Two steps forward, one step back for Oromia?

After months more turmoil, there’s a fresh chance for the Oromo Liberation Front to enter peaceful politics, but many doubts remain 

While events last week in Addis Ababa suggested Oromia had finally entered a new peaceful phase, the latest news from the region indicates that the old turmoil may continue.In the capital on May 29, Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) leader Daud Ibsa pronounced that the movement no longer had any fighters, and was therefore ready to join the democratic process. He linked hands with the new regional president, a key general, and ruling party officials, as well as mediator-activists, Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba.

“The government will give every necessary support for OLF to move freely and participate in peaceful political struggle. People arrested in relation to this issue will be released,” President Shimelis Abdissa said at the meeting.

This was the type of news many had been waiting for.

OLF rebels returned to Ethiopia from Eritrea in September on an understanding the movement would participate in elections set ambitiously for May next year. Instead, the re-entry was botched, and armed resistance and counterinsurgency operations have been ongoing, amid political warfare between OLF and the ruling Oromo Democratic Party (ODP).

“We don’t know how much control he has but the bold step he has taken will clear the confusion among the public,” opposition Oromo Federalist Congress leader Bekele said in an interview about Daud’s move. “And I think the government may use this opportunity to take action against those who continue armed struggle.”

That indeed is the question now: what will become of Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) fighters and their commanders, who responded critically to Daud’s intervention, and have attracted some popular support recently. They said in a statement and interviews that he had no authority to speak about the OLF’s armed wing, as in January he handed it over to Oromo elders, Abba Gadaas, in an attempt to integrate OLA into regional security forces. Commander of the central region, Sagni Negassa, claimed Daud was effectively a government captive.

“There is no new thing that they reported on in their reconciliation. All OLA commanders have discussed among ourselves that we should continue with the Oromo struggle by forming a High Command, by which we can get orders, since we had lost communication with our commanders in the capital and considered them as prisoners,” he said in an interview broadcast on Voice of Liberation Media.

Most of our members were arrested

In a June 1 statement, the OLA High Command said that under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the military is undertaking “extremely outrageous crime against humanity to the Oromo people more than any of his predecessors”. They even went as far to spuriously claim that a gas attack, as well as much better documented air strike, occurred in western Oromia since military raids intensified from mid-January.

Stuck between the authorities, Daud, and the OLA, are OLF officials trying to get a substantive political organization up and running. That’s been tricky, because the government has been treating the formerly banned OLF as if last year’s amnesty never happened. While 25 offices have been opened in recent months, six have been shut down by security forces, said Lammi Begna, an OLF political officer.

“We didn’t open offices in Borana, Guji, Wallo, and Kellem Wallaga because of security reasons. Most of our members were arrested in different parts of Oromia, including Finfinnee,” he said in an interview, using the Oromo name for the federal and Oromia capital. “Many youths are still arrested and their whereabouts are unknown, but we suspect that they may be in different military camps.”

Lammi appears conflicted about Daud and the OLA’s difference of opinion. He says last week’s Addis Ababa announcement was a planned “extension” of the January integration deal, which should “enable OLF to operate peacefully, including registering with the electoral board and participating in the next election.” OLF is not yet registered as a political party and needs to first hold a general assembly, which Lammi said is being planned. He partly justifies the OLA’s forthright response to Daud, as he is also critical of the way the process has been handled, but he can at least see a way forward: “The solution for such developments is that the government must talk to them rather than fighting them with heavy armed forces.”

The opening of an OLF office in Ambo; April 15; Ermias Tasfaye
The opening of an OLF office in Ambo; April 15; Ermias Tasfaye

While time will tell if Daud’s move has catalyzed real progress on the ground, recent events suggest Lammi’s hopes may be dashed, as violent confrontations continued in Oromia, and protests occurred this week, as they did in April. Rallies that started on June 3 spread to universities including Ambo and Jimma and other locations in Oromia. Protesters said that the offensive against OLA should stop, as should all arrests and killings.

In terms of violence, most recently a local football player was shot dead in a hotel in Nekempte on June 5 after a bomb went off nearby, according to multiple reports. On May 26, a witness who requested anonymity said six civilians were gunned down by soldiers after a grenade explosion outside Muggi town of Anfillo Woreda, Kelem Wollega Zone in western Oromia. The incident was confirmed by news reports.

In East Guji Zone in southeast Oromia on May 20, six people were killed and houses torched by soldiers in Darara town in Goro Dola Woreda, according to a local sheikh. There were also media reports of three government killings in the same zone on May 12.

Dambi Dollo Town Communication Office said a grenade killed one and injured four civilians on May 9. ODP and OLA blamed each other for the attack in the western Oromia town. Residents say after the grenade detonated, soldiers killed a civilian and injured two others. A health worker and nurse in Dambi Dollo Hospital said two injured people and a body with bullet wounds arrived on May 9.

