Like the conflict in Tigray, one of the gravest consequences of the conflict in Ethiopia’s Oromia region has been the disastrous level of internal displacement it has given rise to. In this blog, Alemayehu B. Hordofa provides an overview of the situation of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Oromia and shows why ensuring their rights should be at the heart of the peace process in the region. He contends that the peace process in Oromia should give adequate space to the viewpoints of at-risk populations, including IDPs, and that including their concerns in a peace agreement is critical for safeguarding sustainable peace and preventing future conflict-induced displacements.
The political transition that occurred in Ethiopia in 2018 was hoped to bring peace to this deeply divided country; however, guns failed to be silenced, and Ethiopia continues to be ravaged by several conflicts that have uprooted millions of civilians from their homes. One such conflict is the one being waged in Oromia, the largest of the country’s eleven regions stretching across central, western, and southern Ethiopia.
The conflict has its roots in decades-old clashes between the Ethiopian government and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a nationalist political party established in 1973 to struggle for the right to self-determination of the Oromo people. The party was proclaimed a terrorist organization under the country’s former draconian Anti-terrorism Proclamation, and its leaders lived in exile in Eritrea until their return following the political transition in 2018. After the transition, the Ethiopian parliament lifted the OLF’s terrorist label and subsequently made significant amendments to the previous repressive anti-terrorism law. The new administration also signed the Asmara Agreement with the OLF and released political prisoners.
All these actions seemed to mark the start of a period of peace and stability for people whose livelihoods had been disrupted because of the decades-long conflict. But despite efforts to peacefully end the conflict, it flared up again shortly after the OLF leadership’s return to Ethiopia. This happened as the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), the military wing of the OLF, accused the Ethiopian government of failing to address major political demands made by the Oromo people. It subsequently refused to lay down arms, severed its relationship with the OLF, and continued its insurgencies, first in western and southern Oromia and then also in its central and northern parts following the military void created by the Tigray conflict.
This led to the short lifespan of the Asmara Agreement, as the government soon reverted to verbal clashes with the OLF and open military confrontation with the OLA. Below, I argue that durable peace can be ensured only by heeding the demands of the millions of IDPs that have not been met by the warring parties in their previous agreement, which has failed to truly resolve anything, and which does not seem to be at the center of the two parties’ ongoing negotiation.
How peace was sought—and why it proved ineffective
According to the 2023 Global Report on Internal Displacement, Ethiopia is the country in Africa with the second-highest number of IDPs after the DRC, with some 3.8 million people displaced. Conflict is the main driver of displacement, both at the national level and in the Oromia region. The latest data from OCHA show that over 800,000 people have been displaced in Western Oromia alone due to conflict. The number of people displaced because of conflict in the whole of Oromia is much larger, but displacement data is difficult to access.
The devastating impact of the ongoing conflict in Oromia compelled personalities, both inside and outside the government, to advocate for a peaceful solution of the Oromia conflict in a bid to stop displacement. In December last year, MPs from Oromia called on the Ethiopian Prime Minister to reach a peaceful settlement with the rebels, and opposition parties and independent civil society organizations made the same demands. The conflict in Oromia became such an important human rights and security issue that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed the need to end the “ongoing instability in the Oromia region” in his talks with the Ethiopian prime minister earlier this year.
Despite these internal and external pressures, the need to repair the crippled economy, and the increasing intensity threshold of the conflict, efforts to enter into a peace agreement remain futile. The first round of negotiations, mediated by Kenya and Norway, took place between April 24 and May 2 this year in Zanzibar and ended with no agreement having been reached to cease the hostilities. The two parties subsequently released similar statements describing the ‘unfortunate’ situation, claiming that “it was not possible to reach an agreement on some issues” during the first round of negotiations, and vowing to continue the negotiations to resolve the conflict “permanently and peacefully.”
No peace is possible without heeding the demands of IDPs
One of the main reasons for the failure of the Asmara agreement is its top-down orientation and failure to adequately engage the vast number of people who became victims of the impacts of the conflict, including the IDPs. The agreement brought the political leaders of the two warring parties to the negotiation table without heeding the victims’ demands. The current peace process should learn from the failure of its predecessor and take practical measures to address the rights of IDPs, including the right to obtain sustainable solutions in the form of return, resettlement, or local integration; restoration of their damaged properties and livelihoods; and reinstatement of the provisions of social services in displacement or resettlement areas. These measures would break the conflict cycle, realize inclusiveness, ensure local ownership, and address vulnerability that could otherwise led to long-lasting instability and undermine the success of the process.
