In-depth Analysis: Schism threatens oldest Oromo political party, once again. Can latest electoral board decision right the wrong?

By Medihane Ekubamichael @Medihane 

Addis Abeba, December 29/2020 – Founded in 1973, Adda Bilisummaa Oromoo (ABO) – the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), is one of the oldest political parties in Ethiopia whose household name among the Oromo people is a synonym of their identity than a political party with a discernible presence.

A party which spent a good part of its presence in the armed struggle both at home and in exile, the OLF has endured multiple fractures from within, and a war that significantly changed its trajectory for the last 30 years.

But in the wake of Ethiopia’s sweeping political liberalization after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in April 2018, OLF became one of the half a dozen exiled parties to return to Ethiopia in hopes of emerging from an armed struggle to a peaceful political party that its constituents waited for decades since its establishment. As such, its September 2018 homecoming had received a rapturous welcome.

But that only lasted a few months. Soon, bickering began to consume the party when leaders of its various factions who had fallen out with each other while in exile began to return home, and a few had taken up positions offered by the Oromia regional state government.

Soon a continued armed struggle by yet another breakaway faction, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) has embroiled the mother party OLF, led by veteran party leader Dawud Ibsa with endless controversy. While struggling to distance itself from the armed group of OLA, OLF has once again fallen into a familiar schism that threatened to disintegrate what’s left of a party with a massive support across Oromia.

It started with house arrest of Dawud Ibsa

Following the deadly violence that broke out across Oromia in the wake of the assassination of the renowned Oromo artist Hachalu Hundessa on the evening of June 29, 2020, restrictions were imposed by the government on the personal movements of the chairman, Dawud Ibsa. Geda Oljira, head of the OLF headquarters in Addis Abeba  told BBC Amharic that Dawud was forced to stay at home as of July 17 by federal police and armed police officers were deployed in and around his house.

At that moment Geda indicated that the chairman was told to stay at home for “the sake of his own security” without any further details. Geda also added that no one was allowed to enter or leave the premises until further order and that they could not communicate with the chairman either in person or through telephone that was disconnected shortly after the stay at home order. Dawud’s mobile phone was unresponsive and merely signals the line being unavailable. Addis Standard tried to verify the telephone disconnection issue with government officials, however our reporters were repeatedly told that the line works well, and that it is the chairman who keeps changing his phone number. The ‘in house stay’, what largely seemed to hold the chairman incommunicado, has totally incapacitated his interactions with other party members and their activities within the increasingly active politics at the time. 

The July 26 Meeting

Apparently, the relationship between the OLF and the government took a new law as instability spread across Oromia and doubts began to surface that pro government individuals within the leadership of the OLF had infiltrated the party.

The July 26 meeting called by Ararso Biqila, the vice chairperson right after ‘in house stay’ imposed on of the chairman was held at the OLF headquarters in Gullele, raising some eyebrows with rumors that it was a  possible coup attempt against the chairman. This led members of the central committee to have diverging conclusions on the legitimacy of the meeting.

Meanwhile, Geda Oljira (Dr.) [head of the party’s headquarters] alleges that the meeting was summoned by the vice chairman who has no consent of the head of the party. Geda told the BBC at that time that he called Dawud and confirmed that the chairman had no knowledge of the said meeting.

Similarly, Bette Urgessa, then finance head of the party, told DW – Amharic that the meeting was called without the knowledge of the chairman and suspected a change in the leadership. 

On the contrary, however, Qejela Merdasa, head of public relations of the party told DW – Amharic that the statement given by Bette Urgessa was not true and Bette has no mandate to give out such a statement. Rather the meeting had the acknowledgement of the chairman, according to Qejela. He asserted that an emergency meeting was held by the central committee and that the chairman knew the details. The vice chairman, Ararso Biqila, told BBC that he had spoken to the chairman over the phone to advise him on the meeting but their talk was disconnected. He also added that the agenda of the meeting was on current issues and to discuss the gains and losses of OLF’s return from exile.

OLF Logo

The arrested OLF leadership members

OLF alleges imprisonment of several leadership members particularly in connection with the violent unrest that broke out in Oromia region in the aftermath of the assassination of Hachalu Hundessa has affected the party’s performance. The OLF says hundreds of its members including top executive committee members Michael Boren, Kenessa Ayana, Dr. Shigut Geleta and Col. Gemechu Ayana were arrested since Hachalu’s death.

What caused the latest leadership fracture?

