Time magazine’s recent inaccurate view of ‘The Ogaden Problem’


Time magazine’s recent inaccurate view of ‘The Ogaden Problem’

Fantu B. Nov 27, 2012

If journalists are only as good as their sources, the results are often partial and partisan, and often seriously flawed. The recent article in Time Magazine entitled: The Ogaden Problem: Will an old insurgency tip the balance in East Africa” rather proves the point. It’s datelined Addis Ababa but it’s clear from the argument that the author can only have spent a matter of hours in the city and even less time talking to reliable sources about the Somali Regional State. Indeed, from the very beginning with its references to “one of the Horn of Africa’s longest running conflicts” and the “alleged” ties of the Ogaden National Liberation Front with Eritrea, the article’s links with reality appears marginal. It is however fair to add that the author does actually detail some of the ONLF links with Eritrea later, making his use of the word “alleged” at the outset curious.

Certainly, to dignify the ONLF’s activities as a serious “long running conflict” perpetuates one of the ONLF’s own exaggerations as a glance at the history of the movement demonstrates. The ONLF set itself up in 1984 in the Gulf. It never took up arms against the military dictatorship and only appeared in 1991 in the region to participate in politics. As one of the few Somali organizations functional at the time, it was able to provide the government of what was to become the Somali Regional State until 1994. At that point, the ONLF split. One faction under its then leader, Sheikh Ibrahim, opted for military activity when the federal government, and a majority of the Somalis in the region, made it clear that it was premature to push for a referendum on self-determination at that point. In fact, a majority of the ONLF itself rejected the idea, and opted to remain within the political processes of the Somali Regional State, subsequently uniting with another party to form the then ruling Somali Peoples Democratic Party in 1998.

The ONLF’s efforts at a guerrilla struggle after 1994were hardly visible and were dwarfed by the activities of Al-Itihaad Al-Islami (AIAI) a Somali-based extremist organization, between 1994 and 1997. A significant element in AIAI activities at that time was led by Sheikh Hassan ‘Turki’, (Mohamed Zubeir/Ogadeni) an AIAI militia leader from the Juba area of Somalia. He later commanded the Ras Kamboni militia around Kismayo in Lower Juba when it was allied with the extremist Al-Shabaab. Ethiopian troops put an end to AIAI incursions in 1996/97 when they attacked and destroyed AIAI training camps in Gedo region across the border in Somalia.

Both before and after this, actual ONLF activity was minimal. It consisted of some 300-500 fighters carrying out the placement of land mines on roads, the destruction of buses and civilian vehicles and the murder of policemen, local government officials or, more usually, of its own critics within the Ogaden clan. It was all rather intermittent and was essentially ignored by the Federal Government and hardly impacted on local administration either. It was only after the election of Admiral Mohamed Omar Osman (former commander of the Somali navy under Siad Barre) as Chairman of the ONLF in 1998 that the ONLF took the decision to ally with Eritrea, allowing it access to significant financial and logistical support. The move was welcomed by the Eritrean government, offering Eritrea the prospect of a useful element to assist in destabilization in Ethiopia. Eritrea had, of course, invaded Ethiopia in May 1998. Its support for the ONLF manifested itself in hundreds of fighters being trained in Eritrea and in the provision of significant supplies of weaponry and other logistical support. By 2003 there were at least a thousand in training in camps in Eritrea and others followed. The first effort to infiltrate these people into the Somali region came in 2005 and was unsuccessful. Another large group, estimated at around 1000, was sent to Somalia in late 2006 and then sent on into the Ogaden by the Islamic Courts Union which had recently declared a jihad against Ethiopia. Their first operation came in April 2007 when a force of several hundred ONLF attacked a Chinese oil exploration camp at Abule. 74 civilians in the camp were murdered many in their beds. The dead included women and children as well as workers, and nine Chinese technicians. The ONLF followed this atrocity up with a campaign of terrorist violence across several zones of the region, attacking vehicles and civilians, burning villages and assassinating local clan elders and officials.

This outbreak of terrorist activities led to a substantial Federal counter-terrorist operation including controls along the border to stop further infiltration as well as extensive military activity tracking down and dealing with those already in the country. Operations included attempts to control cross-border trade to limit smuggling and contraband activity, and to protect food aid distribution in 2007-2008. A number of the trucks taken and burnt by the ONLF were carrying food aid. The federal operations were largely successful and by the end of the year most of the ONLF fighters who had crossed into the Somali Regional State in the later part of 2006 had been rounded up or killed. Following these operations, the Federal army was essentially able to take a back seat and hand over security in the region to the Somali Regional “liyu” police, largely, it might be noted, recruited from the Ogaden clan.

Human Rights Watch put out a report in June 2008 claiming the Federal government forces had committed extensive human rights abuses in containing the ONLF. An independent investigation of the allegations, commissioned by the government, found that many of the claims were exaggerated or invented, including numerous villages that had not been burnt and people who had not been tortured and killed as HRW claimed. It was apparent that HRW’s sources were exclusively external, and the information on which it relied largely hearsay; it had made no attempt to query or assess the political affiliations of those offering information, whether refugees from the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya or indeed ONLF supporters in the US; indeed it made no effort to evaluate or question the basis of any of the information given it.

