Delegates of Etritrea in Finfinne: the visit that threatened the OLF?
By prof Asfaw Beyene, June 30, 2018
1. What prompted the Eritrean delegation’s visit to Ethiopia?
The purpose of the June 26 visit of Eritrean delegates to Ethiopia was to engage in peaceful dialogue and cease hostilities which started following a war sparked by a border dispute. The war took place between May 1998 and June 2000, followed by the Algiers Agreement between the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia signed on December 12, 2000 for the formal end of the war. The cease-fire established two neutral commissions, the Boundary Commission, and the Claims Commission, to propose a solution to the disputes. The two commissions presented their recommendations to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in the Netherlands. The Boundary Commission Committee delivered its decision on delimitation of the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia to representatives of the two governments on April 13, 2002, ruling that Badme lies in Eritrea. The Claims Commission ruled that Eritrea violated Article 2, paragraph 4, of the Charter of the United Nations by resorting to armed force to attack, and is liable to compensate Ethiopia for the damages caused by that violation. Ethiopia failed to accept and implement the decision of the Boundary Commission.
On 5 June 2018, the Ethiopian government under the new Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, suddenly announced that Ethiopia accepts the terms of the Boundary Commission’s agreement as well as the outcome of the 2002 UN-backed Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission ruling which awarded the disputed territories to Eritrea. This was positively received by Eritrea, resulting in dispatch of a delegation to Ethiopia. The visit raised questions, sparked speculations, and generated conjectures that dominated the week in mass media. I am addressing some of these issues below.
2. Now, what happens to the OLF in Eritrea?
This question became more pertinent after the visit of Eritrean delegation to Ethiopia, following Dr. Abiy’s decision to start implementing the Algiers Agreement without preconditions. As stated above, the visit was primarily to honor Ethiopia’s decision to return the occupied territories of Eritrea. But the delegation’s visit took a much unexpected twist, with outpouring of love, embrace, chant, and affection which probably surprised the Eritreans. The mood chocked the delegates, the outpouring of affection and the welcoming spirit was simply overwhelming for the two groups whose 70,000 people were spent at a primitive war just under a few decades ago, – not to mention the preceding decades of liberation war. It is a momentous time, a great picture to see by anyone who loves and respects peace. But some Oromos are worried, and others ventured as far as extrapolating the political parade as the demise of the OLF. The moral triumph of the political game orchestrated by Dr. Abiy might have had this outcome in mind. But what is its real bearing on the state of the Oromo struggle or the OLF?
I believe that the impact of such peace-talk on the Oromo struggle, regardless of the emotional outpour, is little. The return of Eritrea’s land that Ethiopia shouldn’t have occupied in the first place has no direct tie to the struggle of the Oromo people. Many mistakenly think that because the OLF has an office in Asmara, Eritrea is the home of the Oromo struggle. But it is not. Eritrea has offered a shelter to the OLF leadership during a critical time in Oromo history – a small number of OLF’s executive committee members (less than 5, I estimate), and undisclosed number of trainees are in Eritrea. But the Oromo struggle and OLF’s mission, its purpose, its flag bearers, and the bulk of its corps are housed in Oromia. Compared to the overall portfolio of the OLF or that of the Oromo struggle, the part in Eritrea is negligibly small. As such, the diaspora OLF influence on the activities of the OLF at home has been diminishing, particularly since the emergence of Qerro. However, the fate of those Oromo citizens in Eritrea, regardless of their raison de etre in Eritrea, is important to the Oromo people.
Notwithstanding our political views and disparities, the army of young Oromos who have lined up to sacrifice their lives no matter where, are treasures of the Oromo people, not only of the OLF. Oromos in Eritrea, refugees or those under the OLF patronage, are protected by many legal layers. But let us start with the worst scenario, i.e., that they will be subjects of negotiations between Eritrea and EPRDF. This is the fear I register among many of my colleagues. I don’t believe Eritrea will take such a draconian step. In fact, based on discussions I have personally partaken with some Eritreans, this is highly unlikely. It would be a second serious mistake Eritreans would have committed against the Oromo people; second to the 1991 mistake which became very costly to them too, one for which they apologized and we have acknowledged.
