The Agreement between ODP and OLF and Its Outcome
Assefa A. Lemu 1-13-19
The Genesis: Following the change of head of Government in Ethiopia from Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn to Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed in April 2018, the Government of Ethiopia (GOE) released thousands of political prisoners, allowed free media to operate in the country, and invited opposition political organizations that were operating from foreign countries to come back to Ethiopia and peacefully conduct political activities in the country. As a part of this call and amnesty, the Ethiopian delegation led by the President of Oromia State Obbo Lemma Megersa and consisted of the Foreign Minister Dr. Workineh Gebeyehu went to Asmara, Eritrea, to negotiate and convince Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) to cease armed struggle and come back to Ethiopia to conduct its political activities peacefully. As a result, the Asmara Agreement was signed between Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), formerly known as Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), on August 7, 2018 in Asmara, Eritrea. Based on that Agreement, 1,300 OLF soldiers were returned to Ethiopia on September 15, 2018 from their base in Eritrea via Zalambessa, Tigray. On the same day, OLF leaders led by Obbo Dawud Ibsa also entered Addis Ababa (Finfinne) via Bole International Airport and received a very warm and heroic welcome from the OLF members, supporters, and wider Oromo people.
Even though there was a clash ignited on the use of flag between OLF supporters on one hand and the supporters of Arbegnoch Ginbot Seven (AG7) and those who opposed the hoisting of Oromia flag used by OLF on the other hand in mid- September 2018 around Finfinne, mainly in Borayu area, the relationship between ODP and OLF was relatively good from the date of Asmara Agreement until early October 2018. An interview which was held by OLF leader Obbo Dawud Ibsa with Walta Television on October 7, 2018 overtly spoiled the political environment between ODP/GOE and OLF. In that interview, the journalist of Walta Television asked Obbo Dawud Ibsa if OLF leaders returned to Ethiopia by disarming OLF fighters. Obbo Dawud replied: “the issue of disarming is very sensitive question; we do not want to be called those who were disarmed (“ትጥቅ ፈቱ መባል አንፈልግም”) because the word disarming implies the existence of one group that disarms the other group” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IYZ4d_R9KA ). This was interpreted by some of Ethiopian media and Ethiopian Government as OLF’s refusal to disarm its fighters and showing interest to continue armed struggle rather than embracing peaceful struggle. It was also considered as undermining the power of the GOE.
On October 10, 2018, State Minister for Communication Affairs Kassahun Gofe responded to Dawud Ibsa’s comment on disarming OLF fighters saying “There is no way that two armed forces can co-exist in a country, and only a government chosen by the people can led the country in a peaceful way… government will carry out the task of disarming [OLF] so as to protect the safety of Ethiopians and to defend the constitutional order” ( and ).
Following Obbo Dawud Ibsa’s interview and Kassahun Gofe’s response, the issue of disarming Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), also known as OLF fighters, became the point of discussion on mainstream media and on social media. Some of us hoped that Obbo Dawud or his organization would either provide explanation or correction on the statement made regarding disarmament. Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed himself gave a chance to OLF to clear the confusion either by providing explanation or correction. Dr. Abiy said “I don’t believe that OLF will refuse to disarm. It is probably a slip of the tongue. In any case, what opposition party needs is a capacity to scientifically challenge the entity that is in power”. Some of the Oromo intellectuals and activists such as Dr. Kassim Awol Allo openly disagreed with the statement made by OLF on this point and advised OLF to change its position on disarmament and disarm its fighters ( ). Unfortunately, OLF didn’t show tangible action of retreating from its position and responding to the GOE’s demand to disarm its fighters.
In November 2018, the propaganda war between ODP and OLF was intensified and some clashes between the forces of the GOE and OLF occurred in Wellega, Western Oromia. Concerned Abba Gadas, Oromo elders, business persons, intellectuals, and others travelled to Wellega to investigate the matter and tried to bring both belligerent parties together and to convince them to implement the Asmara Agreement of August 7, 2018. In response to the Oromo pleas, the leaders of ODP and OLF agreed to renew their relationship and implement the Asmara Agreement ( ). Both sides gave press release in which they promised to work together for the implementation of the Asmara Agreement and for the interest of the Oromo people. Unfortunately, as Jawar Mohammed disclosed, both ODP and OLF were not honest to each other and used this reconciliation/mediation simply as an opportunity to buy time to work on how to weaken the other and emerge as a dominant political organization in Oromia ( ). Therefore, the mediation didn’t bring the expected result.
