Nairobi — Any hopes for an imminent end to conflict in Ethiopia’s Somali region were dashed earlier this month when talks between the government and the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) broke down.
Hosted by Kenya's government in Nairobi, the negotiations started in September, with Ethiopia's delegation led by Defence Minister Siraj Fegessa and the ONLF team headed by Abdirahman Mahdi, the group's foreign secretary. Meeting on 6 and 7 September, the two sides agreed on the modalities of the negotiation process, the general principles that would form the basis of resolving the conflict and the initial agenda, ONLF said in a statement.
Despite optimism from both parties, the talks fell at the first hurdle, with the Ethiopian government insisting the rebels first accept the country's constitution, a demand rejected by the ONLF as a breach of the talks’ agreed modalities.
IRIN takes a look at the ONLF and the implications of continued rebellion for Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa region.
Who are the ONLF rebels?
Founded in the early 1980s, when much of Ethiopia was still ravaged by civil war, the ONLF aims to create an independent state in Ethiopia's southeastern Ogaden territory, which is mainly inhabited by ethnic Somalis.
The Ogaden territory is located in the Somali Region, one of nine ethnically based administrative regions in the country. Poorly developed for decades due to neglect from the central government, the territory has enjoyed relative stability and development under the current Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has governed the country since 1991. The party's regional affiliate, the Ethiopian Somali People's Democratic Party, says significant advances have been seen in the expansion of education, health, potable water, roads, electricity and telecommunication facilities.
The ONLF insurgency began in 1984, furthering earlier attempts either to separate the region or join it to neighbouring Somalia. The group partnered with the EPRDF in the 1991 removal of junta leader Mengistu Haile Mariam, after which the two groups effectively governed the Somali region as part of a transitional government.
In 1994, following disagreements over the country's transition, the ONLF re-started its insurgency, demanding the right to self-determination. The group says it will use any means necessary - including violence - to unseat the central government.
When two elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers
Though the ONLF fighters had, over the years, mounted several attacks, including assassinating and injuring regional government leaders, it remained a low-level insurgency for years. An April 2007 attack on a Chinese-run oil field in the region brought the conflict to the fore; at least 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese oil workers were killed in the attack. Seven Chinese nationals were taken captive in the incident. ONLF had accused the government of forcibly relocating the local population to allow for oil and gas exploration.
In September 2007, a UN humanitarian assessment mission to the region found a "pervasive fear for individual safety and security" among the population caught between the government and the ONLF. They expressed concerns about deteriorating food security, protection and healthcare in the region.
Since the 2007 attack, Ethiopian forces have maintained a large presence in the region, and the government's efforts to explore its natural gas and oil potential there have continued.
Anti-terrorism a pretext?
In 2009, the Ethiopian parliament passed an anti-terrorism law that has been much-criticized by rights groups.
According to Laetitia Bader, a Human Rights Watch researcher on Ethiopia, the law’s definition of terrorism is too broad and vague, and can be interpreted to include peaceful protests and lawful speech. She noted that it also contains several alarming provisions, including one on pre-trial detention that allows suspects to be held in custody for up to four months without charge.
In 2010, parliament took another controversial step, naming three domestic opposition groups - including the ONLF - as "terrorists" alongside international groups like Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabab.
All three groups operate freely in European countries and the US, where they have offices and representatives. At the 2011 UN General Assembly, then-Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, now Ethiopia’s prime minister, criticized Western countries, particularly the US, for having double standards in their categorization of terrorist groups.
Ethiopian authorities launched a campaign to prosecute people with perceived ties to these three organizations. In its 2011 country report, Amnesty International said that by November 2011, 107 opposition politicians, activists and journalists were prosecuted under the law; some later received severe sentences.
The Committee to Protect Journalists says 11 journalists, including two Swedes arrested for reporting on the ONLF, were imprisoned under the law. The government later pardoned the pair, releasing them in September after they spent 14 months in jail. In another high-profile terror case, a UN security officer was sentenced to 7 years and 8 months for allegedly passing information to the ONLF.
