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Who does the ONLF Represent- A Response

By Mohsin Mahad
Wednesday, December 05, 2007


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In his seven-pages article in Awdalnews, entitled: “Who does the ONLF Represent?,” Ismail Ahmed considers the best way to approach the question he raised in the title of his article is to take his readers on an awareness creating virtual “sightseeing” trip around the Ogaden territory. His intention is that at the end of trip, his readers would know the answer as to who the ONLF represent. Thus, he takes his readers on a train journey from Djibouti, stopping at various places on its way to Dire Dawa, its final destination. This is reminiscent of the fabled Orient Express that used to ply between London and Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire, when well-off adventure-loving European travellers would set off for exotic distant places.


As the train arrives at Aware Afdam, halfway between Djibouti and Dire Dawa, Ismail draws the attention of his readers to sights and sounds that he assumes are of interest to his presumably Somali readers. Thus, he points to the sights of “charming young Somali girls selling fresh camel milk in leather containers” or the “Somali nomads men displaying traditional handicrafts” or “men with white togas and young men in their traditional dresses”; and last but not least the “traditional Somali dagger mounted on the hip known as Golxob”, not forgetting to warn his readers “never to try to tamper with Somali daggers” as if his Somalis readers were unfamiliar with these sights. At this early stage in his article, one wonders who is Ismail talking to on this “sightseeing trip” when he makes such bizarre observations? Surely not Somalis but perhaps uninformed “Musungis” (whites) tourists as they are known in Swahili in East Africa coming to the territory as first time  


After taking his readers to Dire dawa, Alamayo, Harar, Babile, and Jigjiga, Ismail proposes to “wrap up” the “sightseeing tour” in what he calls “this vast territory inhabited by majority of non-Ogaden” and selects the village of Gaashaamo as a fitting finale to the guided tour. This small village is located in a camel territory typical of the rest of the Ogaden lowlands. And unless there is something especial about the camels in Gaashaamo, which is not the case, this dusty and desolate place has no tourist attractions for Somalis or for “Musungis”. Perhaps there is more to Gaashaamo than meets the eye and that surprise is what Ismail had in mind in choosing Gaashaamo.


The choice of Gaashaamo as part of his “sightseeing trip” provides a revelation that unmasks Ismail’s true colours and puts his wild diatribe against the ONLF in a different light than he intended. Gaashaamo, it seems, is Ismail’s home/clan area. But more importantly, Ismail wants to present it as a show case that vindicates, in his view, the 100 years of Ethiopian colonisation in the Ogaden . He does this by trumpeting the “benefits” Ethiopia’s rule has brought to this Gaashaamo district- an achievement which he considers merits publicity and perhaps gratitude. So it comes as an anti-climax when this whole publicity is about Gaashaamo’s boarding school. Far from being something to show off as a success story, a derisory token aid amounting to one solitary school after all these 100 years, and which is typical of the rest of the territory, is on the contrary a damning indictment of Ethiopia’s colonisation of the Ogaden. And it is also tantamount to betrayal for any Somali to whitewash Ethiopia’s crimes against the Ogadeens or Somalis any where in their God-given territories.


It is clear from Ismail selection of places in his “sightseeing tour” that his main purpose is to contrast the progress and prosperity that he claims prevail in Gaashaamo and other non-Ogadeen areas and the poverty that he alleges is pervasive in the exclusively Ogadeen inhabited areas. To do this, and following his visit to Gaashaamo, he takes his readers to a village called Fiiq. What strikes the reader immediately on “arrival” at Fiiq is how Ismail’s earlier bubbling and buoyant mood on the trip up to Gaashaamo has suddenly fizzled out as he gets worked up into venomous tirades against the Ogadeens.

Fiiq is portrayed, perhaps with his Gaashaamo in mind, as a “dilapidating poor town that rightly belongs to the Ogaden clan” and as an “inhospitable hostile place for other Somalis … in contrast with other non-Ogaden cities where everybody feels at home”.


In contrast to the eye-catching, “adorable” sights elsewhere in the “sightseeing tour”, here in Fiiq, Ismail is eager to look for manifestations of poverty for which the Ogadeens and their support for the ONLF are to be blamed and not Ethiopia. Thus, he points to “begging … half-naked children” or mothers carrying their “emancipated babies” as if these sights were unseen or unheard of in other parts in the Ogaden region, or the rest of Ethiopia or Somalia itself (including Somaliland, his beloved renegade region).


Once his fleeting visit to Fiiq ends, Ismail continues to lashes out his hate-ridden diatribe against the Ogadeens and the ONLF. What Fiiq has done to Ismail, quite clearly, was to stir and bring to the surface his already festering anti-Ogadeen xenophobia. As such, his remarks and assertions in his article are simply reflecting this strident antipathy. He is therefore disqualified as someone who can objectively and dispassionately assess matters pertaining to the Ogadeen people, their territory and the ONLF.


