The Ogaden Problem: Will an Old Insurgency Tip the Balance in East Africa?

How Ethiopia's inability to reconcile the Ogaden's rebels has implications for militants and governments across the Horn of Africa

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Jonathan Alpeyrie / Getty Images

An ONLF soldier rests inside the destoyed town school during a sweep in the area for government soldiers in Ethiopia, Feb. 23, 2009.

Hopes that one of the Horn of Africa‘s longest running conflicts could soon come to an end foundered when peace talks between the Ethiopian government and ethnic Ogadeni rebels recently broke down. Due to the Ogaden National Liberation Front’s alleged ties with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s troublesome neighbour, and rumored links to al-Qaeda affiliated militia al-Shabab, many fear the failure of the negotiations could fuel instability and conflict in the region.

The ONLF have been fighting over a territory officially called the Somali region due to its proximity to Somalia. Predominantly Muslim and culturally closer to Somalia, the residents of the region have long felt detached from the Orthodox Christian ruling government in Addis Ababa. While most of the ONLF’s political wing is based in western countries, its military units operate on the fringes of Ethiopian sovereignty, entering the region across its borders with Somalia and Eritrea using hit and run tactics. On the back of years of underdevelopment and mistreatment, the ONLF claims to represent a population that seeks independence from Ethiopia—and some even who desire a union with neighboring Somalia. “Now our people are like slaves, under a humanitarian siege with no right to anything,” says Abdirahman Mahdi, the ONLF’s founder and foreign secretary based in the U.K.

The most recent talks come at a time when Kenyan and Ethiopian forces are engaged in a military operation to push al-Shabab out of key Somalian towns. The militant outfit has attempted to impose a strict form of sharia law across stretches of Somalia under its control, and is implicated in a string of terrorist attacks throughout East Africa. At the end of September they were forced to retreat from Kismayo, a strategic port, the latest setback suffered by al-Shabab since August 2011, when they were forced out of Mogadishu. Breaking eight years of rule by a corrupt transitional government, a new government was sworn in last month with the first female foreign minister in the country’s history. In a recent statement the ONLF voiced it’s support for the new government.

Despite operating in the same region, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) has vehemently rejected allegations they have supported al-Shabab, and has in fact clashed several times with them in the past on the Ethiopian-Somalia border. According to Ogadeni expert Tobias Hagmann the ONLF is actually a competitor of al-Shabab. “With al-Shabab busy trying to safeguard their people and interests from the intervention I don’t think the failure of the talks will effect al-Shabab so much,” Hagmann told TIME.

There are concerns, though, from analysts in Ethiopia that the continued inability to reconcile ONLF could push the rebel group into al-Shabab’s arms. “Some ONLF factions have long collaborated with al-Shabab,” says Abel Abate an analyst at the state funded think-tank, the Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development (EIIPD) in Addis Ababa. “If the talks fail, al-Shabab, also increasingly desperate for support after the intervention, could push for more alliances with ONLF commanders.”

Last month’s talks fell apart over the ONLF’s refusal, thus far, to recognize Ethiopia’s constitution. Should they have succeeded, Hagmann argues, they would have boosted Kenya’s role as a “regional powerbroker,” capable of putting out one fire peacefully while attempting to squelch another through force of arms. Eritrea, on the other hand, will be sure to lose out. ONLF troops have long operated out of Eritrea, with most of the main bases believed to be on the Eritrean side of the border. ONLF intellectuals were based in the Eritrean capital Asmara for a number of years, and Eritrea has used the ONLF as a proxy against its old foe Ethiopia.

Eritrea is not the only country to have supported the rebels. In 2008, it was alleged that ONLF rebels were being trained in Qatar. Unsurprisingly diplomatic ties were quickly severed between petro-rich emirate and Ethiopia. The reestablishment of relations on October 24, however, could be a sign of dwindling international support for the ONLF. According to Abate, regime change in Egypt and Libya has also had a significant effect on their funding. “It is common knowledge that [Muammar] Gaddafi heavily financed the ONLF. Without this income, I believe they have lost a lot of money,” says Abate.

The peace talks were originally started in March by Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Despite being criticised for his government’s human rights record, Zenawi was highly respected internationally for his ability to raise his country out of abject poverty and lead his government. Following his untimely death in August the peace talks were continued in September but soon fell apart.

Ethiopian political analyst Jawar Mohammed argues that, without Meles, the negotiating team had no clear leadership. “Now the government is divided about how to deal with the ONLF,” Mohammed told TIME. “One faction in the government wants to continue the talks, the other does not. It appears the latter has got the upper hand.”

While Somali region is closed off to journalists and independent observers, human rights groups have long accused the government of committing human rights abuses against Ogadeni citizens. One major fear is a stalled political process will escalate fighting and lead to an exodus of refugees. “We may see a surge of violence as the ONLF needs to remain politically relevant in the eyes of Ethiopia and the international community,” says Ethiopia expert Kjetil Tronvoll. If the disillusioned separatists do take that route—seeking to assert their agenda through a heightened military campaign—then the whole Horn of Africa is in for more trouble ahead.

