Oromia peace prospects dimmed by renewed fighting

Shadows of doubt, digital art, Ermias Tasfaye, 24 May 2023

Bridging the gap between OLA disarmament and a transitional government has become harder after hostilities flared again.

Despite recent talks between the Ethiopian government and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), escalating violence in Oromia has cast doubt on the prospects for peace.

Less than two weeks after the government and OLA completed their first round of discussions in Zanzibar, residents in Oromia accused government forces of burning houses belonging to individuals suspected of sheltering OLA fighters. Days later, the OLA accused the government of launching an “all-out offensive”.

According to OLA, they inflicted significant losses after government forces attacked them in various locales where they held sway, including East Shewa, West Shewa, West Arsi, West Hararghe, Horo Guduru, and in southern Oromia.

Reports of large-scale government offensives and the OLA advancing into towns and freeing political prisoners demonstrate that peace talks have thus far failed to halt hostilities.

This has raised concerns among some in Oromia that the government is not sincere in its stated intention to continue talks. The resumption of intense fighting suggests an end to the conflict may not be imminent.

“The government is losing on many fronts and I don’t think the second round of talks will take place in the near future,” a gloomy Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) official in Oromia told Ethiopia Insight on 18 May.

Rebel Call

The Zanzibar talks began on 24 April and concluded on 3 May without a truce or a schedule for subsequent meetings. Some residents, Oromo activists, and politicians are advocating for the recommencement of the negotiations.

But their call was followed on 17 May by OLA accusing the government of new attacks to increase its leverage in the talks. According to the OLA, government tactics included killing civilians, burning homes, and forcing farmers to supply food for their troops and drafting them into local militias.

“This move starkly contradicts the understanding that de-escalation should be prioritized during negotiation processes,” OLA said.

OLA called for the international community to condemn the regime’s attempts to control negotiations through force. It said the Oromo movement could not be coerced into accepting a subpar political settlement and that a deal needed to respect “the aspirations and sacrifices” made by Oromos.

However, Taye Dendea, a State Minister of Peace, said in an interview that he’s not aware of the reported recent fighting. He added that he held a meeting in his parliamentary constituency in North Shoa Zone where attendees said they wanted to see peace.

Trust Issues

It now appears unlikely a second round of talks will occur soon with the allegations of government offensives fostering more mistrust, exacerbated by the official silence on the matter.

“The trust level is too low as well. The 2018 Asmara ‘agreement’ left a bad memory,” said an Oromo analyst in Addis Ababa, referring to the peace deal that saw the OLF re-enter the fold of Ethiopian politics.

The recent disclosure of a report by the Ethiopian Policy Studies Institute (PSI) proposing constitutional amendments that may erode self-determination rights has heightened tensions as it raises concerns for OLA leaders that the negotiations may merely serve to divert from the government’s hidden agenda.The PSI was formed in 2018 by merging two existing government think tanks.

Oromos have experienced historical oppression and discrimination, causing widespread opposition to the central government. OLF, the flagbearer of Oromo nationalism, has been fighting for Oromo self-determination since 1973.

Incompatible Demands

Though both sides said the first round of negotiations were positive, the government wasn’t willing to accede to OLA’s demand for a transitional administration in Oromia. OLA leaders say forming a transitional government is necessary to ensure fair elections and Oromo self-determination.

Given the fragility of his coalition, Abiy may consider a transitional government risky, as Oromia is a key constituency and power-sharing would weaken the regional hold of his Prosperity Party there.

Conversely, OLA will not be keen to accept the continued presence of the 170 Prosperity Party members from Oromia in the federal parliament as this would leave the ruling party in control of its fate.

In that scenario, even if the OLA ran Oromia, the federal government could still exert control by, for example, by stifling the region’s funding, declaring a state of emergency, or continuing to deploy national troops to the region.

Security Dilemma 

Another key sticking point, OLA leaders reject government calls for its disarmament before a political agreement is reached.

The Oromo analyst Ethiopia Insight interviewed worries that the parties are too far apart. “The government is so adamant on sticking  to its position, and OLA is not ready for immediate disarmament,” he said.

OLA split from the OLF in 2019 when commanders opposed disarmament plans and other aspects of how the formerly exiled OLF’s return to Ethiopia was handled after signing a peace deal in Asmara with Prime Minister Abiy in 2018.

Since then, OLA has been waging an insurgency, often employing hit-and-run tactics, while government forces have waged a brutal counterinsurgency.

Officials accuse OLA of committing a slew of atrocities against mainly Amhara residents of Oromia, a charge OLA leaders deny. The Washington Post reported on 21 May that some attacks on Amharas have been carried out by a rival militia led by Fekade Abdissa.

Main Photo: Shadows of doubt, digital art, Ermias Tasfaye, 24 May 2023

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

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The article first appeared on Ethiopia Insight

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