In Ethiopia , all eyes have been on the north of the country since November 2020. The province of Tigray mobilizes both all the state’s military resources and the efforts of the international and humanitarian community. The rebels of the Tigrayan Defense Forces (TDF), which reconquered the ground ceded initially to the federal troops and their allies, are now pushing their advantage towards the south. And the conflict, which has spread to the Amhara region, threatens to spread even further, to Oromia, the most populous in the country.
Less visible than in Tigray, the insurgency is gaining momentum there, especially since the signing of a military cooperation between the rebels of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and the Tigray Defense Forces. The alliance of the occasion openly calls for the overthrow of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
The OLA has been established in Oromia for two years. First described as “young, immature and poorly armed” by an Oromo opponent who wishes to remain anonymous, the movement has recently strengthened, including in the media. A rise in power which pushed the Ethiopian Parliament to place it on the list of terrorist organizations in May.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission holds Oromo rebels responsible for the massacre of more than 150 civilians belonging to the Amhara ethnicity on August 18. In retaliation, special forces from neighboring Amhara region reportedly killed more than 60 Oromo. Each side rejects the responsibility for these attacks.
“Not able to hold a road”
The insurgency, which began in 2019, claims the right to self-determination for Oromia and its nearly 40 million inhabitants. After making itself known through sabotage operations and ambushes, the OLA now gives the impression of being omnipresent in the west and south of the region. Its members are increasing attacks against major roads, temporarily paralyzing access around Addis Ababa and near the border with Kenya. Their improvised checkpoints allow them to ransom trucks before fleeing when the police arrive.
“They are not able to hold a road for more than a few hours . Their military capacity is still limited, but they are very mobile and operate over a large area, “ assures a humanitarian source present in the region. The insurgents are indeed operating in an area as large as Germany. To combat them, the Ethiopian government has established “command posts” , a kind of military government in sub-regions governed by the state of emergency, with the establishment of curfews and expeditious legal procedures.
While still in its infancy, the Oromo rebellion is taken very seriously by the federal government. First, because Oromia has been, in recent years, the main land of contestation in Ethiopia, causing the political upheavals which led to the accession to power of Abiy Ahmed. Then because it is the region of origin of the Prime Minister, and that the latter tries by all means to secure his support.
Oromo nationalists, former allies of Abiy Ahmed, criticize him today for not advancing the regional cause. The murder of a famous Oromo singer on June 29, 2020, had triggered large demonstrations of protest, repressed in blood. Since then, most of the activists have been in prison, under house arrest or in exile. Oromia has more than 10,000 political prisoners, according to the count of human rights organizations. No less than 2,393 opponents have been murdered since 2018, according to the Oromia Support Group association.
” Only the luckiest are in prison” , loose Seenaa Jimjimo, director of the Oromo OLLAA defense association, based in the United States. “At the time when Ethiopia was ruled by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF) [from 1991 to 2018, the party was the leading figure in the coalition that toppled the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam] , if you were an Oromo activist, the government was arresting you, she continues.Today, we may have an Oromo head of government, the police are ordered to shoot if you go out in the street to demonstrate! The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) attracts young people, because the only door open to opposition today in Oromia is that of armed struggle. “
The separatists pride themselves on recruiting young people (qeerroo ) by the thousands, but it remains difficult to assess the strength of this shadow army, which operates mainly in the hilly countryside of East Wellega, about 200 kilometers from the Ethiopian capital.
Could the recent alliance of the OLA with the TDF change the dimension of the Oromo rebel movement, to the point of posing a threat to Addis Ababa? If it has certainly gained notoriety, like its leader Jaal Marroo, the insurgency is still sorely lacking in resources.