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Ethiopia: The Oromo Liberation Army is not a terrorist organisation

Soretti Kadir
By Soretti Kadir

Storyteller, poet, facilitator

Posted on Tuesday, 27 July 2021 11:36

Festival of Oromo people in Bishoftu
Oromia Special Force members wait to check attendees during Irreecha celebrations, the thanksgiving festival of the Oromo people, in Bishoftu town, Oromia region, Ethiopia, October 4, 2020. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Nagesso’s attempt to frame the Oromo Liberation Army as a terrorist organisation is full of disinformation, half truths, uninformed and deliberately confusing arguments.

This piece is a response to the article “Ethiopia: Victory for the Oromo will come from winning hearts and minds, not terrorising people” that was written by Nagesso Dube.

Nagesso – a staunch supporter of the current Ethiopian government – claims that the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA’s) operations are terrorising communities (which we will discuss in more detail later).

“I was one of the pioneers in introducing nonviolence to the Qeerroo movement and leading its successful nonviolence campaign that ousted the TPLF,” he says. Without suggesting it directly to support his attempts at providing an objective analysis, by positioning himself as an advocate of peace, and with his proximity to the government, Nagesso is effectively describing the methodology of the governing Prosperity Party (led PM Abiy Ahmed) as one focused on winning ‘minds and hearts’, not ‘terrorising people’.

But Nagesso supports a party that has incited and led campaigns of mass arrest, extrajudicial killings, political repression and genocidal rampages in many regions of Ethiopia. I am not sure how these tactics win hearts and minds; in fact, they sound a lot like the characteristics of terrorism.

The ranks of the OLA are not filling up today because of the TPLF, they are filling up because Oromia is a war zone under the administration of the Prosperity Party.

In the first paragraph of the articled that was published on 18 June, Negasso says: “The terrorism of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) is not advancing Oromo interests. Nonviolence succeeds more often than violence in securing political power. Its adherents are sometimes killed and hurt. But the number of casualties is less than those in war, and the political gains from nonviolence tend to be more durable.”

Nagesso has unequivocally equated the operations of the OLA to terrorism. The definition of the word ‘terrorism’ is ‘the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.’

Armed struggle against a nation or state is not, by default, considered terrorism under international law, even if the given nation or state that the struggle is taken up against, labels the said armed operation as terrorist activity. So, the fact that the OLA engages in an armed struggle cannot, in and of itself, constitute them as a terrorist organisation.

And as Nagessa says, “Jaal Marroo denied committing atrocities against civilians in a 29 March 2021 interview titled ‘Is Ethiopia hurtling towards all-out ethnic conflict?’” What Negesso leaves out here is that in that interview, as well as a number of press statements, the OLA has made it clear that they are ready and willing to accept independent investigations into all the accusations made against the organisation.

If the OLA were indeed committing the war crimes that Nagesso and others claim that they are, why would they invite – on numerous occasions – fact-finding missions to affirm these allegations? It is also worth noting that the Ethiopian government has not demonstrated an interest in having independent investigations conducted in Oromia.

Rather than a focus on an independent investigation as the only way to corroborate or falsify both the OLA’s and GVT’s claims, Nagesso appointed himself the authority over objective truth and dissemination of correct information regarding the OLA’s operations, saying: “My aim is to expose unlawful killings of unarmed civilians who are not police, soldiers, or militia.”

Discrediting OLA’s operations

An independent investigation is also critical because the OLA has, on more than one occasion, accused the Ethiopian government of staging attacks on civilians, particularly against the minority Amhara group in Oromia, to discredit the OLA’s operations and delegitimize their cause in the eyes of the local and international community.

In the context of such serious accusations, Nagesso, especially considering his proximity to the government, cannot be considered a source of unbiased or credible information. Nagesso says: “OLA does apparently target civilian government employees to instill fear in the public. Their intent is evidently to weaken the government by dismantling its structure.”

What Negasso does is point to the intrinsic values and codes of conduct of the people, as the cause of this infatuation with arms, rather than identify why armed resistances have permeated every chapter of Ethiopia’s existence.

