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The Interview: “Government’s lack of clear political agenda exacerbated the war in Oromia”: Colonel Gemechu Ayana

Colonel Gemechu Ayana, former member of the OLA and current senior officer of the OLF, Photo: Addis Standard

Following the peace agreement that ended the two years war in Northern Ethiopia, and amid increasing militarized hostilities between government forces and armed members of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), known by the government as “Shene”, there is growing calls for peaceful resolution of the war in Oromia, which started four years ago and has significantly worsened from time to time. Addis Standard’s Editor-in-Chief Beka Atoma Boru sat down with colonel Gemechu Ayana, former member of the OLA and current senior officer of the OLF who has been released from prison in May 2022, to untangle the much complex war in Oromia and prospects of resolving it peacefully.

Excerpts:

AS: We will be talking at length about the war in Oromia, but let us start with your time in prison, tell us about it.

Colonel Gemechu: I was first arrested in 2019 and released after a year. Then following the assassination of Artist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa [in June 2020], many people were arrested, including Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba, Hamza Borana and many more; we weren’t together with them but I was one of the OLF leaders arrested back then. We were arrested by Oromia regional state, and these comrades I just mentioned were arrested by the federal government. 

I was detained with my [OLF] comrades including Abdi Raggasa, Michael Borana, Kenasa Ayana and many others, I only mentioned the names of the leaders but there were thousands of OLF members, half of whom I don’t even know. Then, four or five months later we were brought to court and the prosecutor said they had no charges against us, and the court ruled that we should be released. Such decision was made twice but we were caught at the prison gates both times and taken back to prison. 

Later I was separated from my comrades and taken to federal [prison] and charged under a case which was dropped during my first imprisonment in 2019. The prison in Oromia is difficult, we were imprisoned in Sidist Kilo, in a compound which is now the Oromia Police Commissioner’s office. You can’t be visited by your lawyer and your family; you are not served with food, you will only be given twenty birr a day. There were about three or four hundred prisoners there but, we [the OLF leaders] were kept separate. During that time Dr Shigut Geleta, who is now in Germany, was with me. We were later taken to a place called Sansusi. At Sansusi prison we had to take turn to sleep, because we were crowded and not everyone could sleep at the same time. Then, we were taken to Dalatti, in Sebeta. We were told to get out twice from Dalati prison too but both times they [the police] caught us at the gates. 

Then I was brought back to Sidist Kilo, and taken to Federal crime investigation office in a neighborhood commonly called Mexico; from there to Abba Samuel prison and later to Qilinto and Qaliti. In Qaliti I was imprisoned in three zones just in a week. At times I was put in a maximum security where dangerous people were held. I appealed to the court and then the court ruled that I should return to Qilinto prison. While I was in Qilinto, I was taken to court, with 20 others, despite the prosecutor calling on several witnesses no one came to testify against us. Thus, the court ruled that 12 people including me should be released without having to defend the case against us saying that we were innocent. 

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This was after I was imprisoned for two years all together with my previous imprisonment. Upon receiving the court order, I was released from Qilinto but only for me to get caught on the gate once again. Members of the Finfinnee police, Oromia police and Federal police with 12 vehicles loaded with heavy weapons like Bren and Dshk machine guns closed the roads and took me to Gelan Dirre Sololia prison. After a week in Gelan I was taken back to Awash Melkassa where I joined comrade Batte Urgessa [former OLF spokesperson] and over four hundred other prisoners. This place was a hell. 

There are two types of slavery; the one you submit yourself to admitting your weakness, and the one your mind never accepts but despite your efforts you are enslaved by force

Colonel Gemechu Ayana

From Awash Melkassa I was taken back to Gelan, and while I was in Gelan prison, federal police appealed against the court order under which I was released from Qilinto prison, and I was taken back to the Federal crime investigation office in Mexico. The appeal was against my release and the federal Supreme court knows that I was released but actually I wasn’t released. The court refused to preside over my case and said that I should return to prison. I should have been released instantly since no charge was brought up against me. Three months later the prosecutors took my case to federal supreme court cassation bench where I was set free. 

