OLF rebels look to political future, carve out new identity

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Workneh Gebeyehu, Dawud Ibsa, and Lemma Megersa in Asmara on August 7  Credit Yemane G. Meskel.

The peace accord agreed between the Ethiopian government and a faction of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) led by Dawud Ibssa some twenty days ago marks the end of the rebel movement that started the armed struggle in eastern Oromia in 1973. “We have taken an important step in the right direction to end the conflict and on the point of our political participation,” Dawud Ibssa Ayana, the chairman of OLF since 1999 told the Addis Ababa-based Amharic magazine, Sheger Times published on August 18.

Delegates of Dawud’s OLF wing, supported and hosted by Eritrea in the past as part of the proxy war the Eritrean regime was waging against the government of Ethiopia, have arrived in Addis Ababa on August 15 to embrace the opportunities and obligations of the accords. After more than 26 years abroad, the party’s top leader Dawud Ibssa is also expected to arrive in few days’ time and a committee is formed to prepare a hero’s welcome.

In their 45-year fight against the Ethiopian state, OLF rebels used military or other means in a bid for the creation of an independent Oromia, or federal or confederal arrangement with other Ethiopian peoples, making it the longest insurgency in the country.

Since 1973, the deafening sound of bullets and explosions have alternated in eastern, southern and western Oromia, albeit at low-scale, with somewhat softer sound of negotiations aimed at bringing the armed insurgency to an end. “The birth of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) brought new hope for the Oromo. It was like a dream come true since the Oromos had started to talk about the OLF before its birth,” Assafa Jalata wrote in his book, Oromo Nationalism and the Ethiopian Discourse.

The OLF have been hit hard by the Derg’s security forces in the early 1980’s yet it has come to devise a surviving mechanism, assimilating the traditional Oromo system gada as part of its program to draw more followers.

In 1991, the OLF became part of the Tigrayan-dominated transition government that took power after the fall of the military regime. However it walked out to start another armed struggle, following controversy and acrimony with regards to the “rigged” 1992 election. The government forces managed to defeat and disarm it consequently.

The defeated and scattered OLF combatants would gather in first in Sudan and Somalia and later in Eritrea to continue to make pressure on the Ethiopia government, disseminating its programs through its radio station, Sagalee Bilisummaa Oromo and underground political networks.

Revered leaders

Despite the difficult condition the OLF operated, many people in the Oromia region have strongly identified with the party, something which expressed itself most ardently through the distant yet reverence bond  between the party leader and supporters. Gelassa Dilbo, one of the founding members, was the most prominent leader within the party’s history, commanding the OLF army from 1992 until 1999, until he was ousted by the deputy chairman, Dawud Ibsa with the support of Eritrea, following an internal power struggle. This lead to the split of OLF in two groups, that were to clash for many years, both ideologically and for financial support.

Yet Dawud did not become the new voice of the movement just by power play and sheer intrigue. He had a sound record in the history of Oromo people’s movement and his involvement dates back to his student days at the then Haile Selassie University in 1970-71. He was one of the first members of the association of Oromo University students in Addis Ababa, and was elected to the OLF’s Central committee a few years later. From October 1977 to December 1979, he had been imprisoned during the Derg’s campaign against dissidence. Eventually, he fled to Sudan in 1980 and joined OLF units operating from that country. He commanded the OLF unit that started the armed struggle in Wollega province. In 1988, he was elected to the OLF’s Central Committee and the Executive committee, according to a biographical sketch in Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia, Second Edition by David H. Shinn, Thomas P. Ofcansky (2013). Dawud would lead the OLF column that marched into Addis Ababa in 1991.

Over the years, there have been frustration over the party’s unsuccessful strategy and disunity that have stymied its performance. Following a July 2008 rally in Minneapolis young Oromos reportedly characterized the OLF executive committee as “tired paper tigers.”  On November, reports came out about a takeover attempt by General Kamal Galchuu, a deserter from the Ethiopian army who reputedly wanted to launch the OLF on a more militant trajectory but failed, according to diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks dated November 5, 2008. Dawud came to assert control of the party.

A Turning Point

A watershed movement in 2015 spread in Oromia region, following protest against the master plan intended to expand Addis Ababa onto surrounding Oromo land. Underground activist networks, known as Qeerroo (a term originally referred to young bachelors of fighting age) have deployed tactics such as strikes, boycotts to pressure the government, which according to some, was led by OLF, though another political player and the internet savvy Jawar Mohammed, executive director of the Oromia Media Network, made a strong claim of the protest’s ownership.

Whatever disagreement between the political entity’s claims of the protests’ ownership, few doubt the role played by OLF in mobilizing people as part of its efforts to widen political space within Ethiopia and pave the way for the appointment of Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, the first Oromo to head the ruling EPRDF coalition in the country’s 27-year history. Abiy dramatically expanded the political space and introduced a number of reforms.

Dawud Ibsa’s OLF faction and Oromia region’s president, Lemma Megersa and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Workneh Gebeyheu signed peace agreement

New Horizons

The peace deal followed the Ethiopian parliaments’ decision to remove OLF and other two groups, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Ginbot 7 that have each been engaged in protracted armed struggles against the government from the list of terrorist organizations on July 4 and extending olive branch for negotiations.

