The Ogaden Peace Talks: Public Relations Stunt or Genuine Initiative?

Jawar Mohammed|September 10, 2012

It is reported that the Ethiopian government has held another round of peace talks with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in Nairobi. First announced by the Ethiopian government, the news is confirmed by the rebel group, which has listed the key procedural points on which preliminary agreement has been reached.  This was followed by another announcement that the Swedish journalists sentenced to 11 years after they were caught in Ogaden have been pardoned. This is an interesting development, but might not necessarily be a game changer for the conflict.

Why now?

The negotiation, which is being mediated by Kenya, has been going on for about a year according to sources taking part in the process. The latest round of negotiation was attended by a high level delegation from both sides: the government was represented by the defense minister, while the Ogadenis sent the commander of the army, head of its diplomatic section and prominent intellectuals representing civic society. Therefore, it seems each side wanted to make this appear a serious undertaking, and they have already achieved that as the news has gone viral among the international media. However, the timing of the current announcement and history of the prior relation between the two parties makes us doubtful.

First, it is important to note that Meles initiated the current negotiation a year ago just at the time he announced a new strategy of regime change towards Eritrea. Since such strategic shift would provoke Eritrea into taking a preemptive strike, Meles needed to free up the Eastern command in order to redeploy it to the Northern frontier. But that would make the regime vulnerable to attacks by the ONLF; hence peace talks were initiated to distract them from focusing on building their military capacity.


Second even as the said negotiation was taking place in Nairobi, the Ethiopian authorities continue continue to terrorize the Ogadeni civilians. The ogadenonline  reports that  “ mass murder took place in the Village of Miirdanbas near Qoriile town on Sept 6, 2012” and lists names of 13 people who were killed. Committing such horrendous act while holding peace talk on the other side of the border does not signal real interest in resolving the conflict.

Third, the intent of the Ethiopian government’s decision to engage in such public negotiation with an insurgent group at a time when the ruling party is struggling to contain the boiling factional war on succession is suspicious. The year-long talks were said to have been suspended due to Meles’s sickness, and there is no logical reason that their resumption could not have waited until the new prime minister is in place. Hence, this announcement is either a diversionary tactic meant to distract public attention from the internal crisis, or one of the factions is using this as public relations stunt to present itself as a more reformist choice. Moreover, the regime hopes that such positive news would help it deflect attention from thenationwide protest by the Muslim community demanding religious freedom and the growing urban grievance caused by the rising cost of food.

Reaching out to one of the several rebel parties is a well-known tactic of the ruling party whenever it faces crisis. For instance, when his hold on power was threatened by the Amhara parties following the 2005 election, in order to avoid fighting the two largest ethnic groups (Oromo and Amhara) at the same time, Meles initiated negotiations with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), only to reverse course once he put the situation under his control. Similarly, in 2008 during the height of the ONLF’s military successes in the region, the Ethiopian government initiated discussion with the United Western Somali Liberation Front (UWSLF) and smaller factions of the ONLF itself, finally securing their surrender in 2010.

During the run up to the 2010 election, two opposition leaders, Lidetu Ayalew and Hailu Shewal signed agreement with Meles on electoral code of conduct, while  the larger coalition, Medrek, refused  to do so insisting on electoral reform. As the opposition bickered on this defection, the pressure on the government to establish an independent electoral board was reduced,  enabling it to eventually claim a 99.6% victory. Those who sided with the regime were denied  even a single seat as reward and came out  humiliated and with eroded political legitimacy. Basically, the regime has been using peace talks as a tactical weapon to divide and weaken its adversaries, and this has worked for it quite effectively as its opponents keep falling for the ploy.

Sending  powerless negotiator does not signal seriousness

The choice of Siraj Fegessa as chief negotiator on behalf of the government also further solidifies the doubt. Although Mr. Fegessa is officially a defense minister, it is public knowledge that he holds no real power, as defense matters are handled by the Tigrean military generals and party leaders. Since Seeye Abreha, the position has been held by non-Tigreans (Abadula Gemeda, Kuma Demeksa and now Siraj Fagessa) but these ministers were kept away from deciding on vital internal and external security matters as this report by the US embassy reveals.

For instance, for most of the last two decades the Ogadeni case was handled by Abay Tsehaye, founding member and senior leader of the TPLF. As minister of federal affairs and later as national security advisor to Meles, Abay practically ruled the Ogaden region by directly reshuffling the region’s politicians as well as monitoring and supervising military deployment and security activities. He is the designing father of the notorious “Kilil 5 militia” that was organized to aid the army in its fight against the ONLF but was mostly known for terrorizing civilians in the region. Therefore, assigning Mr. Fegessa to lead the delegation – instead of influential figures such as Abay who have intimate knowledge of the conflict and also holds real power to ensure implementation of potential agreements – tells us that the regime might not be serious.

