Horrifying Escalation of Violence in Ethiopia

By Andrew DeCort 

Ethiopia’s “Other War” in Oromia 

Footage is being released of people being burned alive by soldiers and human heads being paraded on pikes by Fano militants. Every few days brings news of another massacre. The government is using drones and jets to dominate its own people. The region is becoming a human slaughterhouse. 

What we are witnessing is not new. The Ethiopian empire was built on this gruesome violence in Oromia and other regions of Ethiopia. Today, this hellish destruction of life is either the empire desperately grasping to complete itself or its death fever. 

This much is clear: Until this imperial past is confronted, there will be no peace in Ethiopia. What the world fails to understand is that this past is the present and perhaps also the future for millions of Ethiopians. For some, it is seen as their historic right and divine destiny. For others, it is seen as their historic trauma and deadly oppression. 

All people of good will must denounce this unburied imperial past and cry out for ceasefire, dialogue, and a political solution. Millions of innocent lives are at stake, especially women, children, and the elderly. 

Ethiopia’s Undead Imperial Past 

The respected historian Harold Marcus documented how the Ethiopian state was built by this imperial violence in his authoritative 1975 book “The Life and Times of Emperor Menelik II.” Reading this dry academic book about Ethiopia 130 years ago is so painful because it sounds so much like Oromia, Tigray, and elsewhere in Ethiopia today. As Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” 

Read Marcus’s description of how the Fano militia served as the forerunner of the imperial army. Has anything changed besides the destructive force of modern weapons? Marcus writes: 

“An ad hoc group of fighters, the Fano lived entirely off of the land and by their wits. Armed with lances, swords, and shields, they preceded the main [imperial] force, provided intelligence reports, and kept the enemy off balance with surprise attacks. All these fighters augmented the king’s standing army… Once in enemy territory, the Fano moved one or two days’ march ahead of the main force, devastating the deserted countryside… Those who refused to disclose the enemy’s whereabouts and where the cattle were concealed were shot immediately.” 

(Harold Marcus, 1975 p. 65-66).

This is exactly what we saw in the Tigray war and what we are seeing in the Oromia war. 

Marcus is clear about how Menelik’s Shoan military would then follow Fano’s terror: 

“[Soldiers would] return to camp with women and children; captive able-bodied males and the elderly were killed. The severity of the zemecha [campaign] was aimed at the eradication of all resistance

Whenever the army surged forward, there was the utmost devastation; houses were burned, crops destroyed, and people executed. Two or three violent attacks occurred during any one campaign until the camp overflowed with booty and prisoners. Only when the remaining enemy authorities decided to surrender did the commanders-in-chief halt the assaults. 

After a formal act of submission, looting and burning were forbidden over a people now Menelik’s subjects. The king, or his surrogate, then assigned a Shoan nobleman with his retinue and some colonists to reorganize and administer the ravaged land, while the main force returned home. Once in safe territory, the booty was divided, and the king received one-half to two-thirds of the total… Despite Menelik’s wish to divert as much of this lucrative trade as possible into Shoa, the violence of his expansion served to frighten traders away.” (p. 67)

Ethiopia’s Unborn Democratic Future 

This is the pattern we see today: (1) Fano and other identitarian militias violently attacking across borders; (2) the federal government exploiting this carnage for its advantage; and (3) the catastrophic destruction of human life and the devastation of local economies. There is no denying these painful realities. 

One of the burning questions for peace in Ethiopia today is this: can “Ethiopia” and “Ethiopianism” be liberated from the Ethiopian empire?

Many people, especially in groups like Fano, see that empire as their legacy and inheritance. Thus, they see doing what Fano did as their right and unfinished destiny — not merely as an anomaly of conflict. This is why I don’t believe these atrocious massacres are accidental. The difference is that we now have smartphones and social media to watch it happening. 

This has been dramatically escalated by PM Abiy militarizing the entire civilian population in his war campaign against Tigray in which Fano was a crucial force. Abiy has knowingly re-activated that total war mentality of the imperial state-building project from 130 years ago. 

