WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
Diplomatic leaks: UAE dissatisfied with Saudi policies
AL JAZEERA — Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) is working on breaking up Saudi Arabia, leaked documents obtained by Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar revealed.
Al Akhbar said that the leaked documents contained secret diplomatic briefings sent by UAE and Jordanian ambassadors in Beirut to their respective governments.
One of the documents, issued on September 20, 2017, disclosed the outcome of a meeting between Jordan’s ambassador to Lebanon Nabil Masarwa and his Kuwaiti counterpart Abdel-Al al-Qenaie.
“The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is working on breaking up the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Jordanian envoy quoted the Kuwait ambassador as saying.
A second document, issued on September 28, 2017, reveals meeting minutes between the Jordanian ambassador and his UAE counterpart Hamad bin Saeed al-Shamsi.
The document said the Jordanian ambassador informed his government that UAE believes that “Saudi policies are failing both domestically and abroad, especially in Lebanon”.
“The UAE is dissatisfied with Saudi policies,” the Jordanian envoy said.
The Qatar vote
According to the leaks, UAE ambassador claims that Lebanon voted for Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari in his bid to become head of UNESCO in October 2017.
“[Lebanese Prime Minister Saad] Hariri knew Lebanon was voting for Qatar,” the UAE ambassador said in a cable sent to his government on October 18, 2017.
In November last year, Hariri announced his shock resignation from the Saudi capital Riyadh.
He later deferred his decision, blaming Iran and its Lebanese ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, for his initial resignation. He also said he feared an assassination attempt.
Officials in Lebanon alleged that Hariri was held hostage by Saudi authorities, an allegation Hariri denied in his first public statement following his resignation speech.
Somalia’s Puntland region asks UAE to stay as Gulf split deepens
BOSASO, Somalia (Reuters) – Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region urged the United Arab Emirates not to close its security operations in the country after a dispute with the central government, saying the Gulf power was a key ally in the fight against Islamist militants.
The dispute goes to the heart of an increasingly troubled relationship between Gulf states – divided by their own disputes – and fractured Somalia, whose coastline sits close to key shipping routes and across the water from Yemen.
Analysts have said the complex standoff risks exacerbating an already explosive security situation on both sides of the Gulf of Aden, where militant groups launch regular attacks.
The central Somali government said on Wednesday it was taking over a military training program run by the UAE.
Days later the UAE announced it was pulling out, accusing Mogadishu of seizing millions of dollars from a plane, money it said was meant to pay soldiers.
“We ask our UAE friends, not only to stay, but to redouble their efforts in helping Somalia stand on its feet,” said the office of the president of Puntland, a territory that sits on the tip of the Horn of Africa looking out over the Gulf of Aden.
Ending UAE support, “will only help our enemy, particularly Al Shabaab and ISIS (Islamic State),” it added late on Monday.
Watch this presser. pic.twitter.com/wEH19WsG7t
— Abdisalam Aato (@AbdisalamAato) April 16, 2018
The UAE is one of a number of Gulf powers that have opened bases along the coast of the Horn of Africa and promised investment and donations as they compete for influence in the insecure but strategically important region.
That competition has been exacerbated by a diplomatic rift between Qatar and a bloc including the UAE. In turn, those splits have worsened divisions in Somalia.
Puntland, which has said it wants independence, has sought to woo the UAE which runs an anti-piracy training center there and is developing the main port. The central government in Mogadishu last year criticized Puntland for taking sides in the Gulf dispute. Qatar’s ally Turkey is one of Somalia’s biggest investors.
One Somali government official said last week Mogadishu had decided to take over the UAE operation because the Gulf state’s contract to run it had expired. Another official said the government was investigating the money taken from the plane.
The competition among Gulf states in Somalia has fueled accusations of foreign interference and resentment in many corners of Somali society.
The loss of the UAE program could have a destabilizing effect, said one security analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The value of the UAE trained forces was two-fold – they were relatively well trained but, most importantly, they were paid on time,” unlike other parts of the security forces, the analyst told Reuters.
Somalia has been mired in conflict since 1991.