(Nairobi) – The Ethiopian government has made little progress in investigating the deadly October 2019 violence and in acting to prevent further security force abuses and inter-communal violence. Six months later, victims and their families from two towns in the Oromia region still seek justice for abuses committed by security forces and violent mobs.
Protests erupted in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, on October 23, 2019, following social media posts by the prominent activist Jawar Mohammed accusing the authorities of threatening his security, a claim the police denied. The protests, which spread to about a dozen towns across the Oromia and Harari regions and to the city of Dire Dawa, devolved in several places into unrest and communal violence. According to official government figures, 86 people died during the protests and clashes across Oromia and surrounding areas, including 10 deaths that were the result of “confrontations” with the security forces.
“The Ethiopian authorities can’t brush the killing and maiming of scores of people, the destruction of homes and businesses, and attacks on hospitals under the carpet,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “To ensure that upcoming elections can be held safely and securely, the government needs to accelerate its investigations into the October violence and bring those responsible for abuses to justice.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 24 people about the violence, including 19 victims, witnesses, medical officials, and relatives of victims in Dodola in the West Arsi zone and Ambo in the West Shewa zone of the Oromia region, as well as 5 journalists, academics, and human rights experts. Interviews were conducted by phone in Afan Oromo, Amharic, and English between October 2019 and March 2020. Human Rights Watch also analyzed satellite imagery, which corroborated witness accounts of attacks on homes and businesses in Dodola.
In Ambo, Human Rights Watch found that Oromia police forces fired tear gas and live ammunition against initially peaceful, then stone-throwing, demonstrators. Medical workers and witnesses said that on October 23 and 24, at least 6 protesters died from gunshot wounds, while at least 37 others were injured. In a written response to questions from Human Rights Watch, the federal attorney general’s office said that security officers also sustained casualties during the Ambo protests.
A witness said that the protest in Ambo rapidly degenerated after Oromia police started firing on protesters:
Initially it was peaceful, but then one protester was wounded [by a police officer]. He was a grade 8 student. The protesters got emotional. The community was asking police not to shoot. But then some of [the police] started firing on the protesters. The community knows the police officers. It was heartbreaking to see them do this.”
In Dodola, at least 10 people were killed and 60 others injured among the town’s various ethnic communities after protests devolved into communal violence on October 23 and 24. Violent mobs attacked protesters and residents, looted property, and burned shops and businesses, forcing thousands to seek shelter in churches. Mobs also beat to death several patients and their relatives in Dodola General Hospital.
Witnesses said that the local and regional security forces in Dodola were slow to respond or failed to effectively protect them from the mob attacks, including in the hospital. A small contingent of federal soldiers arrived in Dodola on October 24 and were stationed around the town’s two churches. The troops left in early March, witnesses reported.
Ethiopian authorities should ensure that allegations of abuses, notably excessive use of force by security forces, and attacks by individuals implicated in mob violence are impartially investigated and appropriately prosecuted according to international fair trial standards, Human Rights Watch said. Investigations should include the role of security force commanders and any failure to prevent or stop abuses by security force personnel and to protect against mob attacks. The government should ensure that victims and their families of security force abuses receive prompt and fair compensation and should consider establishing a compensation program for victims of communal violence.
Soon after the violence, regional and federal authorities announced that they had arrested some people and that investigations were under way. The attorney general’s office responded in a February 21 letter to Human Rights Watch that federal and regional authorities conducted joint investigations in Ambo and Dodola. The attorney general’s office said that investigations were ongoing in Ambo, but had been completed in Dodola, that criminal charges had been filed against 12 people, and that hearings were under way. No information was made public about who was charged and for what offenses, how many suspects had been detained, and whether news about the judicial proceedings would be made public, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Ethiopian government’s insufficient response to the violence only adds to the suffering of the people whose loved ones died and others who lost everything,” Bader said. “Increasing trust in the security and judicial apparatus will be key to preventing a combustible situation before general elections are held.”
Context of the October Violence
Following years of systemic repression of dissent under previous administrations, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who assumed office in April 2018, ushered in reforms aimed at opening political and civil space. This allowed Ethiopians for the first time in many years to more freely express longstanding grievancesover land, border demarcations, access to state resources, and perceived discrimination against their community or ethnic group.
The more open political environment also amplified ethno-nationalist sentiments and forces that had long been simmering, contributing to growing unrest and inter-communal violence. Religion and ethnicity are frequently intertwined in Ethiopia and at times the violence appeared to take on a religious dimension.