For example, the conflict between the government forces and OLA in the Horo Guduru Wollega Zone of the Oromia region was intersected with cross-border attacks against civilians by militias and armed vigilante groups from the neighbouring Amhara region, causing the large-scale displacement of civilians and the destruction of civilian properties. Likewise, many IDPs from western Oromia have crossed regional administrative borders to seek protection and assistance in other regions out of the fear of being targeted along ethnic lines. Other IDPs were forced to flee their homes out of fear of human rights violations by the government’s security forces.
The peace process should address the root causes that triggered these cross-border attacks on civilians, ethnic targeting, and human rights violations. It should comprehensively respond to these issues; not integrating the interests and rights of these IDPs in the peace process would detrimentally affect its success and durability.
Indeed, conversations I had with IDPs confirmed the importance of the peace process for the millions of Ethiopians living in or displaced from conflict areas in Oromia. For example, Muluneh (name changed), who used to lead an independent life as a local businessperson and has now become an IDP because of the conflict in Oromia, explained:
“If the peace process is to become a reality, it must provide for some tangible mechanisms to address our [IDPs’] needs and interests. We [IDPs] endure the brunt of conflict in the region, having lost all our belongings and fled to save our lives. Any viable peace process in the region should address the root causes of the problems that made us vulnerable in the first place. We need compensation for our property looted, burned, and destroyed.”
Similar demands were made by other IDPs and human rights organizations to prevent arbitrary displacement, provide protection for IDPs and peacefully end the conflict in Oromia. The Ethiopian Humanitarian Observatory organized its second workshop on the topic of ‘Effective Governance Architecture for Managing Responses to Internal Displacement: The Role of Displacement Affected Communities and Humanitarian Organizations’ in March this year, during which workshop participants confirmed the low level of IDPs’ participation in humanitarian, development, and peace processes and underscored the positive correlation between IDPs’ participation, the effectiveness of humanitarian aid, and the sustainability of peace. Yet, these victims have not been consulted at any stage of the peace process in Oromia, their right to a remedy for their destroyed livelihoods has not been acknowledged, and the restoration of their property rights has not been prioritized.
Thus, it becomes clear that the participation of IDPs in the peace process is a cornerstone in ensuring its sustainability, warranting local ownership, and improving the implementation of its terms. The peace process must involve IDPs at all stages, and any potential peace agreement must include measures to ensure the specific human rights of IDPs and must reflect their interests. It must give a mandate for CSOs’ following up and monitoring of its enforcement.
Lastly, accountability is another cornerstone for lasting peace in the region. Peace becomes durable when it is combined with accountability and reparations. Accountability for causing, contributing to, or failing to address internal displacement should be an integral part of the peace process in Oromia.
 The other reasons include a lack of transparency in the negotiation process, as the terms of the agreement remain opaque until today and due to the absence of spaces for CSOs’ engagement in its implementation and monitoring.
 I spoke to Muluneh (name changed) in the town of Burayu in the last week of February as part of my efforts to define the focus of the Ethiopian Humanitarian Observatory that forms part of the ISS-hosted ‘Humanitarian Governance: Accountability, Advocacy, Alternatives’ project. Just a few days prior, the president of Oromia at a regional council meeting revealed, for the first time, the government’s intention to make peace with the OLA.
“The post is part of the humanitarian observatories series that received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme [Advance grant number 884139].”
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About the author:
Alemayehu B. Hordofa is a Ph.D. researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). He obtained his LLM in International Human Rights Law from the Irish Center for Human Rights (ICHR), University of Galway, Ireland. He is currently working on the role of Civil Society Organizations and Crisis-affected People to shape humanitarian governance ‘from below’ in the context of the humanitarian response to IDPs in Ethiopia. His research interests lie in forced displacement, localization of humanitarian aid, transitional justice, and the development of CSOs in Ethiopia.
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