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Oromo Liberation Front (OLF)

Ethiopia suffered days of unrest since the killing of a prominent musician and activist. More than 240 people were killed by 12 July 2020 in protests following the death of the ethnic Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa. The 34-year-old was shot dead in Addis Ababa on 29 June 2020 night. Large crowds gathered for his funeral in his hometown of Ambo on 02 July 2020. Hachalu's songs focused on the rights of the Oromo people. They became anthems in the wave of anti-government protests between 2015 and 2018. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed held an emergency meeting over Hachalu's killing. He said the assailants want to trigger civil unrest and de-rail Ethiopia's democratic reforms.

Despite euphoria at Abiy’s appointment, strife continued in Oromia. Much was linked to the August 2018 return of rebel Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) leaders to Ethiopia. Qeerroo youth groups run riot through parts of the capital, including its outskirts in Oromia. While the OLF’s return was conditioned on its participation in democratic politics, ODP officials accused it of continuing to foment armed rebellion. Since coming back to Ethiopia, the rebel movement, already fragmented, has split again.

Oromos make up around one-third - around 35 million - of the population of Ethiopia and reside predominantly in the south, central and western parts of Ethiopia. Oromos speak Oromo and are mainly Christian or Muslim. Christians are primarily Catholic or Adventist rather than Orthodox, as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was associated with the dominant Amhara cultural group. Elite Oromo actors, such as Ras Gobana (192?-1888). Fit. Habta Giyorgis (184?-1926) and "Ras" Mikael (later "Negus" r. 1914-1916) played key roles in the state and brought it into the modern age during the reign of Menilek, and after when they put one of their own, Iyasu Mikael, on the throne through an alliance of the Shawan and Wallo Oromo elites in 1913.

Historically, Oromos have faced restrictions in their use of language, literature and media. Despite the size of the Oromo population, Oromos have not had proportionate representation in parliament, arguably due to the current voting system and have faced discrimination in obtaining employment, including in senior levels of government and the security services. Some Oromos have been subject to harassment, arbitrary arrest and ill-treatment at the hands of the state.

In April 2018, Abiy Ahmed – an Oromo and leader of the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), which forms part of the ruling coalition – became prime minister. Once in power he replaced long-serving politicians and appointed Oromos to key positions in government. At his cabinet reshuffle in mid-May 2018, Abiy removed long-serving and powerful Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) officials, which caused some astonishment. The majority of the cabinet now consists of Oromo, the previously influential TPLF [Tigray People’s Liberation Front] remains with only two ministers. The change in the composition of the government, and the nomination by the regime of an Oromo prime minister, seemed to indicate an improved position and influence of Oromos in political life.

Ahmed Abiy’s political party, the Oromo People Democratic Organisation (OPDO) rebranded, changing its name and logo as it seeks to position itself in the changing political space in Oromia region and at the national level. At a September 2018 delegates conference attended by over 6000 members of the party including the chair Abiy, and his vice and president of Oromia state, Lemma Megersa, OPDO changed its name to Oromo Democratic Party (ODP). Ethiopia’s Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), which was part of the ruling coalition formalised its merged with the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF), which recently returned from exile. Oromia state president, Lemma Megersa, who was ODP’s deputy chair signed a memorandum of understanding with ODF’s chair, Lencho Leta. Historically, harassment and ill-treatment by the state against Oromos has been in the context of the government’s handling of those in opposition to, or who were perceived to be, in opposition to the government, rather than on the basis of Oromo ethnicity alone. With the arrival of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in April 2018 and the widening of the political space, treatment of political opponents – including politically active Oromos who opposed the government – has generally improved.

