Thursday, February 22, 2024
Interview“Dictatorship is reigning”: What went wrong in Tanzania?

“Dictatorship is reigning”: What went wrong in Tanzania?

A second attempt at peace between the federal government and OLF-Shane went nowhere last week as both parties walked away from the negotiation table in Dar es Salaam empty handed. It is the latest episode in a saga that stretches back decades but took center stage during the reforms of 2018, when the Oromo Liberation Front returned to Ethiopia as part of a flurry of political changes.

The outlook was positive then, as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration promised a new, open, and fair political space for all, and OLF leaders agreed to a return from exile for a role in the new political landscape.

The optimism did not last very long.

In the years since, the relationship between the federal government and OLF-Shane (which refers to itself as OLF-OLA) has descended into full-blown armed conflict, which has held large swathes of Oromia hostage, as well as caused an unimaginable level of suffering for civilians.

When federal officials and OLF-Shane reps sat down for talks in Zanzibar back in April 2023, many hoped it would be the beginning of the end for the violence and terror gripping Oromia and the country at large. However, the negotiations were fruitless, and the violence continued.

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Earlier Bate Urgessa is a Political Affairs Officer at Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). He sat down with The Reporter’s Ashenafi Endale to elaborate on the reasons behind the failures in Tanzania, the potential effects on the Ethiopian and Oromo political scene, as well as the preconditions necessary for the fruition of any peace deal in the near future.

this month, a second round of negotiations took place in Dar es Salaam with high-ranking ENDF officers, including Getachew Gudina, participating along with the likes of Kumsa Diriba of OLF-Shane. The talks were secretive, but there was again hope of a resolution, especially as mediators in Tanzania included representatives from the US and EU.

Still, the talks ended without an agreement.

 The Reporter: The second round of peace talks between the federal government and OLF-OLA in Tanzania ended without an agreement last week. What are the next steps?

Bate: Only the negotiating parties can say what direction this will go.

What do you expect regarding the politics in Oromia?

The biggest obstacle that remains, is the closed political space. This closed political space is not attractive enough for the armed groups to lay down arms and join a peaceful political struggle. The armed forces, I think, have concluded there is a trust deficit on the side of the Ethiopian government. Given the federal government’s culture of reneging on deals, the armed forces cannot have trust.

This was what happened when we, as the OLF, negotiated with the government and returned from Asmara. The government did not honor the Asmara agreement. We did not see the government’s commitment. After the return from Asmara, the government closed our offices in Ethiopia and hampered us from participating in the last national election. The armed forces cannot place trust in the government, given the happenings following the return from Asmara.

Additionally, the Ethiopian government, including the Prime Minister, asked “if the Oromo Federalist Congress could do peaceful politics, why do other forces fail to lay down arms and do the same?” This is to intentionally discourage the political forces. The Oromo Federalist Congress and OLF are completely prevented from participating in peaceful politics. Nobody considers the OFC and OLF as doing serious politics. The government has closed down their offices, imprisoned their leaders and members, and crippled them. If that is what the government calls ‘peaceful political activity,’ that does not attract armed forces to pursue peaceful politics.

Instead, the government has to open up the political space it has closed. Ten different armed forces can come in and join peaceful politics. The government should reconsider. If it keeps saying the way it managed the country in the past five years has been ‘proper’, that would be wrong. So far, the government is not ready to reconsider its approach, or apologize for the crisis that has taken place.

After the new administration took power in 2018, the government, including the PM, said “it is we the government who have terrorized the country. It is us who tortured our people.” That was the gesture of apology for the crisis caused by the government before that. We believe the political space is closed. It is not inviting for armed forces to come in and participate in peaceful politics.

Why do you think the parties failed to strike a deal? There are reports the US was pushing at least for a ceasefire agreement. Why did it fail? The statements issued by both the Government Communications Service and OLF-OLA both hint at a dead-end. Following the previous round of negotiations in April 2023, both parties hinted there would be a second round. Can we expect another round of negotiations?

The government lacks political commitment. It wants to resolve this problem on its own terms. This is very different from a peaceful solution. It seems the government tried to dictate terms on the armed group. If the government is not ready to give and take, why did it sit for negotiations?

The government has been fighting to keep its power and ensure its legitimacy. The armed group has been fighting to reverse the system and install its own. This negotiation was necessary because both sides could not resolve their differences through military struggle. The collateral damage is huge on civilians.

There is no better solution than a transitional government for such a political dilemma. Neither party could best the other. Under such circumstances, establishing a provisional government is recommended, according to the literature. The provisional government is a perfect middle ground for both sides. The provisional government could have constituted representatives from both sides. If the government is not ready for a middle ground, I do not understand why it went to Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam.

Maybe the government participated in these negotiations simply to showcase to donors that it is negotiating with armed forces. That is not good. Or else, it could have provided some government positions at both the federal and regional (Oromia) levels. The two parties could have worked together on security matters.

Given the incumbent has no tendency to be governed by rule of law, it is difficult for the armed group to trust what it says and lay down arms.

