Having invited the Oromo Liberation Front back home, Team Lemma is trying to work out how to retain control while also accommodating the popular movement
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Oromia President Lemma Megersa have taken the country by storm, but they have work to do at home: the Oromo people want solutions for issues they have protested about since 2014.
Oromo are still being killed by soldiers; Afaan Oromo is not a federal government working language; Oromia’s constitutional “special interest” in Addis Ababa is not settled; and Oromo are still being unfairly evicted, especially from around Addis Ababa.
Many believed in the reforms the rebranded Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) promised, but those hopes dimmed as the leadership focused on strengthening their party, and protests surged once more.
Now Team Lemma must choose between widening the political landscape, including implementing its agreement with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) faction led by Dawud Ibsa, or protecting ODP and their own power by using various methods to weaken the popular OLF.
Team Lemma knows its party’s position is at stake as OLF is freely associating in Oromia, reviving a name that the EPRDF government defamed for over a quarter of a century. So far, ODP is acting as if it is unhappy that OLF has been removed from the terrorist list.
But, if they openly fight against the liberation front, it is against the word they gave to the people. Instead of implementing their promise, or breaking their word, Team Lemma seemed to decide to tackle their opponent by using other means.
Regardless, the ensuing propaganda battle increasingly merged into the real thing.
In mid-November, Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba from Oromo Federalist Congress, and Lami Begna from OLF held meetings in three zones of western Oromia and also in Assosa, capital of Benishangul-Gumuz (B-G) region. Participants ranged from hundreds to thousands of elders, religious leaders, and youths.
The trip was peaceful, except for a partly blocked road at the entrance of Nejo, which was closed after military forces shot and killed a Bajaj driver and passenger on Nov. 12. Soldiers were seen getting out of their trucks and running into the bush in the western outskirt of Gimbi town and around Yubdo on the way to Dembi Dollo.
Expressing concern about government propaganda, Bekele told a crowd: “We were told that the road is closed and it is not possible to go to western Oromia because of bandits, but we found out that what we were told was a lie”.
Jawar and Bekele were greeted with large crowds everywhere, but told by the people they had neglected their situation. Jawar admitted he hadn’t been active in exposing the new government’s faults, but said he was offering criticism privately. He said that he will start exposing the authorities publicly, as he did during the Oromo Protests—but that has not yet occurred as he attempts to mediate between the parties.
In most places, the three were accompanied by ODP representatives to hear people’s concerns about security issues in western Oromia and around the B-G border. The crowds did not react angrily to the ODP officials, but they were upset by some of their colleagues.
“Currently, there is an organized group of false propagandists called ‘ATM’. ATM is named after initials of Addisu Arega, Taye Dandea and Milkessa Midega. ATM releases fake propagandas about western Oromia and works day and night to divide the Oromo people based on their locations.” a young man said at a meeting in Gimbi.
In addition to the accounts of government abuses, Jawar wrote on Dec. 30 that he received reports from government officials and citizens that the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) has been disarming police and militias; taking woreda budget by force; ambushing soldiers and police; coercing government and private vehicle to transport them; and detaining, beating and intimidating people.
But locals were mostly concerned about the activity of federal security forces and the military. They wanted to know why soldiers were camped in their community and terrorizing them, while people around the border need protecting. They said children are having nightmares because the military is killing youths and beating elders.
“We were blaming TPLFites such as Abay Tsehaye, but now who are we going to blame for the killings, beating, and arrest the defense forces are doing down here?” asked Yuba Oda Karra, an elder. (See full testimony below)
Essentially, locals were concerned about four issues: military deployment and ineffectiveness of in tackling the B-G conflict; some regional security appointments; the use of divisive propaganda by Oromia officials; and the failed agreement with OLF.
The government has deployed the military to western Oromia since September. Locals complained that they were searching for OLF when they were needed around the border between B-G and Oromia. The Dec. 1 decision for federal forces to intervene around the B-G border did indeed suggest that forces were previously deployed to western Oromia to search for OLA.