A lot worse is happening in Oromia and I didn’t even want to talk about my imprisonment if you had not asked me. But what I would like to tell you is that prisons are not all similar. In Oromia prisons there is starvation, you cannot see sunlight, you can’t get treatment unless you have money, you cannot meet your relatives and lawyers, you can’t meet your pastor and no one knows where you are. The police tell you that they have the right to kill you [were they not] merciful. They tell us this in open meetings, not even privately.

There was a time when diarrhoea outbreak occurred and a doctor came and told us that the medicine is not to drink water. He told us to stop drinking water. He said, “we don’t have medicine even for our soldiers who are fighting in Tigray, let alone you, our enemy”. So, he said we should stop drinking water.  

The only detention place with improved conditions in Oromia was Dalatti prison in Sabbata where the police were playing games with us, and also celebrating Irreechaa with us. There we had good relations with the police and the prison administration.

Another one was the Galan police station, the police would not threaten us, deny us food, or prevent us from seeing our families and lawyers. There, the police treated us like human beings. I want to thank this place.

I was detained in 18 places in total, in all federal prisons and detention centers like Mexico [Federal crime investigation office], Abba Samuel, Qaliti and Qilinto the police won’t touch us. Whether you’re Tigrean, Amhara or Kambata, you are treated in the same manner, they [the police] are truly trained in police character, they’re very respectful. 

If I have a court appointment, they will take me to court, and bring me back. They inform us why they chain us up, and that they search us for our safety. These policemen are very young, and no one violates our rights by insulting, belittling or attacking us. Although there were police officers who have minor personality traits such as temper, I have nothing to complain about the administration of the Qilinto, Abba Samuel, and Qaliti prisons. They should be thanked. They should be encouraged to continue as such and set an example for the rest. 

But justice wasn’t for them to give. For example, they take you to court on time during court sessions. Even when it comes to court, I don’t have much complain except that the court should have released me when neither the police nor prosecutor had charges to present against me. But it instead made me to return to prison. The rest, even though I am not trained in law there is no wrong that the federal court did to me.

In contrary things are terrible in Oromia. The court has no power. Thousands of our comrades are imprisoned there. The prosecutor said it has no charges against all of them; Abdi Regassa, Michael Boran, Kenasa Ayyana, Dawit Abdeta, Lemmi Begna, Gada Gebisa, Geda Oljira, to just mention those I know in person. And the court has ordered their release, but they are still in custody. Therefore, the Oromia and federal prisons are very different.

AS: What do you think led to your collective imprisonment as OLF leaders?

Colonel Gemechu: I am now an old person. You [the young ones] are the ones who remain in this trouble for the longest time. I would love for the problem in Oromia to end on me, and that it doesn’t happen to the next generation. The problem is, Ethiopia was created in a way that it had no patience for the Oromo. There is nothing wrong that the Oromo did in particular. But this country was created to be impatient and unkind to the Oromo. That’s how Ethiopia is created. That’s why all these people including me were put in jail.

Ethiopia is a steel pot. It pours the Oromo into this steel pot and boils it, takes out and eat whoever comes out first ready, covers the rest. It has no patience for the Oromo. The Oromo was invaded and broken by force. There are two types of slavery; the one you submit yourself to, admitting your weakness, and the one your mind never accepts but despite your efforts you are enslaved by force. Never did the Oromos ever accept this slavery. Thus the people who do not accept it must be suppressed. Therefore, as I said earlier, whoever were arrested, killed….are the one who come out ready from the steel pot. This pretty much summarizes our imprisonment.

AS: Well, let’s talk about the current war in Oromia, what is the cause? How did it all began?

