In West and East Guji zones, the Oromo Liberation Army is not living up to its name
From the day I arrived in Ethiopia from the U.S. in late February, I began collecting information about the strife in the two Guji zones of southern Oromia. Even among those at Bole Airport to welcome me, some had relatives in the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). They were in tears as they told me of the atrocities being committed against civilians by the rebels.
As I learned during nearly two months on the ground in my home district of Negelle, where I was a parliamentary candidate in 2010, both the government and the rebels are committing abuses.
On the government side, for instance, 20 people were killed by security forces in two weredas (districts) of West Gujii zone in December 2018. Thirteen died in a small town called Finchawa on 28 December, and seven more were killed in Gelana Wereda of the West Gujii zone that same day. The killings, according to informants, were in apparent retaliation for a motorcycle gunman’s attack on an army convoy that had been heading back to its base. Upset at that incident, the army started shooting into a packed street in Finchawa town. The same scenario played out in Gelana.
Another six people were reported to have been executed by government military forces on 20 May 2019 at a place called Derara in East Gujii zone, Gorodola Wereda, after rebels fired at another government convoy. These killings were noted in an Amnesty International report issued in January.
This information was gathered from sources, but a lot of it is corroborated in a more recent Amnesty report, “Beyond Law Enforcement” which documents the launch of a multi-agency law-enforcement offensive against armed separatists in December 2018. This coincided with the surge in killings by security forces noted above.
However, the rebels are also guilty of terrorizing civilians.
The OLA—an armed splinter group of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF)—has killed more than 700 civilians since April 2018 in East and West Gujii zones, according to Haaji Umar Nagessa, an elder whom they recently assassinated, as revealed in his interview on Oromia Media Network. Several cases of torture, rape and sexual abuse, killings, robbery and vandalism including arson were recorded by Haaji Umar. Abductions for ransom are common.
I met fathers whose sons and daughters are fighting with the OLA and many others who were involved in the group. A childhood friend said his father joined the rebels because local officials wanted to confiscate his gun. He preferred going to the bush rather than give it up. My friend arranged a phone conversation with his cousin who is with the rebels and gave me the phone number of his uncle. I was able to talk with the rebel leaders, which helped broaden my understanding of them.
The OLF faction led by Daud Ibsa returned from Eritrea in 2018 as part of Ethiopia’s political liberalization and is now a registered party, although facing considerable government harassment. It has renounced armed struggle. The group that has remained separate calls itself Waraana Bilisummaa Oromoo (WBO), which translates to OLA.
When the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the dominant party in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, it was difficult for any opposition group to operate in Ethiopia. Many of those who joined the OLA during that time were former protesters and exiled rebels, some of whom had been victims of torture, and who had fled. Their training base was in northern Kenya districts inhabited by the Borana and Gabra people. The number of army troops operating in Borana, East and West Gujii zones during the EPRDF days was small, less than 500 according to my informants. However, their number dramatically increased after Abiy Ahmed became prime minister in April 2018.
Rumor has it that the ranks have swelled as former rebels and people with criminal backgrounds joined the OLA to escape liability. For instance, in my birthplace, Jidola, a small town in Goro Dola Wereda in East Guji, which is the center of the insurgency, a great number of people facing prosecution signed up for training after April 2018. By January 2019, the addition of new recruits had raised the average number for each zone to 1,300, totaling approximately 4,000 in the three zones. The reasons for this increase are:
- When Abiy came to power, people welcomed every group that had opposed TPLF hegemony, and therefore supported them regardless of political differences.
- The intelligence structure built under the TPLF was partially dismantled under Abiy, so the security apparatus was not able to act effectively against the OLA.
- Informants told me that some officials who were guilty of corruption under the former regime began funding and supporting OLA militants in the face of allegations of past wrongdoing that were being raised by the Qeerroo—the citizens’ vigilante group that has been demanding investigations into past corruption. Therefore, according to my informant, a number of officials had managed to remain in power by funding OLA gunmen for protection.
From conversations with OLA fighters, they emphasize terms such as Wolabummaa (independence), Bilisummaa (Liberation), however, I found they have no particular preference between a fully independent state of Oromia or greater autonomy within Ethiopia. The conclusion I drew is they want the OLF to be in power in Oromia, one way or the other.
At a minimum, they want a genuine, negotiated process of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR). They repeatedly mentioned to me that “the government is not ready for genuine, negotiated DDR; it rather wants us to surrender.” These hardliners will demand that any negotiation with the government be done through third-party mediation.
In Guji, the first DDR attempt was launched by the Gujii Gadaa council on Jan 9, 2019 by Abbaa Gadaa Jiloo Maandhoo. He called for “Kolbaa-Nageyaa, Torbaan-Nageyaa,” literally translated as “week of peace for the people of peace,” and issued a declaration dictating that everybody discuss peace and reconciliation in that week. It was followed by the Loollottuu convention that called on the OLF and the government to come to peace. The attempt did not succeed as planned. However, there were about seventeen OLA members led by one of commanders called Elias Gambela who laid down his arms following the call.
Unlike in Wellega, my informants told me that the OLA in Gujii mostly operate in the bush. They rarely execute people in the towns, according to residents. The killings are intended to instill fear in the communities in which they dwell. They sometimes assassinate those who speak out against them. They kill those suspected of leaking information or spying on them. They follow through by executing their kidnap victims when family members fail to pay ransom. Anyone who doesn’t support them or who is not on their side is an enemy and must be killed. If they decide to kill you and cannot, because, for example, you are armed or live in a place they cannot reach, they will kill a relative.
