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Wikileaks on Tadesse Birru and early days of the OLF

TaddesseMandela
Written by Mohammed A

(OPride)  The whistleblowing website WikiLeaks has just published 1,707,500 U.S. diplomatic and intelligence documents from 1973 to 1976. While most of the latest documents have already been declassified and were available through the National Archives, WikiLeaks has created a searchable online database for quick access.

 

Several of the 1.7 million cables sent from U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia offer interesting insights into the gathering of rebellion against the Ethiopian rulers of the time, the Derg. The telegrams cover a wide range of topics including the formation of Oromo and Tigrean Liberation Fronts, and the execution of Tadesse Birru (pictured above with Nelson Mandela).

 
We have identified a few that deal with Oromo insurgency and earlier clandestine efforts to organize the Oromo Liberation Front in the center of the country. More than the details contained in the cables though, aside from an intriguing fact that American diplomats were keenly aware of the buildup of the rebellion, the files reveal how little has changed in Ethiopia, especially for the Oromo.

 

For instance, the documents show that the only one-hour Afan Oromo radio broadcast in the country, starting then for the first time, was heavily censored and controlled. Amhara observers apparently told the Americans that the broadcast would increase Oromo self-awareness, tribal consciousness as they called it, and ultimately “divide the country rather than to unite it.” While the coverage had expanded now, with a separate Oromia Radio and Television station, there is still no independent media in Afan Oromo. The Voice of America radio was beginning to feel the wrath of authorities who began pulling its broadcasts and alternating for more of  “Ethiopia Tikdem” programs, the official philosophy of Ethiopian socialism.

 

What’s more, in mid-70s too, Oromo students actively protested against government repression and mobilized the Oromo peasantry during Zemecha — a national mass education campaign with a focus on establishing farmers unions.  While other ethnic groups were not immune then, according to these cables, many Oromo students were dismissed and imprisoned, a practice that has become all too familiar in the last two decades. Oromo leaders were arrested and executed under trumped up charges, another practice that continues to date (minus the executions).

While there was a widespread and multi-ethnic resistance against the status quo, which was then mantained by ethnic Amharas, the Americans remarked, an outbreak of any serious Oromo rebellion had a destabilizing impact for whole of Ethiopia. In one cable from 1970, the embassy official noted, “Any effective coalition of traditionally disparate Oromo groups (estimated 40 percent of population) would have significant impact on stability and future directions country.”  The Oromo struggle, which was then only a clandestine effort to forge a unified and pan-Oromo resistance, has since achieved remarkable heights. Today there are a plethora of organizations, in and outside of the country, even if weak and divided, that are fighting for Oromo rights. But the Oromo remain largely marginalized with no real political power in Ethiopia.

 

We have extracted relevant excerpts from the cables as follows. Please note that, in all instances, we have updated the derogatory terms used to refer to Oromo. These includes Galla, Arusi, and Gallinga among others. The text below in ITALICS and Blockquotes (separated by … for readability) is copied from the Wikileaks documents verbartim, unless otherwise noted .

 

List of Acronyms:

EPMG – Ethiopian Provisional Military Government

IEG – Imperial Ethiopian Government

GSDR – Government of the Somali Democratic Republic

TFAI – French Territory of the Afars and Issas

Emb Off – Embassy Official/s

USG – United States Government

 

A detailed cable from January 1, 1970, one of the earliest from Addis Ababa in this series of Wikileaks trove, contained some interesting insights.

Recent events have spurred re-emergence of ethnic, religious and regional demands for administrative reform and for more proportional sharing of country’s economic and political benefits. Any effective coalition of traditionally disparate Oromo groups (estimated 40 percent of population) would have significant impact on stability and future directions country. There indications Oromo middle class, mainly from Shoa and Wollega, attempting to organize and to link up in varying degrees with Muslim organization, military and police dissidents, and local “people’s committees”. This group supports demands of provincial elite and parliamentarians for removal “irresponsible” local government officials, labor issues such as minimum wage and the widespread desire for land reform (particularly redistribution issue).