It is obvious that there is a long standing mistrust between ODP and OLF and contempt to each other. OLF considers ODP as an organization that is controlled by non-Oromos and lacks organizational independence and ODP considers OLF as non-achiever and misleader of the Oromo people simply by counting numbers of years it spent in the Oromo liberation struggle and by giving unachievable promises. Dr. Abiy’s harsh criticism against OLF and serious warning was heard on January 5, 2018 at the meeting he held in Addis Ababa with 3,696 teachers drawn from all over Ethiopia. He called OLF an organization which failed to achieve results and accused OLF for attacking the GOE which brought it to Ethiopia from a foreign country where its leaders had been sitting idle for years. Dr. Abiy accused OLF for day dreaming to take government power by force within three months. He also warned OLF not to push hard the GOE that is prone to be a dictator and may crush them by force ( ).
Prime Minister Dr. Abiy’s contemptuous statement in which he said “those who struggled for twenty and thirty years but were not able to set their feet on Ethiopian land whom we brought by saying enough is enough and changing the laws….” ( ) shows that he is still measuring result by winning in the battle field. By making this statement, Dr. Abiy got applause from some of the participants of the meeting present in the hall, but offended millions who were not in the hall. His statement reminded me Harar Oromo’s Mirisa song: “Abbiyyo abba guzaa kan mudhiin shuguxxidhaa, fayyaa tahi naan hinjenne kabajamo tufidha?”. The singer simply asks the person who enjoyed the service why he didn’t say ‘thank you’ for the service he got. Had it not been for the presence of OLF, TPLF wouldn’t have created OPDO; had it not been for the contribution of OLF which transformed Oromo nationalism to a higher level, Qerro Revolution wouldn’t have happened and liberated OPDO which brought Dr. Abiy to the top job in Ethiopia. I hope that Dr. Abiy will not deny the fact that even though OLF didn’t take government power, its ideas have won. Just to mention simple example, Qube Afan Oromo which ODP now uses has been introduced to Oromia by OLF. I hope Dr. Abiy remembers that when OPDO came to Finfinne with TPLF, it had been using Sabean script and most of its members had hard time reading and writing in Afan Oromo regardless of the script used. I can bring list of items which prove that OLF achieved many tangible results.
To be considered as achiever, OLF leadership is not required to physically be on Ethiopian land. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Ilich Lenin whose ideas turned the world upside down in 1960s, 1970s, and 980s never set their feet in all socialist and pro-socialist countries where their ideas won and implemented. Being in power using the opportunity created by Oromo nationalism and representing the political organization which claims to be representative of the Oromo people and undermining the Oromo national struggle is not fair. Remember the Oromo saying “Sa’a abbaan gaafa cabse, ormi ija buruksa”.
Following Prime Minister Dr. Abiy’s warning of January 5, 2018, on the hearing made at the Ethiopia’s House of the Peoples’ Representatives of January 8, 2019, Deputy Chief of Staff and Head of the Military Operations Division at the Ministry of Defense of the GOE General Berhanu Jula promised that the army will solve the problem created in the Western Oromia by force within three weeks ( ). General Berhanu Jula echoed Prime Minister Dr. Abiy and said the cause of the conflict in Western Oromia is OLF’s ambition to take government power by force. Dr. Alemu Sime and Taye Dandea of ODP also made similar accusations against OLF and listed the alleged crimes and breaches of laws that ODP believes committed by OLF ( ; ; ; ).
However, in its press release issued on January 7, 2019, OLF said the cause of the conflict is EPRDF’s anti-democratic position and refusal to implement the Asmara Agreement of August 7, 2018 and requested the Ethiopian Government to sit for discussion on the implementation and consolidation of their agreement at the presence of the third party ( ).
Because of the conflict between ODP/GOE and OLF, the residents of Western Oromia and Beneshangul-Gumuz are suffering since October 2018. Oromo Abba Gadas, intellectuals, activists, artists, nationalist, elders, business persons and the majority of Oromos have been disappointed on the conflict between ODP and OLF. Rather than working to resolve the disagreement and ending the conflict from which the people are suffering, each side accuse the other for failing to implement the Asmara Agreement. Both are advocating the destructive means of conflict resolution where one side instructed its force to crush the opponent and the other instructed its respective force to defend itself. Basically both sides declared war on each other. As a Kikuyu saying goes “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”. The people in Oromia and its neighbors are suffering because of the struggle of ODP and OLF for dominance and resultant fights.
