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Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF)

In October 1969 Army chief Major-General Mohamed Siad Barre seized power in Somalia. Under Barre, Somalia pursued its claim to Ethiopia's Somali-populated Ogaden district by arming the Western Somali Liberation Front guerrillas. The Ogaden clan, part of the Darod clan-family and the clan of Barre's mother, was a key element of Barre's support. In 1977, Somalia invaded Ethiopia and quickly overran the Ogaden district but Ethiopia, with assistance from the Soviet Union, which had switched its support from Somalia to Ethiopia, recaptured the area by early 1978. Large numbers of refugees moved into Somalia from the Ogaden district.

Founded in 1984, the ONLF was fighting for the autonomy of Ogaden. According to the government of Ethiopia, the ONLF was a “terrorist group supported by Eritrea”. According to HRW, the “protracted and often brutal” conflict has resulted in serious abuses committed by the military in many parts of the region. The international community in Addis recognizes that a sustainable peace in the Ogaden requires political accommodation between the GoE and Ogadeni people. Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), the United Western Somalia Liberation Front (UWSLF), extremists affiliated with the Ogaden faction of al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI), and terrorists affiliated with the extremist al Shabaab militia and remnants of the Somali Council of Islamic Courts (CIC) stepped up their attacks against government targets. While this was not a new conflict, in fact it dates back to before the Meles government took office, in 2007 the ONLF became more aggressive and violent.

The situation in the Ogaden was also impacted by conflicts outside of Ethiopia's borders. Continued instability in Somalia has reduced the level of commercial trade with the Ogaden, exacerbating the humanitarian situation in Ethiopia. The ONLF also receives support and assistance from the Eritrean government, and ONLF fighters cross the border into Somalia. The Eritrean government also provides support and assistance to extremist elements in Somalia, including some with links to al-Qaida's transnational terror network who are alleged to be supporting the ONLF.

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2008 indicates that, in 2008, fighting between government forces and the ONLF resulted in human rights violations committed by all parties involved; in particular, food relief for drought victims was diverted. The conflict has caused several thousand deaths over the last 15 years. The annual report published by Amnesty International (AI) in 2009 indicates that both forces have committed human rights abuses against civilians during the conflict. Ethiopian government forces clashed with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in the Somali region in 2009.

Although low-level ONLF-ENDF conflict has simmered for years, the ONLF's 23 April 2007 attack on a Chinese oil exploration site at Abole triggered the ENDF's shift to the use of extreme force trapping the civilian population between the insurgents and the government forces, and further stressing an already underdeveloped and historically marginalized region. Unlike the enduring insurgency, the Abole attack prompted such an extreme, visceral GoE and ENDF response because it threatened the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front's (EPRDF) vision for economic development, it posed a fundamental threat to the GoE's authority, and it embarrassed the ENDF making the military and government appear to the outside world as unable to control and secure its own territory. Following the insurrection in Ogaden, Ethiopian troops adopted a strategy that consisted of killing a few people in the villages and then burning down their houses in an attempt to force out the rest of the villagers.

Because the GoE's core Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF) saw in the ONLF an image of itself two decades ago when it overthrew the brutal communist Derg regime, Prime Minister Meles and his Chief of Defense Force, General Samora Yonus, considered it vital to eliminate the ONLF before this insurgent group gained wider support. For the GoE, the Ogaden counter insurgency operation was vital to the survival of the ruling EPRDF. Further, the Ogaden was closely linked to Somalia where Ethiopian troops were bogged down but where the ONLF receives support and safe haven from clans opposed to Ethiopia. Every major clan and sub-clan in Somalia was represented in the Ogaden.

