Soon after the talks ended on 3 May, the OLA – an outlawed splinter group of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) opposition party – accused federal authorities of launching a renewed offensive.
Merera Gudina, the veteran chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), a major Oromo nationalist opposition party, said in an interview that both sides are now in a “demonstration of force in order to find leverage they could use at the negotiation table.”
[A transition administration] is the only agreeable course of action – Bate Urgessa
With the prospect of peace dimming, challenges also exist beyond the fighting. Oromo nationalist opponents of the government seek more autonomy, while many people in Oromia believe that the ruling Prosperity Party wants to water down ethnic rights.
Oromo nationalist factions agree on goals but not on tactics, while there is an increasing clash between Oromo and Amhara nationalists, who have different interpretations of Ethiopia’s imperial past.
Jaal Marro, OLA Commander in Chief, has said that while the rebel group is open to a negotiated resolution, it cannot compromise the Oromo people’s right to sovereignty over their ancestral land.
To guarantee this, the OLA wants a transitional administration in Oromia. Bate Urgessa, spokesman for the OLF – the parent party of the OLA and original flag bearer of Oromo nationalism – agrees that doing so is the “only agreeable course of action until a free and fair election is held.”
Power can only be acquired by the ballot – Abiy Ahmed
While Merera’s OFC recognises the OLA’s leading role in talks, the party believes the political stage of the peace process should include other stakeholders to ensure that all Oromo views are represented.
Federal authorities have so far insisted on early OLA disarmament – something the OLA views warily. From the ruling Prosperity Party’s perspective, a transitional government is unacceptable, given that a large chunk of its parliamentary bloc comes from Oromia.
Speaking in parliament on 28 March, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said that “government power will not be subject to negotiation between me and others” and that “power can only be acquired by the ballot”.
If ensuring constitutional rule and his own power are Abiy’s priorities, a primary concern of Oromo nationalists is to protect constitutionally enshrined autonomy rights.
They therefore objected to a recent government think tank study claiming significant public opposition to the federal system, and believe Abiy’s administration is softening the ground for constitutional changes.
That is anathema to Oromo nationalists, who support the constitution but say it has never been implemented. In addition, they have demands such as placing Afaan Oromo as a working language of the federal government alongside Amharic, and making Addis Ababa’s administration accountable to Oromia’s government rather than to the federal government.
Abiy’s government is engaged in demeaning and disguising the Oromo identity – Alemayehu Diro
The various groups of Oromo nationalists espouse different approaches. For example, the OFC doesn’t push secession as an option while the OLA’s stance is bolder. The OLF, which laid down its arms and returned from exile in 2018, says it will be led by the Oromo people.
Many Oromos are united, however, on the issue of government rights abuses during the repression of opposition voices. The OLF is contending with a government campaign to arrest its leaders and their families. Its former armed wing, the OLA, went its own way in 2019 after refusing to disarm, saying the government violated its agreements with the OLF.
Alemayehu Diro, an OLF official, believes the intensifying physical attacks on Oromos and rhetorical hostility to their identity during the ongoing conflict has “emboldened the desire for the independence of Oromia”.
According to a 32-year-old Oromo activist based in Burayu, an Oromia town just outside Addis Ababa, support for the OLA has risen during its armed struggle. “The OLA is presently the strongest force capable of ending the suffering our people have endured for over a century and a half,” he said in an interview.
Still, not all Oromos support the OLA’s armed resistance. Nagessa Dube, a former deputy attorney general in Oromia, is outspoken against the OLA and has advocated for non-violent struggle. Opponents of Abiy’s government also support peaceful resistance, notably the OLF and the OFC.
Beyond any factionalism among Oromos, the most intractable political tensions exist between Oromos and Amharas, who constitute a minority in Oromia.
Amhara nationalists, former allies of Abiy, increasingly portray him as falling under the sway of Oromo nationalism, and some even accuse the government of allying with OLA forces to massacre Amharas in Oromia.
OLA leaders deride such accusations and claim government forces have formed a “counterfeit” OLA – as detailed in a Washington Post report about rebel leader Fekade Abdisa – that attacks Amharas to undermine its movement. They also point to Amhara militia attacks on Oromo civilians in Oromia and Amhara regions.
One Burayu resident in his mid-20s claims Amhara elites have attacked the Oromo identity, partly by associating it with a “fabricated” narrative of Oromo supremacy.
The OLF’s Alemayehu contends that only Oromo government supporters and Amhara nationalists believe Abiy’s administration is an Oromo government, and that its actions – such as Abiy’s glorification of emperors that denied Oromo rights – point the other way.
In addition to the violence, “Abiy’s government is busy putting Menelik’s and Haile Selassie’s statues in the palace and is engaged in demeaning and disguising the Oromo identity,” he says.
There's more to this story
Get unlimited access to our exclusive journalism and features today. Our award-winning team of correspondents and editors report from over 54 African countries, from Cape Town to Cairo, from Abidjan to Abuja to Addis Ababa. Africa. Unlocked.
Already a a subscriber Sign In