The Asmara Agreement: After two rounds of talk, OLF and ODP/GOE reached agreement on August 7, 208 in Asmara, the agreement that enabled OLF to return to Oromia/Ethiopia and which I refer in this article as the “Asmara Agreement”. Even though ODP officials deny the existence of formal and separate agreement between the GOE and OLF except extending amnesty to OLF and inviting to return to Ethiopia to conduct political activities peacefully, the information released by the Ministry of Information of Eritrea on August 7, 2018 shows that there is a written and signed agreement between OLF and the GOE. The information that the Ministry posted on its official website (Shabait.com) says “The Federal [Democratic] Republic of Ethiopia and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) have signed a Reconciliation Agreement today, 7 August in Asmara.
The Reconciliation Agreement was signed by the President of the Oromia Region, Mr. Lemma Megersa on the Ethiopian side and by Mr. Dawd Ibsa on the OLF side. Dr. Workneh Gebeyehu [the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia] was present at the signing event.
The Reconciliation Agreement includes termination of hostilities and the OLF to conduct its political activities in Ethiopia through peaceful means. The two sides also agreed to establish joint committee that will oversee the implement [of] the agreement” (http://www.shabait.com/news/local-news/26817-ethiopian-government-and-olf-sign-reconciliation-agreement ). The Ministry also included the picture of the delegates from both sides (Obbo Lemma Megersa and Dr. Werkineh Gebeyehu from the GOE side and Obbos Dawud Ibsa, Tolera Adaba, Ibsa Negewo, Atomsa Kumsa, and Gemechu Ayyana from OLF side). Per August 7, 2018 news on Oromia News Network (ONN), both parties issued a joint press release ( ).
Following the signing of the agreement, OLF leader Obbo Dawud Ibsa also gave a brief press release summarizing the content of their agreement. He said, the discussion was made on variety of topics and the agreement was reached mainly on the cessation of hostilities and fighting each other; conducting of political activities in Ethiopia peacefully, establishing joint committee that will oversee the implementation of the agreement and other matters of joint interest to be identified in the future, and re-opening of OLF office in Finfinne and other parts of the country ( ).
The news about this Agreement was spread like a wild fire and moved Oromo nationalists. Most of us hopped that it will end the animosity between OPDO/ODP and OLF, ends the suffering of the Oromo people particularly the suffering of Oromo nationalists, returns the OLA members to the peaceful lives, and brings peace to Oromia and to the entire Ethiopia. Professor Asfaw Beyene wrote his reflection on the agreement, the feeling which most of us share, beautifully as follows:
This day of August 7, 2018 goes down in history as one of the most important days for the Oromo struggle on route to self-determination. For me it is the most significant day of my political life which I started as a high school teenager. My political activism has been wrangled by my dedication to academia, as my profession also often clashed with my activism. Nonetheless, it is a balance of tries that culminated to this day, and I would have changed nothing of my past to compromise my feeling of this day. It is a feeling that rests on the thousands of the WBO (OLF fighters) I saw in the Eritrean deserts, the camp singers, the commando boys I saw rolling on the rocky hills, the nurses who cut and paste skins better than I do with papers, etc. I cherish their image returning and walking freely in their own country to see the fruits of 45 years of relentless struggle. The tortured geniuses in Maikelawi, the poured bloods on the hill-sides of Bale, bullet-ridden bodies in the bushes of Moyale, etc. can now lead us home, going home that many of us take for granted. The framework has been laid down for a formidable future by the sacrifice that deserves a statue – at a known corner of Finfinne someday. Alas, we can now argue and debate peacefully, commit to protecting not only ours, but all the others of Ethiopia.
The gun has been made irrelevant by the liberated minds of the young a.k.a. Qerro. This power that liberated the minds of Qerro should continue showing humility, offer confidence to all residents in Oromia, welcome them just like this, once strange country of USA welcomed and sheltered us. Years of negative propaganda that divided and conquered us has embedded hate among the population of Ethiopia, portraying the Oromo struggle as a wrong wish, and the OLF as a negative force that wants to dismantle the country. It is hard to remove such belief built by years of hate propaganda. Dismantling this mistrust is our first homework. Let us embrace all peoples of Ethiopia, show those who hold an olive branch will receive multiple branches in return. Oromos fought for equality, demanding rights and respect for their culture. They understand the bitter taste of losing their freedom. We will never participate in – or stand by, and observe any abuse. This is our new motto. The same Oromos who refused to take revenge against the mass deportation of Oromos from the Ogaden recently will guard my confidence, that we are a big nation, we are above collective criminality, we are men and women of safu. So, lead me to the promised land of peace and prosperity” ( ).