The whole purpose why Ismail concocted this fantasy trip and his desire to contrast the “prosperous” non-Ogadeens and the “poverty-stricken” Ogadeens is to blame them for their plight and to suggest that they could also enjoy similar bounties from the Ethiopians, like Gaashaamo’s boarding school, if only they would give up the armed struggle and submit to what he sees as Ethiopia’s benevolent colonisation. This reasoning recalls the old clarion call by European colonisers, or the racist rulers of South Africa and Rhodesia, that their loyal and peaceful Africans were better fed and better off than their compatriots who chose the armed struggle against oppressive, de-humanising white rule. In other words, the quest for freedom, even if painful, should be sacrificed in favour of basic survival.


At least, one could expect such condescending sentiments from die-hard European colonialists and their settlers in Africa but it is another thing when it comes from a Somali, albeit a secessionist (or Somalidiid), who has no qualms to act as devil’s advocate for Ethiopia. His mind-set reflects not so much his pro-Ethiopian stance, but rather his xenophobia towards the Ogadeens, the wider Darood clan and to a lesser degree all other Somali clans- his own Isaaq clan of course exempted. Ethiopia is held in good favour not for what it does directly for his Somalilnad but in its capacity as the arch enemy of Somali unity, and as the only country doing everything possible to thwart the revival of a strong Somali government- a prospect which he believes can only benefit Somaliland and its recognition whether intended or not. Following the old adage that the enemy of ones enemy is ones friend may sound appealing on the face of it, but it is short-sighted and self-defeating.


In following Ismail’s fantasy trip, the reader would be forgiven in believing that this organised trip had little to do with the subject matter of his article but was perhaps a tourist promotion publicity aimed at luring Western tourists to the territory for whom the breath-taking panorama of the country side, and the sights of charming natives in their traditional setting would have a special appeal. Ismail is consciously aware that his readers are mainly Somalis and yet assumes unbelievably that they are ignorant of the territory and by implication the ONLF and its support base. He therefore believes that the best way to inform them is to take them on a virtual “sightseeing trip” to places he thinks they don’t know but of course they do know as much as he does. A man who perceives his readers in this strange way, as if they are not Somalis, when indeed they are Somalis from the same country and speaking the same language, can hardly be taken seriously


If Ismail’s intention was to familiarise his readers with the salient tourist spots in the territory, his trip was pointless since they already know about these places. And if his objective was to inform them on the ONLF and its support base, the subject matter of his article, he has once again dismally failed for he hardly touched on this subject.

The question Ismail raises as to who the ONLF represents remains unanswered. Instead, what we get instead is a change of subject in which Ismail trots out simplistic bland observations highlighting the apparent differences in development and prosperity that exist between what he calls peaceful areas and those where the ONLF holds sway. In his view, the lesson for the lagging Ogadeen clan is that they should jettison the ONLF if they value economic betterment.


In other words, the ONLF is to be judged not so much on the strength or otherwise of its support base but on hard economic considerations and how far the Ogadeens could be better off without the ONLF. This is clearly a different subject than the one Ismail raised in the title of his article. And if economic considerations are Ismail’s undeclared preference, as it seems, he should have been clear from outset in which case he should have spared us his silly shallow “sightseeing” story. What in this case was required of him was to come up with a serious presentation of the territory’s overall human development situation and show convincingly to what extent the ONLF liberation activities had adversely impacted on the development of their clan areas.


Even if in this regard Ismail was to succeed to make a good case against the ONLF on the economic front, that by itself does not mean that the Organisation would have lost its raison d’etre for it will ultimately be judged on its achievement on the political front and whether it freed its people from Ethiopia’s colonial shackles. The indisputable suffering of the Ogadeen in the meantime will be seen as the necessary sacrifice for that higher priceless goal: freedom and independence from one of the worst types of colonisation – a primitive, merciless African one.


The fact that the Ogadeens are alone in this struggle, with other Somali clans in the territory either hostile to the liberation struggle as Ismail clan is, or simply sitting on the fence, or else watching passively from the sidelines, in no way detracts anything from the justice of their cause nor the legitimacy of the ONLF as a liberation organisation fighting on behalf of ALL the people in the Ogaden.


It has been the same in all other countries where liberation movements had to contend not only with the forces of the colonisers but also their indigenous collaborators and large sections of the populations not committed to the struggle. So is the case in the Ogaden. When freedom is won in the Ogaden, other Somali clans in the territory will not hesitate to make their claim for their share of the newly won freedom. Needless to say, there are free riders in the political struggle when those who paid the price for independence and those who chose otherwise will come to share that freedom equally when it is attained. Isamil is currently betting on the Ethiopians defeating the ONLF. But I can see him tomorrow in a liberated independent Ogaden claiming to have been a Mujaahid all along no less so than ONLF.


Mohsin Mahad

Email: [email protected]

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