Looking Back and Looking Forward: The Ogaden Region in the 21st Century

By Oromsis Adula*

The Institute for Horn of Africa Studies and Affairs (IHASA*) held its annual conference in Minneapolis from June 18th to 20th, 2010. The conference was designed to address “the crucial international crisis facing the Horn of Africa region” with much of the focus devoted to the Conflicts in the Somali Region (also called the Ogaden). Themed, “Looking Back and Looking Forward: The Somali Region (The Ogaden) in the 21st Century”, the first IHASA conference was co-hosted by the Human Rights Center at the University of Minnesota.

The well-attended and well-organized conference featured prominent scholars on the Horn of Africa including, among others, Dr. Bereket Hebte Selassie of Chapel Hill, Edmond Keller of UCLA, Dr. Ted Vestal from Oklahoma University, Mr. Faisal Roble an Independent Scholar, Jawar Siraj Mohammed, Independent Researcher, Dr. Asfaw Beyene, Dr. Samantha Hurst of UCSD and Dr. Ali Khalif Galaydh, the former Prime Minister of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government.

I had the opportunity to attend the conference on its second day when most of the above mentioned scholars spoke. Despite its constricted focus, the conference was a monumental step in initiating a dialogue among the various stakeholders in this “most conflicted corner” of Africa.  A leader of the Oromo Liberation Front [left] and Mr Obang Metho of the Anuak Justice Council were also in attendance. This report focuses only on the second panel that took place on June 19th. As such, by all means, not a complete coverage of the conference or the many great ideas presented. I selected, in no particular order, the following synopsis from a very large pool of presenters.

Horsed Ayni, one of the activists instrumental in organizing the conference, opened the panel by explaining the concept behind the inception of IHASA, and the importantance of creating a common platform upon which academicians and scholars in the subregion can organize themselves to bring about a change to “the common homeland” – the Horn of Africa.

Dr Asfaw Beyene, a Mechanical Engineer from San Diego State University, gave a moving presentation calling for unity among “the oppressed southerners” to rid Ethiopia off the current repressive regime. He also challenged the organizers to form an Oromo-Ogaden Scholarship similar to the Oromo Studies Association (OSA) that will be devoted to advocacy of issues that are befalling both the Oromo and Somali communities. Dr Asfaw’s presentation drew a wide applause from the audience and praise from Faisal Roble who was awarded a plague at the conference for Research Contribution to Human Rights and Social Justice. Mr. Roble welcomed Dr Asfaw’s proposition as a good gesture — noting the manifestation of such professed unity among Ethiopian elites in 1970s championed then by the likes of Girmawi Neway. Dr Asfaw concluded his remarks by light-heartedly proposing the creation of Union of East African States.

Fowsia Abdulkadir, or the Iron Lady as she was called, a senior researcher at IHASA, gave her perspectives and a context on the recent sham election in Ethiopia. She debunked Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front’s (TPLF) ethnic federalism and revolutionary democracy. She remarked that the existence of a contested history and entrenched years of ethnic conflicts hinder democratic development in Ethiopia. Ideally, “the concept of Ethnic Federalism as laid out in Ethiopian constitution was welcome given the ethnically diverse nature of the country”, she observed. But the TPLF, she added, has failed miserably to materialize and implement that fundamentally good gesture.

She noted that lack of effective participation and inequality in voting were the two most detrimental factors in the 2010 election. According to her, the May 2005 poll was a wakeup call for Meles and co.; as such, 2010 did not come as surprise given the work that has been undertaken since the 2005 teachable moment. In the four years that followed a widely contested 2005 election, not only did the political space shrunk but there remained no space she said to a standing ovation.

According to Fowsia, a deliberate attempt to curtail the non-governmental and civil societies work from the Ogaden region has much to do with the regions underdevelopment. That is also reminiscent of the historical practices of successive Ethiopian regimes where, for example, the Dergue built the Gode Airport to fight Somalia — then abandoned the rest of the region. The Ethiopian politics is a decade of bad experience. An era of Oromo or Ogaden leadership in Ethiopia might not usher democratic governance – as such, “we as a society need to unlearn those bad experiences”, she said.

