The OLF is dead, but its Oromo struggle lives

Daud Ibsa’s militia is not the Oromo Liberation Front. While the OLF has disintegrated, what it stands for still captures the essence of the Oromo struggle, and this contradiction is convulsing Oromo politics.

The Oromo Liberation Front has experienced increasing turmoil since leaving the transitional government in the early 1990s after falling out with fellow rebels.

There have been multiple disputes and splits over past decades. But importantly, Daud Ibsa started to brand his rump movement as the mother organization around 15 years ago. His guerrillas, commonly known as OLF-Shanee, and particularly so by critics, sporadically made lethal attacks on the army in peripheral areas of Oromia.

Since 1973, the OLF has represented the aspirations and principles of the Oromo quest for hiree murteeffannaa—self-determination. In the past, it argued for secession. But despite its proud legacy, the OLF has disintegrated beyond repair. Any groups now branding themselves under the shadow of that grand organization are mere pretenders—very much including Daud’s.

Yet OLF still captures the essence of the Oromo struggle and so abides in the heart of many patriotic Oromos. It is this contradiction that is currently convulsing Oromo politics.

OLF-S’s hostile relations with the government continued until July, which marked the start of negotiations during Ethiopia’s ongoing political transition led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

The agreement did not imply disarmament

Daud didn’t want direct talks and proposed the mediation of a third party. However, reportedly due to pressure from President Isaias Afewerki, his group, exiled in Eritrea, was compelled to accept Addis Ababa’s proposal, and so returned home.

An undisclosed agreement for peaceful political contestation was entered into between Daud’s group and the government. But it did not come into force, and ongoing deadly tension became the norm. The parties blame each other for non-implementation.

So, the agreement is the bone of contention.

Gammachuu Ayyaanaa, a defected colonel and part of the returned OLF-S leadership, has been enlightening on this subject in interviews with the Oromo Broadcasting Service. While briefing the regional broadcaster on the agreement, he addressed the vital point of the disarmament of Daud’s soldiers.

The pundit alleged that the agreement did not imply disarmament as that amounted to falling captive. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government, and particularly Oromia’s ruling party, claim that the agreement included the disarmament of OLF-S, regardless of the implications for its rebellion.

The ex-colonel says that the deal was instead to create a buffer zone. In other words, there would be land controlled by Daud. Gammachuu also said that the intention was to establish a third party, such as a commission, to help manage the tensions between them. He claims that the fate of the OLF-S soldiers will be determined after the work of such a body.

Buffer bluff

Gammachuu mentioned precedents in Burundi, Congo, Liberia and Rwanda. But those are not relevant because there was civil war there, while there is not in Ethiopia. Indeed civil war was far from the reality in Ethiopia until recent weeks when OLF-S upped its operation with the alleged assistance of elements linked to the former regime’s security apparatus. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front is aggrieved by the transformation, and sees OLF-S as partners in a nominally pro-federalist “strategic alliance”.

Furthermore, rebel forces were competitive in the other examples, but in Ethiopia the government has overwhelming dominance; and, despite recent gains, OLF-S didn’t have territorial control in Ethiopia, as rebels did in the other countries.

A buffer zone would only have been necessary if Daud’s soldiers were a threat. Yet, this is not feasible as Daud has never controlled territory, even in its western stronghold. The request was built on false claims——it was an attempt to exploit the negotiations to gain territory it has failed to control in the past. By establishing a territorial foothold, the OLF-S aimed to prove that third party mediation is needed, which, in turn, would allow the group to gain international legitimacy.

Apart from its lack of legitimacy, Daud made a tactical error in opposing the appointment of another former OLF figure, Kemal Gelchu, as regional security head. Kemal has the requisite skills, even if he is a political rival, and OLF-S could have tried to work with Kemal, who is from eastern Oromia.

Abiy has been smart not to arrest Daud

At the very least, they should have refrained from shunning someone who once was their comrade. Daud thought appointing Kemal was a strategy of the ruling Oromo Democratic Party to obliterate them. However, the truth is that Oromia’s leaders wanted to compensate Kemal, an ex-member of the army, who left due to grievance.

OLF-S is now soliciting international recognition under the guise of negotiation. This should be resisted. Daud’s movement is weak. It has lost support among the Oromo elite, most university students, many farmers, and, above all, the brave Qeerroo, including those who gave their lives for the cause of freedom. All now want an end to dictatorship and conflict.

Ultimately, negotiation was part of a military strategy for Daud, while the same instrument was interpreted as a means of disarmament for the ruling party. But it is Abiy and Lemma who have the advantage, having played their hand well. Abiy has been smart not to arrest Daud, instead allowing him to look like unconvincing rebel leaders ensconced in luxury hotels.

