By Andrew Koriri
On the night of September 21, 2010, less than a week after hundreds of Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) armed fighters trained by Eritrea trespassed through Somaliland and entered into the Somali Region of Ethiopia (Ogaden), Senior Ethiopian regime officials were in Bole International Airport (Addis Ababa) to receive an “ONLF” delegation led by Salahadin Ma’ow Sh. Abdirahman. In the coming few days, most likely in the first week of October, the “ONLF” faction that chose peace with Ethiopia will hold conferences inside the Ogaden region. The plan is to organize one such conference in Gari’goan, a place of symbolic value for the ONLF, as it is where its first conference was held after the fall of the Derg regime. This will be followed by a large meeting with the ‘people’ in Kebri-Dahar to brief on the outcomes of the Gari’goan conference.
In June 2010, The Ethiopian regime also signed a peace deal with the United Western Somali Liberation Front (UWSLF), a defunct Islamist front with no armed presence in the region. The group’s leader Sheekh Ibrahim is now in the capital of the Somali regional State – Jigjiga, but there has been no change for the better in the security situation of the region since his group signed the peace deal. In fact, it got worse with clashes between the Government forces and the ONLF rebels becoming more frequent and more intense. In the month of September alone, the Ethiopian regime claimed to have killed over 120 rebel fighters, while the ONLF on its part issued a series of military communiqués in which it claimed to have killed several hundreds of Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF).
Because it is clear that foes do not turn into trusting friends overnight – over a span of a week in this case, it is obvious that Salahadin is not the man who sent the three hundred fighters into the region. In fact, only two months ago, the Salahadin was in negotiation with an Ethiopian regime delegation in the United States of America; which tells us that he is not also the man who commands the rebel fighters who are fighting inside the Ogaden region.
This brings several questions.
(1) If the new ‘ONLF’ group can’t silence the guns that are blazing in the region, what peace can they offer?
(2) Could it be the case that they have a strong public appeal and hence can offer political capital to the Ethiopian Government in its fight against ONLF, or the ‘faction that still refuses to negotiate’, as the government likes to describe the ONLF led by Admiral Mohamed Omar Osman (the man who is known to be the bona fide leader of the ONLF)?
(3) If the peace deals with UWSLF didn’t help the situation on the ground, why does the Ethiopian Government continue to engage in yet another peace deals with groups that are unlikely to have a real impact in how things are going on the ground?
(4) What does the Ethiopian regime hope to achieve with these ‘peace’ deals?
(5) What repercussions will it have for the ONLF that is not part of this deal?
Meles Zenawi’s Mindset and two-pronged Strategy
Prime Minsiter Meles Zenawi made a telling interview on August 11, 2010 in which he delved in depth into the clan system of the Ogaden community and basically drew a line between sub-clans he said are fighting him and those he labeled as either friendly or negotiating. It was a wrong generalization and it drew the ire of the ONLF which immediately issued a press release accusing him of inciting genocide against one particular sub-clan under his rule. It was an embarrassing interview in which Meles appeared more like a traditional leader of a clan entity than a political leader of a multi-ethnic state. The whole interview has been a catalogue of outbursts which led many to raise questions over the Prime Minister’s political sanity. But the utterances could help us read the mindset of Mr. Meles and why vain peace deals have become the vogue in Ogaden.
Meles Zenawi knows that these peace deals will not yield military dividends in the form of weakened operational capacity of the ONLF. However, he counts on them leading to further divisions among the support base of the ONLF- the various Ogaden sub-clans. He hopes this would translate into a growing pressure on ONLF leadership to acquiesce to his demands. Therefore, he sees these peace projects as worthy investments. There are also some analysts who see this process as a public relations exercise designed to woo back petrified international mining companies into the region. It could also be part of a larger scheme to give the façade of readiness to attend to the concerns of the international community who continue to voice concerns over human right violations in Ethiopia in general and mainly in Ogaden.
The Utility of ‘Turns’
Throughout the history of mankind, converts have been used to show the superiority of one’s religion, idea or system. ‘Turns’ are a vital expression of triumphant power, proof that a cause is convincing and potent. So, by fronting ‘ex-ONLF’ men who have discarded their ‘wrong’ ideologies, the regime in Addis Ababa hopes to show that the ONLF is pursuing a lost cause. That is also another reason why it is imperative to import men from the Diaspora; men who may or may not have anything to do with ONLF, and parade them to the local and international media to prove the quandary in which the ONLF is in.
This writer is reliably informed that there is only one man who ever had any contact with ONLF in any capacity in the entire ‘ONLF’ delegation that landed at Bole on September 21, 2010. The leader of the delegation, Salahadin Ma’ow, was a member of the central committee of the ONLF before he was ousted in 2004 along with the late Dr. Mohamed Sirad Dollal, later killed by the Ethiopian army in 2009. Therefore, while he is a ‘Turn’ in the sense that he was a member of the ONLF in the past, he may not be a very useful ‘turn’, as he was in the cold for a while. This will damage the potency of the message of ‘peace’ Salahadin may espouse in the coming days.
It is instructive to note that there is no single member out of the serving 51 members of the central committee of the ONLF who is part of this peace deal. Likewise, not a single military commander of the ONLF has yet to surrender and join this group. It is therefore highly unlikely that events on the ground will be affected by the ongoing processes. None of the Diaspora contingent who morphed into ‘ONLF’ representatives overnight has a recognizable public standing and hence are unlikely to influence the opinions of the majority of the Ogaden people.
The role of local Militias in the fight against ONLF
From 2007, the Ethiopian regime started to arm local militias against the ONLF. In addition to the useful intelligence information they bring in, the local militias known as Liyu Police (Special Police) are mainly formed to thwart international criticisms of the Ethiopian regime's military and to paint the conflict as internal civil war in the region. The Liyu Police offer little resistance to the ONLF as they are poorly trained and are largely urban and semi-urban school drop-outs with little motivation to fight. Their main use is the cover they provide for the Ethiopian army in its handling of the conflict.
Meles follows a two-pronged strategy in dealing with the ONLF menace: divide and weaken the ONLF through series of ‘peace deals’, and intensify the use of local militias in the fight alongside the national army, to insulate the army and himself from any accountability. He will likely continue to rely more on the second one, which is arming local militias; after the current phase of the ‘peace deal’ is finalized and the fanfare dies down.
The conflict in the region will continue to claim more lives on both sides and shows no sign of ending. The Ogaden conflict is a political one which lingered on for a long time and it can only be ended with a political solution. The current peace deals signed by the Ethiopian Government and various groups with no military and political clout in the region will not help in advancing genuine peace and reconciliation in the region. In fact, it will do more harm as it will undervalue the meanings of peace deals.
1. The Ethiopian regime must realize that staged peace pranks are not substitute to genuine peace agreements. The conflict in Ogaden can only be resolved when real actors came face to face and discuss real issues. It must agree to unconditional negotiations with ONLF in a neutral country and in the presence of international mediators, as this is consistent with all known models of conflict resolution in the world.
2. The ONLF must prepare itself to make painful concessions if and when such an international negotiation is organized. It must see the armed struggle only as a means of bringing the Ethiopian regime to the negotiating table and should not be influenced by any outside forces in taking decisions about peace.
(Andrew Koriri is Sub-Sahara Africa Security Analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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