Thursday, February 22, 2024

Dialogue must be first and only choice

The commencement of a new round of talks between the Ethiopian government and the self-described Oromo Liberation Front-Oromo Liberation Army (OLF-OLA) in Tanzania this week in a bid to end the deadly insurrection that has been rocking the Oromia region for over five years now comes at a time when Ethiopia finds itself in the throes of violence in significant chunks of its territory. Referred to as OLF-Shene by the Ethiopian government and designated as a terrorist organization by same, the OLF-OLA has been engaged in a murderous fighting with the security forces of both the federal and Oromia regional governments since 2018. Although both sides acknowledged “positive progress” in the first round of talks they held in late April and early May in Zanzibar, the week-long dialogue concluded without a deal. Supported by external mediators and facilitators including the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), as well as the governments of the U.S., Kenya and Norway, the talks are expected to lead to a breakthrough of sorts.

Ever since the first signs that the militarized conflict in the Oromia region in which thousands have been massacred and millions displaced could be brought to an end through peaceful means emerged in late 2022, the defenseless civilians who have borne the brunt of the insurgency and Ethiopians at large have been hoping that the victims’ untold suffering would be over in a relatively short period. Many thought that the OLF-OLA’s reciprocation of the olive branch extended by the federal and Oromia governments whereby it also affirmed its commitment to a negotiated peace bode well for the improvement of the security situation of Oromia and Ethiopia as a whole. Sadly, the fact that the violence has continued unabated coupled with the reluctance of both parties to take concrete steps pending the signing of a formal agreement has dampened the optimism and even led many to question their commitment to a political settlement via a genuinely inclusive and transparent process.

The strategy adopted by the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) and the Oromia government to “contain” the OLF-OLA has followed the classic carrot-and-stick playbook. They have repeatedly called on the armed group to lay down its arms and come to the negotiating table while warning that they would ramp up the “law enforcement measures” targeting it if it does not give up violence to accomplish its political objectives. However, neither has tabled any tangible roadmap that guides the reconciliation process. The OLF-OLA, on its part, has consistently denied their accusation that it is responsible for the atrocities committed in Oromia and blamed its adversaries for them. The security forces’ arguably heavy-handed handling of the conflict has undeniably fueled a sense of animosity towards the federal and Oromia governments among a substantial section of the Oromo people. Needless to say, the war of words between the two sides on who is behind the carnage and destruction in Oromia does not serve to alleviate the suffering of defenseless citizens and as such must give way to a constructive dialogue by both.

The resumption of the stalled talks is a step in the right direction. The cessation of the armed struggle the OLF-OLA is waging would undoubtedly go a long way towards enabling the residents of the violence-stricken areas of Oromia and other beyond live a life free of constant fear. This said there are a host of confidence and security building measures that all sides can be convinced to take at the behest of mediators to get the negotiations underway to the finishing line. It would be premature to expect the current round of talks to bring the horrific chapter of conflict ravaging Oromia to an immediate close. Be that as it may, it’s of the utmost essence to do everything possible to see to it that the peacemaking effort bears fruit within the shortest possible time.

Ethiopia has hardly had a respite from war and conflicts throughout its long history. The political sea change that has been unfolding recently in the country, however, has opened the floodgates for festering grievances. The ensuing outbreak of unprecedented levels of violence has exposed the set of deep structural challenges that has been confronting it for centuries. The strategy the federal and regional governments have adopted to defeat insurgents like OLF-OLA, namely the use of force, has not had the desired result. True, as government they owe the duty to protect the safety and security of citizens and undertake law enforcement operations towards this end. However, the failure of the strategy they have pursued thus far calls for a pivot towards the settlement of political differences through negotiation and dialogue. The restart of talks between the federal government and OLF-OLA hopefully marks a return of both to their senses. Dialogue is not something that either side embraces when they feel they have no other option; it’s a choice they need to make their first and only choice. 

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