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«Talking Peace in the Ogaden The search for an end to conflict in the Somali Regional State in Ethiopia Hagmann, Tobias Publication date: Document ...»

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Regional and local officials in the SRS need military patronage: the appointment of civilian administrators has to be approved by the head of the military unit stationed either in or nearest to their district. ‘Anybody who has a line with [sic] the military has power,’ is one observer’s remark on this.45 A very small group of officers is put in charge of following military operations in the SRS on an almost daily basis. As well as Generals Samora and Abraha, it includes Major General Gebre Adhana, who is the head of the military intelligence department. Its responsibilities include the gathering, reporting and use of political and military intelligence on 45 ‘The Eastern Command’s Tasks’, 2013.


both the ONLF’s activities and its intentions, as well as deploying agents in the SRS and recruiting defectors from the ONLF.

The importance of the presence of Tigreans in senior positions cannot be underestimated: the TPLF at the centre of the EPRDF follows the time-honoured Ethiopian practice of a creating a military subservient to, or at the very least serving the interests of, the ruling political elite.

The army is deeply embedded in the TPLF with an almost inseparable bond between the officers’ corps and the party. All Tigrean officers and soldiers contribute a twelfth of their annual salary to the Tigray Development Association (TDA), a charity closely affiliated with the TPLF.

The solidarity between army and party stems from shared experiences and ideals, as well as ethnic and corporate interests, the bonds of past suffering, and a collective fear of political opponents. This legacy explains why TPLF veterans such as Abay Tsehay—special advisor to Hailemariam Dessalegn—are often involved in policy decisions on important matters, such as the SRS.

Ministry of Federal Affairs (MFA) The Ministry of Federal Affairs (MFA) also has an extensive presence in the SRS. Although headed by a southerner, as in the military, most significant ministerial officials are Tigrean. The Ministry supports the resolution of territorial disputes between the SRS and neighbouring regions such as Oromiya and assists the regional administration in resolving inter-clan and intra-clan conflicts. Given the security threats and the weakness of the regional administration, it is perhaps not surprising that the MFA has a reputation for active interference in the regional administration’s political processes.

Since 2012, for example, the ministry has deployed about 120 districtlevel experts to the SRS to assist with resettlement, agriculture and water development projects, thus ensuring close federal supervision. In addition, regional officials have to regularly attend meetings in which ministry officials dictate priorities. In the past, too, ministry advisors 34 TALkINg PEACE IN THE OgADEN have cultivated ties with regional politicians, playing a significant role in the appointments and dismissals of senior regional officials.46 The MFA nominally supervises the 30,000-strong Federal Police, including its 16-man intelligence branch. Like the army, the Federal Police has a contingent of its own deployed specifically in the SRS: the Eastern Sector of the Federal Police’s Rapid Deployment Force, or fät’no därash.

The Eastern Sector is organized into units called shalleka, charged with controlling the proliferation of weapons that had prompted an increase in armed robberies. Between January and August 2013, for example, 25 incidents of armed robbery were reported to the Rapid Deployment Force, almost certainly a case of under-reporting.

National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) The mandate of the NISS is to pursue a number of security priorities in the SRS: watching and neutralizing individuals within and outside the regional government structure; penetrating and controlling the ONLF;

controlling all movements across borders; and predicting external developments in Somaliland, Puntland and Somalia that might affect regional security.

To do this, the NISS relies on an elaborate network of thousands of paid informants. It has ample financial resources to undertake covert operations, buy information, recruit assets, arrange training, and dispatch agents from within the local community in the SRS. The prime minister determines and authorizes both operational budgets and additional secret funds. Detailed briefs and intelligence reports from Getachew Assefaw, the head of the NISS, go directly to the office of the prime minister, to whom the NISS chief also has immediate access.

46 Hagmann, ‘Beyond Clannishness’, p. 522.


Federal decision making after Meles The death of Meles Zenawi in 2012 has not fundamentally altered federal priorities in the SRS, but it has changed decision making patterns and the relative influence of the different federal agencies involved.

