On May 19, 2023, gunshots ripped through the usually quiet Bekoji. The town known for producing world-class athletes was stunned by the unprecedented violence. The gunmen, suspected members of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), targeted the prison, seeking to free their imprisoned comrades. Though they succeeded, police officers were hurt in the attack, though causalities have yet to be disclosed.
Coming just weeks after failed peace negotiations between the OLA and the government, the raid on May 19 spread fear among residents of Bekoji, who are accustomed to peace and tranquility. While no lives were lost, the brazen act left many wondering if Bekoji would ever truly feel safe again.
Peace had become a distant memory in Oromia.
The gunfire in Bekoji on May 19 was just the tip of the iceberg. Like a plague, the violence soon spread to other Oromo cities as OLA militias clashed with government troops.
Families fled the fighting, abandoning their homes in search of safety that now seemed illusive. An entire region was being uprooted as fear and uncertainty spread faster than the bullets. Many watched with dread as Oromia descended into chaos, wondering what had become of the peace negotiations that now seemed so futile.
“It is an alarming development stemming from the failure of the fighting groups to compromise and settle their differences peacefully,” said Tollera Adebba, spokesperson for the Oromo Liberation Front.
As more cities erupted in a fury of gunfire and bloodshed, it became bitterly clear that peace in Oromia remained but a distant hope. The gunshots had not fallen silent; they had merely moved on to the next town—and the next after that. An entire region held its breath, waiting for the violence to pass or to consume them whole.
The OLA said this week that rumors of renewed peace talks following failed negotiations are untrue. Similarly, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Meles Alem (Amb. ), confirmed in a recent statement that nothing has changed and the situation remains the same.
The OLA has fought for Oromia’s self-determination for decades. Founded in 1973, the OLF originally sought independence for Oromia but later moderated its demands for regional autonomy within a federal Ethiopia.
In the early 1990s, the OLF joined the transitional government but quickly withdrew, accusing the TPLF-led EPRDF of marginalizing and targeting OLF members. The OLF went into exile as its members were persecuted. After political reforms in 2018, the OLF returned to Ethiopia but faced continued difficulties. Many OLF leaders and members were imprisoned.
The OLA rebel group, in the meantime, formed to continue the struggle while severing its ties with the OLF, its political wing. Bete Urgesa of the OLF political wing says political divisions among the Oromo people have long plagued their struggle. “We have been sidelined,” he says.
After the OLF leaders’ imprisonment in 2020, the government held and won elections in Oromia without any opposition parties. Bete alleged the ruling party motivated many youth to join the armed struggle and divide the OLF. “The youth felt deceived, which OLA exploited for its expeditions in Oromia.”
The federal government’s recent announcement of planned talks between the two groups was still fresh in people’s minds. Despite allegations that preconditions were not met, efforts to end the violence through talks failed.
Following the recent clashes, the OLA accused government forces of launching an assault. Odaa Tarbii, spokesperson for the armed group, stated the military action was “contrary to the spirit of de-escalation we had hoped for, despite the absence of formal negotiations.”
Though no formal ceasefire agreement existed between the warring parties, there was hope that the latest talks would yield progress. Mulatu Gemechu, a member of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress party, said his party had not yet discussed the negotiations or aftermath, but their stance on any conflict remains consistent: advocating for peace and dialogue. He blamed the recent clashes on the failure to announce a third-party mediator to resolve differences, emphasizing that the onus is on the government to initiate such negotiations.
According to him, the recent violence is “absolute insanity.” He believes the news of the talks remains a significant step toward stability in the region. “Both parties must create an environment of trust, a prerequisite for any successful negotiation,” he told The Reporter.
The Oromo Liberation Army seeks a transitional government in Oromia as part of its campaign for self-determination. However, the federal government refuses this demand, unwilling to cede authority.
Old members of one of the factions of the OLF also consider the OLA’s demand unreasonable, noting that elections were held and a leader was declared. “A transitional government is not warranted,” they argue.
Meanwhile, reconciliation efforts have stalled over another issue. The government demands OLA fighters disarm and reintegrate, but the OLA refuses at this stage. With divergent positions on these key issues, talks faltered. Both sides stick to competing narratives that justify their stance.
The gunfire may fall silent any day now if both sides are willing to declare a ceasefire. That’s the hope of Bete Urgesa of the Oromo Liberation Front. So far, progress has been stalled. The OLA demands a transitional government in Oromia, which the government has rejected. Disagreements also remain over disarmament and rehabilitation programs. But as accusations and distrust fester, experts say impartial third parties like Norway and Kenya can help move talks forward.
“Declaring a ceasefire is the foundation of all negotiations,” Bete tells The Reporter.
Yet the road ahead is uncertain. Old grievances run deep on both sides. Yet the potential for peace also beckons if both sides can make that first move together in good faith. As Bete says, it all begins with both sides declaring a ceasefire and committing to honest, transparent talks. Whether the gunfire now falls silent depends on leaders’ willingness to break the cycle of violence and distrust – and take that first step toward peace.
Attempts to get response from representatives of the OLA and officials of the federal government involved in the first phase of the negotiations have been unsuccessful, despite repeated efforts.