The OLF has generated enough headlines indicating its demise when some of its executive members took to the media to publicize conflicting reports separately. The announcements, which were keenly promoted by state owned media and loyalist social media activities, included decisions on the suspension of certain members of the key leadership, including its current chairman Dawud Ibsa.

Bette Urgessa, who has since been appointed as OLF Interim Public Relations Officer, told Addis Standard that despite confusions and widely publicized divisions, the Front was still intact as an organization. However, he said, members of its executive committee had been victimized by an act of mutiny from within.

According to Bette, it all started when the federal government backed some leadership members of the party to illegally arrange the meeting on July 26 and 27, 2020 while the front’s legitimate chairperson Dawud was held incommunicado.

Bette says that they identified only three legal members of the executive committee who claimed to have a meeting with a fourth member and another fifth Ibsa Negewo [with a foreign citizenship], who was referred as a legitimate member. Bette said, the issues of citizenship of the Executive Committee members would reduce their numbers to just eight when other seven members, including Dr Shigut, who was since released and has left the country, were demoted to advisory roles due to mandatory citizenship issues.

However Dawud Ibsa was primarily included pending completion of his citizenship reclaim. Later he was unable to gain back his Ethiopian citizenship and failed to comply with the requirement to be an executive member. The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) was then notified that he had been reduced from the Executive membership.

It was during such restructuring process and when Dawud was inexplicably kept in house arrest, with security forces preventing hims from leaving his house and others from getting in that a splinter group gave a press statement which was broadcast widely via state media condemning failed leadership of the party including widespread corruption under its chairman Dawud Ibsa. “I didn’t want to attend the meeting either because I opposed it. That leaves the attending members of the executive committee who gave the press statement to be three,” Better said, adding “We then asked the NEBE about the statement the Ararso Bikila group has submitted to the Board on behalf of the OLF, while giving announcements to different media about an executive meeting.”

According to him the Ethics and Auditing Committee of the party then took over to investigate the matter in accordance with party’s regulation, yet the group led by Ararso declined to cooperate with the investigation. “The Auditing Committee presented its findings indicating that the group collaborated and took missions from other organizations, conspiring to abolish the organization, summoning illegal meetings and attempting to make change in leadership.”

The OLF under the leadership of Dawud has made its own decision to suspend two members of the central committee Qejela Merdassa and Arbicho Dima and Executive Committee members comprising Ararso Bikila, Atomsa Kumsa and Tolera Dhaba. This was communicated to the NEBE, which means the NEBE has received two separate letters from two groups on behalf of one party. The board replied with promise to look into the matter and seek resolution through its mandate, indicating that a panel of experts will be established by the board to investigate and provide recommendation on the matter.

“The Prosperity Party (PP) has its long arms stretched into OLF to shake and crack. The party has everything to do with what is going on because they want to obscure the danger the country is facing.” said the interim spokesperson of the Front. “We do not want to fall in the trap they set leaving the biggest picture aside. The biggest picture now is that the country is in a difficult situation facing a great danger ahead. The OLF, accordingly has requested for a transitional government to take place within Oromia Region and an all inclusive national dialogue.

“Prosperity Party (PP) has now a narrow window for a dialogue as it carelessly abandoned golden opportunities for national dialogue. Very serious preconditions are required to sit with the government for a serious dialogue,” says Bette.

Meanwhile, despite the keen interest by state owned media to broadcast the fall out, a consensus was reached within the party to contain the situation until the Audit Committee presented its final findings to the chairperson.

The NEBE accepts complaints from any member of a party and as such it has accepted the complaint from the Aararso Bikila group. “But accepting a complaint doesn’t mean they are separately recognized,” according to Bette.

The Electoral Board continued communicating with the OLF led by Dawud. On the other hand the group led by Ararso Bikila and Qejela Merdasa were receiving recognition from the ruling party PP and protection from security officials as the legitimate entity.” Meanwhile Dawud was told to stay at home for security reasons while preventing him from communicating with the outside world, including with his deputy.

“Parties are independent in resolving their internal matters through internal regulations and hierarchy and mandate in accordance with the party’s bylaw. However the ruling government, without the consent of the chairperson, called the deputy to attend a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office,” Bette said, accusing the ruling party of playing a role at corrupting and weakening the party.  

An tempt to hold a media briefing in October at its office was also interrupted when members of the Addis Abeba police harassed journalists and detained members of the party who gathered at the residence. The briefing never took place since and Dawud remains largely inaccessible for interviews. “The police were deployed around the OLF office without a court warrant,” Bette said.