The last sentence is spot on and a classical approach of any armed guerrilla movement. However, Negesso’s analysis that the targeting of government employees is to “instill fear in the public” is not accurate. As a determining force in the political future of Oromia, it is important that the local and international community are not misled in their attempts to understand the mission, code of conduct and operations of the OLA.

Government employees at kebele levels have, now and in the past, been responsible for the torture, execution and arrest of Oromo people living in their region.

Nagesso claims that “Liban Halake, a kebele chairman from Borana zone Dhas woreda, Gorile kebele was assassinated by OLA” and that the “OLA killed Mr. Waaqgaarii Qajeelaa, the head of transportation for West Wollega zone, along with five other government officials.” The OLA have not officially claimed responsibility for these killings, but assuming that they have, what was the role of these individuals in the war that the OLA are fighting?

Under Abiy’s regime, Waaqgarii worked as the leader of the security branch in Western Wallaga, an area where all government security apparatus are engaged in daily arrests, killings and torture of civilians. At the time of his assassination, Waaqgaarii was travelling with armed security forces. Liban Halake was widely known for his participation in hunting down OLA supporters and soldiers in the Borana area and for his ruthlessness when he detained them.

Dynamics of the liberation struggle

The principle of distinction in international humanitarian law requires that warring parties make a distinction between military and civilian targets. The state officials that the OLA targets are direct facilitators of the war crimes that the Ethiopian government commits against the Oromo people. If OLA was responsible for these two assassinations, then they cannot be considered to be individuals disengaged from the war that the OLA is fighting.

Nagesso also claims that “the OLA violates the fundamental principles and laws of Gadaa and Safuu (moral and ethical order) as “enshrined in gadaa commandments that an Oromo doesn’t kill another Oromo.” This principle stands, but in this context, it doesn’t exist in isolation from the other tenants of Safuu and Gadaa.

It is also important to closely deconstruct the political make-up of the OLA and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) that Nagesso has offered in his piece because it is inaccurate.

Ever since the cogs of Ethiopia’s conquest project began turning, Oromo individuals have accepted to participate in the oppression of their people in gruesome and barbaric ways. This has created one of the most complicated dynamics in the Oromo liberation struggle.

In this context, there are two laws of Safuu that intersect with the law prohibiting an Oromo to kill another Oromo, which in turn, creates the moral ground for OLA’s operations. According to the law of Gumaa, if injustice is perpetrated upon you, you must outline the terms upon which that injustice must be rectified, be it involving financial or other compensation. “Gumaan yo hin baane”, or, “if the price for the injustice has not been honored”, the law states the one harmed has the right to administer their own justice.

The second law is Mirga Itisa, the right to self-defense. In a context where Oromo individuals are at the helm of the violence against the Oromo mass, and in a historical context where not a single, fruitful effort to administer transformative justice has been achieved or Gumaa paid, we cannot consider the law of not killing an Oromo in isolation, in a war context.

‘Normalisation of violence’

It is also key to note the grading system that the OLA uses when applying IHL of distinction to Oromo people. If a person is engaged in activities that support the OLA’s opponent but they are doing it out of fear for their life/under coercion and/or are doing so to provide for or protect their families, they are not considered a target.

It is only in the case where an Oromo is engaged in supporting the government out of the desire to attain wealth, power, notoriety or, just enjoy oppressing others, that they are considered a target. Nagesso also makes a probing analysis of the celebration and normalisation of violence in Ethiopian political life, and I share his analysis; never has power changed hands in Ethiopia without violence.

Even the recent pseudo elections led by the Prosperity Party were held against the backdrop of conflicts across the country, including targeted arrests and killings to silence dissidents who were opposing and disrupting preparations for the sham vote.

It is important that the local and international community are not misled in their attempts to understand the mission, code of conduct and operations of the OLA.

But what Negasso does is essentially point to the intrinsic values and codes of conduct of the people, as the cause of this infatuation with arms, rather than identify why armed resistances have permeated every chapter of Ethiopia’s existence.

I can’t speak for any other people in Ethiopia because I am not acquainted with their indigenous world views and value systems, but I know that there is nothing that the Oromo moral code of Safuu and its instituting system of the Gadaa values more than peace.

For example, even if the Oromo are warring with you for a decade, if the enemy party proposes peace talks and the Oromo accept, bound by Safuu, they cannot arrive at the negotiating venue armed, despite the risks of ambush.

