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Political Assassinations and Impunity in Ethiopia

By Professor Ezekiel Gebissa

Political assassinations have been part of human history since the emergence of communal social formations. Leaders of organized communities, ranging from village bandits and tribal chiefs to imperial monarchs, have used it to defend their privileged status. It is not surprising that religious texts, ancient historical accounts, and philosophical treatises are filled with references to political assassinations.

Bate Urgessa, the former senior official of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), killed in Ethiopia.

On the other hand, opponents of ruling elites have used political assassinations to eliminate tyrannical leaders and oppressive policies or to instigate revolutionary movements. In many cases where political assassinations have successfully eliminated the head of a polity, it has substantially affected the course of the polity’s history and politics. Conversely, leaders who resort to assassinating dissidents have managed to suppress opposition and prolong their rule for a little while. Over the long term, however, the practical effect of targeted assassination has been to inflame politics and precipitate a backlash that culminates in removing the incumbent.

In Ethiopia, security agents and regime opponents have used political assassination as a weapon against each other in the past.  It occurred rarely during the imperial period, became widespread during Mengistu Hailemariam’s Derg regime, and mainly took the form of enforced disappearance during Meles Zenawi’s long stint as prime minister. Targeted political assassinations of high-profile figures have increased in number and frequency in the last five years that Abiy Ahmed Ali has been at the helm. More high-profile assassinations have occurred in the incumbent’s five years in power than the nearly three decades of his predecessor. Prominent killings include Simegnew Bekele, chief engineer of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam; General Se’are Mekonnen, chief of staff of the Ethiopian National Defense Force; Ambachew Mekonnen, President of the Amhara regional state; and Hacaaluu Hundessa, a legendary Oromo artist and activist.  The latest high-profile political assassination occurred in Meqi town, East Shewa, about 100 miles south of Addis Ababa.

The victim was Bate Urgesssa of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Gunmen eyewitnesses described as “government security forces” abducted him in the early hours of April 10, 2024. His bullet-shredded body was found at dawn, dumped by a waste disposal site outside the town. He is survived by his wife and four children. Known for his calm demeanor and stoic character, Bate was a politician of rare caliber, highly regarded by friends and opponents for his erudition, eloquence, and emotional intelligence.

The OLF and the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) have called on human rights organizations to conduct an impartial and neutral investigation to bring the perpetrators to justice. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has called for a “prompt, impartial, and full investigation by the federal and regional governments.” The European Union and the United States have joined the call for a full investigation, emphasizing the importance of justice and accountability to end the cycle of violence. Senator Ben Cardin, Chair of the US Foreign Relations Committee, has urged Ethiopian authorities to allow “a credible, neutral international body to conduct a thorough investigation.”

The Ethiopian government is not known to respond affirmatively to calls for an investigation. The widow of General Se’are has tearfully expressed grave doubt about the legitimacy of an investigation that has not called her for questioning even though she was the first person at the crime scene. Hacaaluu Hundessa’s parents have stated that they have no confidence that the government can conduct an impartial investigation that would do justice for their son. In Bate’s case, Jawar Mohammed, a prominent Oromo politician, has written that he would not “add insult to injury” by demanding an independent and impartial investigation, given that the assassinations of “the last few years remain unresolved.” 

The patterns of behavior and propensities of officials exhibited in the last five years are arguably the reason for the reluctance to call on the government to conduct an investigation. In almost all cases, officials have identified offenders even before investigations were launched. They have tended to deflect and divert attention from the government without being accused. When Simgnew was killed, the prime minister publicly accused “ousted officials plotting to return to power” committed the killing minutes after learning of the incident while on a visit to the United States. The Oromia regional state president convicted Oromo insurgents even before the artist was interned. In Bate’s case, the mayor of Meqi declared the case a homicide and the deceased’s siblings a suspect only hours after the deceased body was discovered and took them into custody the next day.