Unrest over the last two years is also linked to dissatisfaction over the pace of reforms, new allegations of rights abuses, including by security forces in western and southern Oromia, and the government’s response – or perceived lack of response – to the recent escalation of communal violence.
These developments occurred in the context of a weakened administrative and security apparatus at the federal, regional, and local levels, creating security voids in many locations and contributing to the delayed response or inaction of government forces to contain outbreaks of violence.
The bouts of violence have resulted in killings, mass arrests, large-scale displacements, and the destruction of property. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, a humanitarian nongovernmental organization, found that as of December 2018, Ethiopia had 2.89 million displaced people, the largest number of new displacements globally. This included 1.4 million who had become displaced in the first few months of 2018. In the first half of 2019, 755,000 more people became displaced, 522,000 of them due to conflict.
The October violence was among the deadliest unrest over the past two years. While the protests’ immediate trigger was the perceived government threats to the Oromo activist and founder of the Oromia Media Network (OMN) Jawar Mohammed, many were responding to other grievances. Other groups took to the streets to show their opposition to the rhetoric and nationalism espoused by Jawar and his supporters, and to protest the perceived marginalization of their own ethnic group.
Jawar, an ethnic Oromo like Prime Minister Abiy, was instrumental in the 2014 to 2018 protest movement that ultimately brought Abiy to power in April 2018. He has had a significant following among the Oromo community, including among Oromo youth activists known as “Qeerroo.” After years of exile in the United States, Jawar returned to Ethiopia in 2018 after Abiy took office. Throughout 2019, Jawar became a vocal critic of Abiy’s policies.
On October 22, Abiy publicly condemned “foreign media owners” before members of parliament for fomenting unrest, which many perceived as a criticism of Jawar, who recently claimed to renounce his US citizenship, but at the time of Abiy’s remarks was still a US citizen. The next day, Jawar’s security team told him that the authorities had allegedly sought to remove his security state-provided detail in the middle of the night. Jawar then posted to his 1.75 million followers on Facebook, which sparked the widespread protests. In December, he joined the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), a political opposition party, and declared his intent to run for office. In January 2020, the OFC agreed to form a coalition of opposition Oromo parties, making Jawar a potential contender against Abiy in the upcoming national elections.
Police Use of Excessive and Lethal Force in Ambo
Ambo, a town 100 kilometers west of Addis Ababa, was the epicenter of the protests that brought Prime Minister Abiy to power. Abiy visited the town shortly after taking office, and again one week after the October violence to meet with local politicians. He was met by angry crowds.
The protests began early in the morning of October 23, when school-age children – many wearing school uniforms – gathered along the main road, chanting slogans against the government and in support of Jawar. They were later joined by a second group, some of whom were carrying sticks. By late afternoon, the initially peaceful protests degenerated after a police officer shot a protester, a secondary-school student. Protesters then began throwing stones at the police, blocking roads, and burning tires. In the ensuing 48-hour clash, various Oromia security forces launched tear gas and fired indiscriminately on crowds.
Human Rights Watch received credible reports from medical officials and witnesses in Ambo that at least 6 people were killed, including an elderly man, all by bullets, and at least 37 others were wounded, including a 13-year-old, during the protests and their aftermath.
A witness near Ambo University’s Awaro campus described what happened after the first protester was shot:
A policeman shot him in his shoulder. Just one bullet – he didn’t die. After that, the [protesters] were emotional and started throwing stones. Then the security forces started using teargas…. We had to run and go and get water. I then helped take the young man to the hospital. Immediately after, more injured people were brought in [to the hospital].
A student present at the protests on October 23 saw the police shoot another student, his 18-year-old friend Bikila Sirna, after protesters started throwing stones at the police: “He was shot in the head. He wasn’t speaking at all, so we just rushed him to the hospital. He was shot with one bullet that went out of his head and hit another person.” Bikila later died from his injuries.
On October 24, protesters gathered outside the main police station, calling for the arrest of the police officer who had shot the first protester. A witness described the security forces opening fire on the crowd:
When the police pulled up in the car, protesters began throwing stones at the vehicle. They wanted to see the person who shot the boy [the first protester]…. That’s when the police started shooting. There was no warning. One police officer began shooting, and then all police started shooting. The protesters began running; many of them fell on the ground.
