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Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF)

Authors: Rebecca Bloom, and Eben Kaplan
Updated: November 1, 2007
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

The Horn of Africa has been marked by struggle for decades. Behind some of the violence, including an April 2007 attack on a Chinese oil rig in Ethiopia, is the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). The ONLF, a group of ethnic Somali nationalists based in eastern Ethiopia, takes up the banner of past groups seeking self-governance for ethnic Somalis throughout the region. Their attacks threaten the delicate stability of the region and could set off a new chill on much-needed foreign investment.

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What is the Ogaden National Liberation Front?

The ONLF describes itself on its website as a “grassroots social and political movement” that serves as an “advocate for and defender of” Somalis in Ogaden, a region of eastern Ethiopia with a large ethnic Somali population, against Ethiopian regimes. Founded in 1984 by members of a variety of ethnic Somali liberation groups, it can also be described as a separatist rebel group fighting to make Ogaden an independent state. Its main tactics include countering government influence in the region and using violent force, including kidnappings and bombings. The ONLF is believed to be responsible for the deaths of thousands of government forces. ONLF supporters say the group does not use bombing as a tactic and has a policy of deliberately not targeting civilians in its military operations. While some experts consider the ONLF’s activities terrorism, the U.S. State Department does not include the OLNF on its Foreign Terrorist Organization list and the group is not on similar lists maintained by the European Union and Britain.

How was the ONLF formed?

The ONLF formed in the wake of the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), which lost the support of Somalis living in Ogaden after the 1977-1978 war in which Ethiopia crushed Somali government forces attempting to gain control of areas with large ethnic Somali populations. WSLF members helped found the ONLF and then recruited their former colleagues to join them. By the time the WSLF was disbanded, the ONLF had gained increased support among ethnic Somalis residing in Ethiopia. In 1991, the ONLF joined the political process, and performed well in regional parliamentary elections. The group’s political wing later merged with another political party to form the Somali People’s Democratic Party, which remains a powerful political force in the region.

What does the ONLF want?

The ONLF is a nationalist movement that seeks self-determination for ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden region. This is in contrast to other national movements in the Horn of Africa, which have sought to create a “Greater Somalia” in which all areas populated by Somalis are unified into one country. The ONLF also claims that the Ethiopian government has committed human rights abuses in the Ogaden, including interfering with relief work and international aid intended for the area, and that it wants retribution. Ethiopian officials have repeatedly denied such charges and allege the ONLF is responsible for the abuses.

What has the ONLF done?

The ONLF has instigated ambushes and guerrilla-style raids against Ethiopian troops since its inception, and has kidnapped foreign workers presumed to be agents or supporters of Ethiopia’s government. It has launched attacks on Ethiopian military convoys, and it has been accused of bombings in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. A particularly fierce dispute has long simmered between the central government and ONLF over the presence of energy companies in the region; the ONLF insists it will not allow the exploration of oil and gas in the area until the region gains independence, and threatens foreign companies that try. Tensions over the issue reached a new high on April 24, 2007, when ONLF gunmen killed at least seventy-four people, including sixty-five Ethiopians and nine Chinese oil workers, and kidnapped seven, on an oil field in Abole, a remote region of Ethiopia populated by ethnic Somalis. China has attempted to increase its investments in Africa in an effort to secure future energy supplies. The ONLF took responsibility for the attack on its website and claimed that the violence had not been without warning.

Should the United States worry about the ONLF?

The ONLF is not on any of the U.S. State Department terrorist lists, and as it stands now it does not pose a threat to the United States. However, Ethiopia is Washington’s closest ally in the region, and should the United States ever decide to intervene in the conflict on behalf of Ethiopia, or any other country that wants to drill for oil there, it could face violent opposition. Additionally, there have been rumors of ties between the ONLF and al-Qaeda, which would involve the United States in an entirely different manner. ONLF supporters deny any link with al-Qaeda and criticize religiously motivated violence.

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