The Ethiopian government announced this week a new offensive against the Oromo Liberation Front which suggest the challenges the government faces in managing its transition to a more open society and bringing lasting peace to the Horn of Africa.
Accusing the OLF of descending into banditry and other crimes since a peace agreement was signed by the two sides last year, a government spokesperson has announced that the campaign will target Omoryia province’s Kelem Wollega Zone, where the government claims the OLF operates training sites. The region is ethnically more than 90 percent Oromo, the majority of whom are Protestants (though the country overall is largely Sunni Muslim or Orthodox Christian).
The OLF has increasingly splintered in recent years though the main dissident factions continue to use the OLF name and flag.
The government has denied that the fighting has involved airstrikes but, has admitted that air mobile forces have been used in the operations. A review by The Defense Post of material posted by pro-OLF social media accounts did not show any digital evidence of airstrikes.
Even so, the fighting in the Kelem Wollega Zone suggests the difficulty in integrating formerly armed resistance groups into Ethiopian society.
“The time we fought for and the time many Ethiopians died for has come,” Ephrem Madebo, a spokesperson for Ginbot 7, which was once was one of the most notorious armed groups in Ethiopia, told The Defense Post. “We strongly believe that we Ethiopians can now discuss the future of our nation. So why fight or carry guns?”
Since coming to power, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has led a transformation in the Horn of Africa. Abiy has pledged to restore democracy in the country and open up civil society as well as to privatize Ethiopian national airlines and liberalize the telecommunications network where government-run Ethio Telecom maintains a monopoly.
But it is Ethiopia’s signing of a peace deal with neighboring Eritrea that has received the most international attention.
From the Ethiopian perspective, the main strategic gain from this agreement was that Eritrea agreed to close several camps operated by Ethiopian rebel groups in the country. Ethnic clashes last year in Ethiopia resulted in the internal displacement of some three million people with the OLF being the largest armed challenge to government rule.
In July, Ethiopia’s parliament voted to lift the terrorist label on three armed groups: the OLF, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Ginbot 7, whose formal name is Patriotic Ginbot 7 Movement for Unity and Democracy. The reintegration of Ginbot 7 has thus far been largely been a success. In a December media appearance group reiterated that it seeks the incorporation of 550 former guerrillas within Ethiopia’s armed forces.
The Ethiopian government first listed Ginbot 7 as a terrorist organization in 2011 but the group formally renounced armed resistance last year, and in September a group of former guerrillas departed their former base in Eritrea and crossed the border into Ethiopia, many still in uniform.
“Justice, liberty, democracy and equality are the normal way of life in [now in] Ethiopia. Almost all of our members started the struggle to do this in Ethiopia,” Madebo said.
Madebo stated that even during periods of armed struggle the group never abandoned non-violent initiatives and that, from their perspective, the group was forced to take up arms by “the regime in Ethiopia.”
The OLF was founded in Oromia in 1973 and like Ginbot 7 was hosted by Eritrea until recently. The OLF was one of many insurgent groups fighting communist leader Meriam Mengistu who held power from 1974-1991. Following that victory the OLF entered into negotiations with the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) whose forces were the first to capture the capital Addis Ababa. Negotiations with the EPRDF broke down in 1992 and the OLF resumed the armed struggle.
Today a rival Oromo group – the Oromo Democratic Party – is one of four parties within the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In November, the clout of this group further expanded when it merged with another Oromo group that had long been in exile.
The expanded ODP party has accused the OLF of failing to integrate within the Ethiopian state. Indeed other groups within the OLF have announced their plans to disband, and this week another guerrilla leader with the OLF accepted a government peace offer.
Ginbot 7 is betting hard that the democratic process will bear fruit. In recent weeks it united with three other opposition parties Semayawi Party (Blue Party), Ethiopian Democratic Party, and the Unity Party to provide a united front.
“Ginbot 7 and other opposition parties are joining together ahead of the upcoming elections because the EPRDF has a clear advantage in resources, logistics and manpower, said Jordan Anderson, a country risk analyst at IHS Markit.
“They aren’t copying the EPRDF structure, as this would mean maintaining separate constituent parties for different regions, which is incongruous to the ideology of parties like Ginbot 7, who emphasize a unified and centralist vision of Ethiopia.”
Ginbot 7 was formed in 2008 and takes its name from a protest movement that sprang up following Ethiopia’s disputed 2005 elections. The group can rely on the deep pockets of the Ethiopian diaspora in North America and has interest in forming alliances with separatist groups like the OLF.
“For the same ideological reasons, Ginbot 7 was always unlikely to unify with what it views as ethnically-focused or ‘separatist’ opposition parties,” Anderson said.
However, as the recent fighting attests some ethnic Oromo are making a different calculation. Oromo make up somewhere between 34 to 40 percent of the country, and it is from this ethnic group that Abiy Ahmed hails.
Long-time OLF chairman Dawud Ibsa Ayana has accused Ahmed’s government of failing to abide by the accord and integrate OLF forces into the army and police.
“The government forces started war recently on OLF positions,” Dawud Ibsa said in one media appearance before the latest government offensive. Ibsa speaks for one faction in the OLF that, according to the Ethiopian media, is the only armed resistance group with offices and a sizable presence in the capital.
At stake is more than Abiy’s reform process: the long-term stability of Ethiopia, a country of roughly 100 million people in which the right of secession is ingrained in the constitution.
Elections are likely still a year away won’t be until next year, and the prime minister has already promised they will be free and fair.
“Before a lot of people used to talk about democracy here but, now we have a real democracy,” said Miriam Tadele, a recent graduate accountant looking for work near Mexico Square in the nation’s capital of Addis Ababa. “It was a dictatorship before but, I think if there are elections the votes will count this time.”