– Jabessa Gabisa executive committee member and Political Affairs director of the OLF
The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) marks 50 years since its founding, but it’s only been in the last five that the party has resumed activities in Ethiopia following reforms allowing exiled political groups to return.
The OLF now finds itself embroiled in Ethiopia’s complex politics. Some officials have joined the ruling coalition’s cabinet while others remain in opposition and a third group claims to be an armed wing.
However, Jabessa Gabisa, executive committee member and Political Affairs director of the OLF, recognized by Ethiopia’s election board, rejects that the first and third groups are currently part of the OLF.
Jabessa reflected on a range of issues including how Oromo people’s aspirations for self-determination, equality, justice and democracy remain at the heart of the OLF’s struggle, with Ashenafi Endale of The Reporter.
The Reporter: In commemorating its 50th anniversary this month, what events and activities has the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) organized to mark the occasion?
Jabessa Gabisa: OLF was established in 1973. We are remembering the achievements and losses, and planning for the future. The anniversary is being celebrated largely in Europe, America and other parts of the world. Locally too, we planned to participate with opposition party leaders on the anniversary.
Over the last 50 years, what impact has OLF made in achieving its goals? Has the organization adjusted its objectives given political changes at local, regional and global levels?
When OLF was formed half a century ago, Oromo’s identity, existence, language and culture were on the verge of extinction. Oromos of west, east, south and north Oromia, were foreign to each other. Oromos of the east called themselves Muslims, not Oromo. Those in the west called themselves Christians, not Oromo. They were afraid of being identified as Oromo. Oromo was not known as a nation locally and internationally, until OLF’s struggle. This is the biggest success of OLF – Oromo is now known and recognized as a nation.
OLF undertakes political, armed and cultural struggles. So Oromos started to openly use their language, culture and identity. In all areas where the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) is active, it teaches Oromo history, culture and politics. To become an OLF member, the first task is learning Oromo history, and then OLF’s political program.
Now, Oromos are united in regards to culture and history. Oromo knows they had their own country taken by force. It is the OLF that brought back Oromia from extinction. Everyone knows Oromia’s boundaries today. Now, if you go to any part of Oromia, Oromos are united psychologically, with shared objectives. This is OLF’s biggest accomplishment in the past 50 years.
But Oromos are still struggling to ensure ownership of their country, self-determination, and economic control. Everyone knows why Oromos are struggling. It is OLF that taught Oromos their rights. In these decades of struggle, Oromos have been liberated psychologically, no longer hiding their language as they did in the past. Oromos can walk with their heads held high today. Oromos understand why they are being imprisoned.
What remains now is to conclude the struggle victoriously. We are pursuing peaceful political struggle towards that end. The biggest achievement is resurrecting Oromo identity, culture and existence. The only thing left is realizing our political aspirations.
How many members does the OLF have currently?
It is mandatory to have at least 10,000 founding members to establish a political party, per the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) regulation. We submitted well over that number. We have between 500,000 and one million members. With free political space, we could have mobilized millions more. But the political climate in the country is not suitable for that. Many of our supporters and members suffer imprisonment.
Could you summarize the key provisions and terms of the deal struck between the Ethiopian government and the OLF in Asmara in 2018?
The agreement had three or four key components. First, a political agreement – OLF was authorized to freely conduct peaceful political activity in Oromia and nationwide. We were permitted to open offices, mobilize supporters and participate in elections.
Second, a military agreement – OLF forces would enter Ethiopia from abroad, undergo trainings and integrate into Ethiopia’s security forces. However, after OLF forces entered Ethiopia, the mistreatment they endured is well known. We came to Ethiopia, trusting the ruling government. Immediately upon arriving, the agreement began unraveling.
The third is the stipulations on addressing past crimes and ensuring justice. And handling human rights violations and establishing accountability. Many obstacles prevented Oromos from welcoming incoming OLF leaders. Several people also died.
