Kenyan facilitation team

Image: Kenyan facilitation team and ONLF

Negotiating peace in the Somali region

For more than two decades, the ONLF has been fighting for self-determination for Somalis in the Ogaden region. The Somali Regional State, in the East of the country, was one of the self-governing autonomous states, created by Ethiopia’s ruling party in 1991 as part of efforts to address the country’s historical and geographical inequalities. 

The ONLF formed as a secular, nationalist group in 1984, with the aim of self-determination for Somalis in the Ogaden region. They quickly established a grassroots network and in the absence of other organised political and military groups in the region, won the elections for the first SRS regional assembly in 1992. Two years later they demanded a vote for secession - it was a step too far for the rulers in Addis Ababa. The federal state removed the ONLF-led SRS executive and arrested and killed ONLF leaders - the group turned to armed insurgency. 

The conflict has left the Somali region one of Ethiopia’s poorest states – on average, nearly two million people are dependent on food aid each year.  Peace talks between the ONLF and the Government of Ethiopia began in 2012, led by a facilitation team from the Kenyan government. Working for international NGO, Conciliation Resources, I’ve been supporting these talks since 2012, providing technical advice to the Kenya team and the conflict parties. They’ve agreed a framework for the talks, and agenda issues covering political and security reform, human rights and wealth sharing. However, the process has been slow, was negatively impacted by post-Meles transitional politics and lacked political and diplomatic support from the international community. 

But over the past two months, significant changes have taken place in the SRS, that have sparked a real belief that peace in the region could be possible. The ONLF has been removed from the Government of Ethiopia’s list of terrorist organisations, they’ve announced a unilateral ceasefire, and the Somali Regional President, Abdi Iley, who oversaw a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in the region, has been replaced. Could these events provide new impetus for the region’s flagging peace talks?

Talking to terrorists?

A significant barrier to this peace process has been that the ONLF were, until July, a proscribed group – Ethiopia added them to their list of designated terrorist organisations in 2009. As well as making it illegal to be a member of the ONLF, proscription also banned the provision of skills, expertise or advice to the organisation. 

In conflicts around the globe, proscription remains a key obstacle to peace – the threat of prosecution can prevent peacebuilding organisations and local communities from involving armed groups in peace initiatives.

Although proscription did not stop the ONLF and Government of Ethiopia from engaging in peace talks, it restricted the local and diaspora community, and international organisations from providing support. My own travel within Ethiopia was restricted, and peacebuilding organisations, such as Conciliation Resources, risked reputational, political and legal damage, simply by providing peacebuilding advice to the ONLF. 

The wide remit of the anti-terrorism legislation was used to target those who had few or no links to the ONLF – thousands were sent to the notorious Jail Ogaden. Proscription provided legal grounds for arbitrary arrests, confiscation of lands and property, and human rights abuses.   

In July, new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made the surprise announcement that the ONLF would be removed from the country’s list of proscribed groups. His Chief of Staff announced on Twitter that the decision “will encourage groups to use peaceful political discourse to achieve political ends.”

This de-listing is already having a positive impact on the prospects for peace in the region. It paves the way for the ONLF to engage in legitimate political activities inside the country, and some ONLF leaders have already returned to the country.  

But high-level negotiations alone won’t bring about a permanent peace. Experiences from other peace processes, for example in Colombia and Northern Ireland, show just how important it is to involve a wide spectrum of society in multiple ways and beyond the negotiating table, in order to broaden the prospects for a lasting peace. The de-listing addresses some of the challenges of wider community engagement in the peace and dialogue process. In the short-term, it will allow those people most affected by the conflict to finally express their views without fear, and in the long-term it may mean the return of thousands of Ogaden diaspora and refugees to the region. 

Time for change 

The de-listing has been part of a series of legal, security and economic reforms initiated by Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, who is showing commitment and passion for genuine dialogue and reconciliation in Ethiopia. His bold decisions, including the de-listing and the release of political prisoners, address some of the substantive agenda issues in the Nairobi peace talks. 

August saw another significant turning point in the Somali region, with the removal of the longest serving Somali Regional President, Abdi Mohamud Omar (aka Abdi Iley) – a staunch opponent of the peace process between the ONLF and the government. He was removed from power following intervention from the Federal government, and has since been replaced by Mustafe Muhumed Omer, an exiled ex-SRS official who has been working with the UN’s Office for Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Somalia and is a staunch critic of Abdi Iley. Omer will be acting President until the 2020 elections.

There are high hopes that this change in leadership will have a positive impact on the peace process.  Within the Somali Regional State, a pervasive fear of Abdi Iley and his oppressive security apparatus, prevented local people – those directly affected by the conflict – from engaging with efforts to discuss and find peaceful solutions to the conflict. In the absence of “space” inside the region, Conciliation Resources supported diaspora and refugee communities to self-organise and share ideas on the peace and dialogue process in the region. However, we had to be discreet in our support as many community members were fearful of being accused of colluding with the ONLF and the resulting punishment against family members and relatives left in the region.

Now, there are signs that things could change. The new acting President, is one of a number of ex-Somali regional government officials and intellectuals that Conciliation Resources has worked with in the past, to share ideas about peace in the Somali region. He has already met with the ONLF and agreed to support the group’s return to the region and engagement in legitimate political activities – he also stated his support for resumption of formal peace talks between the government of Ethiopia and the ONLF. 

What’s next for peace?

The last few months have seen significant, and unexpected, changes in the political landscape of the Somali region – now is the time for those seeking peace to capitalise on these developments. 

First, formal negotiations between the government and the ONLF need to be re-started immediately. As a sign of commitment to a negotiated political settlement, the ONLF needs to suspend its military activities indefinitely and the government has to allow the group full access to the region for legitimate political activities. Second, the ONLF and the Somali regional government would have to continue their current discussions on how to manage their relations and engagement in the region, including a transitional arrangement to oversee immediate political and security reforms in the region, ahead of the 2020 elections.  

Finally, these changes have opened up a range of new possibilities for engagement and inclusion in building peace. I believe what is needed now is a Somali-led and Somali-owned all-inclusive Somali dialogue and reconciliation process, bringing together the SRS government, ONLF and various political and social groups, and backed by the federal government. The ONLF insurgency is only one element of the conflict and insecurity facing the Somali region - Issues of federal-state relations, cross-border conflicts between states and ethnic groups, land and natural resource ownership and self-determination, all continue to cause tensions in the region.  An all-inclusive dialogue could be an important arena to discuss how to address the deep-rooted and multi-layered conflicts in the region – and now is the time to talk. 

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