During the expansion of Menelik II to Oromia, Menelik’s efforts to defeat Abishe Gerba (ruler of Horo Guduru, Wallaga) were challenged by another expansionist, Tekla Haimanot of Gojam. With a cavalry of 400, Tekla knew he would not be able to beat Abishe in war, so offered a peace deal, which Abishe was bound to accept by Safuu and entered the place of negotiation in Gojam, unarmed and without his horse. The cavalry was massacred, their horses mutilated and Abishe captured and killed in a gruesome way.

It was not Abishe’s belief  – that there was no danger in attending such an arrangement unarmed – that left him vulnerable, but his commitment to the tenets of Safuu or ethics. Moreover, using song and geerarsa (a form of poetry) to remember martyrs and celebrate victories in war is an age-old tradition; but this a lot to do with the fact that the Oromo are a people who have, until recently, relied solely on oral transmission to collect and preserve memory.

Sloppy argument

A love for violence is not intrinsic to the Oromo worldview, but the reality of armed resistance has found its way into representation via cultural expressions like song and poetry, because of the century-long continuum upon which the Oromo have been fighting the Ethiopian empire and because all aspects of life, be it birth, friendship or war, are expressed and commemorated through song, poetry and proverbs.

There is also something to be said about how the human temperament responds to experiences that naturally evoke feelings of despair and loss. Giving up relationships, one’s aspirations for life, and more to join an armed struggle, has the potential to cause feelings of hopelessness; so people actively find ways to inject joy and hope into those conditions, to empower and dignify one another as shaper of their fates, and not merely as subjects of it.

Under the subheading ‘justifying violence’, Negasso states that “OLA leaders justify their violence by citing the Ethiopian government human rights violations such as extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detentions of civilians during its military operations against OLA.

Subsequently, he states: “The TPLF intentionally stoked or fabricated ethnic tensions and fear as a strategy for control. Now, through exaggeration of genuine grievances or cherry-picking facts, other contenders for power have borrowed the same trick for their own aggrandisement.”

The ranks of the OLA are not filling up today because of the TPLF, they are filling up because Oromia is a war zone under the administration of the Prosperity Party.

Negasso’s attempt at using the TPLF’s previous domination of the central government as a scapegoat – for the fact that the OLA are responding to systemic and enduring state violence that is being directly perpetuated by the current Ethiopian government – is sloppy.

It is also important to closely deconstruct the political make-up of the OLA and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) that Nagesso has offered in his piece because it is inaccurate.

The OLA is not an ‘offshoot’ of the ‘much older’ OLF. It is the institution that, until very recently, served as the military wing of the OLF. In fact, Oromos organised themselves for armed resistance before deciding to formally instate the OLF as a political and military front. Even though it was not called the OLA, the armed movement of the OLF, technically, came first.

The right to determine their destiny

Nagesso conclusively states that the OLA rejected the peace agreement, whilst in the previous paragraph, tries to make a distinction between the OLA and those that were disarmed.

They were the same unit. Some disarmed, and some did not, but they were not two different organised groups. Those that didn’t disarm did not do so because they were skeptical, and rightfully so; as only months after the so-called peace deal, those that disarmed, and new members, began flocking back to OLA grounds after witnessing that the peace deal was a sham. Nagesso also states that it is an “open secret that OLA acts as the armed wing of the OLF”, further befuddling his already convoluted points.

The OLA was the armed wing of the OLF; that was not a secret. The OLA has not attempted to reform its political identity to separate it from the OLF at a public level; but they are not collaborators in armed struggle as they once were, that is certain.

Both the OLA and OLF still struggle for the Oromo nation’s right to determine its destiny. The OLA do this via armed struggle not because they love war, but because they see no room for a peaceful political resolution. On the other hand, the OLF have decided to struggle via a peaceful political process.

Nagesso’s article, which is an attempt to frame the OLA as a terrorist organisation, is full of disinformation, half-truths as well as uninformed and deliberately confusing arguments.

As a determining force in the political future of Oromia, it is important that the local and international community are not misled in their attempts to understand the mission, code of conduct and operations of the OLA.

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