Ethiopia’s secessionist group that is hunted in Kenya

January 6, 2012 (The Standard) – It is hard to find the leaders of Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), the rebel group fighting Ethiopian government for southeastern Ethiopia’s self determination, to talk to.

They are paranoid fearing that anyone seeking them is part of the Ethiopian intelligence network that they claim is hunting them down in Kenya.

But when they are certain that one is not an agent of the Ethiopian government, they open up.

Ogaden region is a no go zone for media, human rights activists and aid agencies. But from Kenya, the organisation’s leaders have managed to sneak journalists into Ethiopia where they try to justify their rebellion to the outside world.

Journalists’ ordeal

Indeed, two Swedish journalists were recently jailed for 11 years for illegally entering the country and associating with a terror group, the ONLF. It is claimed that they passed through Kenya on their way to the Ogaden region.

At face value the ONLF fighters looks like another rug tug group with their unkempt hair and overgrown beards.

But this group, said to have more than 30,000 armed youths scattered over the Ogaden region in south eastern Ethiopia, is said to be one of the well armed and organised group with commanders.

ONLF was founded in 1984. Led by Admiral Mohammed Omar Osman who is the current Chairman of the movement, ONLF went on a recruitment spree.

ONLF is a home-grown movement formed by Ethiopian Somalis who have grown disillusioned with the central government for alleged marginalisation of the area.

“We are bitter with the Ethiopian government and from here we will fight for our rights and if need be we will die for self determination,” ONLF Foreign Affairs Secretary General Abdirahaman Mahdi says.

Fierce fighting in the region has persisted for over 20 years. The war coupled with hunger and diseases has left tens of thousands killed and thousands of others forced to flee from their homes to Kenya, Djibouti and of all places, Somalia.

The ONLF have on numerous occasions attacked oil fields explored by Chinese in Ethiopia leaving more than 70 people killed. The attacks trigger the government to unleash its forces on the residents.

Peace talks

The ONLF claims the Ethiopian Somalis in the region have been marginalised by the central government.

They have on several occasions sat with the government for round table peace talks, but each time the meetings have ended in stalemate.

The government wants the rebel group to disarm before engaging in meaningful talks. There have been numerous reports of a section of the ONLF surrendering to the Ethiopian government in an effort to slow down the violence in the Ogaden region.

The high profile surrenders and some seeking amnesty lead to claims that ONLF is divided.

However, each time this happens ONLF leadership comes out to deny any division in the movement.

“Those deals where ONLF members are claimed to surrender and seek amnesty are stage-managed and those who claim to lay down the arms were not ONLF members,” Mahdi says.

“The deals are inconsequential. ONLF is still united and we will soldier on,” he says.

From their bases, ONLF has infuriated the Ethiopian government by launching a series of hit and run attacks against government installations and even raided oil exploration by Chinese companies in the region.

Direct confrontations

The ONLF has also had direct confrontation with the government forces inflicting and suffering casualties in the process.

It has good relations with the villagers who provide it with shelter, food and intelligence and above all, a stream of willing young men ready to join the fighting.

The group occasionally attack trucks and kidnaps people suspected of being government agents. During such raids, it has been criticized for bringing villagers into the line of fire from Ethiopian forces who accuse them of harbouring the ONLF. This has caused many residents of the region to seek refuge outside Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian government has branded ONLF a terrorist group and accuses Eritrea, its historically bitter foe, of supporting it by supplying it with arms.

The government also says that some Ethiopians in the Diaspora fund the group.

ONLF leadership was reluctant to disclose its source of arms supply that includes tanks, anti aircraft missiles and landmines.

Other guerillas

The ONLF is only one of the guerilla groups rebelling against Ethiopian government.

The other group, that is equally vicious, is the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) that is based on the southern tip of Ethiopia bordering Kenya’s Counties of Wajir, Moyale and Marsabit.

ONLF senior leadership is scattered all over Europe where they fled fearing assassination.

“We have been asking for democracy and equal rights. Is that too much to ask for?” Mahdi poses.

–The Standard