Northerners tend view Lij Endalkachew as Amhara chauvinist and hardliner on political concessions for Eritrea as well as other non-Amhara areas. “He is no unifier”. We would expect Zawde Begre-Salassie of Tigre (Yohannes IV) royal line is more acceptable, particularly to Eritreans and Tigreans.

 

Oromo elite, for example businessmen, parliamentarians and provincial town leaders, critical their current under-representation in cabinet and slow pace redressing balance exhibited in Endalkachew’s appointments so far. (Addis 4374; a-85 & 80). 4. Fairly reliable sources report existence Oromo coordinating committee in Addis. Oromo society said be headed by member parliamentary staff and composed of Oromo civil servants, businessmen and landowners primarily from Shoa, Wollega and Kaffa, i.e., those in “buffer group” which shares in political, economic benefits.

 …

 

Reportedly Oromo society not in particularly close or formal communication with military committee(s). Extent Oromo participation and co-ordination with Muslim organization not clear at this time, see Addis 4424. Society does not have direct links with Oromo self-help organizations and perhaps with remnants Gen. Taddesse Biru’s earlier coalition (see ref d). (We understand that after his recent escape from house arrest, Taddesse Biru was forgiven by emperor for role in 1966 revolt and is currently moving under loose control between Addis and his farm.)

 

Oromo society linked with people’s committee in Jimma and similar “underground movements” in Shoa, Wollega, Bale, Sidamo etc. While these committees are said to be composed of various ethnic elements banded together for purpose forcing removal corrupt officials and larger, exploitive Shoan landlords like Ras Mesfin, Oromo members also tend view committees as vehicles for greater autonomy and complete removal Amhara lords from Oromo lands. Oromo leadership on committees drawn from middle class, such as U.S. educated Chamber of Commerce representative, Yegezu Oda in Jimma and progressive lawyer in Ambo, Ato Argew.


According some Oromo politicians, Oromo landlords and “balabets”, e.g., in Shoa, are willing redistribute lands to their brethren and are aligning in context land reform issues on ethnic rather than class basis. (Reportedly Ras Mesfin has been attempting instill fear of peasant revolt in Oromo land- lords and unite them with Amharas in opposing land redistribution. He and certain government officials in Shoa said be preaching line of chaos, bloody civil war and Somali invasion should IEG implement land reform “too quickly”.)

Oromo leaders predict land reform in Christian Oromo highlands will not entail the bloodshed that they foresee in “newly conquered” territories, e.g., Sidamo, Bali, Arsi and Kaffa where landlords are mainly Amharas. (Also see Addis 4104, 3724, a-85 and 6127 (’73). Oromo leaders imply IEMF will support land distribution efforts and point out that large number officers and men are Christian Oromos and sympathetic minorities, e.g., gurage. They concerned about Territorial Army and emergency police (viewed as Amhara dominated) as well as expected opposition from Amhara landlords but claim they can muster forces of their own.

Oromo leaders tend be wary of USG and feel it has long demonstrated support for Amhara rule. When pressed they point to alleged us help in suppressing 1960 coup attempt. (They also tend view us economic aid as prop for Amhara regime.) Some Oromo town leaders, balabets, parliamentarians and businessmen have asked reporting officer what USG response would be if emperor/Endalkachew requested urgent military assistance or show for force to help preserve Shoan Amhara/aristocratic pre- eminence in face of “Oromo threat.” (Emb Off responded to sceptical questioners that USG has no intentions take sides in internal Ethiopian events or crises.)

 

Another cable entitled the South Heats Up, dated Wednesday December 24, 1975, show the diplomat’s confusion regarding some troubles in “Ethiopia’s deep south” at a time when the Derg was scoring some diplomatic success at the OAU and UN over Somalia.


Ambushes, mining incidents and reported infiltrations from Somalia into Bale, Arsi, Hararghe and Sidamo, are confusing. Elements are variously described as Somali soldiers, disciplined well-armed “military” wearing uniforms without insignia; Bale and/or Oromo Liberation Front fighters; Oromo and/or Somali speakers using vernaculars not normally found in Ethiopia; Ethiopian irregulars or (officially by the Ethiopians) — as bandits. Further developments will no doubt help us achieve a clearer understanding.”