Thirteen people were killed on May 4 by security forces in Lalo Assabi Woreda of West Wollega Zone after a firefight between soldiers and OLA, an official told Voice of America. Lalo Assabi residents said 10 were killed while loading sand on a truck, and three in a Bajaj taxi in Inango town. On the day of the funeral, a pharmacy owner returning from purchasing supplies was shot dead by soldiers in Kellem Wollega Zone’s Gaawoo Qeebbee Woreda, possibly as he was suspected of supplying medicines to OLA.

Around 30 kilometers east of Lalo Assabi, the situation was little better in Gimbi in April.

The military has managed security in the town since December, along with other parts of western and southern Oromia. Displaying support for OLF, such as a flag, sticker, or simply speaking up, meant risking arrest or a beating, locals claimed. Oromia regional police and soldiers with 30 vehicles and machine guns patroled town, with plainclothes officers providing information. At least two soldiers and two regional police were placed every 100 meters on both sides of the road. There was no sign of local police.

On April 30, Oromia police shot a Bajaj driver and arrested a youth with alleged OLF ties in Gimbi. It was risky to take photos and people avoid going to the main road unless they must. Those listening to music related to the Oromo struggle may be arrested or beaten up. The OLF office is closed and its metal flagpole cut, while the Oromia flag flies. OLF insignia on roadsides were partially covered with black and white paint.

A researcher who visited western Oromia provided corroboration. “The security situation throughout Wollega was very tense in April. I heard the Abbaa Torbbee wing of OLF claiming that they had killed a security chief of the Western regiment,” said Mebratu Kelecha from the University of Westminster in the UK.

“Of course the security forces abuse residents, as I witnessed: I was interrogated for taking pictures outside Kumsa Moroda Palace in Nekemte. The Bajaj drivers refused to drive me to the palace because they feared security will shoot at them, as has happened before,” said Mebratu.

The UN’s humanitarian agency offered a similarly bleak account for April. “In Nekemte town, where most partners operating in the region are based, there has been a range of attacks with hand grenade by UAGs (unidentified armed groups) in the last two months. These attacks have created a number of casualties, none among humanitarian personnel. Aid operations in West Wollega are intermittently restricted by ongoing hostilities between the EDF (Ethiopian Defense Forces) and UAG, with clashes taking place in a number of woredas, i.e. Begi, Bogi Dirmegi, Nejo, Leta Sibu, Kiltu Kara, Mana Sibu and Lalo Asabi.”

Political failings

Such security situations are a product of multiple political failings over the last year, and for many before that.

Unrest spread after OLF leaders returned with around 1,200 personnel as part of a widespread amnesty and after an uncertain agreement with the government. The OLF held a mass rally in Addis Ababa in September, and people also expressed support in still restive and somewhat anarchic rural areas, which seems to have triggered concerns from ODP that OLF threatened its power. In reality, many Oromo youths who had taken to the streets since 2015, paving the way for Abiy’s premiership, seem to have been labeled as hardcore OLF after showing support for the decriminalized movement.

OLF did open an Ambo office on April 15, which has been tagged Oromo Martyrs Day since 1984. On that date in 1980, ten OLF leaders including chairperson Magarsa Bari traveling from the Eastern Front to Somalia on a diplomatic mission were killed at a place called Shinniga in the Ogaden. OLF commemorated the day in Ambo stadium at an event attended by Daud and Bekele, a former political prisoner. Some youths wore t-shirts with pictures of Dirriba Kumsa and Gollicha Dhenge, OLA commanders.

Formerly Eritrea-based Daud commanded OLA before Abbaa Gadaas, some now in dispute with regional officials, took over the process of integrating OLA in January. On April 1, after having no contact with leaders in Addis Ababa for months, OLA formed its own command. Demonstrating the rampant mistrust, some of those being integrated into regional forces complained of poisoning at Tollay, while others, such as the commanders, didn’t participate at all.

Falmata Mosisa, a member of OLA at Tollay said Moges Edeo from ODP and the Tollay camp manager, a regional police commissioner, told them on May 9 that their training is finished and they could join the Oromia police, return to existing professions, or be organized into small enterprises. Falmata said so far 219 out of 899 chose to join Oromia Police, although the government claimed more impressive numbers. Allegedly, Moges said Abbaa Gadaas were no longer in charge of integration, which is incorrect, according to Bayana Sambatu, the head of the Abbaa Gadaa Council.

That appears to be part of a more serious spat.

An alternative Abbaa Gadaa Union was formed on April 23 in Asella in eastern Oromia in cooperation with Oromia Culture and Tourism Bureau, in an effort to supplant the 250-strong leadership of Bayana’s Gada Council elected in 2014. The Union is led by Abbaa Gadaa Jilo Mandho, the Guji Abbaa Gadaa. He says they have been working cooperatively with the government on integrating Guji OLA led by Elias Gambela, but the OLF say Elias had been dismissed prior to that for disciplinary reasons.

Bayana said the new body is illegal and he was not informed, which the tourism bureau denied. “The council and its leadership is still functional and we told the government they cannot dismantle it,” he said. Bayana and Abbaa Gadaa Tarressa Iddettii from the Council, also a member of the technical committee, said the government doesn’t want OLA integrated, so is undermining the council, the mandated institution. Bayana thinks the enmity stems from 2016 when the Council condemned the region for the Irreecha catastrophe.

