Among the bold measures taken by the incumbent during its tumultuous early days were a series of negotiations with armed opposition groups living in exile. In August 2018, leaders of what would later become the Prosperity Party held peace talks with Ginbot 7 and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in Asmara, Eritrea. Following the negotiations, these groups returned in flesh to the Ethiopian political scene.
The success of the talks, along with the normalization of relations with Eritrea, won Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed a Nobel Peace Prize the following year and bolstered a sense of hope then brewing in the country. But five years down the road, the ruling Prosperity Party finds itself even further behind than square one – embroiled in a bloody struggle with the OLF.
Lema Megersa, then head of Oromia state, and Workneh Gebeyehu, chief of IGAD, headed the delegation that conducted the negotiations with OLF in 2018. Details of the talks are scarce, but the OLA agreed to disarm and resume a “peaceful political struggle” within Ethiopia’s borders.
PM Abiy’s delegates, on their part, agreed to reintegrate the returning OLF forces into the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF). Both sides agreed to accountability for any violence committed by federal or OLF forces.
Nonetheless, the OLF’s armed wing, which has christened itself the Oromo Liberation Army, overstepped the Asmara agreement in 2018 after its leaders alleged their members had been mistreated in government hands. Federal lawmakers designated the group as a terrorist organization in 2021, giving it the name OLF-Shane.
The armed group maintains strongholds in western and southern Oromia, with some estimates placing its size at up to 50,000 fighters, most of them youth.
Over the past year, the federal government and OLF-Shane leaders have been engaged in secretive and recurrent peace talks; all the while fighting bloody clashes across parts of Oromia. The first round of official talks was held in Zanzibar, Tanzania, seven months ago.
Last week, federal officials and OLF-Shane representatives convened in Dar es Salaam for another session. This time, high-ranking ENDF officers, including Getachew Gudina, are participating in negotiations with the likes of Kumsa Diriba of OLF-Shane.
Redwan Hussein, security advisor to the Prime Minister, Gedion Timotiwos (PhD), minister of Justice, and Awolu Abdi, vice president of Oromia Regional State, also have seats at the table in Tanzania.
To some observers, the shuttling of OLF-Shane commanders from fields across Oromia to Tanzania via third-party aircraft hints at a certain level of trust building.
Workneh Gebeyehu once again features in the talks, with IGAD, the US, Norway and Kenya playing mediation roles. The AU is conspicuously less involved in these talks than it was during the negotiations between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) last November.
Mike Hammer, US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, along with representatives from the EU, is pushing to secure a peace deal in Tanzania.
“America is pushing both sides to sign a ceasefire agreement. The US fears if the conflict in Oromia continues, Ethiopia will unravel into a failed state, which further destabilizes the Horn. Europe also does not want further conflict in Ethiopia, because it fears the spillover effect of migration,” said an IGAD official who spoke to The Reporter on condition of anonymity.
Over the past month, the US and the EU have repeatedly issued statements urging the Ethiopian government to find a peaceful resolution to the protracted conflict in Oromia. However, the demands put forth both by the federal government of Ethiopia and OLF-Shane seem irreconcilable.
The armed group wants to see the establishment of a transitional government in Oromia – a proposal met with immediate and outright rejection from the other side. Instead, federal officials have offered to grant half of all seats in the Oromia regional administration to opposition parties, including OLF-Shane.
On the other hand, federal negotiators demand OLF-Shane’s complete disarmament, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, the latter refuses.
Both parties have come to terms on issues such as accountability for atrocities committed, the release of OLF-OLA prisoners, compensation for the families of victims, and reconstruction in parts of Oromia damaged by the deadly fighting of the last five years. And although both sides echo the need for a peaceful resolution and an end to civilian suffering, sources say the reality is different.
“The federal government is determined to annihilate the armed group, while the group is determined to fight back to the end. Both sides have set at least one non-negotiable precondition. At this point, the federal government seems to be buying time through negotiation, while the group is also using the negotiations as leverage. The federal government fears that if it allows a transitional government in Oromia, the armed group of Fano will also make the same demands in the Amhara region. This will put the ruling party’s power in a precarious position,” said a political analyst keeping a close eye on domestic conflicts. “Unless the parties compromise on their non-negotiable conditions, a deal would be difficult no matter how much the US and EU push.”
Many observe the federal government’s armed clashes with the likes of TPLF, OLF-Shane, Fano and other armed groups are symptoms of the deep and widespread political problems facing the country. Hence, they argue the problems require a political solution, instead of military campaigns.
During an address to Parliament earlier this week, the Prime Minister stated his administration did not incite any of the many conflicts that have taken place in the country in recent years.
“There are conflicts in Oromia, Amhara and border areas between these two regions. Different groups in these regions are taking up arms to overthrow the government. We [the government] are only defending ourselves from these forces,” he told lawmakers.
However, the PM acknowledged the protracted fighting is taking a heavy toll on the economy, underlining the need for peaceful politics.
“It is better to compete with ideas, than to kill each other with weapons bought with hard-earned foreign currency,” he said.
Neither the Prime Minister nor officials from the Oromia regional administration answered questions posed by MPs and the media about the talks in Tanzania.
The armed group, which refers to itself as OLF-OLA, was more forthcoming. It issued a statement on November 13, 2023, confirming the arrival of its leaders in Tanzania for “high-level peace talks”.
“We remain committed to finding a peaceful political settlement that realizes the aspirations of our people and honors the sacrifice of our martyrs,” reads the statement.
Further, OLF-Shane hints at two issues holding back an agreement. Inside sources report a split in the camp between those who seek peace with the federal government and other, more staunch affiliates who argue it would be difficult to disband such a large number of armed fighters. Sources claim the group refuses disbandment unless the government guarantees the integration of OLF-Shane fighters into federal and regional security forces.
Any peace deal, it seems, would almost certainly entail a restructuring of the Oromia regional administration, observers foresee. However, any major changes might not take place until the election window in two and a half years.
Although the negotiating parties seem to prioritize the power-sharing aspects of any agreement, humanitarian observers, mediators, and the general international community expect at least a ceasefire agreement to come out of Tanzania.
The humanitarian toll of the OLF-Shane saga is hard to downplay, according to an annual report published by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) last month.
Following a year-long assessment conducted beginning June 2022, the report details “extremely concerning conflicts and attacks registered in the Oromia region.”
The Commission points to violent incidents across Welega, Showa, Arsi, Kiremu and Guji, as well as nearly a dozen other locales before calling for “urgent attention” to the aggravating conflicts and crises in the region.
The human rights violations included in the report include the torture of detainees suspected of supporting the armed groups, arbitrary and/or unlawful detention in the name of security, frequent mass arrests, failure to present detainees before a court within the prescribed period, denial of the right to bail, and prolonged detention. Some individuals with alleged links to the armed groups have been detained at police stations for as long as one year.
“Recurring and expanding conflicts continue to aggravate conflict-induced displacements, property and infrastructure destruction and food insecurity,” states the report.
Analysts argue that any deal between the federal government and OLF-Shane based on power calculations cannot offer a lasting solution for peace. They urge both side to commit to finding a peaceful political avenue that places the well-being and security of the regional state, and by extension the country, at its core.