The apparent coverup has caused people to go further and implicate government security forces in the killings. Circumstantial evidence rights organizations have published gives credence to the suspicion government agents are the culprit. A member of the federal parliament and a member of the ruling party has stated repeatedly that Oromia government officials ordered the massacre of 400 residents of Tole district, West Wallagga, on June 18, 2022, and the killing of 14 Karrayyuu elders on December 1, 2021, in Fantalle district, East Shawa Zone. The EHRC has confirmed the allegations. A Reuters investigative journalist has identified a killing squad directed by the Oromia regional government secret agency called Korree Nageenyaa (Security Committee) as the perpetrator of these killings. The assassination methods and styles indicate that only government forces can kill with efficiency and coverup, such as switching off the internet and telephone where an assassination has happened.  

Bate Urgessa assassination has the hallmarks of the circumstances listed above. Two days before his assassination, Bate told friends that he was being followed around by security forces wherever he went and that they were waiting for an opportune moment to capture and execute him. On Tuesday, April 9, 2024, he entered a vehicle in his hometown of Meqi to go home for the night. He was prevented from leaving the hotel courtyard, forcing him to get a hotel room for the night. Minutes after midnight, armed men dragged him out of his room and took him away to his death. There is a preponderance of evidence implicating that Bate Urgessa’s death is the work of regime-sponsored assassins more than any other entity.

The unanswered question in Bate’s death is the motivation for his killing. It must be stressed that suspects are the current Oromia Prosperity Party politicians who regard the OLF’s existence as a threat to their newly assumed position as the new Oromo ruling elite whose power should never be contested. The fact is the Prosperity Party is a progeny of the now-defunct Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), a party the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) organized to subvert OLF’s political cause and aspirations. Apart from the ideological position it copied from the OLF, the OPDO does not have an independent reason for existence. Its leaders have rebranded themselves as missionaries of prosperity, but they could not jettison the lingering image of being a purposeless, identity less, and directionless TPLF appendage. Even the brutal war they waged against their creator has failed to shake off the badge of being a TPLF’s acolyte. Ironically, they make no secret of admitting that they were TPLF errand boys throughout their association with the EPRDF. As a genuine, principled, erudite, and articulate OLF politician, Bate’s life was a living reminder of the OPDO’s defective origin and checkered past. His killing became the ultimate panacea.

In addition, Bate was unwilling to fall for the allure of money and other privileges that the Oromo ruling elite had used to bribe and entice Oromo nationalists willing to sell their political souls. The Oromo ruling elite was perplexed that Bate dared to refuse to fall for monetary benefits. As a young man of deeply held values, principles, and political clarity, willing to endure any pain, absorb any loss, and pay the ultimate price in life for the freedom of the Oromo people, Bate’s life became an antidote to the Oromia ruling elite’s effort to present the OLF as a senile and clueless party bereft of new ideas. With no more arrow left in their quiver to be used to define, demonize, and destroy the OLF Bate represented, the Oromo ruling elite resorted to the tried-and-true weapon of physical elimination.

In a country where the Prosperity Party’s tactics of buying off willing opponents and eliminating principled politicians have effectively commercialized and militarized politics, Bate remained a glittering example of nobility of character and a compelling moral voice defending the otherwise noble task of moral leadership and advocating democracy, constitutionalism, and a pluralistic society. The Oromo ruling elite considered his courage an affront to their immoral politics, corrupt governance, and debauched personhood. Killing Bate meant eliminating a symbol of freedom, and desecrating his dead body gave pleasure to the sadist political malpractice, which, unfortunately, has engulfed the body politic.

When assassinations occur, the standard practice on the part of government officials has been to blame OLA insurgents. The OLA consistently accuses the government and calls for an independent investigation. Only the government is legally mandated to collect evidence, establish facts, prosecute perpetrators, and ensure justice. But none of the high-profile assassinations have been adequately investigated, prosecuted, and the perpetrators convicted. The level of indiscriminate killing has reached such an alarming level that. The government cannot continue to point fingers at non-state actors and relinquish its vital duty of protecting its citizens.

There is a crisis of confidence in the government’s ability either to protect citizens or prosecute perpetrators of violent crimes.  When governments fail to protect citizens from insecurity, individuals often take their security into their own hands.  The ensuing chaos will perpetuate the news of violence and reinforce the cycle of violence. The war of all against all is the last thing Ethiopia needs at this moment.

Professor Ezekiel Gebissa

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Ezekiel Gebissa is a professor of History and African study at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan. He can be reached at[email protected]


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