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Live Life Deliberately

Rebel or bandit? His life illuminates Ethiopia’s hidden insurgency.

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Nothing illustrates the violence and intrigue that has engulfed southern Ethiopia like the life of Fekade Abdisa.

A rebel and former prisoner, Fekade has also been called a bandit chief and double agent. Residents say that bloodshed follows in his wake and that his fighters have frequently killed civilians belonging to the Amhara ethnic group, triggering reprisal attacks.

Although he is only one player in a much larger story, his life illuminates the emergence of Ethiopian fighters with shifting, and even unclear, allegiances whose violence continues to roil Oromiya, the country’s largest and most populous region.

The long-running insurgency in Oromiya has been largely overshadowed by the civil war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, which came to an end with a November peace deal. But the conflict in Oromiya has claimed thousands of civilian lives and fueled an explosive growth in ethnic militias, representing a far greater long-term threat to Ethiopia’s integrity and stability.

Fekade and his Oromo forces have been accused by witnesses of involvement in several mass killings. In the ethnically mixed town of Agamsa, for example, Fekade’s fighters, wearing the long braids favored by Oromo rebels, killed dozens of civilians from the Amhara ethnic group last summer, according to witness accounts that have not been previously reported.

“These were innocent Amhara, our neighbors,” said one Oromo resident. “The blame for what happened afterward is with Fekade.” In a raid by an Amhara militia after Fekade’s forces fled, witnesses said, more than 100 Oromo were killed.

Fekade’s life also highlights why previous efforts to end the violence have failed, amid recriminations that the terms of peace deals were not honored or that disarmed rebels were mistreated. The resulting distrust continues to bedevil new negotiations between the government and the main armed group in Oromiya — the Oromo Liberation Army. The latest talks, which ended in Tanzania this month, established a rapport between the two sides, but the OLA rejected the government’s request for a cease-fire because the group wants its political demands addressed and a framework for implementation, an OLA official said.

Fekade was not represented at the talks. In a rare and lengthy telephone interview just before they began, he said he is fighting for the rights of the Oromo people against discrimination by the central government and by Amhara militias. He denied allegations that he is a robber, a kidnapper or an agent provocateur and said his fighters did not kill any civilians during the bloodletting in Agamsa last summer, contradicting the accounts provided in interviews by a dozen witnesses from both ethnic groups.

“We are fighting alongside our people,” he said. “We do not attack innocent civilians. … This is a complete lie.”

The Ethiopian national security adviser, justice minister, and regional president and police chief did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Political leaders in the fertile southern lands of Oromiya have long resented what they describe as discrimination and the historic domination by northern highland elites. Oromo rebels have been fighting Ethiopia’s central government for decades.

Fekade said in the interview that he joined the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in 2000, when he was 18. About a decade later, he received roughly six months of military training in Eritrea, Ethiopia’s small but heavily militarized neighbor, he recounted, a story confirmed by two other OLF members. He said he reentered Ethiopia to bomb government targets but was captured in 2012 shortly after he returned.

Over the next few years, Ethiopian prisons swelled with militants, journalists and protesters, including tens of thousands of Oromos. The turmoil triggered a state of emergency and in 2018, the prime minister resigned. The ruling coalition replaced him with former spy chief Abiy Ahmed, whose father is Oromo.

Abiy released tens of thousands of prisoners, including Fekade and his cellmates. Abiy undid bans on dozens of political parties and armed groups, including the OLF. About 1,300 armed OLF fighters traveled from Eritrea to formally lay down their arms. Then things started to go wrong.

The OLF fighters were denied vocational training and other help they had been promised, said Batte Urgessa, a spokesman for the group. He said many escaped and joined a faction that had refused to renounce armed struggle, calling themselves the Oromo Liberation Army. The Oromiya regional spokesman said that there was no such deal and that the OLF was invited back to participate in “peaceful political struggle.”

Fekade said he briefly joined these fighters when he was released from prison but surrendered as part of a second deal.

Eventually, Fekade returned home to Wollega, east of Addis Ababa. Half a dozen residents there said Fekade’s group began to demand money and livestock, claiming he was fighting for their liberation. Seven families said his fighters kidnapped their relatives for ransom. Residents said his men sometimes fought the OLA, headed by commander Jaal Morro, but rarely engaged government forces.

Fekade “was saying he was OLA and doing things that made people hate the OLA,” one resident said. “But he was also fighting the OLA.”

Fekade strongly denied committing crimes, saying “there is nothing that we take by force.” He told The Post he is an OLA commander, although he does not answer to Jaal Morro. The OLA said he poses as an OLA commander but cooperates with the government.

In 2021, Ethiopia held national elections. Major Oromo opposition parties withdrew from the polls after their offices were burned down and many members were arrested. Several Oromo leaders were detained. Violence surged anew, often along ethnic lines.

In Oromiya, many of the victims have been Amhara, members of Ethiopia’s second-most-populous ethnic group. Many Amhara had settled in Oromiya during the droughts of the 1980s, but some Oromo leaders began saying Amhara should leave. Armed Amhara formed militias. Some argued parts of Oromiya rightfully belonged to them.

The town of Agamsa is about five miles south of Oromiya’s border with Amhara. Fekade’s forces were a short walk away from Agamsa when security forces under the Oromiya regional government pulled out on the evening of Aug. 28. Amhara and Oromo residents said in interviews they begged the soldiers not to leave, fearing a massacre. They were right.

Hours after the regional forces left, witnesses said, they saw Fekade arrive with his men.

Four Oromo witnesses said they had seen five to 18 Amhara killed by Fekade forces. Five Amhara residents said the total was higher — about 50 people in the town. The victims included a monk and a nun. An Amhara teenager described how her father was shot dead as she hid in the toilet.

“This was an attempt to start ethnic killings,” an Oromo resident said.

Fekade denied his forces killed civilians and said all the dead were armed Amhara. He said he gave a speech encouraging Amhara and Oromo people to live together. He said he escorted a group of Amhara residents to safety, which was confirmed by both sides.

Next, Fekade’s forces ordered Oromo men to assemble in the local primary school and confiscated their weapons, six witnesses said. Fekade confirmed he had disarmed Oromos he thought might oppose him.

Accounts differ about what happened next. Amhara residents said an armed Amhara rescue party arrived the next day from a neighboring town and engaged Fekade’s forces. Oromo townspeople, however, said that Fekade’s forces ran away as the Amhara forces arrived and that Amhara gunmen killed more than 100 civilians, including children and the elderly.

“When I realized they were going for men, I left my wife and two kids,” recalled an Oromo survivor, who said he saw people hacked to death. “I kept running so instead of being dismembered, I thought I’d rather get a bullet.”

After the slaughter, activists for each side blamed the other.

Witnesses have also said in interviews that Fekade and his forces participated in the killings in the nearby towns of Jartege Jarte and Kiremu that provoked retaliatory raids by Amhara fighters. Fekade denied any involvement.

The United Nations says that half a million Amhara have fled the violence in Oromiya and that an unknown number of Oromos have been displaced.

Fekade was unreachable when The Post tried to contact him for comment on the peace talks. But an OLA operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, expressed hope they might leave no room for Fekade to operate.

Fekade “might transform into a local gangster. But it will be easier for the government to hunt him down,” the operative said.


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