*Image of Liyu Police

In June last year, Ethiopia’s paramilitary force, the Liyu Police, in retaliation for the wounding of one of their officers in a dispute with local traders, entered into the village of Jaamac Duban in eastern Ethiopia’s majority Muslim Somali Regional State, and began shooting indiscriminately.

They killed at least 14 men and seven women, and severely injured a baby boy, whose mother died while holding him.

Now, nine months later, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has issued a report stating that the incident has still not been investigated by the Ethiopian government, and the region itself remains largely closed to international observers and journalists.

“During the shootings, a number of people ran into the village mosque seeking shelter. Liyu police officers pursued them and fired through the main door into the mosque. At least one elderly man … was wounded – shot in the leg – while inside the mosque,” reported HRW.

Residents fled the village and the Liyu Police prevented them from returning to bury their dead for almost a day. When they were allowed to return, they found their shops – which had been stocked up for Ramadan – had been looted.

According to eyewitness accounts to HRW, residents were forced to bury their dead in mass graves while the Liyu Police stood by and ordered everybody to remain silent and not to cry.

Old conflicts co-opting the language of the ‘War on Terror’

The Liyu Police were formed in April 2007 as a counter-insurgency force to counter the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

The ONLF has, since its founding in 1981 in Somalia, campaigned and fought against Ethiopian abuses and dominance, in what it terms in its political programme as “a conflict between a colonised people and their coloniser”.

However, the conflict in Ogaden pre-dates the War on Terror and even the ONLF, and boils down to decades long conflict between the majority Muslim population in the eastern region, who are historically, ethnically and religiously affiliated with their neighbours in Somalia, and the Christian-dominated Ethiopian government, which seeks to consolidate central control and valuable natural resources.

Read more: CAGE Africa opposes Trump’s battle plan for Somalia

The ONLF seeks a separate state for Ogaden, which contrasts with other Muslim movements in the region that seek to re-establish a  “Greater Somalia”, which comprises Somaliland, Somalia, Ogaden and the Somali regions of Kenya.

In 1993, the ONLF was voted in by a majority of 84%, securing administrative power in the region.

Mohammed Aden, Director of the Ogaden Somali Community in South Africa, explained to CAGE Africa that in the aftermath of this election, the Ethiopian government embarked on a smear campaign against the ONLF, killing some administrators and imprisoning others, effectively removing them from power.

A counter-insurgency force operating on the dark side

Since their founding, the Liyu Police have exacted collective punishment against civilians who show even the slightest criticism of them, or the Ethiopian government, or the slightest support for the ONLF or other Muslim organisations.

The founder of the Liyu Police is Abdi Mohamed Omar, known simply as “Illy”, and he operates with total impunity. All Liyu members report to him since he is also the de facto president and commander-in-chief of the eastern Somali State.

Working for the Liyu Police has its appeal for some. Members of the Liyu Police, according to a report by Norwegian Country of Origin Information Centre, Landinfo, an independent body within the Norwegian Immigration Authorities, are well paid, and they get to keep looted goods.

Members of the Liyu Police are often influenced by clan affiliations and are mostly members of the same clan. Since they have been charged with flushing out ‘Islamist’ insurgencies, the ‘War on Terror’ has worsened existing clan conflicts.

Their crimes are many, and include gang rape, extrajudicial killings including beheadings, and the dismemberment of bodies.

British funds sustained the Liyu Police

It is not surprising that the Ethiopian government has refused to investigate these and other civilian killings; they fund and support the Liyu Police, with the backing of the United States and the United Kingdom in their ‘War on Terror’.

In 2013 between 12 and 15 million pounds were given by the UK directly to the Liyu Police to run “peacebuilding training” given by UK approved “NGOs and private companies”.

Read more: Britain’s war in East Africa

Amid allegations of abuse, the Liyu police launched a publicity campaign to prove to its funders that it was aiding development – but the ONLF claimed the campaign was staged.

The British media duly followed this campaign with a glowing report sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, describing the Liyu Police’s alleged “developmental agenda”, despite abuses continuing through 2013 and 2014.

More broadly, the Ethiopian government, which funds the Liyu Police, is one of the largest recipients of UK aid, with almost £256m donated between 2015 and 2016.

Ethiopia’s ‘War on Terror’ supported by the US

Human Rights Watch in its 2008 report highlighted the way in which Ethiopian counter-insurgency operations are sold to the international community:

“The application of terrorist rhetoric to the internal conflict with the ONLF, however, appears designed mainly to attract support from the United States as part of the “war on terror.” It does not justify violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.”

Testimony by Human Rights Watch to the US Congress in 2007 stated it more plainly. According to a docket launched in 2011 with the  South African Police (to investigate and prosecute war crimes committed by the Ethiopian Government) by the South African-based Muslim Lawyers Association:

“The state [Ethiopia] that is perpetrating abuses against its people in Ogaden is a key US ally and recipient of seemingly unquestioning US military, political, and financial support.”

The United States justifies its support for the counter-insurgency in Ogaden by saying that they are preventing the spread of al-Shabaab in the region.

However, rumors of the ONLF’s links to Shabaab fell through when Shabaab castigated them when ONLF allegedly fought them alongside Hizbul Islam (who were former Shabaab allies).

Mohammed Aden told CAGE Africa that the amount of support in Ogaden for al-Shabaab is negligible. Rather, he said the continued human rights abuses by the Ethiopian-backed militias are seen by the Ogaden people as a ploy to push individuals towards violence:

“They are trying to push the people harder, so they will go somewhere else, or where they will go and do extreme action. That’s the agenda, they want to prove the idea … so that they can get more funding from the international community…”

A negotiated settlement can stop the cycles of violence

The impunity enjoyed by the Liyu Police both nationally and internationally have emboldened them and the Ethiopian government. They are rapidly becoming a destabilising force in Ethiopia, not just in Ogaden.

Recent reports have emerged that Liyu Police are now partaking in raids in the Oromo region of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government, in dealing with Oromo, has often used ‘War on Terror’ language to justify abuses, even though the majority of Oromo is not Muslim.

A centuries long atmosphere of mutual distrust between the Ethiopian government – who have been funded and supported by various colonising powers throughout history – and national liberation movements such as those in Oromo and Ogaden, mean that the endless ‘War on Terror’ facilitates endless conflict and atrocities against civilians.

Report: Inside Africa’s War on Terror

But the distrust on both sides must be broken down and a negotiated settlement realised, outside of the confines and oppression of ‘War on Terror’ rhetoric. This, as well as the complete disbandment of the Liyu Police, could be the key to stopping decades of bloody conflict.

It is also crucial for the stability of Ethiopia that Britain and the United States end their silent but tacit support for Ethiopia’s campaigns of violence against civilians.


Image courtesy of AMISOM Public Information on Flickr 

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)