Posted by: sean | July 22, 2007

Death in the Ogaden

US allies in Addis Ababa have been facing some pretty serious charges lately, the latest coming from the Times. It seems that in an effort to combat the mainly ethnic-Somali rebel group in the east of the country, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, the government has been starving the entire region:

The Ethiopian government is blockading emergency food aid and choking off trade to large swaths of a remote region in the eastern part of the country that is home to a rebel force, putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk of starvation, Western diplomats and humanitarian officials say.

The Ethiopian military and its proxy militias have also been siphoning off millions of dollars in international food aid and using a United Nations polio eradication program to funnel money to their fighters, according to relief officials, former Ethiopian government administrators and a member of the Ethiopian Parliament who defected to Germany last month to protest the government’s actions.

The blockade takes aim at the heart of the Ogaden region, a vast desert on the Somali border where the government is struggling against a growing rebellion and where government soldiers have been accused by human rights groups of widespread brutality.

Humanitarian officials say the ban on aid convoys and commercial traffic, intended to squeeze the rebels and dry up their bases of support, has sent food prices skyrocketing and disrupted trade routes, preventing the nomads who live there from selling their livestock. Hundreds of thousands of people are now sealed off in a desiccated, unforgiving landscape that is difficult to survive in even in the best of times.

“Food cannot get in,” said Mohammed Diab, the director of the United Nations World Food Program in Ethiopia.

In this part of Africa, famine has often been used a blunt political tool by central governments to keep the periphery in line. Precedent has already been set in Addis Ababa and Khartoum. Possibly even more disconcerting, however, are allegations that the government is arming ethnic militias in order to attack the rebels:

The people of the Ogaden are mostly Somalis and ethnically distinct from the highland Ethiopians who have ruled the country for centuries, and the long battle over the region has been steadily escalating this year. The country director of one Western aid agency, who recently returned from a field visit there, said he saw two villages that had been burned to the ground and several schools that had been converted into military bases, with foxholes.

Humanitarian officials say the military is building up militias and setting the stage for clan-based bloodshed. The rank and file of the Ogaden National Liberation Front tend to be members of the Ogaden clan, and so the government has turned to other clans to form anti-rebel militias. In the past few weeks, thousands of men have been armed.

“Those Ethiopians are smart,” [former MP] Mr. Kalif, 32, said. “They know Somalis are more loyal to clans than anything else.” Tactics like these, he said, drove him to defect June 20 while attending a conference in Wiesbaden, Germany. He was affiliated with the ruling party, and had been representing an area in the eastern Ogaden for the past seven years.

In both cases, the actions of the Ethiopian government are disconcertingly close to those of the Sudanese government. It looks like any ethnic-based collective punishment aimed at quelling a separatist movement in Ogaden is still in the formative stage. The US should use its clout to dissuade Addis Ababa from going down the same road that Sudan has taken, as some in the House of Representatives like Randy Forbes (R, VA) have started to do by stripping Ethiopia of American aid. In any case, this is a case that Americans should keep an eye on, because it’s obviously better to prevent humanitarian disasters and ethnic violence before it happens rather than wringing our hands when it does. 

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