The Minority Rights Group International (MRGI) World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples stated: ‘The Oromo community constitutes the largest ethnic group in the country, with some estimates suggesting they comprise between 25 and 40 per cent of the population.’ The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Country Information Report – Ethiopia (The DFAT report 2017) noted ‘Oromos make up the largest single ethnic group in Ethiopia, at around 35 per cent of the population.’ The United States State Department (USSD) Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 2018 stated that the Oromos are the largest of Ethiopia’s 80 ethnic groups, making up approximately 34 percent of the population. The CIA World Factbook stated that the Oromos are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, making up 34.4% of Ethiopia’s population of 108,386,391 (July 2018 estimate).

The outlawed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was widely supported -- at least in principle -- among Ethiopia's largest ethnic group. The OLF began as a student movement in 1973 with the purpose of armed opposition to Derg rule in Ethiopia at the time. The OLF's declared mission was self-determination for the Oromo people, the largest ethnic group in the country.

After the collapse of the imperial regime in 1974, the OLF increased its military activities after it became evident that the Mengistu regime would not allow the Oromo to elect their own representatives to run peasant associations or to use their own language in schools and newspapers. The OLF began an offensive against the Ethiopian government in Harerge in 1974, but sustained activities did not begin until 1976. The OLF subsequently extended its sphere of activity to Welega. Young, educated Oromo from Arsi initially composed the OLF leadership, but by 1976 the organization claimed a broad-based leadership with a following from all Oromo areas. Beyond national liberation, the OLF's program called for the establishment of an independent Democratic Republic of Oromia, which would include all of central and southern Ethiopia, excluding the Ogaden and Omo River regions.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the OLF experienced a resurgence. According to spokesmen, the organization had 5,000 fighters and more than 10,000 militia personnel; most other sources, however, suggested that the OLF's personnel strength was much lower. In 1985 the OLF overran the gold- mining town of Agubela and "freed" about 1,000 mine workers. The rebels also confiscated coffee valued at approximately US$2 million from the Ethiopian Coffee Marketing Board.

In early 1988, the Ethiopian army attacked OLF forces in Welega. Fierce fighting occurred around the garrison towns in Kelem and Gimbi awraja. Shortly after these battles, the OLF acknowledged that it had received support from the EPLF and the TPLF. Despite this activity, however, some Western observers believed that the OLF was still in the fledgling stage of its growth. Its chief weakness remained its inability to mobilize and coordinate the activities of its eastern wing in Harerge, Bale, Sidamo, and Arsi. As a result, another organization, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), competed with the OLF for the loyalty and support of the peoples living in the east.

On June 10, 1989, the OLF reported that it had "disarmed" an unspecified number of Ethiopian soldiers and freed more than 2,000 Oromo prisoners by destroying five "concentration camps" in Gara Muleta awraja in Harerge. The following October, the OLF also engaged the Ethiopian army in Welega and Harerge. From November 10 to November 17, 1989, the OLF held its second congress in Golelola in Harerge. Besides adopting many antigovernment resolutions, the congress promised increased military activities against the Mengistu regime. A few weeks later, in December, OLF units, with EPLF support, launched an offensive that eventually resulted in the capture of the town of Asosa along the Ethiopian- Sudanese border. The OLF also escalated activities in Harerge after many Ethiopian army units redeployed to other locations in Ethiopia.

After occupying Asosa in January 1990, the OLF launched no further offensives against Mengistu's army until the end of the year, when OLF units saw action at several locations in western parts of the country. In 1991 the OLF remained largely in the background as the EPRDF and the EPLF fought their final battles against government forces. The OLF's last military action before the demise of the Mengistu regime occurred at Dembi Dolo in southerwestern Welega, when some of its units reportedly killed more than 700 government soldiers.

By the late 1980s, the OLF had approximately 200 combatants in Harerge and about 5,000 in Welega. OLF troops were poorly armed and unable to pose a serious threat to the Ethiopian army. In addition, the OLF had been unable to mobilize popular support against the Ethiopian government. This failure resulted from the OLF's inability to organize an effective antigovernment movement, to convince the majority of Oromo people that separatism was a viable political alternative, or to sustain military operations in the geographically separated areas of Welega, Arsi, and Harerge. In spite of these difficulties, in 1989 the OLF announced several military successes against the Ethiopian armed forces, especially in Asosa, a town on the Sudanese-Ethiopian border.

