The Ogaden Crisis: The Horn of Africa’s invisible humanitarian disaster

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Posted on Septemebr 15, 2010

 A low intensity conflict is simmering in the Horn of Africa. Hundreds of thousands are displaced following the burning of their homes and the destruction of villages. Livestock and other possessions are being confiscated. Brutal sexual and gender-based abuses are a prevalent tool of warfare. Even worse, cold-blooded murder is widespread with horrific public executions. No, this is not Darfur. These systematic atrocities are taking place in the Ogaden, which is located in the Somali region of eastern Ethiopia.
 
Essentially sealed off from the outside world, grave crimes against humanity are being reported by fleeing refugees. At the root of this conflict is the issue of selfdetermination. In this sparsely populated remote area on Ethiopia’s border with Somalia, a serious humanitarian crisis has been brewing for decades. Over 4 million Ethiopians of Somali ethnicity inhabit the periphery Somali Regional State. At the center of the crisis is the Ogaden, where nearly half of the region’s population resides. Ethiopian forces first claimed sovereignty over this territory in the late 1890s under the rule of King Menelik II. In the first half of the 20th century, British and Italian colonists sought to annex and combine it with their respective colonies to create a Greater Somalia. However, with  Mussolini’s failed conquest of Ethiopia, the British were pressured to hand over the area to Ethiopia at the end of World War II. Ever since, disputes due to colonial border treaties
have been widespread. When Somalia gained independence in 1960, the new regime rejected the agreements and declared its intention to unite ethnic Somalis under one flag.
 
Despite efforts to gain control, Somalia was defeated in the Ogaden War of the late 1970s by the Soviet-backed Ethiopian army. Acknowledging that they could not emerge victors in conventional warfare, Ethiopia’s ethnic Somalis resorted to guerrilla tactics. The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) was founded in 1984 to lead the liberation struggle. In the early 1990s, the ONLF was responsible for sporadic bombings in the capital Addis Ababa and called for a referendum on self-determination; in response the Ethiopian government launched a military campaign.
 
For over a decade, both sides have been engaged in an onand- off conflict. However, the situation took a turn for the worse in April 2007 when ONLF attacks against a Chinese oil site at Obole killed nine Chinese personnel and over 60 Ethiopian civilians and troops guarding the facility. The ONLF followed up with additional attacks in May, which nearly killed the Regional State president. Identifying this as unwarranted aggression, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) initiated a major counterinsurgency operation to clamp down on what the government labeled a terrorist group.
 
It is important to address the role of religion. Although Ogaden’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim, this does not imply that the ONLF is a militant Islamist group. Instead, it is widely seen as a secular nationalist entity intending to attain autonomy. Conversely, even though the Ethiopian regime is dominated by Christians, its politics and policies are also secular. Thus, classifying this conflict as religious-based is inaccurate. Nevertheless the ethnic overtones cannot be denied.
 
Both hostile parties are responsible for the atrocities and, as in most armed conflicts, civilians are caught in the middle. In typical anti-guerrilla tactics, the ENDF has opted “to drain the lake to catch the fish,” acting like the Ogadeni people are all ONLF sympathizers who harbor and support the rebels. Ordinary civilians have been bearing the brunt of this ruthless campaign. Those who have managed to escape to refugee camps in northern Kenya and other parts of Ethiopia and Somalia shed light on the horrific atrocities.
 
Alarmed by these reports, the New York based Human Rights Watch has been closely monitoring the crisis and published a comprehensive study titled Collective Punishment. Documented eyewitness accounts detail the crimes committed by the ENDF: intentional targeting of civilians; torching of villages; confiscation of livestock and property; sexual violence such as the gang rape of young girls until they become unconscious; arbitrary arrests and torturing in military custody; public executions by strangling or shooting to terrify people; hostage taking to lure rebels; and the lynching of nomadic herders. Furthermore, Ethiopian troops are forcibly relocating the civilian population to urban areas in order to identify rebels seeking refuge in rural villages.
 
By destroying the livelihood of the people and imposing a trade blockade prohibiting commercial traffic, serious food shortages cause many to suffer from malnutrition or die from hunger. Moreover, troops have restricted the right to use water holes or wells to limit ONLF fighters’ access to basic necessities.
 
Meanwhile, the rebels have engaged in summary executions of civilians and in fueling a volatile situation by continuing their attacks against the ENDF. Inevitably, civilians continue to live under siege, exposed to serious abuses. Human Rights Watch finds the ENDF guilty of violating international humanitarian law as it refrains from protecting civilians in its endeavor of crushing the insurgency. Resorting to inhuman methods of warfare such as collective punishment, hostage-taking, starvation and rape demonstrate that the activities of the ENDF are tantamount to crimes against humanity.
 
To avert international attention and criticism while simultaneously punishing civilians, the Ethiopian government expelled neutral relief agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders from the Ogaden in 2007. Currently, only a few humanitarian organizations have limited access to deliver aid. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi continues to deny the atrocities committed by his regime and accuses Human Rights  Watch of fabricating these stories. Admittedly, most of the evidence primarily consists of eyewitness accounts as major media coverage is prohibited. Nonetheless, this does not discount the reality of what is occurring. 
 
As the crisis unfolds, several related issues of concern have surfaced. With the discovery of petroleum leading to exploration missions by foreign companies, the government’s motives are questionable. According to the ONLF, the ENDF intends to secure resources, continuing the exclusion and marginalization of ethnic Somalis. Furthermore, UN Monitoring Reports suggest that a proxy war between bitter rivals Ethiopia and Eritrea is being fought as Eritrea harbors, trains and supports ONLF fighters. Another point of alarm has been the instability in neighboring Somalia. The ENDF posits that terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab are allied to the ONLF and the Ogaden serves as a safe haven for terrorists to regroup and plan attacks.
 
Amidst this, the US occupies an instrumental position. As the largest foreign aid donor to Ethiopia, the US has considerable influence over the political and military conduct of Ethiopia. Concurrently, Ethiopia is a key ally to America in its global war on terror. By backing Meles Zenawi’s regime the extremist minority in the region consider the US complicit in enabling crimes against humanity. Consequently, this can potentially serve as an impetus to radicalize
young Muslims, thus jeopardizing US interests and creating a threat to national security.

Africa Faith and Justice Network calls for the protection of civilians caught between the warring parties as a high priority. The Ethiopian government is obligated to cease attacks against the population and open up the region to allow international relief agencies to deliver aid. The US should take the initiative calling for investigations into the ongoing abuses and pressure the Meles Zenawi’s regime to grant access to media and independent researchers. Moreover, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ) has called the Ogaden crisis “by far one of the worst” human rights tragedies. Thus Congress has the duty to guarantee that the requirements of the Leahy Law are completely adhered to by corroborating that ENDF units engaged in human rights violations are not receiving US military assistance.
 
The crimes against humanity need to be stopped and both the ONLF and ENDF have to be held accountable and cannot continue to operate with impunity. Political differences should be solved through diplomacy at the negotiating table and not through violence on the battleground. Hiding
or denying these atrocities is not acceptable. The people of the Ogaden have suffered enough.

By Kerezhi Sebany, AFJN Intern

This article was first published in  our July-August newsletter