Tuesday’s attack on a Chinese-run oil field in eastern Ethiopia is said to be one of the largest operations carried out by a regional separatist group known as the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). The attack was reportedly carried out by 200 gunmen and left 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese dead. David Shinn is Adjunct Professor of International Studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, and a former US Ambassador to Ethiopia. He explains how a generation of ONLF fighters have started to expand the scope of their fight for independence from Addis Ababa.
“Up until now, most of their efforts have been very small. They would occasionally attack any government’s convoys into the Ogaden. They took a few hostages. They normally would let the foreigners go eventually. And they would normally let Somali-Ethiopians go eventually. But if they managed to capture either a member of the army in the highlands or even a civilian from the highlands, they probably killed them. But that didn’t happen very often. These were small events, and this recent incident was by far the biggest thing they’ve ever done that I can recall. How they were able to put together a force that large in an area that is somewhat removed from their core area of strength – it’s a little bit north of where they would have most of their ability to maneuver – is fairly impressive,” he said.
Ethiopia has blamed Eritrea for supplying the uniforms and arms for Tuesday’s attack by the ONLF, which operates in a large region of Ethiopia that is inhabited by ethnic Somalis fighting for their independence from Addis Ababa. Ambassador Shinn admits he lacks hard proof, but suggests that Asmara may have started enlisting Ogaden fighters to open a new front against Ethiopia as Eritrea escalates its long-running border conflict with its southern neighbor and both countries continue to collide militarily in the civil war in Somalia.
“It’s possible that Eritrea has provided indirectly some military equipment to the ONLF through Somalia. But it’s part of Eritrea’s policy to do whatever it can to create difficulties for Ethiopia because of this unresolved border issue between Ethiopia and Eritrea. And that’s why Eritrea has been very involved in Somalia, going back to early last year,” he says.
Ambassador Shinn points out that despite the high oil field death toll this week, China’s mining interests were minimally affected by the assault.
“They haven’t even found oil yet. There clearly are gas reserves in the Ogaden. But this is just at the prospecting stage. There’s no pipeline. There’s no way to move anything out of there. So it only has an impact on whatever potential was there. But what it would have a greater impact on is the Chinese may decide to rethink engaging in what are effectively conflict zones. They have run into a little bit of a problem in the Gulf of Guinea, and they potentially could have problems in Sudan. At the moment, the oil fields in Southern Sudan are very quiet. The Chinese are also interested in potential oil fields in Darfur,” he noted.