One provision was returning OLF’s old headquarters in Addis Ababa. That failed too. Gradually, the government started jailing our supporters and leaders. The agreement completely collapsed. Our offices were seized. Our hopes for transitional reforms in Ethiopia were dashed.
When the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)-led government fell, hope was placed on the new administration. We hoped imprisonment and killings due to political differences would cease. We hoped for free and fair elections. But once power was consolidated, the new administration resumed jailing and killing over political beliefs. The political space closed again.
The hope of transitioning the country from dictatorship to democracy failed. Imprisonment, killing and displacement continued unabated. Especially egregious are the crimes and rights violations against the OLF.
Approximately how many OLF fighters were expected to return to Ethiopia and potentially join the national military and security forces?
The numbers were confidential, known only to military leaders. But close to 5,000 troops entered Ethiopia from Eritrea initially. More were waiting, pending evaluation of how the first 5,000 fared. But after learning their treatment, the remainder stayed put.
The root of the turmoil in Ethiopia today lies in the government’s failure to honor the Asmara agreement.
What is the relationship between the OLA, which is engaged in an armed struggle, and the OLF, which pursues peaceful political action?
We have no ties with the OLA. We may share similar ideologies. OLA believes Oromo aims can be attained through armed struggle. We believe in peaceful political means. While our goals may align, we have different perspectives. There is no command-and-control linkage between us.
Has OLF’s engagement with the ruling Prosperity Party undermined its popularity and support among the Oromo people?
The OLF is not working with the ruling government.
But there are OLF members who are Cabinet members in the administration?
They are factions, separate from OLF. They are not OLF members. Legally, adopting divergent ideologies means they are no longer party members. You cannot implement another party’s policies and programs while in OLF. By furthering this regime’s agenda, they automatically severed ties with OLF. The one we are representing now is the only legitimate OLF.
What grievances does OLF believe still need to be addressed regarding the “Oromo question”, despite the ruling party’s claim that Oromos’ issues have been resolved?
Were Oromo issues truly resolved, people would not face imprisonment, death and displacement. War would not rage in Oromia and the OLF would not suffer persecution. War is not a game. The egregious human rights violations and military campaigns targeting Oromos, our members and leaders, speak volumes.
All this persists because Oromo issues remain unaddressed. People fight not out of love of fighting but to secure rights denied.
Oromo issues will be resolved when an Oromo party freely chosen by the people governs Oromia.
In the event that the OLF wins the election, how would it cooperate with other political parties in the country?
The ultimate goal of the OLF struggle is to realize the day when Oromo can freely determine its own fate. Then Oromo can choose whatever future it wants. OLF’s goal is to secure that day. Oromo can choose to live independently or live with other nationalities and nations.
There is a perception that the administration currently governing Ethiopia is an Oromo government?
Look at the institutions, laws, and policies of the country. None of them favor Oromo. The constitution, which Oromo did not create, is still in place. This government was not elected by the free will of Oromo.
This regime cannot be considered an Oromo regime just because one person is Oromo. Mengistu Hailemariam, Emperor Haile Selassie I and Lij Iyasu were Oromo, but their regimes were not Oromo governments. The parameters are the constitution, institutions, policies, and programs, not a person. Oromo has no role in any of these regimes. I wish this regime was Oromo’s government because then we would not see the war in Oromia.
While some assert that the OLF wants secession, you argue that the ultimate decision will be made by the Oromo people. What conditions must Ethiopia meet for the OLF to consider it acceptable for Oromo interests?
Ethiopia’s state was formed without the will of the Oromo through force. It is a forced unity. So Oromos must decide whether to remain under this forced unity or not. Our stance is unchanged. But our strategy has changed. OLF’s aim is to foster conditions allowing Oromos to freely determine their fate. For Oromos, nothing has changed to date.
Given that the OLF boycotted the last election, what do you expect in the next election?
Elections have been held since Haile Selassie’s reign, but none were free or fair.
