By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 08/08/07):
Rising tensions in the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia, combined with chronic instability in neighbouring Somalia, Eritrean enmity, and human rights concerns, are testing US support for the Addis Ababa government led by Clinton-era good governance pin-up Meles Zenawi.
The Bush administration welcomed the recent release of 38 opposition politicians detained after violent protests over the conduct of elections in 2005. But it has kept quiet over Ethiopia’s subsequent expulsion of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) workers from Ogaden’s Somali regional state, following claims they were aiding Ogaden National Liberation Front separatists (ONLF).
The ICRC condemned Ethiopia’s action, warning it would have “an inevitable, negative impact” on an already impoverished, largely nomadic population. The ONLF claimed the expulsions, and a ban on foreign media, were an attempt to prevent the international community witnessing “the war crimes taking place against the civilians of Ogaden at the hands of the Ethiopian regime”.
The rebels also blamed Ethiopian government forces for the killing in a roadside attack on July 29 of two leaders of the main indigenous relief organisation, the Ogaden Welfare and Development Association. Despite Ethiopian denials, the ONLF says the government continues to enforce “a virtual blockade against aid and commercial goods in Ogaden”. It has repeatedly called for UN intervention.
Congress’s Africa committee endorsed legislation last month that could oblige President Bush to withhold US financial and military assistance to Ethiopia’s government unless all political prisoners are freed, freedom of speech and information are respected, and human rights groups can operate unhindered.
“Ethiopia’s authoritarian prime minister Meles Zenawi was once a darling of the Clinton administration and has forged close ties the Bush administration. With Washington’s blessing, Meles sent troops to Somalia in December to expel the radical Islamic Courts movement linked to al-Qaida,” a Washington Post editorial noted. But the paper said the “preposterous” charges against opposition activists, abuses in Somalia and reported atrocities in the “internal war” in Ogaden meant ties might have to be reviewed.
A recent report for the international watchdog Human Rights Watch quoted witnesses describing how Ethiopian troops burned homes and in some cases, killed fleeing civilians.
Human Rights Watch said the separatists were also guilty of serious abuses, a refrain vigorously pursued by the Ethiopian government. “The ONLF, a terrorist group acting in collaboration with the defunct Islamic Courts (in Somalia) and the Eritrean government, has been committing atrocities and human rights violations, including indiscriminate murder of innocent civilians,” the foreign ministry said.
Wider US interests in the Horn of Africa suggest Washington will be minded to continue to accept Addis Ababa’s side of the story, unless the situation grows egregious and the international community becomes more involved. Those US interests include Ethiopia’s role in supporting the enfeebled transitional government in Somalia and opposing the spread of Islamist extremism across the region.
Keeping a firm hand on ethnically Somali, Muslim Ogaden, the scene of a cold war-era proxy conflict, is a long-standing US objective. The US has also sought Ethiopia’s support in peacemaking in southern Sudan and Darfur.
But region-wide instability seems to be increasing. Nearly 30,000 Somalis were displaced from Mogadishu in July. Political reconciliation efforts have made no headway so far. Despite their political differences, many if not most Somalis regard the Ethiopian troops as a hostile occupation force.
Eritrea, its bitter border dispute with Ethiopia still simmering, is shipping “huge quantities of arms” to insurgents in Somalia, according to a UN report. Concerns about a spreading humanitarian and refugee emergency grow, even as international aid targets undershoot. And now, far from being “defunct”, Somalia’s Islamist movement may be gaining friends and influence in an increasingly isolated, radicalised Ogaden.