There have been one or two other occasions of further infiltration of ONLF fighters trained in Eritrea but nothing as substantial as the 1000 to 1200 that arrived in late 2006. The last occasion was in September 2010 when over 200 fighters trained in southern Eritrea landed on the coast of Somaliland south of Zeila and tried to drive across Somaliland into the Ogaden. They were intercepted by Somaliland forces close to the border and by Ethiopian forces just across the border and most were captured or killed. This group appears to have included almost the last of the fighters being trained in Eritrea at that time. Their failed attempt to infiltrate followed the decision of one major ONLF faction to open negotiations with the Ethiopian government (it made peace in 2011), and was apparently intended to be an attempt to counter the impact of the forthcoming ‘defection’.

Since 2008, there has been minimal ONLF activity in the region, though there have been a good many claims. Many, indeed most of these, have been simply invented but given publicity by sympathizers among advocacy organizations. The ONLF has steadily lost support in the region in the last three or four years in the face of significant economic development, improved administration, expanded health and education facilities and increasingly effective governance. This, coupled with its own splits, explains why the ONLF proposed peace talks last year, using its clan allies in Kenya as intermediaries. It was the ONLF which suggested the talks after dropping hints for over year. The move followed the government’s successful negotiations with the United Front for the Liberation of Western Somalia in 2010, and with one major ONLF faction in 2010-2011.

A few other points might be added. Ethiopia’s problem with Qatar (now, it might be noted, resolved) had nothing to do with any ONLF training in Qatar, something that has never been suggested, nor of any funding for the ONLF. Misunderstandings arose over the way Qatar aid to Eritrea was being diverted into Eritrea’s destabilization activities in the Horn of Africa generally and Ethiopia in particularly. Ethiopia was also critical of some of the inaccurate reportage on the ONLF emanating from Al Jazeera at the time.

The Somali region isn’t closed off either to journalists or to independent observers. In this context it might be added that the two Swedish journalists, Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye, were not detained in Ethiopia because they had been in the region, but because they had crossed the border, illegally, in the company of a group of armed terrorists on a terrorist mission.

The quotation of Kjetil Tronvill’s suggestion that the ONLF would be planning a surge of violence to demonstrate its political relevance is only plausible in the context of continuing Eritrean efforts at destabilization. Despite its claims, the ONLF has little presence left in the region; it is now a marginal organization – seriously divided (not all its members supported the idea of talks) and with one major faction making a deal last year. Its support has been dwindling steadily and currently comes from no more than a few lineages from one or two sub-clans within the Mohamed Zubir/ Ogaden, principally within the Waafa Hersi/ Rer Abdilleh and the Rer Harfun/Rer Isaak (Admiral Osman’s clan); and it was the latter which provided most of those who made peace last year.

In this connection it should be made clear that most of the Ogaden clan, which actually make up no more than a third or so of the population of the Somali Regional State, have never supported the ONLF. Indeed many actively oppose it, particularly those like the Makahil/Ogaden who have suffered many attacks from the ONLF and lost at least two Sultans. Most of the Regional “liyu” police now responsible for security in the region are themselves recruited from the Ogaden clan. The ONLF’s record of murder and assassination, of attacks on civilians, landmines on roads and similar activities as well as attacks on police and local administration officials, most from their own clans, have not endeared it to local population who have frequently suffered at ONLF hands.

Equally, the ONLF insistence on claiming to represent all Somalis in the Somali Regional State has lost it any chance of support from the other two thirds of the region. None of the other clans have any desire to find themselves in an “Ogaden” state ruled by the Ogaden clan. Such clans as the Isaaq, the Gadabursi, the Issa, Jarso or even other Darod clans, have all rejected any Ogadeni claims to paramountcy in the region. Some, like the Isaaq, for example, have been in conflict with the Ogaden over grazing lands in the Haud for generations. Some, in the past, might at least have had some sympathy with the desire to cut links with the federal government in Addis Ababa but this has evaporated in face of ONLF terrorism, its links with Eritrea and, perhaps most importantly, increasing development in the region.

For a number of years, in addition to its assistance from Eritrea the ONLF has depended largely upon resources provided by Diaspora organizations in the US. As the reality of ONLF activity has become apparent and people learnt of the social developments in the regional state, these resources began to dry up. The effect was intensified when senior officials from the Regional State government made a series of speaking tours to inform Somalis in the Diaspora of the realities existing on the ground, and as more and more people returned to see what was actually happening in the region.

Any attempt to analyze the politics of the Somali Regional State, or of the Ogaden area, or discuss the relevance of the ONLF today, without consideration of regional clan relations and of political and social developments, is futile. It leads, all-too-easily, to the sort of exaggerated over-simplification to be found in this article, based largely as it is on error and ignorance and reliance on ONLF or other specifically anti-Ethiopia sources.

On final point: the reason given for the collapse of the talks, the refusal of the ONLF to recognize the Ethiopian constitution, is hardly plausible as the constitution actually offers exactly what the ONLF claims to want: the possibility of a referendum on self-determination. This cannot be the real reason for walking out of the discussions. A far more obvious reason is that that President Isaias of Eritrea, the ONLF’s major, indeed only, external supporter, who was not consulted in advance of the talks, ordered the ONLF to break them off.

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