The OLF has requested explanation for the actions of the police. According to the internal regulation of the OLF, the Front is represented only by the chairperson unless he/she delegates another person with a clear letter. Accordingly any agreement signed on behalf of OLF including the one that was said to be signed for the Oro-Mara political parties’ consensus was meaningless unless represented by the chairperson or his delegate. Therefore OLF has announced that it does not recognize the signing done for the OLF by Qejela Merdasa does not represent the front one because it was never Qejela’s mandate to sign anything on behalf of OLF.

Meanwhile OLF keeps on issuing statements that its leading figures such as Lemi Begna, Michael Boren, Kenesa Ayana, Dawit Abdeta, Col. Gemechu Ayana Abdi Regassa, and hundreds of its rank remained in detention without charges. OLF said they were detained inhumanly for months before some of them were allowed to appear at a court accused of allegations that they were “enticing violence” following Hachalu Hundessa’s killing and allegations of links with TPLF. Both accusation are not backed by indisputable evidence presented at a court hearing, as of yet.

“It’s a paradox that the government puts accusation on OLF of connections with TPLF.” The only interaction between TPLF and the OLF was when OLF called for peaceful dialogue early this year among political parties and the TPLF was one of the parties that responded to its call. He also said that the OLF had declined an invitation from the TPLF to attend a meeting of federalists forces in Mekelle in 2019.  “We do not jump into any friendship or collaboration without first putting the dark history that took lives, injured and traumatized many during the EPRDF era of their domination to rest. We do not want to stay in hostility but we have about ten preconditions, including the whereabouts of our members who went missing during the transitional government,” he said.  

The tale of the deputy who suspended the chairman 

Qejela Merdasa, then spokesperson of the OLF, told Addis Standard that it was indeed them who released the 13 lengthy statement on the need to reform the party  and said that the decisions were made in accordance with the by-law of the party which allows them to suspend the chairperson through the executive committee meeting held on August 7, 2020. However he said, “We kept the decision for a while before publicizing it hoping that situations could be restored through discussions.”

The faction, which was led by OLF Deputy Chairman Ararso Bikila, discussed at length differences they have with the Chairman Dawud Ibsa and his leadership.  The statement depicts their views against the Dawud’s leadership in the last 21 years and indicates that the executive committee’s decision to suspend Dawud has appointed Ararso until the next general assembly would take place.

The statement didn’t only hold Chairman Dawud Ibsa accountable for bad leadership and instability within the organization especially since 1991, causing three major splits at different times, but accused him of maintaining links with the breakaway armed group OLA, currently engaged in armed conflict with the federal and Oromia region forces in western and southern parts of Oromia, an accusation with a serious implication.

According to the group led by the deputy, and which, unlike Dawud, enjoys privileged access to state media, discussions between Prime Minister Abiy and various political parties, the Dawud Ibsa was initially elected as interim chairman until the 3rd General Assembly of the organization, which was scheduled to take place in less than six months of Dawud’s election, was postponed for extended years.

Perhaps a deeper manifestation of this latest internal schism, the deputy led group further holds Dawud Ibsa accountable for being one of the main culprit in the weakening of the organization and seriously harming its interests for 21 years of his chairmanship; he deliberately disbanded the structure of the OLF in order to consolidate power around himself, they accused the chairman. Dissatisfied with his leadership many knowledgeable and talented members have left the organization leading the number of educated and experienced members in OLF to gradually dwindle.

More damning still is the accusation that the chairperson, in collaboration with TPLF, ran an operative by the name Girma Tiruneh, who served as a spy helping TPLF’s dominated EPRDF to imprison countless Oromo youths and activists, an accusation rejected by Dawud.

The party’s failure after it returned home in 2018, despite suggestions that the organization take advantage of the opportunity to meet with the public and improve the its leadership and structure, was also due to Dawud as is the endless reasons for postponing the general assembly from taking place, the statement said.

In an interview with Addis Standard Qejela he and the few members of the executive had to make the move in order to prevent the Front from collapsing “for the fourth time.” He further laments the lack of transparency within the party for the past two years, and says that members have not even reported to the management of the organization as to why, for example, the source of income for the party has not been audited.

Responding to Addis Standard ‘s question on what the ethics and auditing committee was doing all these years to tolerate the said allegations, Qejela says: “the chairman had himself surrounded with his loyal members, and so was the ethics and audit committee.”  Yet he asserts the OLF “was still intact” despite this situation.

The NEBE panel of experts

Meanwhile the NEBE on October 09/2020 announced that it has decided to establish a panel of experts to look into the complaints from members of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) leadership regarding change of leadership and suspension of the chairman.