And this is why millions of Ethiopians want nothing to do with “Ethiopia.” If being “Ethiopian” means being part of the Ethiopian empire, they know what that looks like and where it goes. They understandably do not want a repeat of that nightmarish past. 

The Need for Nonviolent Leadership 

This is the crossroads the country faces: undead empire or unborn multiethnic democracy? 

A crucial task for Ethiopian leaders today is to articulate a future for Ethiopia that is not a rerun of the imperial past marked by (1) terroristic identitarian militias, (2) imperial/federal domination, and (3) the mass-production of poverty via the looting of regional economies for the federal government’s enrichment. 

What many refuse to admit is that the discourse of “unity” and “Ethiopianism” evokes these painful memories for millions of historically othered ‘Ethiopians’. 

What does a non-imperial, genuinely democratic Ethiopia look like? 

Leaders who can imagine and advocate for that vision have the best chance of preventing the country from shattering itself like the former Russian empire. (It’s no accident that so many Ethiopianists support Russia’s war against Ukraine.) A foreign expert who has worked in the country for decades recently told me, “Ethiopia is like a dead whale that is being torn apart by sharks.” Sadly, he sees the country moving in the direction of Somalia — a country on paper that is really a collection of warring cliques. 

An irony is that Jawar Mohammed is emerging as one of the foremost voices for dialogue, peace, and democratic negotiation in Ethiopia today. 

When I started building a relationship with Jawar several years ago, friends would call me on the phone and angrily rebuke me for meeting with an “extremist.” They were certain Jawar was the enemy of “Ethiopia.” More recently, Ethiopian theologians have tried to discredit me by posting my pictures with Jawar — a kind of character assassination by association. Their message is that if I talk with Jawar, no one should take me seriously. Of course, Jawar is a Muslim Oromo, so he embodies two historic Ethiopian phobias. 

Meanwhile, the “Christian” leaders these Christian folks champion have proven to be ruthless war criminals who are inflaming mass-murder in Ethiopia. This has become painfully undeniable. Again and again, they try to solve problems by ordering more and more killing. They are addicts of the old imperial way. It’s what they know, and they do what they know, like all of us do what we know. 

By contrast, Jawar and some others have been repeatedly calling for the end of militarized conflict, a national dialogue, and a just peace through political negotiation. Ironically, the “extremist” Jawar has begun to seem extremely moderate and one of the few prominent political voices insisting that more war can only destroy Ethiopia. 

Bittersweetly, Jawar has been more vocally committed to peace than many of my Christian friends who claim to follow the Prince of Peace who proclaimed, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Thank God, we Christians have much to learn from our non-Christian neighbors. Doing so begins with humility and repentance. 

One way or another, the Ethiopian empire is dying. Suicide or surrender are the two options. It will either die by killing itself. Or it will die by facing the past, letting go of it, and giving birth to a new democratic future. 

I pray for the second option. But it will only be possible if prominent leaders and ordinary people courageously advocate for it. The undead imperial way of (1) militia terror, (2) government domination, and (3) civilian devastation can only kill Ethiopia. 

Cry Out for Just Peace! 

Dear friends of peace, will you join me in crying out for peace in Ethiopia? 

Will you join me in (1) acknowledging that the imperial past has atrocious evils that must be faced and repented of, (2) insisting that more murderous violence cannot heal Ethiopia’s wounds, (3) disavowing leaders who put any trust in violence like PM Abiy and militia commanders, and (4) crying out for parents, elders, pastors, priests, imams, ustazes, politicians, and other community leaders who demand ceasefire, dialogue, and just peace? 

There is no other way forward for Ethiopia. And “Ethiopia” means Ethiopian PEOPLE — the ones who are being burned alive and paraded on pikes, NOT a nostalgic fantasy or abstract idea. People, not power. People, not profit. People, not popularity. People, our precious neighbors made in God’s holy image! 

May the empire be surrendered. May a democratic, multiethnic democracy be born. May peace prevail among Ethiopia’s people. We are neighbors not enemies. Love your neighbor as yourself. Cry out for peace. 


This opinion piece was taken from the author’s Facebook page with his consent. The original piece can be found here.

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