Ethiopia initiates talks with rebels

Report
from EastAfrican
Published on 22 Sep 2012 View Original

By FRED OLUOCH Special Correspondent

In Summary

  • Experts in Ethiopian affairs say dialogue is now possible after 21 years of high-handed rule under the late Meles.

  • However, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will continue to resist secessionist groups in the country.

  • In early September, Kenya facilitated a preliminary consultation between the government of Ethiopia and the ONLF leadership in Nairobi.

  • The move by the ONLF to meet at a negotiating table could contribute significantly to security in the region. This is crucial with concerns within the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) that a defeated Al Shabaab could take refuge among the Ogaden rebels.

  • Dr Muhamed Ali, an expert on conflicts and politics of the Horn, said Ethiopia has realised that a functioning government in Somalia will be formed soon, and it is better to negotiate with Ogaden rebels to prevent the country being accused of interfering in the internal affairs of Somalia.

The new Ethiopian leadership has initiated direct contact with rebel groups, a move that was not possible during the reign of Meles Zenawi.

Experts in Ethiopian affairs say dialogue is now possible after 21 years of high-handed rule under the late Meles.

However, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will continue to resist secessionist groups in the country.

Besides initiating talks with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) — which Meles had declared a terrorist organisation — the new government has released two Swedish journalists, who had been jailed for 11 years for entering the country with armed groups from the Ogaden region. Some 1,900 inmates were also released.

In early September, Kenya facilitated a preliminary consultation between the government of Ethiopia and the ONLF leadership in Nairobi.

Kenya’s Minister for Internal Security, Yusuf Haji, who was nominated by President Mwai Kibaki to lead the talks, told The EastAfrican that Kenya took up the task after Ethiopia requested the country to mediate.

He said the first meeting was just to lay the groundwork for proper negotiations that will begin in October.

The move by the ONLF to meet at a negotiating table could contribute significantly to security in the region. This is crucial with concerns within the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) that a defeated Al Shabaab could take refuge among the Ogaden rebels.

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Earlier on, there were several failed attempts by some Western governments to initiate talks between ONLF and the government, but most of them were preliminary, procedural and indirect negotiations.

According to Eskindir Yirga, the press officer at the Ethiopian embassy in Nairobi, Communications Minister Bereket Simon described the current talks as “a very positive step,” and added that the government will pursue the negotiations up to their conclusion, and try to bring all concerned parties into the constitutional framework.

The question remains whether the current negotiations will end the war in eastern Ethiopia that has gone on since 1984. The British ceded Ogaden to Ethiopia in 1954, but the region has always felt part of their kin in Somalia.

In 2007, the Ethiopian government launched a full scale military operation in Ogaden after ONLF attacked a Chinese oil exploration site and killed 76 oil workers, including six Chinese.

But after three years of intense combat, in 2010 the government enticed a fraction of ONLF to sign a peace agreement. However, the core group continued fighting the Addis Ababa regime.

Dr Muhamed Ali, an expert on conflicts and politics of the Horn, said Ethiopia has realised that a functioning government in Somalia will be formed soon, and it is better to negotiate with Ogaden rebels to prevent the country being accused of interfering in the internal affairs of Somalia.

“The reason for Ethiopia’s many interventions in Somalia has been Ogaden, and since the collapse of Siad Barre government in 1991, Ethiopia has always maintained a military buffer zone inside Somalia. But there is no guarantee that a new Somalia government will be comfortable with the continued presence of Ethiopian forces on their territory,” said Dr Ali.

There is also pressure from the international community and the region on Ethiopia to solve the issue of Ogaden, so that it does not become the next base for Al-Shabaab once the militant group is routed from Somalia.

Experts in the Horn are concerned that the talks will face major challenges. One is that the two parties will have divergent views when it comes to substantive issues like secession.

Despite Section 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution allowing for self-determination, a secession by Ogaden will give momentum to other armed groups that are also fighting marginalisation.

Secondly, the talks could force the Ethiopian government to open the doors for greater democracy and respect for human rights, if the ONLF drops its secession ideology and gives national unity a chance.

The EastAfrican has been informed by a source in the Parliamentary Committee on Energy and Minerals that, not only has it not made a start on the project, but the company is also said to be interested in bidding for the newly developed bulk oil procurement scheme to supply the Tanzanian market with refined products from other refineries to which Noor Oil is affiliated.