Much to the delight of the women in attendance, Fowsia also talked about the challenges of Diaspora communities. She especially noted a stark difference that exist between the formal education at schools and the education that goes on at home — helping the younger generation to reconnect with the phenomenon of “home”.  She used the example of Somali songs used at households among the Somali Diaspora as “a reminder of how powerful a place can be.”

The melodies provide an unbreakable chain that connects people across vast distance to places “in ways more powerful than most recognize”, Fowsia said. Politicians often use that connection – give it a poetic narration to mobilize people for certain causes, she said. In an attempt to uplift the spirit of the audience, she noted, “…that sense of belonging to a place must transcend our dire realities.” According to her, that a nostalgic feeling of homesickness grows fonder with time as refugees try to deal with everyday realities and make sense of their situations.

Ahmed Hussen spoke about Ethiopian government’s systematic and institutionalized marginalization of the Ogadenis. He noted that very few Somali-Ogadenis speak Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, which by extension undermines participation in many governing circles. Few opportunistic civil servants may work as puppets for a period of one or two years until they will be replaced by more loyal surrogates. That only serves as a farce pretense of ethnic federalism, he said.  He also noted that “elections” in the Ogaden region have always been held at different times than elections in other parts of the country. That he said attests to the regime’s systematic segregation of the Ogadenis even from the rest of the country.

Faisal Roble, a renowned scholar in the Horn of Africa region, talked about how progressives in Ethiopia questioned the creation of statehood vis-a-vis the rights of nationalities as far back as 1970s. He added, “…conceptual discussions in the sense that the question of the peasants was also a question of ethnic nationalities that made up the empire existed even among the student movement of 1960s.” In the backdrop of those long-existing revolutionary sentiments, those questions remain one of the contentious issues in Ethiopian polity.

Currently, “despite what a government leader and a representative will feel in his pocket, the TPLF has failed Ethiopia”, he said. Referring to one of the unsettled mysteries of TPLF sudden ascendance to power, Mr. Roble talked about an incident in 1991 – when the late Samuel Huntington was sanctioned by the United States to meet with TPLF authorities. After that meeting, he said, “the TPLF position entrenched and the American influence served to legitimize a one-party state.”  According to him, for the TPLF, a Marxist inspired guerilla movement that was set out to liberate Tigray, home to ethnic Tigrayans, the moment signified a walk away from the original plan. He suspects that Meles must have been given an assurance that the western Aid will continue to flood — as Ethiopia will be used as a buffer between the west and the rest. He concluded that despite a widespread talk of undemocratic governance and unparalleled human rights violation recorded under Meles Zenawi’s regime, the west remain unmoved or indifferent.

Comparing the recent show dubbed Ethiopian election to the election under the Emperor when he was still a young man, Mr Roble said, “under Haile Silassie election was a modem of democracy despite a reign of anarchy.” He cautioned the jubilant audience, “…we ought to be progressive in terms of the way we think and our political pursuits – I do not think we need to freeze our thinking…taking into account the national and international geopolitical changes. Reconciliation needs to happen between the Somali psyche that we are not part of Ethiopia yet within the country’s frontier.”

Ahmed Ismail Yusuf a professor at the University of Minnesota, perhaps the star performer of the day, who got us up on our foot, gave an invigorating presentation about Somali Songs as a weapon of resistance by poetically vocalizing the heart-stopping melodies of Somali Songs dating back to the days of colonization. He focused mostly on how Somali songs proved to be more lethal than the spears and bullets in the Somali-Ethiopian war of 1977.

One after another, the Ogadeni speakers sought to demystify the notion that Ogaden is not a barren desert. They proclaimed Ogaden is a land of abundance with green lush and dense forest complimentary to the economic activities of the region. The presence of large livestock and irrigable land surrounded by four major rivers coupled with the yet to be exploited mineral and oil reserves – make Ogaden according to Dr. Mahamud Ugas, one of the richest states in Africa.

Halfway through the second panel another narrative emerged when Sadia took on the contending identities of Ogaden vs. Somali. At different times, Sadia noted, colonial governments tried perpetuating inexistent differences among us – the Somali people. The annexation of Ogadenia to Ethiopia and the subsequent creation of Ethiopian-Somali identity did not create in the people’s psyche Somali people are indeed different. Whether one looks north-south-east or west, “all Somalis are the same and the recklessly formed colonial boundaries must not be used to divide us”, she pleaded. She also boasted that Somalia never surrendered to any colonial power – despite a rampage of colonial scramble from the powerful nations of the time – Britain, Italy, France and Ethiopia. She talked about Somalia’s legendary ‘Mad Mullah’ – Muhammad Abdille Hassan – Somalia’s national hero from Ogaden noted for his fierce resistance against the British.