Being entirely dependent on petroleum imports -- which at historically high global prices cost Ethiopia over 75 percent of its export revenues -- Ethiopia was eager to exploit and commercialize its vast estimated oil and natural gas reserves, which mostly lie beneath the Ogaden area. Furthermore, in light of the EPRDF's vision for Ethiopia which includes a heavy government role in promoting "accelerated capitalist development," the GoE has found in China a cheap, eager, and reliable partner to implement infrastructural expansion without nagging about human rights, social equity, or environmental concerns. By striking a Chinese firm exploring for oil, the ONLF -- either intentionally or inadvertently ) threatened two sacred tenants of the behind the government's economic philosophy. That the attack at Abole was one of the ONLF's largest attacks in recent years and shockingly successful -- even surprising the ONLF ) posed a further, political threat to the EPRDF and its core TPLF.

Not only was the brutal ONLF attack at Abole a brazen act, but it marked a more deadly departure from prior type attacks by the ONLF in the past. Further, the attack was an embarrassment for the ENDF, its failure to protect the oil project site and respond immediately against the attackers. More important, the ONLF attack came at a time when Somalia operations had the ENDF bogged down and extremists vowed to take the war to Ethiopia to cut off supplies and logistical support. The ONLF's public statement following the attack insisting that it would play a role in determining the future and economic development of the region was certainly perceived as a direct threat to the GoE's authority in the region.

The Ethiopian leadership stressed in public and in private that the Ogaden counter insurgency operation was critical to the security (and survival) of the government, and that the ONLF must be neutralized. Second, the Ogaden was very much tied to Somalia. The ONLF has safe haven in Somalia from clans opposed to the GoE. Prime Minister Meles points to the declaration by extremists in Somalia to take the battle into Ethiopia and argues that the infiltration into Ethiopia by extremist figures like Aden Ayrow justifies GoE's prosecution of a brutal and excessive counter insurgency operation in the Ogaden.

But the problem with foreign insurgents and extremists, including Eritrea's support for extremist activities in Somalia, are viewed in the context of supporting, or being supported by, the ONLF. The role Eritrea plays in Somalia, for instance, was probably insignificant. Although there was significant speculation and circumstantial evidence of Eritrean support, Post has received no explicit evidence provided by any source outside of the GoE that shows significant Eritrean support for the ONLF, and certainly no evidence of any notable increase in such support in recent months to prompt the observed counter-insurgency response.

For the GoE, the suspicion that the ONLF has possible connections with extremists and Eritrea underscore the necessity to eliminate them. While the ONLF was not a terrorist group, the US recognized the probability that there are some individuals within the ONLF that may be supportive of extremist groups. It was not the ONLF as an organization, but individuals within the group. Prime Minister Meles and the GoE leadership likely viewed the ONLF as a long term threat to the survival of the EPRDF government. A group from a region representing six percent of the population, the ONLF in many ways was similar to the TPLF, which represents seven percent of the population but was able to overthrow the previous Derg regime. It was apparent that the Prime Minister, General Samora and other TPLF/EPRDF members view the military defeat of the ONLF as critical to prevent it from posing a threat to the government in the future. The US considered the ONLF a domestic issue, though elements of the ONLF may very well support extremist operations.

The ONLF refused direct dialogue with the GoE and negotiations through Ethiopian Elders. Pressure and persuasion on the ONLF and private intercession with the GoE to secure their commitment to engage sincerely with Ogadeni leaders on a more sustainable political and economic accommodation may help facilitate a political process. If left unaddressed, the ONLF could forge alliances with, or draw support from, extremists from Somalia, perhaps ultimately undermining the GoE and the EPRDF's grip on power, U.S. interests, and security in the region.

The ONLF’s military strength has evolved over time. Its rebellion essentially started from scratch when it retreated to the bush from its position in regional government in 1994. In its formative phase, the ONLF drew on the support of veteran military officials from the former Somali Republic and former liberation fighters who had fought against previous Ethiopian regimes. The ONLF’s military strength peaked 2007–08, when a combination of factors worked to its advantage. In 2006–07, the Ethiopian government estimated the ONLF to have some 2,500 to 3,000 fighters. In 2008, one analyst put the figure at some 8,000 fighters. In 2011, a senior ONLF official claimed a number of 15,000.

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Page last modified: 09-11-2020 15:44:39 ZULU