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.