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par Graham PEEBLES
In the harsh Ogaden region of Ethiopia, impoverished ethnic Somali people are being murdered and tortured, raped, persecuted and displaced by government paramilitary forces. These actions are carried out with the knowledge and tacit support of donor countries, seemingly content to turn a blind eye to war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed by their brutal, repressive ally in the region. Around five million traditionally nomadic pastoralists live in what is one of the least developed corners of the world, besieged by military oppression, drought and famine.
When the British, with due colonial duplicity, arrogantly handed the Ogaden region over to Ethiopia in 1954, the ethnic Somali people found themselves under occupation by, what they regard as a foreign power. The centuries-old struggle for self-determination has since 1984 been taken up by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), predictably regarded as “terrorists” by the Ethiopian government, which hunts them down and, with impunity, tortures imprisons and rapes its members and suspected supporters while carrying out widespread extrajudicial killings.
In 1992, as part of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) much trumpeted but never realized policy of ethnic federalism, which promised autonomy and cultural respect to the many tribal groups in the country, ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden were officially acknowledged and inaugural regional elections were held. The ONLF, a secular group in a largely Muslim region, “won 60 per cent of seats… and formed the new (regional) government”, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported. Two years later, and in response to the will of the people, the ONLF called for a referendum on self-determination. The government’s reaction to such democratic gall was to kill 81 unarmed civilians in the town of Wardheer, disband the regional parliament, arrest and imprison the vice-president and several other members of the parliament, and instigate mass arrests and indiscriminate killings. This brutal act ignited the current struggle and drove the ONLF into the shadows and its current guerrilla war.
The region, rich in oil and gas reserves, is potentially the wealthiest area of Ethiopia, endowed with resources which the indigenous people are understandably keen to benefit from but which the EPRDF sees as another party asset to add to its burgeoning portfolio. Genocide Watch (GW) tells us that “immediately after oil and gas were discovered in the Ogaden, Ethiopian government forces evicted large numbers of [Ogaden Somalis] from their ancestral grazing lands and herded them into internally displaced persons camps, causing a humanitarian disaster”. If the ONLF is correct –and its view sounds more than plausible– then the Ethiopian military intends to secure the resources for the government and exclude the local people. The Africa Faith and Justice Network confirms such suspicions, saying : “With the discovery of petroleum leading to exploration missions by foreign companies, the government’s motives are questionable.”