Ethnic Somalis Threaten to Destabilize Eastern Ethiopia

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 46

With Ethiopia sending troops across the border in Somalia to protect the Baidoa-based Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the possibility for a regional conflict looms in the future. To understand why Ethiopia is concerned with the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) takeover in Somalia, it is necessary to understand the threat that the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) poses to Ethiopian interests. Ethnic Somalis are the common denominator in the Horn of Africa, and their large presence in neighboring countries has long been a source of conflict. The ONLF is an ethnic-Somali insurgency located in Ethiopia’s eastern region of Ogaden. For the past 20 years, the front has waged a rebellion, fighting for independence from Ethiopia. Since the ICU took power in Mogadishu, Ethiopia fears that the Islamists will cooperate with the ONLF to destabilize eastern Ethiopia. This concern is one of the critical reasons why Ethiopia has resisted the ICU takeover in Somalia so strongly.

Ogaden is a vast arid land that shares a long and porous border with Somalia. It is home to four million Ethiopian Somalis. Founded in 1984 to resist Ethiopia’s successive regimes, the ONLF has been operating near the volatile Somalia border, mostly using pipe bombs or other small-scale attacks to advance their cause. Most recently, the movement has been linked to the threat of spreading Islamic fundamentalism inside Ethiopia. It previously had links to al-Ittihad al-Islami, a Somali Islamist group that reportedly is still active in Puntland and has been accused by the United States of being a terrorist organization (Terrorism Monitor, July 27; The East African, October 30). These factors demonstrate the danger posed by potential fundamentalists to the 75-million-strong Horn of Africa country.

In August, the Ethiopian government conducted a massive operation aimed at flushing out the separatist rebels from the region after attempts to hold talks with them hit a snag. The attacks against the fighters came amid reports that Somali elders had gone to Europe and the United States to meet with some of the ONLF leaders (BBC Africa, August 4). Tribal elders have asked the ONLF militia group to refrain from its terrorist activities and to instead resolve political differences through peaceful dialogue. As a result, some fighters have given themselves up to the government (Ethiopian Herald, November 8). Other fighters have been captured while attempting to carry out surprise attacks, while senior leaders have deserted the front. One defector, quoted in an Ethiopian newspaper, said he was forcibly recruited by the ONLF movement, but the training provided to him since then focused on robbery and murder (Ethiopian Herald, November 8). Yet, the rebel group accused the government of hindering dialogue and denied accusations that its fighters were killing innocent civilians.

In September, the International Committee of the Red Cross suspended its operations in eastern Ethiopia after two of its aid workers were kidnapped by armed gunmen within the disputed region (Ethiopian Reporter, September 23). The Ethiopian government said the incident took place in an area where the separatist rebel group is known to be active. Analysts say that in recent months, ONLF forces have strengthened significantly. Ethiopia claims that the rebels have been receiving help from Eritrea and the ICU in Somalia, although both sides have denied this. The Ethiopian government has deployed thousands of troops to the desolate region and there have been casualties on both sides.

In August, Ethiopian security forces killed 13 members of the ONLF and captured several commanders as they crossed into Ethiopia from Somalia (Ethiopian Reporter, August 12). According to Abdu Ahmed Arab, deputy head of the Security and Justice Coordination Bureau for the Somali region, “The Armed Forces killed 13 and captured many other top officials of the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front, in an operation launched to eradicate rebel groups who cross into the country from neighboring Somali.”

The ONLF uses Somalia as a rear base for its operations in Ethiopia. In the mid-1970s, then Somali President Siad Barre advocated expanding the country’s borders to unite all Somali-speaking people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Despite a disastrous and short-lived invasion of Ethiopia in 1977 and political anarchy since 1992, Somali nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists continue to claim the territory. As a result of this concern, Ethiopia has reacted strongly toward the ICU’s advance in Somalia and sees the Islamist organization as an ally of the ONLF and a potential destabilizing force to Ethiopia. Therefore, Ethiopia will continue to increase its vigilance on the border region and quell any attempts by ethnic Somalis to foment an insurgency in eastern Ethiopia.