Colonel Gemechu: The war happened because the government broke the agreement [reached in Asmara with the OLF]. This happened not only during the current Prosperity Party regime, the same thing happened during the EPRDF era. When the transitional government was established [in 1992], it was the OLF that was first attacked. They exiled the OLF out of the country. One would think that Ethiopia hates the OLF, but Ethiopia hates the Oromo. Ethiopia hates organized Oromo, because with organization comes power and power changes the situation. 

In 2016 the struggle of the Qeerroo (the youth) brought about a change of government. There was no Prosperity Party back then, it was EPRDF, which said it changed itself and that it will improve the system working peacefully with the opposition. Many changes have happened quickly including the release of political prisoners, and the return to the country of exiled opposition groups including those in armed struggle. The way Abiy and Lamma Magarsa, the then president of the Oromia Regional State, spoke was promising. Thus, Dr Workineh Gebeyehu from the federal government and Lamma Magarsa from Oromia came to Asmara for talks with the OLF. Fortunately, I attended the talks. It was Lama Magarsa who requested my presence, I was not a member of the OLF executive committee, but Lamma asked OLF leader Dawud Ibsa that I attended the talks on the account that I knew both sides.

We talked. It was a brief talk for your surprise. The way they approached us was different. They told us that no conditions were required. They said we will fight together with our people and correct anything that was wrong, if anything arises, we get the people to help us. But we had a condition to offer. The first was what would happen to the OLF soldiers at home and in Eritrea. Secondly, we raised the issue of the Macha and Tulama welfare association. It was a sin to close the office of the Macha and Tulama. The Macha and Tulama wasn’t an OLF organization, however, the OLF couldn’t give up on such big organization of the Oromo. A great price was paid for it and is still being paid. In those days, when the [EPRDF] closed the Macha and Tulama office in Finfinnee, there were offices of organizations who advocated for animal rights on this Tulama land. So, the OLF cannot ignore this sin. We are OLF because we are Oromo. Even if it was not ours, we cannot leave Macha and Tulama, because it is an Oromo issue. We know how the Oromo perceived this organization, so we asked for the Macha and Tulama Association to be reopened, any property destroyed by the government in the past and documents taken from it to be returned or compensated. Additionally we also asked about the fate of ORA – Oromo Relief Association, which wasn’t OLF organization as well like the Macha and Tulama. We asked about whereabouts of freedom fighters like Nadhii Gammada, we asked for criminals who caused the loss of lives and property damage to be accountable. They said these were are common issues, and would be resolved.

Majorly, we asked about the fate of Oromo Liberation fighters who were inside and outside the country at the time. They said those who were fit would join the national defence forces, and those who were not, and unwilling to join the army, would be integrated into the society and deployed to the job of their interest based on their skills. The same was promised for those already in the country fighting, we discussed in details and agreed to issue a ceasefire by both sides and establish a commission that monitors the ceasefire, create a war free-zone etc. Accordingly the OLF declared an immediate ceasefire and later its leaders returned to the country. The government however mobilized its army including from around border areas and started fighting the OLF fighters in Wollegga, Western Oromia. When the government declared war, we [OLF leaders] were engaging our fighters trying to demobilize them. Abdi Regassa was in Borena, our chairperson was in Wollegga meeting with Marroo, I was in Horro doing the same. War broke out while we were there, Dawud was in Begi when government’s army command in Nekemte started the war.

AS: When you returned from Asmara, you were persuaded to embrace peaceful struggle. Is it because the agreement you made was breached that the armed struggle continued, or was there a conviction that there still was a cause to fight for?

Colonel Gemechu: The main reason was the failure on the government’s side to uphold the agreement. The government declared war on our fighters in Wollegga. Some of those who returned from Eritrea and were stationed in Arsi were shot dead only fro asking minor questions. They poisoned those who returned heeding a call by Jawar, Bekele Gerba and Abba Gada Beyene Senbeto. The government didn’t have the interest to obey the agreement and that’s what necessitated the armed struggle. It is not because the OLF fighters back then didn’t embrace the peaceful struggle but because the government made it clear that it was impossible.