Both sides accused of abuses
A 2008 Human Rights Watch report said the government’s counter-insurgency operation in the Ogaden had involved “violations of human rights, violations of the laws of war that amount to war crimes, and crimes against humanity against the civilian population. These have included widespread forced relocations of civilians, destruction of their villages, willful killings, and summary executions, and torture, rape, and other forms of sexual violence.”
The report also said the ONLF had carried out “abductions, beatings, and summary executions of civilians in their custody, including government officials and individuals suspected of supporting the government. While its attacks are largely directed at the Ethiopian armed forces, [the ONLF] has at times conducted attacks against civilian areas and used landmines in a manner that indiscriminately harmed civilians.”
In an email to IRIN, ONLF’s Mahdi said the Ethiopian government had mounted a “smear campaign” against his organization. He asserted the ONLF had abandoned the use of “blind” land mines and now only used “controlled mines against Ethiopian army vehicles.”
In an apparent dismissal of a 2009 report commissioned by the Ethiopian government, which said HRW had “exaggerated” its claims and failed to check the political affiliation of its sources, Mahdi said the ONLF had made several calls for an independent international inquiry into the state of human rights in the Ogaden region.
The US State Department’s 2011 edition of its annual human rights report said ONLF-affiliated gunmen were behind the 13 May ambush of a World Food Programme (WFP) vehicle, in which the driver was killed, and the subsequent abduction of two WFP staff members. The ONLF denied responsibility for the ambush. It admitted to holding the pair but said it had rescued them from state security forces. The two were released unharmed after six weeks.
The State Department report added: “Civilians, international NGOs, and other aid organizations operating in the Somali region reported that government security forces, local militias, and the ONLF committed abuses such as arbitrary arrest to intimidate the civilian population.”
Why did the peace talks fail?
In October 2010, the Ethiopian government said it had reached a peace deal with a major faction of the ONLF. Euphoric crowds sang at a ceremony at Addis Ababa's Sheraton Hotel, where a peace agreement was inked, pledging the termination of the ONLF insurgency.
The remaining insurgents denounced the peace deal and vowed to continue their bid for secession, calling the faction that signed the deal "a creation of the Ethiopian regime".
Even as it denounced previous peace deals and continued to fight, the ONLF maintained it was ready to talk with the central government, and the September talks in Nairobi were hailed by both sides. Still, pundits were wary. The government had described the talks only as part of efforts "to bring all concerned to the constitutional framework", while the ONLF had long rejected any allegiance to the country's basic law.
As the two sides were about to enter formal negotiations in mid-October, the government made the rebels’ recognition of the federal constitution a precondition for the talks to proceed. News outlets quoted the ONLF's chief negotiator Mahdi saying that the movement predated the constitution and that the group should not be forced to recognize it.
As the insurgency threatens to return to high gear, many are concerned about its regional implications. Ethiopia has routinely accused neighbouring Eritrea of supporting the ONLF; in February, the UN's Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group reported to the UN Security Council that it had evidence of Eritrea's support of the ONLF and another Ethiopian separatist group, the Oromo Liberation Front.
Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a brutal border war in 1998-2000, and tensions between the two countries remain high. In March, the Ethiopian army said it had attacked military camps 18km inside Eritrea; the targets were three military camps where it said the Eritrean government has been training and arming terrorists.
The newly elected Somalia government is backed by Ethiopia and was also welcomed by the ONLF, but continued fighting in Ethiopia's Somali region could threaten Somalia's tenuous stability. In the past, efforts by Ethiopian forces to root out the Al-Shabab militia in Somalia were resisted by the ONLF, who attacked conveys carrying Ethiopian soldiers. At the time, Meles said the intervention in Somalia also targeted the ONLF and other rebel groups.
This report was amended on 30 October to correct an erroneous assertion that a 2011 Amnesty International report had referred to ONLF. In fact, it referred to the Oromo Liberation Front.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]