Rebels in east­ern Ethiopia to seek self-de­ter­mi­na­tion vote

At stake are an es­ti­mated eight tril­lion cu­bic feet of nat­u­ral gas in the Ogaden Basin

The East African - - OUT­LOOK -

By NIZAR MANEK

Ethiopia, Africa's sec­ond-most pop­u­lous coun­try af­ter Nige­ria, is a fed­er­a­tion de­signed to give au­ton­omy to its dozens of eth­nic groups. The ONLF has long main­tained that the So­mali re­gional state, which it calls the Ogaden and bor­ders war-torn So­ma­lia, has not been prop­erly rep­re­sented by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

“The ONLF'S long-term goal is self-de­ter­mi­na­tion and if they "cease to fight for this right, they'll no longer be con­sid­ered as rep­re­sent­ing the peo­ple," Juweira Ali, a doc­toral can­di­date at the Univer­sity of West­min­ster whose re­search in­cludes the is­sue, said by e-mail from London. "Per­haps ONLF will seek some form of guar­an­tee on their quest for self-de­ter­mi­na­tion out­side of the Con­sti­tu­tion as they ap­proach the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble shortly."

The ONLF, which took up arms in 1984 and has been an in­ter­mit­tent threat to re­gional au­thor­i­ties, de­clared a cease­fire at a July meet­ing of its lead­ers in Eritrea, pend­ing what Mr Ahmed calls an un- spec­i­fied "com­pre­hen­sive po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment."

Its largest at­tack was in April 2007 on a site in the So­mali re­gion —op­er­ated by China's Zhongyuan Petroleum Ex­plo­ration Bureau — where it killed nine Chi­nese work­ers and 65 Ethiopi­ans.

Mr Ahmed said that was jus­ti­fied be­cause the then-gov­ern­ment sought to pro­duce gas "with­out con­sent of our peo­ple."

While he would not dis­close the num­ber of armed fight­ers the ONLF has, the fig­ure is thought to be sig­nif­i­cantly di­min­ished from a decade ago.

A special po­lice force in the So­mali re­gion has been no­to­ri­ous for its al­leged counter-in­sur­gency tac­tics, with ac­cu­sa­tions it jailed and tor­tured peo­ple sus­pected of hav­ing ONLF sym­pa­thies. Since the re­gional pres­i­dent, based in the lo­cal city of Ji­jiga, was ousted by fed­eral forces in Au­gust, au­thor­i­ties and the group have not clashed, ac­cord­ing to both Mr Ahmed and the new state pres­i­dent, Mustafa Omer.

While the cease­fire pre­dates Mr Mustafa's rule as a re­sponse to Ethiopia's re­cent sweep­ing re­forms, the ONLF is sup­port­ing the new pres­i­dent be­cause "He can make a dif­fer­ence in clear­ing the sys­tem and cre­at­ing a new po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment," Mr Ahmed said. "We have agreed to work to­gether to seek more rights for the So­mali peo­ple."

Ab­di­wasa Ab­dil­lahi Bade, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at Ad­dis Ababa Univer­sity, does not see "a clear vi­sion and ob­jec­tive" from the group. "Be­fore we talk about self-de- Ethiopia, Africa’s sec­ond­most pop­u­lous coun­try af­ter Nige­ria, is a fed­er­a­tion de­signed to give au­ton­omy to its dozens of eth­nic groups. The coun­try’s con­sti­tu­tion en­shrines the rights of peo­ple with “a large mea­sure” of com­mon cul­ture, customs, lan­guage, iden­tity and “psychological makeup” in an “iden­ti­fi­able, pre­dom­i­nantly con­tigu­ous ter­ri­tory” to seek self-de­ter­mi­na­tion and even es­tab­lish their own states. ter­mi­na­tion, we have to es­tab­lish who is ONLF and whom it rep­re­sents," Prof Ab­di­wasa said.

Mr Mustafa said re­gional au­thor­i­ties are let­ting the ONLF mo­bilise grass­roots sup­port and he will help ar­range its formal talks with Dr Abiy's gov­ern­ment in the com­ing weeks. The pres­i­dent wel­comed the pos­si­bil­ity of the ONLF tak­ing part in fed­eral elec­tions slated for 2020.

Mr Ahmed said the ONLF will dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­ity of its dis­ar­ma­ment with the gov­ern­ment, and, should the negotiations face dif­fi­culty, So­ma­lia Pres­i­dent Mo­hamed Ab­dul­lahi Far­majo of­fered sup­port in the talks dur­ing a Septem­ber 5 meet­ing in the Eritrean cap­i­tal, As­mara. Once a deal is reached, the ONLF may com­pete in elec­tions, he said.

"We need to have a ne­go­ti­a­tion — agree­ment on a com­pre­hen­sive po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment, and peace in the Ogaden — then oil com­pa­nies can come and ex­plore," Mr Ahmed said.

The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity is cur­rently lob­by­ing for $1.72 bil­lion to con­tinue as­sist­ing some six mil­lion peo­ple in South Su­dan. In­ter­na­tional donors and hu­man­i­tar­ian or­gan­i­sa­tions con­trib­uted $3.4 bil­lion be­tween 2014 and mid-2018, while the US am­bas­sador to the UN, Nikki Ha­ley threat­ened that Wash­ing­ton would re­view its fund­ing, since Juba has noth­ing to show for the $11 bil­lion the US has given since 2005.

In Kenya, the busi­ness com­mu­nity lost over $800 mil­lion in the 2007 post-elec­tion-violence, while eco­nomic growth shrunk to two per cent from seven per cent. The Kenyan gov­ern­ment is yet to pay nearly $50 mil­lion

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