The NEBE referenced that on August 7, 2020, Ararso Bikila, in two letters dated 06 / ABO / 12 and 7/08/12 05/03/19 , number 08 / ABO / 12, indicated that the party’s executive committee informed the electoral board that it had imposed a ban on the party’s chairman, Dawud Ibsa, and asked the board to approve the decision.

Similarly, Dawud Ibsa wrote a letter dated 08/10/2020 reference number 0211 / xly / abo / 2020 addressed to the members of the executive committee Ararso Bikila, Tolera Teshome, Atomsa Kumsa and members of the National Assembly, Qejela Merdasa and Arbicho Dima have been suspended from their posts until the next general assembly, and asked the electoral board to recognize the decision.

The NEBE in its meeting held on October 8, 2020 examined the letters from both sides and other written documents submitted to it explaining the disagreement among party members. The board accordingly cited Article 74, Sub-Article 6 of Proclamation No. 1162/11 that the board will have the power to establish a panel of experts to consider the matter in the event of such dispute between members of a political party.

The NEBE also asked both Dawud Ibsa Ararso Bikila to nominate their own representatives and the Board elects another expert to chair these two panels of experts and set up an interim panel of experts. The NEBE also indicated that it will make a final decision based on the recommendations of the two bodies and the experts selected by the Board.

Bette says they are not sending the said expert whatsoever since this decision by itself was illegal because they didn’t submit an appeal rather a decision to the board. “Arbitration is not required at this stage because we didn’t take any argument to the board and were we to have any compliments from any member, it would be to the ethics and auditing committee the compliments are present according to our by-law to resolve matters internally,” told Addis Standard. Disagreements that arose due to conflicts of interests are normally resolved internally at different hierarchical levels of the structure of the party, he insisted.

Qejela on the other hand said that the electoral board did not need this time consuming steps when it has adequate input. However Qejela said “We have accepted the steps to be taken by the board to establish the panel, and we are preparing our representative accordingly. I think the Board wants to take the matter seriously and wants to take their time to examine involving other bodies due to the seriousness of the matter,” said Qejela on his comment about the NEBE procedure.

He also said they “wanted to consider arbitration through elderly mediation at the beginning, but it failed when [the other side] started to pressure us on the behalf of the Chairperson. A second mediators also came at another time but it couldn’t proceed further because there was no willingness by the other side. It was then that we decided to suspend them.”

Regarding the impact of such fracture on the party’s supporters he admitted that the situation has created confusion to the people who require “our integrity and seem to follow the situation closely.” The people “often tend to follow whoever works for a peaceful struggle and refrains from violent actions.”

The final view from the electoral board

Soliana Shimelis, NEBE’s Communication Advisor, told Addis Standard that the board was treating the situation in accordance with the Political parties registration and elections code of conduct proclamation to address different complaints instead of recognizing them differently; she stated that the matter was about resolution of dispute.

Soliana also confirmed that Ararso Bikila’s side has sent their representative for the panel proposed by the board whereas the Dawud Ibsa’s side didn’t, and therefore has been advised to send their representatives within seven days. The implementation particulars will be determined by the directive to be issued by the Board after establishment of the experts’ panel.

The panel was established with an aim to investigate issues and provide recommendations, however the claimants may or may not accept the outcome.  The Board, based on the findings and recommendations of the panel, makes the final decision.“The Board does neither regulate nor intervene in such matters  but it establishes the experts’ panel that looks into the matter.” Soliana said. However, the NEBE still recognizes Dawud Ibsa as the OLF Chairman and that the board hasn’t changed the communication or the legal recognition to the party’s status.

In a much anticipated decision issued on December 18, the NEBE announced that neither of the meetings by the two sides were legal. The meeting held by Ararso’s side was illegal due to the lack of attendance of two third of the members. And the meeting held by Dawud Ibsaa, was deemed illegal by the NEBE due to lack of procedural ambiguities. Therefore, the NEBE decided to have the chairman and deputy chairman remain in their positions until February 7, 2020 during which it requested both sides to conduct a joint meeting.

The board’s decision came a week after the OLF, under chairman Dawud, released a statement expressing its complaints against the NEBE for ignoring the party’s calls about the imprisonment of its members, leaders and supporters that are potential candidates and observers.

In a latest development, the OLF released another statement with news of the arrest of 10 of its members on 20 December 2020. The list included members of the executive committee and journalists.

Meanwhile, as Ethiopia gears toward the eagerly awaited general elections, scheduled to take place on June 05, supporters of the OLF eagerly await for the joint meeting with the hope that the infighting that consumed the party for months to find a mutually agreed closure. AS

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