Having dealt with this regime for a long time, the ONLF leadership surely knows this. It appears that their optimism about the current peace talks is in part due to high level involvement from the Kenyan side. It is said that Kenya’s defense minister Yussuf Mohamed Haji, who is born to the Ogadeni clan, has assured the ONLF that the Ethiopian side is willing to address most of their demands. No doubt that the minister’s personal connections and Kenya’s own interest in resolving  the conflict are important in facilitating these talks. However, unless there is interest-driven political commitment from the real powers in Addis, Kenya has minimal leverage over Ethiopia to ensure that it upholds its promises.

Negotiation  on what?

Let us for a moment dismiss the doubts listed above and suppose that the Ethiopian government is genuinely interested in making peace this time around. What would such a resolution entail? To answer this we need to remember why the ONLF resumed armed struggle after being part of the government for three years (1991-94). The main cause of the fallout was the ONLF’s refusal to become a dependent satellite party that can be controlled by the Tigrean Liberation Front (TPLF)   which at the time was fabricating surrogate parties that would rule the federal subunits on its behalf. Consequently, the TPLF decided to kick out the ONLF although it won the local elections, and replaced it by a newly invented loyal surrogate, the Ethiopian Somali Democratic League (later renamed Somali People Democratic Party) that currently administers the region. Therefore, the ONLF resumed armed struggle not because it demanded outright secession as is often alleged by the government, but rather because it was denied the right to function independently and govern the region it won through election. The TPLF kicked it out because it could not afford to have such a strategically important state be ruled by an autonomous political party.

Then what would be acceptable to the ONLF to return, and how much is the TPLF willing to concede? Autonomous regional self-rule and a fair share of central power for their people (the third largest, and larger than Tigreans who currently rule the country) is the minimum that could satisfy ONLF’s rank and file. Anything less than that they already have it , with the current arrangement of nominal self administration, in which the SDP runs the state as dependent surrogate of the TPLF.

Mind you, the TPLF might commit on paper to all demands listed by the ONLF, but it is unimaginable that they would commit to their implementation.  For the TPLF, keeping direct control of the Ogaden region is vital for sustaining its hold over the country, because it fears that an autonomous Ogaden would be used as launching pad for other rebels, particularly the OLF, that operate in the adjacent region. Let alone allowing such a strong, nationalist organization that enjoys strong grassroots support to govern this strategically crucial region, the TPLF could not trust even the current surrogate, SPDP, which is why the regional administration is in constant reshuffling mode, resulting in 11 presidents in two decades. The average for other regions during this period is four, while the federal government had just one leader. Since the ONLF cannot be reduced to a surrogate weaker than the SPDP, it cannot coexist with the current Ethiopian regime. Therefore, unless the elites ruling Ethiopian make significant behavioral changes – i.e., democratize the political space – the probability of the current negotiation bearing fruit that brings lasting peace to Ogaden is quite slim.

High risk for uncertain reward

The talks might give the ONLF breathing room to rebuild its fighting capacity, which has been weakened in the last couple of years, and also raise its fading profile to boost the morale of its base.  However, unless it is careful, the ONLF leadership risks splitting its base and weakening itself operationally if and when these highly publicised talks fail to materialize. Such failure could also further erode trust and narrow the door for future negotiations.  It is possible that the ONLF could buy into the current plot, abandon its struggle and join the government, only to be forced out once again.

It took a decade for the ONLF to recover from the damages it sustained during its partnership with the TPLF in 1990s, which saw the assassination of several of its capable leaders.  The inevitable cost  from another round of gambling could be even worse; apart from damage to its fighting force and leadership, it could  fracture it into various factions as a result of disappointment  of the rank and file, and infiltration by the regime. The worst case scenario is that the ONLF might repeat the catastrophic end of the Tamil Tigers who, through use of peace talks, were lured into lowering their guard and relaxing  their discipline, which exposed them to obliterating attacks by the Sri Lankan army.

A much wiser strategic approach would be  for the ONLF  to coordinate its struggle with other opposition groups in order to induce lasting change in how the Ethiopian state behaves. Although the ONLF might have a unique set of demands, none of them will be genuinely and practically addressed as long as the Ethiopian state is not democratized. On its part, if it is serious about lasting peace and stability,  the Ethiopian government  needs to stop  beating around the bush and open up the political system to competition and contestation.  If it does that, there will be no need to engage in unilateral negotiation with specific group, as none would be interested in hanging around the bushes.

Jawar Mohammed  is political analysts and  graduate student at Columbia University. He can be reached at  His articles can be accessed at


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