to murder has an inherent structural design that paved the way.(11)

As much as it is understandable that the situations in Wollega and Metekel are complex, one thing is pretty obvious; the widespread massacres of the Amhara civilians. It could be argued that, at times, ethnic cleansing can be used as military tactic by insurgent groups such as Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) or Benishangul Militia, that is, the OLA might be using the military strategy of “catch the Fish by draining the Sea”; ethnic cleansing as a potent tactic of forcing the government and co-ethnics accept the terms and conditions put forward.

But that does not appear to be the case. The victims of the massacres are invariably civilians who have nothing to do with the ‘enemy’, the attacks are in cold blood, have similar patterns and well organized, the practices of dehumanization of the victims had preceded and reinforced such attacks, the rhetoric and policy of getting rid of the ‘the unwanted people’ has been propagated the elites and above all, the grandiose aim of creating a homogenous Oromo Community in the area (ideally, the imagined community should speak Afaan Oromo and adhere to the Protestant religion) is noticeable. The same is true for the attacks in Metekel area: the ultimate purpose is to cleanse the region from the non-owners of the region. Indeed, the Amhara people has been dubbed as one of the unwanted enemies that should be eliminated from the region, as it could be deduced from the political rhetoric and the practices, past and present.

Lastly, the government has condoned the ethnic cleansing campaign, either through active moral or bureaucratic supports(12) or by its dismal failure to hold perpetrators to account. Of course, the culture of impunity is the modus operandi of the regime and hence, there is nothing surprising as such. Rather, what is so glaring is the fact that attacks against the Amhara people and the lack of justice in the two regions have been normalized. For murder has become a numerical issue, one tends to ask, not the question of why and how to stop it, but how many of the unwanted people will be slaughtered in the next round of the campaign.

Thus, as I have tried to show in this article, the underlying cause of the atrocities against the Amhara people (and as well as other ethnic groups) is the ethnic cleansing policy of the political elites, which is enabled by the constitutional design, prevailing practices, and the deeply entrenched culture of impunity. This entails that, if a fundamental change had to be thought, then a normative and policy intervention should start from addressing the incentives for ethnic cleansing. To this end, pragmatic constitutional reform and taming of dangerous narratives seem to be the starting point.

Notes :

(1)Philipp Ther, The Dark Side of Nation-States: Ethnic Cleansing in Modern Europe, translated by Charlotte Kreutzmüller, (New York, Berghahn Publisher, 2014).
(2)Rony Blum et al, ‘‘Ethnic Cleansing Bleaches the Atrocities of Genocide’’, European Journal of Public Health, Vol.18, No.2, 204-209, 2007, p.204.
(4) Drazen Petrovic, ‘‘Ethnic Cleansing – An Attempt at Methodology’’, European Journal of International Law, Vol.5, 1994, pp.342-359, at 351.
(5)Andrew Bell-Fialkoff, “A Brief History of Ethnic Cleansing”, Foreign Affairs, Vol.72, No.3 (1993), p.110.
(6) UNSC, Final Report, S/1994/674, 1994.
(7) Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism: New Perspectives on the Past (Cornell University Press, 2009), p.2.
(8) Stefan Wolf, ‘‘Can Forced Population Transfers Resolve Self-determination Conflicts? A European Perspective’’, Journal for Contemporary European Studies, Vol.4, No.1, 2004.
(9) For more on this, you may read my previous piece titled “‘Disposable People’?: the Plight of Neftegna”, https://borkena.com/2021/01/14/the-disposable-people-the-plight-of-neftegna/#:~:text=When%20the%20conspiracy%20to%20murder,orchestrated%20would%20become%20disposable%20items.
(10) See Art. 8 of the revised Constitution of the Oromia Regional State and Art. 2 of the revised Constitution of the Benishangul-Gumuz Regional State, respectively.
(11) For some of the worst massacres of the Amhara people in these areas, see Tom Gardner, “All Is Not Quite on Ethiopia’s Western Front”, Foreign Policy, 6 January 2021, available here: https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/01/06/ethiopia-benishangul-gumuz-violence-gerd-western-front/.; Simon Marks and Declan Walsh, “Dozens Die in Ethnic Massacres in Troubled Ethiopian Region”, New York Times, 13 January 2021, available here: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/13/world/africa/ethiopia-ethnic-killings.html.; Ethiopian Human Rights Commission report on the massacre of more than 150 Amhara: https://apnews.com/article/africa-ethiopia-cdaf6d8d32393fc7a9ff62f7c7052bf0. And last week, about 168 innocent people were massacred in Wollega.
(12) It should be recalled that the attacks against the Amhara people throughout Oromia, following the assassination of Hacaalu Hundessa, were partly orchestrated by the government officials, according to the testimony of the then Deputy Commissioner of the Oromia Police Commission. Moreover, in its latest press release, the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) stated that the government body’s participation in the crimes had complicated the issue. See here: https://borkena.com/2022/02/10/amhara-massacre-in-wollega-govt-bodies-participation-complicated-it/.

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