Bekele is concerned about the meddling. “I think it is serious because it is regarded as destroying the only institution the Oromo have. The one who replaced the former Abbaa Gadaa is absolutely loyal to ODP,” he said. “Though we know Abbaa Gadaa Bayyanaa’s term has ended, the government’s interference to get the new Abba Gadaa elected was wrong.” Others dismissed it as a bickering between rival elders. Umi Abajamal, Oromia deputy spokesperson, didn’t respond to three phone calls seeking comment on the appointed day of a conversation.

The crowd at the Ambo event marking Oromo martyrs day on April 15; Ermias Tasfaye
The crowd at the Ambo event marking Oromo martyrs day on April 15; Ermias Tasfaye

Kemal Gelchu, a former senior OLF figure who formed a new party called Oromo National Party (ONP) on November 4 was sacked in early April as Oromia regional security chief after being appointed in October. After his dismissal, he criticized the ruling party and the OLF for their handling of the group’s return, and alleged many local civil servants supported OLF. On January 26, the regional government began evaluating 843 local officials from the four Wollega zones partly about why OLF was popular in their areas and their inaction. More than 750 were fired after the 54-day session. Another practice carried over from when the OLF was classified as a terrorist organization.

In late April, protests occurred over remarks by a top ODP official, Addisu Arega, who took over from the much-criticized Alemu Sime as head of the secretariat. Addisu presented a research paper on ‘Oro-Mara’ relationship in Ambo on April 21. People reacted after he dismissed ‘Ye Burka Zimita’, a novel written by Tesfaye Gebreab about historical Oromo suffering. Addisu said it was written to divide Oromo and Amhara with the support of “Woyane”.

That controversy speaks to broader tensions with parts of the Amhara community, which transcend Oromo infighting, and are part of Ethiopia’s broader political crisis.

The most serious expression recently was in the Oromia and North Shewa zones of Amhara region, when tens of people died after clashes between Amhara and Oromo elements in the first week of April. Amhara officials alleged OLF involvement, which was denied, while Oromia Zone officials said Amhara police were involved, a claim backed by a military commander.

In early May there was also extreme intercommunal violence in western Amhara, where perhaps 200 Gumuz people living in Jawi Woreda were killed in retaliatory violence after the killing of Amhara in Metekel Zone of Benishangul-Gumuz region. An official from the one-year-old National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) party said the violence was stoked by Jawar, a leading Oromo activist—there’s no evidence for that claim, but it demonstrates the enmity.

A question of autonomy, a question of freedom

Another flashpoint is Addis Ababa, which Bekele says must return to its 1991 boundaries after encroaching into Oromia over the last two decades. Opposition to Addis Ababa’s expansion was the main catalyst for the protests that ushered in Ethiopia’s transition. Bekele says his demands over Addis’ retreat are non-negotiable, while activist Eskinder Nega campaigns against the “illegitimate” ODP-led Addis Ababa City Administration, and decries alleged Oromization of the self-governing federal capital.

Oromia Chief Administrator Lemma Megersa was made federal Defense Minster on April 18, and replaced at the head of Oromia’s government by Shimelis, formerly Abiy’s chief of staff. There are concerns that will reduce regional government effectiveness. For example, Bayana said Lemma had acted to stop previous efforts to interfere with the Council. After years of unrest, some directed at flower farms and factories, Oromia’s governance and economic situation is challenging, as acknowledged recently by Lemma: “Pushing away investment will not help us, will not develop us”.

All Oromo parties want an autonomous Oromia, a fair share of federal power for Oromo, and an end to alleged economic exploitation. Protesters have demanded that Afaan Oromo becomes a second working language of the federal government, which does not appear to be on Abiy’s agenda. “They are doing this in an attempt to buy some time and defuse the struggle of Oromo people, which is a question of autonomy, a question of freedom, liberation and self-determination,” said Dirriba Kumsa, also known as Jaal Marroo, the most popular OLA commander, about government foot-dragging and meddling.

More specific policy and ideological differences between Oromo factions are not clear and talk of new coalitions is in the air. The OFC may merge with the OLF if the latter gets registered with NEBE. OLF is allied with other liberation fronts in the Peoples Alliance for Freedom and Democracy. There’s a possibility of OLF working with ODP at the federal level, according to Lammi, although regional control is the priority.

However, he is aware that there may still be some way to go for a movement that formed to achieve Oromo self-determination back in 1973. “The transition to peaceful political participation may be difficult and prolonged for OLF,” Lammi said.

Query or correction? Email us

Updated June 9 to adjust Bekele Gerba quote and add efforts to seek Oromia government comment.

This article first appeared on Ethiopia Insight.

Main photo: Daud Ibsa (grey hat) with Bekele Gerba (pale suit) and others at the Ambo event marking Oromo Martyrs Day on April 15; Ermias Tasfaye

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

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