The entire system needs restructuring. Laws and institutions must be reformed first. Without reforms, there can be no free and fair elections or solutions.
We may still abstain from the next elections absent genuine reforms. The judiciary, security forces, election board, police, local administrators – all must be independent and depoliticized. Without credible progress in these areas, we may not partake in the elections. We cannot participate in elections that does not respect Oromo voices.
With so many Oromo youth reportedly joining the OLA, do you believe peaceful political struggle remains a feasible option for today’s Oromo generation?
We cannot compel Oromos to adopt our stance. However, given fair political space, we believe Oromos prefer a peaceful struggle. Oromo youth lost faith in it after the killings, detention, torture, displacement and war in Oromia.
Whenever you close off a peaceful political space, you encourage an armed struggle. It is the campaign against the OLF that is creating the war in Oromia. The youth is taking up arms because all avenues for a peaceful politics is closed. Closing our offices and jailing leaders leaves youth no peaceful options. How can we mobilize the youth peacefully? Overall, the government itself fuels the war in Oromia.
Do you have any information on the government’s recent negotiations with the OLA and what are the major sticking points preventing an agreement? If the OLA does reach an agreement and returns to peaceful politics, what would be the relationship between the OLA and the OLF?
Our relationship with OLA will be determined in the future. Currently, the OLF is a registered political party. OLA will its arrangement by itself. We will discuss when the time comes.
Regarding the Tanzania negotiations, we had no information. However, former OLF members participated, representing OLA.
Successful peace talks require compromise by both sides, addressing root political causes. I doubt the government’s readiness for that. Many forces in Ethiopia oppose peace. If peace is ensured, true power devolves to the people, which some oppose. If free and fair elections are held, the ruling forces will go home immediately. They cannot stay in power, if there is a genuine election.
However, certain forces do not want to relinquish power to the public because they know who the Oromo would elect if there were free and fair elections. They cling to power to evade accountability for past crimes and injustices. They use their position to amass economic resources and protect their ill-gotten gains.
If the government reaches an agreement, accountability must be part of it. However, the government does not want to answer for the crimes committed in Oromia. It is unlikely they will agree to terms regarding Oromia. The ruling elite must make sacrifices for the country’s future, which seems doubtful from this regime.
There were some reforms after the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) fall initially. However, conflicts and wars broke out, notably in Tigray and Oromia. What factors drove this?
All the officials leading the post-EPRDF administration were also part of the prior EPRDF government. The same dictatorship, oppression and injustice continued.
True reform requires accountability for all, including ourselves. But those in power do not want a reform because it means facing accountability. The only way to avoid accountability, it to cling to power. They fear democracy and efforts that empower the public, knowing they have no chance in a genuine democracy or political system.
So we do not believe there will be meaningful reform, democratization or transfer of power to the public. If power shifts to the people, they know who would be elected next. That administration would then hold them to account. They fear this outcome.
It takes extraordinary leadership and love of country to relinquish power to the populace.
Would transitioning to a presidential system help address Ethiopia’s ethnically divided politics? Given Policy Studies Institute’s (PSI) report on amending the constitution’s ethnic provisions, do you think the government is preparing to revise the constitution and remove ethnic clauses?
Any public institution in the country the government dictates. The institute could not conduct this research independently. We believe it acted on government orders. So yes, this reflects the governments plan.
First, it is not a research. They surveyed only 1000 people, mostly urban dwellers. Rural representation was minimal, around 20 percent. They also excluded Tigray, despite relative stability there. That omission was strategic.
The study found Oromia, Somali and Benishangul strongly support retaining the current federal system. Had Tigray and Afar been included, most Ethiopians would favor the present structure. But the researchers manipulated the findings to show the opposite. Several parties, including from Sidama and Afar, rejected the study.
The study had a political motive and lacked transparency. With an open process, 100 percent of Oromos would support a federal structure. All Oromos want Article 39 maintained.
