by David H. Shinn Elliott School of International Affairs George Washington University
The Oromo constitute the most numerous ethnic group in Ethiopia and occupy a huge land area that extends from the Sudan border to the Kenyan border. According to the 2007 census, the Oromo account for about 35 percent of Ethiopia’s population. (The OLF claims that the Oromo constitute almost half of Ethiopia’s population.) Throughout recent Ethiopian history, the Oromo have never held political power commensurate with their numbers, resulting in political marginalization and real and perceived grievances. The Oromo practice Islam, Christianity and traditional Oromo faiths.
The largest group is Muslim with Christians not far behind. Persons following traditional beliefs constitute the smallest percentage. Established in 1973, the fundamental objective of the OLF is the Oromo peoples’ right to national self-determination. Some in the OLF interpret this as an independent Oromia while others seek Oromo autonomy within a unified Ethiopia where the political system reflects the Oromo population percentages. The OLF describes its armed resistance as an act of self-defense by the Oromo people against successive Ethiopian governments. From its inception, however, there has been tension within the OLF between those who pursue political or military solutions to resolve Oromo grievances. The OLF opposed the Derg regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam and even aligned itself with the TPLF during the period immediately before the overthrow in 1991 of Mengistu. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the OLF controlled significant territory in southeastern Ethiopia. It opened a front in western Ethiopia in 1981 from bases in Sudan. In 1991, as the TPLF marched on Addis Ababa, the OLF advocated a policy of ethnic federalism. The OLF joined the EPRDF and EPLF at a conference in London aimed at a peaceful political transition after the fall of Mengistu.
The OLF did not, however, achieve its objective in London of convincing the EPRDF to hold a referendum on Oromo self-determination. Nevertheless, it joined the new transitional government led by the EPRDF. At the same time, it retained some of its fighting force. Its participation in the EPRDF’s transitional government was brief and contentious. The OLF objected to the procedures for district and regional elections in June 1992 and withdrew from the transitional government. OLF leaders went into exile and the organization resumed its armed struggle to liberate Oromia. The OLF armed insurrection occurred mostly in eastern Ethiopia where it achieved little. Some forces, which claimed to be OLF, resorted to terrorist tactics by placing bombs in hotels and restaurants.
The OLF signed a political and military agreement with the Ogaden National Liberation Front in 1996. It also continued ties with the largely defunct Sidama Liberation Front, Beni Shangul Liberation Movement and Gambela People’s Liberation Front. Other OLF supporters regrouped in Sudan where the government welcomed them until the outbreak of the Ethiopian-Eritrean war in 1998, after which Ethiopia normalized relations with Sudan and convinced it to end support for the OLF. Requiring a new base, the OLF moved its operations briefly to unstable Somalia on Ethiopia’s eastern border and operated sporadically out of northern Kenya. Eritrea, which for all practical purposes has been at war with Ethiopia since 1998, began training OLF fighters and provided them with military assistance. The OLF concluded that Somalia was too difficult a country to operate from and that most Somalis had no interest in helping the Oromo. The OLF then moved its headquarters to Eritrea, which was and continues to be the only country bordering Ethiopia that is willing to receive the organization. The OLF also maintains small political offices in London, Washington, Khartoum and perhaps elsewhere. Soon after the OLF left the Ethiopian transitional government in 1992 and went into exile, it began to engage in a series of talks organized outside Ethiopia by third parties to establish a process for resolving differences with the EPRDF. The most recent initiative involved Oromo elders and the OLF, who met in Amsterdam in late 2008. The discussions continued into 2009. All of the efforts so far have failed.
The OLF insists on holding substantive talks without conditions while the EPRDF has consistently required that the OLF first renounce the use of armed force and accept the Ethiopian constitution. The EPRDF argues that the OLF is a terrorist organization and encourages foreign governments to add the OLF to their lists of such groups. The OLF strongly condemns terrorism in all of its forms and points out that it is no more a terrorist organization than was the TPLF when it toppled the Mengistu regime. Since the EPRDF came to power in 1991, the OLF military wing has never seriously threatened Ethiopian government forces. Over the years, the OLF has conducted small scale military actions. In 2006, Brigadier-General Kemal Gelchu, an Oromo commanding Ethiopia’s 18th Army division on the Ethiopia-Eritrea border, defected to the OLF with between 150 and 500 soldiers. This development led many to believe that the OLF would finally become a significant military threat. It did not happen and the OLF leadership actually split in 2008. There was already a dissident OLF faction led by former OLF chairman Galassa Dilbo in London. The new split left the main OLF group under its longtime chairman, Dawud Ibsa, at its headquarters in Asmara. The new faction is led by Kemal Gelchu, who remained in Asmara. Lenco Latta, a former OLF deputy secretary general who lives in Oslo, is working with others to reconcile the factions in the context of reinventing the movement. So far, all efforts to reconcile the factions have failed, further diminishing the OLF’s military activity inside Ethiopia. Because of the OLF leadership split, it is difficult to estimate the number of effective soldiers now under arms.
Earlier estimates put the figure at a few thousand; the OLF has claimed as many as 5,000 soldiers in recent years. The number is probably lower now. The OLF recruits fighters from Oromo communities inside Ethiopia, Oromo refugees outside the country and Oromo defectors from the Ethiopian army. The OLF has both long and medium range radio sets and trained radio operators. Military equipment includes Kalashnikov and G-3 assault rifles, RPGs and anti-tank mines. The OLF frequently uses small remote-controlled explosive devices. Eritrea has provided some military training to OLF fighters and may provide military advisers and land mine experts. Eritrea is the primary source of arms. OLF troops are organized conventionally into military units with corresponding rank structures and differentiated roles within each unit. The Oromo diaspora in North America, Europe and Australia contributes funds that help pay for headquarters’ expenses and the purchase of weapons.