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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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The Ogaadeeni make up 40 to 50 per cent of the region’s population, but the ONLF claims they are the demographic majority in the SRS. There are only five or six non-Ogaadeeni among the ONLF’s approximately 40 central committee members. The vast majority of non-Ogaadeeni clans in the SRS reject the ONLF, which they associate with a political project of regional Ogaadeeni domination, often claiming the short-lived 1992–1994 ONLF administration as evidence of this.60 The composition and respective weight of different Ogaadeeni clan groups within the ONLF has changed over time and is as controversial a subject as the demographic size of Ogaadeeni in the region.61 The same applies to claims that certain Ogaadeeni lineages, for example the Makahil (Wardheer zone) or the Tolomoge (Gode zone), have increasingly opted out of the ONLF in the last decade. As the conflict intensified after April 2007, and both rebels and government forces put pressure on Ogaadeeni communities to takes sides, growing civilian casualties and tensions among Ogaadeeni communities led to shifts in the support base of the ONLF.

It is difficult to gauge the respective numerical importance of the two main clan lineages filling the ranks of the ONLF: the Reer Isaak and the Reer Abdille sub-clans of the Ogaadeen clan, as well as the Absame who, like the Ogaadeen, belong to the broader Darood clan family. Available information points to a decrease in the number of the other Ogaadeeni clan lineages supporting the ONLF, but also to a greater commitment on the part of those that do. As well as the Reer Abdille and the Reer 60 Abdullahi, ‘Ogaden National Liberation Front’, pp. 557; Samatar, ‘Ethiopian Federalism’, pp. 1134-41; Hagmann, ‘Beyond Clannishness’, pp. 514–5.

61 For example, the SRS government has repeatedly claimed that the ONLF is a ‘Reer Issak’ organization, pointing to the Chairman’s clan. In reality, many of the ONLF’s senior leadership are from the Reer Abdille.

THE OgADEN NATIONAL LIBERATION FRONT (ONLF) 41 Isaak, the ONLF support base currently comes from the Makahil and Bah Gerri clan lineages. So while the ONLF claims to represent all Somalis in Ethiopia, it in fact represents only a sizable portion of the Ogaadeeni.

Over the years, the ONLF has consistently maintained that it is open to negotiations with Ethiopia. Its commitment to peace talks in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, also needs to be understood in light of its constituency’s war weariness. Insurgency and counter-insurgency have taken a heavy toll on the Ogaadeeni population in the SRS, including the educated elite and urban population. They see little chance of the ONLF achieving its goals militarily by defeating Ethiopia’s different security forces.

So the formation and actions of the liyu police can be seen as a successful, if brutal, application of counter-insurgency tactics. Many Ogaadeeni are now placing peace and economic well-being—trade and development—above the ONLF’s struggle for self-determination. Even Ogaadeeni intellectuals agree that improvements in political governance, in respect for human rights, and more accountability by local and regional government, would diffuse much of the anger and anxiety that fuels the insurgency.

Dynamics are slightly different in the diaspora where the ONLF used to have many committed supporters, collecting membership fees ranging from US$30 upwards a month.62 While many Ogaadeeni in the diaspora are sympathetic to the ONLF and support their demand for a popular plebiscite, not all are ONLF members. The ONLF has always been less than clear about what it means by self-determination: secession from Ethiopia and the creation of a separate ‘Ogaadeenia’, or regional autonomy within the existing Ethiopian state. Either option appeals to different segments of the diaspora.

In recent years, the ONLF leadership has come under pressure from the diaspora to consider abandoning the armed struggle. Two developments in particular have been important in this regard: first, diaspora 62 Interviews by Tobias Hagmann, conducted in San Diego and Minneapolis in April and June 2012.

42 TALkINg PEACE IN THE OgADEN Ogaadeeni share the weariness of conflict that has overcome their relatives back home; and secondly, many Ogaadeeni diaspora intellectuals and businessmen have returned to the SRS.

Military capacity The ONLF’s military strength has evolved over time. Its rebellion essentially started from scratch when it retreated to the bush from its position in regional government in 1994. In its formative phase, the ONLF drew on the support of veteran military officials from the former Somali Republic and former liberation fighters who had fought against previous Ethiopian regimes. Its military capacity as an insurgent group grew gradually between 1994 and 1998, when Eritrean support in training, weaponry, and indoctrination considerably strengthened its hand. As well as arms, Eritrea sent military advisors to the region and trained several hundred ONLF fighters in Eritrea.63 Continuous abuses by Ethiopian soldiers stationed in the region and bitter political competition within the SRS, further swelled ONLF ranks. By 2005, large parts of the region’s predominantly Ogaadeeniinhabited hinterland had become inaccessible to regional government officials, who feared being targeted by the ONLF. The insurgents killed ‘highlanders’ (non-Ethiopian Somalis) and senior regional officials, as well as burning government vehicles and assaulting lower-ranking government officials.64 Officials also stopped travelling through ONLFcontrolled territory because they were afraid of being accused of being rebel collaborators by the Ethiopian army.

