Ethiopia: Who is Jaal Marroo, the military leader in charge of the OLA?

By Jaysim Hanspal
Posted on Thursday, 11 November 2021 10:28, updated on Friday, 12 November 2021 08:20

A man holds a flag of Oromo Liberation Front during the opening ceremony of Irreecha celebration in Addis Ababa
A man holds a flag of Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) during the opening ceremony of Irreecha celebration, the Oromo People thanksgiving ceremony in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia October 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Jaal Marroo, the Ethiopian military leader in charge of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), has warned Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that his rebels are inching closer to victory, as the conflict in Ethiopia continues to escalate.

“What I am sure [of] is that it is going to end very soon. We are preparing to push for another launch, and for another attack. The government is just trying to buy time, and they are trying to instigate [a] civil war in this country, so they are calling for the nation to fight,” Marroo said in an interview with AFP on Sunday 7 November.

Oromo movement splits

Since the creation of the OLF in 1973, the OLA has been the armed wing of the Oromo movement that has sought self-determination for its people in the Oromia region. In 2018, a peace agreement between the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ethiopian government, under a newly elected Abiy Ahmed, effectively put an end to the 45-year Oromo conflict, and allowed for the return of the OLF opposition group. This culminated in a ceremony at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, with longtime leader Dawud Ibsa and other OLF leaders being formally welcomed home, after having lived in exile.

However, Marroo was wary of Abiy’s new ‘reformed’ government and refused to disarm. He saw the return of the OLF as merely a symbolic victory of the Oromo people and thus declared that without an armed force, the Oromos would never have leverage should the government go back on its promises. Subsequently, the OLF and OLA went their separate ways, with the latter vowing to continue with armed attacks in Oromia.

In August 2021, the OLA announced that it had joined Tigray soldiers in the fight against Prime Minister Abiy’s Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF). On 5 November, the United Forces, consisting of Tigray and OLA forces and seven other rebel groups, signed a joint statement to consolidate their message against the Ethiopian government.

“Establishing this United Front is essentially meant to remove, first and for[e]most the genocidal regime in Ethiopia and set up a transitional arrangement whereby all concerned parties/entities in the country come together and discuss the future of Ethiopia and its people. It certainly will help save the country from further carnage, on the one hand, and pave the way for different identities in the country to decide about their fate on the other,” a spokesperson for the group tells The Africa Report.

A leader in hiding

Born Miliyon Diriba, but known as Kusma to his friends, the revolutionary leader’s past is described by followers as an epic saga – mysterious and designed to inspire. He chose Jaal Marroo as his nom de guerre, with ‘Jaal’ meaning comrade in Oromoo. 

In 2003, Marroo attended Addis Ababa University to study management. A leader in the making, he was part of the ‘The struggle to resist oppression (FDG)’ movement and was often arrested.

During one altercation, which was documented by the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), “plain-clothes security personnel apprehended six students and beat them up after taking them to a place located at the back of the Christmas Hall”.

His time at the university, and as part of the underground movement ‘Youth for the Freedom of Oromia (Qeerroo Bilisumma Oromoo)’, inspired him to join OLA’s southern front. In 2008, after fleeing to Kenya, Ethiopian authorities eventually apprehended him in Uganda and jailed him for a year and a half.

According to the pro-OLA community of Oromia, they financed a legal team to free Marroo to escape to Eritrea.

He only returned to the country after the death of OLA commander Jaal Legesse Wogi on the Western Front in 2010, an event that led to the withdrawal of OLA forces in the area.

His brother, Sisay Diriba, is an agricultural economist lecturer at Haramaya University in Ethiopia, and often posts pro-OLA statements on his Facebook page.

In one post, he says: “…Oromo goes to war for two things (1) fighting for justice and winning, (2) fighting for justice while fighting for his justice and being sacrificed on [the] history record…”

In December 2020, Sisay accused the Ethiopian government of beating his parents and abducting his legally blind father.

A tumultuous history

The Oromo community is the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia and has the fourth most widely spoken language in Africa. In a country where ethnic killings are now commonplace, the OLA’s role in the ongoing conflicts in Ethiopia is pivotal to unravelling the country’s future.

Ethiopia is collapsing while the world is looking for [the] wrong [solution] to save the country, when it is too little too late.

The OLA has often faced accusations of kidnappings and bomb attacks, culminating in an attack in the village of Gawa Qanqa in November 2020, which resulted in the deaths of 54 people, mostly from the Amhara community. Amnesty International reported that the perpetrators were “suspected members of the Oromo Liberation Army”.

In an online interview published the day after the attacks, Marroo condemned the attacks on Amhara and denied claims that his army carried out the attacks on unarmed civilians.

In March the following year, the leader once again publicly condemned the attacks. “For the atrocities committed on innocent Amhara people in Western Oromia, the Ethiopian government is solely responsible,” he said. “An independent body has to be given access to [the] areas alleged, and OLA is beyond ready to cooperate [with] investigations.”

He said: “Ethiopia is collapsing while the world is looking for [the] wrong [solution] to save the country, when it is too little too late.”

Between the lines

In 2015, the government enacted ‘the master plan’ – a proposal that attempted to expand the capital city into the surrounding Oromia state. At least 10 students were killed in protests against the plan, a common reaction to peaceful protests by the Oromo community. A year earlier, Amnesty released a report that revealed how between 2011 and 2014, at least 5000 Oromos had been arrested based on their actual or suspected peaceful opposition to the government.

Facebook groups dedicated to Marroo are plastered with images of defiance and stories of violence untold on mainstream channels. In May 2019, a group called ‘Jaal Marroo wbo’ said: “In Harar city, they killed an Oromo student named Obsa.” Other posts condemn the “precipitating genocide on Oromo people”. These accusations are hard to verify externally, but they continue to add fuel to the rising tension between OLA supporters and pro-government allies.

In 2016, Human Rights Watch published a report on the Irreecha cultural festival incident, after hundreds of Oromo people died during a panic-induced stampede, allegedly caused by the government’s security forces. The government denies any responsibility for the deaths that opposition groups estimate are nearly 700.

Last year, in a report on human rights violations by Ethiopian security forces, Amnesty confirmed horrific acts of violence in Amhara and Oromia. The report says: “Ethiopian security forces committed horrendous human rights violations including burning homes to the ground, extrajudicial executions, rape, arbitrary arrests and detentions, sometimes of entire families.”

Amnesty recommends that “the Ethiopian government take special measures to ensure that security forces stop committing human rights violations”.

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