Ethiopia’s forgotten minority: Who will be the voice for Karrayyu?
Zoom out from Tigray and there are many more groups facing abuses who are rarely talked about by the media or advocacy groups.
On 2 February 2022, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) confirmed what everyone had known for months: that last December, Oromia state security forces brutally killed more than a dozen members of the Karrayyu Gadaa people. Following the pastoralist community’s gathering for a seasonal prayer known as Kadhaa Waaqaa, special forces abducted 39 civilians and then executed 14 of them.
In the aftermath of the killings, Oromia state officials blamed the massacre on the rebel Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). However, activists, eyewitnesses, and the Abba Gadaa union pointed a finger squarely at the government and the Oromia Special Forces (OSF), a unit that has been accused of brutality in the past. The opposition Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) called the incident “a premeditated massacre that was perpetrated by the [Prosperity Party] PP government security and armed forces to quell civilians in cold blood”.
This January, two senior officials from the ruling PP itself blamed Oromia security forces too. State Minister of Peace Taye Danda’a and MP Hangasa Ibrahim were unsparing in their criticism. They effectively accused Oromia’s regional president, Shimeles Abdisa, of being unfit to lead amid growing corruption and insurgency. In February, the state-backed EHRC finally came to the same conclusion over who was responsible.
The shocking killings of Karrayyu last December came amid government fears of an enemy advance on Addis Ababa. In response, officials had called on all able-bodied Ethiopians to join the fight against Tigrayan and Oromo rebels. Karrayyu leaders had opposed this call, in accordance with their traditional commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes. Given their neutrality, authorities in the capital reportedly feared that insurgents would use Karrayyu land as a route in their “march on Addis”.
It is in this context that the 14 people were abducted and executed. As a member of the Karrayyu, I knew them all. One was the most revered leader, Abba Gadaa Kadiro Hawas Boru. Some were my parents’ neighbours and friends. The younger victims were people I grew up with. Jilo Borayu Hawas – who was initially released but re-detained, tortured, and whose body was found in a dumpster on 10 December – was my cousin, mentor, and friend. They were all highly respected as our living libraries. They were custodians of indigenous knowledge of Gadaa institutions and held extensive expertise about resources such as medicinal plants passed down through generations.
Threats to the Karrayyu
The Karrayyu are a community of 101,000 fiercely independent people. They mostly live in the upper Awash Valley in the vast Oromia region, which as a population of about 40 million. Karrayyu are pastoralists who rear camels and cattle, and who have maintained their distinct way of life for generations. They are among the few remaining Oromo groups that still actively practice Gadaa, a socio-political system that organises society. Many also continue to practice Waaqefanna, the indigenous Oromo religion.
The Karrayyu have managed to maintain their traditions despite a long history of attempts to erase them and amid successive governments’ seizure of their grazing land. The regime of Haile Selassie, for instance, deprived the Karrayyu of 90,000 hectares, including ritual sites and graves, when it established the Matahara sugar plantation in the 1950s and then Awash National Park in the 1960s. Since then, the Karrayyu have lost more than 60% of their territory to settler occupation, development projects, and conservation initiatives that have blocked access to grazing and watering routes.
These programmes have done little to help the Karrayyu. After elders protested at the inauguration of the Matahara sugar factory in 1972, Selassie promised the community jobs, healthcare, and educational services, but the commitment was never fulfilled. Meanwhile, commercial projects largely import labour from elsewhere, employing Karrayyu only as guards or seasonal workers. Dislocated without compensation, the once self-sufficient community now suffer from extreme poverty and destitution.
These difficulties are compounded by environmental degradation. Before the arrival of the Matahara Sugar Estate, for instance, Lake Basaqa, a small pond created by rainwater in the wet season, was used by the Karrayyu to water their livestock in the dry season. Since then, the lake has exploded from 3km2 to 200km2, destroying pastureland and pushing pastoralists into the mountains.
