By Nuradin Jilani August 28, 2011

Every once in a while a critical article appears written about the freedom struggle led by the ONLF in the Ethiopian occupied Ogaden (Somali region). Mainly the general theme and central arguments of these articles – mostly written by fellow Somalis who’re not in the struggle for whatever reason – is one of desperation and sadness, lamentation, and not belonging. Diiriye H. Abdilahi’s “Ethiopia: ESPDP and ONLF the lesser of Two Evils‏” published in WardheerNews.com falls into this category.

Other than his lack of objectivity, and sometimes outright contradiction, Diiriye seems to be somewhat honest, if not misplaced, about his critique of the ONLF although he rehashes the same old tired clichés such as the ‘divisiveness’ nature of the name Ogaden and the supposed ‘clan exclusivity’ which is central to that organization’s policies.

Diiriye begins his article by reducing the brutal colonial situation in Ogaden as a ‘false narrative’ between two opposing sides, the ONLF on the one side and the ESPDP on the other. He says this false narrative is created by these two parties “to distract the people from the real issues on hand which is corruption, incompetence and political nepotism.” The ruling EPRDF, Diiriye claims, is spectator-like reluctant third party dragged into this bloody tussle between these two warring Somali entities.

Reading this the uninformed person would think the ONLF and ESPDF are the real culprits distracting the people of the region from ‘the real issues on hand’ and that they’re to blame for mess that is Region Five politics (The ONLF for their clan-based exclusivist Ogaden only agenda and inconsequential guerilla war; and the ESPDP politicians, handpicked by the regime Addis Ababa, for their incompetency and subservience at the expense of their people’s interest).

As far away from truth as it is, Diiriye is not alone in this type of criticism; there are a whole slew of supposedly learned men and women from this region who have lately resorted to this ‘distracting tactic’ (of which they relentlessly accuse the ONLF – and lately added the ESPDP – of engaging in) while rarely pointing a finger of accusation at the direction of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his murderous onslaught against the Somalis of Ogaden. On the rare occasions they do so, they apportion the blame and give the biggest chunk of it to victims, almost absolving any responsibility of wrongdoing for the government of tyrant Meles Zenawi. The late Palestinian scholar Edward Said’s book titled Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question would be a good reading to understand this phenomenon. In this skewed thinking, the ‘effect’ comes before the ‘cause’ and the egg before the chicken.
But Diiriye admits – in what seems to be a deviation from the stand procedure of the bystanders – the nature of EPRDF rule of the region as an ‘aggression’, and the ONLF as an organization “fighting against [the] oppression and dictatorship” of the TPLF led EPRDF. He says the ONLF is “a true counterbalance to the EPRDF aggression and lackluster regional government”. This is an improvement which needs to be further developed if truly the proponents of this thinking wish to institute “frank dialogue in order to understand each other’s position”, as Diiriye says he wishes to achieve.

If the first step in that direction would presumably entail a softening of stances and understanding of each other’s positions and grievances, Diiriye drops the gauntlet in what seems to be a direct assault on the ONLF. By describing the ONLF rebellion as a ‘lesser evil’ and comparing it to the murderous EPRDF, and its surrogate ESPDP – described by one knowledgeable writer of the so-called Somali Regional State politics, Mahado Sh. Dahir, as a “house of opportunists, tribalists, interrogators, spies, and outright social rejects… a club of mother-beaters, thieves, murderers and even pimps”- the writer is not serving his intended purpose and is only stretching further apart the two sides he wants to bring together through dialogue.

Now that the ONLF is ‘a lesser evil’ of the two mentioned, Diiriye seeks ways to work with them as they cannot be avoided or ignored. Sadly instead of coming up with new ideas to entice them or make them change their ineffective ways as he sees it, he relapses back to the usual punch-line tirades against the movement. In a nutshell he says the ONLF must change its name, be more inclusive, and amend its ‘ambiguous and discriminative’ manifesto – a manifesto we’re yet to see.

Suppose the ONLF did all of Diiriye recommendations; would there be a change of fortunes for the movement and massive enlistment of people who were outside ONLF sphere of influence, people he says abstained from the struggle for the reasons he lists? WSLF was the last organization before ONLF and it collapsed when Somali State reduced and later withdrew it is backing for it after Siyad Bare’s rapprochement with Mengistu Haile Marriam in the mid eighties. This is precisely what gave birth to ONLF: the quest to own and localize the struggle. And if truth is to be told, this approach has been successful for the movement (this not to say they don’t the absentees) and if someone is suggesting that they revert back to losing ways of WSLF, then the onus is on the proponents of this thinking to prove them wrong. With the opportunity of hindsight, Cigaal Shiidaad’s fable: “Kurtunyahow ma waxaan kuu maleeyey, mise waxaad noqotay, ama waxaan loo noqon doonin” perfectly sums up the inherent failure of this tried and failed method.