The first attempt to negotiate was held during Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s trip to Eritrea from July 9-11. On August 7, a delegation consisting of the Oromia region’s president and vice chairman of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) Lemma Megersa and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Workneh Gebeyehu went to Asmara to forge the framework of final agreement.

“We both agreed on how the war declared on us had caused unnecessary loss of lives and property damages and it had to be stopped. We have put forth our proposals and discussed with a degree of good faith. After the discussion, we have released a statement,” Dawud told Sheger Times.

A Berlin-based political analyst speaking on the condition of anonymity explains that, “although the political space within Ethiopia has seen a radical re-opening with the release of political prisoners earlier this year, a peace agreement and return of the OLF to formal politics in Ethiopia nonetheless stands out.”

All the conditions of the new peace agreement are not revealed yet, but Dawud was quoted as saying, “we have agreed to conduct our political activities through peaceful means. OLF leaders based outside of the country would return home and we would open offices in the Oromia region. For other issues, we have agreed to set up a committee to move the discussion forward.” Fitsum Arega, Chief of Staff at Prime Minister’s Office tweeted saying that the agreement covers “disarmament, demobilization and reintegration” of former fighters. Tesfaye Yegezu has been appointed to lead the Project Office under the Prime minister’s Office tasked to coordinate this effort, according to Fitsum.

Hard Truths

Some observers have been cautious about pinning a lot of hope on the deal and question if both parties will honour the agreed terms. Under the terms of the accord the OLF, like ONLF and Ginbot 7, are supposed to disarm and enter into the demobilisation and reintegration program, something that remains to be seen. “OLF wants its fighters to be incorporated to Oromia police and it will not settle for anything less,” says Solomon Ungashe, a consultant and OLF ardent supporter. Diriba Megersa, a software developer and an Oromo activist told Ethiopia Observer that he feels that OLF is in dilemma whether to disband its army or not, mostly because of its previous experience with the government. “The Oromo people wants to be sure that the OPDO is truly willing to advance the Oromo causes and negotiates as government on those bases. Hence, an overwhelming majority of the people wants the OLF not to disarm until the clouds clear,” according to Diriba.

As much as the fear that OLF might not be disarming its troops, there is also concern about the ruling party’s real commitment in abiding by the agreement and regarding the deal as peace agreement between equals. Given the EPRDF’s track record with election since 2005, many are still sceptical about the prospects of the ruling party simply granting the opposition free and fair political space. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on August 26 announced that an election due for 2020 would be free and should not be delayed by his sweeping reforms to the country’s politics. “Holding elections as early as 2020, for example, indicates that an EPRDF coalition-party like the OPDO will remain in a hugely advantageous positions vis-a-vis other Oromo opposition parties like the OLF, who will be pressed for time and resources to properly campaign and compete,” argues the political analyst, who studied the rural opposition to the EPRDF in the Oromia region.

Ethiopian migrants carrying OLF’s flag in Calias, France, photo by PHILIPPE HUGUEN

The Way Ahead

The greatest challenge for the OLF, whose members have spent many years in exile or in the bush, is to manage to peacefully pacify and coherently transform into a unified political front, critics say. Being commander in an armed struggle and leading a political party are entirely different things. To build its base and come out strong contender, the OLF will need a leadership who embraces a message of peace, reconciliation and unity, not a discourse that alienate other ethnic groups, commentators agree. According to the political analyst, the Oromo youth was very much drawn to and captivated by the recently returned social media activist Jawar Mohammed and ─ lest we forget ─ the rapid ascendancy and popular rhetoric of OPDO’s much celebrated Team Lemma.

The Oromia region’s ruling party, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) has come a long way from a party widely seen as lackeys of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to a more assertive and reformed party, advocating Oromo nationalism and economic upheavals. OPDO even stole a program from the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) that promise to make Afaan Oromo the country’s national languages, alongside Amharic to win hearts and minds in the region.

OFC as has earned a reputation of Oromia’s largest legally registered political party and its leading figures, Merera Gudina and Bekele Gerba, released in January and February 2018 respectively having been jailed on charges of incitement during the protests have shown that they could fill stadiums and captivate crowds.

Upon its return to the country, OLF, a party has long been seen as a firebrand of Oromo nationalism, will find itself in completely changed political situation and possibly in competition with the political players in order to come out as strong contender. It is not certain that would be. “I don’t think personally OLF is the ultimate solutions to Oromo questions. Those questions are beyond any single party now and hence OLF is not an exception,” Diriba says.

Coalition building as revival strategy

One possibility for the OLF might be seeking revitalisation by joining forces with other parties representing the interests of the Oromo people, however risky. Dawud himself said in the interview with Sheger Times that making alliances with parties, even with those who have been at times at odds with, would be necessary to better defend the Oromo people’s causes. In a step in that direction, on August 31, it was announced that the OLF started a merger with the home-based Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), whose two leaders, Merera Gudina and Bekele Gerba have gained prominence after their imprisonment and release last year. If this merger succeeds, this would be a big development as the OFC is much better organised as a party, it has structures in place, not least the recently opened new branch in Adama. While the coalition-building attempt have been received enthustically, there is a sense of cautious optimism.

Whatever concerns, the return of OLF to the country reflect the country’s new vibrant spirit and pluralistic milieu, as many observers would agree. Will the agreement deliver lasting peace, reconciliation and stability in in the country or will it break up, turn out to be another false dawn, time will tell.

EO

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