Prime Minister Hailemariam lacks the hold that Meles had on Ethiopia’s TPLF-dominated security apparatus. Since his appointment as prime minister, he has not changed the national security team responsible for keeping him briefed on the latest political developments in Ethiopia and neighbouring countries. Many in the ONLF believe that Hailemariam is intent on pursuing Meles’s push for a political solution to the Ogaden conflict, but they doubt that his security and intelligence branches also support this goal.

An indication of the prime minister’s limited influence over the army in the SRS became apparent in October 2012. There was speculation at the time that Hailemariam intended to dismiss regional president Abdi Mohamed on the recommendation of two senior Somali federal officials.

Abdi Mohamed, however, capitalized on his good relations with key military figures, who prevented his sacking.47 If the post-Meles era has revealed a gulf between non-TPLF politicians, like Prime Minister Hailemariam, and the TPLF-led security apparatus, it has also highlighted divisions within the TPLF. This became apparent during the arrests of senior TPLF personalities, including the deputy head of the Ethiopian Revenues and Customs Authority, who was an influential figure in SRS politics in his previous assignment as MFA point man for the region.48 From the point of view of the ONLF the TPLF has always oscillated between two camps: those willing to enter political dialogue with a Somali-based organization like the ONLF and those who refuse to do so. In the ONLF view, while Meles was able to mediate between these positions within the TPLF and transcend them, 47 ICG, ‘Ethiopia: Prospects for Peace in Ogaden’, Nairobi / Brussels, 6 August 2013.

48 Addis Fortune, ‘Another Azeb Mesfin’s business partner arrested on corruption charges’, 2 October 2013.

36 TALkINg PEACE IN THE OgADEN Hailemariam cannot. Divisions within the TPLF are thus likely to affect federal policy towards the SRS, as well as towards the ONLF in any negotiations.

5. Parties to conflict: The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) The ONLF was established in 1984 by six young Ogaadeeni intellectuals who had been members of the WSLF youth league.49 They felt betrayed by Siyad Barre’s manipulation of the WSLF and, more broadly, they felt he had betrayed the Ogaden cause as well. Their view was that the political destiny of what they called ‘Ogaadeenia’ should be decided by the region’s inhabitants rather than the Somali or any other government.50 If the period between 1950 and 1980 was marked by Ethiopian Somalis’ enthusiasm for Somali nationalism, the 1980s marked a shift to a more indigenous, parochial political contestation in the Ogaden, motivated by a quest for self-determination rather than the pursuit of a ‘greater Somalia’.51 This change was reinforced when Siyad Barre and Derg chairman Mengistu Haile Mariam—both under pressure from domestic rebellions—signed a peace agreement in 1988.52 The creation of the ONLF in Ethiopia reflected the emergence across the border in Somalia of clanbased, anti-government armed factions at about the same time.53 49 John Markakis, Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers (Oxford: James Currey, 2011), p. 215.

The ONLF’s Somali name is Jabhada Wadaniga Xoreynta Ogadeenya (JWXO). Its founders were Abdullahi Mohamed Saadi, Sheikh Ibrahim Abdullah, Mohamed Ismail Omar, Abdurahman Yusuf Magan, Abdurahman Mahdi and Abdi Gelle.

50 Abdi M. Abdullahi, ‘The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF): The Dilemma of its Struggle in Ethiopia’, Review of African Political Economy 34 /113 (2007), pp. 556–62.

51 David D. Laitin, ‘The War in the Ogaden: Implications for Siyaad’s Role in Somali History’, Journal of Modern African Studies 17/1 (1979), pp. 95–115; also I.M. Lewis, ‘The Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) and the Legacy of Sheikh Hussein of Bale’, in Modern Ethiopia: From the Accession of Menilek II to the Present (ed. Joseph Tubiana) (Rotterdam: Balkema, 1980), pp. 409–15; I. M. Lewis, ‘The Ogaden and the Fragility of Somali Segmentary Nationalism’, African Affairs 88/353 (1989), pp. 573–9.

52 Maria Brons et al., ‘The Somali-Ethiopians: The Quest for Alternative Futures’, Eastern Africa Social Science Research Review 11 /2 (1995), pp. 45–70.

53 Mark Bradbury, ‘The Somali Conflict: Prospects for Peace’, Oxfam, 1 January 1994;

Lewis, Modern History, pp. 251–54.