Unfortunately, after one month of returning of OLF to the country, our hopes for the bright and peaceful future started shattering, our expectations for unified Oromo force dwindling, our ambition for development and prosperity coiling back, and we started worrying again about the security of our people and mourning with those who are affected by the conflicts erupted as a result of disagreement between ODP and OLF.
Following the heated propaganda war between ODP and OLF and releasing of some of the contents of the agreement, mainly by OLF that thinks cheated, some persons and groups are requesting the agreement to be made public. In the first place, the agreement is a matter of the parties to the agreement. Secondly, this agreement consists of security matters which need to be kept confidential per accepted international standard practices. Thirdly, whether it is publicized or not, I don’t believe the agreement can be taken to court within Ethiopia or at international level to force the other side to implement the agreement because of various formalities, procedures, and legal requirements. Therefore, it would be better for both parties to focus on genuinely implementing their agreements rather than arguing on its form and content and publicizing the details. As Oromo saying goes “asasitee walbartee, iyyitee gargar galtee” which roughly means they created relationship privately, but divorced publicly.
Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR): OLF repeatedly said that they hate to hear the word “disarming” and disarming OLA is not part of the agreement reached with the GOE. According to OLF’s Central Committee member Obbo Qajela Merdasa, the 1,300 OLF fighters that entered Ethiopia on September 15, 2018 through Tigray were not armed when they were in Eritrea and cannot be considered as disarmed OLF fighters ( . This adds another confusion to the confusions already created regarding disarmament. Generally, it seems that ODP and OLF have different interpretation for disarmament, demobilization, integration/reintegration, and peaceful struggle. OLF is thinking about making OLA part of the GOE’s and Oromia’s men and women in uniform and argues that since they are going to be integrated into government forces and going to be armed more, there is no need to disarm them. However, ODP thinks that OLF must hand over its fighters and armament to the government so that the government will decide the future of these fighters. It seems that there was no meeting of minds when they conclude the Asmara Agreement. Therefore, the best solution for this disagreement is to refer to internationally accepted definitions and practice of disarmament, demobilization, integration/reintegration and peaceful political struggle.
Disarmament, demobilization, and integration/reintegration are key milestones and necessary groundwork for the prevalence of long-term peace, security, and development. According to the United Nations, a process of removing weapons from the hands of members of armed groups, taking these combatants out of their groups and helping them to reintegrate as civilians into society and supporting ex-combatants and those associated with armed groups to become active participants in the peace process is important for long-term peace, security, and development ( ). Therefore, ODP and OLF must come to amicable solution regarding DDR.
The Way Forward: Fighting for Oromo rights for almost half a century, OLF won the hearts and minds of many Oromos, particularly that of many Oromo elites. It has been regarded as a sacred cow and beyond criticism. However, the emergence of Oromo Qerro Revolution against tyranny and the transformation took place within OPDO/ODP, reduced the indispensability of OLF. In addition, the split of OLF into multiple OLFs and organizations that took different names reduced the degree of respect Oromos have for OLF. On top of this, Obbo Dawud Ibsa’s stubbornness, his controversial interviews including unnecessary details and mentioning of the name of individuals as well as unnecessary and divisive propagandas used on OLF media outlets, its fixation in the past, and provocative approach are distancing OLF supporters from the organization. Currently, OLF is regarded as an organization which was good in the past but less relevant to the present situation. These facts reminds me an Oromo saying “ Maqaan amma arbaa, jiruun akka garbaa” which is almost equivalent to the Amharic saying of “bequloon Keruq siyayut Feres yimeslal”. The expectation we had when OLF leadership returned to the country and what we are now seeing do not match.
To regain the trust, respect, and support of the Oromo people, OLF must take the following measures.
1. Change the face of its leadership- OLF needs to bring new faces to the leadership and, with all due respect, Obbo Dawud Ibsa must transfer power and retire. This will be a heroic and respected exit from the problem and the Executive and Central Committee of OLF must stop looking for excuses to remain in their positions. As the Oromo saying goes “abban of hinargu, dhakan of hindarbu” which is almost equivalent to the Amharic saying “Yemilushin besemash, gebeyam balwetash”. We are telling OLF what we observed and it needs to listen to us.
