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Ethiopian Government in Theory and Practice: Handling Ogaden and ONLF
Eremias Woldemikael

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Recently Prime Minister Meles Zenawi gave two of his most interesting, calming, and stimulating interviews that he is known for. One of them was to his party’s Tigrinya language Radio station, Dimtsi Weyane, and the other one was to Time magazine. The Tigrinya interview was about relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia-and the questions were asked by the Tigrinya-listening audience of Eritrea and Tigray. The Time interview included wide variety of issues such as Somalia, Human rights, Ogaden, his own personal thoughts and plans for the future etc. Generally, I am an admirer of the prime minister, but I believe one must always critically analyze the records of especially those one likes. Now, let us examine Meles Zenawi’s government based on these interviews and his policies in theory and practice, and what that means to the current problems in Ogaden.

When Meles Zenawi was asked about the treatment of Eritreans in Ethiopia by the Tigrinya audience, he said, referring to the treatment of Eritreans during the Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998, “We had decided to separate and expel only those who were Security risk. This decision however, since it was implemented in an atmosphere of rage, that in its Implementation, it had many faults needs no argument.”[My own translation.] As an Eritrean, his comment on this issue gave me a special pleasure, but I will write about that on another article. For now, I will focus on the performance of his government Policies on paper and their Implementation. This was not the only time Meles’ government showed discrepancies between policy and Implementation.

When either Meles or Bereket Simon was asked about why his party (EPRDF) had lost the Addis Ababa and other urban votes in 2005, his answer was that EPRDF had focused more on the rural areas, but the government had great policy for the urban areas as well. It just failed to reach the voters on Implementation.

Currently, the Media and Judicial laws of the country are probably the most confusing compared to other aspiring democracies. With the exception of few financial newspapers and the Ethiopian Reporter, most of the political newspapers that sprung up in the 14 years that preceded the elections of 2005 have been either closed and or their editors heavily and arbitrarily fined, or jailed . The limits and boundaries of freedom of the press are not clearly defined. The formula by which the Reporter has managed to remain without being closed is miraculous. Often, the paper is accused of being supporter of the government, although its news and editorial pages are often critical of the government. The balance it has struck between being truthful in criticizing the government and remaining in service without incurring retaliatory punishment by the government is despite the ambiguity and confusion of the press laws. If asked about this, I presume Mr. Zenawi would probably say that there is a great media law, but it fails on Implementation.

After the first round of election violence in 2005, it was clear that the Ethiopian security forces were under-trained and under-equipped to handle violent riots. I can imagine if the Prime Minister were asked about the proportionality and appropriateness of the use of force and the excessive death of 193 civilians and 6 Policemen, he would probably say that the government through the ministries of the interior and defense had good policy on paper, but in [you guessed it] Implementation, the policy fell short. For the record, Meles believes that although the deaths of the high number of civilians were regrettable, the force was proportional and the security forces acted appropriately. Unfortunately, historians will have to make that judgment some day.

Based on these discrepancies between official policies on paper and the implementation of such policies, one would be justified if he or she is hesitant about the answers of the Prime Minister to Time Magazine about the current conditions in the Somali (Ogaden) region. When time asked, “There are specific allegations that there have been human rights abuses in the Ogaden region. How do you answer these?” Meles replied, “We are supposed to have and accused of” numerous human rights abuse. "Nobody has come up with a shred of evidence. The reason is very simple. We know how insurgencies succeed and how they fail. And we have experience of counter-insurgency, from when we were on the receiving end. The most stupid mistake a counter-insurgency operation can make is alienating the population. If you alienate the population, you're finished. We are not going to make that mistake.”

It is true that Meles is smart and long before his answer to Time magazine; I suspected he would remember his gorilla-fighting days and the mistakes of the Derg regime. His reply surely does seem very reassuring to those of us who are interested in maintaining Ethiopia as a hopeful country on track to being an example to the horn region and the larger African continent. His statement would undoubtedly be convincing if the composition of the Ethiopian Military was completely of only the former Tigrayan (TPLF) fighters.

However, contrary to criticisms about the lack of diversity in the Ethiopian Defense Forces, the Ethiopian Military has been getting more diversified in its enlisted personnel. The Officer Corps probably still remains largely composed of the experienced and battle-hardened former TPLF fighters, but its enlisted ranks are composed by the large number of the country’s ethnic groups. This was made evident by a comment of an Addis Ababa girl who said that the Security forces that were in Addis Ababa during the 2005 riots were, “very dark and did not speak Amharic or Tigrinya.” One can reasonably conclude that these soldiers were probably of Gambella or Benishangul Gumuz origin.

Given that diversity, can the prime minister be confident that his or his Officers’ orders will be strictly followed by those soldiers who had very little gorilla-warfare experience?

In Ogaden, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) has been waging brilliant propaganda warfare. It has managed to gain the sympathy of influential Newspapers, such as the New York Times and Washington Post; and Aid Agencies such as, Doctors without Borders or Medicins Sans Frontieres and the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC). In the Propaganda Warfare, ONLF has been beating the Meles Government. They have turned the reality of their terrorist bombing and subsequent murder of 75 Chinese and Ethiopian civilians into a newspaper headline that may be titled, “Victimizing Operation of the Ethiopian Government”. The Somali regional government’s blunder has not helped either. The regional government has made repeated mistakes in alienating foreign reporters and well respected aid agencies. The subsequent cry of the alienated aid agencies and ONLF propaganda has triggered the sending of United Nations assessment team to the region. The multi-agency UN team has recommended an Independent body should be formed to investigate allegations of human rights abuse.

Now, the Federal government must ensure and demonstrate the lessons of Gorilla warfare and policy of “Non-antagonizing” civilians are Implemented on the ground by its defense forces. The government must also do its utmost to focus attention to the murderous and terrorist nature of the ONLF organization and question its believability and credibility in the arena of justice and ethical use of force. Meles must not ignore the recommendation of the UN team. The Ethiopian government must investigate its own personnel in order to assure its own citizens and supporters that it is accountable. If there are indeed soldiers who have committed attrocities as media reports have indicated, then they must be punished swiftly.


Source: American Chronicle, Oct 18, 2007


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