Ethiopia-Ogaden: Somali ethnicity wages war for secession amid murky claims

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Ethiopia’s Somali-speaking communities, allegedly marginalized by Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa have begun another bout of rebellion against the government. So far seven towns have been captured as the rebels demand secession. Some Ethiopians have, however, dismissed claims made by the rebels, as having captured several towns, as preposterous propaganda. Some also insist that having been sealed off to the media, there is very little accurate information about events in the region.

According to local reports, the operation involved thousands of troops of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), and resulted in two days of heavy fighting. The reports also claimed that a significant number of Ethiopian troops had been killed and their gadgets captured, and the rebel forces had been warmly welcomed in captured towns.

The ONLF has launched several attacks since Tuesday last week. The marginalized Somali-speaking Ethiopians have insisted on military violence, insisting they cannot live under Ethiopian rule. The Addis Ababa based government, on its part, has always labeled the rebel group as terrorists and has cut off all access to the region.

The ONLF was formed in 1984, to fight for the independence of ethnic Somalis in the oil-rich Ogaden region. The ONLF grievance-drive has been political, economic and social marginalization, and their opportunity-drive has been the availability of oil in the town of Ogaden.

But the fighting has escalated since 2007. ONLF attacked a Chinese-run oil exploration field and the aftermath of that attack was marked with more than 70 deaths including Ethiopian guards and Chinese workers. The Ethiopian government responded by imprisoning Ogaden leaders and, according to academics and human rights groups, assassinating others.


Ethiopia remains one of the world’s most aid-dependent countries, receiving more than $2bn in foreign assistance every year. According to the rebel’s claims, no aid reaches the Ogaden region despite the government’s insistence that hostilities have ceased. In the towns of Galashe and across Ogaden, civilians attest to the same horrors, the gang-raping of women, the burning of homes and killing of livestock. But in June, Berhanu Kebede, Ethiopia’s ambassador to the UK denied these claims.

“This is a complete fabrication and these are unfounded allegations. The Ethiopian government has no intention of harming civilians; it is the ONLF that uses civilians as human shields. This was recently the subject of an independent investigation and this has made it clear that no such crimes were committed. This is a vast area with a population of 4.5 million, who are mostly nomadic and you won’t see graveyards because people bury their relatives anywhere they can,” said Mr. Berhanu said.

A rebel’s story

“In 1994, as a student in Dire Dawa, I was not allowed take the final examinations because I was an Ogadenian. I was arrested two years later on false charges of belonging to the ONLF. They kept me there for four years and I was beaten repeatedly, sometimes even subjected to electric torture. While in detention, my father was killed by government soldiers,” Ahmed, an ONLF rebel was quoted by Yannick Demoustier a French journalist for Rue des Pommiers news agency and Jonathan Alpeyrie an independent photojournalist.

On his release in 2001, he immediately joined the rebellion but his mother remains in jail in Jijiga. Fearing for his family, Ahmed convinced his wife to flee with their two daughters. “They are refugees in Kenya; I haven’t seen them for three years. There comes a point of no-return when you know you don’t belong in this country. They (Ethiopian troops) crushed babies’ heads with stones and in another village, they cut up bodies and scattered the parts to prevent remaining villagers from burying the dead,” Ahmed narrated. “Why does the international community remain silent? The UN must come to the Ogaden to see what [Prime Minister] Meles is doing to us,” Ahmed added.

No evidence

Meanwhile, many Ethiopians insist that the ONLF is fond of making preposterous claims and that following the enforcement of a media restriction in the region by the government, the accuracy of information — about the conflict, human rights abuses as well as claims that the government has been deliberately blocking aid to the area — is questionable.

Whether or not Ogadenians support the ONLF, “there is no conclusive evidence,” says David H. Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso in an interview with worldfocus. “While there may be widespread support for the ONLF by the majority Ogadeni, many Somalis from other clans are concerned about Ogadeni domination. It is even less clear whether the Ogadeni who support the ONLF agree on a political outcome for the region.”

Although the rebels’ demand for a referendum for secession has been refused as they are considered terrorists, the Ethiopian government continues to find a political solution to the problem.

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