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Ethiopia Opens Three-Day Talks With Somali Rebels

FILE - Ogaden National Liberation Front activists hold a banner in Mogadishu that reads, "The Ogaden freedom is the key to peace in the Horn of Africa," during a ceremony that marked the organization's 22nd anniversary in Somalia, Aug. 15, 2006.
FILE - Ogaden National Liberation Front activists hold a banner in Mogadishu that reads, "The Ogaden freedom is the key to peace in the Horn of Africa," during a ceremony that marked the organization's 22nd anniversary in Somalia, Aug. 15, 2006.

The first round of three-day talks between Ethiopian officials and representatives from the Ethiopian rebel group of ethnic Somalis, Ogden National Liberation Front (ONLF), began Sunday at a secret location in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

Delegates from the two sides arrived Saturday for the talks that are being facilitated by Kenyan officials.

Abdulkadir Hassan Hirmoge, a spokesman for the ONLF, confirmed to VOA Somali that the talks have begun.

Hirmoge said each side has sent a delegation of four members. The ONLF delegation is led by Foreign Secretary Abdirahman Mahdi. It is unclear who is leading the Ethiopian delegation, but photos released by the Kenyan facilitators show the president of the Somali Regional State of Ethiopia, Abdi Mohamud Omar, sitting on the opposite side of the table, along with other officials.

A source close to the talks told VOA Somali that "Day One of the talks covered considerable ground and ended on a high note."

Hirmoge cautioned that it was too soon to say how the talks might end because "there are big issues at stake."

"We can't talk prematurely, but these talks are about principles, on compensation, on self-determination, on freedom, referendum, on the economy and centuries-old aggression," he said.

ONLF and the Ethiopian government fell out in 1994 after a dispute over self-determination. The dispute drove ONLF to war and turned the ethnic Somali state, rich with gas and oil, into a deadly battleground that claimed many lives.

In April 2007, ONLF rebels attacked an oil field in an Obolleh village near the regional capital of Jigjiga, killing 67 Ethiopian soldiers and nine Chinese oil workers. In response, Ethiopia heavily militarized the region and carried out a brutal operation, according to human rights organizations.

Previous failures

Talks were held in 2012 and 2013 in Kenya without concessions from either side.

Rashid Abdi, Horn of Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, said there were a number of issues that made the previous talks difficult.

"They (talks) have been characterized by a lot of mutual suspicion and a lack of confidence. But I think there was also the death of (former Ethiopian prime minister) Meles Zenawi, and the transition had an impact on how the talks should proceed," he said.

"I think clearly all parties seemed to lack a bit of focus. On the part of the ONLF, I think they came to the table without having a clear vision on how they wanted to proceed, while the Ethiopians were basically seeking very minimal tactical advantages."

Even with the talks having resumed, Abdi said it won't be easy for the two sides to reach an agreement without significant compromises. The main sticking points are the Ethiopian constitution and referendum.

"Ethiopians want ONLF to concede on the issue of the constitution," Abdi said. "ONLF previously said they were not going to recognize the federal constitution, and that was one of the sticking points. So, I suspect this issue will not be quickly resolved.

"Then there is the issue of what exactly ONLF wants? Does it want greater autonomy in the Somali region? Does it simply want power sharing, so that it can be part of the federal system? Does it want to monopolize power in the region? Does it want full independence? Those are the key issues."

History of unrest

Ethiopia has seen political upheavals since 2016 following waves of protests in the Oromo region. There was also deadly ethnic violence in 2017 between Ethiopian Somalis in Oromo, which claimed dozens of lives and displaced tens of thousands of people.

ONLF's Hirmoge said conditions on the ground in Ethiopia have something to do with the resumption of these talks.

"Now, we believe there have been big changes in Ethiopia. The conditions are changing. People cannot be silenced now. The talks coincide at a time when things are changing in Ethiopia on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. These have their own ripple effects," Hirmoge says.

"I believe the conditions around the talks are better," he added. "The prediction is different compared to previous ones (talks), but I don't want to prejudge the result." .

Abdi agrees that the timing of the talks is interesting and could work in favor of the stressed Ethiopian government.

"It comes at a time when Ethiopia feels under pressure from many multiple forms," he said. "It has serious unrest, so they desperately need a good story. So, the resumption of the peace talks plays well internationally. Ethiopia can say 'We are engaging the opposition.' It's good publicity, but one has to also consider whether there is really a strategic shift and interest to find a peaceful settlement, or are we simply back to the old games of simply playing tactical games?"

VOA Somali could not reach Ethiopian officials for comment.