Statements from the government during the negotiations were also improper. Even as the negotiations were ongoing, government officials claimed that OLA fighters had been annihilated or had surrendered. The PM said the same to Parliament. In Oromo culture, fuelling conflict while peace talks are underway is highly unethical. The government launched massive offensives against OLA positions while the negotiations were ongoing.

As for us, we have tried a lot not to disturb the negotiations. The major objective and mission of OLF has not been fulfilled so far. But the parties still feel that they can do anything with military force. Going to negotiation without willingness to give and take, is useless.

Violent clashes have been intensifying since the second round of negotiations began. What will be the conflict landscape in Oromia from now on?

Only those on the ground can know the exact status of the conflict. But, in general, it is obvious the war will continue, unless a political solution is provided for this political crisis. Only through negotiations can the country exit this vicious circle. It is the people who will suffer in this conflict.

IGAD was present during the negotiations in Asmara and now in Tanzania. The US and European mediators were reportedly pushing the negotiators to reach a deal. This is mainly because they want to avoid any protracted conflict in the Horn region, which is already under duress. Can we say that the mediators are impartial?

We cannot come to any conclusions without knowing the details of what happened in Dar es Salaam. Nobody knows what the mediators’ conclusions were.

IGAD was not present during the negotiations in Asmara. Workineh Gebeyehu was Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time. So, he traveled to Asmara, as a representative of the Ethiopian government, at the time. He was appointed IGAD Director-General later. Also, there was no third-party mediator during the Asmara negotiations. It was direct.

In Asmara, we had trust in the government because of the ongoing political change and reform in Ethiopia. Political prisoners were freed, exiled politicians and media personalities returned home. Everybody was thinking Ethiopia is on the right track to change. At that time, only OLF asked for a third-party mediator, before sitting for the 2018 negotiations. The government told us that a third party was unnecessary because ‘we all are children of Aba Gada.’ There was also pressure from the Oromo community, pushing OLF to reach an agreement with the new administration in Ethiopia. So, Lemma Megersa and Workneh Gebeyehu sat with OLF representatives in Asmara.

There were four agreements reached during the 2018 negotiation in Asmara. The first point of agreement was that the OLF army will disarm, and enter Ethiopia from Eritrea. Then the OLF troops would join Ethiopian security forces, including the Oromia and federal police, or join civilian life with seed money to start life anew.

In order to facilitate the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of OLF troops returning from Eritrea, a joint committee was established. It was composed of Ethiopian government officials and OLF members. The German Government and other international entities agreed to finance the DDR.

The second agreement was that all OLF’s offices, which were shuttered by the EPRDF regime, would be returned to OLF. The Oromo endowment organization, which was also shut down by the former regime, was to be re-established. Another joint committee was also formed to investigate the whereabouts of several OLF leaders imprisoned and killed by Ethiopian governments. Whether they are dead, in prison, or in any other condition; we have to know, as per the agreement.

But once OLF returned to Ethiopia, none of the agreement was implemented. First, the Ethiopian government prohibited OLF leaders from finding and communicating with OLF troops in government camps. OLF troops who joined government police forces were imprisoned. Then, some OLF fighters who were unhappy with this situation took up arms and went into the bush. 

The OLF have faced several obstacles in proceeding with a peaceful political struggle. After we returned from Asmara, we were ordered by the government to re-establish OLF from scratch and register with the National Election Board (NEBE).

OLF was part of the transitional government when EPRDF took power in 1991. Then we negotiated with the new administration in 2018 as OLF. But after the return to Addis Ababa, the government forced us to register anew. We had to go through hassles to register at the NEBE.

The government also refused to return our offices and properties. Meanwhile, the government was forming a phony OLF in Sodere. We managed to outmaneuver them, but only because we managed to register with the NEBE ahead of them. The government did a lot of things to cripple us. A lot of things, just like they are doing with TPLF now.

In general, we believe it is the government that failed to live up to the terms of the Asmara agreement. None of what the government has been doing is encouraging to conduct free and peaceful political activities. Several OLF leaders remain in prison to date. As per the Asmara agreement, amnesty was granted to all OLF leaders and troops. But several OLF leaders are in prison, accused of crimes allegedly committed during the EPRDF regime.

For instance, Abdi Regasa is in prison after the government accused him of conducting unlawful military activities in Borana in 2016. This breaches the amnesty granted under the Asmara deal.

In light of all these obstacles, it should be clear that it is difficult for OLA to accept government promises and disarm. Later on, some OLF troops joined the DDR, following the effort of Aba Gadas. But these members faced food poisoning while in government reorientation camps.

The OLF’s army leader, Dina Ras, who was deputy of Jal Maro, was killed after he peacefully came in and joined the Ethiopian government. He gave in to the government following advice from a group of Oromo elders who were lobbying to disarm OLA. Dina Ras was persuaded by Jawar Mohammad and Bekele Garba.

We had suspicions about the government from the beginning. That is why we asked for a third-party mediator during the Asmara negotiations.

There were nearly 13 Oromo political parties at the time. OLF was the only one who asked for third-party presence. Other parties were criticizing OLF for requesting such preconditions. But almost all of those Oromo parties are nonexistent now. They have all dissolved due to government pressure.