AS: Over the past four years the war in Oromia has transpired significantly and became more complex. What is your reading? How do you describe what is going on today?

Colonel Gemechu: The OLA’s position is clear. It is fighting in the belief that anyone who stands against the freedom of the Oromo, is the enemy of the Oromo. This belief does not change because who controls the government power has changed. The OLA fought the Dergue, it fought the EPRDF and it still is fighting. It is not about who took power, it fights for its demands. There are people who give up when they become ministers, those who abandon their demands when they enter the parliament. We have seen such people including from within the OLF, but the OLA believes that anyone who stands against the freedom of the Oromo is its enemy, whether a national group or an organization. But anyone who believes in the right of self-determination whether they are Amhara or Guraghe or Tegaru, is a friend of the OLA, this is clear. 

“It is not clear with whom the ruling prosperity is an ally, and with whom it is an enemy, and what strategy it is following”

Colonel Gemechu Ayana

The rest is complicated. The political alignment in Ethiopia is unclear. OLA is fighting the Ethiopian government army. What we call the Ethiopian government army is not just the federal army, but also the Oromia, Amhara and other special forces elsewhere who are considered as the Ethiopian army. And there is the ‘Fanno’ forces who are trained and supported by the Amhara government. The Amhara government is part of the ruling government. The ‘Fanno’ it armed is fighting both the OLA and Oromia special forces in Wollegga. The Oromia Special Forces are government troops but they are paying great sacrifices fighting both OLA and ‘Fanno’. Wounded members of the Oromia Special forces were made to lay in the field at Shambu Hospital because the hospital was full. While also fighting with the OLA, they defended the local people against the ‘Fanno’ to the best of their ability. 

Remember ‘Fanno’ is armed and supported by Amhara government, which is part of the ruling Prosperity. Now the question is what are the prosperity of Oromia and the prosperity of Amhara to each other? It is not clear with whom the ruling prosperity is an ally, and with whom it is an enemy, and what strategy it is following. We hear that the Amhara forces ‘Fanno’ work with Eritrea without the knowledge of the federal government. What does this mean? There is a ‘Fanno’ fighter who was trained in Eritrea and captured in Horro, Wollega while fighting. If so, can Oromia send its soldiers to Russia or Kenya for military training without the permission of the federal government? Therefore, it is not clear what the government want to accomplish.

The war in Oromia has been going on for five years now. It was narrow when it started but it has spread and has now reached Metta, Gerba Gurracha, Fiche, Mount Chukala, Walanchiti, Bosat etc, surrounding the capital.  There are many actors in this war. OLA’s demands are clear and it is about the right to self-determination of the Oromo people. No one is behind it except for the Oromo and Waaqaa (God). But there are many hands behind other forces fighting in this war. 

There are groups who have interest on Oromia. Some want to exploit Oromia using religion as a cover, others want to plunder it by force. When Minilik built this country, there was something left unfinished. For example, he had declared the Gumii Gaayyoo, Irreechaa, the Oromo language and non-Orthodox religions illegal. He had declared that only Amharic should be used, what should the Ethiopian flag be and that there should be one nation called Ethiopia. He died before he could finish this project because he did not live long, and there are groups who want to realize this goal of Minilik. Such faction exists both inside and outside the Prosperity government. And it has roots from distance. 

This war is a triangle war like the one during the war in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Portuguese kingdom conquered northern Ethiopia, the Turks came from the East via the Indian Ocean and fought the Oromo.The Oromo, Islam and Christianity were all fighting each other simultaneously. How the Oromo survived that war is a long story. Therefore, there are still many who have interest in Oromia. The lack of clarity on political agenda of the current government has exacerbated the war. I doubt that even if our Prime Minister wants to reconcile with the OLA, he may face difficulties in taking action for there are many masters to this war. However, if he decides, I am with him, and the OLF is with him, OFC has repeatedly stated the same, so he has public support to overcome the difficulties. I hope they [the government] will repeat the same heroism they did in Tigray here in Oromia.

