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Last Updated: Monday, 2 October 2006, 11:28 GMT 12:28 UK
Ogaden draws in tension once more
By Mohammed Adow
BBC Focus On Africa magazine

Ogaden nomads trek across the mountains
The people living in Ogaden are mostly nomadic
The Somali region of Ethiopia, known as Ogaden by most people of Somali origin, is once again at the centre of international tension.

It is at the heart of a dispute between the Ethiopian government and Somalia's Islamic rulers.

It has left 56-year-old Mohammed Ali Hassan, like many other pastoralist nomads who live there, exhausted. He says his life is now "drought, war and darkness".

"We would like a life we can predict, without conflict, so we can give our children what has existed only in our dreams - peace and tranquillity."

Unfinished business

The region's recent history is clouded by conflict. Ceded to Ethiopia by the British in 1954, it has twice since been fought over by Ethiopia and Somalia, which - under the government of Siad Barre - claimed Ogaden was part of Greater Somalia.

For the past 20 years, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) has waged a rebellion, fighting for independence from Ethiopia.

Children in hospital in Ogaden following a cattle failure
Ogaden suffered badly in 2000 following drought
There has been heightened military activity this year, with tens of thousands of Ethiopian troops sent in to fight the rebels, but also to secure the border and counter what is perceived as a threat by the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in Somalia.

Having backed the formation of the transitional government in Somalia, with its close ally Abdullahi Yusuf as president, Ethiopia has been alarmed by the rise of the Islamic courts and their militia.

And the UIC's de facto leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, has made it clear that the two countries have unfinished business.

"The land taken by Ethiopia cannot be forgotten because it is attached to our blood and nationalists," he said in July, referring to troops and civilians who died during the 1977/78 war.

"Ethiopia mistreats the Somalis under their administration. The land was given to them by colonialists and we will seek justice to resolve the crisis that is dividing the two countries."

Sheikh Aweys added, however, that he was ready to negotiate with Ethiopia on the status of the contested Ogaden region.

And the last thing Ethiopia wants is trouble along its long border with Somalia.

Enemy to the north

Still nervous about internal dissent following last year's post-election violence, it is wary about unrest being stoked up among its ethnic Somalis.

Ethiopia is alleged to have responded by sending troops to protect Somalia's interim government in Baidoa and issued warnings of dire consequences for the Islamists if they attacked the town.

Ogaden National Liberation Front protesters
The Ogaden National Liberation Front says independence is key to peace
But reports that Eritrea, Ethiopia's enemy to the north, had been arming the Islamist militia has led analysts to warn in turn that instability in Somalia could lead to a wider regional conflict.

All this is no comfort to the people who live in the Somali region of Ethiopia. Their main concern is the lack of development - and they joke about their plight, saying that "if Adam returns he will definitely recognise our land".

The regional capital, Jijiga, is a jumble of villages with a few pompous administrative buildings, shabby hotels and bars, a busy market and a military station - all stuck together by countless mud houses with corrugated-iron roofs.

Many people who fled the hinterland and the battlefields have sought refuge there. Military jeeps share the streets with squeaky horse-drawn carts that act as taxis.

During the rainy season entire districts and provinces in the region can be cut off from one another for weeks.

Educational opportunities are also extremely limited. Informal estimates suggest that roughly 15% of youth attend secular schools. More attend the Islamic Koranic schools.

A dearth of skilled manpower, inadequate infrastructure and acute shortage of communication facilities constitute formidable constraints to developing the region.

The regional administration is weak and has struggled at times to gain legitimacy among residents and to implement effective policies.

Cultural links

In the afternoons, Jijiga becomes a ghost town, abandoned to the camels and cats. Locals are firmly ensconced behind closed doors in the sacred confines of the Mabraz, the khat den.

Here a minimum of five hours is spent reclining on cushions, smoking cigarettes and sipping tea while grazing on the leaves. After the drug takes its effect, lively debates and heated discussions break out, and the Mabraz becomes, perhaps, the region's real parliament.

From their conversations, it is clear that most Ethiopian Somalis feel culturally and socially closer to their kin in Somalia and northern Kenya than they do to the Ethiopian highlanders.

Trade with Somalia is also much greater than trade with the rest of Ethiopia. The Somali shilling is the main currency in some areas in the region.

But residents like Ali Hassan of Degeh Bur town sees no end in sight to the conflict in the region.

"We have been fighting for secession for close to 50 years now," he says.

"I think it will take another 50 years of armed struggle for us to get recognition as a state or to be accepted as Ethiopians."




SEE ALSO
Country profile: Ethiopia
23 Jun 06 |  Country profiles



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