The tragedy of those who criticize the ONLF is that they don’t know much about the movement. Their treatment of the organization is at best superficial, and at worst, biased. In a ‘commentary’ piece on the ONLF website, the party said such critics heavily rely on ‘open sources’ which are suspect and not on their party political program or ONLF leaders’ interviews. Thus they recycle what is written in these open sources simply because it can be cited. “A more comprehensive and informed analysis would start out”, the ONLF wrote in its commentary of David H. Shinn’s paper titled On the future of Oromo and Ogaden armed groups, “with the assumption that all that can be cited is not always accurate and a common practice quality research would be to inquire with those associated with the object of your analysis”.

The ONLF is perhaps the most misunderstood liberation organization in recent times. News reports claim ‘they’re seeking wider autonomy for Somalis in Ethiopia’. Others argue ‘they want to secede from Ethiopia and join Greater Somalia.’ Its opponents accuse it of tribalism solely because of the ‘O’ in its first letterhead and of having an exclusivist clannish agenda – and as such representing no one except their clan. Meanwhile there is nothing in the ONLF constitution or Political Program that gives primacy to clan issues and excludes others on these grounds.

If we’re to honestly understand why the ONLF adopted that name we must contextualize the issues at stake in its given epoch. One of the heroes of the WSLF, Mohamed Diiriye Uurdoox, once said: “Wherever with went in search of support for the cause of Western Somali Liberation Front we were faced with a geographic dilemma and people thought we were seeking freedom from Somalia”. The ONLF leaders are mostly ex-WSLF men. They have used both tags and found the later as the most appropriate on geographic grounds. Ali Geeleh’s article titled “Ogaden: What is in a name?” written in 2008 perhaps best explains the pros and cons of this name and I leave there.
To return to the issue at hand, Diiriye accuses the ONLF – as a result of their clan orientation – of failing to garner the support of other Somalis in the region. He says this had led to a ‘failure’ on the part of the ONLF “to expand the beyond tribal [their] boundaries” and ‘overburdened’ its supporters. Perhaps this is true. As Frederick Douglass said in his time:

Those who profess to favor freedom,
And yet deprecate agitation,
Are men [and women] who want crops
Without plowing up the ground,
They want rain
Without thunder and lightning…

Needless to say that such people don’t deserve to have freedom.

The ONLF is a movement with many daunting challenges. It would be disingenuous to accuse it of alienating and chasing away potential support base due their policies – policies that don’t exist in print or private memos. The movement is engaged and overburdened by in what I’ve characterized elsewhere as ‘strategy of immediacy’. They’ve to deal daily with battle front issues with the minimal financial support and can’t afford to embark on campaign to convince fence-sitters and finger pointers. In any case, it’s perfectly understandable why some have chosen to remain on the sidelines. They’ve adopted this motto which says ‘anyone who marries my mother is my uncle’. One hopes this type of infantile reasoning would be an ephemeral stage which will come to pass as we reach a more mature level.

The relationship between us, the Somalis in Ogaden and successive Ethiopian regimes, is, and has been, one of brutal colonialism, dispossession and territorial expansion. The conduct of the current regime in Ethiopia is no different from those in the past. Frantz Fanon’s famous dictum in Wretched of the Earth – ‘The Manichaeism of colonizer produces a Manichaeism of the colonized”- directly applies to our dealings with Ethiopia. In other words, the argument chosen by ONLF – that of armed struggle – was supplied to them by the colonizing power Ethiopia when they have closed all other areas of expression.

These are the dominant narratives and the real issues facing the Somalis in Ogaden and not, as Diiriye claims, issues of “corruption, incompetence and political nepotism,” between two warring Somali entities. Thus the dilemma facing him and the ‘undecided’ others is to make choices. The occupying power has also closed the space for the ‘in-between’ by choosing ‘the club of spies and mother-beaters’ over those of Diiriye’s type. Unable to carry the gun on the side of colonizer and become spies and saboteurs for it and unwilling to join the ONLF in the bush, and without institutions and support base of their own, these sad souls end up insinuating against the oppressed and accusing it of everything under the sky.

Clearly it is about time for Diiriye and his elk to decide to fight back with fire, like the ONLF (either by standing alone or joining the movement), or shut up and forever keep their peace.

Nuradin Jilani
Email: nuradinjilani@gmail.com

 

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