Armed confrontations between the rebels and government forces are concentrated in the five administrative zones predominantly inhabited by Ogaadeeni clan lineages: Nogob (Fik); Fafan (Degehabur); Qabridehar 63 Eritrea supplied arms to the ONLF via warlord Hussein Aideed in 1999 /2000 and later on through the ICU; Abdullahi, ‘Ogaden National Liberation Front’, p. 560. Until 2010 and 2011 smaller groups of Eritrean-trained ONLF fighters were able to join their comrades in the region.

64 Hagmann, ‘Beyond Clannishness’, p. 525.

THE OgADEN NATIONAL LIBERATION FRONT (ONLF) 43 (Korahe); Shabelle (Gode); and Dollo (Wardheer). Fik zone, with its forests and water sources, has served the ONLF as a refuge for a long time, but the group has carried out attacks north of the Imi-Kelafo road in Gode zone, and has targeted main roads between Qabridehar and Denan, and between Degehabur and Shilabo. Much of the fighting in the past decade or so has been focused on Degehabur and Qabridehar, which has a large Ethiopian garrison.

In classic rebel fashion, the ONLF controls or is present in the bush and hinterland, while Ethiopian security forces are concentrated in major towns. The ONLF´s ability to move around the region, with its fighters often walking thousands of kilometres, has allowed it to carry out hit-and-run attacks on military convoys and occasionally on towns, but has prevented the rebels from holding territory or towns more permanently. One consequence of this type of mobile warfare is that Ethiopian security forces target local residents where the ONLF is (or was) active after the rebels have moved on.

The ONLF’s military strength peaked 2007–08, when a combination of factors worked to its advantage: Ethiopian military deployment to Somalia; popular dissatisfaction with the SRS administration; the attack on the Abole oil exploration site; and Eritrean military support.

The number of ONLF fighters is highly contested. In 2006–07, the Ethiopian government estimated the ONLF to have some 2,500 to 3,000 fighters.65 In 2008, one analyst put the figure at some 8,000 fighters.66 In 2011, a senior ONLF official claimed a number of 15,000. The Ethiopian government claims the ONLF has been reduced to a few hundred fighters, but an estimate based on the ONLF’s capacity to strike in localities that are far apart, from Jijiga to Wardheer to Fik, suggests a force of 1,000 to 1,500 fighters. Pressured by the liyu police after 2009, the 65 Sarah Vaughan, ‘Understanding the Landscape of Governance and Politics in Ethiopia: Somali National Regional State Case Study’, report for DFID Ethiopia, November 2010.

66 Gérard Prunier, ‘Armed Movements in Sudan, Chad, CAR, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia’, Berlin, Center for International Peace Operations, February 2008.

44 TALkINg PEACE IN THE OgADEN ONLF withdrew many of its fighters to the Garissa area of Kenya, and into refugee camps there such as Dadaab.67 Leadership and factions Reliable information on the cohesiveness of the current ONLF leadership is hard to come by. The ONLF has suffered from serious splits over the past two decades: some sources maintain that dissatisfaction with the armed struggle extends to some of its leaders. One source, interviewed for this report, claimed that ONLF commanders who used to shuttle between Kenya and the Ogaden bush had taken to spending time waiting in Nairobi for more talks.

In the event of a peace agreement with the Ethiopian government, the odds of a split within the front’s central committee would be high but past and future defections by high-ranking ONLF officials should be assessed in terms of their individual influence and standing within the leadership as a whole. Most key figures are in agreement in terms of major policy decisions. Many senior ONLF figures are based in exile, the chairman, Rtd. Admiral Mohamed Omar Osman (Reer Isaak), in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea,68and his vice-chairman Mohamed Ismail (Reer Yusuf Ali/Reer Abdille), in Australia. The ONLF’s foreign secretary, Abdirahman Mahdi (Reer Abdille), is based in the UK, where another senior figure, Mohamed Abdi Yassin ‘Diirane’ (Reer Abdille), is also based. Abdulkadir Hassan Hirmoge ‘Adani’ (Reer Abdille from Denan), is another senior ONLF official. Were they to fall out, or if other central committee members defected from this core group, the ONLF would still be likely to survive in a reduced form.

