UNPO Welcomes Return of OLF Leadership to Addis Ababa/Finfinne
Thousands gathered on Saturday 15 September 2018 in the streets of the Ethiopian capital to welcome the return of UNPO Member the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF)’s leadership, who had flown from Asmara for this occasion. The group that advocates for Oromo rights and self-determination had led its operations from the Eritrean capital until now. This was largely due to the post-2005 election crackdown by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition in Ethiopia, that later saw the OLF and Ginbot 7 designated terrorist groups and the rest of the opposition suffer repeated crackdown.
The Washington Post/Associated Press cited “hundreds of thousands” of people on the streets to listen to the OLF leadership speak of their future plans for democratisation in the region. An estimated 1,500 OLF members have also returned to Ethiopia alongside their leader, Dawud Ibsa, who was welcomed into the capital with a concert in Meskel Square, a cornerstone of Addis Ababa’s landscape and known for the large public gatherings taking place on it. Here, Ibsa announced that the reason he returned was because the “changes [they] have fought for all this time are happening right now”, a reference to the dramatic change of stance of the Ethiopian government since the start of the year.
The EPRDF has slowly begun the road to reconciliation and rectification of the crackdown after the emergence of an Oromo leadership figure in the form of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on 2 April 2018. Whilst an initial state of emergency indicated he would pick up from where his Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) predecessors had started, he has since engaged in a series of politically liberalising moves, including the release of political prisoners, the withdrawal of opposition groups from the Ethiopian government's “terror list” and a series of peace talks in the Eritrean capital with both the Eritrean government and the OLF.
With the peace agreement signed between the government and the OLF on 7 August 2018 and the reopening of the the Eritrean-Ethiopian border following a similar agreement, it was time for the OLF leadership to return home to Addis Ababa, or Finfinne as it is known in Oromia. The OLF had previously fought with the TPLF and joined the transitional government in 1991 to reform the country and guarantee the right to self-determination, as it was subsequently enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution, but later withdrew when it became clear the TPLF-led EPRDF would maintain full control. Thus began a 26-year exile of OLF leadership in Eritrea. Their return is seen as a symbolic indicator of the EPRDF’s willingness to once again share a platform with different parties.
The rally to welcome the OLF sparked some isolated violent incidents in the suburbs and unrest, as members of unitary groups opposed the display of Oromo nationalist and OLF flags. The Prime Minister released a statement condemning provocations of violence but also maintained that supporters of political parties had the right to display flags as part of their right to freedom of speech. The OLF have also maintained that they are opposed to such practices and want the restoration of order in the country in order to rebuild it before the first elections it will truly be able to participate in since the 2005 crackdown.
This is scheduled for 2020 and the OLF is already looking with potential partners to challenge Prime Minister Ahmed’s ruling party in Oromia, and constituent of the EPRDF, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). With the promise of an opening of the political space, the 2020 election is thus not looking as forgone a conclusion as the previous two, that were widely criticised by electoral observers and human rights organisations alike.
UNPO welcomes the positive steps taken by the Ethiopian government in view of fostering political opposition and supports the OLF’s call to end any violence on the streets and for all to contribute to re-building the country’s shattered economy and democratic institutions. A competitive and fair 2020 Ethiopian election should be the horizon to which all truly democratic actors should look towards as political space opens up in Ethiopia.