January 3, 2006
The recent protests in Nairobi by Oromo refugees may have uncovered a spill into Kenya of the often downplayed conflict in Ethiopia.
Extension of that conflict to northern Kenya, along the border with Ethiopia, may be more familiar, but not details of the complaints raised on December 26 and 27 by Ethiopian Oromos living in Kenya.
Having fled persecution in their country, the refugees were
astonished last month when certain members of their community were allegedly
picked by people suspected to be linked to the Ethiopian Government and taken
to unknown destinations.
Aware of the nature and the history of the conflict, the Oromo would not take the matter lightly. About 500 of them staged a demonstration outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Nairobi, demanding assurances on security.
Tracking down Oromo people in Kenya may not be a fresh undertaking, going by past reports and statements by analysts of the conflict.
According to a US Department of Homeland Security document, an Oromo liberation leader by the name Jatan Ali was shot dead in Nairobi in 1992 by suspected agents of the Ethiopian government.
The 1999 document, posted on the internet, states that an outfit called Hager Fiqir, made up of Government agents, had been deployed to track down political opponents in exile, particularly in South Africa and Kenya.
"An ethnic Oromo resident in Johannesburg was kidnapped, detained, and beaten up at a Hager Fiqir office in January 1999 after attending a meeting in which speakers denounced human rights violations against Ethiopians," says part of the US paper that quotes an Indian Ocean newsletter published that year.
A Horn of Africa conflict analyst, requesting anonymity, says the recently reported harassment of Oromo refugees in Kenya is not an isolated affair. "Picking and arresting Oromos has been going on for the past 14 years," he says. This is the period the current regime has been in power.
Most victims of the persecution are suspected to be sympathisers of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the movement that has been in conflict with the Government since 1991.
The row between the ruling Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and the OLF has made the latter demand self-determination in Oromia state, which borders Kenya to the north.
The Oromo have been suppressed politically, economically,
socially and culturally by successive ruling regimes in Ethiopia.
The minority Abyssinians, composed of Tigreans and Amhara, are said to have colonised the majority Oromo with the help of European powers.
Occupying the richest part of Ethiopia, the Oromo make about half the population of Ethiopia. They had to be tactfully suppressed for the colonisers to gain access to Oromia resources.
It is in Oromia that coffee was first discovered, according to historians. It is also here that large reserves of minerals like gold, platinum and nickel are found.
These resources are a bone of contention. The Government wants to control the state, while the Oromo insist on self-determination. They have been subjugated for about 120 years.
Recent claims of heightened atrocities in Oromia, especially
after the May 2005 General Election in Ethiopia – in which European observers
accused the Government of interfering with the results – have only heightened
An Oromo uprising over the elections has been going on in several parts of their region since November. The Government has responded with strong force.
On December 24, OLF's external information division claimed
that three Oromo students in Qiltu Karaa of Western Oromia were killed on December
20 by Government agents. Five others were allegedly injured, one of whom died
later in hospital.
"Oromo students have been killed and detained all over Oromia because of taking part in peaceful protests against Government policies. Torture and rape of prisoners has become routine in secret detention centres," says the statement.
Other reports by independent rights activists have frequently expressed concern over arbitrary arrest and detention of Oromo people because of their opposition to the Government.
The Ethiopian Government has often exonerated itself from blame, counter accusing the OLF. Says a statement from the Ethiopian Embassy in Kenya: "In fact, the OLF should be the last to speak about harassment, being spied on and abduction of its members.
"It has been established by an independent commission of inquiry that it (OLF) committed ethnically motivated atrocities against innocent civilians during the time of the new administration in different parts of Ethiopia, and has been responsible for a series of attacks in the country in recent years."
In Kenya, where a big number of Oromo refugees live, the TPLF
is said to be targeting Oromo refugees. If true, this could explain the alleged
disappearance of some of them from their houses in Eastleigh and elsewhere recently.
The conflict expert who spoke to us said Kenya should not take the Oromo matter lightly. He added that Ethiopian Government operatives are in constant pursuit of targeted Oromo refugees.
"Many are the times when Oromo leaders have been arrested and released on the intervention of Western diplomats in Kenya," he said. Kenya, he says, is constantly being drawn to the OLF-TPLF conflict. It should take advantage of recent peace interests expressed by the two groups to initiate discussions.
"Kenya has a big stake in peace between the two groups – mainly regarding stability in its northern region. The Kenyan Government cannot turn a blind eye. It is in its interest to intervene," says the official of an international conflict research organisation.
He added that five Ethiopian security agents suspected to have orchestrated the arrest of seven Oromo refugees mid last year were themselves arrested and returned to Ethiopia by Kenyan authorities. This could strengthen the claims by Oromo refugees that they are being persecuted in a foreign land, against the principles of non-refoulement.
No refugee should be sent back to a country in which his or her life, or freedom, will be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, membership to a social group or political opinion. This is provided for in Article 33 of the Convention of the Status of Refugees, 1951.
The Ethiopian Embassy denies pursuing Oromos in exile, saying such claims are "defeatist propaganda by groups wanting to tarnish Ethiopia's image and its embassy in Nairobi, or to draw international attention". "We wish to categorically deny that this Embassy or any other authority of the Ethiopian Government has ever been involved in such unlawful activities in a country it fully respects as sovereign," said a communication from the embassy.
Story by Elly Wamari
Source: Daily Nation Kenya