Viewpoint

Ethiopia’s bungled 2018 deal with Oromo rebels is the cause of current turmoil

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.

Among others, they have closed many roads in Oromia, reportedly plundered banks, killed officials and civilians and, allegedly, kidnapped university students.

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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About the author

Marew Abebe Salemot

Marew lectures at Debark University. He has a master's degree in Federalism Studies from Addis Ababa University and also studied at Gottingen University, Germany. Contact him at marewobu@gmail.com

8 Comments

  • What is the end goal of OLF? What are they trying to liberate ?
    The Neftegna they seem to be targeting does not even exist. They would do better for the Oromo people if they were using their money to build schools or hospitals.

  • Was the 1991 disarmament of OLF army successful? Yes and no. From the perspective of the TPLF it was successful for it facilitated Wayane dictatorship. But from the perspective of OLF and democracy it was a failure. Once disarmed the TPLF kicked out the OLF out of the democratic process. They were not even allowed to participate in the 1992 local election let alone the national election. They were forced to leave the country. Those who disarmed were mistreated, languished in prison for long, and some killed. I am not sure of the details of what is going on now. But it will not be a surprise if the experience of 1991 is creating hesitancy on the part of OLA to disarm. I agree with the author that the way to solve these problems is to talk. The Ethiopian state has no tradition of solving internal problems through negotiations. The current government should begin a new tradition of solving internal problems at the table. The tradition of internal wars needs to end.

    • Yes, the 1991-1992 disarmament process was a failure. I believe it was a failure for TPLF, too. That was when TPLF made a grave strategic mistake when they decided to eliminate the OLF from the political process. OLF and TPLF could have been strategic allies and could have taken the country towards democratization. However, TPLF simply chose short term and tactical advantages over long term matters. But that choice is paying off now.

      What happened to the members of OLA after June 1992 was a tragedy. Of course that event has scared the current OLA members and will continue to scare any Oromo freedom fighter when dealing with Ethiopian governments.

      Moreover, the Government of Abiy Ahmed is not different in this regard. After the OLF leaders arrived in Ethiopia, Oromo elders and activists made repeated efforts to resolve the dispute between OLF and the government over the OLA. After challenging and lengthy peace efforts, the Elders Committee managed to conclude a major peace agreement between OLF and the government in Ambo, Oromia on January 24, 2019. Pursuant to that agreement, the Elders Committee dispatched its members to the field to convince OLA members to disarm. Some 800 OLA members accepted the call by elders to disarm and headed to Tolay military camp. However, their stay in the camp was full of mistreatments, abuses, and complaints (e.g. https://www.voaafaanoromoo.com/a/4829464.html https://www.bbc.com/afaanoromoo/oduu-47607947)
      They were treated as prisoners and enemy combatants after they voluntarily disarmed through a peace agreement. None of the demobilization and reintegration processes in the peace agreement was realized.
      They were not given enough food and access to water. On one occasion in mid April 2019, some 130 of them were poisoned in the camp and were admitted to a hospital in Woliso (https://www.bbc.com/afaanoromoo/oduu-47932106).

      Throughout all these, when the Peace Committee wanted to visit the ex-OLA members in Tolay Camp, the government denied the Committee access (e.g. https://www.bbc.com/afaanoromoo/oduu-47550469).

  • This article is biased and has factual inaccuracies on some points. The government, represented by Lemma Megersa and Workneh Gebeyehu, reached agreement with OLF in Asmara in 2018. This article appears to question the legality of that agreement by saying “no legal justification for that agreement.” There is no need of legal justification for that agreement. It is well within the authority of the government to negotiate and/or enter into agreements pertaining to Ethiopia and Ethiopia’s interests with any body. I heard some people asking why such privilege to negotiate was given to OLF and not others. That is up to the government to answer. However, as far as I know OLF was the only party that asked for negotiation and strongly insisted on that.

    Details of the Asmara agreement have not been formally announced. However, in the course of reengagement processes in Ethiopia, substances in the agreement have been disclosed piece by piece on OLF side. We cannot prove or disprove that from the government side as Lemma Megersa is now mute and Workneh Gebeyehu has left politics.

    On the other hand this article states 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. This is not true. The 1,300 OLA members who were taken to a designated camp actually had been in Eritrea and had never been to Oromia until the day Dawd Ibsa and other OLF leaders arrived in Ethiopia. On September 15, 2018, while the OLF leaders flew from Asmara to Addis, the 1,300 OLA members rode on bus all the way from Eritrea via Mekele to a camp in Arsi. (e.g. https://www.france24.com/en/20180915-former-rebels-triumphant-return-ethiopia) Those OLA members have never been threats to public safety and peace whatsoever because they were never armed when they came from Eritrea.