The Karrayyu believe that drainage water and seepage from irrigation canals has swelled the lake and negatively affected the soil and groundwater dynamics. They also allege that toxic discharge from the sugar factory has polluted waters, making them unsafe for consumption. Locals suffer from uncommon ailments, and children have been born with abnormalities.
Karrayyu elders have pleaded with subsequent governments, including that of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, to mitigate Lake Basaqa’s expansion. They have heard little in response, which they interpret as an alarming disregard for their survival.
The increasing scarcity of grazing land and water has led to growing, and sometimes violent, competition among pastoralist groups. My older brother, Jilo Bulga, died in bloody fighting between Afar and Karrayyu. My cousin, Roba Jilo, was killed when attackers raided his cows and goats. This may well have been my fate too if I didn’t escape from an arrange marriage in 2001 and pursue education over the pastoralist way of life, as documented in an award-winning film.
Over the last two years, militia and special forces from neighbouring Amhara region have also encroached deeper into our ancestral land, erecting signposts, building churches, and razing Karrayyu villages. They have even put up a billboard (picture above) that reads “Welcome to Amhara Region” 45km into Karrayyu territory and just 23km from the heart of Karrayyu land in Matahara town. This is far from the legal boundary. After locals repeated pulled down the illegal demarcation, federal police were deployed to guard it, signalling the federal government’s support for Amhara expansionism.
It is believed that the Amhara see an economic opportunity and long-term strategic advantage in seizing this land. Located along a busy transit corridor connecting Ethiopia and Djibouti, this critical highway and the Ethio-Djibouti Railway Line handles the majority of freight for landlocked Ethiopia.
Reconciliation or lawlessness?
Despite all these threats, the Karrayyu have managed to maintain their way of life, grounded in the widely revered democratic principles of Gadaa. Our recently slain leaders had resisted economic, territorial, and political pressures. They had amassed enormous traditional knowledge and enjoyed the respect not only of the Karrayyu but the wider Oromo population. And yet, they were identified for execution by armed forces taking orders from PP officials.
The attention that is being paid to Ethiopia is largely focused on the Tigray region, where the war rages on. If onlookers were to zoom out, however, they would see lawlessness, human rights abuses, and humanitarian tragedies well beyond that northern region. They would see the plight of the Karrayyu but also those of many other indigenous communities that lack organised voices and that are rarely talked about by the media or advocacy groups. Reports of brutality in many parts of Ethiopia, particular the centre and south, often do not get out due to communication blackouts and travel restrictions.
For the Karrayyu, the EHRC’s finding on the tragic killings in December provides an opportunity to start an honest conversation about the larger calamity in Oromia. The international community and voices in Addis Ababa should call for an independent investigation and justice for those killed. This could prompt inquiries into similar violations elsewhere.
If Ethiopian and Oromia authorities officially apologise, pay restitution, and hold the perpetrators accountable, they could open the door to reconciliation with the Karrayyuu. Left unaddressed, the unwarranted attack and lack of justice bodes ill for the future of Ethiopia and the region.
Who speaks for Karrayyuu?
What is that supposed to mean? Aren’t Karrayyuu member of the Oromo tribe? And isn’t the Oromo tribe in power in Ethiopia? Who are you kidding? Karrayyuu people are just one of many clans of the Oromo tribe, and as Oromo, they are overly represented in Ethiopian government; as the Ethiopian government is completely and effectively taken over by Oromo tribal men and women. The massacre of the Kerrayyuu is just part of the age old Oromo clans animosity to each other. This animosity got out of hand when they couldn’t agree on sharing the power and loot they came into possession following the establishment of Oromo government in Ethiopia. They splintered into rival clans and began killing each other. The Karrayyuus were killed by the Oromos in government because they aligned with a rival Oromo group. Neither the government nor the other splinter groups are interested in preserving the Ethiopian state. They are in it as long as they could loot and enrich themselves. Most Oromos never considered themselves as fully Ethiopians, preferring to establish an independent Oromia state. Of course people like the Amharas still consider the Oromos as outsiders and alien invaders. The next paragraph explains this point.
