Keeping OLF at Bay from Conventional Politics: The Purpose, Modus Operandi and Repercussions

Keeping OLF at Bay from Conventional Politics: The Purpose, Modus Operandi and Repercussions

Belligerent PM Dr. Abiy Ahmed, with the advice of Lema Megersa and his company, boasted to disarm OLF Army, while he is losing control over Tigray, Amhara and Ogaden regions. This is a sufficient signal for a looming fragmentation of the country. It is time for PM Abiy to call, putting down his war-mongering attitude in Oromia, for national dialogue to save the country.

By Jabessa Gurmessa Mullata, January 2, 2019

  1. The Security Problem in Oromia as a Prelude

The Situation in Oromia, particularly in Guji and Wollega, right now is excruciating; we are grappling with security problems as a result of armed conflict between OLF and the defense force of the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE). Government soldiers are directly and deliberately targeting helpless and hapless civilians who have no participation in the armed struggle. For instance, on December 28, 2018 alone, the government armed men massacred more than 30 civilians in Guji and Gulliso. Killings by security forces have also been reported from Nekemte, Gimbi, Najjo, Lalo-Kile, and many other towns/villages. Moreover, the military has been turning down properties such as homes and crops into ashes; they are destroying civilian property in a situation when it is not ‘rendered absolutely necessary by military operations’. The primary purpose of such measures is to spread terror among civilian population and to break the morale of the community. It is with a view to force the communities in this area to desist and refrain from lending any kind of support to the liberation fighters.

There seems to be a consensus among the general public that the cause of the ongoing conflict is the failure to implement the ‘Asmara Convention’ that was signed between OLF and the government of Ethiopia. However, there is a disagreement as to who is to be blamed. In this respect, some critics point their fingers to both the OLF and the government; they argue that both OLF and the Ethiopian government equally share the blame for the security problem. On the other hand, there are individuals who argue that it is OLF that has to be solely blamed. They claim that OLF should be legally held responsible for not immediately and unconditionally laying down arms. In an attempt to corroborate their stance, they tell you that there cannot be two forces that have a monopoly over violence in a single polity. This is true, at least, in principle; but, pragmatically speaking, it does not sound tenable. In other words, this line of argument is too simplistic and as a result it cannot hold water. It cannot withstand the slightest of scrutiny. The proponents of the argument get tight lipped when you press and ask them whether the government is doing enough so that the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), the military wing of OLF, generate and maintain the political will to restore the state’s monopoly over the use of force and participate in the ongoing transition wholeheartedly.

Most of the individuals that put the blame at the door of OLF, not to mention those shroud individuals who are engaged in a conspiracy, are naïve, uninformed and gullible; they are those who have not understood the covert intention of Oromo Democratic Party (ODP). This writer believes that the source of the current problem is ODP’s desire to hamper OLF from undergoing a successful shift from armed insurrection to post-war conventional politics. In other words, ODP does not want to see the return of OLF to channels of democratic politics. There are ample signals that indicate that ODP won’t be happy even if OLA decides to immediately and unconditionally lay down arm and engage in non-armed political struggle; they have a problem from visions of the front regardless of the means and methods through which the vision and goals are pursued.

This is puzzling and perplexing given the fact there was a spirit of fraternity between the leaders of the two organizations during the conclusion of the ‘Asmara Convention’. This puzzle needs to be untangled and that is what this piece aims to do. Specifically, the paper seeks to explore the factors that underlie ODP’s reneging of its promises and desire to keep OLF at bay from conventional post-war politics. And, as well, it will highlight the manifestations of this covert intention of ODP.

  1. The Desire to Cling to State Power Beyond 2020

ODP aims to stay on power beyond 2020. For this purpose it has to do two essential activities. The first one is embarking upon a systematic campaign, and the other is derailing OLF’s effort to shift from violent to peaceful politics. ODP is almost certain that it cannot beat OLF in a free and competitive election provided that there is a level playing field. A glance at the history some of the former rebel organizations in other countries substantiates ODP’s fear, concern and worry. Resistance and liberation movements that had transformed themselves into a non-violent legal body by denouncing the use of force have acquired state power in a number of countries. Typical example of this are GAM in Aceh and CPN-M in Nepal which have been heading government in their respective countries in the years that followed their successful transition from war to channels of democratic politics.

