After the April 2018 transition of power in Ethiopia, a number of armed opposition groups, primarily from Eritrea and Sudan, moved their forces into Ethiopia. As a result of the failure to consolidate the peace treaties with the new ruling party, the Prosperity Party (PP), they all continued the armed conflict. New armed groups have also proliferated in recent years.
The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Ginbot 7, and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) were among the exiled opposition groups that promised to engage in peaceful politics upon entering Ethiopia. The Tigrai People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM) is another armed group with a base along the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Even though these forces arrived in Addis Ababa after 2018 and established party offices, the military wings of the parties remain active. Simply put, the former armed groups are now split in two. According to their respective ethnic allegiances, the first wing became a peaceful political party with offices in Addis Ababa, while the second wing is a military arm fighting with government forces in regional states. The period after 2018 is distinguished by the fact that these armed groups shifted their operations from Ethiopia’s neighbors to those regional states.
“Currently, OLF exists as OLF-Shene. Ginbot 7 exists as Fano, and the ONLF also has an armed wing. The TPDM is still active on the Tigray-Eritrea border. These armed groups have one leg in the peaceful political struggle and another leg in the armed struggle,” a political science expert who spoke to The Reporter, requesting anonymity, said.
The expert believes that the incumbent was unable to fully expand the political landscape. “Given the polarization of ethnic politics in recent years, it is not surprising that the number of armed groups in Ethiopia has increased.”
Existing armed groups can be found in Oromia, Amhara, Gambella, Afar, and Somali. In recent months, the armed forces of the Gumuz People’s Democratic Movement temporarily disarmed in Benishangul after reaching an agreement with the Ethiopian government. According to reports, the negotiations occurred in Sudan.
PP is currently in negotiations with multiple armed forces that are present in at least seven regional states. The majority of these forces are the military wings of opposition political parties, which assert that they have been marginalized in the peaceful political struggle. Two years after the PP’s “landslide victory” in 2021, the political consensus remains in disarray. The armed groups assert that their party license was revoked by the National Electoral Board (NEBE), in addition to harassment and office confiscations by the ruling party.
Kimant armed groups, the armed wing of the Kimant opposition group in the Amhara regional state, have already reached an agreement with the government and are currently in the process of disarming. Agaw Shengo, another armed group in the Amhara regional state, continues to negotiate with the government. The Agaw Shengo asserts that the Agaw, Sekota, and Waghimra should exist as one independent regional state. Fano, an Amhara popular force, is also active in the region.
In addition, the incumbent and the armed forces of the Gambella Freedom Front are also engaged in negotiations. In half of the country’s regional states, armed groups identify themselves as the ‘Liberation Front’.
Currently, the Amhara and Oromia regions are the most militarized regional states, with over two armed groups present in each.
During his briefing this week, Birhanu Jula (F. Mar.), chief of staff of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), argued that the proliferation of armed groups is a result of political problems. “The fact that political officials and administrative staff are not doing their job is creating strain on the security structure.”
If the political issues in Ethiopia had been resolved, the security work would have been simpler, according to him. The Field Marshal alluded to the political fallout within the PP, which compels some regional government officials to cooperate with armed conflicts. He emphasized that Fano and OLF-Shene are the foremost security threats within the country’s armed groups at the present time. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is no longer considered a security threat after signing the Pretoria agreement, disarming, and being removed from the list of terrorist organizations.
The government has taken two approaches toward the OLF-Shene, which is the only armed group included on the list of terrorist organizations compiled by the Parliament. In recent months, both the federal government and the Oromia regional government have urged OLF-Shene to engage in peaceful reconciliation. In the interim, the government has been on the offensive to regain control of the numerous woredas and local administrative units that OLF-Shene has seized.
This week, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) visited Wollega, one of the OLF-Shene strongholds, and consulted with Nekemte residents. The government’s control in the four Wollega zones is reportedly limited to towns and cities, whereas the OLF-Shene controls rural areas and villages.
During this week’s consultation with the residents of Wollega in Nekemte, Abiy stated, “Those who have different ideas from us and are engaged in informal struggle can come home and start a peaceful political struggle and participate in the next election.”
“The next national election will take place within the next three years. These forces can be elected if they can persuade the public,” he said, adding that this message is for those who opposed the PP’s ideology and engaged in armed conflict. “If your goal is to truly struggle for your people, you must cease your armed struggle and begin a political one.”
However, OLF-Shene, which reportedly has thousands of fighters under various commands, demanded a foreign third-party mediator similar to the AU-led TPLF agreement before entering into negotiations with the federal government.
Even though the government appears to be seeking reconciliation with all armed groups in the country, it is unclear how the government intends to meet the armed groups’ demands. The demands range from power sharing to independence and self-determination.
The proliferation of armed groups is also related to the competition between ethnic groups and regional states for resources, power, and autonomy. Significant contributions have been made by the availability of weapons, the increased willingness of the business community and the diaspora to contribute funds, and the growing discontent with the incumbent. Consequently, it is essential to provide members of armed groups with employment and future opportunities in order to replace the benefits they receive from their membership in armed groups.
The National Rehabilitation Commission (NRC) is currently finalizing its preparations to rehabilitate and reintegrate members of armed groups who agree to disarm and cooperate with the government. The Commission has already begun its mandate with ex-combatants from Tigray and Amhara who participated in the two-year civil war in northern Ethiopia and were informally armed.
Three months after its establishment, the Commission has begun resource mobilization. It has had discussions with the regional states of Tigray, Amhara, Afar, Oromia, and Benishangul thus far. This week, discussions were held with the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR), Gambella, and the states of the south-western region. It will begin the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program as soon as the armed groups reach an agreement with the government.
“The DDR will start in seven regional states for now. It will start in Oromia once the situation is convenient,” said Teshome Toga, commissioner of the NRC, during his consultations with stakeholders in Bahir Dar last week. This means the DDR in Oromia will start only after the OLF-Shene is disarmed.
It is anticipated that between 250,000 and 300,000 ex-combatants will be included in the plan. Ex-combatants who participated in the northern Ethiopian war are included in this number. However, this does not include the number of informal armed groups in other regional states. Once the ENDF completes disarming the informal forces, reintegration work will commence.
The Commission unveiled a two-year demobilization and reintegration plan. Rehabilitative facilities are being established in various regions.
“Disarmed forces want to be reintegrated with society as soon as possible. So resources are needed from donors, CSOs, and the private sector,” the Commissioner said. “We have introduced a two-year plan for resource mobilization in coordination with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
Once the resource mobilization is completed by May, registration will begin in June, the Commissioner says. “We have neither the time nor the means to create rehabilitation camps. We will therefore identify and utilize existing camps and facilities.”
Teshome estimates that USD 550 million is necessary to implement the DDR program. In June 2023, registration and the pooling of disarmed forces into rehabilitation centers will resume.
Combatants or informal forces who participated in the war in northern Ethiopia, as well as any other armed forces fighting the government, will be included in the DDR, but only after they disarm. According to the plan, all forces other than conventional government forces will be disarmed.
Aside from the government’s desperation to achieve the DDR, there is no clear plan for how the incumbent intends to resolve the political divisions within the PP and throughout the nation. Scholars emphasize that a political crisis is the root cause of the proliferation of armed groups and resolving the political crisis is the only sustainable solution.