2. The new leadership must work with ODP to break the current deadlock on disarmament and work on the implementation of the Asmara Agreement;
3. The new leader must start talks with OLF splinters and work to bring them under one OLF leadership;
4. OLF must revisit its political program and revise as deemed necessary to attract more members and supporters;
5. OLF must stop unnecessary argument on the registration as a political organization in Ethiopia ( ) and must fulfill the requirements of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) on the registration and get ready for the upcoming contest for election;
6. OLF must develop a new training module and give refresher training to its cadres, to its members, and supporters;
7. OLF must organize fund raising events to mobilize resources to support the retirement of OLF leadership and other aged and disabled prominent OLF members and the Oromo people must actively participate in this fund raising events;
8. OLF must recognize that the Ethiopian Government in power is EPRDF’s government. It is not a coalition government. Thus, OLF’s argument that says OLA must have a role in the security of the country doesn’t hold water;
9. OLF must recognize the power balance, the power relationship, the nature of government, and the laws of the country and operate accordingly;
10. OLF must effectively use the ICT and social media and provide up-to-date information to public on matters that are of public interest.
On the ODP side, some of the ODP leaders and some of their cadres think that they got upper hand on OLF and inflating themselves. They are threatening OLF and started harassing OLF members and supporters. They try to push all crimes to OLF and use sickening words that undermine the contribution of OLF in Oromo history and belittle the Oromo national struggle.
To earn the trust of Oromo people and support, ODP must change itself as it changed its emblem/logo and must take the following measures:
1. Stop undermining Oromo national struggle which has been started by Western Oromo Federation, Rayya Resistance, Mecha-Tulama Association, Bale Rebellion, Afran Qallo, OLF, Qerro Revolution, etc. and brought ODP politicians to the top of the power in Ethiopia. Refrain from incinerating the ladder that you used to get on the top;
2. Stop flexing your military muscles which didn’t work for Derg and TPLF. Note that military victory is temporary and suppression gives birth to revolution and Ethiopian history is a typical example for that;
3. Minimize unnecessary digging into history to praise someone or something on which national consensus is not yet reached. Always remember that Oromia is your springboard and you must make the interest of Oromo the center of your main agenda. The interest of Oromo and the interest other peoples in Ethiopia are not mutually exclusive, rather they support each other and in most cases the same. All want the prevalence of peace, democracy, rule of law, development, and social justice;
4. Refrain from taking actions that violate and undermine the current constitution and refrain from rushing to the amendment of the constitution. Be cautious of those vocals that have access to you for lobbying and provide you unsolicited advices and note that there are millions out there who do not have a means to air their opinions and do not have a chance to talk to you. Reach out to them;
5. Continue working with different Oromo political organizations regardless of the size of their member so that you will not entangle each other in the upcoming contest for election;
6. Genuinely implement the Asmara Agreement and closely work with OLF on this as previously intended and agreed. Watch what is going on around you and how others are regrouping themselves. Evaluate what makes you fight with OLF when others are coming together to work for the interest of their people. The recent agreement between Amhara Democratic Party (ADP) and National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) to work together for the interest of the Amhara people is one of the good examples (
). Prior to that, ADP had reached agreement with Amhara Democratic Force Movement (ADFM) to work together for the interest of Amhara ().
Concluding Remark: The struggle for freedom, human and democratic rights and development is not a simple project which can be implemented only by one organization. It is a grand cross generational program which requires consorted effort from all stakeholders. Therefore, we don’t have the expectation of a group that started the program to necessarily complete it. What is more important is the accomplishment of the program and the achievement of the objective, not who did it or how it was done. Oromia is enough for all of you. So coordinate your actions and work as a team to achieve the aspiration of Oromo people. Be reminded that no organization or individual is indispensable or invincible.
Finally, I would like to conclude this article by using the plea from Professor Kuwe Kumsa, also known as Ayyo (the mother): OLF is no more a single organization, but sprit of liberation that exists in all Oromo nationalists including Dr. Abiy Ahmed and Obbo Lemma Megersa. Stop destroying each other because you are all brothers; stop fighting for power and wait for your turn to come because according the Gada system power is transferred from one party to another by turn. Listen to each other and respect the Oromo people and Oromo culture; stop embarrassing the Oromo people and work together to end their sufferings ( ). United we stand, divided we fall!