A pact between Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) in the south could signal the desire by a group proscribed by the Ethiopian government, to end political isolation.
Metta-Alem Sinishaw, a senior political analyst on Ethiopia and the East African region, argues that the announced pact carries more political than military significance.
“It sounds more like a counter-strategy against the new national front that PM Abiy forged to isolate the TPLF,” he told The EastAfrican adding, “Partnering with the OLA boosts TPLF’s position. As junior partners, Oromo movements have depended on TPLF’s support for logistics and external relations. OLA may not be strong militarily as the TPLF, but the size of the ethnicity (40 percent of 110 million Ethiopians) gives weight to TPLF to accept the alliance.”
In an interview with the BBC last week, OLA leader Kumisa diriba suggested that his group and the TPLF were looking for “freedom and space... We have reached an agreement to support each other in military matters because the two groups have a common enemy,” he said.
The OLA, which was one of the forces that formed the transitional government after the fall of the former Derg regime, was pushed out of the political arena by the then ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) — incidentally led by the TPLF. Its leaders have been in exile for many years. Now the shoe is on the other foot, but it appears the common enemy is influencing the realignment.
“There is no permanent enemy or friend. It takes time to see and move with the times," the OLA leader said.
When asked how much trust there could be between the two groups, the Oromo leader said: "This is a time to be clear and open."
"The current political consciousness of the Oromo people is different from what it was then. The struggle of the TPLF is different from that time," Mr Kumsa said. The details of the military agreement have not been disclosed.
Previously, the Ethiopian government accused TPLF of arming and training OLA, an allegation TPLF denied. Last week, Ethiopia called for patriots to join and bolster the national army and allied regional militias, signalling a potential expansion of the conflict countrywide.
“Now is the right time for all capable Ethiopians who are of age to join the Defense Forces, Special Forces and militias to show your patriotism,” PM Abiy Ahmed said in a statement issued by his office last week on Tuesday.
It was a directive for the Ethiopian national army, regional special forces and militias to take strong military actions to destroy the “treachery of internal and foreign powers.” PM Abiy did not name the foreign powers, but has recently described the TPLF as a weed or cancer that must be uprooted while his officials have lampooned the “hypocrisy” of foreign powers for not reprimanding the TPLF.
“What we see in Ethiopia is a conflict, which is intensifying and expanding,” said Murithi Mutiga, Horn of Africa project director at the think-tank International Crisis Group, referring to both the alliance TPLF was forming and the call for army recruits.
After initially being under siege since November, the TPLF managed to break the blockade on Tigray, pushing back on Amhara and the Ethiopian National Defence Forces. As both sides align with others beyond Tigray, it means that all parts of Ethiopia are in the conflict proper, Mr Mutiga said.
“It is a crisis which could threaten the existence of the country,” he told The EastAfrican, suggesting that there should be a political settlement as soon as possible to avoid a costly war.
Last week, the OLA stepped up their offensive against regional forces in the South. Targeting to block key roads leading to Amhara, the group may offer limited but crucial supply lines to the TPLF.
Some observers told The EastAfrican that the call to recruit fighters may be an admission that the earlier phases of the war were costly to the Ethiopian National Defence Forces. Initially victorious in the north against TPLF, they were beaten back by the former ruling party now considered a terror group in Ethiopia.