Ethiopia’s bungled 2018 deal with Oromo rebels is the cause of current turmoil

Source: Ethiopia Insight

24 April, 2021

Oromo nationalist rebels never agreed to disarm and now hardline elements are on the attack.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s 2018 decision to grant amnesty to exiled rebel fighters (most of them in Eritrea) under the pretense that they would lay down their arms may be coming back to haunt Ethiopia, as some of these fighters are ramping up their separatist campaign in Oromia.

Lawmakers agreed to drop some armed opposition groups from the list of banned terrorist organizations and invited them to return to Ethiopia, ostensibly to lay down their weapons, end their armed struggle, and embrace peaceful struggle.

These included Patriotic Ginbot 7, Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), Amhara Democratic Forces Movement (ADFM), and Tigray People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM).

When it comes to OLF, the presumption of the amnesty was that returning rebels would abide by an agreement reached in Asmara with Abiy’s government and enter their armed fighters into a “disarmament, demobilization and reintegration” (DDR) program.

Yet, that program never really materialized, raising questions about whether the agreement may have been disingenuous from the outset.

Previous DDR processes in Ethiopia had been reasonably successful. Almost half a million soldiers of the Derg army were demobilized in 1991; another 22,200 OLF fighters agreed to lay down arms and return to civilian life between 1992 and 1994.  Those DDR programs assumed ex-combatants would subsequently participate productively in the civilian economy.

The major elements of DDR are bringing about a return to stability through security reforms, along with social and developmental programs designed to help combatants to transition.

Nothing of the sort seems to have come of this latest exercise.

Lemma Megersa, the then Oromia regional president, reported that he had negotiated a deal in Asmara that triggered the process of allowing OLF fighters to return. But details of the pact were not revealed. No legal justification for the agreement was given, nor were guidelines laid out on how OLF fighters were to be disarmed, demobilized, and reintegrated, as had been the case with other former militias.

It had been understood by many Ethiopians that armed opposition groups who decided to return to Ethiopia agreed to live peacefully, but that does not seem to have been the case with the OLF.

The first signs of trouble came in September 2018, when more than 60 ethnic Gamo civilians were killed in Burayu, a small Oromia town on the outskirts of western Addis Ababa. Many others were displaced. This came a day after OLF leader, Dawud Ibsa, returned to Addis Ababa from abroad. This worried many Ethiopians, as it happened so soon after the DDR deal was reached.

According to Amnesty International, social media posts in the days leading up to the OLF’s arrival in Addis Ababa urged violence against non-Oromo groups. Security forces did nothing to stop this incitement to violence or to protect targeted communities, despite repeated pleas for help.

A similar incident occurred shortly after in Kamashi Zone of Benishangul-Gumuz region, near the OLF stronghold of Wollega, in which several dozens were killed and tens of thousands fled. After that horror, the Oromo Democratic Party’s Rural Political Mobilization chief Addisu Arega called on the OLF to order 1,300 of its fighters to present themselves to a designated military camp for demobilization and retraining.

In response to that call and other statements urging the OLF to live up to the DDR agreement, Dawud rejected the contention that rebel fighters had made an agreement to disarm during the Asmara talks with Lemma.

In an interview with Walta TV on 7 June 2018, he said, “The talk that OLF returned to Ethiopia after an agreement with the government of Ethiopia to disarm and struggle peacefully is baseless….There is no agreement where we [OLF] agreed to disarm. There is no reason for us to disarm while there is an armed party [seemingly a reference to the government]. No one will disarm, and no one is able to make [us] disarm.”

The government’s response came in the form of a warning from deputy communications minister Kassahun Gofe. “If OLF is not disarming itself, the government will carry out the task of disarming [them] to ensure the safety of Ethiopians and defend the constitutional order,” he said.  “There is no way that two armed forces can co-exist in a country, and only a government chosen by the people can lead the country…..”

In a show of defiance, OLF supporters organized rallies in Oromia cities on 26 and 27 October 2018. As the two sides exchanged hostile words, hundreds of civilians died; countless others were wounded, displaced, and their property destroyed.

