Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Somalis populate the Ogaden area, renamed the Somali region under the 1994 Constitution. Somali and Muslim organizations have limited influence and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) is pushing for rights of self-determination.
The Ogaden region was ceded by the British government to Ethiopia in 1955 over protests by Ogadeni Somalis who felt greater political and cultural affinity with the nation of Somalia. The Somali irredentist movement in Ogaden peaked during the 1970s and declined after the defeat of Somali incursions. Disintegration of the state in Somalia in the late 1980s and early 1990s led many Somali organizations in Ogaden to reject irredentism and re-orient themselves towards Ethiopian political life. These groups merged to form the Ethnic Somali Democratic League (ESDL), which won regional elections in 1995. A fraction of the original ONLF has carried on with a low-level secessionist war.
The ONLF rebellion in the Somali region spiked sharply in 2006, amid reports of new support from Eritrea and the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), the Islamist rebels who were in control of Mogadishu. In response, the Ethiopian government deployed thousands of troops to the region, employing increasingly repressive tactics.
In April 2007, the ONLF attacked an oil installation, killing 74 including some Chinese workers. Security forces responded by blockading areas suspected to be rebel strong-holds, denying international aid agencies access to supply humanitarian relief. In September 2007, a public plea by the international aid agencies, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Médicins Sans Frontières, galvanised the world’s attention to the security crack-down in the Ogaden.
Food prices had soared, livestock prices halved. Many people were forced to flee their homes – amid witness testimony that the government was burning villages. As a result, hundreds of thousands were left dependent on food aid. There were also reports of abuses by ONLF as well – including punishments for civilians who failed to provide food or shelter. A report by Human Rights Watch in June 2008 accused the Ethiopian government of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity against the civilians of Ogaden, including killings, torture, and the burning of villages – the latter confirmed through satellite images. The group warned that the actions of Ethiopian forces were endangering the survival of Somali nomads in the region. Conflict in the Ogaden region has continued through the years and the ONLF was designated a terrorist organization by the government in 2011.
Despite lack of any peace agreement ending the insurgency, the Ethiopian government has declared the conflict in the Ogaden over, and has embarked on an ambitious program of development projects. Government interest in exploiting natural gas reserves in the region has altered the incentives for bringing the conflict to an end. However, militia groups and ONLF fighters reportedly still operate in the region.
Updated January 2018