Jul 04, 2018

UNPO Welcomes ONLF and OLF’s Expected Removal from Ethiopia’s “Terror List”

On 30 June 2018, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s cabinet put forward a recommendation to remove UNPO Members the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), along with political opposition party Ginbot 7, from the country’s “terror list”. According to the cabinet, the decision was taken in an attempt to “encourage groups to use peaceful political discourse to achieve political ends”. This resolution was submitted to the Parliament for ratification, which is expected to take place in the coming days. UNPO welcomes this positive step taken by the Ethiopian government, but maintains a cautious approach regarding the recent changes taking place in the country.

The past few months have seen a potential inflexion point in the Ethiopian political landscape. The diverse, multi-ethnic country has been plagued with famine and war from the late 20th century to today and more recently its policies have led to the oppression of numerous ethnicities including the Oromo and the Ogaden’s Somalis. Since the Ethiopian Civil War, the sole political force has been the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has sought to deny human rights, including that to self-determination to many of the country’s peoples, in violation of its constitution. The political coalition has also been largely perceived by observers as a vehicle for Tigrayan hegemony, the coalition having long been dominated by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

            With a looming currency crisis, outside international pressure and a young Oromo social movement disgruntled with the regime’s discriminatory practices, the EPRDF decided to replace Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn with Abiy Ahmed, Chairman of the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO) – another party within the EPRDF coalition -  on 2 April 2018. Since then, Ahmed has talked of reforming the Ethiopian political landscape by, for instance, entering talks with longtime rival Eritrea.

            In the framework of this reformist trend, the Prime Minister also announced, on 30 June 2018, his decision to take several opposition groups  - UNPO Members the ONLF and the OLF, as well as Ginbot 7 - off its “terror list”. In 2015, the ONLF and the OLF formed  an alliance with other parties looking to advocate for a democratic renewal of Ethiopia : the Peoples’ Alliance for Freedom and Democracy (PAFD). The UNPO therefore welcomes the positive step taken by the government, as the ONLF, the OLF and others have demonstrated for years their commitment to a peaceful, democratic resolution of the political and economic crisis that has engulfed Ethiopia.

However, there are many reasons to remain cautious in the face of the so-called democratic reform in the country. One is the recent use of state of emergency powers, reinstated in February 2018 and lifted only in June of this year, which demonstrates that the EPRDF coalition tends to hold on to its power through force. The second is that the internal divisions within the EPRDF risk destabilising Ethiopia rather than smoothly transitioning it into a competitive democracy. Internal divisions have already been noticed when PM Abiy stated in Parliament on 18 June 2018 that the state itself has committed its own terrorism through the unconstitutional use of force through torture and jailing. Just a few days after this surprising admission by the PM, a grenade exploded on 23 June during a rally in his support in which he was present.

            Finally, there is a sense that the reforms have been done out of necessity to attract international aid and as an answer to internal pressures relating to the economy, rather than simply as a natural democratic development. It is hard to imagine the EPRDF relinquishing their powers and these reforms should rather be interpreted as a way to self-preserve the coalition’s grip on federal power. With the central idea of self-preservation, one thus cannot imagine that the EPRDF is engaging in the “great change” wanted by many Ethiopian peoples.

            The recent steps, including the release of political prisoners, is a welcome change of strategy from a coalition that previously used intimidation and internment without trial against its political opponents. However, it is now up to them to invite the relevant democratic stakeholders, including both those present in 2005 and new grassroots movements, to build a competitive, rights-respecting democratic country. UNPO hopes that, as per its constitution, Ethiopia will allow for the respect of the human rights, including that of self-determination, of its multitude of communities, and not just continue the policy of “some nations more equal than others”.