Peace at Last? After 25 years of violence, Ethiopia signs peace treaty with Ogaden rebel faction

Posted: October 23, 2010 in Africa

The 400,000 square kilometer territory called Ogaden, Ethiopia’s most underdeveloped periphery, is marked by conflicting identities: it falls in the southeast portion of the Somali Regional State. It is home to eight million ethnic Somalis who speak the Somali language and practice Islam. These inhabitants refer to their land as “Somali Galbeed,” translating to “Western Somalia.” Yet the territory is in and is governed by Ethiopia, a mostly Christian country in which Amharic is the dominant language. The product of this mismatch has been decades of instability, guerrilla uprisings, and rebel faction fighting. However, on October 12, 2010, the Ethiopian government signed a peace deal with the Ogaden National Liberation Front, the main separatist group seeking an independent state. After 25 years of bloodshed, the rebels denounced violence, ending the insurgency, at least for the time being, and perhaps establishing the first steps to peace in the Ogaden region.

As is the case through much of Africa, Ogaden’s troubles stems from colonial and postcolonial land disputes. In 1936, the Ogaden Somali territory was annexed to Italian Somaliland after Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia. In 1941, the British defeated Italy in the horn of Africa and reestablished Ethiopian independence. Britain administered Ogaden for eight years until transferring it to Ethiopia in the mid 1950s. Despite differences in language, ethnicity, and culture, the people of Ogaden found themselves under Ethiopian rule. Irredentists seeking separation from Ethiopia and union with Somalia soon began a campaign of sporadic guerilla activity, which led to the creation of the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), a Somali separatist rebel group.

In 1977 and 1978, Somalia and Ethiopia fought a conventional conflict over the disputed Ogaden region. During the 1970s, Ethiopia was marked by political turmoil following the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie, while Somalia, under the auspices of Soviet and Egyptian aid, strengthened militarily and politically. Aligning itself with the WSLF, the Somali National Army invaded Ogaden and fought a six-month war against the US-backed Ethiopia over the region and its people. However, with the rise of the Communist Derg in Ethiopia, the Soviet Union switched from supplying aid to Somalia to supporting Ethiopia. The war concluded with Somali defeat and withdrawal, as well as the birth of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which replaced WSLF in the Ogaden territory.

The ONLF has been operating in Ogaden, since the 1980s, seeking self-determination and autonomy from the Ethiopian government. Its objectives differ from other Somali nationalist movements, which have sought a Greater Somalia including all Somali–speaking or Islamic populations. Militarily, the ONLF has focused on ambushes, guerilla-style raids against Ethiopian troops, kidnappings of foreign workers presumed to support Ethiopia’s government, and bombings in major Ethiopian cities. One of the greatest sources of contention between the central government and the ONLF has been over the presence of energy companies in the region; the ONLF refuses to allow the exploration of oil and gas in the area until it gains independence.

The ONLF guerrilla campaign started making national headlines three years ago, when a surge in violence sparked an Ethiopian crackdown. In early 2007, the ONLF killed hundreds of civilians in a series of terrorist attacks: a grenade attack on a cultural gathering in Jijiga killed four middle school students; an attack on the town of Debeweyin killed ten civilians; an ONLF-planted landmine in Aware in the Degehabur Zone killed three. The deadliest attack occurred on April 24th, when ONLF gunmen attacked a Chinese firm working on a 21,000-square oilfield in Abole about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Jijiga.

The attack killed 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese workers. In response, the Ethiopian government imposed a blockade to prevent supplies from reaching the rebels across the porous Ethiopia-Somalia border region. In addition, the government initiated a major counter-insurgency operation, calling on local leaders to mobilize their clans to form militias and destroy the rebel faction. The crisis attracted widespread attention both to the immediate region and greater East Africa.Human rights groups have accused the Ethiopian government of war crimes for killing hundreds of Ogaden civilians, while blaming the ONLF for massacres of non-Ogaden Somalis and for using civilians as human shield. The UN and international community have also criticized Ogaden’s neighbors, Eritrea and Somalia, for fueling the conflict by backing rebel groups financially and militarily.

Violence diminished in 2008 and peace talks began in early 2010 in Washington DC, leading to the signing of the Ethiopian-ONLF peace accord in Addis Ababa on October 12, 2010. The chairman of the ONLF, Salahadin Abdurrahman, announced that the rebel group had learned its lessons, saying, “violence never solves the problems of the people but rather results in a boomerang effect that exacerbates existing difficulties. It is with this understanding that we have decided to sign this agreement.” Abay Tsehaye, national security adviser to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, praised the deal, calling it an “important input toward realizing unity in the Horn of Africa’s country.”

The peace deal, however, is not universally welcomed. ONLF is a factious organization, and Salahadin Abdurrahman’s ONLF contingent may or may not be the main group. Another faction of the ONLF, based in London and led by Mohamed Omar Osman, has vowed to continue fighting. This group, still at war with the Ethiopian government, calls the Salahadin’s faction irrelevant. “They don’t represent anybody and it will not change anything in the Ogaden. The fighting will continue.” Osman’s words have raised doubts about the relative significance and sustainability of the deal. This ONLF faction’s influence largely hinges on Eritrea, the country with the highest military expenditures per GDP (20.9%), Ethiopia’s bitter enemy since the border war in 1998-2000, and consistent supporter of Ethiopian rebel forces.

Despite possible destabilizing forces, the deal marks an important step towards peace. Ethiopia remains one of America’s important African partners in our counterterrorism efforts, and given recent concerns of Ogaden devolving into an al-Qaeda breeding ground, a stable and secure horn of Africa has become one of Washington’ s top priorities. The recent peace deal will hopefully address this danger by increasing social and economic development in Ethiopia’s poorest region.

– JT


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