I grew up in an oral society rich with folktales and, through this, was able to connect myself with knowledge and wisdom. I was always delighted with how these ancient songs and riddles delineate complex human relations. In recent months, as the feud evolved within the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), one such folktale, of the greedy ‘she-camel’, came to me.
As the tale goes, the ‘she-camel’ wished to graze on Karan pasture in the west of the Ogaden cultivated from a short burst of rains, and drink from the raindrops of the Dayr—another brief rainy season in the east that immediately preceded—in order to digest the chunks of Karan grass at the same time. Knowing that it is impossible to simultaneously go east and west, the herder sang into the ears of the camel:
Which loosely translates as:
The aroma of the Karan are in the west,
and columns of clouds in the east,
you cannot have both of them at a time,
So just go for one.
This ancient wisdom helps us understand the political rhythm we have observed in the ONLF leadership, which seeks power in Ethiopia’s Somali region, but has become greedy and so internally discordant like the she-camel. The cause relates to a web of conflicting interests more complex than being caught between the aroma of the Karan and the columns of rain. The desire for attaining one leads to the forfeiture of another. For ONLF, this may lead to it losing everything.
Slivers of information expose the contradictory impulses at the heart of the organisation that have been leading it into conflict: the continuation of insurgency-style politics, old practices of Somali transnational politics (reaching through into Ogadeni and other areas of Somalia and northern Kenya and beyond), unpopular dalliances with agents of the former regime of Abdi Mohamoud Omar ‘Illey,’ and reckless internal arrangements relating ties with governments in Jigjiga and Addis Ababa.
Since ONLF returned home in 2018, beckoned like the she-camel amid the promise of democratic transition in Ethiopia, it has becoming increasingly apparent that the organization was not fully prepared for the puzzles that would come with transforming itself from an insurgency to a party seeking to compete in elections and govern in a ‘post-war’ setting. Even to achieve minimal aims for the latter, a plan should have been in place well before any settlement was reached for the return. On leaving Asmara, ONLF was not even close to this.
First and foremost—just as with the Oromo Liberation Front, many other groups, and, arguably, Ethiopia and Eritrea themselves—there was no comprehensive agreement between ONLF and the government. But there was a generally promising Ethiopian political situation, where opposition actors could engage on fresh footing. For ONLF, it was a priceless opportunity, since squandered, to resurrect itself by acclimatising to the new environment.
Such a transition—structural and ideological—should have begun with coherent negotiations among leaders about the party’s nature, attempting to solve pre-existing or foreseen internal conflicts, as well as efforts to engage members and supporters. All of these were, unfortunately, not on the to-do-list of the ONLF leadership, though some would surely beg to differ.
The leaders were instead concerned with an increasingly rebellious young progressive group which was burning for genuine reform within the party and to challenge the internal status quo. Due to the way that challenge has been handled, the youthful momentum may now be unstoppable as the feud persists, attracting more dissenting members of the central committee to joining the group.
The leaders held a party congress in Gode city late last year, which was ultimately an exercise in deceit. ONLF’s Secretary-General, Abdirahman Mahdi, was re-elected chairman, apparently bolting the door to the reformists. Due to the lack of deliberation on rebuilding and forging new priorities under a new leadership, the party ebbed into its past, with no tangible reform made.
ONLF, for instance, maintains contacts with former adversaries. In December 2019, Abdirahman allegedly met with Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) representatives in Nairobi. He also allegedly met with the former Somali regional state president Abdi ‘Illey’ in Dubai in 2017 and with politicians whom Addis Ababa consider to be disruptive forces. They include Jubbaland President Ahmed Mohammed Madobe and a Somaliland opposition leader Faysal Ali Warabe, who told Honr Cable TV “their meeting with Abdirahman was to build a Somali political alliances against Ethiopia”.
I confirmed with someone in the party’s office in Addis Ababa that Ethiopia’s government gave a cease-and-desist order for any ONLF relations with foreign states without the knowledge and guidance of the foreign ministry. However, such relations persist while the chairman, Abdirahman, is the current vice president of the Unrepresented People’s Organisation (UNPO). Abdirahman became a vice president for this organization some time in 2011 to 2012 and still holds that post. While still holding these roles, this arguably put ONLF in conflict with how a registered Ethiopian party is supposed to function. Furthermore, ONLF considers trans-nationalist politics across the Somali peninsula as its enduring prerogative.
On that basis, ONLF continues its relations with Somali leaders in Somalia at regional and federal levels. Internal sources and reports confirmed that Abdirahman met with presidents of the Somali federal states of Puntland and Jubbaland in Addis Ababa and Nairobi, asking them to help the party finance ONLF’s election campaign—a request, I learned from a source in the organisation, the two leaders accepted. At the federal level in Somalia, relations are more complex: In March, the chairman dispatched his deputy Dahir Mohamed Ali to Mogadishu, with plans to set up a liaison office in Somalia’s capital, according to an ONLF politburo member.
Any political connection between Somalis from Ethiopia and Somalia evokes great anxiety in Addis Ababa’s policymakers. The relationship between Somalia and Ethiopia was and is a zero-sum-game ever since Somalia became a sovereign state in 1960. The two countries went to war over Ogaden territory several times. If one thinks the Ogaden war is merely history, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s recent commemoration of what he called “Karamarda victory over Somali invading forces” unfortunately proves otherwise.
