The Secret War in Ogaden
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
In order to fight Islamist terrorism, the West may be sponsoring war crimes.
Part of an OZY series on little-known wars.
Ethiopia. Once synonymous with starving children and deadly droughts, the country is today a bastion of stability in the turbulent Horn of Africa. Landlocked between unruly Somalia and despotic Eritrea, it has become a darling of Western powers and an paragon of economic development. Except: According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, because of a war you’ve likely never heard of, 413,400 Ethiopians are internally displaced.
Because of a war you’ve likely never heard of, 413,400 Ethiopians are internally displaced.
Since 1994, separatist movements in the Southern region of Ogaden, which borders lawless Somalia, have been waging war against the Ethiopian government. What started as an attempt to unify Ethiopia’s Somali region (Ogaden) with Somalia has ballooned with a handful of other armed groups joining the action. Which makes determining the battles lines difficult — multiple ethnic and separatist groups are in play.
Maybe the international community isn’t ignoring the problem but has bigger fish to fry. Somalia, their neighbor, has suffered an Islamic insurgency from the deadly extremist group al-Shabab. Or maybe they just have no idea what’s going on. The government has labeled separatist groups like the Oromo Liberation Front as terrorists and forbidden journalists and NGOs from visiting the region. Felix Horne, Ethiopia researcher at Human Rights Watch, admits, “We don’t really know about the scale of abuses, given lack of access.”
What is clear is that both sides appear to have blood on their hands. Militant groups are known for bombing urban areas — in 2007, an Ogaden National Liberation Front grenade attack killed four middle school students. Meanwhile, whole villages in the Shilaabo district in Ogaden were allegedly burned down by police earlier this year. Human Rights Watch called the actions of some Ethiopian soldiers — who reportedly participated in arbitrary killings, rape and torture — crimes against humanity. “After an ONLF attack, the Liyu police often retaliate against civilians in the area, who they accuse of providing support to the ONLF,” Horne says. The Ethiopian government did not respond to a request for comment.
Given that a substantial chunk of the country’s GDP comes from foreign aid — almost 10 percent in 2012, according to the Global Humanitarian Assistance database — the international community has leverage to get the two sides to the negotiation table. Yet Western nations, including the U.S., keep pouring donations into Ethiopia. Ethiopian expert and professor at Roskilde University Tobias Hagmann calls it “organized hypocrisy.”
But with the fight against al-Shabab spilling over borders, the West may need Ethiopia. Obama has called the government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn an “outstanding partner” in the fight against terrorism (not a peep about human rights). If this sounds like the perfect recipe for prolonging conflict … you’re right, says Getachew Metaferia, expert in Ethiopia and professor of political science at Morgan State University. Metaferia says that peace will come only after a major political reform with a stronger democracy and more economic opportunities. Read: Don’t hold your breath.