Another resident said protesters ran into a residential area off the main road, pursued by security officers firing tear gas and live ammunition. One bullet hit an 80-year-old bystander, Moossaa Morodaa, in the head as he sat outside his neighbor’s home. A witness said:
Six protesters were shot in front of my house. When I heard the shots, I went out to see what had happened. While I was there, they shot Moossaa Morodaa. Then the police saw me and started shooting at me, so I ran to hide.
Moossaa later died from his injuries.
Communal Violence in Dodola
Dodola is a town in southeastern Oromia. According to a contested 2007 census, the town has 20,830 inhabitants, the majority of them Oromo, with a minority Amhara population.
Residents said that tensions between members of different ethnic groups had intensified in the weeks leading up to October protests, but that the violence that erupted in late October was unprecedented.
Protesters first took to the streets on October 23 to rally against the government’s alleged treatment of Jawar. The demonstrations grew over the course of the day as people from nearby neighborhoods and districts joined in. At some point that morning, a small group of protesters made their way to the town’s Orthodox Christian church, Gebre Kristos. Church members gathered outside the gates of Gebre Kristos, holding sticks in an apparent attempt to stop the other group from entering the church. This seemed to deter the group of protesters as there were no clashes that morning, and protesters made their way back toward the center of town.
Later that afternoon, altercations between protesters and residents started around another church, Kidane Mehret. Violent clashes subsequently broke out that evening between Oromo protesters and Amhara residents in Ketana 5 – a predominantly Amhara neighborhood near Dodola secondary school – as the protesters were making their way home. The violence then spread to other neighborhoods and continued on October 24, with victims apparently targeted simply based on their ethnic identity or perceived religious affiliation.
Killings and Injuries
Witnesses and relatives of victims said that mobs killed at least 10 people from the town’s various ethnic and religious communities during 2 days of violence, including a woman and at least 2 elderly men. Victims were shot, mutilated, or beaten to death. At least 60 others were injured, including children, one about 12-years-old. The actual numbers of those killed and injured may be higher.
A witness said that when a small group of Oromo protesters made their way home in the Ketana 5 neighborhood, a group of Amhara youths began to throw stones and sticks at them. One elder who witnessed the events said:
A group of us elders heard the screams and ran to the area trying to reconcile and mediate the situation. But we were not successful. Then explosives were thrown, so we ran away. Many people were injured. I could hear the sound of gunshots into the evening.
Two medical workers at Dodola General Hospital confirmed that injured protesters, mostly from the Oromo community, started to arrive at the hospital in the late afternoon of October 23, including about 20 with bullet wounds. Others had knife wounds or injuries from an explosive weapon. Four of those who arrived at the hospital with bullet wounds on October 23 later died fromtheir injuries.
Witnesses said that four other residents were attacked and killed on October 24 inside the general hospital. One witness said:
Three people with injuries arrived in the hospital by ambulance and were taken to the emergency room. There was a boy, his father, and one old person…. Oromo patients injured from the violence the day before immediately identified the three people as Amharas and said “These are Amharas, don’t treat them.”
Hospital staff later found the three dead with serious head injuries. They said that a woman was also beaten in the cafeteria. Her head and face were badly beaten. She was taken to another hospital in Hawassa, a town 97 kilometers from Dodola, where she died.
One medical doctor said “It was beyond our control in the hospital. We called the local security forces, but they did not come in time.”
In addition to the eight people who died in the hospital, residents said that at least two elderly men were killed by mobs in their homes. One man said he was forced to leave his elderly relative behind and flee to Kidane Mehret church when their home came under attack. He later found out his relative had been killed and his body mutilated:
The [mobs] took [him] and cut his stomach, leg, hands. When this happened … I was not there…. We were not able to bring him [to the church]; the situation didn’t allow. The federal forces later brought his body to the church and we buried him on October 25.
Destruction of Property
Three residents said mobs armed with rocks, sticks, and agricultural tools looted and burned their property. Human Rights Watch also assessed satellite imagery in Dodola, recorded between September 10 and November 1, which confirmed the damage to between 30 and 40 structures in areas described by interviewees. The damage, consistent with burning, targeted areas in the predominately Amhara neighborhood in Ketana 5, near Dodola high school and Dodola Gabaa Kamisaa, and in the vicinity of Gebre Kristos church, where the imagery also shows piles of burned debris near many of the damaged buildings.
