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Ethiopia has accused the Eritrean government of being behind protests that have led to the death of at least 200 people in Oromia state. Government spokesman Getachew Reda alleged Eritrea was working with rebel groups in order to "infiltrate troublemakers" in the country.
"We have concrete evidence that some of the people... involved and instigating violence in these particular localities... have their origins from [Eritrea's capital] Asmara,"Reda said, according to AFP.
The spokesperson further alleged Eritrea was working with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) – which calls for the self-determination of the Oromo people, Ethiopia's largest ethnic group – and the Ginbot 7 opposition group , deemed by Ethiopia as a terrorist organisation. "They want to infiltrate all troublemakers into Ethiopia," he said.
Oromo people have been protesting against a government's draft plan that aimed to expand the boundaries of the capital Addis Ababa. Demonstrators argued the so-called "Addis Ababa master plan" would lead to forced evictions of Oromo farmers who will lose their land and would undermine the survival of the Oromo culture and language.
Who are the Oromo people?
The Oromo people are Ethiopia's largest ethnic group and their population amounts to more than 25 million (around 35% of Ethiopia's total population). They originated in the Horn of Africa, where they are believed to have lived for millennia.
Oromo people speak Afaan Oromoo, as well as Amharic, Tigrinya, Gurange and Omotic languages. They are mainly Christian and Muslim, while only 3% still follows the traditional religion based on the worshipping of the god Waaq.
In 1973, Ethiopian Oromo created the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which stemmed from the discontent among people over a perceived marginalisation by the government and to fight the hegemony of the Amhara people, another large ethnic group in Ethiopia.
OLF – still active today – also calls for the self-determination of the Oromo people. It has been deemed as a terror organisation that carried out violent acts against people in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. The group has always denied such allegations, claiming its mission is to terminate "a century of oppression" against the Oromos.
Tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea have been running high since protests started in November 2015. The two nations fought a civil war (1998-2000) due to border disputes. The conflict erupted just a few years after Eritrea had ended its 30-year-long war to gain independence from Ethiopia.
The Eritrean embassy in London has not responded to a request for comment on the allegations.
Author and PhD candidate at London's Soas University, Etana Habte, told IBTimes UK that the government's decision to blame Eritrea allegedly stems from the "authorities' inability" to respond to Oromo people's demands.
"The Oromo problem is rooted in Ethiopia and is about how the regime chose to handle the Oromo nation, it does not go anywhere out of the country. We are responding to decades of oppression and marginalisation. The government has now moved the army near the border with Eritrea and is trying to shift the problem and create a foreign invasion issue."
Government's response to demonstrations
Although the Ethiopian government decided to scrap the master plan following increasing demonstrations, Oromo people continued to protest arguing they did not trust the authorities. On 21 February, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report warning that killings and arrests of Oromo protesters at the hands of security forces, including the military, continued.
Ethiopia dismissed allegations of a violent crackdown against the demonstrators, with an official telling IBTimes UK the HRW report was "abysmal propaganda." The government also accused protesters of trying to secede and create an independent Oromia state.
A statement by the Ethiopian embassy sent to IBTimes UK stated that the government engaged in public consultations which resulted in the decision to scrap the master plan. Authorities also launched an investigation to identify people behind "corrupt land acquisition practices", loss of innocent lives and damage of private and public properties. The investigation has led to a number of arrests.
Oromo demonstrators 'not calling' for secession
Oromo activists told IBTimes UK they find the governement's statements contradictory. "First, it blamed 'the Oromo diaspora', then it blamed corrupt officials from the Oromo Peoples' Democratic Organisation (OPDO)," said an activist who spoke to IBTImes UK on condition of anonymity. "Then came the narrative of blaming those who 'incite ethnic and religion conflicts' and now this narrative of blaming 'secessionists.'"
The source explained that although article 39 of the Ethiopian constitution guarantees self-determination rights up to secession, Oromo protesters are not calling for a break-away. "Oromo protests are all about the universally accepted just causes of land, language, culture and self-rule. [The government] accuse Oromos of advocating secessionism and wave OLF flags, but protesters have used these flags as an expression of grievance against marginalisation.
"There are OLF elements who want secession of Oromia state, there are also those who advocate for the democratisation of Ethiopia through genuine federalism. They all agree that such a political stance should be decided by the people after freedom. They play this false, dirty and denial game to mislead the international community thereby intensifying their killings."
Habte explained that although demonstrators initially took to the streets to simply chant slogans in November, they are now burning investors' farms and stores built after the eviction of Oromos by the state-owned Endowment Fund For The Rehabilitation of Tigrai (Effort).
"Oromo protesters changed their strategy after the government attempted to undermine their movement. They are also taking control of huge tracts of lands leased out to investors after evicting the farmers, breaking big prison cells where protesters are kept, burning coaches of Selam Bus, owned by Effort, and closing roads. These are all definitely legitimate popular moves and are still part of peaceful protests."