But the government has recently moved to detain Gammachuu and many others—it seems they have exhausted the politics of tolerance. Hence, the authorities are taking strong measures after a peaceful settlement proved elusive with this troublesome rump of a once formidable movement.

Query or correction? Email us

Main photo: OLF supporters wave its flag at the group’s welcoming rally; Addis Ababa, Sep. 15; Petterik Wiggers

This is the author’s Viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight is responsible for clear factual errors.

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

Related Insight

Jan 1, Team Lemma’s choice: power or peace?

Nov. 30, Oromia police killed near Benishangul-Gumuz as violence continues

Nov. 16, Turmoil blocks aid as communal conflict rages in gold-seamed Benishangul-Gumuz

Oct. 30, Rallies held in Oromia over threat to disarm OLF

Aug. 14, Oromo political victory masks volatile region as liberation front presses claim

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About the author

Abdurazak Kedir Abdu

Abdurazak is a U.S.-based human rights specialist with law degrees from Addis Ababa and Pretoria universities


  • I got so surprised that you said, “The OLF is dead, but its Oromo struggle lives”. How could you be sure about OLF’s death. But something good I saw and already true is that OLF has instilled its thinking in the minds of the oromo people and it never dies. Beyond this, as a political organization, the OLF itself will never and ever die. Many had that wish but the wish was in vain. Rather all those who wished its death have died but it lived. No where in the world where truth died but flourished. Same is true about OLF. So, if you might have thought that the pseudo OPDO/ODP is eventually getting victory, please be able to see how OLF emerged and survived almost for 50 years. It has passed all those times scheduled for its death. Don’t you know how the OPDO is formed and in whose incubator it got grown? One more thing I would like to ask you is that do you think that ‘Qerroo’, the force dismantled TPLF, is OPDO made? How much are you sure about the stability of the present OPDO led government? Undoubtedly, where human right is not respected how can one be sure about that? I expect your answer.
    Another thing I see as a mere allegation is that TPLF and OLF can not be alliance at this stage. But the government led by ODP and comprising of TPLF and others is trying to fool and confuse the oromo people using this for its purpose. But this is really being a giant foolish. If EPRDF has such doubt, why does it works with TPLF? Anyway, the government is being ridiculous. It is being a big puppet to the extent it is being laughed at by even an ordinary men. So sorry to say so.

  • I am surprised that the whole peace deal was to eliminate OLF from the political radar. I was following eagerly that the political systems in Ethiopia is improving but in the wrong direction. Jawar’s calculation is wrong. Presiding OLF to Christianity and waging war on it by the eastern Ethiopian elites is not new. They created Islamic Oromia rebel group against OLF but never succeeded. They disintegrated beyond repair but OLF remained a strong rebel for decades. Air strike on civilians is not acceptable by any measure and it is a deal breaker for the Oromos. OLF shouldn’t disarm because this plot shouldn’t succeed. Instead they should control all Oromia before any election deal follows. Woyane’s control of the political and military system should end. The amhara brothers should wake up. Still TPLF is on power and is gaining more power by eradicating military opponents. Please wake-up, this is a TPLF government and not peoples’ government. They shouldn’t be trusted by any measure.

    • Your comment reflects, ad nauseam, a political hysteria about TPLF, although it has absolutely no involvement in the crisis in Wolega. In the meantime Abiy and OLF may have accepted a truce to contain the situation.

  • There is no evidence that TPLF is giving assistance to OLF, or that TPLF sees OLF as a partner in a strategic alliance… TPLF is not aggrieved by the transformation, but that a large part of the “transformation” has become a campaign of political hysteria and a witch-hunt against TPLF and the people of Tigray. That is TPLF’s primary concern… I believe the writer here is making some fraudulent statements about TPLF adding to the obsessive compulsive political disorder in Ethiopia. And that is pitiful.

  • Today, OLF/ABO is stronger than it has ever been since its creation! Go visit Oromia and see it for your self. If it’s so weak and dead, why is OPDO going around arresting and killing Qeerroo throughout Oromia? Why not just wait for election and let the people decided who should lead them? The Qeerroo are the generation of Oromos born in the late 80th and early 90th, around the time the current Ethiopian government rose to power. The importance of the time of their birth is crucial because they are the first Oromo generation in over a century who had a defined home land “Oromia”. They are the first generation of Oromo’s that grew up with Afaan Oromo as the official language of Oromia and it being recognized officially by the Ethiopian government. These are the children that changed their Amharic names to Oromo names. They are the first generation of Oromo’s who grew up with no identity complex – unlike their older siblings, parents and grandparents. These children grew up with Oromo consciousness as the center of their Oromo identity vs. Ethiopianizm – the celebration and expansion of Amhara language, culture, religion, history, festival, and even naming of children. They are the seeds of Oromo consciousness planted by the Oromo Liberation Front (“OLF”) in its brief stance in Ethiopian government.