On the political side, in February 1988 the OLF convened its first national congress at Begi in newly created Asosa Region. Apart from expressing support for the EPLF and the TPLF, the congress condemned the Mengistu regime and voiced opposition to the government's villagization and resettlement policies.

The OLF was formerly a partner of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The lack of power sharing by the EPRDF led it to advocate armed struggle against the GoE in 1992. When the EPRDF overthrew the Derg regime in 1991, the OLF registered as a political party, and was given 4 minister-level positions in the transitional government. To ensure broad political representation, an eighty-seven member Council of Representatives was created, which was to select the new president, draft a new constitution, and oversee a transition to a new national government. The EPRDF occupied thirty-two of the eighty-seven council seats. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) received twelve seats, and the TPLF, the Oromo People's Democratic Organization, and the Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement each occupied ten seats. Twenty-seven other groups shared the remaining seats.

Primary control of the government was in the hands of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the core of the current EPRDF government. The OLF's participation in national government was short-lived, however, as it rejected the TPLF's demands that the OLF disband its army and allow the formation of a national army of Ethiopia. This led the OLF to leave parliament and subsequently to call for armed uprising and become an outlawed party in Ethiopia.

In late 2005, the EPRDF leadership made overtures to the OLF to engage in dialogue. Though initially the government stated that these talks would occur without preconditions, they subsequently insisted the OLF disarm before the discussions went any further. The OLF balked at these demands and continued its struggle as an underground, youth-dominated, armed movement fighting against what it views as a minority-controlled government. In a November 2005 press release, the OLF called for the Oromo to continue to "wage their defiant and determined struggle" against the government using "different tactics." In this statement they simultaneously call for a conference of all Ethiopian parties (including the ruling EPRDF) in order to "save the country from destruction."

Though the party was outlawed in 1992, support for the OLF remained strong. Many residents of the Oromia region of Southern Ethiopia support the organization to some degree. Even legal Oromo parties participating in parliament (ONC, OFDM) have admitted to Poloffs in meetings that there are significant portions of their constituencies that may have voted for their parties, but actually would vote for the OLF if it were a legal party. Clandestine sources have reported that it was common practice for small groups of OLF representatives to visit towns in Oromia on market day to disseminate OLF propaganda.

The OLF's struggle had been tainted in the eyes of many by its embrace of the "enemy of my enemy is my friend" approach. In addition to cooperation with the outlawed ONLF, all-sources reporting indicates that the OLF receives training, funding and arms from the Government of Eritrea. There have been numerous reports of groups of OLF activists moving back and forth between Asmara and OLF bases in Northern Kenya, Eastern Sudan, or Western Somalia. This relationship was known to the Government of Ethiopia.

Another group from which the OLF derived support was the Oromo diaspora in Europe and the United States. Much of the funding for OLF activities was believed to come from sympathizers abroad. The OLF participated in the formation of the Alliance for Freedom and Democracy (AFD), a coalition of political and armed groups allying themselves against the rule of the EPRDF. Members of the AFD include the OLF, the ONLF, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), the Ethiopian Peoples Patriotic Front (EPPF), the Sidama Liberation Front (SLF), and the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF). While this group does not explicitly support violent overthrow of the GoE, the OLF, the ONLF, and the Amhara-based EPPF have not renounced the use of violence. ONLF and EPPF military operations against the Ethiopian armed forces are ongoing.

There was no evidence to suggest the OLF had been involved in hijacking of civilian conveyances (e.g., bus, train, aircraft). However, in 2003 there were numerous reports of bombs placed on trains, on railway tracks and in a railway station on the route from Addis Ababa to Djibouti. The only reported loss of life from these attacks occurred on September 23, 2003, when a bomb was placed on a passenger train that was carrying Ethiopian military personnel. Reports of precise numbers vary, but at least 2 people were killed in this attack. The OLF likely had some involvement in a series of bombings of six restaurants and hotels in Ethiopia from 1996 to 2002. Casualties from these bombings were minimal, although precise numbers are not available.

