An agreement to end the fighting between the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and the Government of Ethiopia (GoE) could be closer than expected. Talks in Zanzibar, Tanzania, seem to be heading in the right direction, despite a renewed government crackdown targeting OLA rebel fighters in parts of western and southern Ethiopia.
In past months, a peace deal with the OLA remained elusive for various reasons, which were covered at some length by two reports published by Abren, the first at the conclusion of original round of talks in May of this year, and the second and currently ongoing meeting starting earlier this month.
The same set of negotiators are present in the latest talks on the side of the GoE, with key additions of prominent military commanders, including Getachew Gudina, chief military intelligence officer for the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF). On the OLA side are field commanders, including the cryptic Jaal Merro. Outside mediators include the diplomats from Norway. During previous talks, the OLA had been represented by members of its diaspora-based political wing. Some have cited this as one of the reasons behind failure.
The OLA finds itself in a much weaker position than in past periods. The group has engaged in increasingly desperate tactics, which have invariably affected its public image negatively among what it considers its natural constituents in Oromia. Ghastly atrocities associated with the rebel group have thwarted its ability to appeal to a broader public in Oromia.
Furthermore, counterinsurgency measures by the ENDF have taken a toll on the group’s ability to conduct military operations outside of an ever-contracting zone. The alliance forged with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) back in 2021 was tactical and largely benefited the TPLF. This fact seems to have dawned on OLA leaders in the weeks and months after the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) was reached between the GoE and the TPLF in November 2022.
Recently, the OLA leadership had a split with the diaspora-based political affairs division over financial allocation, which became public. The differences with the diaspora may yet complicate matters during talks. OLA negotiators in Zanzibar recently took time out to hold a virtual meeting, as reported by BBC-Amharic, aimed at assuaging key support groups abroad. More than anything, poor prospects for continued fighting seems to have forced the group to the negotiating table this time.
Reports indicate Ethiopia’s security forces went ahead with a renewed offensive despite scheduled talks. Given the situation, some make the argument there may not be much of an army for the OLA leaders to return to at the conclusion of negotiations in Zanzibar. Nonetheless, given the sacrifices made, OLA leaders will likely seek accommodation within a new framework rather than be exiled permanently. Yet still, some leaders may choose exile.
Ending the nearly five-year-long insurgency in Oromia would be welcome news for most of the public in Ethiopia. It paves the way for further talks with Fano rebels in Amhara, whose declared raison d’être has been partly about ending ongoing atrocities targeting Amhara in parts of Ethiopia, including the Oromo region. Some make claim the OLA targeted Amhara civilians living in parts of Oromia deliberately, to stoke tensions between the Amhara region and the federal government.
The complicated and interlinked circumstance of Ethiopia’s ethnic based federation means rebel groups and armed aspirants from all sides find a level of sympathy and accommodation in government circles, despite their outlawed legal status. A representative at the Oromia regional government says, “however, it’s important to acknowledge everyone has suffered and the fighting must now end”.
Speaking anonymously a GoE official close to the matter stated , “If peace comes, and internally displaced persons continue to return to parts of Oromia, where they had resided, it paves the road for greater stability in Ethiopia.” An outcome on the ongoing talks is expected to be announced this month.