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Somaliland: Wrong policy on the Ogaden

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By Guled Ismail

Monday, October 22, 2007

As a Somalilander I share the bitter 1980s memories of Ogadeni refugees whom we welcomed into our homes as brothers and sisters enthusiastically responding to Siyad Barre’s war cry of Darod unity against the `Iidoor enemies’ and forming the vanguard of the brutal militias indulging in sprees of raping and pillaging that would have impressed Genghiz Khan’s men on a bad mood day. Siyad Barre’s most trusted henchman and son-in-law General Morgan even devised a policy of ethnic cleansing the Isaqs from the whole of Somaliland and repopulating it with Ogaden refugees. Crazy as it may sound now this was seriously considered and even attempts at implementation `piloted’.     

The betrayal was deeply felt because only few years earlier these very `Iidoor enemies’ were dying in their droves fighting for Ogadenia’s `liberation’. No other Somali region or Somali clan group sacrificed as much for the Ogaden cause than Isaqs of Somaliland. Ethiopia knew it and it was Hargeisa, Gebilay and Berbera it bombed not Galkacyo, Baidoa or Belet Wein.

Moreover the Ogaden Liberation Front are no saints. They missed a historic chance to actively and peacefully participate in the politics of new Ethiopia after an idealistic Meles Zenawi and his TPLF took over Ethiopia and opened a new page for the peoples of this huge and diverse nation. If the Ogadeni leadership had any vision at all they would have organised politically and lobbied for the rights of their people within the dynamics of the new Ethiopia. They chose to hide in the bushes and take pot-shots at peasant Ethiopian soldiers instead. No one knows why they opted for this futile and completely unjustified stance.

Sadly it is too late now and in an ironic twist, their armed struggle may now be justified by the ferocity with which wounded Ethiopia reacted to ONLF’s provocations. Addis is now conducting massive counter-insurgency operations and hurting innocent civilians in the process. The ONLF which has a habit of deliberately torching food and medical supplies because it did not like the clans of the truck owners(at least 50 lorries have been torched by the ONLF in the last four years alone) all of a sudden realised the propaganda value of Ethiopia’s heavy-handedness. It started to lobby allcomers: Naïve US congressmen, ill-informed NGOs, left wing Western Journalists desperately looking for yet another angle to blame US policies around the world and airey-fairey human rights groups in trendy corners of London and New York outraged by an American ally behaving `badly’.

The lobbying is bearing fruit with scorn some of it deserved being heaped on Addis. But Ethiopia is determined to break the back of what it sees as a terrorist organisation and its backers even if this leads to loss of face and reputation around the world.

Part of this campaign has been tracking down and arresting ONLF’s financiers many of whom live in neighbouring Somaliland. The Hargeisa government, fully well knowing that there will be no major popular outcry from Somalilanders, has been routinely arresting and handing over `suspects’ to the Ethiopian authorities. On many occasions these suspects were either Somaliland nationals or long-term residents of the region with extended families residing there. They were denied all due process and often held by the CID or the Secret Police who then `disappeared’ them. A favourite ploy has been to `release’ them and then deny all knowledge of their whereabouts. This amateurish attempt at deception was typified by Somaliland’s Police Chief Colonel Dubbad Saqadhi addressing the latest incident which took place in September and Early October this year. He accepted the police held the men briefly but added “We released them..we don’t know what happened to them after that!”. The whole saga is shrouded in such a mystery that no one is even sure of the numbers involved in these clandestine arrests and disappearances. The latest batch is put at anything between 5 and 12 members but no one really knows.

There might not have been a popular outcry but many Somalilanders feel deep unease about the very concept of handing over a fellow Somali to a `foreigner’ even if the former is a foe and latter a friend. There is something deeply visceral and fundamental about the threads of race and ethnicity and culture that bind the Somali to one another, even though they are readily willing to kill each other.

Incomprehensible sentiments of nationalism aside, many Somalilanders are offended by the complete disregard of the rule of law and the bypassing of due process. Many say Ethiopia should not be allowed to push Somaliland around in return for the few aging guns it occasionally gives to the Somaliland army. Others go further and claim that the reason Ethiopia refuses to recognise Somaliland is because it wants to keep the place weak and under its thumb because a strong Somaliland may ask questions before handing over citizens for example.

This belief in Ethiopian perfidy is growing among Somaliland’s diaspora-based intelligentsia and could lead to fundamental shifts in peoples views of their relations with their giant neighbour.

The ONLF reacted in a typically shoot yourself in the foot manner: it captured 50 ordinary Somali nomads in Ethiopia because they belong to the same clan as the one in Somaliland!

Somaliland is a democratic government ruled through the constitution and bound by its laws and bylaws. It cannot simply ignore the rights of its citizens, residents or visitors at the behest of a foreign power no matter how friendly or vital that Power is to the national interest. A Nation that ignores its own laws does not deserve to call itself a nation. Somaliland must ask serious questions next time before handing over anyone to any country including big powerful neighbours who give you guns.    


Guled Ismail

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