There were clandestine reports that the OLF routinely targetted government officials, their offices, and private property belonging to the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO), one of the constituent members of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. These reports indicate however, that non-government related civilians were not deliberately targeted. The OLF likely engaged in nuisance bombings involving grenades and other small explosives. It was reported that these explosions have occurred in relatively isolated areas late at night and appear to be designed to minimize casualties. Further, this style of explosion was relatively common in Ethiopia and it was difficult to assign responsibility to specific incidents.

The OLF openly states that one of the tactics they employ to achieve their goal of self determination for the Oromo people was armed struggle against military targets. However, the OLF also states on its website that it was opposed to targeting civilians in these armed activities. Clandestine sources have substantiated this, indicating that since 09/11/2001, the OLF has become more restrictive in its targeting in order to avoid being labeled a terrorist organization. This conflicts with the GoE view that the OLF indiscriminately targets civilians, rather than military targets. The GoE has long accused the OLF of a variety of violent activities involving civilians. GoE investigations into such incidents have generally failed to yield conclusive public findings or criminal charges.

There was little doubt that the OLF planned, participated in, and supported activities against military targets. By 2006 the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) had grown concerned by OLF successes in recruiting new supporters from among the security services and the ENDF itself. While these penetrations likely do not pose a threat to the integrity of the ENDF, the GoE increasingly lost confidence in its ethnic Oromo military and security service members. In addition to officially declaring "armed resistance" against the Ethiopian military, it was also widely known and confirmed by clandestine sources the OLF had cooperated with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), an armed group based in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Clandestine reports indicate that the OLF and ONLF coordinated activities and provided limited mutual support to one another, and have occasionally jointly engaged the Ethiopian military in the Ogaden region.

In April 2010 an Ethiopian court handed down a death sentence to an alleged leader of an outlawed Oromo separatist group and given stiff prison terms to 15 others convicted of plotting to overthrow the government. The accused included several prominent Oromo businessmen and politicians. Two were well-known Addis Ababa hotel operators. Another was Bekele Jirata, general secretary of the Oromo Federal Democratic Movement, or OFDM, which was part of the main opposition bloc in Ethiopia's upcoming parliamentary elections. A three-judge panel found 16 defendants guilty of conspiracy to wage war on Ethiopia's government as part of a plan to establish a separate Oromo state. Oromos are Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, comprising about 40 percent of the country's population. The defendants were arrested in 2007 and 2008 and were accused of being members or sympathizers of the Oromo Liberation Front, or OLF, which the government considers to be a terrorist group. Most were sentenced to jail terms of 10 to 13 years without parole. But alleged group leader Mesfin Abebe was sentenced to death. Another defendant, Tesfahun Chemeda, was given a life term.

The OLF was engaged in prolonged conflict with the Ethiopian government. It qualifies as a Tier III terrorist organization under INA section 212(a)(3)(B)(vi)(III) on the basis of its violent activities. INA section 212(a)(3)(B), 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(3)(B), renders inadmissible and ineligible for most immigration benefits an alien who engages in terrorist activity with any organization that, at the time of the interaction, was a terrorist organization. In turn, INA section 212(d)(3)(B)(i), 8 U.S.C. § 1182(d)(3)(B)(i), authorizes the Secretary to exempt certain terrorism-related grounds of inadmissibility in certain cases. On October 2, 2013, following consultation with the Secretary of State and the Attorney General, the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security (the “Acting Secretary”) exercised his discretionary authority not to apply certain terrorism-related inadmissibility grounds to certain aliens for voluntary activities or associations relating to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).

