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
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.
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