We are not saying the constitution cannot be amended. But the key substances cannot be touched. The federal structure is fundamental and must remain. Our critique is that the current constitution is not fully implemented yet. Additionally, the federal system lacks democratization.
The current arrangement also disempowers regional states and negates self-determination rights. More authority should devolve from the federal government to the regions. The constitution ought to be revised accordingly.
Land administration rights must also go to regional states. Ethiopia’s nations and nationalities shed blood defending their land. Yet regions cannot currently decide on their own land matters. Power concentrates in the center. The federal government holds no land – it belongs to the regions.
The constitution should recognize the existence, rights and role of political parties too. The current constitution is silent on parties. Their rights require constitutional protection. Several articles need revision. Defense, foreign affairs, currency – these fall under federal responsibility. Other powers should go to the regions. But presently the center controls everything, even health and education.
Any attempt to alter ethnic provisions or demolish the federal structure will result unprecedented chaos and war.
Do you see a middle ground between federalist and unitary forces in Ethiopian politics?
Ethiopia’s nations and nationalities started fighting for freedom long ago. Oromos have been enslaved for 150 years. This federal system is only three decades old. Oromos were oppressed for 120 of those 150 years.
Unitarists are the root of all wars in Ethiopia. They want one nation, language, culture and religion. Nations and nationalities can agree on the current federal system at a minimum, while Unitarists push for centralized, one party rule that ignores diversity.
In your view, does PP tend more towards a federalist or unitarist approach to governance?
This government favors centralized over federalism. They do not want to empower regions. They interfere in regional affairs at will, like removing Lema Megersa from Oromia. They meddled in Tigray as well. Federal intrusions into regional matters provoke major conflicts.
Fundamentally, we respect what nations and nationalities choose freely and fairly. Our struggle ensures people have the right to decide freely. We cannot decide for the people but we will follow what the people choose.
What do you see as the key causes of the Tigray conflict? Has the war adequately addressed the root problems?
From the outset, we urged peaceful resolution. The OLF consistently advocated ending the fighting. We were then labeled “junta” and accused of colluding with the TPLF.
Despite pleas for peace, a horrific war ensued. Egregious crimes were committed against the people of Tigray. This happened because the federal government rejected Tigray’s elections. Tigray deserves praise, not war, for holding elections. Close to 1.2 million died in the war and over USD 25 billion of damage was inflicted. All of this could have been avoided peacefully.
Parts of Tigray remain occupied by Eritrean and informal forces. Peace still eludes Tigray. The country plunged into a costly war due to leadership failures.
What is preventing a resolution to the unrest in Oromia?
The reason for the protracted war in Oromia is political. It requires political solutions. Those who closed off peaceful politics bear responsibility for the conflict.
OLF’s chair is reportedly under house arrest. Why?
As the 2021 election approached, following Hachalu Hundessa’s assassination, an intense crackdown on OLF ensued. Leaders, supporters and members were jailed and murdered. Our offices were closed.
For a year since, OLF leadership was barred from all media and placed under house arrest. Partial freedoms were granted to the chairperson after pressure on the government from the NEBE. The government totally disabled OLF’s political activity.
How many members are currently jailed?
The figures are high and fluctuating. Freeing jailed leaders is our top priority now. Some have been imprisoned for four years already. Courts have repeatedly upheld their innocence. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the NEBE called for their unconditional release. But the government refuses to comply or provide them food and medicine.
Our leaders have contracted permanent illnesses behind bars after arriving healthy. One leader is now paralyzed and wheelchair-bound.
What do you expect from the transitional justice and national dialogue efforts currently in progress?
OLF long advocated for genuine national dialogue, urging it should happen before the 2021 election. The government dismissed this, opting to proceed directly to elections. Now mired in turmoil, they are forced to consider dialogue.
The National Dialogue Commission is not independent, inclusive or neutral. We know the assigned commissioners – most were government cadres in various roles. They have close ties and were appointed without consulting parties or the public. The commission’s establishing regulation was enacted unilaterally by the government.