12 comments
jstrong196
jstrong196

It blows my mind that the world is getting this bad. I mean you turn on the news, and there is all sorts of sad stuff hitting you in the face, making you think that there is no hope. There's more good than bad in this world.. But unfortunately no one can see that. Hopefully we can figure something out and bring peace to the world. Thanks for sharing this!

Jason | http://www.macneilfirm.com/internet-and-sex-offenses/ 

Esamu
Esamu

I am just beginning to interact with TIME through e-mail for the first time...I actually have been following you since decades...Reading You is satisfaction-inducer  and you are successful in bringing another dimension to my door... and I have been benefited by the columnists and other writers you brought-up to let TIME  grow...I thank you so much for your efforts to outreach...Esayas Mulugeta Teklu

denden
denden

Sevenup22, I totally agree with you, nowadays journalism loves dollars than the truth; and you have hit the nail right on its head. Remeber it is the west politicians and joyrnalists that created dividons among africans by cuoruupting our leaders inorder to serve them. Look at Haile sellasie who was supported and armed by US and yet US closed its eys till the situation was worst to the extent millions of people were starving and now the US is the main force in supporting the brutal regiem in Ethiopia and we have thuis inpet journalists who love dollar than thruth are writing lies up on lies, and the result is Ogaden on the brink of asking to be independent. So Horn people read what the western cowbys write but you need a big pinch of salt to swallow it as it is errenouse, not a grain of truth in simply it is apease the dectator and loot the people and the country is theri motto.

PureOgaden
PureOgaden

The government of Ethiopia censors the internet; maintains highly repressive policies in ethnic minority areas such as Ogaden and Gambella. Ethiopian authorities also continue to shut down newspapers and target journalists and bloggers. Can mr William Lloyd George visit Ogaden and see practically what is happening in Ogaden rather then "paste" what the Ethiopian government forwarded him. SHAME ON YOU?

PureOgaden
PureOgaden

But this nation called Ethiopia hides behind the pretext of "war on terror" violations to attack the soveriegn nations in East Africa like Eritrea and Somalia.How many millions of death is Ethiopia responsible in Ogaden? 

MarkosAlemu
MarkosAlemu

This is just "Your wish thinking". No single soldure of ONLF, and the rigion is now in great infrustructure development. Why are u desperate to ignite war here? There are two groups: Western Business Men and Curuel Arab Muslims, where are you from 'Time'???????? We Ethiopians need peace pls don't be that cruel, while living in one planet.

thesocialcartographer
thesocialcartographer

Ogadeni is clan, it is not an ethnicity. The Ogadeni are ethnically Somalis. And it's not called the Somali Regional State "due to its proximity to Somalia". It's called the Somali Regional State because it's citizens are ethnic Somalis 

masaafur
masaafur

@SomaliThinker articled called Ogadeni an ethnicity culturally close to Somalia & it's called Somali region b/c it's next to Somalia

Sevenup22
Sevenup22

I'm not sure if this can even be called journalism. The ONLF does not have no bases in Eritrea or Qatar (such absurd nonsense!!!), nor does it have any ties to al-Shabab (an enemy and a rival of ONLF at that). Instead of focusing on the massive human rights abuses the brutal regime in Ethiopia is conducting, you want to sell your readers fairy tales of Al-Qaeda this, Al-Qaeda that sensationalism. Ethiopia today is under an oppressive regime that kills and sets up kangaroo courts to ask who killed them. Ethiopia today is poorer as a result of 21 years of dicatorship from Meles Zenawi. In fact, the United Nations ranks Ethiopia as the second poorest country on Earth, a far cry from your claim of 'lifting Ethiopia out of poverty' nonsense. Seriously, what happened to journalism and fact cheeking? We have journalist taking biased stances in favor of Ethiopia's oppressive regime, even though it's apparently clear that Ethiopia is the obstacle to peace in the region. The ONLF wants peace but Ethiopia is the obstacle. Eritrea wants peace but Ethiopia is occupying Eritrean territory and invading Eritrea. Ethiopia's regime is the cancer of the Horn of Africa. The people are fed up with this ethnic hegemony in Addis Ababa. 

ermiasdrake
ermiasdrake

@Sevenup22 I agree with you that this article seems to be bending the facts to sensationalize the crisis of that region by tying it to the larger global war on terrorism with involvement of various nations and what not--it feeds into a more markatable narrative. While I question that ONLF has bases in Eritrea, I think there is a general consensus that Eritrea does definitely support ONLF one way or another--and not because they sympathize with the plight of the people. I agree that Ethiopia is not a free country and does engage in human rights violations but I think a more tempered assessment is warranted. While violation is violation, I don't think u can put TPLF oppression and Derg oppression on the same footing simply because they are both violators. Further on the point of Ethio-Erit issue, if you think Eritrea's stance on Ethiopia is really about the stalemate of the border issue, you are sorely mistaken. Its all about internal politics--for Eritrea, it really boils down to justifying the continuation of the status quo; delaying institution of the long awaited constitution; creating a sense of external threat to overmilitarize and distract the people. For Ethiopia gov, its about saving face from its people--especially Amhara and some Tigray--who bitterly oppose Eritrea's independence and lack of sea-port.  I Have cousins from both Ethio and eritrea, who are from the border of both.