There has been speculation about relatively ‘hardline’ and relatively ‘liberal’ personalities and positions within the ONLF. Mohamed Ismail, 67 Sarah Vaughan, ‘Analysis of Peacebuilding and its Prospects in the Ethiopian Somali Region’, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, December 2011.

68 Vaughan, ‘Analysis of Peacebuilding’, describes the Admiral as a ‘compromise candidate’ whose long tenure is primarily explained by the lack of an alternative leader.

THE OgADEN NATIONAL LIBERATION FRONT (ONLF) 45 the reclusive vice-chairman, as well as a former commander, Mohamed Abdi Yassin ‘Diirane’, and Osman Bedel are often seen as those most fiercely opposed to a deal with Ethiopia, while Abdirahman Mahdi, probably because of his diplomatic role as the organisation’s foreign secretary, is viewed as more accommodating. It is not clear into which camp the ONLF chairman Mohamed Omar Osman falls. A long-term observer of the ONLF says there are no organized factions in the ONLF;

most of the leadership hold positions somewhere between pragmatism and ‘fighting to the last’.

If divisions within today’s ONLF are difficult to identify, the group has certainly been reduced by repeated splits and defections since it went to the bush in 1994. A big split occurred in 1995 when a breakaway faction—led by Bashir Abdi Hassan and subsequently termed by Ethiopia the ‘legal ONLF’—joined the EPRDF-backed ESDL, while most followers of Sheikh Ibrahim Abdulahi took up arms. The latter group, the current ONLF, appointed Mohamed Omar Osman as its new chairman in 1998.

In 2006, a major dispute in the ONLF central committee pitted Mohamed Omar Osman, the then vice-chairman Abdulkadir Hassan Hirmoge ‘Adani’, and general secretary Mohamed Ismail, against a group of 11 central committee members led by Mohamed Sirad Dolaal, a former foreign secretary and head of planning and research. In an attempt to challenge the ONLF leadership by building up his own armed group, Dolaal made his way into the Ogaden with the help of United Western Somali Liberation Front (UWSLF) fighters, but was intercepted and killed by liyu police in Denan in January 2009.69 His death renewed tensions among the Ogaadeeni, particularly between the Reer Isaak (Degehabur) and Reer Abdille (Quabridehar), and was skilfully exploited by the SRS administration.

Other high-ranking ONLF defectors in recent years have included the former ONLF representative in Eritrea, Sultan Adan Yusuf Tani and 69 ONLF, ‘Statement on Execution-style Murder of Dr Mohamed Siraad Dolaal’, 24 January 2009.

46 TALkINg PEACE IN THE OgADEN Sulub Ali Abas, and their militia in 2007.70 In October 2010, a small faction led by Salahadin Maow, a former central committee member who had been one of Dolaal’s supporters, defected from the ONLF. Maow’s decision to make peace with the Ethiopian government and join the regional administration was treated as a major event by Ethiopian state media, but proved to be politically insignificant. Finally, the ONLF’s former Kenya representative, Abdinur Abdullahi Farah, joined the SRS government in October 2012, and subsequently became an advisor to SRS regional president Abdi Mohamed.

Critiques of the ONLF Over the last decade, criticism of the ONLF has intensified from within the Ogaadeeni community. While the armed struggle has always had its critics, the intensification of the counterinsurgency after 2007, the rise of Abdi Mohamed’s strongman clan policies, and the changing political dynamics in neighbouring Somalia, have all intensified these criticisms.

Many Ogaadeeni intellectuals are not only critical of the Ethiopian government but also of the ONLF, accusing it of lacking a clear vision, refusing to acknowledge realities on the ground, and of being elitist, indecisive and out of touch. One source commented, sardonically, that for as long as the ONLF exaggerates its achievements, ‘most ONLF supporters believe the group is about to liberate the region’.

Other criticisms concern the ONLF’s refusal to become more inclusive by appealing to other marginalized Somali groups sharing many of the same grievances as the Ogaadeeni. This is most prominently reflected in its refusal to change the name of its organization.71 The ONLF is also criticized for sticking to an unchanging narrative, one of secession as the panacea for the region’s many problems, rather than embracing an agenda of democratization and good governance. This line of argument sees the ONLF as having limited itself to demands for self-determination.

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