The author, as a student of indigenous people, should have known better in identifying which people are indigenous to Ethiopia and which are not. The truth is Karrayyuus are not indigenous to upper Awash river region. The truth is all Oromo clans, including the Karrayyuu clan came to Ethiopia proper following their invasion in the 16th century. They came from the southern hot and arid lowlands straddling the border between Ethiopian and Kenyan,(in the 16th century this area was completely outside of Ethiopian territory, as the Ethiopian territory was circumscribed by the southern highlands of Bale and Gammo). This history is universally known in Ethiopia, even though Oromos try to hide or even deny flat out this part of their history. As a consequence, I am not surprised the author tried to hide the real history and presented the Karrayyuu as indigenous people. For example, We still have ancient manuscripts, chronicles, and administrative and military documents listing the inhabitants of upper Awash river area prior to the 16th century. The Karrayyuu Oromos massacred and committed ethnic cleansing the indigenous people, including the Amhara, when they arrived to the area in mid 16th century.
The author had the nerve to accuse Amhara people of encroachment into Karrayyuu territory and of putting up Amhara road signs in Karrayyuu land. This point alone explains the deceitful nature of this writer. As if to prove his point, he posted the picture of a sign board here on his article that reads “Welcome to Amhara…” , as if this sign was located in Oromo(Karrayyuu) territory. Of course, the village town, Awra Godana, is in Amhara region. Anyone interested can google it and confirm it. The area had been Amhara land long before the Oromos showed up in the highlands of Ethiopia. The author actually lifted the picture from Amhara activists’ Facebook page. The picture was posted on social media by Amhara activists to show the world how the Oromos were spreading lies of encroachment into their territory. There has been no border altercation until an event that took place last week. I will explain the event:
This event took place at this small village named Awra Godana, in Amhara region, as the picture of the sign board indicates. Last week Oromo speaking armed men showed up in a convoy of four vehicle (all full of soldiers, except the fourth one, which was an ambulance) at this village. The residents of the village along with federal police officers got suspicious and stopped them and asked who they were and to explain their business. They wouldn’t explain themselves, on the contrary, they shot and killed the police officers and perhaps others too, and tried to escape. The people surrounded them and killed many of them. Up until this point everybody thought they were rebellious Oromo faction fighting the government. But a day later the Oromia regional government surprised everyone by claiming the bandits were in fact its security officers on duty. Moreover the government statement claimed the town where the armed men were killed was in fact in the territory of Oromia and the name of the village was “Korke”. This immediately started an uproar and the news quickly got viral, even international media got involved in fanning the controversy. The controversy lasted a few days and died down with out any apparent change in the position of Amhara and Oromo officials. However, Oromo activists were not done yet. They continued accusing the Amhara of an “encroachment” into the Oromo land. This activists don’t say a thing about the dead but only talk about the Amhara “encroachment “. And the author of this article, too, didn’t mention the background story, nor did he care about the non-Karrayyuu police officers who were killed. But he posted only the picture of the roadside sign that welcomed visitors to the Amhara village of Awra Godana. The irony is the armed men were from the same unit that killed the Karrayyuu elders and chiefs, the subjects of this article, for whom the author asked “who speaks for Karrayyuu?” people. Yet this writer accuse the Amhara of “encroachment” instead of showing gratitude for saving more Karrayyuu lives, the most likely target of these officers.
A great article re marginalised Kaarrayyu..just a pity he omits one fact.
In December on the day before Oromo Police massacred many Karraayu, 11 Oromo Regional Police were shot dead by Karrayu gunmen. Oh he forgot to mention this fact. Now we cannot justify Police revenge
like this BUT nor can we accept the writers deliberate bias. Oh yes we can as he is from Tufts home of the super biased Alex de Waal.