Ogaden Crackdown Carries High Cost
By Jim Lobe, IPS / Feb. 07, 2008
WASHINGTON, Jul 5 (IPS)- An intensified counter-insurgency campaign against Somali rebels and their suspected civilian supporters in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region is drawing growing criticism by human rights groups and concern from the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, a staunch ally of Addis Ababa.
The campaign, which some experts date to an April attack by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) on a Chinese oil installation in which 74 people were killed, including nine Chinese, is causing immense suffering by the local Somali population, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) which released a statement on the situation Wednesday.
“Ethiopian troops are destroying villages and property, confiscating livestock and forcing civilians to relocate,” according to Peter Takirambudde, HRW’s Africa director. “Whatever the military strategy behind them, these abuses violate the laws of war.”
But the campaign is also putting additional pressure on Ethiopia’s army at a moment when, much like U.S. troops in Iraq, it appears increasingly bogged down in a low-level guerrilla war in neighbouring Somalia and faces growing tensions along its still-contested border with Eritrea with which it fought a bloody conflict from 1998 to 2000.
Even Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi conceded last week that his government “made a wrong political calculation” when it intervened in Somalia late last year, driving the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) from power in Mogadishu and most of the rest of the country.
Since then, neither the transitional federal government (TFG) nor an African peacekeeping force — for which only about 1,500 Ugandan troops have been deployed so far — has been able to exert control over the capital, leaving an estimated 10,000 Ethiopian troops to maintain order in what most observers see as a deteriorating security situation in which anti-Ethiopian forces are steadily gaining strength.
“Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia has led to more instability and chaos in Somalia, and made Ethiopia more vulnerable in different fronts,” according to Ted Dagne, a Horn of Africa specialist at the Congressional Research Service here. “When your forces deployed on multiple fronts, it definitely weakens your strategic position.”
The Bush administration, which backed Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia and even carried out several attacks against specific “terrorist” targets in the country since the invasion, has declined to publicly criticise the ongoing counter-insurgency campaign in Ogaden.
At the same time, however, U.S. officials have privately expressed concern about the serious rights abuses, including murders, rapes, and the burning of villages, committed by the army and the possibility that its continuation could attract ICU, which Washington has accused of harbouring al Qaeda militants, and other anti-Ethiopian forces to the Ogaden, effectively transforming what are currently two distinct conflicts into a broader, regional war.
The Meles government has long insisted that links between ONLF and the ICU already exist, but that charge is questioned by independent experts here and strongly denied by the ONLF itself.
“The ONLF wishes to make clear to the international community that we are not, have not been and will not be a party to the ongoing conflict in Somalia as a matter of policy and principle,” it said last month.
The State Department has also rejected Ethiopian requests that it list the ONLF as an international terrorist organisation.
The Ogaden, which is dominated by the Somali Dorad clan and came under Ethiopian rule only in the mid-19th century, has been the scene of a near-constant tug-of-war between Somalia and Ethiopia since the former became independent in 1960. The conflict emerged into open warfare in the late 1970s when then-President Siad Barre tried unsuccessfully to realise a “Greater Somalia” by invading the region.
Barre was eventually forced from power in 1991, the same year that his Ethiopian nemesis, Haile Mengistu Mariam, was ousted in Addis Ababa and replaced by Meles and his Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front.
At the time, the ONLF joined the government but then left it when the Meles government launched its crackdown against the group in 1993 for advocating substantial autonomy or independence, both of which were permitted under Ethiopia’s new constitution.
Since then, it has waged a low-level guerrilla campaign that, until its attack on the Chinese installation this year, has gained almost no international attention, in part due to the remoteness of the region and obstacles placed by the government to human-rights monitors and journalists who wanted to travel there.
“The Ogaden is the forgotten tragedy,” according to Dagne, who noted that Ogadenis have remained loyal citizens under successive Ethiopian governments who have long suffered discrimination by Addis Ababa.
In recent weeks, Ethiopia’s counter-insurgency efforts in the Ogaden have intensified dramatically, according to HRW, which said thousands of civilians have been displaced, even in places where there is no known ONLF presence.
In tactics reminiscent of Sudan’s counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur, witnesses told HRW’s investigators that Ethiopian troops have burned homes and property, including the recent harvest and other food stocks, confiscated livestock and, in a few cases, fired on and killed fleeting civilians. In addition, they have arrested dozens of people in the larger towns, particularly family members of suspected ONLF members.
Bombing by Ethiopian warplanes has also been reported.
The government has also imposed a trade and food blockade on the region in an apparent effort to force thousands of people in rural areas to move to larger towns and thus deny the ONLF a support base, according to HRW, which also criticised abuses by the ONLF, including the attack on the Chinese installation and the killing of at least 28 civilians on a nearby farm.
“At this point, the question whether this is similar to Darfur is very difficult to say because of the inability of international human rights monitors, the press, and others to get full access to the region and find out exactly what’s going on,” Georgette Gagnon, a regional specialist at HRW, told IPS.
“But for the people suffering in the Ogaden, the situation is incredibly serious, and the government needs to rein in its troops and stop attacking civilians and burning them out of their homes,” she added.
The HRW report was anticipated by a lengthy, front-page article in the New York Times from the Ogaden three weeks ago which described a “reign of terror” by Ethiopian troops and depicted the ONLF as an indigenous movement with strong popular support.
The Times reporter, Jeffrey Gettleman, and two of his colleagues who contributed to the article were imprisoned for five days by the Ethiopian authorities after it was published and had all of their equipment confiscated.