Away from western Oromia, East Guji and West Guji zones are the other places where OLF is believed to be active and the government deployed the military since the last week of October after a disagreement between OLF and the government.
While the search for OLA was ongoing, local police operated normally in places where OLA was active, according to some residents. They testified to Jawar and team that OLA is helping local police by capturing criminals and handing them over. It was notable that when protests that took place across Oromia after 11 police were killed near the B-G border, Oromia police were participants.
Though the border conflict between Oromia and B-G has been ongoing since September, both regional governments were slow in supporting victims or trying to resolve the issue. According to locals, the government was not even willing for the situation to be covered by the media.
They say that they hear armed groups from B-G brutally killed people, burning crops and houses, but the Oromia government stayed “as mute as a fish”. And as criticism of government security forces renewed, the reputation of OLA commanders standing up to them has increased.
Integrating OLA into Oromia security forces is part of an unpublished pact made with OLF, which would then transition to a democratic party, while OLA helps protect the people.
But instead ODP has arguably picked sides in a struggle between OLF factions, presumably to try and weaken Dawud’s. The region appointed a rival Kamal Galchu, chairman of United Front for Liberation of Oromia, as the head of security, another former OLF figure Abebe Garasu as his deputy, and Hailu Gonfa, chairman of U-OLF (United-OLF) as police commissioner.
ODP has also promoted the so-called ATM: Addisu is ODP’s Rural Development and Political Sector Head, Taye Dendea is ODP spokesman; and Milkessa Midega runs the regional Land Administration Bureau. However, they are now mostly absent from Facebook, perhaps having been reined in by their superiors.
Since Abiy was appointed, ODP has insulted OLF. “Shane” refers to Dawud’s faction; “Bandit” is used to discredit the OLA; and various crimes—including the June 23 grenade attack at Abiy’s rally in Addis Ababa—were said to be committed by those acting “in the name of OLF”.
In western Oromia, most such accusations were rejected by local officials or residents, and also by elders, who said they had a peaceful trip. However, Admasu Damtow, Oromia spokesman, misinformed the regional broadcaster, saying the elders who went to western Oromia for talks were attacked by OLA on Nov. 6. Despite the initial suggestion of OLF culpability, the Meskal Square grenade attack was later pinned on former NISS officials as part of ODP’s other political war against TPLF.
Such propaganda recalls when the ODP accused OLF of not accepting an invitation to return, which OLF rebutted by referring to a press release accepting the offer it issued just after Abiy’s inaugural speech.
An agreement made in Eritrea on Aug. 7 was such a big deal for Oromo that it was celebrated with a rally. OLF officials sent their delegates to discuss how to proceed. After those discussions, Addisu said that they have an agreement for OLF army to disarm. But Tolera Adaba, OLF spokesperson who led the delegation from Asmara, denied that. He told Ethiopia Insight on Sep. 12 that OLA’s fate would be decided by OLF leaders.
However, regardless of any deal, the government continued hunting OLA, and on Sep. 26 Addisu said that a group acting “in the name of OLF” killed Kamashi officials and that OLA had to be disarmed.
Then came Dawud’s controversial Walta TV interview in early October. Though the OLF leader carefully defined the implication of the term disarming, government spokesman Kassahun Gofe’s reaction was not as nuanced. He said that the government will be forced to disarm OLF by force if they do not do it themselves. In reaction, locals protested against the government plan, but this dissent was aggressively labeled by ODP officials as “Rally of Dismantlement”.
Another agreement was made by Oromia government and OLF after elders and religious leaders discussed with people including OLA on Nov. 14 in western Oromia. Still, reports of OLA being pursued were routinely received.
Most likely, a third is on its way, but it is far from clear it will end the political struggle. “If the government has a true commitment for the peace of the region, we are ready to discuss” Dawud said on Dec 21. In response, Alemu Sime from ODP said: “Though the readiness from their side is questionable, our peace door is still open.”