No Oromo political party participated in the 2021 national elections. For instance, parties like the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF), which was led by Lencho Leta, were dissolved. The Oromo National Party (ONP), which is led by Kemal Galchu, was also dissolved by government order. The United Oromo Liberation Front, which was led by General Hailu Gonfa and Galasa Dilbo, was also dissolved. 

The new administration has been dissolving opposition political parties from Oromo, Amhara as well as others. As a result, we have serious suspicions about the government led by the Prosperity Party. Forget OLF, even parties that had full trust in the government have been forced to dissolve. I do not know how the government can earn back that lost trust from opposition parties.

I do not believe that OLA will disarm and join a peaceful political struggle, given such mistrust since the failure of the Asmara agreement.

Do you think there would be any incentive or pushing factor that can force the two parties to sign at least a ceasefire, provided they sit for a third round of talks? Do you think a change in mediators would affect the scenario?

This negotiation is not between two governments. The parties are not on equal footing. One is a guerilla fighter; the other is a ruling government. If America could influence a guerilla fighter, they could have succeeded with the Taliban. However, America failed with the Taliban.

Many people ask why the TPLF negotiations succeeded but OLA failed. OLA is guerilla fighter and has no responsibility to oversee any government structure. The international community can create pressure only on a group who has well defined territory and administrative structure. So they cannot sanction or force OLA to reach an agreement. OLA does not have to consider outroar from the public. So, by any means, there is nothing that can force OLA to sign an agreement. We cannot compare OLA’s situation with that of TPLF. Of course, the international community can give their recommendations to OLA leaders. But nobody can drag OLA to any international court. OLA also does not rely on aid and donations. So, there is no way to push OLA to sign an agreement.

If the international community wants peace, it must work to create genuine negotiations. The objective OF-OLA is struggling for is not new. Even at this point, when global powers are scrambling for the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia remains occupied with domestic conflict. We believe decolonization is the last solution.

Consulting with the Oromo people is the ultimate recommendation. If the people are willing to keep the armed group, it is better to ask what is the people’s demand. Until then, a transitional government can be set up, like what was done in South Sudan. Anything outside of this will not bring peace. The current tensions will continue in all directions.

Do you think there is a conflict of interest between the Oromia regional government and federal government regarding the negotiations with OLA?

It is difficult to say whether they have agreement or disagreement, since we do not know what is actually going on between them.

The federal and Oromia regional governments have overlapping interests. The federal government cannot live without Oromia, unlike Tigray. Oromia is becoming the central base of the federal government now. The pressure from Oromia officials on the federal government is also high. Yet, we can question whether all federal officials approve of these negotiations or not. Are all the federal institutions and structures on the same page? Do all of them agree on give-and-take negotiations?

The reason is, the OLA issue also haunts the federal government positions, not only those on the Oromia level.

The basic question is: Is Ethiopia at a stage when it can understand Oromo’s long-standing questions? Based on our observations from the government’s statements, it is not. The government says ‘Oromo is making rigid, irrational and undeserving demands.’ 

Oromo’s enduring question is about self-determination. OLA’s demand has never been outside this. Self-determination is not a new question, and it is not a big question.

But the Ethiopian government is not at the stage where it can accept any demands related to self-determination. So, this issue is equally concerning for the Oromia regional government as well as the federal government. This is because there is no clear cut and differentiated line between the two governments. The PM is from Oromia. If he loses his seat in Oromia, he loses his seat and power at the federal level. It is intertwined.

The fundamental bottleneck to the persisting conflict in Oromia, is that the Ethiopian government keeps undermining Oromo’s centuries-old quest to self-determination. The government sees Oromo’s issue only from a power perspective. The government always attempts to respond to this demand by promising seats to leaders of the struggle.

If some members of the struggle are given positions of power in the government system, it will change nothing for the people. The quest for self-determination always persists, as long as it is not addressed fully.

You can nominate an opposition leader as Minister of Education. But that Minister cannot implement the policy he stands for. He is not elected by his own constituency. He implements only the ruling party’s policy. So, there can be no change.

As long as the government believes power emanates from the Prosperity Party’s generosity, the conflict continues. Power emanates from the public. Popular sovereignty must be respected. The Prosperity Party believes the self-determination quest can be addressed simply by offering condos and power to a few individuals. The people’s quest, and the public struggle is more than that. Any political force that denies the self-determination of people, is occupied with an imperialist mentality. Such a mentality tends to spur conflict, as a means to stay in power. Conflict is used to avoid the public quest and stay in power. There is a fundamental defect in the Prosperity Party’s perspective on power.

The Prosperity Party also lacks organizational culture and a proper power structure. It is becoming a one-person system. Power is being consolidated in one person. I do not think they are evaluating and self-critiquing as a party that is ruling a country. They lack internal democracy. They do not evaluate and criticize their officials.

Power is not something that is partitioned and divided among anybody they like. Basic democratic principles are violated. Dictatorship is reigning. Thus, the country’s problems are worsening, not being solved.

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Video from Enat Bank Youtube Channel.


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