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Analysis: Rising abductions for ransom threaten human security in conflict hit areas, Oromia region

The Oromia region has been extensively training militias to tackle deteriorating security in the region (Photo: Oromia Militia Office/Facebook)

By Abdi Biyenssa @ABiyenssa

Addis Abeba – For the past five years, Ethiopia’s Oromia region has been plagued by conflict between the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and government security forces. While tensions initially simmered, clashes have intensified dramatically over the past two years with no end in sight. This prolonged dispute has led to considerable loss of life, alleged human rights abuses, and extensive disruption of civilian communities across Oromia.

In particular, the instability has allowed kidnappings for ransom to flourish unchecked, with numerous troubling accounts emerging of civilians being abducted. 

One such victim is businessman Tola Tesfaye, who was abducted in May 2023, alongside his truck driver, Abebe Merga, while returning from Addis Abeba. Tola shared, “after purchasing goods for my shops in Addis Abeba, we were en route to Shambu, in Horro Guduru zone of Western Oromia. But that day, we were taken captive just 40 kilometers from Shambu City.” Tola believed the armed assailants to be opportunistic bandits. He further revealed, “the captors demanded a total ransom of one million and three hundred thousand birr.” To secure their release, Tola’s family paid 800,000 birr and Abebe’s family contributed 500,000 birr. Following payment, both men were released after a day of captivity.

Similarly, in July 2023, Tadele Lomba (a pseudonym for security reasons) and his eight colleagues were kidnapped while traveling from Nurera, near Metehara in East shoa zone to Adama in a company-owned Land Cruiser. Tadele described, “the kidnappers contacted our families, demanding three million birr. But our families couldn’t meet this demand.” Eventually, their company intervened, negotiating with the kidnappers. Tadele stated, “following discussions between our company and the kidnappers, a ransom of one million and three hundred thousand birr was paid.” The group was released after enduring seven days in captivity, during which they suffered sexual assault, torture, and other violent acts. Tadele confessed that while their physical injuries might heal, the psychological scars remain.

The kidnappers demanded a ransom of one million birr, which our extended family couldn’t arrange. Through a loan from an acquaintance, the ransom was paid.”

Another account is that of Gemechu Temesgen and his wife, Bethelem Mitiku. Their names have been changed to protect their identity. In June 2023, the couple was abducted near Lemen, Southwest Shoa zone, some 60 kilometers from Addis Abeba, while traveling from Hosanna, in Hadiya zone of the newly created Central Ethiopia region. Gemechu conveyed, “The kidnappers demanded a ransom of one million birr, which our extended family couldn’t arrange. Through a loan from an acquaintance, the ransom was paid.” The couple faced 11 days of physical and psychological torment in captivity, including threats of organ removal if the kidnappers’ conditions were not satisfied.

However, these incidents are not limited to ordinary citizens. In June , the governor of Saden Sodo district, in the South West Shoa zone, Bekele Kacha, was abducted from his home in Asgori town of neighboring Iluu district by an unidentified group who demanded 10 million birr for the governor’s release. Tragically, governor Bekele was found dead two days after his abduction, while his families were trying to raise the ransom money.

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Foreigners working in different factories across the countries have also been targeted. On 19 October 2023, gunmen who were identified by local residents as members of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) abducted an unknown number of Chinese nationals working for the East Cement Factory, which is found in North Shoa Zone of the Oromia region. The abduction followed an attempt to advance and control the zonal capital, Fiche town, which was thwarted by government forces after fierce and lengthy fighting.

Similarly, on 30 December  2022,  employees of Dangote Cement were kidnapped while traveling in a company bus within the same vicinity. Dangote Cement’s operations are based in the Adea Berga district of the North Shoa zone in the Oromia regional state. By January 30, 20 of these employees were released after ransoms ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 birr were paid.

The acts of kidnappings have dramatically increased recently with individual citizens, construction workers, employees of state owned enterprises such as Ethiopian Electric Power, and even farmers falling to the hands of the culprits. The victims often accuse members of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), referred to as “Shane” by the government, as perpetrators of the crime.  

Hailu Adugna, head of the Oromia Region Communication Bureau, admitted the rising acts of abductions for ransom in the region, and said OLA, which he called a “terrorist group” is behind the kidnappings. The government is taking measures against the group, he told VOA. To the contrary, spokesperson of the armed group OLA, Odaa Tarbii, said the weakness of the government has paved a way for the flourishing of groups deployed on looting. He denied the involvement of the members of the OLA in any acts of abductions.

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Experts warn the worsening situation may have serious repercussions on socio-economic activities of the country by hampering mobility. According to Galata Tesfaye, a researcher at the Rift Valley Institute for Peace and Security, the insurgency of the Oromo Liberation Army and the countermeasures taken by the federal government have caused a steady increase in commercial insurgency, which primarily focuses on acquiring substantial economic and material resources.

Galata also pinpointed that among multiple factors that may have led to the rise in abductions is the limited economic opportunities, driving individuals, particularly underemployed or unemployed young men, towards illicit activities like kidnapping for ransom. Moreover, abductions can occasionally serve nationalistic ambitions, aiming to gain support for specific agendas or to pressure governmental entities into making concessions, said Galata.

Emphasizing the profound societal impact of kidnapping for ransom, Galata remarked, “such incidents pose a grave threat to the security fabric of Ethiopia.” The aftermath of these incidents is devastating not only for the victims but also for their families and the broader community. Beyond physical and psychological trauma, survivors often grapple with enduring fear. To meet ransom demands, families might resort to selling assets or incurring debt, pushing them into precarious financial situations. Even after ransoms are paid, the safety of the victims remains uncertain.

To address this escalating security concern, Galata advocates for understanding and resolving the root causes, especially when the motive behind abductions is politically driven or when culprits portray themselves as political entities. “Governmental investment in job creation and vocational training can foster new economic avenues,” Galata suggested, believing that such initiatives might deter potential offenders.

Furthermore, Galata emphasized the need for heightened inter-agency coordination and the enhancement of police training and resources. He proposed that governments could also introduce protective measures, such as deploying security personnel, to shield those most at risk. AS

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