14 June, 2008

Ethiopia Accused

The Guardian reports that Ethiopia has been accused of committing vile war crimes in an attempt to quell an insurgency in the Ogaden regime in the east of the country. Crimes against humanity including murder, mass rape, and torture have reportedly been used by the Ethiopian authorities, who are trying to crush an insurgency by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

Unlike the rest of Ethiopia, the Ogaden is inhabited by ethnic Somalis, who may feel more kinship with their fellow Somalis in Somalia or Somaliland than with the inhabitants of Ethiopia's central highlands. My understanding is that the territory was acquired by the Ethiopian state during the late 19th century Scramble for Africa. Emperor Menelik II successfully played the European powers off against each other, defeating an Italian invasion force with arms supplied by the French; the Italians gave the Ogaden to Menelik so that he would not press on and invade their coastal colony of Eritrea.

More recently, the Ogaden has seen conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia, with the latter trying unsuccessfully to wrest it from Ethiopia in a war in the late 1970s. It is possible now that tensions in the Ogaden are linked to Ethiopia's current occupation of Somalia, with the ONLF possibly receiving aid from or acting in sympathy with the Somali opponents of Ethiopia. Another potential source of support for the ONLF is Eritrea, with whom Ethiopia fought a border war in the 1990s. Eritrea has been linked to the Islamist Somalis against whom Ethiopia is fighting, and also with the mysterious Oromo Liberation Front, who have set off a number of bombs in Addis Ababa recently.

Whatever the source of the Ogaden insurgency, the Ethiopian state seems determined to crush it in the most draconian fashion possible. Aside from concerns about human rights violations, the fear must be that this kind of extreme response may crush the rebels in the short term but at the cost of so undermining the Ethiopian state's legitimacy that the Ogaden people increasingly embrace separatism. The Derg regime that preceded the current one was ultimately destroyed by regional insurgencies; the same could be the fate of the current leadership, if they do not play their cards carefully.

One area in which the ruling party in Ethiopia have played their cards well is the arena of international relations. In these troubled times, it always pays to cast yourself as an enemy of Islamist terrorism, and that is just what the Ethiopian government has done. The Islamic Courts movement in Somalia against which Ethiopia is fighting is certainly Islamist, but their relationship to international Islamist terrorism is tenuous to non-existent. Nevertheless, the USA seems to have adopted Ethiopia as its new friend in the region, which may be why stories of atrocities committed in the Ogaden are not receiving that much coverage.

In the interests of fairness, I should mention that the Ogaden National Liberation Front also stand accused of human rights abuses. In saying that the Ethiopian state appears to have committed ghastly crimes against the Ogaden people, I am in no sense saying that the ONLF are a fine bunch of fellows.

If you want to read my sketchy background notes on Ethiopia, click here: Ethiopia background

Here is an article in the Guardian about Ethiopian human rights abuses in the Ogaden: Ethiopia accused of war crimes to quell insurgency

And here is the Human Rights Watch report: Collective Punishment: War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity in the Ogaden area of Ethiopia’s Somali Region

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