Crowd at ONLF conference April 2019

From war to peace in the Ogaden

On October 21 2018, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Government of Ethiopia signed a historic peace deal. The ONLF had been waging an armed insurgency in the Somali Regional State since 1994. It’s a conflict that threatened the stability, security and development prospects of Ethiopia.

The Asmara deal was the culmination of six years of negotiations, facilitated by the Government of Kenya and supported by Conciliation Resources. The appointment of the new Ethiopian Prime Minsiter Abiy Ahmed Ali, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, proved to be a pivotal moment in the progress of the peace process. His bold political, economic and social reforms, including the release of thousands of political prisoners, addressed some of the substantive agenda issues in the peace talks, and paved the way for exiled ONLF leaders to return to the country in December 2018.

The transition to politics

Since the signing of the peace deal, the ONLF has begun its transition from an armed group to a political party, taking inspiration from learning visits to Northern Ireland and the Basque country. 

After officially announcing their transition to politics in April 2019, the ONLF have now filed their registration papers with the National Electoral Board and will run in the planned 2020 elections. The group's leaders will have to navigate the Ethiopian dual citizenship law that bars holders of foreign passports from becoming party or state officials. The law is not a problem just for the ONLF, but also affects other former armed groups in Ethiopia. It’s time for the federal government to ensure that this law is liberally interpreted or set aside to help the group and its current leaders fully transition into politics. The uncertainly around the 2020 elections also needs to be clarified and opposition parties such as the ONLF be consulted on any postponement and on a future roadmap for elections. 

Another major milestone in the implementation of the peace deal came in June when the regional President Mustafe Omer officially launched a regional-level Joint Committee of the Somali Regional Government and the ONLF. The creation of the committee is one of the four pillars of the Asmara peace deal, and aims to provide a mechanism for taking forward key issues in the talks and addressing the root causes of the armed conflict. As the region moves to a new phase in the peace and transition process, the Joint Committee also serves as a common platform for the two main political actors in the region to build confidence and consensus on political transitional tasks. Efforts are ongoing to establish a federal level joint committee to complement the regional committee and address federal-ONLF dynamics of the conflict and transition. Conciliation Resources is planning to take members of the regional joint committee to the Philippines later this year to learn from the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front on their transition from war to peace. 

As a result of these efforts, the Somali Regional State is currently one of the most peaceful states in Ethiopia. 

Dealing with the past and planning for the future

Despite the peace deal and the reforms that have already taken place, there are still huge challenges ahead for the Somali Regional State, particularly dealing with the legacies of the conflict and providing rehabilitation and reintegration support for victims and former combatants.

The ONLF has demobilised its fighters, some of whom are now being reintegrated into security institutions. This pragmatic move and the swift support from the regional government, helped avert the violent armed confrontations witnessed in other parts of Ethiopia, such as western Oromia. However, more needs to be done to help demobilised fighters successfully return to civilian life. 

Beyond the ONLF ex-combatants, there’s an urgent need to ensure that civilian victims and survivors of the conflict see the benefits of the peace deal, in part to avoid a potential return to armed conflict. Over the coming months, we’ll be working with the regional government to put in place arrangements for documenting the needs and priorities of victims and ensure these are fed into a federal-level process. 

At the national level, the federal government has appointed a reconciliation commission to lead reconciliation processes across the country. It’s a positive move, but some within the region are unhappy that only one Somali has been appointed to the commission. They see this as reinforcing underlying grievances about the marginalisation and under-representation of Somalis in the Ethiopian political system – one of the root causes of the conflict. This year, we took the federal reconciliation commission to Kenya to learn from the truth, justice and reconciliation commissions in Kenya and South Africa and the Somali regional administration is keen to establish a region-specific mechanism for dealing with the past. 

For this peace to be sustainable, the transition process has to include the whole cross-section of Somali society and beyond. The ONLF insurgency is only one element of the conflict and insecurity facing the Somali region. Issues of federal-state relations, cross-border conflicts with Oromo and Afar, land and natural resource ownership and inter-clan conflicts, all continue to cause tensions in the region. There is need for a multiple path to peace approach which bring together different political parties, civil society organisations, elders, religious leaders, diaspora, young people, women and men in a wider regional peace and reconciliation process.   

For some, understandably, the implementation of the peace deal and dealing with the legacies of conflict is frustratingly slow. But building peace takes time – and what gives me hope for the future of this peace deal and of this region is the real passion, pragmatism and commitment from all parties to work together on this journey from war to peace.