Outbreak any serious Oromo dissidence, finally, could have destabilizing impact elsewhere in Ethiopia. It could strain Amhara/Oromo cooperation, which has been central to the Derg’s ability to date to contain Tigre dissidence in northern Ethiopia.

We note that Bale and Sidamo were theater of anti-Amhara insurgency in 1968, which was put down ruthlessly by then IEG. If current incidents spread, we would speculate that Derg might now look sufficiently embattled to tempt GSDR to launch further escalation. Risks to GSDR in helping rebels rekindle racial tensions conceivably appears acceptable in Mogadishu at present even if new insurrection fails catch on or peters out […] In current circumstances calculation may be that opening yet another front — Ogaden or wider — would stretch already badly overtaxed EPMG military capabilities even further, with attendant advantages should GSDR opt to pursue its ambitions in TFAI.

 

A detailed cable from April 3, 1974 contained information about a growing call for reform in more than half of Ethiopia’s then 18 provinces.  It also had a passing reference to General Tadesse Birru’s escape from house arrest. Birru, a celebrated military general, was one of the founders of the OLF.  

Residents in provincial centers of at least eight of Ethiopia’s 14 provinces continue to press for removal/punishment of corrupt and inefficient government officials. In some cases, e.g. Arba Minch and Awassa, clashes with police resulted in deaths and injuries for demonstrators. We hear reports that local administration in number areas breaking down as officials remain absent their posts or are placed under house arrest by town residents. In Jima a people’s committee is managing town with police cooperation.

In three sessions this week parliamentarians from Kaffa, Arsi, Gamo Gofa and Illubabor in particular were outspoken in expressing criticism of local officials described as “arrogant mini-dictators.” New minister of Interior, Dej. Zewde, promised to consult cabinet on these problems and to address them in cabinet’s policy white paper, which is still under preparation. Deputies’ complaints include embezzlement of public funds raised for self-help projects; granting of land which was taken by force from peasants (deputy from Gamo Gofa listed over 20,000 hectares in his province granted imperial favorites last year); police brutality in handling public demonstrations; IEG’s indifference to drought-related suffering (see US info 01/1458); IEG retaliation to Oromo attacks in lake region.

While nature of local government varies in different areas, common theme running complaints now being voiced seems to be one of long-standing government irresponsibility and exploitation by local officials or urban and rural Inhabitants, particularly if they non-Shoan Amhara. (Report on local government structure and politics prepared in February ’74 by John Cohen for aid/w is most comprehensive analysis available.) Demands for removal government officials primarily generated by and confined to town dwellers. As far as we aware, movement has not yet catalyzed traditionally submissive rural peasantry.

Recent “Oromo uprising” over land ownership issues has remained centered on rift valley lake area (Addis 3037). There are indications, however, that Oromo sub-groups attempting organize autonomy movements. We note that gen. Tadesse Biru, leader of 1966 “Oromo revolt”, escaped house arrest last month. Oromo politicians also hinting to us that some type plans under preparation.


Six days later,
a memo signed as Kissinger, originating from the State Department noted the difficulty of gathering information in Ethiopia but advised the local embassy to forward new information when it is available. The cable contained a series of questions including the following one that references Tadesse Birru:

 

We would appreciate additional reporting on ethnic, regional and religious cleavages within the military, particularly regarding the Oromos and the Tigrean- Eritrean majority within the air force. How close is the relationship of air force and student Tigreans and Eritreans? Is Endalkatchew viewed as anti-Eritrean? Would Zawde be more acceptable to Eritreans and Tigreans? What is the attitude of Tigrean-Eritrean military elements toward elf? What more is known about Tadesse Biru’s escape?

 

In response, a cable sent around March 1975, dealt with the Arrest of Oromo Insurgent Leaders, mainly General Tadesse Biru and Col. Hailu Regassa. In the analysis that followed the report, the official commented, Tadesse’s capture was a major setback for Oromo struggle “as other potential Oromo leaders of his stature [were] few and far between.”


