By Aaron Maasho
HAWASSA, Ethiopia (Reuters) – Ethiopia’s government is failing to protect its citizens amid escalating ethnic violence that has displaced nearly a million people in the last six months, the head of a national human rights body that reports to parliament said on Thursday.
Among other conflicts along ethnic lines, fighting in the south between the Oromo and Gedeo groups has escalated since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – the first leader from the Oromo ethnic group in Ethiopia’s modern history – came to office in March.
Last week alone, more than 70,000 people, mostly Oromos – the largest ethnic group in the country, were targeted by members of other groups in the western state of Benishangul-Gumuz, regional officials said.
“In some cases, security officials deliberately avoided stepping in. It is when the government fails in its responsibility to protect its citizens that such rights abuses took place,” Addisu Gebregziabher, head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, told Reuters.
It is the first time Addisu has publicly criticised Abiy’s administration for its handling of the violence.
The independent commission also investigated the conduct of the Ethiopian authorities during the three years of unrest that forced the resignation of the previous prime minister, paving the way for Abiy’s appointment.
“The conflicts we are seeing involve serious human rights abuses,” Addisu told Reuters after a news conference in the southern city of Hawassa, where the ruling coalition is holding a long-delayed congress.
The event is expected to help cement the authority of Abiy, a 42-year-old former army officer who has presided over major political and economic changes in the country in his short time in power.
Some critics say that Abiy has loosened his coalition’s grip on the country and that releasing political prisoners and lifting a ban on opposition groups has led to the surge in ethnic violence as dormant rivalries were allowed to resurface.
Government spokesman Ahmed Shide did not answer phone calls requesting comment on Thursday afternoon, while the ruling coalition’s meeting was continuing.
Though Abiy’s new approach has drawn praise inside Ethiopia and abroad, his rhetoric is beginning to ring hollow in some parts of the country due to the rising violence — and concerns that his government is not acting to stop it.
Referring to the violence, Addisu said: “There is also a lack of accountability. For instance, while some regional officials were apprehended for stoking violence in Gedeo, others are yet to be held accountable.”
He said that in the case of the ethnic violence in Benishangul-Gumuz, regional officials had prevented his commission from carrying out research in some areas.
(Reporting by Aaron Maasho; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Hugh Lawson)