Therefore, we reject the body’s work. 16 opposition groups, including the OLF, reject the commission. Even parties who accepted it initially have joined us in opposition.
We will not participate in this dialogue, and are advising our constituents against engagement as well. It is the Prosperity Party’s own dialogue, not a national one.
We also dismiss the transitional justice initiative. Transitional justice should be part of comprehensive dialogue, not a separate program. The government cannot simultaneously be criminal, police and judge. The government introduced this to evade accountability for the horrific abuses, wars and rights violations it has committed. Justice cannot be expected from the government. So we reject both the transitional justice and national dialogue in their current form. They have no use for this country.
For instance, the government is responsible for the Tigray war. How can the administration judge itself? This is a blatant mockery of our people. We will not allow such a charade to stand. This transitional justice cannot be a solution for this country’s problems.
As the OLF marks its 50th anniversary, its closest brushes with power were aborted in 1991 and 2018. When do you foresee realizing your ultimate target?
We have tremendous faith in the Oromo and other nations and nationalities. As long as the quest for self-determination endures, we will achieve our goals. Since Walelign Tilahun Mekonnen raised the call for nationalism, self-determination has been gaining momentum. Wolaita’s rejection of cluster governance in favor of self-administration exemplifies this. The demand for self-governance remains strong.
I cannot predict whether OLF will attain its objectives in two to three years. But we will succeed if free and fair elections are ensured.
When protests in Oromia began around 2014, the struggle was with the EPRDF. Now, it is with both the federal and some regional states on borders. Why does the struggle have both horizontal and vertical dimensions or take an ethnic form when the grievances are fundamentally with the central government?
OLF struggles for all the other non-Oromo nations. Our political program is inclusive. The OLF does not struggle only for the Oromo just because the name is Oromo. The Front is the freedom torch of many nations and nationalities. OLF always supports all political forces who struggle for self-determination.
The party is unique because we do not struggle to govern other nations and nationalities in the country. We have do not aim to impose ourselves on others. We do not want to give away our rights and we do not want the power of others. We have no claim over borders and land of other nations.
We want only what is ours. The OLF does not want to go to other regional states and govern them or loot their resources.
We believe if self-governance of nations is ensured, peace will prevail in the Horn of Africa. Several political forces in Ethiopia use self-determination as a chip just to get to the top of power. Peace, justice and democracy prevails only when the rights of nations and nationalities are ensured.
The OLF has a modern, democratic, and progressive principles. By the way, the front was established by people of Amhara background. Tadesse Biru (Gen.), an icon in Oromo struggle, is from Amhara background. There are several OLF leaders and members who marry from non-Oromo nations including Amhara.
OLF would simply prove itself to everyone, if it could get the power.
What is the party’s ideology?
Our party ideology is a liberation ideology.
Our core principle is that every nation and nationality must be free from any external and domestic political, economic, and cultural oppression. Liberation ideology buds from liberal democracy.
Considering the OLF had its base in Eritrea until returning to Ethiopia in 2019, and given that the Eritrean government formed a coalition with Ethiopia’s government, how would you characterize the shift in the Eritrean government’s position?
The Eritrean government had no strategic relationship with the OLF. We only had a tactical relationship. We were enemies of their enemy. The EPRDF was an enemy of ours and Eritrea’s.
So the OLF and Eritrea agreed to work together at the time. They supported us for their own benefit, not for OLF’s benefit. Then when they found another force that could execute their interest, they shifted. The Eritrean government is devoid of any principle. The only thing they pursue are their interests. They never supported OLF.
Any last words?
OLF, in the past fifty years, has become exemplary and a model for the several liberation fronts that have emerged in Ethiopia. It will continue to support other nations’ and nationalities’ forces. The struggle ahead of us is heavy and scary. But we will achieve our objectives if we cooperate.