In the event, the armed wing of the OLF, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), formally split from the party. It accused the government of reneging on a promise to allow militias to keep their weapons. Members retreated with their weapons to the forests of Western Wollega Zone and resumed their separatist campaign, dramatically increasing Oromia’s instability.

Among others, they have closed many roads in Oromia, reportedly plundered banks, killed officials and civilians and, allegedly, kidnapped university students.

The OLF’s widespread support among qeerroos has also had a direct impact on the ongoing crisis. Qeerroos are alleged to have expressed their anger at perceived government perfidy by engaging in the mass killing of non-Oromos (often Amharas and their perceived allies) and property destruction.

In response, the government has blocked telecommunications and internet access around Western Wollega, and, according to Amnesty, security forces are estimated to have detained more than 10,000 men and women suspected of supporting or working for the OLA.

The OLF leader has said a government crackdown has resulted in most of his party’s senior figures being imprisoned and the party offices across Oromia being shut down. Now, with national elections just six weeks away, the newly reinforced and heavily armed OLA is boycotting the election, further aggravating Oromia’s fragile state.

In light of the tumultuous path the country is on, perhaps it is now too late to go back to a DDR agreement with the OLA. Maybe a continuation of armed conflict is inevitable. However, despite the failures of past negotiations, the least bad option for avoiding further violence and total chaos is still more talks.


  1. Hey writer,
    The title merits discussion but how you put things is one sided. You are not mentioning an iota of the destructive steps Abiy took to bring the situation at where the country is now at.

    These agreements you talking about happened at a different time: when the people of Ethiopia as well as the world thought Abiy is not what he is now: That is the pre Abiy-cheat era. Then Abiy was considered the MAN – thus his noble price. Every one was in good faith and peace, unity, and good governance of Ethiopia had a good chance.

    Since then you know what happened. Things got soar from the day he went to Eritera, by jumping over Tigray, and told the world he had made peace while, as later discovered, he actually set in motion his on-going tigre genocide!
    That is the day every one lost faith: That is is why OLA is armed and fighting: That is why every other opposition should take up arms and fight: That is the day hell got loose on Ethiopia!

    As you said, the situation is know past that and there should be dialog. I completely agree. This too is at his door-step. He can stop more blood easily or I leave to your imagination what is gonna happen!

  2. @wadani1,
    re “Things got soar from the day he went to Eritera, by jumping over Tigray, and told the world he had made peace while, as later discovered, he actually set in motion his on-going tigre genocide!That is the day every one lost faith: That is is why OLA is armed and fighting:”
    that is not actually the right history there. OLA is armed and fighting, simply because right after Abiy got selected as PM, when TPLF handed over power (very dumb!) to him/PP, Abiy immediated jailed Oromo opposition leader (Jawar, etc.) and assasignated popular would-beOromo opposition leader (like that Oromo singer), and it was not until TPLF wiped out most all of Abiy’s/Federal military did that give OLA the opening to be able to go head-to-head against the very weak remnant ENDF/Amhara malitias and EDF sent to Oromo.  More recently, the collapse/defection of the brutal repressive Oromo police state (and maybe some arms support via Sudan/Egypt), and defection of most all Oromos in the Federal army to OLA (by the 1000s) has not made it a fait accomplis as the noose tightens around the neck of Addis Ababa..

    I hear Bengashal rebels near the GERD just repelled Abiys “military” (i.e., children and elderly w/ little training/weapons) big counter attack.

    Now it is Isaias’ turn to likewise burn the rest of his military chasing and shooting at the TPLF shaddows…

    As I’ve said from the beginning, Abiy’s days are *very* numbered, now down to the weeks….

    1. Thanks. Corrected.
      That is the day every one lost faith: That is is why OLA is armed and fighting

      Should read
      From that day every one lost faith: That is one of the reasons why OLA is armed and fighting.

  3. This is more of a distortion, one sided claims rather than analyzing the situation in honest manner. Most of the claims discussed here is typical blind- Ethiopiaists views filled with fear of Oromo as people main from neoconialist neftegnas. This nowhere close to the truth and in music in the ears of urban elites struggling to keep Amhara supremacy

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