Ethiopian media march 13 and 14 prominently feature arrest of BG Tadesse Biru and Lt. Col. Hailu Regassa with clutch of their “accomplices.” men, taken by security forces “in cooperation with the public”, are accused of opposing “Ethiopian popular movement” and attempting to incite rebellion. According media, they are to be charged before special general court martial today (March 14). Prisoners (pictures displayed on TV and in press.)

Media report that rebels were taken in village of Curo Mako in Meta Robi district, Menegesha, Shoa province, “where they have been hiding for some time.” According government spokesman, BG Tadesse and Lt. Col. Hailu attempted to incite rebellion on “tribal basis” to cover their true motives, which said be opposition to land reform. Deputy administrator of Meta Robi district reportedly was killed during shootout preceding arrest these men.

Department will recall that Tadesse Biru is storied Oromo leader long kept by ex-emperor in custody/house arrest for his rebellious past. Lt. Col. Hailu is highly educated soldier who had been assigned as vice-president of special General Court Martial now trying former officials. Press explains his dissidence by saying he was large landowner. Press also charges Hailu with theft of Eth $80,000 raised for drought relief, together with Maj. Abebe Gebre Mariam, who remains at large. Capture of Gen. Tadesse is sharp setback to Oromo dissidents, as other potential Oromo leaders of his stature few and far between. Conversely, it is quite a feather in EPMG’s camp. We note that EPMG confident enough in appeal its land reform among Oromos to attempt use BG Tadesse Biru’s putative opposition to it against him.


The same month, diplomats reported on the
PMAC Trial and Execution of Oromo and other dissidents including General Tadesse and Meles Tekle, a Tigrean activist on whose tribute the late Ethiopian ruler, Legesse Zenawi, took his nom-de guerre, Meles.

Media march 18-19 reported the execution of Hailu Regassa, Tadesse Biru, Alula Bekelle, Rezene Kidane, Meless Tekle and Giday Gebre-Wahid late march 18 in addis ababa.

According press, these men had been tried by a special military court. Latter condemned hailu regassa to the capital penalty and the rest to life imprisonment. This verdict was reviewed by PMAC, which directed, on the basis of the evidence and the crimes with which these men were charged, that all be executed.

Hailu Regassa and Tadesse Biru were found guilty of “attempting to disrupt the ethiopian popular movement” and to oppose the nationalization of rural land. Department will recall (ref a) that these Oromo leaders were recently captured near Ambo.

Alula bekelle, described as a hard-core supporter of the old order who had abused his office to his own benefit, was charged with plotting “to disrupt the popular movement.” he resisted arrest last December 2 and “open fired on security forces during which innocent blood was shed before he was captured” (ref b).

The other three individuals were found responsible for the bomb explosions at city hall and Wabe Shebelle hotel last December 2 (cf ref c) “in which three innocent persons were killed and ten others seriously injured.” they and their accomplices, who are still at large, were also held accountable for the December 2 bomb explosion at bole airport’s fuel depot (ref d), “acts of terrorism which were meant to disrupt the Ethiopian popular movement and to create confusion among the people of Addis Ababa.”

….

 

Another cable, from August 1975, entitled Disturbances in the Countryside summarized the brewing of early resistance against the Derg in Eritrea, Tigray, Begemedir, Gojjam, Wollo, Wollega and Shoa. The diplomat concluded, while there were at least two concurrent efforts to organize the Tigrean Liberation Front, the disruptions coming from Eritrea posed the most lethal threat to the Derg.

Wollega — according to two reports believed reliable, Dej. Dereje Makonnen is leading a dissident group near Fincha, which forced the evacuation of Zemetcha students from that area. Zemetcha students have reportedly been forced (for the second time) to evacuate Shambu Awraja because of local resistance to them. Unconfirmed reports place another dissident group in Ghimbi Awraja of western Wollega.

Shoa — the Biru brothers continue to operate in the Manz area of northern Shoa. EPMG forces may have suffered as many as 100 casualties in their efforts to dislodge the Birus and have apparently decided to ignore them for the time being. The dissident group in the Tegulet-Bulga area of eastern Shoa reportedly continues to operate in spite of the capture and execution of several of its leaders. A recent issue of Addis Zemen indicated that Asrat Getaneh, apparently the leader of the group, remains at large. Embassy has reports of fighting in Gurage country near Butajira, southeastern Shoa.