A resident seeking refuge in Kidane Mehret church on the afternoon of October 23 described seeing mobs arriving at the gates of the church:
They weren’t able to enter because they were stopped by town elders and Oromia special police. So the [mob] surrounded the church and started to throw stones…. We began collecting the rocks and threw them back. Several people were injured inside the church.
Another witness said that regional police forces fired tear gas near the gate of the Kidane Mehret church to try to stem people from entering or leaving the church, causing injuries and panic: “Some of us in the church were standing near the gate. People were vomiting [because of the tear gas], and it affected my eyes and I couldn’t breathe well.”
One businessman, whose shop near Dodola high school was attacked on October 23, said: “The Qeerroo came to my house – there were so many. They looted my shop and my house. They were carrying stones, knives, machetes, and sticks.”
A woman whose home was also attacked on the evening of October 23 said:
They [the mobs] went into each bedroom; they broke the beds; they broke the tea and coffee machines; they threw the fridge outside. I can’t tell how many they were; they surrounded the house holding hammers, stones. They burned all the property outside.
This continued for 30 minutes to an hour…. Then [Oromia special police and Dodola police] arrived. They shot live ammunition [in the air] and dispersed the mobs.
In the immediate aftermath of the violence, residents and the United Nations reported that at least 3,000 people were sheltered in 2 of the town’s churches. Satellite imagery also identified makeshift settlements in the southwestern part of Dodola, near the damaged structures, since October 25 and 26.
After an attempt at reconciliation by Abbaa Gadaas (Oromo community elders and traditional leaders), some residents returned home. By mid-March, many displaced individuals and families had left Dodola out of fear of more flare-ups. A man displaced by the violence said the living conditions had become difficult: “Our businesses are closed. We are just sitting idle. The Christians are afraid to go back to work.”
On October 31, a federal government spokesperson announced that more than 400 people had been arrested in relation to the late October violence that affected over a dozen towns.
Residents from both Ambo and Dodola said that regional government officials had initiated investigations. In Ambo, West Shewa zonal authorities reportedly established a committee to investigate the events and the Oromia police commission also initiated an investigation. A key witness to police violence told Human Rights Watch that he had been asked by zonal police officers to identify security force members involved in the violence.
In a February 21 letter to Human Rights Watch, the federal attorney general’s office stated that the investigation in Ambo was ongoing, but that preliminary findings suggest that there “were casualties sustained by civilians and members of security forces.”
In Dodola, residents said the zonal authorities had sent an investigation team to the town. The attorney general’s office stated that a public hearing had started in Dodola. But four key witnesses who had cooperated with the zonal investigation said that they had not received any updates from the authorities and were not aware of any public hearing as of late February.
Recommendations to the Ethiopian Government
Ethiopia’s federal and regional security forces engaged in law enforcement duties should strictly abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Under these principles, security forces must apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Deadly force by law enforcement should only be used when strictly necessary to protect life or prevent serious injury from an imminent threat. If the use of force to disperse violent protests is unavoidable, security forces should use only the minimum level of force necessary to contain the situation. Security forces should ensure that medical assistance is provided to those injured at the earliest possible moment.
The Ethiopian government should:
- Support a credible, independent, and transparent investigation into the use of excessive force by security forces and violence by those responsible for communal attacks. The inquiry should include a full accounting of the dead and injured, the circumstances surrounding each incident resulting in death or injury, and the extent to which government security forces were implicated in human rights violations
- Discipline or prosecute as appropriate all security forces members, regardless of rank or position, that were responsible for using excessive force against protesters
- Direct law enforcement and security agencies to issue clear orders to their personnel that any use of force must be strictly necessary and proportionate to a real and imminent threat, and that use of excessive force will be punished. Law enforcement officials who carry firearms should be authorized to do so only upon completion of special training in their use. Training of law enforcement officials should give special attention to alternatives to the use of force and firearms, with a view to limiting their use
- Ensure that during periods of unrest, hospitals and other medical facilities have sufficient security
- Work with experts in the Advisory Council for Legal and Justice Affairs within the Attorney General’s office, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, and Ethiopian nongovernmental organizations to include victims of communal violence in a proposed compensation program for victims of human rights violations, and ensure that it is provided in a prompt, adequate, and transparent manner
- Provide health care assistance for physical and mental harm incurred by victims and their families
- Ensure victims of crimes are informed of the timing and progress of the proceedings and of the disposition of their cases, including by holding community meetings in areas affected by communal violence
- Take meaningful steps to allay fears of ethnic or religious communities through broad public education campaigns focused on the need to end discrimination and violence