Oromo nationalist rebels never agreed to disarm and now hardline elements are on the attack.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s 2018 decision to grant amnesty to exiled rebel fighters (most of them in Eritrea) under the pretense that they would lay down their arms may be coming back to haunt Ethiopia, as some of these fighters are ramping up their separatist campaign in Oromia.
Lawmakers agreed to drop some armed opposition groups from the list of banned terrorist organizations and invited them to return to Ethiopia, ostensibly to lay down their weapons, end their armed struggle, and embrace peaceful struggle.
These included Patriotic Ginbot 7, Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), Amhara Democratic Forces Movement (ADFM), and Tigray People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM).
When it comes to OLF, the presumption of the amnesty was that returning rebels would abide by an agreement reached in Asmara with Abiy’s government and enter their armed fighters into a “disarmament, demobilization and reintegration” (DDR) program.
Yet, that program never really materialized, raising questions about whether the agreement may have been disingenuous from the outset.
Previous DDR processes in Ethiopia had been reasonably successful. Almost half a million soldiers of the Derg army were demobilized in 1991; another 22,200 OLF fighters agreed to lay down arms and return to civilian life between 1992 and 1994. Those DDR programs assumed ex-combatants would subsequently participate productively in the civilian economy.
The major elements of DDR are bringing about a return to stability through security reforms, along with social and developmental programs designed to help combatants to transition.
Nothing of the sort seems to have come of this latest exercise.
Lemma Megersa, the then Oromia regional president, reported that he had negotiated a deal in Asmara that triggered the process of allowing OLF fighters to return. But details of the pact were not revealed. No legal justification for the agreement was given, nor were guidelines laid out on how OLF fighters were to be disarmed, demobilized, and reintegrated, as had been the case with other former militias.
It had been understood by many Ethiopians that armed opposition groups who decided to return to Ethiopia agreed to live peacefully, but that does not seem to have been the case with the OLF.
The first signs of trouble came in September 2018, when more than 60 ethnic Gamo civilians were killed in Burayu, a small Oromia town on the outskirts of western Addis Ababa. Many others were displaced. This came a day after OLF leader, Dawud Ibsa, returned to Addis Ababa from abroad. This worried many Ethiopians, as it happened so soon after the DDR deal was reached.
According to Amnesty International, social media posts in the days leading up to the OLF’s arrival in Addis Ababa urged violence against non-Oromo groups. Security forces did nothing to stop this incitement to violence or to protect targeted communities, despite repeated pleas for help.
A similar incident occurred shortly after in Kamashi Zone of Benishangul-Gumuz region, near the OLF stronghold of Wollega, in which several dozens were killed and tens of thousands fled. After that horror, the Oromo Democratic Party’s Rural Political Mobilization chief Addisu Arega called on the OLF to order 1,300 of its fighters to present themselves to a designated military camp for demobilization and retraining.
In response to that call and other statements urging the OLF to live up to the DDR agreement, Dawud rejected the contention that rebel fighters had made an agreement to disarm during the Asmara talks with Lemma.
In an interview with Walta TV on 7 June 2018, he said, “The talk that OLF returned to Ethiopia after an agreement with the government of Ethiopia to disarm and struggle peacefully is baseless….There is no agreement where we [OLF] agreed to disarm. There is no reason for us to disarm while there is an armed party [seemingly a reference to the government]. No one will disarm, and no one is able to make [us] disarm.”
The government’s response came in the form of a warning from deputy communications minister Kassahun Gofe. “If OLF is not disarming itself, the government will carry out the task of disarming [them] to ensure the safety of Ethiopians and defend the constitutional order,” he said. “There is no way that two armed forces can co-exist in a country, and only a government chosen by the people can lead the country…..”
In a show of defiance, OLF supporters organized rallies in Oromia cities on 26 and 27 October 2018. As the two sides exchanged hostile words, hundreds of civilians died; countless others were wounded, displaced, and their property destroyed.
In the event, the armed wing of the OLF, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), formally split from the party. It accused the government of reneging on a promise to allow militias to keep their weapons. Members retreated with their weapons to the forests of Western Wollega Zone and resumed their separatist campaign, dramatically increasing Oromia’s instability.
The OLF’s widespread support among qeerroos has also had a direct impact on the ongoing crisis. Qeerroos are alleged to have expressed their anger at perceived government perfidy by engaging in the mass killing of non-Oromos (often Amharas and their perceived allies) and property destruction.
In response, the government has blocked telecommunications and internet access around Western Wollega, and, according to Amnesty, security forces are estimated to have detained more than 10,000 men and women suspected of supporting or working for the OLA.
The OLF leader has said a government crackdown has resulted in most of his party’s senior figures being imprisoned and the party offices across Oromia being shut down. Now, with national elections just six weeks away, the newly reinforced and heavily armed OLA is boycotting the election, further aggravating Oromia’s fragile state.
In light of the tumultuous path the country is on, perhaps it is now too late to go back to a DDR agreement with the OLA. Maybe a continuation of armed conflict is inevitable. However, despite the failures of past negotiations, the least bad option for avoiding further violence and total chaos is still more talks.
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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
Main photo: OLF’s leader Dawud Ibsa (C) with the then Oromia region’s President Lemma Megerssa (R) and Minister of Foreign Affairs Workneh Gebeyehu (L) after signing a peace agreement in Asmara, Eritrea; 7 August 2018; Fana
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