The June 18 New York Times features a front-page above-the-fold story by Jeffrey Gettleman, “In Ethiopian Desert, Fear and Cries of Army Brutality”—the first significant account in the “newspaper of record” of the forgotten war on the Ogaden people (which apppears proudly on the Ogaden Online website). The lead photo features dread-locked rifle-toting guerillas of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), with whom Gettleman trudged across the desert, in an area closed to outsiders by Ethiopian government decree. He visited war-ravaged villages where residents told him account after harrowing account of government troops burning homes, killing and abducting residents, and engaging in wholesale rape and torture with impunity.
Georgette Gagnon, deputy director for the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, says: “What the Ethiopian security forces are doing may amount to crimes against humanity.” Human Rights Watch issued a report in 2005 documenting a atrocities by government troops against members of the Anuak tribe in western Ethiopia. After the report came out, the researcher who wrote it was banned by the Ethiopian government from returning to the country. Similarly, three New York Times journalists who visited the Ogaden were imprisoned for five days and had all their equipment confiscated before being released without charges.
The villagers Gettleman visted said abuses have intensified since April, when the guerillas attacked a Chinese-run oil field, killing nine Chinese workers and more than 60 Ethiopian soldiers and workers. The Ethiopian government vows to crush the guerillas but denies all accusations of abuses against civilians. “Our soldiers are not allowed to do these kinds of things,” said Nur Abdi Mohammed, a government spokesman. “This is only propaganda and cannot be justified. If a government soldier did this type of thing they would be brought before the courts.”
The people of the Ogaden desert are mostly ethnic Somalis, and came under Ethiopian rule in 1897, when the British ceded their claim to the area. In 1977-78, Somalia went to war with Ethiopia in a fruitless effort to annex the Ogaden. When the ONLF took up arms in 1994, the central government responded by imprisoning and (rights groups say) assassinating Ogaden civil leaders. The Ogaden is part of the Somali National Regional State, one of nine ethnic-based states within Ethiopia’s federal system. On paper, all states have the right to secede, if they follow the proper procedures. But the rebels say the government crushed civil separatist initiatives, fearing that if the Somalis broke away, so would the Oromos, Afar and other ethnic groups.
The Ethiopian government calls the Ogaden guerillas terrorists, and says they are backed by regional rival Eritrea. One of the reasons Ethiopia invaded Somalia last year was to prevent the guerillas from using it as a base. Ethiopian officials have been pressuring the US State Department to add the ONLF to its list of “foreign terrorist organizations.” Until recently, US officials have refused, saying the rebels had not threatened civilians or American interests. “But after the oil field attack in April,” said one US official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “we are reassessing that.”
Gettleman notes that Ethiopia is seen in Washington as a strategic terror war ally. He writes: “The Bush administration, particularly the military, considers Ethiopia its best bet in the volatile Horn — which, with Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea, is fast becoming intensely violent, virulently anti-American and an incubator for terrorism.”
However, he also notes that the harsh repression there is becoming a propaganda liability for the US. The 2005 national elections were billed as a “milestone on the road to democracy,” he writes, but instead “turned into Ethiopia’s version of Tiananmen Square,” with government troops opening fire on demonstrators, rounding up tens of thousands of opposition supporters. Many opposition members are now in jail or in exile.
“There are no real steps toward democracy,” said Merera Gudina, vice president of the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces, a leading opposition party. “No real steps toward opening up space, no real steps toward ending repression.”
Some on Capitol Hill are disenchanted. “This is a country that is abusing its own people and has no respect for democracy,” said Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-NJ), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa. “We’ve not only looked the other way but we’ve pushed them to intrude in other sovereign nations,” he added, referring to US strategic aid for the Somalia invasion.
Gettleman finds that “American policy toward Ethiopia seems to be in flux.” Administration officials are trying to increase the amount of “non humanitarian” (read: military) aid to Ethiopia to $481 million next year, from $284 million this year. But key Democrats in Congress, including Rep. Payne, “are questioning this, saying that because of Ethiopia’s human rights record, it is time to stop writing the country a blank check.”