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Op-ed: The boomerang effect: How political betrayal transformed Oromo youth protest to armed resistance

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Oromo youth Protesters in Geedoo, central Oromia, in February 2021. Photo: Dabessa Gemelal

Ezekiel Gebissa @egebissa

Addis Abeba: On April 9, 2022, the Oromia Regional Government announced that it has launched a comprehensive campaign to eradicate the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) within one month. The Oromia government reported that it has requested other regional governments to join the campaign by contributing forces and sealing off their border areas adjacent to Oromia. In addition, security officials of the Ethiopian government visited the Kenyan and South Sudanese capitals and signed security and law enforcement agreements. Both the regional and the neighboring countries’ governments were corralled to help the operation by denying escape routes or safe havens to OLA combatants fleeing attacks.

The announcement revealed that five separate forces were mobilized to execute the war plan. The Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), the Federal Police, the Oromia Regional Police, the Oromia Special Forces, and the Oromia militia have been deployed inside Oromia. They are positioned to attack OLA forces in five directions: the Wallagga front in the west, the Guji front in the south, the Western Shewa front in central Oromia, the Bale-Hararge front in the east and finally the North and East Shawa front in the north. In areas where Oromia has adjacent borders with other regional forces, the Somali region, the Gambella region, the Sidama region, and the Benishagul Gumuz have deployed their regional forces to seal off their borders. So far, the regional forces are deployed in defensive postures but ready to enter Oromia upon request.

In other words, the goal of the campaign is to lay siege to the Oromia region to squeeze the population into expunging OLA combatants from their midst and prevent them from fleeing to the neighboring countries.

The war plan is modeled after the anaconda strategy that was designed to chock off the Tigray region to induce the surrender of the Tigrayan Defense Forces (TDF). In other words, the goal of the campaign is to lay siege to the Oromia region to squeeze the population into expunging OLA combatants from their midst and prevent them from fleeing to the neighboring countries. The plan has now gone into operation and reports show that the Oromia region is effectively encircled.

The Second Phase

As the operation unfolded, it became clear that the preparation apparently started months ago. Ethiopian military leaders have been giving indications that the war against the Prosperity Party’s political opponents, primarily the TDF and OLA, would be executed in several phases. On January 20, 2022, in an interview with the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC), Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army General Abebaw Tadesse stated that the ENDF would embark on the second phase of operations against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was completed. He also added that terrorist operations in Qimant, the OLA, or anyone else operating within Ethiopia’s territory to oppose the government would be obliterated in the course of the phased campaigns.

When the Ethiopian House of Representatives met on February 22, 2022, the Ethiopian prime minister indicated that the government would eventually deal with the OLA. Referring to it pejoratively as “shanay,” the prime minister described the OLA as a rudderless and leaderless gang of bandits roaming the countryside in search of victims and reams of cash to loot. He said:

It is true that “Shanay” doesn’t have a clear objective. It does not know what it is fighting for. It is bereft of any scruples to respect human dignity. It categorizes people into supporters and opponents, and kills the latter. It extorts from individuals some means. It hard to know what this group is made of. To be honest, it carries out senseless destruction. Even if we considered it has a reason for the other things it does, what is the purpose of attacking the Wonchi Resort built to benefit the farmers in the area by raising revenue from tourism? If it is struggling for the Oromo people, why is it destroying the Oromo peoples’ development projects? It has no written documentation. It has no leader. It is a difficult group to deal with.

Though dismissive in tone, it was apparent that a military operation against the OLA was in the offing. That a campaign against the OLA was imminent came on March 15, 2022. Speaking to party leaders attending the first meeting of the newly constituted Central Committee of the Prosperity Party, the president of the party and prime minister gave the clearest indication of the preparation and strategy of the military campaign as follows.

Even though “Shanay,” looked at strictly from Oromia’s vantage point, is primarily the enemy of the Oromo people and Oromia, it is in fact the enemy of the entire Prosperity Party. Each and every member of Prosperity Party must stand unified and fight it together. Rather than waylaying and distrusting each other within our party, we must understand that this enemy is out to destroy all of us and be prepared to confront it together. When we fight it together, this group will not be able to emasculate our people. If we don’t stand together, it will find an opening to divide us and grow robust itself.