Another female presenter whose name I did not capture said, “Freedom and democracy are the only acceptable settlement to the conflict in Ogaden region and the greater Horn of Africa. Pointing to the largely female audience she said, “Somali women have a unique and beautiful culture — essential to retaining the Somali identity. “ Traditionally, women have always been at the center of our society — “we have always remained on the periphery of the clan-warfare.” All the while, women fall victims to the most heinous crimes against humanity. For instance, the speaker noted how HIV carriers raped Ogadeni women — one of the many ways the Ethiopian regime attempts to cleanse ethnic Somalis. She then went on to justify how Somali men joined the movement to fight against what happened to their women.

An overwhelming participation by the Ogadeni youth and women is a clear testament to a lively sense of entitlement to their cause. This is a quite astonishing dynamics when compared to Oromo and even other Ethiopian communities. There definitely remains some series house cleaning and a cultural orientation among the Oromo polity.

Between Somali rangelands and Ethiopian mountains lies the Ogaden region, mostly inhabited by Muslim pastoralists with rich oral traditions. Ogaden was incorporated into Ethiopia – christened Abyssinia, in late 19thth century. According to Dr Mohamed Hassan who heads a research organization in Canada, Ogaden “was incorporated through an armed, African-style conquest.” The Anglo-Ethiopian treaty of 1989 formally settled the boundary between British Somaliland and Abyssinia, he said quoting Gerald Reece. That he stated is where Ethiopia’s juridical claim towards Ogaden comes from. Although the area now known to us as Ogaden falls under the British sphere of influence, the Britons never had policy on Ogaden – that is why they avoided fighting Muhammad Mullah. He continued, “…later on Ogaden was used as a bargaining chip to ward off the threat of Ethiopia arming the Sudanese Mahdi army and thereby curtail the advance of Mahdists.”

Responding to a question from the audience, Mr. Roble summed up the western policy towards the region with an American policy example as follows. “American policy is solely about maintaining territorial integrity – that can be traced back to decolonization era when Britons decided to leave Eritrea in 1940s – Americans wanted to secure the control over Kagnaw station — then helped restore Haile Silassie to power— in return for permanent access to the facility. “

Dr Theodore Vestal – in his presentation “Conflicts and Human Rights in the Somali Region” talked about deficits of democracy – tyrannical domination of political power by the TPLF. He stated that the discontinuous evolution of democracy in Ethiopia is not as exercise of consensus which can be evidenced by a quick look at the first election in Ogaden and how the ONLF was pushed out of the country. He went on to state that the Human Rights record of the Somali Peoples Democratic Party, a ruling party crony, attests to a glaring harassment, detention and arrest – including of foreign journalists –- and the lack of due process of law — and a recent exclusion and expulsion of NGO’s including the Red Cross from the region, the government accusing them of being spies. He also talked about the countless and most deplorable demonstration killing of innocent civilians in public aimed at scaring and intimidating the people.

In the closing, he advised, “the people of Ethiopia to come together, learn and hear each other’s stories on a similar platform.”  Experience has shown that the TPLF is not ready or willing to share power — the alternative; he said, “…is to seek a negotiated resolution among the oppressed groups by embracing certain liberal ideologies – vision, wisdom and strength.”

IHASA Conference In Pictures, by Horsed Ayni

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* IHASA is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to document, research, analyze, publish and disseminate information on the political and socio-economic justice issues affecting the people in the Horn of Africa and Diaspora community. IHASA strongly believes that the people of the Horn of Africa, given the opportunities necessary, is productive and the region is very dynamic and resourceful. Through conferences such as this, IHASA supports policies and actions that contribute to the advancement of good governance and the elimination of conflicts in the Horn of Africa.

* Oromsis Adula is the Editor -In-Chief of Opride.com, a multimedia weblog that aggregates Oromo, Ethiopian and Horn of African news. Oromsis writes regular news commentaries and Op-Eds on current issues that affect the Oromo people in Ethiopia.



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Collaborative stories written or reported by OPride staff and contributors.

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