Addis Abeba, Oct. 08/2018 – Rebel groups such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), Patriotic Ginbot 7 (PG7), and Tigray People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM), among others, have picked up arms as means of struggle because the EPRDF government of the last 27 years chose to use guns to settle political differences rather than peaceful dialogue, negotiation and compromise. The current transitional government led by PM Abiy Ahmed has changed course withdrawing guns from politics, opening up the political sphere and a new era for the country’s politics. Today the media is free to air whatever it wishes, political organizations have no restriction in organizing, mobilizing and fundraising across the country. Hence there appears to be no real reason for any group to cling to guns as means of advancing any legitimate political cause.
Subsequently almost all insurgents groups have participated in several dialogues with the government of PM Abiy aimed at abandoning their armed struggles and come to the country to pursue peaceful political programs. Yet despite claiming to give up armed struggle, returning to Ethiopia and assuming peaceful mobilization of their supporters, it is not clear if any rebel group has officially handed over its guns and armed men following transparent procedures of disarmament. It is true that those who have returned home from their bases in Eritrea brought their unarmed soldiers and trainees. Yet to the best of the Ethiopian people’s knowledge none of these insurgent groups have officially surrendered whatever soldiers and guns they had inside the country, despite a few claiming to have disarmed themselves “voluntarily”. While OLF led by Dawud Ibsa is the main group blamed for failing to disarm, other groups may also continue to hold on to their guns.
As part of the process to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate rebel groups, it is at most important for the government of PM Abiy Ahmed to critically examine why these armed groups could be reluctant to begin the formal procedure. To that end the following points may shed light on this timely matter.
Uncertainty: Like many stakeholders, rebel groups are unsure or do not know what to make of the rapid reform and transition Ethiopia is experiencing as of late; whether these changes are real and sustainable or fake gestures by the state; or whether it is a rapid push by powerless reformists or a path to armed confrontation of some sort. So they are clinging to their guns as insurance of that uncertainty.
Pressure: Domestically, these rebels groups rely on nationalistic and militant supporters who worship guns as the only means to political end. The leaders have been preaching the same for a while and now lack the stamina to face their supporters with reality of the time and instead they clinging to the false militant and populist narrative.
Past History: In the past the Ethiopian state has had a history of reneging on disarmament agreements instead resorting to armed means to liquidate political forces which have agreed to disarm and encamp their armed groups. Case in point is OLF in 1992 and ONLF in 1994. Such experience have huge potential to inform similar decisions today, making political groups and their supporters fearful of a deja vu or allowing the leadership to exploit that sentiment of historical memory.
External Exploitation: It is no secret that all of the armed groups were supported by foreign entities and were also infiltrated by the former spy agency of the Ethiopian state. These backers/ infiltrators surely have vested interest in shaping the direction and outcome of the ongoing transition. The best and direct strategy to ensure that is to have a seat at the table and at the same time influence the security situation at the time of such state fragility. What is a better way of achieving such objective than using clients they cultivated for years?
Weak State/ Security Sector: The prevailing perception in today’s Ethiopia is that the political leadership is too soft and politically vulnerable to take harsh military actions or that the security forces are demoralized and fractured to implement such commands. Hence armed groups calculate little to no risk if they violate their promise to disarm.
One or a combination of the above factors might explain why insurgent groups continue to hold on to their guns even after they have been granted freedom to return and mobilize peacefully. But they are wrong. If they were really fighting for genuine cause, all of these armed groups should realize that they are endangering the transition and their own groups’ political opportunity. It is true that PM Abiy Ahmed and his government appear to be ‘weak’ and too soft to enforce the agreement they have reached with rebels. And to a certain degree, the government should take the responsibility for this perception due mainly to the nature of secrecy it continued to maintain regarding these multiple dialogues or negotiations it held/reached with these rebel groups. But any rebel group should know that PM Abiy Ahmed was a career military officer before political circumstances and opportunities turned him into a ‘soft’ politician leading the reform movement.
If state security, the form of agenda and his personal power are threatened, there is no guarantee that his military leadership will not reemerge. Also the armed forces and security branches might be demoralized due to popular rejection of state violence. Yet increased insecurity as a result of violence by non-state actors will certainly rebuild public support and even demand for intervention of security forces as it has happened in many countries.
It is therefore in the interest of political groups who are clinging to guns to not underestimate the state’s ability, motive and potential public support to assert its monopoly over the means of violence. In the absence of public and institutional constraint, a state and its security forces are naturally inclined towards authoritarian control and illegitimate violence by non-state actors strengthens and legitimizes such temptations.
This does not mean that this fragile trajectory is only the faults of these former rebel groups; it is the government’s too. While inviting, discussing and negotiating with rebels to return home and even setting up a task force to help rehabilitate and integrate combatants, it so far failed to follow through ensuring the formal implementation of the disarmament agreements.
To this end, first, the government should disclose terms of agreements reached with all rebel groups to avoid confusion, denial and suspicion. These terms should also be uniform for all armed groups in order to avoid any competing interest among and between them. Second, the government should clarify the duties, responsibilities and power of the demobilization task force that it claimed to have created to facilitate the formal process. Third, it should demand and strictly enforce that each group has disarmed and handed over all combatants and weapons they have in their possessions. Fourth, leaders of these rebel groups should publicly declare that they have no arms and armed groups left under their command. This will deprive any ragtag militia from using the names of known organizations to wreak havoc on innocent civilians like the ones we are witnessing in recent weeks which led to claims and counter claims of OLF members being behind the recent violent attacks in various places in the country. Rebel leaders’ public stand to distance themselves and their organizations will potentially clear ways for the security forces to take action without worrying about political ramifications or jeopardizing peace negotiations between the government and former rebel groups. Fifth, the government needs to work towards clearing political and security uncertainties that are being exploited by insurgents as excuses to cling into their guns. This includes beefing up security and involving opposition groups in negotiations towards transition via free and fair elections, among others.
The above steps, among the long list of the process of disarmament, need to be done as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Failure to begin these first steps will have dangerous consequences. For one, it’s a matter of time before armed groups start clashing with government security forces, negatively impacting the relationship between civilian leaders of the government and the opposition. Second, leaving groups armed invites potential ‘armed race’ among various groups. Third, it allows opportunistic external forces to interfere and manipulate our domestic politics and security. Fourth, increased armed clash between government forces and non-state actors and or among rebels themselves will derail the ongoing reform and transition to a democratic Ethiopia, taking the country back to dictatorship or even worse civil war. Hence all sides should act fast. Rebel groups that have admitted publicly to holding armed members or kept mum about it must disarm if they want to be part of the peaceful political process. The government too must begin the delicate, complicated and arduous steps of enforcing disarmament if it wants to ensure the state has monopoly over the means of violence and is capable of enforcing law and order. Finally, both the government and rebel groups should come clean and inform the public on the terms of negotiations that took place about disarmament procedures. AS