From my January 2019 discussion with the top OLA commanders in Gujii such as Jima Reba, aka (Jaal Waaqumsaa) Darara Gumo aka (Jaal Magarsaa) and Umar Basa, I learned that the split between OLA and OLF is tactical. The OLF leadership in Addis has connections with them and they operate with the knowledge of the political leaders. The fact that the deputy chair of OLF, Dhugaasaa Bakako, left the party in Addis and joined OLA soon after the attempt to disarm OLA by Oromo Abbaa Gadaas and the 71-member technical committee supports this conclusion. Dhugaasaa was on the committee. After he left the party based in Addis, he was appointed commander-in-chief of OLA, and was leading the OLA from bases in Uganda and Kenya.
Along with him another Executive Committee member Huseen Dhenge left the OLF and joined the OLA. To quote word-for-word what the rebels told me: “We don’t want to commit the same mistake that was committed in 1991.” At that time, during the transitional government, the TPLF outsmarted the OLF leadership. The TPLF provoked them to announce their withdrawal from the transitional government, then waged war against them. The OLF army was defeated and dispersed.
Regardless of the attempt to unite under the leadership of Dhugaasaa, the OLA is not one organization with a single administrative structure. It looks like the South and the West are separate entities. The assignment of Dhugaasaa, the long-time OLA commander-in-chief, as the top officer doesn’t seem to have succeeded. The problem may stem from the fact that when the OLF leadership was based in Asmara, their operatives in the West and South enjoyed relative autonomy because the leadership could not visit them, and could only give commands over the phone. That allowed activists in the diaspora and back home to directly communicate with commanders, a practice that continues to this day.
Initially, the public funded and armed OLA. They get money from rich supporters, they kidnap people for ransom, they collect “taxes” from contraband trucks, and they collect funds from their diaspora supporters. Some of this bankrolls atrocities.
On 1 April, residents said that Dhugoo Bariisoo, a respected elder (jaarsa biyyaa) and a traditional leader (Yuubaa) who resides in East Gujii zone, in Sabbaa Boruu Wereda was kidnapped. He has recently been released after OLA received ransom. On 4 April, the rebels assassinated Haaji Umar Nagessa, a veteran freedom fighter and tribal leader, along with his son. They confiscate weapons from residents. This kind of activity was uncommon in the region previously. In Gujii and Borena, killing one’s own clan member is not only a taboo but also the worst violation of traditional law. But this group seems to have no regard for traditional law.
The worst example was that of a son who killed his own father. The father, Getachew Arero lived in Dugda Dawa Wereda in West Guji. He pleaded with his son to renounce the guerilla group and return to peaceful life. The son reportedly shot his father and killed him just for saying that.
Hit and run
The OLA rebels in Guji no not have cars or trucks. They only use motorbikes. Two kids riding motorbikes were killed by government forces in Harekello town, Gorodola Wereda. Rebels usually avoid confrontation with large troop units, but seek and attack small groups. The most serious attack they have launched was in April when they killed 12 Oromia special police troops at Gumi-el Dallo Wereda of East Gujii zone. Their technique is to ambush a government army convoy or strike in a public place and then flee, mostly on motorcycle. That is why motorbikes are banned in the region. These hit-and-run attacks are designed for maximum propaganda value, as civilian casualties are likely when government troops respond.
The local government is trying to restore peace and stability in the region. They have been inviting the combatants to return to peaceful life and working with the national army in a counter-insurgency campaign, which, as noted, has also involved atrocities. They have also trained local militia in every kebele to fight the guerrilla forces. Recently in Gorodola Wereda, the local militia killed three rebels in Qaraaroo Kebele.
West Gujii has now been largely liberated with residents and local militia playing the primary role in fighting the OLA amid a coordinated effort by the government. The same is true in East Guji, the local militia at kebele level is the one that is fighting the insurgents more than the police and the defense force/military. The military plays the least role according to residents. This makes people believe that the defense forces and OLA have communication.
The majority of the residents, including those who used to support them in the past, dislike the OLA nowadays. This is shown by two occasions where locals called for execution of captured OLA soldiers. In one case, the military executed an OLA soldier called Mashi Waaqoo in Saransar town, Gorodola Wereda, East Gujii zone. Recently also, OLA soldier was captured by government forces in Sabbaa Boruu Wereda of East Gujii zone. Residents chanted ‘kill him kill him’ but the government forces decided not to kill him and he was not killed. Another scenario is in May 2020 when the local militia killed 3 OLA fighters in Qaraaroo Kebele, Goro Dola Wereda, East Guji, and their body was brought to Harekelo town. Local sources said residents wanted to burn the body yet police protected it, leading to conflict between police and residents.
Barrel of the gun
It is important to understand one of the reasons that OLA sticks to armed struggle. Modern Ethiopia, since its creation in the 1890s, had always been ruled by iron fist. So far, power has always come from the barrel of a gun. Ethiopian politics is well-known for the culture of violence. There is a widespread belief that Ethiopia has never conducted fair elections and never will, and the trend of holding power through coercion will continue. So, the conclusion is the OLA should not disarm but continue with the armed struggle.
The truth is that a chunk of the Ethiopian public still believes armed insurrection is the right way to struggle against oppression. It should be obvious instead that Ethiopia needs to transition from war to peace and that it’s difficult to build democracy after coming to power at the barrel of the gun. That will keep us in the vicious circle of violence. Therefore sticking to non-violent struggle is crucial and needs all sides to renounce violence. Even if a truly fair election seems impossible within a few years, everyone should work towards that goal.
But to argue in Ethiopia that all that has to be done is to renounce violence is to swim against the tide of history, and ignore the reality of power in the country. Given the picture I saw in my two months on the ground, that utopian dream of an Ethiopia where guns are not the arbiter of power is – for now – just that, a dream.