Ethiopia: Peace talks with Oromo rebel group continue to elude

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Despite initial hope generated by the peace talks in Zanzibar, the OLA and the government were unable to reach an agreement. Currently they are still actively engaged in military actions.

During the first round of peace talks in Zanzibar, the government of Ethiopia (GoE) and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) took strong stances. The GoE insisted on full disarmament of rebel OLA forces, while the rebels sought less federal authority in their region, and a reintegration of their political leaders into regional government positions. These opposing views were too wide to bridge, spoiling negotiations by 3rd May 2023.

However, both sides acknowledged some progress in talks, which are being overseen by Kenyan as well as Norwegian diplomats. An Ethiopian official who asked to remain unanimous, said “what it boils down to is government aims to resolve the conflict according to the constitution, while the OLA sought a political settlement based provisional regional government.”

The OLA proposed power-sharing in the Oromo region through a transitional government mechanism, consisting of OLA representatives, members of the ruling Prosperity Party, and other opposition Oromo parties, including the Oromo Liberation Front, and the Oromo Federal Congress. The government rejected this offer, as it has done in the past when opposition parties suggested a similar transitional arrangement during the Covid-19 pandemic-related election delays (2019-2020). Opposition Oromo nationalist parties had aimed to assume power through the establishment of a transitional government framework.

The government has consistently rejected the idea of a transitional government ever since opposition parties proposed it during the pandemic-related election delays in 2020. On the contrary, the GoE suggested the OLA’s disarmament as unconditional. It demanded the group to surrender weapons and then enter the political process by peaceful means.

Despite wide differences, negotiators made more progress than expected during the peace talks, prompting the understanding peace talks were a positive start by both sides. For their part the OLA sought to consult with their commanders in the field, as they put it, “to prepare for the next stage.” This next phase was to involve discussions about the OLA disarming, and possibly integrating its fighters into the regional security apparatus if a political agreement begins to take shape. However, Just as previous attempts at disarmament in 2018 and 2020 faltered and ended up radicalizing the insurgents further, the result could be similar now.

During the negotiations, OLA leaders emphasized the importance of remedial elections, which they do not believe will be free or fair with the current government in power. Instead, they want the electoral process to be guaranteed through a regional transitional government. In addition, OLA negotiators demanded that the federal government respect Oromo right to self-determination, including and up to seceding by referendum and that multi-cultural Addis Ababa be administered as part of Oromia.

These demands were rejected, as unrealistic by the GoE. Another argument offered by the rebels was obstacles that delayed the 2021 elections, that according to them delegitimates the ruling Prosperity Party’s five-year term. However, a redo is not practical at this juncture. Hence OLA negotiators dwelling on a transitional government does not seem feasible.

According to a report by Africa Confidential, Workneh Gebeyehu, an Oromo politician, and close ally of Abiy, could play a crucial role in trying to reach an agreement. His optimism is a positive sign. The conflict in Oromia remains complex, and these latest efforts mark the third attempt to reach a deal since Abiy came to power in 2018. Past attempts failed due to challenges in disarming the OLA, the group’s fragmented command and control, and concerns about the impartiality of the facilitating committee.

For a long time, the OLA was associated with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), as its armed wing, before breaking away due to disagreements on strategy. The OLF has a long history in Ethiopia’s politics, but continues to suffer fragmentation and lack of clarity, particularly given the “Oromo marginalization” narrative has faltered in recent times. Former veteran OLF leader, Taha Abdi, is currently part of the negotiating team for the OLA, revealing a close relationship between the two organizations.

The OLF was created in 1973 following mass protests led by university and high school students, in what is widely known as the student revolution against Emperor Haile Selassie. The group rebelled against the Derg regime that supplanted the monarchy after a 1974 coup led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. OLF was perhaps the least effective of the insurgencies that raged in Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991, but nonetheless played a crucial role in the 1991 London Conference that led to a transitional government and the formation of today’s ethnic federation. However, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominance in the ruling alliance, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democracy Front (EPRDF), marginalized the OLF once again, forcing it into exile.

Despite initial attempts to resist TPLF dominance in Ethiopia, OLF’s political activism became negligible during the TPLF- led EPRDF government, but it continued to claim the Oromo had been marginalized, their land becoming part of the Ethiopian empire in the 19th century. It argued mistreatment continues through repression of Oromo political dissent and culture. Today, as Oromo leadership has become more central in Ethiopia, arguments of marginalization have become less effective tools of galvanizing the base.

Despite the initial hope generated by the peace talks, the OLA and the government were unable to reach a deal. Currently they are still actively engaged in military actions. A mere two weeks after failed peace talks, the OLA, which has been recruiting new fighters, accused Ethiopian forces of attacks following peace talks. Meanwhile the government has deployed additional troops to Oromia, and clashes in different zones were reported. Recently government claimed hundreds, or rebel fighters have since been killed or taken prisoner.

Speaking to members of Ethiopia’s central command on July 11, 2023, army chief Berhanu Jula said ‘the OLA seems to be an aimless rebellion beholden to outside powers.’ He urged the group to enter peaceful dialogue.

As the conflict persists without a truce emerging from Zanzibar, successful talks are becoming ever more elusive. Consideration of the main players’ approaches and the reactions of other parties and constituencies is key. The situation in Oromia is closely linked to other political developments in Ethiopia. Prime Minister Abiy aims to avoid further chaos in the Amhara region by making a hasty deal with the OLA. Since the armed group has been actively targeting Amhara civilians in the Oromo region, the Amhara remain anxious about any reproachment with the OLA.

Reaching a power-sharing agreement with the OLA in Oromia will also be resisted by ruling party members in the region. Abiy and his negotiators must manage disgruntled elements within their regime to prevent them from causing havoc in Oromia, which could undermine their influence in the state apparatus.

In addition, GoE intelligence services have long suspected Egyptian support for the OLA. Speaking to members of Ethiopia’s central army command on July 11, 2023, general Brehanu Jula said, “the OLA has no idea what it’s fighting for”, insinuating it was being manipulated as proxy by external powers.

Cryptic OLA leader Kumsa Diriba (Jaal Marroo) who continues to elude capture is said to be actively leading his fighters from the ground. Yet recently, there seems to be some fatigue on the part of fighters, who have turned to petty crime, kidnapping for ransom and smuggling, a strategy that will eventually erode public sentiment among what the OLA considers its constituents.

Any peace deal now may be welcome news to some fighters. However, there remains possibility of mutiny among some commanders who feel that the OLA’s realigning to make peace with the government compromises broader Oromo demands for self-determination. Given the OLA’s fractious history, it is a reasonable assumption. These are some of the intractable scenarios which make a sustainable peace deal unlikely in the short term.

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