The Oromo alliance with Tigrayans – opportunities and risks

On Wednesday the Associated Press reported that the Oromo Liberation Army has struck a military alliance with the Tigrayan government. [Full report below]

This is a development which could be transformative. But it also holds risks and the details will be important.

“The only solution now is overthrowing this government militarily, speaking the language they want to be spoken to,” Oromo Liberation Army leader Kumsa Diriba, also known as Jaal Marroo, told The Associated Press in an interview on Wednesday.

He said the agreement was reached a few weeks ago after the Tigray forces proposed it. “We have agreed on a level of understanding to cooperate against the same enemy, especially in military cooperation,” he said. “It is underway.” They share battlefield information and fight in parallel, he said, and while they’re not fighting side by side, “there is a possibility it might happen.”

Talks are underway on a political alliance as well, he said, and asserted that other groups in Ethiopia are involved in similar discussions: “There’s going to be a grand coalition against (Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s) regime.”

The OLA leader acknowledged that agreeing to the TPLF’s proposal for an alliance took some thought. “There were so many atrocities committed” against the Oromo people during the TPLF’s time in power, he said, and the problems it created have never been resolved.

But the OLA decided it was possible to work with the TPLF, he said, though some doubts remain. “I hope the TPLF has learned a lesson,” he said. “I don’t think the TPLF will commit the same mistakes unless they’re out of their mind.” If they do, there will be chaos in Ethiopia and it could collapse as a state, he said.

Towards a “grand coalition”

There are already indications that the kind of much wider alliance described by Kumsa Diriba is gradually taking shape. Some Afar groups are said to have supported the TDF forces. So too have some sections of the Amhara. Others may follow.

Such an alliance is likely to be vital if there is to be a real challenge to Prime Minister’s hold on power.

This is – in the end – a clash of two contrasting visions of Ethiopia.

On the one hand there is the constitution developed under the TPLF and Meles Zenawi after they took Addis from the Dergue in 1991. This was a form of radical decentralisation known as ‘ethnic federalism’. At least on paper this offered Ethiopia’s ethnic groups the right to self-determination. Article 39 of the constitution famously declares: “(1) Every nation, nationality and people has an unconditional right to self-determination including the right to secession.”

On the other hand there is the centralised state that lies behind Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s vision of Ethiopia, which is attempting to reign in the powers of ethnic groups and regions.

So why is Kumsa Diriba hesitant about the TPLF’s vision?

Lessons from history

Ethiopian ethnic groups have not forgotten what happened when a grand alliance was last formed with the Tigrayans.

An alliance had already been created between the TPLF and Eritreans of the EPLF during talks between the two movements in April 1988. Past differences were put aside in order to defeat the Derg.

By 1989 the battle against Mengistu and the Derg had left most of Tigray in the hands of the TPLF. Mengistu claimed the loss of Tigray was unimportant. His generals did not and he had to put down an attempted mutiny.

The TPLF decided that if it was to capture Addis Ababa it would need a wider alliance and established the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in early 1989. This is not the place to examine this process in detail, but it grew out of an earlier alliance with the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement.

However, when the Tigrayans created the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) out of Oromo prisoners of war this was a challenge to the older Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).

By the time the EPRDF captured Addis Ababa in May 1991 – supported by EPLF troops – the EPRDF consisted of four organisations: the TPLF, the EPDM, the OPDO, and the Ethiopian Democratic Officers’ Revolutionary Movement (EDORM). They worked with the OLF.

But the alliance did not hold. Gradually cracks emerged and the OLF left the transitional government government, accusing the Tigrayans of wishing to control it. The Oromo Liberation Front renewed its fight against the authorities in Addis Ababa.

No-one has forgotten this history.

If it is not to be repeated the Tigrayans will have to approach their allies – current and potential – in a new spirit.  As Kumsa Diriba put it: “I don’t think the TPLF will commit the same mistakes unless they’re out of their mind.”


Ethiopia Armed Group Says it Has Alliance with Tigray Forces

FILE - In this Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021 file photo, thousands of Ethiopians from the capital and surrounding areas head to Meskel…
FILE – Aug. 8, 2021 photo, thousands of Ethiopians from the capital and surrounding areas head to Meskel Square to rally against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

NAIROBI – The leader of an armed group that Ethiopia’s government has designated a terrorist organization says his group has struck a military alliance with the Tigray forces who are now pressing toward the capital, as the conflict that erupted in the Tigray region last year spreads into other parts of Africa’s second-most populous country.

“The only solution now is overthrowing this government militarily, speaking the language they want to be spoken to,” Oromo Liberation Army leader Kumsa Diriba, also known as Jaal Marroo, told The Associated Press in an interview on Wednesday.

He said the agreement was reached a few weeks ago after the Tigray forces proposed it. “We have agreed on a level of understanding to cooperate against the same enemy, especially in military cooperation,” he said. “It is underway.” They share battlefield information and fight in parallel, he said, and while they’re not fighting side by side, “there is a possibility it might happen.”

Talks are underway on a political alliance as well, he said, and asserted that other groups in Ethiopia are involved in similar discussions: “There’s going to be a grand coalition against (Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s) regime.”

The alliance brings together the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, who long dominated Ethiopia’s repressive government but were sidelined when Abiy took office in 2018, and the OLA, which last year broke away from the opposition party Oromo Liberation Front and seeks self-determination for the Oromo people. The Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.

Ethiopia’s government earlier this year declared both the TPLF and OLA terrorist organizations.

There was no immediate comment from Gen. Tsadkan Gebretensae with the Tigray forces, nor from the spokeswoman for Abiy’s office.

FILE - Youth joining the Ethiopian National Defense Force are escorted to Meskel Square in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, July 27, 2021.
Ethiopia Calls on All ‘Capable’ Citizens to Join Military Effort in Northern Tigray
The request comes from the prime minister’s office, which unilaterally declared a cease-fire in June

The OLA leader spoke a day after the prime minister called on all capable Ethiopians to join the military and stop the Tigray forces “once and for all” after they retook much of the Tigray region in recent weeks and crossed into the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions. Tigray forces spokesman Getachew Reda has told the AP they are fighting to secure their long-blockaded region but if Abiy’s government topples, “that’s icing on the cake.”

With access to parts of Ethiopia increasingly restricted and journalists often harassed, it is difficult to tell how citizens will respond to the prime minister’s call, or whether they will join the fight against him. The government has supported large military recruiting rallies in recent weeks.

The Tigray leaders embittered many Ethiopians during their nearly three decades in power by putting in place a system of ethnic federalism that led to ethnic tensions that continue to simmer in the country of 110 million people.

The OLA leader acknowledged that agreeing to the TPLF’s proposal for an alliance took some thought. “There were so many atrocities committed” against the Oromo people during the TPLF’s time in power, he said, and the problems it created have never been resolved.

But the OLA decided it was possible to work with the TPLF, he said, though some doubts remain. “I hope the TPLF has learned a lesson,” he said. “I don’t think the TPLF will commit the same mistakes unless they’re out of their mind.” If they do, there will be chaos in Ethiopia and it could collapse as a state, he said.

It was not clear how many fighters the OLA would bring to the alliance. “This, madam, is a military secret,” the OLA leader said.

He said he hoped the TPLF’s talks with other groups would become public in the near future. He also warned the international community, which led by the United Nations and the United States has urged a halt to the Tigray conflict and negotiations, that the crisis has to be handled carefully “if Ethiopia is to continue together.”

 

 

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