It is important to note once the OLF fully transforms itself, it can easily form an alliance with the other opposition parties. This is the demand of the Oromo mass; from Dire Dawa to Dambi Dollo the Oromo people have been calling for the creation of a unity between OFC and OLF. If the opposition camp gets coalesced, it will be almost certain that ODP will lose in the upcoming election provided that the election will be free, fair and competitive. However, the issue of OLA is a bottle-neck in this regard. OLF is still a politico-military organization and as result it would be difficult for OFC to collaboratively work with OLF. Thus, one can safely conclude that ODP is proactively working to hinder the creation of a unity among Oromo political parties.

There are three specific reasons why ODP does not want this. The first is fear of prosecution if they lose in election. Most of the cadres, particularly the clique in the party, are implicated in a number of crimes ranging from corruption to egregious violation of human rights and they will most probably be prosecuted and brought to justice by a party that acquires a state power in Oromia/Ethiopia. This will definitely happen unless the political elites reach a consensus ‘to look ahead and not rake over the past’; the Spanish did the same thing through what was known as ‘pacto de olvedo’ – literally, ‘Pact of Forgetting’. And, this scares the cabal within ODP more than anybody else. On top of this, though not explicit, it seems that ODP is trying to depict itself as if it is building a multi-national (none)democratic polity where the Oromo dominate political process by controlling state institutions and policies so as to promote its interests more or less exclusively. The crux of the matter is that challenging and or replacing ODP by another party at a federal level at this early time might result in losing the control over state institutions and policies that the ‘Oromo’ currently have. So, election that is competitive among the Oromo forces is more or less a setback. This view is not only simplistic but also implausible since controlling state institutions and policies at the Federal level is not the only and ultimate goal of the Oromo struggle. This is not even one among the irreducible Oromo demands. The last but the most important reason why ODP wants to keep OLF at bay from conventional politics is related to vision of the front. They fear that OLF might work towards the disintegration of Ethiopia either through peaceful negotiations or use of force in case it acquires state power; i.e., acquiring state power will put the front to aggressively pursue a separatist agenda.

  1. ODP’s Problematic Political Stance and Approach

Owing to the aforementioned reasons ODP wants to keep OLF at bay from conventional politics. To this end, it is tirelessly and strategically working to portray OLF as ‘bothersome spoiler’ that must to be fought and defeated/eliminated or at least pacified through a superficial DDR rather than as agents who can play a constructive role in securing peace and building more legitimate state. This is a covert policy aimed at liberating Oromia from the ‘bothersome spoiler’ OLF unchallenged by the vast majority of the Oromo people.

This propensity of viewing, and making others perceive, OLA as ‘mere recipients of reintegration assistance’ or spoilers that must be disarmed and demobilized as quickly as possible rather than recognizing them as peace building partners is one of the reasons why the government is not willing to genuinely implement a DDR in its literal and real sense let alone embarking upon a holistic ‘security transition’. The government’s readiness to comply with the main objectives and principles underlying the international DDR policy documents such as the United Nations Integrated Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Standards (UNIDDRS) and Stockholm Initiative on Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (SIDDR) is questionable. Also, the issue of ‘security transition’ is conspicuously absent from their narrative.

The government led by ODP wants an imminent total disarmament of OLA without any precondition. ODP cadres are asking OLA to lay down arms and/or hand over its arms to the Ethiopian security forces. This is tantamount to requesting OLA to surrender. Though the need for quick disarmament, demobilization and dismantling of rebel armies after cessation of hostilities is understandable, one has to be cautious about his/her approaches in this regard. And, requesting surrender or something of its equivalence is a dangerous move and approach that is clearly jettisoned not only by rebels but also by the international experts in the field. Therefore, this approach must be avoided as it implies a winner loser scenario. This is what the Chairman of OLF, Dawud Ibsa, and other senior officials have been reiterating time and again in the interviews they have been giving to various Television channels.