Putting aside the politics of the two countries (and notwithstanding the importance of transnational economic and cultural connections between Somalis), for Abdirahman to be engaged in dealings with actors in Somalia or Kenya while pursuing office in Ethiopia plays on these anxieties in Addis Ababa.
Abdirahman has also displayed tolerance towards remnants of the former regime, perhaps as Abid Iley still commands loyalty from some sections of his Reer Abdille Ogaden sub-clan. But if ONLF shed her blood and broke her bones for the betterment of Somalis in the Ogaden, it was against Abdi ‘Illey’, backed by the Ethiopian state, and his merciless Liyu police, a paramilitary force under his command.
Ever since Abdi’s first speech in 2005, as the head of security and justice bureau in Somali region, to Liyu police commanders, we were forewarned of his actions as catalogued in his twisted catchphrase: “Forward to the enemy with your gun against their men, and your penis against their women”. He fought ONLF tooth and nail, weakening its forces.
At the political level, Abdi travelled widely and dented the ONLF support base in the diaspora. He set-up offices abroad to monitor ONLF’ activities. He also participated in the decade-long negotiation between ONLF and the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) that has now been recast under Abiy as the Prosperity Party. As a hard bargainer, he played a major role in either stalling negotiations or forcing a surrender.
Ironically, ONLF leaders, including Abdirahman, have shown occasional flashes of sympathy to Abdi ‘Illey’, therefore presenting a golden propaganda opportunity for the regional leadership in Jigjiga to paint ONLY as complicit with Abdi’s crimes. For example, in his interview in 26 August 2019 with Addis Standard, he described Abdi’s role in the well-documented atrocities in Ogaden as a “small figurine,” questioned the legality of Abdi’s detention while some “TPLF leaders remain at large” and nearly exonerated Abdi of any wrongdoings. Similarly, the speaker of the ONLF Abdikadir Hassan Hiirmooge, has spun the heinous crimes in Ogaden as a “civil war.” How does an ONLF leader oppose the detention and prosecution of Abdi, even if devils roam the world?
Of course, the situation in Ethiopia has changed for the better, but to ONLF it presents a new challenge. In 1994, ONLF went to the bush. In 2018, it returned to Ethiopia with a new generation of orphans, widows, and prisoners, whose episodic memory flashes an image of the brutality, abhorrence, and treachery of Abdi ‘Illey.’ ONLF’s use of kid gloves to handle Abdi ‘Illey’ and his allies can only alienate this generation.
As for the relation with the governments in Jigjiga and Addis Ababa, the party has adopted a dual policy that antagonises the regional government it wants to supplant on the one hand and tries to befriend the federal government of the same ruling party on the other.
Right at the beginning, the ONLF protested against the forceful removal of Abdi ‘Illey’ as the president of Somali regional state. For example, on 4 August 2018, the speaker, Abdikadir Hiirmooge, spoke to BBC Somali and VOA Somali, condemning the removal of Abdi, and called the people to resist. On the same day ONLF announced on Twitter, “PM Abiy Ahmed should stop all military activities, and begin peaceful and inclusive process with all stakeholders (including and primarily Abdi Iley) to solve the problem.”
The party leaders never explained why Abdi’s presidency could benefit ONLF or the public. Again, in the process of selection for replacement of the regional president, ONLF opposed the nomination of Mustafa Mohamed Omar and preferred Abdi’s Vice President Ahmed Ilkacase. Upon the nomination of Mustafa, ONLF tweeted its dismay and accused PM Abiy of infringing the rights of Somali people. This tweet was later deleted from the ONLF account:
Even after the dust settled and relations improved between ONLF and the Somali region administration, Abdirahman was still lobbying the federal government to remove Mustafa as interim president; the relations have since deepened into acrimony.
Meanwhile, the ONLF leader has praised Abiy on more than one occasion, including for postponing the election. The regional administration has become increasingly infuriated by the ONLF posture. With direction from Jigjiga, zonal and district administrations and local militias conduct low level but persistent activities against ONLF, removing the flag of the party in Korahay, Jarar, and Shabelle kebeles in March, and hitting the party leaders with barrage of state television propaganda, labelling the ONLF as a clan-based entity. In his speeches during his visit to Dhagahbour, and Qorahay cities in April, President Mustafa likened the party to a clan association that cannot represent Somalis.
Thus, its ill-informed and desperate manoeuvres are getting ONLF into trouble and failing the movement.
The persistence of ‘wartime’ policies had already made ONLF almost an exception in Ethiopia’s new political set-up. It also created frustration in the party’s rank and file, with the progressive wing significantly increased in size and gaining momentum in the feud. In recent weeks, more than 80 core activists of the ONLF released a press statement and called for the resignation of the chairman, Abdirahman Mahdi, “to afford the party a chance to rebuild and recover.” And a series of members of the ONLF Central Committee, who also released a separate statement supporting the call for the resignation of Abdirahman as chairman, citing the “precarious situation created” by Abdirahman’s leadership “and the danger of not listening to the young force”.
As the herdsman’s song sung into the ears of the she-camel details, you can’t put together the Karan food and the Dayr raindrops on the same table at the same time. This is the core problem that may undermine ONLF, which can only be a governing party or an opposition, a national party or foreign entity, a rebel movement or a registered party, a vanguard for the rights of the oppressed, or the party of oppressors.
As with the camel desirous of the aroma in the west and clouds of the east, ONLF could strive for everything, and end up with nothing.
Source: Ethiopia Insight