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

Jawar Mohammed | September 11, 2012

(Gulele Post) – 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.

–Full Report Gulele Post