The political strategy that was alluded to in the speech was later unveiled as the military plan to annihilate the OLA in a month. Whether the Prosperity Party government has developed a clear military strategy is hard to pin down. But the siege of Oromia has is fully underway.

From Youth Protest to Armed Resistance

Is the OLA a faceless and feckless armed group bereft of political goals and devoid of a discernible reason for existence as depicted by the prime minister of Ethiopia? Careful observers of the Ethiopian political scene cannot miss that the prime minister’s caricature of OLA is far from an accurate portrayal of the OLA. As an armed wing of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the OLA’s political goals have always been the same as the political organization that created it. Even the prime minister knows that the OLA fights to realize the OLF’s political goals of ensuring the Oromo people’s right to self-determination and ending political oppression, economic deprivation and cultural alienation. Since its inception in the early 1980s, the young men and women of the OLA have voluntarily laid their precious lives to resist tyranny.

The goal of the OLA is to protect these gains of the Qeerroo Revolution and return to democratic politics, including exercising the right to self-determination. In the topsy-turvy world the prime minister has created, the qeerroo are depicted as counterrevolutionary hooligans.

Understood accurately, the OLA that the Ethiopian prime minister disparages so flippantly is the contemporary iteration of the Qeerroo Revolution that catapulted this prime minister to power. The Qeerroo Revolution, otherwise known as the Oromo protests, reaffirmed in no ambiguous terms the longstanding Oromo quest for self-determination. This demand is consistent with the rights enumerated in the Ethiopian constitution and in major international human rights declarations and covenants. It is because of this unity of purpose that all Ethiopians rallied in support of the Oromo Qeerroo Revolution, which toppled the single-party dictatorship of Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

The Qeerroo Revolution fought the repressive practices of the authoritarian order with the goal of liberalizing the country’s political and economic system. The initial reforms following the change of government in 2018, including guaranteeing freedom of speech, releasing political prisoners, and expanding the political space, often credited to Abiy Ahmed, are appropriately attributable to the Qeerroo Revolution. The goal of the OLA is to protect these gains of the Qeerroo Revolution and return to democratic politics, including exercising the right to self-determination. In the topsy-turvy world the prime minister has created, the qeerroo are depicted as counterrevolutionary hooligans. The qeerroo who ended the EPRDF’s era of impunity have joined the OLA en mass to redeem their reputation and protect the victories of their struggle. In reality, the Oromo qeerroo, today’s OLA combatants, are genuine agents of social change and trailblazers of a new era of hope who took to the mountains because they were denied a political space to effect the change they always sought but because they were unable to even live an apolitical life without being harassed, imprisoned and killed by security forces the Property Party government had unleashed on them.

The prime minister cannot be oblivious to the fact that he owes his ascension to power to the struggle and sacrifice of the gallant Oromo qeerroo. In his speech to parliament of February 22, 2022, he had acknowledged that the fight against the OLA is not going to be easy because it enjoys broad public support. He posited:

Fighting and defeating “shanay” requires a thorough and frank discussion with the Oromo people and the security forces in order to conduct a political and military offensive in a coordinated manner. Success cannot be achieved through a military campaign alone. It behooves us to ask why the Oromo people support the armed group. If there are deficiencies with us, we must correct them. It is not sufficient simply to bemoan the Shanay. We must ask why a specific district [in Oromia] gave safe haven and provided provisions to the group. We must identify our shortcomings. What is it that the people find unfulfilled that alienated them from us? We must listen to the people and we need to correct to do our part to rectify anything that needs course correction.

In the same speech the prime minister dismissed the OLA as bereft of purpose, he proffered a testimony affirming the OLA’s true identity. The prime minister knows that today’s “shanay” is yesterday’s qeerroo whose revolutionary fever he rode to power. Once ensconced in power, however, he found it politically expedient to turn against the youth’s genuine demand for freedom, democracy, justice, and dignity into an agenda for the restoration of past chauvinism, autocratic rule, blatant injustice, and active denigration of the Oromo. In other words, he betrayed the cause of the Oromo youth. If anything, the OLA intends to prevent the prime minister’s increasingly autocratic rule over an effectively unitary state from taking root. 