    They were educated in their own language and grow up celebrating traditional Oromo holidays. Unlike the generation before them, they are well educated in Oromo & Ethiopia history, they know the names of all the Oromo nationality and their work. They even celebrate New Year on the Gregorian calendar vs the Coptic calendar used in Ethiopia. To understand Qeerroo, all one has to do is follow their art, especially their music. The lyrics to their music, dance, and traditional closes in the music video will tell their state of mind and the level of Oromo consciousness. They are not demanding democracy, they are demanding freedom. Here are sample translated lyrics’ to their music “be mindful Qeerroo, when you lift the rock there is a snake under it, make sure to chop its head off”, “Unless you die, you will not be left in prison forever”, “we’re still here” and “only way to make the enemy bow is with a bullet”.

    Most of all, they understand the psychological control century of Ethiopianizem has over the older generation. The mental control Ethiopianizem has over the older generation of Oromo’s could be found in every walk of Oromo’s life, politics, religion, socio economic background. Century of Ethiopianizem has crated identity complex among the older generation of Oromo people and could be witnessed even within the same household. It could be seen by the reaction of the different Oromo generations to the reshuffling of political cabinet by TPLF. There were no Qeerroo’s congratulating an OPDO appointment to PM, on the other hand the older Ethiopianized Oromo’s are so quick to congratulate OPDO and clam victory.

    In closing….please go visit and study about the topics and people you are writing about. OLF is not an individual leader, it’s an ideology, that could not be distorted by Menelik II, Haile Selassie, Mengistu Hailemariam and Meles Zenawi. You are trying to tell us that the Oromo struggle is weaker today then in those times?

  • One of the mistakes that Oromo & Ethiopian activities made several times in Ethiopian politics is that they their personal feelings. I heard last four years that OLF is non-exist from our activities . I hope Mr. Jawar Mohamed adjusted himself after he went Ethiopia and listened what people think about OLF on ground. Mr. Abdu , before you preach us that OLF is dead 15 years ago ,please go visit all Oromia corner. Ethiopian regime has been telling us that OLF is their most enemy last 15 years ,but you are telling us different story.

  • The OLF and Ethiopian government negotiation was handled by the former PM Hailemariam Desalegn. It seems he lacked the skill, it was more difficult for him to negotiate with the OLF than Ginbot Arbegnoch. He botched it. No written agreement for OLF to disarm. Just verbal. How many such agreements he made as a PM and Foreign Affairs Minister were total failures we may never know.

  • The dead are those demagogues who have been mentally enslaved and who have worked directly or indirectly against the interests of the Oromo to be the servants under their best dogs and leading their own life.

    However, the OLF will never die, instead it will inspire millions of young Oromos . Even if OLF is going to be driven out of the Ethiopian political arena by traitors and political conspiracy, there is no doubt that future generations will realize and respect their long-standing commitment to the precious and dedicated for Oromo liberty Where there are lies, the truth can be ignored immediately but the truth will be restored at any time!

    In the history of human kind, there is no nation left out under oppression and repression, no matter how strong and cruel the system was!
    Detained, killed and intimidated never stop fighting against the oppressors.
    One day, it turns out that the sun is rising for them and that their destiny can no longer be decided by others that prevents them from becoming a free nation!
    The cause of the Oromos would never be different from these nations; Although intimacy for the resilience of the Oromo nationalists is growing, Oromo will never be in this kind of situation in the years to come!
    I dream to see when the Oromos will defend their common national interest by one voice together from one corner to the other.
    I have a dream when Oromos will never welcome the traitors and political opportunists who are doing political business and live their lives by confussing public, and
    selling the interests of the Oromo for their personal interests.
    Most importantly, the Orom nationalist will work hard to make their freedom comes true on the land of their fatherland-Oromiya!

  • Greetings Abdurazak,
    Thank you for your informative article.
    Through your posts , I have learned important facts particularl OLF’S missions and aspirations.
    My name is Tizita Belachew I’m a reporter for Voice of America. I wonder if like to participate in a radio discussion or even an in-depth analysis on OLF ? Please let me know if this is possible. My very best to you!
    Below is my contact

    • I wish if all Oromo scholars and politicians come to the realization that, beyond personal and group interests and ideologies, we become united for transforming not Oromia alone, but also all of Ethiopia, even Africa. This great nation should be known for its great culture of democratic administrative system – Gadaa!

      • This article has some truth in it but alas is mostly baised(says Daud’s soldier instead of OLF army to imply otherwise, the pundits are referenced but are not named etc) and very thin on evidence to back the pinions or assertions. Hyperbole is common to most commentators of Ethiopian politics but this writer has somehow managed to minimise.

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