Last month there were few signs of tensions cooling between ODP and OLF as the rhetoric heated up in a series of exchanges:
Dec. 4: ODP said those campaigning to diminish ODP don’t represent Oromo people and that they knew whose messengers they are. OLF responded the next day, saying “adding fuel to fire is forgetting responsibility,” after two protesters at Wollega University were killed by security forces.
Dec 13: OLF said while it is committed to the accord, the government is breaching it and on Dec. 15 again accused authorities of deploying a large number of military to locations where OLF is residing and killing 15 Oromo militia and police and 3 civilians in Moyale
Dec 18: OLF said people had long-hated EPRDF structure and because of this the government is facing paralysis. It argued that instead of admitting that it’s because of their internal problems, ODP chose to try and make it look like it is because of OLF.
Dec 20: ODP Executive Committee vowed to take all necessary measure for the rule of law to be respected. OLF said the next day OLA will act in self-defense. Dawud also stated on Dec. 21 that the government appointed controversial people to the security sector and broke the agreement by prohibiting OLF officials from meeting OLA.
Dec 22: Alemu Sime, ODP Office Head, said OLF did not implement the agreement and that regional appointment of former opponents should be supported not criticized. On Dec. 22, it added: “How much does Dawud know about an armed group robbing, killing people moving in the name of OLF around western Oromia?”
On Dec. 30, OLF claimed soldiers looted a newly opened OLF office and burned OLF flag in Gimbi. And as under past governments, the authorities also started to arrest opponents with ties to OLF.
For example, after giving up the search in August, security forces resumed the hunt for the semi-legendary Abba Torbee, who, after issuing warnings, is said to have assassinated perhaps 20 government and security officials responsible for repression during the protests. The government reported that it has arrested 15 people suspected of being Abbaa Torbee.
But activists around Dembi Dollo say that this was cover to arrest popular Qeerroo, who are OLF supporters, labeling them as Abba Torbee. Regardless of who’s telling the truth, by arresting those who helped bring it to federal power, ODP appears to be taking a risk of inciting even more resistance.
A major factor in Oromo politics is the so-called Qeerroo, who everyone seems to want a piece of.
Though the word Qeerroo means bachelor, the group was formed by OLF in 2011 to recruit youths that can fight against the EPRDF government from inside Oromia. Qeerroo then became very popular in 2014 after almost every Oromo youth joined protests and all of them were called Qeerroo.
But the organized Qeerroo group is still active and widespread. There are also youths that are not associated to a party and join protest they think is worth joining, or wait for instructions from activists they support. ODP also tried organizing some Qeerroos by training loyal youths.
The term therefore serves mostly to confuse, as each Oromo element has their own Qeerroo, and any Oromo youth who engages in a political act is called Qeerroo.
Looking ahead from the current mix of a propaganda struggle and the real thing, competitive national elections are on the near horizon in 2020.
And OLF is opening offices in various zones of the region and preparing for the polls by calling for public meetings throughout the region. Presumably ideological and policy differences between the various Oromo parties will soon become clearer.
Strangely, however, there is not much focus on kebele and woreda council elections next year. That might allow ODP to retain control of all local government structures, making organization difficult for the OLF and others.
In his Dec. 30 report, Jawar advised the government and OLF to restrain from defaming one another. He said OLF should open offices and OLA has to drop its rebel mentality and activities as soon as possible. To improve trust he said a taskforce should formed from Oromia government, OLF, military and elites. A program showing respect for OLA has to be held and Lemma and Dawud should participate.
To begin the process of integration into regional security forces, OLA members should first go to a camp where they can be trained and assessed, Jawar said. Meanwhile ODP should remove or reassign officials whose appointment is causing friction, and the police need to be strengthened to maintain border security.
The disarmament and reintegration process so far has been “botched” as there was no clear plan and the government mismanaged its public relations strategy, Jawar said in an interview. “They reduced it to OPDO against OLF, a replay of 1990s, and Oromo people have bad memories of that,” he said.