While we are unaware of the nature of the fighting, Ethiopian media in recent weeks continue to report that large number of insurgents, now totaling over 1,000 have rallied to the government side. Government controlled media have also indicated that there had been fighting in the Wolisso (Chion) area of western Shoa, two hours west of Addis Ababa by road. (This is an Oromo-inhabited area where General Tadesse Biru operated prior to his capture and execution.)


Hararghe — embassy has unconfirmed reports of a Somali Liberation Front and an Ogaden Liberation Front operating in Hararghe, and one report of an “Oromo army” (see Addis 9732). Hararghe is one of the only provinces where outlaw/dissident groups have specifically targeted foreigners, including a recent attack on the US navy team operating there. A UNDP team which was confronted by Somali nomads carrying enfield rifles lends credence to reports we have been hearing for five or six months now that Somalia received a large shipment of lee enfields (from Italy, the story goes) which it has been distributing among ethnic Somali nomads in the Ogaden encouraging them to take action against Ethiopian authorities there.

Bale — a Bale Liberation Front has been reported in existence for some ten years and although we have heard reports of scattered lawlessness (including the killing of a police officer in northern Bale recently), we are uncertain to whom to attribute these acts. The Zemetcha students have been very active in Bale, including organizing peasants against the Derg.

Arsi — Zemetcha students have been hyperactive in parts of Arsi, especially in the capital, Assela, where they organized three 150-member “red guard” units and in southern Arsi near Koffele. A student campaigner from Koffele indicated that some 80 Zemetcha students remain in jail in Koffele for killing a soldier. Embassy officers have witnessed Zemetcha-led peasants stopping traffic along the main road there.


After analyzing similar early resistance in other provinces, the cable summarized these “disturbances” as follows:


Although there are problems of one sort or another in all 14 provinces of Ethiopia, only the Eritrean insurgents and the Afar appear to pose any serious threat to the Derg. Gov. resources have consequently been concentrated in these areas, leaving many of the other areas to revert to local control. Since the other dissident groups are generally localized and lack adequate resources and coordination, they pose almost no threat to the Derg except insofar as it attempts to implement land reform in those areas. The leaders of these dissident groups are generally old order figures whose ox is being gored by land reform and the Derg’s other socialist policies.

 

The tribal warfare in Ethiopia is traditional and frequently ignored by the central govt. except when it affects outsiders. The tribal clashes have been exacerbated in some areas by Zematchoch (particularly Oromo students) and by the fact that the tribes themselves probably perceive the central govt. as exerting less control in their areas.


A follow up cable from May 1975 reported general calm and improvement of security in Illubabor, Wollega, and Kaffa provinces:  

 

Kaffa province, especially around the Jimma region, had previously experienced rather severe disorders (see reftels) but these were resolved in early May. Apparently the chief administrator had given the Zematchoch Carte blanche to implement Ethiopian socialism, which they then used to expropriate animals and equipment from the balabats. This resulted in conflict between the Zemetcha and the peasants on one side and the police and landlords (mostly Amhara) on the other.

After several clashes, which involved loss of (30 peasants killed) and property the government finally restored order by sending the Zemetcha troublemakers (about 85) to Addis and returning other students to their posts in the countryside. The chief administrator, whom most observers blame for instigating the strife, has not been allowed to return to the province for the past two months. It is also widely rumored that the chief administrator was attempting to organize the Oromos into some form of Oromo liberation front. Two weeks prior to arrival of reporting officers Oromo and Amhara secondary students in Jimma clashed with some students being severely beaten.

A missionary source that knows the ex-awraja governor personally stated that he and 400 men are situated on a mountaintop near Shewa Gemira and are in opposition to the government. The airfield has reportedly been plowed up and SIM missionaries have been withdrawn from the area. Radio broadcasts in Afaan Oromo are very popular in all three provinces. Some observers (Amhara) fear that these broadcasts could result in increased tribal consciousness, which will tend to divide the country rather than to unite it.

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