Addis Ababa — Many were hoping that recent peace talks between the Ethiopian government and Ogaden rebels would signal an end to the gruelling 18-year-old conflict. The latest round of talks, however, dashed all dreams of peace between the two sides.
Things have taken a turn for the worse. Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) founder and foreign secretary Abdirahman Mahdi told IPS that he currently cannot see a way for the talks to continue.
Ogaden is a territory in the southeast of the Somali Region in Ethiopia. And ONLF intellectuals have fought for an independent state there since the 1991 fall from power of Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.
However, peace talks between the ONLF and the Ethiopian government abruptly ended in a stalemate during the Oct. 15 to 17 discussions. Addis Ababa's negotiating team asked the ONLF to accept Ethiopia's constitution before the talks could continue. The ONLF refused, arguing that this was a breach of modalities agreed to in the first talks. As usual, each side blames the other.
"We need to begin by creating a dialogue - it is as if they had made a premeditated decision to abort the talks," Mahdi said. "There is no use beginning by demanding we agree to the constitution; this has always been our major point of contention."
While talks have been going on since March, the first official round took place from Sept. 6 to 7. It was also the first high-level negotiation involving Ethiopia's Defence Minister Siraj Fegessa and Mahdi. It was mediated by Kenyan Defence Minister Yusef Huji.
After the talks optimism was seemingly high on both sides. Government spokesman Dina Mufti said: "It is a positive first step."
And Mahdi said: "This could be the beginning of a useful process."
But since then Mahdi has told Ethiopia's negotiating team that the constitution should be chosen by the people and should not depend on one political party.
"Governments cannot just force the people to accept a constitution, they must hold a referendum," he said.
It was the constitution that set off the conflict between the ONLF and the present government in 1994. While the ONLF had joined forces with many of the Ethiopian government's current leaders to defeat Mariam, things quickly turned sour.
Finally seeing an opportunity for self-determination, the ONLF called for a referendum to be held for succession. The Ethiopian government refused. Once again the ONFL took up arms.
The ONLF claims to fight for self-determination for the people who occupy what is now called Somali Region due to its large population of ethnic Somalis. It is one of nine ethnically-based administrative regions in the country and has long suffered from poor development and the ONLF alleges that the government has committed countless human rights abuses there.
"At the moment we are being marginalised, denied our basic rights. They are insulting our people by forcing an administration on us, which we did not elect. A lot of things are happening, our people are being killed, there is no press freedom, a humanitarian embargo is in place," said Mahdi.
The talks between the ONLF and the government were initiated by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (1995-2012), who was keen to find an end to the conflict, and approached former South African President Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008) before starting the peace talks.
Analysts say the main reasons for the recent breakdown of the talks include a lack of clear leadership, and divisions over what to do.
According to Ethiopian political analyst Jawar Mohammed, the Ethiopian government is divided over how they wish to deal with the ONLF. One group wants to wipe them out with military force, while another group, which is more exposed to the international community, is keen to find a peaceful solution.
But while analysts are pointing fingers at divisions in the ruling political coaltition, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, the Ethiopian government appears to be blaming the failure of the talks on divisions in the ONLF.
"The peace talks failed after the ONLF group refused to accept and respect the constitution of Ethiopia and work within the constitutional framework," read a government statement.
Mahdi dismissed these accusations. "This is just baseless propaganda; the main problem is they cannot come to a united decision on how to proceed with the talks," said Mahdi.
Officials say the Kenyan government is frustrated with the latest developments. Holding the talks outside of Ethiopia, in Nairobi, was heralded as a big step forward. The Kenyan government has its own vested interests in the success of the talks.
"Al-Shabaab (al-Qaeda's Somalia-based terrorist cell) has constantly been a concern for Kenya's security; (the Kenyan government) will be keen to sever the ONLF's links with al-Shabaab," Abel Abate, a researcher at a state-funded think-tank, the Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development, told IPS.
Ogaden expert Tobias Hagmann, an associate professor at Roskilde University in Denmark, told IPS that despite Kenya's desire to find a solution, the country has little leverage over Ethiopia, which could explain the recent breakdown. "It is like a little brother trying to influence the big brother," he said.
Analysts are divided over whether the talks will resume. Abate believes that the ONLF is desperate to find a solution and will end up accepting the constitution. He argues that the group has been severely weakened militarily in recent years and has lost international support and funding.
But Mahdi dismissed these claims, arguing that "the ONLF is the strongest it has ever been."
Emilio Manfredi, Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group, said there is little chance of the talks achieving anything.
"Interests are too divided and the Ethiopian government is yet to really know who is in charge," he told IPS. "At the same time the ONLF needs to work out how close it can get to accepting the 1994 constitution without losing all legitimacy."
With the talks looking to be a complete failure, many are concerned about increased fighting and human rights abuses in the region.
"We may see a surge of violence as the ONLF needs to remain politically relevant in the eyes of Ethiopia and the international community. In response, the Ethiopian government is also expected to launch a major military offensive," another expert on Ogaden, associate professor Kjetil Tronvoll at the University of Oslo, told IPS.
An international humanitarian aid worker operating in the region told IPS on condition of anonymity that ultimately the losers in the failed negations would be the local people.
"As usual it is the local populations who will suffer. Both armed groups are likely to increase human rights abuses, and the government will continue to prevent aid from reaching the region."