AS: It is the nature of war to inflict serious harm on civilian population, but this war has been marked by ethnic based attacks until it become the major character of the war. Why?

Colonel Gemechu: As I said earlier, it is difficult to know who is standing with whom, and who is doing what in this war. Both federal and regional forces as well as the Amhara militants are deployed by the government. The Oromo special forces are also deployed by the government but we see them fighting. The Amhara militants are deployed by the same government but their slogan is that of Minilik’s. I suppose Abiy wants to defeat the OLA but the Amhara militants want to see a dismembered Oromia. In anyway, there is a great deal of destruction and looting in Oromia. 

The OLA through its spokesperson has been calling for an independent investigations into the crimes committed in Kellem, Tolee and Horro on civilians based on their ethnicity. We don’t see the government reciprocating that. There are many independent organizations who investigate such things and it could have deployed them to investigate and convict the perpetrators. Nothing has been done through the government. I have not heard the government even talk about independent investigation. But it is undeniable that many damages and killings of civilians have been committed by various parties.

“You cannot torture the peasants of any nation and raise the question of freedom at the same time. They should be helped, not hurt.”

Colonel Gemechu Ayana

We don’t know in depth about the OLA because we have been separated long ago. This war has spread rapidly caused by the government’s pressure on the youth. There may be problems in properly training and recruiting the enormous number of young people joining the OLA. It is something that is likely to happen if there is no mechanism to control each other. Yet, there are thieves who fled to the bushes to extort the people in the name of the OLA. They have to identify themselves from these thieves, but to control these and protect the public safety is the responsibility of the government.

Regardless, the poor and the farmers are the ones who suffer the most and this is not correct. You cannot torture the peasants of any nation and raise the question of freedom at the same time. They should be helped, not hurt. The OLA has no purpose to discriminate against people by ethnicity. Therefore, I believe that this case should be investigated and the perpetrators should be brought to justice.

The OLA has repeatedly issued statements saying it will not harm civilians based on their ethnicity. They have been demanding an independent investigation. The OLA still uphold a decision of the 4th Congress of OLF made in 2017 in Eritrea, which treats all inhabitants of Oromia as citizens of Oromia, and that they have the right to live, trade, acquire property and hold political power. They can even become members of the OLA despite their ethnicity. During the Dargue era, ethnic Amharas were in the OLF. If elected by the members, one can become the leader of the OLF or can become a military commander.

AS: There are growing calls for peaceful resolution of the war. Why do you think it is important to do so?

Colonel Gemechu: Apart from the casualties, the Oromo have suffered in this war. It doesn’t have peace, yet it worries about its children. Other ethnic groups in Oromia could not get peace as well. The war is causing more damage every day. It may take a long time but no force can stop the freedom of the Oromo. So, there is no need to torture the people and destroy lives and property for many years trying to stop what is inevitable. If we could solve the issues peacefully, the outcome would be great. So I believe we should now settle it through negotiations. No further bloodshed is needed. Oromo is getting hurt above anyone else, if it lingers on like this it may dismantle Ethiopia. It may also lead the Horn of Africa into endless war. Eritrea and Sudan have already been pulled in, it may soon involve Somalia and Kenya, that’s why I believe it should be resolved peacefully.

AS: Do you have hope that it can happen? What are the hurdles?

Colonel Gemechu: I have hope that it can be resolved like what has been done in Tigray. But the only ones who can make this happen are the Oromia regional government and the Prime Minister. I don’t think it is even as difficult as the Tigray peace process has been if they have the will. And if they do so they will be supported by the Oromo wholeheartedly. AS

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