    The DDR process was actually with regard to the other OLA members who were armed and had been already in Oromia before the Asmara agreement. Here the article failed to acknowledge the repeated efforts made by Oromo Abba Gadas, elders and activists to resolve the dispute between the government and OLF. e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POc0IZkKwzk
    https://www.robemedia.com/2019/01/24/labsii-nagayaa-gumii-abbootii-gadaa-oromiyaa/

    In those repeated efforts by Abba Gadas, we have observed that government was not willing to end the conflict. Government was not willing to send relevant officials to take part. Moreover, the ruling party officials and cadres were making negative propaganda campaigns against the peace efforts. On one particular occasion, for example, Alemu Sime, a high ranking official who took part in the peace efforts representing the ruling OPDO, made a negative statement on a radio interview the next day. It appeared that government wanted to prolong the conflict for some political advantage.

    Dawd Ibsa’s interview on Walta TV is misrepresented and the translation as presented in this article is not accurate. When asked when the OLF would disarm, he said (between the government and OLF) “who should disarm and who should force the other to disarm?” His response was taken to social media and highly politicized by government officials and allies. But when he said that he was in fact presenting the provisions of the agreement and their legal consequences. The Ethiopian government and OLF, two parties in armed conflict, had reached the Asmara agreement to cease hostilities and work together. If we take common sense understanding and international experiences, the two sides are considered as equal parties to the agreement and they administer their agreement on equal grounds. One side cannot have upper or lower hand. Dawd Ibsa was, I believe, arguing that this principle should work.

  • FOR THE AUTHOR, it is better not to write what you don’t know the accurate information in detail. The author has no clue that the 1300 OLF soldiers who came from Eritrea were not armed. Where there is no legal evidence and neutral investigation blaming QEERROO for killings in Ethiopia is an absurdity. Ethiopian insight posted this misinformation without single evidence is also UN ETHICAL.

  • Hey writer,
    The title merits discussion but how you put things is one sided. You are not mentioning an iota of the destructive steps Abiy took to bring the situation at where the country is now at.

    These agreements you talking about happened at a different time: when the people of Ethiopia as well as the world thought Abiy is not what he is now: That is the pre Abiy-cheat era. Then Abiy was considered the MAN – thus his noble price. Every one was in good faith and peace, unity, and good governance of Ethiopia had a good chance.

    Since then you know what happened. Things got soar from the day he went to Eritera, by jumping over Tigray, and told the world he had made peace while, as later discovered, he actually set in motion his on-going tigre genocide!
    That is the day every one lost faith: That is is why OLA is armed and fighting: That is the day hell got loose on Ethiopia!

    As you said, the situation is know past that and there should be dialog. I completely agree. This too is at his door-step. He can stop more blood easily or I leave to your imagination what is gonna happen!

  • As usual this article is a full of biased of Habesha distortion of Oromo stories. You are crying Amhara abuse while ignoring other Ethiopian oppressed people including Oromoo Majority who struggling for justice since creation of Ethiopian state. No people or nation and nationalities take up arms and put their life on line without good cause. You ignore so much of this facts in this analysis of blaming the victims in Ethiopian state. Oromoo people and OLF you blame forced to pick up arms for justice and dignity. There never be peace and stability in Ethiopia until there’s justice for the oppressed people of Ethiopia such as Oromoo, Benishangul Gumuz, Wolaita, Sidama, Somali, and others. Amhara system of domination is still there and must be dismantled for the sake of peace, justice and stability in Ethiopia and East Africa!!

  • Agreed, the said agreement was a total fiasco to say the least. By the way, you forgot to mention as usual selective Habesha” amnesia that the first operation involved by the OLF after return was not in Burayo or anywhere but in Moyale against the Somali community, where Lemma Magarsa and federal government obfuscated if not condoned and later the Gedro community.. There was no single jHabrsha outlet mefia that fairly reported or concerned with it since it was directed Somali groups. It was due to large units of OLF who crossed and entered from Kenya border because of the agreement. Besides, who disarmed Ginbot 7 and other groups in similar positions? Who knows if what’s in the Amhara regions and conflicts are affected by those shortsighted action? No one.

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