The Oromo protests in 2014 and 2015/16, caused by the proposed expansion of Addis Ababa and reflecting other grievances held at the time, resulted in a government crack-down and an imposition of a State of Emergency (SOE, October 2016 – August 2017), which led to arbitrary arrests, detention, ill treatment (including in prisons) and deaths.

Beginning in the fall of 2015, thousands of protesters — mostly young bachelors known as qeerroos in the Oromo language — organized boycotts and set up roadblocks, paralyzing commerce. The Oromo protests arose from opposition to the Ethiopian government’s Addis Ababa Master Plan, or ‘Integrated Regional Development Plan for Addis Ababa and the Surrounding Oromia Region’. It was a long-term project (25 years) to expand the territory of the capital, Addis Ababa which was cancelled in January 2016. The initial 2014 protests were led by university students. The same sources and Al Jazeera77 explained that the later 2015/16 protests gained support from farmers, workers and ordinary people.

By mid-2017 more than 1,200 people were reported killed during protests. Approximately 660 fatalities are from state violence against peaceful protesters, 250 from state engagement against rioters, and more than 380 people were killed by security forces following the declaration of the state of emergency in October 2016.

The website for the Queerro stated it was the National Oromian Youth Movement and The National Youth Movement for Freedom and Democracy. In relation to the group’s aims it stated ‘The Oromo Youth (Qeerroo Bilisummaa) struggle for freedom, true democracy, and self-determination rights. …The central aim the Oromo people and Qeerroo struggle was to form a nation/ country that guarantee freedom, democracy, equality and fraternity among its people.’

In traditional Oromo culture the term denotes a young bachelor. But today it has broader connotations, symbolising both the Oromo movement – a struggle for more political freedom and for greater ethnic representation in federal structures – and an entire generation of newly assertive Ethiopian youth. Since the state of emergency was lifted in August 2017, Qeerroo networks had been behind multiple strikes and protests in different parts of Oromia, despite obstacles like the total shutdown of mobile internet.

As of 2018, the Qeerroo represented an unpredictable threat, because no one knew where and how far it could lead. No one knew the precise goals or the level of organization of the Qeerroo and therefore whether they would be able to form a representative entity with clear objectives. Qeerroo, played a major role in the bloodshed, in some cases instigating attacks against other groups, as well as fellow Oromos deemed to display insufficient ethnic solidarity, and in other instances retaliating after provocations.

One of the categorical achievements of the Oromo protests was the emergence of a faction known as Team Lemma, named after Oromia President Lemma Megerssa, and offering an alternative future for EPRDF and Ethiopia. The package included replacing the old guards with a new generation of leaders and including the reformist Abiy Ahmed. Having produced Team Lemma, the Oromo protests became a full-scale revolution triggering fundamental changes in the country. The protests erased the status quo and allowed the government of Abiy Ahmed to emerge, and embark on a project of serious political and democratic reform.

Since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in April 2018 there has been a marked change in the political landscape, including the release of political prisoners (some of whom were detained during the Oromo protests of previous years) and a significant improvement in freedoms of expression and assembly. The SOE which was imposed in February 2018 (subsequent to the 2016/17 SOE and included provisions which banned demonstrations) was lifted in June 2018. Since then, protests in Oromia have significantly declined, and those that have taken place have predominately been allowed to proceed without dispersal by state forces.

Garden variety ethno-nationalist forces have made it difficult for the administration to build national consensus and to consolidate the reforms. The breakdown of law and order in many parts of the country, the existence of low-intensity violent skirmishes with armed dissident groups, and a restive youth, he added, are some of the major challenges of the Abiy administration. In Abiy’s home state of Oromia, his rivals – and even some former allies – believe the premier should do more to advance the region’s interests. The most fundamental challenge remains to be forming a constitutional architecture where the role of ethnic identity as the sole register of access to state power and resources was reconsidered.

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Page last modified: 09-11-2020 15:44:38 ZULU