ONLF and Ethiopia: A tug-of-war

Somali region, is the second largest in terms of land, and third most populous in Ethiopia. Throughout the history, the region and its inhabitants are the most downtrodden across the country, and Ethiopia treats the region in a subterranean manner. 

Somalis in the region are pastoralist, and is one of the poorest states with some of the lowest literacy rates and levels of services in the country. Lack of good infrastructure, weak administrative structures, shoestring budget, and misrepresentation from the federal level.  

The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) was established in 15 August, 1984 after her predecessor, Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) had absquatulated the struggle against Ethiopia when the Ogaden war in 1977-8 has ended. On 15 August, 2021, ONLF celebrates on her 37th anniversary. After 37 years of its establishment, ONLF’s demands haven’t yet responded by the Ethiopian government.

The struggle of ONLF was based on the right of Somali region for self-determination as long as ONLF and the Somali region haven’t participated the endorsement of Ethiopia’s current constitution which was adopted in 1994. Throughout the history, ONLF has faced enormous challenges both from the federal government and the Somali state administrations. Additionally, ONLF itself has committed avoidable mistakes. 

ONLF has won with landslide victory the first election in the Somali region in 1994, but the former regime in Ethiopia led by Meles Zenawi has nullified the result, and as a result ONLF rebelled to his regime and ran helter-skelter. Since then, ONLF had a bitter war against Meles’s government. Enormous people have been died, and colossal others have been displaced in the Somali region due to the conflicts. 

One of the painful incidents was, in 2007, when ONLF attacked and conquered in the oil field in the Somali region and killed over 70 people including Chinese citizens. As a result, Meles’s administration has undertaken Indiscriminate killings, rampant rapes, torture, castigation, extra-judicial imprisonment and detention, and all forms of human rights violation against the innocent Somali community in the Somali region. Since then, Meles’s callous administration tended brutality, police trigger-happy and impunity against ONLF’s members and the entire Somali region inhabitants. 

ONLF: Unilateral Ceasefire with Abiy’s administration

On April,2018 when the incumbent prime minister of Ethiopia Abiy has taken the leadership, he immediately reconciled with Eritrea and ended the two-decade animosity among the two-neighboring nations. Earlier, Eritrea has offered political asylum for the top echelons of ONLF, and trained its fighters. ONLF had strong and conspicuous presence in Eritrea, but when Abiy reconciled with Eritrea, ONLF has felt that, they can’t be safe anymore in Eritrea. As a result, ONLF has announced unilateral ceasefire in 12 August, 2018 after four months of Abiy’s premiership while Ethiopia hasn’t solved the concerns of ONLF. 

Since ONLF evoked unilateral peace with Ethiopia, enormous people were foretelling that, this was breakthrough. While, plenty of others were showcasing that, ONLF capitulated its long struggle and problem of yore with Ethiopia, and now they are encountering the forfeit. 

The other side of the coin, Abiy’s complacent and covering his blindside, political rookie paved the way to demeaning and crunching ONLF’s activities in Ethiopia, especially the Somali region. 

Additionally, the Somali region’s administration under the handpicked Mustafa, aka Cagjar ratcheted up pressure against the ONLF’s movement in the region. And now you can see how Ethiopia is applying on ONLF “The cattle class treatment”, and this propelled ONLF’s aspirants towards leading the Somali region peacefully. Ethiopia is doing all these deplorable and horrific things deliberately in order to discomfit and discombobulate ONLF’s political inveterate over their Somali region in Ethiopia. The ultimate goal of Ethiopia under Dr. Abiy leadership is, becoming ONLF a “cancel culture” within Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa region. Because, it’s not no-brain to survive and take an office Ethiopia’s dog eat dog policy at this time. While, some political commentators’ ad hominem is, ONLF should catch up this ragtag politics, demonstrate resilience and engage this political headwind so as to safe its people while flat-footed.

ONLF encounters double jeopardy

Since ONLF has offered further concessions to Ethiopia’s catatonic regime, the Addis-Ababa regime and the Somali state’s administration equally marginalized and demonized them. 

Abiy’s rule has bewildered the whole country, but ONLF and other political stakeholders including OLF, OFC have confronted “Invite the system and marginalize them” tactic, which is a denial of their political rights, especially the latest contentious election in Ethiopia where all the prominent opposition figures such as Jawar were behind bars. 

The flip side, the administration in the Somali region equally conspired and offered ONLF with cruel reception. Moreover, Mustafa Omar, aka Cagjar has engaged smear campaign against ONLF, and created a dichotomy among them. 

The current conflict

Since Ethiopia engaged the vicious war against Tigray in November last year, the country is becoming more fragile and more susceptible to fragmentation. Abiy’s Trojan horse agenda was obliterating TPLF, and becoming the 7th King of Ethiopia, the then Abyssinia. In hindsight, that temerity taken by Abiy was the most immature decision that a leader in this contemporary era can take. Because, TPLF was the strongest party within the coalition EPRDF which was running the country closely three-decades. TPLF has a deep-rooted clout in the intelligence and the military as well.

After Abiy has miscalculated and underestimated his nemesis, the coalition forces including Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) dominated by Amhara and Eritrean troops confronted an egregious defeat from the battle. On June this year, ENDF and Eritrean forces withdrew the Mekelle, and Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) have re-taken the control of Mekelle. Since then, Abiy has called a unilateral ceasefire, but TPLF has rejected. Yet, the Addis-Ababa administration is mobilizing regional troops, and already several regions sent troops including Amhara and Somali region. It was historical mistake committed by Cagjar’s administration to sending Somali forces into the battle as a “Cannon-fodder”. 

The battle in Ethiopia isn’t national defense forces vs Tigray forces, no way Jose. The battle is a communal-violence and civil war. There are long-standing competing ideologies which are “Ethnocentrism” believes by Amhara, and “Cultural Relativism” believe by the rest. 


Ethiopia is on the verge to tear apart and engage fratricidal civil war. If the on-going conflict persists, fragmentation is imminent. I suggest to the political organizations in the Somali region including ONLF, Somali State administration and others to: –

  1. Keep eagle’s eye on the current conflict in Ethiopia;
  2. Avoid the adversarial politics; smear campaigns; weasel words; vituperative language and the cantankerous behaviors which can conflagrate the situation;
  3. Bowdlerize the sensitive issues which can create dichotomy among you;
  4. The Addis administration leads by Abiy is disappearing and weakening, so engage parsing and pondering on the situation.

I wonder if you can hear and heed me!

Anwar Abdifatah Bashir. Lecturer @ Somali National University, and Horn of Africa Affairs Analyst.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect’s editorial stance.

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