The second leg of the same worst scenario assumption leads to a question, what can they do to Oromos in Eritrea anyway? Pack them in a truck and send them to Oromia so that Ethiopia will put them in jail? Well, this is an unlikely scenario for which the mind must prepare itself, however. It is prudent to accept that a peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia that leads to a version presented by Dr. Abuy is irreconcilable with the continued presence of OLF in Eritrea. Simply put, Eritrea cannot accommodate Ethiopian tourists while hosting OLF camps. One has to give way, either Eritrea will reject Abiy’s expedite touristic ventures, or OLF must rethink its ally formation, or abandon it thereof. For now, I am willing to take the risk and say stay put; I think that Ethiopian tourists visiting Massawa as suggested by Dr. Abiy is for now highly unlikely, primarily not because of the presence of the OLF in Eritrea, but because of Eritrea’s own risk of trusting the Ethiopian military that is still controlled by the TPLF, and is capable of at least creating chaos even in Eritrea. The border between the two countries is packed with anti-aircraft missiles such that even international flights avoid the border. The missiles on the south side of the border are certainly manned and guarded by TPLF forces.
I see the Eritrean delegation to Ethiopia as a strike against the TPLF, with no mal-intent against the OLF. However, Dr. Abiy may have dual purposes: to also strike the TPLF against which Eritrean military support may be handy down the road, and also to isolate the OLF perhaps in preparation for peace talks from a position of power. There is a misaligned component in the political interests of Abiy and Esayas. They may agree on thwarting the threat of the TPLF, but isolating the OLF is not in Eritrea’s interest. It shouldn’t be in the interest of Abiy either, unless if his judgement is impaired by his political ambition. Rumor has it that the OLF leadership was aware of Eritrea’s visit prior to the departure of the delegates to Finfinne. So, those who are worried that the communication between Eritrea and Ethiopia for peace will harm the OLF should relax, – this is highly unlikely to happen. In fact, I can imagine Eritrea playing a positive role to facilitate true peace and democracy in Ethiopia, perhaps help Abiy to also look into another angle which he has been ignoring even when the Eritrean delegates were on the stage in Finfinne; there were no Oromo artists among the welcoming delegates. For now, PM Abiy’s answer to Oromo demands stops at offering his default identity of Oromo only, while he puts hard effort to convince and accommodate Ethiopian or Amhara nationalism. In the end, I think Eritrea’s peace as its long term and strategic interest, one upon which Ethiopia lays no more claim on its territory, depends on satisfied demand of the Oromo people. This, I think is at the crux of Eritrea’s policy. Any other short-cut could put the region on route to continued war or unrest. Even[RO1] Abiy’s overzealous yearning shows the dream of returning to the once glorious Ethiopia that included the province of Eritrea. And, this paradox will have to be digested on the Eritrean side in the aftermath of last week’s honeymoon.
3. What if Eritrea kicks out the OLF?
As I said above, this is a wild assumption, perhaps also made by those who wish ill for the OLF. Expelling the OLF doesn’t serve the interest of Eritrea. But, let us assume this happened, for the purpose of argument. Then the OLF will lose a few members of its leadership, and a fair but undisclosed number of trainees. If the OLF or the Oromo struggle can’t survive such a low blow, I say the struggle never existed and that version shall not exist. The home of the OLF, and that of the Oromo struggle should have been Oromia to start with. Fate has put the Oromo struggle on a rough road, at times in a friendly neighboring country to weather the time, and at times on the rough seas, and now among its people, its land, – its home. Its survival and victory depends on its power at home, and I am not too worried about what happens in a far transient situation, despite I accept that any loss will always be miserable. The bottom line is, the struggle should rely on itself, on its people.
4. Why doesn’t the OLF declare that it wants to go home?
Returning to Oromia should indeed be the ultimate purpose of the struggle when the conditions are right. The OLF should be open for peaceful negotiation, and I believe it has always been. It would have been wrong for the OLF to refuse talks even with Meles, leave alone Dr. Abiy who promises a lot more. If Dr. Abiy wants true peace in the country, he should have sent an olive branch to the OLF before he sent one to Eritrea. The OLF has a mission to free the Oromo people from any foreign domination. As of now, the TPLF army controls Oromia, the security has jailed thousands of Oromos, OLF is not only illegal, but also labelled as a terrorist organization by EPRDF’s parliament. It makes no sense to simply buy a ticket and fly home as some political organizations did, without even being assured they will be recognized as political organizations once they are at home. The memories of 1991 are vivid, but we are tempted to trust. We should suppress our emotions and make sure we don’t risk the lives of thousands and millions of people again. When such risk is controlled and minimized, the Oromo people are assured of their rights, the OLF can reclaim an office in Finfinne. But it should not just go home because Dr. Abiy is giving nice speeches. Thousands of Oromos are still in jail, still being killed in all corners, and even worst, the TPLF is still hunting for the OLF.
