Ethiopia: Punished For Defending Constitution

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[Africa New Update: Commentary]



Some critics have accused Ethiopia of using civilians to combat terrorists in the eastern Ogaden region but it is becoming harder and harder to keep away the volunteers.

Unlike before, Ethiopia is currently improving its economy and pushing through the marathon to eradicate poverty. Last year, the IMF estimated a 10.5% GDP growth in Ethiopia, giving the country the fastest growing economy among countries not dependent on Oil in Sub-Sahara Africa.

As some suggested in the Ogaden region, the country today is building schools with its left hand while fighting the brutal insurgency with its right hand. Despite its shortcomings, Ethiopia has recently established its first ever multi-party system in its history, with the opposition holding around 1/3rd of parliament. Thus many here have more reasons to fight, like Abdulahi, a Gode town resident, who sent his oldest child to the newly built Jijiga University. “I will fight to the end to wipe out the separatists” he says. But in 1995, a new and flexible constitution was crafted in Ethiopia to avoid exactly what Abdulahi said.

The rulers of the country, led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, took over in 1991 with much suspicion among the urban, as they represented the peasant population of Ethiopia. Once in Addis Ababa, they created a charter that gives regional autonomy based on ethnic federalism and even the option for a peaceful secession from Ethiopia. Like most of Africa, Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic nation and some support a separatist ideology. But not all use peaceful ways to implement their ideology.

The Ogaden region’s brutal separatist movement has been led by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), established seven years before Meles took power.  If the ONLF rebels somehow managed to amass a majority consensus for this region’s peaceful secession, without using intimidation and violence, the Meles government vowed to give Ogaden region (better known here as Kilil 5) its immediate independence thirteen years ago.

But this didn’t happen, and being disgruntled, the ONLF went back to its brutal insurgency tactics, increased its Radio Xoriyo to transmit propaganda and got closer with the Eritrean government. Some ONLF supporters also established the Ogaden Human Rights Committee (OHRC) in 1995. In one special case, the OHRC publicly defended the ONLF in 1999 when the rebels kicked out Action Against Hunger, a humanitarian organization, but it then turned around a few years later to condemn Ethiopia for doing the same thing for political reasons. So the OHRC quickly became famous for supporting ONLF and condemning Ethiopia, successfully politicizing human rights institutions. Simultaneously, the ONLF set up another base in Eritrea as a training ground for its famous Ogaden National Liberation Army (ONLA)


All set with its numerous branches, the ONLF elevated its insurgency campaign. Suddenly, all local Ogaden officials who worked with the Ethiopian government became targets of assassination by the ONLF rebels. Some local people started accusing ONLF of committing genocide because the ONLA violently targeted Somali clans who tend to oppose secessionist ideologies. Local civilians continued to die as their vehicles hit landmines planted by the rebels. One ONLF supporter sorrowfully told me “the landmine planted by ONLA was supposed to kill government convoys but it ended up killing my relatives.”

However, none of ONLF’s violent acts attracted international media coverage until the rebels massacred 65 Ethiopians and 9 Chinese nationals on April 24, 2007. Ironically, the locals soon learned the fact that 9 Chinese nationals dying near an Oil Facility was the cause of international media coverage, not the massacre of 65 Ethiopians. Attracting much less media coverage, more Ethiopian civilians were later wounded and killed by ONLF. (Report: U.S. Committee on Foreign Affairs

Complicating all this, just like Abdulahi who swears to fight the ONLF; there are many others in this corner of Ethiopia who support the ONLF’s idea of secession. Though it is hard to say that they are a majority in this arid region of Ethiopia , many ONLF supporters have assisted the rebels militarily while some have fled to refugee camps in neighboring Kenya and Somalia to tell their stories.

When interviewed by westerners, it is common for the pro-ONLF refugees to refer to their opponents as “the Ethiopians” and to disown their own Ethiopian identity. So far, the outspoken rebel supporters and pro-ONLF refugees have been used as witnesses by western human rights organizations while the OHRC has been campaigning for sanctions on Ethiopia by sending its high level representatives to convince Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.)

Meanwhile Aid organizations and workers are stuck in the middle, not knowing which side of the story to believe. The local ONLF supporters seek to utilize this chance to convince foreigners of their own story, while regular citizens of Ogaden give conflicting accounts, as recently reported on CSMonitor. But one thing is certain, the hundreds massacred by ONLF and many more assassinated by the rebels have already spoken when the ONLF Chairman admitted and even congratulated his rebels for their crime, speaking to BBC Radio for all of us to hear in April 2007.

Back here in the Ogaden, it is an open secret that the local people are suffering due to the insurgency and counter insurgency. And it doesn’t seem like the Ethiopian government will abandon its constitution and give up defending the country from ONLF in this unstable region of Africa .

The ONLF getting assistance from the Eritrean government and from groups like the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in Somalia has given less hope for peace. Before Ethiopia sent its troops to help the Somalia transitional government fourteen months ago, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) reported that many others from countries like Iran, Libya and Egypt were supporting and financing the ICU and its allies like the ONLF to fight against Ethiopia.

Analysts agree that all international actors have their own historical interests in this horn of Africa region, including the United States. Facing aggression from all directions on its sovereignty and its peace, the Ethiopian government has allied with America and many U.S. officials, like Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla), have defended Ethiopia. But, there are some U.S. officials like Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ), who have singled out Ethiopia to blame the country for all the problems in this region and to incriminate the country for defending its constitution.



The relationship between the rebels and Ethiopia can only get worse from here on as the ONLF's war for referendum meets new challenges. The biggest opposition party in parliament today, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), is deeply committed to removing the Article 39 bill inserted by Meles Zenawi's ruling party into the Ethiopian Constitution thirteen years ago.

This distinct Article gives regional autonomy and the opportunity for ONLF to implement its separatist ideology peacefully. So, once the opposition is in power and Article 39 is removed, even the peaceful option for ONLF will be closed permanently.

With the opposition Ethiopian leaders in parliament also likely to defend an amended constitution and resist the ONLF insurgency, the human rights accusations, claims and counter claims are likely to fly around for decades more to come. This, in essence, incriminates all future governments of Ethiopia if they dare to defend their constitution and fight insurgencies.

In September of last year, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, recommended the African Union to tackle the issue of insurgency as a whole, in order to replace violent opposition with legitimate and peaceful opposition forces, after she concluded that this issue is becoming a cancer for many other nations.

Accordingly, democracy has become predisposed to fall short in countries where a government is faced with multiple insurgencies. Therefore, not implementing Frazer's recommendations in the horn of Africa will keep the region unstable and keep the cycle of rebels forming new governments going while the new Tony Blairs of the West watch their favorite "New Breed" of African statesmen fall short of democracy once again.


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