In reality, the Oromo qeerroo, today’s OLA combatants, are genuine agents of social change and trailblazers of a new era of hope who took to the mountains because they were denied a political space to effect the change they always sought

Since coming to power, the prime minister has done everything to undermine the constitution, promulgating unconstitutional laws and squashing citizens’ human rights with impunity. The prime minister does not play by the rules of a parliamentary democracy. He has undercut the federal division of power, illegally concentrating power in the prime minister’s office, replacing elected regional presidents with his own puppets, and using federal security forces as personal errand runners. These moves are reversals of the victories the Qeerroo Revolution, for which thousands gave their lives. It does not require a philosophical grounding to know that the OLA’s goal is to resist the incumbent’s lawlessness, vandalism of state institutions and retrograde politics.

Political Demands

It is important to reiterate that the OLA has not put forth hitherto unprecedented political demands. The OLA’s goals are to realize the historic political, economic, and cultural demands of the Oromo people. The OLA has stated that the right to self-determination is the bedrock principle that undergirds all other demands and a constitutional right that the government must respect. The OLA has also expressed its willingness to accept the multinational federation in which the nations, nationalities, and peoples of Ethiopia exercise the right to self-government and envisions a political community founded on the rule of law, human rights, and social justice, democratic participation, and economic development. This is a threshold framework of a political solution that is acceptable, not the maximum solution to fundamental Oromo demands.

If the prime minister prefers to know OLA’s specific political goals, they include defending the land and natural resources in Oromia as the collective property of all Oromo, making Afaan Oromoo a federal working language, and rescinding educational policies that erode Afaan Oromoo’s status as the national language in Oromia.

The OLA fights against violations of the dignity of Oromo individuals and their inviolable right to life. Its struggle is to end the rampant dehumanizing practices, namely arbitrary arrests, detentions without charge, illegal searches, and denial of court-ordered bail, specifically to the thousands of political prisoners in Oromia. In contemporary Ethiopia, the Oromo person is criminalized as a threat to the state. During the last election, EZEMA politicians were heard saying that they are running to protect the Ethiopian state, in some cases the city of Addis Abeba, from the Oromo threat. OLA is the shield against such wanton assault against the Oromo person. 

If the prime minister prefers to know OLA’s specific political goals, they include defending the land and natural resources in Oromia as the collective property of all Oromo, making Afaan Oromoo a federal working language, and rescinding educational policies that erode Afaan Oromoo’s status as the national language in Oromia. OLA also seeks affirmation of Finfinnee as an integral of Oromia.

All of these are political demands that require a political process leading to a political settlement. OLA combatants are committed freedom fighters, willing to fight to the last drop of their blood to make sure that the Oromo people’s demands for liberty, equality and dignity, for which numerous Oromo martyrs have paid the ultimate sacrifice, are respected. While the present generation of Oromo youth have shown that they too are prepared to give their lives for the Oromo cause, war is not their goal or even their preferred method of struggle.

Politics by Non-Military Means

To demonstrate its commitment to peace, the OLF had on many occasions sat down with the same incumbent that has trampled on the victories of the Oromo people and vowed to restore the worst aspects of imperial Ethiopia. OLA leaders themselves have repeatedly declared publicly that they are committed to peaceful settlement of conflicts. For their commitment to genuine negotiations to produce a political settlement that accommodates the Oromo people’s demands and honors their sacrifices, the Prosperity Party government reciprocated by imprisoning the entire OLF leadership and declaring a war of annihilation on the OLA. Even when the civil war in Ethiopia has shown that there is no military solution to political conflict, the prime minister is engaged in a campaign of vilification and defamation to kill Oromo youth who disagree with him and consign more into prison.

This approach has been tried by previous regimes. All have lost ignominiously and drifted into oblivion. OLA has sustained incalculable losses in lives to the indescribable cruelty of successive Ethiopian regimes. But it has outlasted all of them and is still standing. It would be best if the prime minister abandons failed strategies and embrace a negotiated political settlement as the only chance to end the conflict and commence building the prosperous Ethiopia he talks about so vicariously. AS


Editor’s note: Ezekiel Gebissa is a Professor of History and African Studies at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan. He can be reached at: [email protected]ng.edu





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