5. What happens with OLF military if OLF negotiates with EPRDF?
The negotiated outcome of the fate of the OLF army, WBO, must give confidence to WBO and the Oromo people. The Ethiopian military and security of the last 27 years is de-facto a Tigrean military. There is a need to reform the country’s military and security so that it reflects the diversity of the Ethiopian people. So, the fate of WBO is inevitably one of the main issues of negotiations when and if the opportunity arises. OLF fighters can choose to join the national army and serve in a diversified army, return to school, or simply go to their abandoned farm or business to start life again. They should be assured a counseling system, initial support, and absolutely a non-discriminating bureaucracy. But for now, WBO is not looking at the post-liberation scenario, they are looking death in the eye, willing to die so that their people can live free from domination. None of those young and determined fighters I met ever raised worries about their future to me. But they assured me they want to fight. That is determination at its best.
6. Why doesn’t the OLF support Dr. Abiy?
Political realm is not about liking a speech today, disliking another one tomorrow. There is firmness that must be reflected when aiming at a stated mission and goal. Remember, the OLF is still in arms fighting the Ethiopian regime which is led by Dr. Abiy. OLF is labelled as a terrorist organization. The OLF seeks fundamental change in the country’s political system. I just heard that a draft legislation to repeal the anti-terrorism law and the designation of the OLF as such, has been put forward. If approved, this will certainly change the dynamics of negotiations between the OLF and the Ethiopian government. In a nutshell, the OLF wants Oromos to decide their fate, own their own resources, and live freely in a democratic system in their country, without fear of prosecution. Dr. Abiy has not delivered on these, but he has promised and speaks almost the same language as the OLF on these issues. This change that he has embarked upon should be recognized. But for now, he offers a lot of promises to the Oromo, – little action. The entrenched bureaucracy is still intact, Oromo lands surrounding Finfinne are catered to the highest bidder, Macca Tulamma is still illegal, thousands or Oromo activists are still in jail, there is no independent Oromo newspaper in the country, Oromo civilians are attacked in the South, East, and West, we are not there yet to celebrate what some see as accomplishment, least fold arms. Alas, the struggle should continue. In fact, it is Dr. Abiy, in my opinion, who should support the OLF more than the OLF supporting him. This is because, Dr. Abiy’s administration faces six formidable challenges for which it needs OLF’s or Oromo people’s support to implement a transition to democratic governance in which all political organizations can freely compete:
- He doesn’t control the military nor the military security,
- He doesn’t control the security, hence his own life was in danger,
- The entrenched and corrupted EPRDF bureaucracy is still intact, opposed to any change,
- The economy is dwindling, no investment is expected without a much desired peace, including with the OLF,
- He has failed to reconcile Ethiopianism and ethnic nationalism; there is a growing mistrust of Abiy for ignoring ethnic demands, which ironically propelled him to power. Attempts to quarantine the OLF will likely create a rift within the OPDO, making it vulnerable to attacks from the TPF and conservative Amharas,
- Scattered opposition – some principled and some unprincipled, that undermine Abiy’s political actions, such as peace with Eritrea.
The issue of re-Ethiopianization of the political platform can be seen as astute move by Abiy and Lemma to capture Amhara sentiments. But this tiredly repackaged appeal for unity (coined as a call to be “summed up”, “meddemer”,) has traditionally been used to suffocate a demand for ethnic equality. Unity was appealed for every time one asks for justice. There is a need to tone down this meaningless jingle so before it revives the covert camps of those who still work at maintaining ethnic domination.
The above listed challenges could put down Abiy’s administration. But in the end, if he delivers upon the aspirations of the Oromo and the Ethiopian people to free them for Tigrean domination, set them free from unwarranted arrest and summary killings of even elementary school kids, introduce respect for life, stop the killing of young people whose lives are cut short day in day out, and make the people owners of their own destiny so they control their lands and resources, honor their culture, then Abiy would have made the job of the OLF much easier – if not fait accompli. We then will have no reason not to support Abiy, – we may even petition his nomination for Nobel Prize.