A rare incursion by outside journalists has lifted the lid on Ethiopia’s secret war against its remote Somali Ogaden province. Photojournalists from Al Jazeera showed the devastating effect of the decade-long war on its civilian population. While war rages between the central government and local rebels, locals endure a living hell with shortages of drinking water and food while their homes are destroyed in “security operations”.
At a simplistic level, they are the silent victims of a war between a federal government dominated by Orthodox Christian Tigrayans and Amharans and a Somali Sunni Islam minority based in the far west of the country. The Somali separatists in the Ogaden have been battling Addis Ababa for over 13 years. However news has been slow in getting out to the wider world due to the onerous travel restrictions the government has placed on the region. There are very few journalists in the vast and sparsely populated region that borders Somalia, and therefore there is no accurate picture of the frequency of the fighting and its death toll. According to Al Jazeera, simmering resentment among young locals is driving them into the arms of the separatists.
The low-level war took a significant turn for the worse last year when it claimed foreign casualties. Ethiopia launched an assault on the Ogaden National Liberation Army (ONLF) after they attacked a Chinese oil exploration project in the Ogaden in April 2007. 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese workers were killed in the attack. 200 rebel fighters launched the attack which lasted more than an hour and destroyed the exploration facility and kidnapped another seven Chinese workers. Human Rights Watch say that civilians bore the brunt of Ethiopian retaliation with villages destroyed, public executions and many instances of torture.
The separatists’ ultimate aim is not exactly clear. For some the desire is simple autonomy from the central government. Meanwhile others want independence and there are those who hold the historic dream of a "greater Somalia". The prize is a thousand kilometres of sparse scrub and desert wastes where the UN says up to 4.5 million people could soon face famine-like conditions. These claims are denied by Ethiopia who blames Islamists in neighbouring Somalia for spreading the war.
The seeds of the conflict date back to 1896 when Britain, the imperial power in Somaliland, signed an agreement with the Somali Ogaden chiefs to preserve British external control of the area while allowing internal sovereignty to the chiefs. However barely a year later, Britain signed a contrary agreement with the Abyssinian Empire which recognised the Abyssinian claims on Harar on the edge of the Ogaden. According to Ahmed Ali of the pro-Somali site Ogaden Online, the next hundred years would see the Ogaden become a “no-man’s land where Abyssinian successive regimes practice their military power and slaughter innocent civilians.”
In the mid 1970s Somali leader Mohamed Siad Barre used the recent overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie to launch an assault on Ethiopia. Somalia gave support to Ogaden separatists and the Somali army invaded in July 1977. The Ogaden War proved to be a dilemma to the Soviet Union which initially armed both sides in the conflict. After several months of fighting, the assault finally collapsed when the Soviets threw their undivided support behind the Ethiopians. By March 1978, the last Somali soldiers left the country. But the new Mengistu regime in Addis Ababa did not trust its westernmost province. The region remained farflung, ignored and suspiciously Somali.
The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) was founded in 1984 with the goal fighting against Mengistu’s Derg (junta) of creating a separatist state. Matters changed again in the early 1990s with the fall of both Mengistu’s and Barre’s reign as old Cold War alliances collapsed. The ONLF looked towards a political solution to their problems. It now claims it uses only “defensive combat” to defend itself against Ethiopian militias. Ethiopia sees the ONLF as a “behind the lines” enemy as it launched its own adventurism with its invasion of Somalia last year to oust the Islamic Courts government in Mogadishu.
The atmosphere remains tense in the Ethiopian capital and matters were not helped yesterday by two explosions which killed three and injured 15 others. The attacks occurred just a day after local elections where 26 million people went to the polls. Both attacks occurred at petrol stations where locals were queued up to buy kerosene. While no one claimed responsibility for the bombs, and the Government has not explicitly blamed the ONLF, the Sudan Tribune reports the administration saying the attacks were “the act of the desperate who are dying to obstruct the efforts of the nation to build up democracy.” However there is very little evidence that Ethiopia is keen to let much democracy build up in the Ogaden.