On December 19th, 2018, the Ethiopian National Defense Force began a mass deployment of its forces across western Oromia state (mainly the 4 Wallaga zones and northern areas of Shawa zone). Eyewitnesses state that the military is digging encampments in the middle of cities and hauling in sand bags for fortification. This was in response to what the government called a breakdown of order in this region due to the actions of the Oromo Liberation Army led by a man named “Jaal Maro”.
At the same time, a video began circulating on social media of a speech made by an OLA commander named Kumsa/Miliyon Diriba, more commonly known by his nom de guerre Jaal Maro (“jaal” is an Oromoo word for “comrade”). The video is over an hour long and contains only audio. In it, one can hear Jaal Maro expressing distrust of the ruling Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and asking an audience (presumably of Oromo Liberation Army soldiers) if they will disarm, to which they reply no. Jaal Maro states that the order to disarm that was given by “the elders who came from abroad” will not be followed. He goes on to point to similarities between Ethiopia’s transitional period in 1991 and the transitional period now. In this report, we try to answer the question; who is Kumsa Diriba?
Kumsa Diriba (Jaal Maro) is the current commander of the Oromo Liberation Army’s western front. His government name is Miliyon Diriba but his friends and family refer to him as Kumsa which he later changed to Maro after joining the OLA.
In 2003/1996, Kumsa Diriba was a freshman studying Management at Addis Ababa University. On January 18th, 2003/1996, he was one of the students arrested and released for protesting in front of the University Dean’s office. He was repeatedly arrested for his activism throughout his time at the University.
In 2005/1998, Oromo student activists on various university campus’ across the country launched a movement called “The Struggle to Resist Oppression” (Fincilaa Diddaa Gabrumma-FDG) to which the Ethiopian government responded with a brutal crackdown. At this time, Kumsa, along with other student activists, were invited to recieve training from the Oromo Liberation Army that was operating in Borana zone of Oromia state.
After recieving training, Kumsa returned to Addis Ababa and joined an underground network of Oromo activists referred to as “Qeerroo Bilisummaa Oromia” (Youth for the Freedom of Oromia). However, his return to Addis Ababa was shortlived as the network’s main leaders, Tesfahun Chemeda and Mesfin Abeba, were apprehended by Ethiopian security agents after having escaped to Nairobi. Since the network had been comprimised, Kumsa was called to return to Borana zone to officially join the Oromo Liberation Army.
In 2008/2001, the Oromo Liberation Front faced internal rifts that culminated in the break away of a faction called OLF-Change led by General Kamal Galchu. This rift eventually reached the Oromo Liberation Army-southern front that was operating in Borana. In the midst of this internal strife, the Ethiopian military began a mass offensive in order to root out the rebel force. As the southern front retreated, Kumsa escaped the country and eventually went to Uganda.
In Uganda, Ethiopian security agents working from the Ethiopian embassy were able to track Kumsa down and request his extradition. The Ugandan government agreed to prosecute Kumsa but refused to extradite him. The local community of Oromos living in Uganda were able to raise funds to provide Kumsa with a strong legal defense. Consequently, Kumsa was sentenced to only a year and a half of prison time without any extradition.
Upon serving his sentence, Kumsa went to Eritrea, where the Oromo Liberation Front’s executive committee was based. During his time in prison, the Oromo Liberation Army- western front commander Jaal Legesse Wogi had been killed and his troops were in disarray. Kumsa decided to rebuild the western front and returned to Ethiopia in 2010.
Kumsa spent the next few years rebuilding the western front of the Oromo Liberation Army. After the Oromo Protests were sparked in 2012, an influx of recruits led to an increase in military action by the OLA-western front. In 2014, in response to the Irreechaa massacre, youth in Qellem Wallagga zone joined the front by the hundreds, disarming their village militias and taking the weapons with them.
According to previous administrators of various woredas in the four Wallagga zones, by 2016, the OLA-western front under Kumsa’s leadership began to capture and administer rural villages, it was also establishing its own civilian militia force and arresting the local government militia. By the time of Abiy Ahmed’s ascension to the position of Prime Minister and ODP’s rise to power, the OLA had filled the rural leadership vacuum in West Wallagga zone left in the wake of the Oromo Protests movement.
In 2018, the ODP-led government and the Oromo Liberation Front leadership in Eritrea signed a peace agreement in Asmara. The OLF leadership, including Secretary-General Dawud Ibsa, returned to the capital city to begin a new chapter as a registered political party. However, in the months that followed, it became increasingly clear that Kumsa did not necessarily accept the agreement.
The Ethiopian military is currently executing a mass offensive in order to capture Kumsa Diriba. Neither the government nor the OLF have so far addressed this issue.
The details of the agreement and how relations soured in the last few months will be reported in-depth in the next installment of our on-going coverage of War in West Oromia. Related articles: