Shinn: I doubt Ethiopia accepts ‘Ogaden’ secession

Former US Ambassador David Shinn’s interview with OgadenPress on issues pertaining to the Ethiopian Somali region (often misleadingly refereed to as Ogaden).


Q: You were the US ambassador to Ethiopia from 1996-1999. What did you know of the conflict between the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Ethiopian Federal government?

A: During the period 1996-1999, there was less publicity about the ONLF than has been the case over the past decade. While I met regularly with Somalis who both supported and questioned the policies of the Ethiopian government, the Ogaden was not a high priority issue for me especially after the outbreak in 1998 of the war with Eritrea. I was certainly aware of the conflict in the Ogaden and travelled to four of the nine zones in Somali Region. I tried to visit the other five zones by road but was denied permission to go there by the government, presumably for security reasons. Since leaving my service in the US government, I have met with ONLF leaders in Washington on several occasions.

Q: What is the current US position on the Ogaden conflict?

A: I can no longer speak for the US government, but I suspect Washington would support any renewed peace talks between the government of Ethiopia and the ONLF. It seems that the death of Meles Zenawi in August 2012 ended what appeared to be promising talks. It is important that this initiative resume. In any event, it is safe to assume that the US would oppose any violent solution to the Ogaden conflict.

Q: As you know, there were unsuccessful peace negotiations between the ONLF and Ethiopia in Kenya last year. The International Crisis Group recently reported that both sides will resume negotiations. Do you think the US will play a role?

A: As I suggested, I believe the US will be supportive of renewed peace talks. The key actors are, however, the government of Ethiopia, the ONLF and the government of Kenya as intermediary. Any involvement by the US or any other country is dependent on the wishes of these three parties.

Q: Human rights groups accuse the Somali regional para-military police of killing civilians and many Ogadenis have fled the region as refugees. What is the US position on these issues?

A: The US has a long record of condemning human rights abuses in Ethiopia and countries around the world. For example, the 2012 US State Department human rights report on Ethiopia stated that “during the year, scattered fighting continued between government forces, primarily regional government-backed militia, and residual elements of the ONLF. Also clashes between ethnic groups during the year resulted in 100 to 150 deaths.” The report added: “On February 12, members of the Somali Region Special Police allegedly opened fire on a local assembly in the Ogaden area of the Somali Region, killing 20 persons. The villagers reportedly were gathered to discuss the murder of a village elder the previous day. Many others were detained during the same incident.” Finally, the State Department report said “in 2010 the UN Committee Against Torture reported it was ‘deeply concerned’ about ‘numerous, ongoing, and consistent allegations’ concerning ‘the routine use of torture’ by police, prison officers, and other members of the security forces—including the military—against political dissidents and opposition party members, students, alleged terrorists, and alleged supporters of violent separatist groups like the ONLF and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).” The US does pay attention to this issue but the abuses must be carefully documented.

Q: What do you suggest the Ethiopian government and ONLF do to achieve a political solution in the Ogaden? The ONLF was fighting for independence of the Ogaden region. Do you think Ethiopia will accept by referendum either self-determination or powerful regional autonomy?

A: The first step is to resume the peace talks. While I doubt that the Ethiopian government is prepared to accept independence or self-determination for the Ogaden, I assume that greater regional autonomy is on the negotiating table.

Q: Many Ogaden people believe that US aid to Ethiopia is used for political repression and civilian killing. This leads to a bad image of US policy in the region. What would you advise the US and the people of the Ogaden to do?

A: I would advise the US to support peace talks between the government of Ethiopia and the ONLF. I would advise the people of the Ogaden to get the facts about US aid to Ethiopia. The overwhelming majority of US aid to Ethiopia consists of humanitarian food aid and funds to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB. Nearly all of the rest is used to support capacity building in the health and education sectors. This aid does not lend itself to support of political repression or killing of civilians. Only a tiny percentage of US aid falls in the category of military or counterterrorism assistance and it is monitored carefully.

Q: Does the US fear Somali Islamist influence in the Ogaden region?

A: I don’t believe the US fears Islamist influence in the Ogaden. It was once concerned about occasional terrorist activity conducted by al-Ittihad al-Islami and would be concerned if al-Shabaab in Somalia tried to carry out terrorist attacks in the Ogaden. I believe the US generally opposes the use of violence in the Ogaden, including the death of nine Chinese nationals in 2007 when an ONLF commando unit attacked a Chinese-run oil exploration site in Obole.


Source: Amb. David Shinn’s blog – Aug. 14, 2013.

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