One of the longest-running conflicts in Africa in the Somali-inhabited region of Ethiopia could be moving toward a resolution.
Peace talks broken off last year between the Ethiopian government and the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) may re-open in October, according to Kenyan negotiators.
Last year’s talks, hosted in Nairobi by Kenyan government officials, were overshadowed by the death of Ethiopia’s longtime Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. They ended early without addressing substantive issues of a half-century of conflict.
“There was a sort of uncertainty at the top of Ethiopian leadership and about what they really wanted from these talks,” said Cedric Barnes, International Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa regional coordinator in Nairobi.
The driving force behind both negotiation efforts is a team of Kenyan officials who are ethnic Somalis led by a former State Minister for Defense and member of parliament representing Garissa County, Mohamed Yusuf Haji.
Kenya’s special envoy to the Horn of Africa, Ambassador Ali Bunow Korane, confirmed recently that the Ethiopian government and leadership of the ONLF have agreed to meet.
Despite recent reports of fighting near Jijiga, the administrative capital of the Ogaden, Kenya continues pushing for talks. “We’re discussing possible negotiations in October,” Korane said. The ONLF’s chief negotiator, Abdirahman Mahdi, confirmed the Kenyan initiative.
“There’s quite a bit of shuttle diplomacy going on,” said Barnes, author of a new ICG report on the Ogaden conflict.
The Ogaden talks could bring an end to a decades-long conflict that has left a large region of Ethiopia, desperately in need of development, devastated and marginalized. But Barnes’ report warns that success “requires unprecedented concessions from both sides.”
After the World War II withdrawal of Italian forces, Ethiopia took possession of the Ogaden, a vast semi-arid land of shrubs and bare hills that became the southeastern quarter of Ethiopia. The majority of the 4.5 million population are ethnic Somalis whose Ogaadeni clan ties extend to major parts of Somalia and Kenya.
Although dates are not yet firm, Special Envoy Korane spoke optimistically of the impact they could have in the region. “I think settlement in the Ogaden could have an impact on some of the other problems of Somalis in the region.”
A constitutional stumbling block
Last year’s talks ended when the ONLF refused to accept the Ethiopia constitution as a pre-condition to talks because of Article 39, which addresses the right to secede.
“The constitution says they have the right to self-determination up to and including independence,” said Edmond Keller, an Ethiopia scholar at the University of California at Los Angeles. “But it’s sort of the old communist dictum: You have the right, but not to exercise it.”
The two sides must confront the same issue in new talks, but “what we’ve heard is that both parties are looking for a work-around,” said Barnes. “It’s not a question of ONLF accepting it, or the government insisting.”
“While I doubt that the Ethiopian government is prepared to accept independence or self-determination for the Ogaden region, I assume that greater regional autonomy is on the negotiating table,’ former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn told a Somali newspaper reporter recently.
Mahdi argues that the single goal of the ONLF, which he helped to found in the 1970s, is to permit the Ethiopians of the Ogaden to determine their own political future. “The issue has been identity and legacy of 50 years of oppression.”
“After the breakdown, there was a lot of campaigning to show the Somali people that they are part of Ethiopia,” said Mahdi. “Many outsiders have been deluded by a lot of Ethiopian propaganda.”
But war fatigue could overcome mutual distrust. “Two decades of deadly conflict … have exhausted the local Ethiopian-Somali population sufficiently to push the ONLF back to the table,” said the ICG report.
In addition to several divisions of Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) now stationed in the Ogaden, the government recruited thousands of local Somalis to form a Special Police Force stepping up military pressure on the ONLF. Both sides have been charged with abusing the civilian population by a 2010 Human Rights Watch report.
“Abuses have been committed by all sides,” said Barnes. “Both sides have to reconcile that dire things have been done.”
Pressure from the Somali diaspora
The research director of the Institute for Horn of Africa Studies in Minneapolis and a native of the Ogaden, Faisal Roble, accused the Ethiopian government of abuses but said the ONLF is hurt by weak leadership. “Frankly, the ONLF lacks leadership, the capacity to engage in international diplomacy …”
Roble said that attitudes are changing on both sides of the Ethiopian conflict. Somalis in the Horn are seeing Ethiopia in a new light, said Roble.
“There is a new prime minister in Ethiopia, and they are asserting themselves as a regional broker in peace building,” said Keller. “The central government has been reaching out to ethnic groups in the Somali region to find reasons for agreement.”
Somalis outside the Ogaden are now changing their views of Ethiopia, Roble said.
“The Ethiopian leadership is not the traditional enemy they have known for years” and diaspora Somalis are putting pressure on the ONLF to reach a settlement, he said. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Haile Mariam Desalegne, unveiled in the administrative capital of Jijiga a statue of Sayyīd Muhammad `Abd Allāh al-Hasan, the founder of the Pan-Somali movement. Similar monuments in Mogadishu and other towns in the region have been destroyed in clan warfare, said Roble.
Roble said Ethiopia is “opening its heart, at least, to the history of Somalis.”