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Ethiopia and ONLF Talks Collapse with Recriminations

ethiopia ogaden(OPride) – The second round of high-stake negotiations between the Ethiopian government and an outlawed rebel group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), conducted under the auspices of Kenyan government in Nairobi between Oct. 15 -17, 2012, collapsed with each side blaming the intransigence of the other for the failure.

The failed talks between ONLF and the Ethiopian government might cost the head of the regional administration of the Somali region his job, government and rebel sources said. The sources note that President Abdi Eley's demise is now imminent.

In separate statements issued yesterday, Ethiopia's regime and rebels traded blames. ONLF accused Ethiopia for tabling the group’s endorsement of the Horn of Africa nation’s constitution as a precondition for the peace process to move forward. It insists that the constitution does not “reflect the will of the people” and Ethiopia’s ethnic Somalis never voted for the constitution in a referendum.

The conflict in the Ogaden can only be resolved if Ethiopia accepts Ogadeni’s “right to exercise their self-determination without any preconditions or restrictions,” ONLF said in a statement posted on its website.

The Ethiopian embassy in Kenya faulted, what it called, a faction of ONLF for the stalemate. “The peace talks failed after the ONLF group refused to accept and respect the constitution of Ethiopia and work within the constitutional framework,” the statement said.

ONLF was established in 1984 to represent the people of Ogadenia, the Somali region of Ethiopia, in their "quest for self-determination." Ethiopia accuses arch-foe Eritrea for arming the group which it considers a terrorist organization. Parts of Ogaden, one of the most drought-prone areas in Ethiopia, are off-limits to journalists and aid workers for what government bills as security risk. Human rights groups and Ogadenis charge that Ethiopia is hiding famine and gross human rights violations in the area.

Earlier this month, Ogadenis who hoped for end to the deadlock greeted the news about the negotiations with optimism. Some are now calling on Ethiopia to withdraw the preconditions and resume the peace talks.

"We urge the Ethiopian government to affirm its commitment to a genuine resolution of the Ogaden conflict and to withdraw all preconditions and restrictions that may hinder the establishment of a just and lasting solution," the US-based Resolve Ogaden Coalition said yesterday. “Acceptance of the constitution will neither lead to a resolution of the conflict nor address the root cause.”

Unlike similar initiatives in the past, the second leg of the negotiation included new players on both sides. The Ethiopian government delegation expanded to include members of the Somali regional government and the military high brass. The seven-member delegation from the ONLF boasted two more delegates, field commanders responsible for coordinating the rebel group's military units inside the Ogaden.

The wider representation came with a price. According to one delegate who asked not to be named, a government representative from the regional administration brought to the venue videos that allegedly contradicted the official rhetoric. One of the key information in the video pertains to the execution of the late Dr. Mohamad Dolal, ONLF's former spokesperson and head of Foreign Affairs, who was killed in a mysterious circumstance in 2009 shortly before entering the Ogaden to lead the armed resistance against Ethiopia after living in exile for over two decades.

The Ethiopian government charged Dolal’s death on the main ONLF faction led by Admiral Mohamad Osman Omar, from which Dolal's splinter group had broken away. The intention was to create enmity between Dola's clan and the rebel organization. The video showed that Dolal was executed by Ethiopian security forces three days after being taken captive with a battle wound.

Another video contained incontrovertible evidence that the clip used by Ethiopia’s kangaroo court to convict the two Swedish journalists were staged by the regional authorities as a propaganda tool, the source told OPride. The Swedes who served 4 of the 11 years sentence were pardoned last month on the eve of Ethiopian New Year. Since then, the two reporters have disclosed appalling prison conditions and offered testimonies that corroborate information contained in the footage in the aforementioned videos.

The fallout from the disclosure of the inner workings of the regional administration has made the president of the Somali regional government Abdi Eley precarious. Eley's tenure is marked by increased efforts to ruthlessly weed out ONLF sympathizers. Having carried out the dirty work, the president is reportedly being asked to fall on his sword as a scapegoat for the debacle. Turmoil is not new to the Somali regional administration. Since 1994 the region had 11 presidents.

The peace talks were hardly expected to produce a breakthrough. Ethiopia’s ruling party, in power since 1991, is known to break agreements as soon as they are signed. In its more than four decades history, it has not resolved any conflict through dialogue with a rival group. Total liquidation of opponents has been its preferred tactic.

Given its history of dogged determination to maintain its independence, the ONLF is unlikely to allow itself to become a satellite to the ruling party.

Many had hoped with the passing of the long-serving Prime Minister Zenawi, the government would steer a course away from authoritarianism and embrace the reform agenda of opening the political space. However, little has changed since and unlikely to do so.

Without broader commitment to political reforms, it is implausible for the Ethiopian ruling party to allow multi-party democracy to flourish in the volatile region of Ogaden while maintaining a tight hold on the rest of the country. Even if an agreement is reached, it would be reminiscent of the 1952 Ethiopia-Eritrea agreement.

In 1952, when Italy left, in a UN resolution, Emperor Hailesilassie agreed to cede civil freedoms and autonomy to Eritrea. This ran hollow while the rest of the country was in the throes of feudalism. Eritreans did not see none of the promised liberties. Nor did the autonomy last long. Eritrea was quickly turned into Ethiopia's fourteenth province before the ink on the signature dried--stoking thirty years of bloody conflict that culminated in Eritrea's independence in 1993.