Conflict in Ethiopia’s vast Oromia region has disrupted formal education for tens of thousands of youngsters, authorities there say.
Violent attacks on mostly ethnic Oromo communities have forced 159 schools in five regions to close at least temporarily in the past two years, said the Oromia Educational Bureau’s head, Tola Bariso.
He said about 65,000 students — at least half of whom fled to Oromia from Ethiopia’s neighboring Somali region — have been displaced, along with their families. He did not say how many of those youths were enrolled in other schools.
Fear of violence is keeping some students out of school, and even for those who do attend it compromises the ability to learn, officials and local residents told VOA’s Horn of Africa service.
“I can count many neighbour children who are staying home in fear for their lives,” said Abdule Jima, a 27-year-old local government employee living in the eastern Oromia town of Chinaksen. There, 27 schools have closed, with the acting mayor estimating that 22,000 youngsters have missed classes for at least six months.
“What kind of generation are we going to have?” Jima asked.
“You can imagine a kid growing up in a village where every day you hear shots and [see] people fleeing,” he said.
In a joint report issued last week, Ethiopia’s government and the United Nations said “inter-communal violence” along the winding border between Oromia and eastern Somali state region has displaced more than one million people since 2012. Most have fled since last September.
Bariso and other Oromia officials blame much of the violence on the Liyu police, a paramilitary force based in the country’s Somali region. As in the past, the Liyu police administration did not respond to repeated interview requests by VOA.
Sporadic attacks by the Liyu began at least five years ago, escalated in December 2016 and subsided before a renewed wave of attacks began in late May. Some officials and residents said the Liyu police are seeking territorial expansion and economic advantage on behalf of the Somali state government.
Its president, Abdi Mohamud Omar, also known as Abdi Illey, started the paramilitary force in 2007 when he was the state’s security chief, according to OPride, a website run by citizen journalists in the Horn of Africa diaspora.
Earlier this month, the rights group Amnesty International called upon Ethiopia’s government to “immediately disband the Liyu Police unit” based on what it alleged “may amount to extrajudicial executions” of at least 14 people in several attacks.
In Moyale, a major market town that straddles the Ethiopia border with Kenya, violence has left at least 20 people dead since March. But the tensions, which go back for years, feed anxieties in school-age children and their families.
“One day, they are in school. The next day, they are out,” Godana Bule said of students such as his 10-year-old son, who goes to Arbale Elementary School in Moyale.
Bule has four other children. “We, as a family, and the children themselves are so scared to go to school,” he said. “We used to take them to school on a motorbike. Now, the [Liyu] force is shooting people on a motorbike almost every day.”
Bule said he had sought help from the federal military command post in Moyale but was turned away. He and other residents said the military usually does not protect civilians from Liyu police, even though the force is operating outside its Somali jurisdiction.
Aschalewu Yohanis, Moyale’s mayor, estimated that more than 4,000 children in his town missed school this year because of violence. He said despite that disadvantage, “even the students who didn’t attend schools properly decided to take the [national university entrance] exam” earlier this month.
They’ve reasoned that even if they’re unprepared now, the situation could worsen in the future and they might be even less prepared for testing, he explained. Test results are expected later this summer.
In and around Gumi Eldallo, a town in the southern Oromia region, most youngsters from pastoralist or herding families have big gaps in school attendance, said the town’s mayor, Wario Golicha. He said seven schools have closed in the region as families fled conflict.
Bariso, the Oromia region’s education chief, said conflict also has driven ethnic Oromo teachers out of Somali region — including 437 from the regional capital of Jijiga. “They are assigned to various schools in Oromia,” he said.
Some students, too, have been reassigned. But that creates another challenge: overcrowding. After absorbing displaced students, a single classroom might have as many as 80 students, Bariso said.
The education chief said the regional government is working to reopen schools. But for now, many Oromo families feel vulnerable and inconsistently send youngsters to school.
“I wouldn’t call that an education,” said Bule, “but that is the only option we have.”
Story by VOA’s Horn of Africa service