In 2018, Workneh Gebeyehu (PhD), the former minister of foreign affairs before assuming his current role as IGAD chief, and Lemma Megersa, an old companion of Ethiopia’s prime minister who was pushed out of the political arena after an unexpected dispute with the premier and officials in his circle, went to Asmara.
The special meeting was intended to reach a peace agreement with the exiled Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and its military wing, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). It was news that many individuals believe that there is a long-term solution to creating a favorable political climate in Oromia, and thus Ethiopia.
Although the exact details of the agreement, including how the negotiation took place and what terms and conditions were attached to it, have not been made public to this day, the move was met with applause and celebration throughout the entirety of Oromia.
Many people who see the OLF as a symbol of Oromos struggle took to the streets to greet the party’s leaders and its army. However, this did not last long. Mismanagement of the OLF’s military faction resulted in a complete reversal of the situation to a never-seen-before low. Unsatisfied with the treatment of rebel forces at government-run military camps, many members of the armed group who were on the verge of reaching an agreement with the government quickly changed their minds.
To the disappointment of residents in Ethiopia’s most populous region, thousands of combatants of the armed group led by Jal Marro, real name Kumsa Diriba, retreated to the forest to fight the government, with the ultimate goal of “liberating Oromia.” They have also severed ties with the political wing, the OLF, which was led by Dawud Ibsa at the time.
Dissatisfied youths, particularly those referred to as Qerros, joined their cause, allowing the OLA to become stronger and hold a strong position within the region, something it did not have prior to the exile. In the meantime, civilians had to pay a price. Specifically, ethnic Amharas and Oromos have become the target of a series of killings by various armed groups, with Fano and Oromo militias recently joining the fight. Abduction is unusually common.
Moving from one town to another has become impossible due to security concerns. Living in hell is an understatement, especially for those who live in areas affected by the conflict between federal and regional forces on the one hand and OLA combatants on the other. According to a report presented at the end of the fiscal year at the Oromia Regional Council, Chaffe, over 1,105 civilians were killed in one year, including 28 officials who were shot in a day in Wollega. Many people, from infants to the elderly and disabled, were victims of the conflict.
Observers say the dispute is an outcome of the “bad political culture” in Oromia.
“At this time in Oromo politics, both OLF-OLA and the ruling Prosperity Party (PP), which in this case is the Oromia branch of the PP, see themselves as the only legitimate representatives of the Oromo people,” Bereket Diriba, a political analyst and peacebuilding practitioner, said.
He says that neither side can find common ground because they are constantly at odds over who will control the Oromia region, a key voting bloc.
“As we have observed thus far, their political culture tends to favor the ultimate victory of one side and the defeat of the other.”
Leaving the past behind, it appears that change is on the horizon.
The armed group and the Oromia Regional Government have issued a call for peace, signaling that the conflict in the region may be resolved in the same way that the two-year-long war in North Ethiopia was resolved with a peace deal signed in Pretoria and Nairobi four months ago.
Shimelis Abdisa, the region’s president, issued two calls for peace in less than seven days last week. Shimelis, who referred to the OLA as OLA-Shene, a name the armed group does not want to be known by, urged the armed group to end the conflict with the government peacefully. “With all due respect,” Shimelis said, “I ask the armed forces of OLF-Shene to join peaceful politics in the face of this Chaffe.”
The OLA, which had already stated its readiness for peace in its political manifesto, welcomed the regional government’s call, though only in principle, while rejecting the manner in which the peace proposal was made by Oromia’s president.
While acknowledging the legitimacy of the regional government, which the armed group previously refused to recognize, claiming that the recent election was either rigged or conducted in the absence of an opposition group, the OLA demonstrated its openness to possible peace talks. It does, however, impose some conditions.
In a communiqué released a month ago, the OLA outlined confidence-building measures it believes the government should take to resolve the conflict in Oromia through peaceful means. It first demanded the opening of humanitarian corridors in Oromia, followed by the release of all political prisoners in Oromia, and finally, the end of prosecution of opposition parties based in Oromia.
It also urged the government to take concrete steps, such as designating Oromifa as a federal working language and recognizing the capital city as an integral part of Oromia.
As a final confidence-building measure, it urged the government to stop officials from the ruling party from committing land theft. While the OLA announced these preconditions prior to the president’s call, the armed group reaffirmed its position in a subsequent statement in which it told the government to stop referring to Shene as a “phantom.”
A day after the president of Oromia Region called for peace, the OLA released a statement saying it “maintains that a lasting and sustainable solution to Ethiopia’s complex political troubles can result only from a comprehensive political process that culminates in a negotiated settlement.” The openness of the region as well as the armed group, has led many residents of the region, experts, and politicians to have a positive outlook on the possibility of peace in Oromia.
But there is just as much hope as there is worry. The residents are the first to express their concern.
“The federal government said nothing, and any peace efforts should include communities that have been affected by the war for a long time,” said Derbew, whose family lives in East Wollega and has been seriously affected by the fighting between the OLA and the national army with the region’s special force.
Long-term peace is also in the interest of opposition groups operating in the region. Bete Urgessa, a member of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), is among those who want the long suffering of Ethiopians in Oromia to end. But for him, achieving peace is not going to be as easy as it seems. It requires political will from both sides, according to him.
“What the government is doing now is urging OLA members to lay down their arms peacefully, not sit down for negotiation like it did to end the conflict in the North Ethiopian war,” said Bete, adding, “If the ruling party wants to end the war in Oromia, it should make a direct call for the OLA to sit down for negotiation in the presence of a third party. This what the armed group requested, and the government won’t be impacted if it accepts this precondition.”
The OLA wants the negotiations to be led by the federal government. The federal army, not the regional forces, is in charge of the military fight against the OLA on the ground. So, a peace process with the OLA is not something the Oromia Regional Government can do legally or practically, the group said. OLA demanded that the mediation process be formalized and monitored by a neutral third state.
“Anything less than that will be the repeat of the failed Asmara agreement all over again,” said the OLA.
Political analysts recommended the AU as the appropriate body to mediate between the armed group and the federal government.
“The AU can act as a mediator, but if both sides are willing to solve the conflict politically, countries like Kenya and Norway, which have a long history with the conflict and the people involved in it in Oromia, could also be good mediators,” Bereket said.
“African solutions for African problems ought to be applied to resolve the dispute in Oromia, and the AU is the best body to make this happen,” said a member of the opposition.