The OLF leadership, of course, is not only rejecting this winner-loser scenario but it is also demanding security sector reform. This is a call for the transformation of the structures of oppression and inequality that forced OLF to take up arms and resort to violence. Establishing a legitimate security sector through a reform is at the core of any peace building process; this polity needs to have a security sector that can ‘distinguish between service to the state and service to a particular government’. On top of this, it has to be noted that a source of threat to security in a particular state is not only the non-state armed groups; government forces are implicated in security problems on a number of occasions. Thus, ‘it takes the two to transform the current situation towards a sustainable peace and democracy. Moreover, the demand for comprehensive security sector reform is legitimate demand as far as the reason d’être for taking up arms, i.e., the fact that the Ethiopian military has been one of the instrument being employed by the successive regimes for brutalizing and silencing the Oromo throughout its history, is still valid. Requiring OLA to lay down arms as quickly as possible, while keeping the government security sector intact, creates a feeling of unfairness and imbalance. It amounts to putting the cart before the horse.

  1. What Other Wicked Measures Can ODP Possibly Take?

The call from the leadership of OLF is, however, falling on deaf ears. Rather than positively responding to the call, the government, spearheaded by ODP, seems to have been readying itself to take further ill-intentioned measures subsequent to effectively aborting efforts aimed at meaningful security transition. Most of the repressive measures that are being taken against OLF and its members/supporters are akin to those of the early 1990s in their nature and intended goals. Specifically, ODP will resort to robust application of the criminal law against members/supporters of OLF; embark on powerful but slow mobilization of political parties, the larger Oromo community including the Diaspora and civil societies against OLF and delegitimize the existence of non-state armed groups and eventually get OLF back onto a terrorist list.

The most dangerous move, however, could be breaking the chain of command and erasing of ‘oaths of obligation’ between the political wing and military wing of the front. Thus, it’s vital for the OLF to retain full control over its structures and chain of commands.

We have been observing the symptoms of all these wicked measures over the past few weeks. The persecution of members, supporters and sympathizers of OLF, for instance, is already underway. The closing of office, and pillage under the pretext of an assault on OLA are being reported. These measures are expected to be intensified in days and weeks to come. This is worrying given the fact that there is no hurdle that can stop ODP from intensifying the measures. It has to, however, be noted that whatever self-centered measures ODP might take to get upper-hand over the OLF in the Ethiopian political arena is not good for the Oromo cause. It impedes the chance of offering constructive political alternatives to the use of force and eventually turns some of areas where OLA is active into a war zone.

Conclusion and the Way Forward

The transition in Ethiopia has now reached a dangerous climax. And, if things continue the way are at the moment, the country is going to fall either under the dictatorship of a ‘military man or, in the worst scenario, under a ‘military dictatorship’. But whether the country falls under dictatorship of a ‘military man or under a ‘military dictatorship’, it is going to be neither stable nor peaceful; anarchy might prevail. This might, in turn, entail the killing, starvation, and fleeing of thousands civilians.

Hence, the government has to be stopped from its reckless measures that are provocative enough to lead to armed conflict with OLA and at the same time the rebels, particularly OLA, have to be encouraged to lay down arms in a manner that conforms with the standards and practices provided under the international DDR policy documents such as the United Nations Integrated Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Standards (UNIDDRS) and Stockholm Initiative on Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (SIDDR). In addition to this, it is vital to establish an inclusive political system in which the opposition can meaningfully participate and contribute to the transition. The government must heed oppositions’ stance regarding transition; if the current leadership has the determination and political willingness of building a democratic polity; they should not do it alone.

The general public is expected to exert pressure, in a concerted manner, on the government in this respect. Otherwise, it is going to lose the victory achieved through bitter struggle.

Victory to the Oppressed People!

January 1st, 2019 G.C