Now the government needs to tone down the rhetoric while ensuring that OLF disarms and participates peacefully, as excluding OLF would be regressive and counter-productive. “Pushing OLF out of election will mean no free and fair elections, it will lead to violence,” he said on Dec. 31.
That presents a conundrum for the ruling party, which is less popular. That situation could be eased by ODP further reconfiguring itself to incorporate OLF elements, and such an approach would have the support of many Oromo, he said.
“The people want OLF soldiers to join the state security apparatus. They don’t support war, don’t want rebels to be there, they just want to go back to their normal life. State structures collapsed in western Oromia during the protests. The economy is suffering in that area, people are suffering. Unanimously they are saying to us, please finish this, ” Jawar said.
National elections should not be postponed
There are as yet no indicators of such a collaboration. Dawud has said the national elections should not be postponed. ODP blamed the OLF for dismantling government structures in western Oromia, but OLF said they were destroyed during the protest that brought Abiy to power.
Political parties that were back from exile are not registered, but OLF is considering itself as a recognized party, and there will be plenty of pressure on the government to register it.
OLF has merged with United Liberation Forces of Oromia (ULFO) after they returned to the country on Sep. 30. It has also made an agreement to work together and discuss merging with OFC, which is another popular opposition party led by Merera Gudina and Bekele. OLF-Transition Authority, another OLF faction, which is headed by Galasa Dilbo, returned to the country on Dec. 29, but its position is not yet known.
ODP is doing its best to create relationship with parties that broke out of OLF and OFC. ODP is merging with Oromo Democratic Front, led by Lencho Leta, and Oromo National Congress, which broke out of OFC. It is also working with United Front for Liberation of Oromia, led by Kamal Gelchu, and United-OLF, led by Hailu Gonfa.
These moves potentially create two powerful Oromo political forces: one with people power and the other with government power.
ODP has however said that the OLF has already been calling itself the government in parts of western Oromia—and indeed, the struggle to represent the people in the region seems to be alive and kicking.
For Jawar, the liberation front as well as the ODP must change its game. “OLF needs to accept the fight against the state is over. Now it need to transition itself from resistance movement to a political party capable of winning election and governing. They cannot do that while clinging to the gun. They need to drop the gun and build their party’s capacity to materialize the popular support they enjoy into an electoral victory,” he said.
Testimony of Yuba Oda Karra from Gimbi about his experiences since the Derg regime
One OLF local official, who was the Head of the Education Department, was taken to Meti (Borta) camp in Dembi Dollo in 1991 to be disarmed and integrated. Instead of being integrated, about 20,000 of us, including our supporters, were forced to get out of the camp and chased down to Didessa River and forests by TPLF. Many were killed and arrested.
Everything started in 1978 when the Derg Regime said that we are allowed to develop our language and culture. Many people who exercised the given opportunity were arrested. The second is 1991. EPRDF said that we are allowed to line-up with any party. Almost every one of us lined up with OLF, but this resulted in death, the arrests of many, and many people being disabled.
The third is during 2005 election. Back then, everyone voted for Bulcha Demeksa’s party called OFDM . This resulted in the arrest of 5,000 people in Lalo Asabi specifically, and 365 people were taken to Didessa.
The current situation, which is the fourth, is that we were so happy that Lemma and Abiy had invited OLF to come back into the country so it can compete as a political party legally. Every one of us loved Lemma and Abiy, and their pictures are in almost every house of ours.
But even today, while I am on my way to come here, I saw military forces searching for something on the roadside. Who are they searching for?
We were blaming TPLFites such as Abay Tsehaye, but now who are we going to blame for the killings, beating, and arrest the defense forces are doing down here? Who are we going to blame?
There is no other threat from outside. Our threat is ODP itself. They have to come to their senses.
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Main photo: Bekele Gerba speak to a crowd in Nejo stadium; Nov. 14; Ermias Tasfaye
Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.
This article first appeared on Ethiopia Insight