In its 30 years of existence, the evolution of the ONLF has been strikingly different from that of the ruling TPLF/EPRDF. While the latter evolved from an armed rebellion in Tigray to become the dominant political party that it is today in Ethiopia, the ONLF was at first a small, secretive diaspora organization with representatives in East Africa, the Arab Gulf States and Europe (1984–1991), then a political party in charge of the newly established SRS (1992–1994), and only after that, an armed opposition group (1994–2014). Throughout, the ONLF has stuck to the same political goal: self-determination through a referendum in the Ethiopian Ogaden—an ambition the group has pushed for and popularized among the Ogaadeen community both inside Ethiopia and outside it.54 The ONLF draws a comparison with the stance of anti-colonial African liberation movements from the 1960s and 1970s, all of which fought for self-determination.55 Since the 1990s, the ONLF has mobilized rural supporters—essentially pastoral communities—by reminding them of their historical animosity towards Christian highlanders, often referred to as habesha or Amaras (Amharas). Urban and educated Ogaadeeni, by contrast, see the federal structure as existing in name only and have been drawn to ONLF because of its demand for autonomy.56 So the ONLF combines anti-colonial rhetoric with an agenda for regional political reform.

Much of the ONLF’s leadership has resided in the diaspora, at first mainly in the Arab Gulf States and later elsewhere across the globe too.

Although rarely present inside Ethiopia, many of these central committee members enjoy a kind of personality cult among their followers. Indeed, their physical absence from the field appears to have added to, rather than diminished, their status as leaders of the movement—there is no evidence they are out of touch with the rank-and-file. The leadership 54 Hagmann, ‘“We Live in the Dark Age”’.

55 Merera Gudina, Ethiopia: Competing Ethnic Nationalisms and the Quest for Democracy, 1960–2000 (Addis Ababa: Shaker Publishing, 2003), pp. 524–25.

56 Hagmann, ‘Beyond Clannishness’, pp. 524–25; ICG, ‘Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism’.

THE OgADEN NATIONAL LIBERATION FRONT (ONLF) 39 communicates regularly online, via short-wave Radio Xoriyo (‘Freedom’), through outlets such as Ogaden Today and the Ogaden News, and at numerous meetings with Ogaadeen diaspora communities.

The ONLF’s military commanders play a crucial role, not only because they are in charge of tactical decisions but also because they represent a link between the political leadership abroad and fighters on the ground.

Individual ONLF fighters in the bush may receive formal indoctrination but their decision to join the organization is mostly motivated by personal or family experiences of abuses by Ethiopian troops and their proxies in the SRS.

In the context of the Ethiopian Ogaden, the relationship between Islamic radicals and Ogaadeeni nationalists is of particular interest, as both have fought against the Ethiopian government. Although the ONLF was temporarily allied with al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, it has generally opposed—and has fought against—radical Islamist groups.57 Yet the ONLF has, at times, articulated both a parochial, clannish, Ogaadeeni narrative and an Islamic narrative, amalgamating Somali and Muslim sentiments against highland Ethiopian Christians.58 In particular, the ONLF’s long-time leader, Sheikh Ibrahim Abdulahi, who died in 2008, gave the group a distinctly religious flavour that reflected the idea of resisting Ethiopian Christian hegemony.

One of the reasons for the ONLF’s shifting narratives is that its leadership has included both politicians influenced by secular Arab nationalism, especially Syrian Baathism, and others, including Sheikh Ibrahim Abdulahi, who spent their formative years in Saudi Arabia, where they were socialized in a more conservative religious culture.59 57 Tobias Hagmann, ‘Radical Islamists in Ethiopia’s Somali Region’, paper presented to conference on ‘Islamic Radicalism in and from North Africa and the Horn of Africa’, Madrid, 1 July 2008.

58 Mohammed Mealin Seid, ‘The Role of Religion In the Ogaden Conflict: Crisis in the Horn of Africa’, New York, Social Science Research Council, 26 January 2009.

59 Markakis, Ethiopia, p. 308 40 TALkINg PEACE IN THE OgADEN Popular support Although the ONLF claims to fight for and represent all Somalis in eastern Ethiopia, it is essentially supported by Ogaadeeni clan lineages.

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