You can’t use kerosene to put off Sparks
By lacha Dubbi
May 12, 2007 —
I read an article by Peter Pham which appeared in World Defense Review, under Strategic Interests, entitled "Additional Sparks Fly in the Horn of Africa", also distributed by the Sudan Tribune. I too see sparks dangerously flying all over east Africa, but I don’t see them the way Mr. Pham saw. His solutions are precariously short-sited despite they appear under "strategic interest", and inescapably one-sided. For this and more reasons, I saw his very paper as a piece of another ember, a blatant disfavor for a region that deserves more and better.
For Mr. Pham’s record, I shall start with a disclaimer that I am not a member of al-Itihad or the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). In fact, I am not a Somali by nationality or ethnicity, not even a Moslem. This, I hope helps the reader’s confidence including Mr. Pham’s in giving me the benefit of the doubt, especially since I am a native of east Africa and a country Mr. Pham may only have visited as a guest of honor.
Mr. Pham claims that the Somali Islamists were more of a threat than some of his colleagues averred because, in their previous incarnation as al-Itihaad al-Islamiya ("Islamic Union") - they had "enjoyed longstanding ties with dissident groups which had carried out terrorist and other violent actions within Ethiopia." For this reasons, Mr. Pham believes the US State Department should classify the Somali Islamists, ONLF in particular, as a terrorist group because, "the ONLF seeks to split their region from the rest of Ethiopia with the goal of joining it to an eventual ’Greater Somalia’, which proponents envision embracing all their ethno-linguistic kinfolk in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya as well as the former Somalia and the Republic of Somaliland." So, based on Mr. Pham’s logic, the US must declare all opposition political groups in friendly regimes as terrorists even if these regimes are so tyrannical that the people do not see any other hope for achieving their just quest for freedom than armed struggle. This logic is troublesome, it refutes all history books. In fact, it is very alarming to read defense or policy analyses of this sort from a source of this caliber.
Mr. Pham seems deeply incensed because the ONLF was not listed as a terrorist group by the US Secretary of State in its 2005 or 2006 Country Reports on Terrorism, not mentioned in the list of forty-two groups formally designated as being a foreign terrorist organization, not in the summary of terrorist activities in Ethiopia, not even among the forty-two "other groups of concern". This is as at least pleasing as Mr. Pham’s parochial view is displeasing. The State Department is obviously smarter than an individual lobbyist wants it to be.
Mr. Pham admits that an ONLF representative in North America attempted to contact him a while ago, called him and sent him a fax, "with unexpected politeness" and informed him that he begged to differ with his interpretation if not his facts. The ONLF representative apparently wrote him that "while his group was engaged in an armed struggle to free their nation from occupation, it did not utilize terror against any entity except bona fide military targets or the repressive apparatus of the (Ethiopian) regime." In a surprising lack of interest for knowledge and a depressing predisposition for journalistic or scholarly curiosity, Mr. Pham refuses to have any communication with the person even from the safety of his north American office or a Washington DC confinement, - to listen to someone who openly approaches him from an organization Mr. Pham admits "does not pose a direct threat to the United States". And yet Mr. Pham suggests that the US State Department should join him in declaring the ONLF guilty as charged, without talking to the charged who willing places himself in the witness stand ready to talk, solely through his tourist testimony gathered from a single source - the Ethiopian state-owned mass media which is known for incriminating innocent bystanders. If he is so unwilling to even listen, how can he go so extreme in his analyses and assertions? It sure is discerning.
Ethiopia has been in a virtual civil war for almost a century and the various ethnic groups are still fighting for equality and self determination. The now dominating group from the Tigray ethnic group has attempted to classify all other ethnic groups that have raised arms to fight the Tigrean domination of the Ethiopian political panorama as terrorist groups. On the other hand, the same regime has outlawed all opposition forces and hundreds of activists from the OLF, Kinigit, etc who are facing trial for treason, simply because the ruling Tigrean party lost elections. By denying the Ogaden Somalis the right to struggle for equality and for their basic human rights, Mr. Pham is indirectly telling us that these freedom fighters are terrorists because they do not accept a Tigrean domination. Nonsense!
Mr. Pham seems motivated to contribute this version of his policy analyses by a recent event in Ogaden - on April 24, the ONLF launched a massive attack on an oilfield in Obala inside Ethiopia. This is acknowledged by the ONLF shortly after the attack. The ONLF communiqu? reads that it has stated on numerous occasions that it will not allow the mineral resources in Ogaden to be exploited by "this regime or any firm that it enters into an illegal contract with so long as the people of Ogaden are denied their rights to self-determination." Any genuine democrat would appreciate this; it effectively stops corruption, obstructs dictatorship, and attempts to transfer ownership of natural resources to the people. There is nothing wrong with expecting a Tigrean who comes thousands of miles South to Ogaden with employees from China to ask for permission of the Ogadenis before digging a big cavity in the grazing grounds of their ancestors or in their playgrounds; it would be right to make some consultation with the local people - both morally and legally.
Mr. Pham on the other hand audaciously writes "despite this open admission of its role in the most spectacular attack within Ethiopia since the fall of the Marxist dictatorship in 1991 - to say nothing of the toll of thousands of lives which ONLF ambushes and raids against Ethiopian military and civilians have exacted since 1984 - the Ogadeni militants amazingly do not figure in official U.S. terror lists." This argument is so bizarre that it leads to classifying all the population of Ethiopia, except those who are party to the domination of the TPLF, as terrorists.
The question is, should an armed struggle against viciously dictatorial regimes such as that of Ethiopia be considered terror? Should the State Department categorically and thoughtlessly classify all armed struggles as terror? How would this new and bizarre definition reconcile the US’s strategic interest with the legit wish of the people in Africa to live in peace as equals? How would any liberation movement be tolerated, and what would happen to history? Should we now redefine even the Second World War as terror against Hitler? Mr. Pham can have a favorable view of the Ethiopian regime. But to extend this view to categorically classifying struggles against a dictatorial regime as terrorism simply is unjust and it is not a serious analyses.
Mr. Pham seems concerned of being perceived "as exclusively concerned with groups which might impact us while ignoring the real challenges faced by our allies." The ally in this case is the Ethiopian regime. For Mr. Pham, the blood of the thousands of Oromos, Amharas, Somalis, Sidamas, etc., often including young school kids, is less relevant to the real challenge of the his dictator allies. He either naively of shrewdly sees siding with a brutal dictator and alienating the entire population as beneficial to the US interest. I do not.
I agree, "nothing prevents international terrorist groups from making alliances of convenience with non-international terrorist groups." But I know no "non-international terrorist group" more rampant than the Meles’ regime. The people, whether Oromos or Somalis . all they want is equality and self determination. Suffocating such a demand is more of a terror than fighting such a genuine demand. To know the brutality of Meles, one only needs to read reports of Africa Watch, Amnesty International, US country report, Oromia Support Group, etc.
Finally, the bombing of two hotels and the attempted assassination of a cabinet minister in Addis Ababa, etc., are terrorist actions that should be condemned. I do not know who perpetuated them. I thrust the ONLF no less than I trust EPRDF or TPLF. In fact, I thrust the ONLG better because the TPLF outlawed the Macca Tulama Association for "storing bombs" in its office. Macca Tulama is a civic organization that I know for sure didn’t store even enough pens and papers in its open door offices, leave alone explosives. The ONLF attack on the Chinese explorers is reminder of how dry the savannas of the Horn are, and how easily they can catch fire. The flying embers, from Mr. Pham or anyone else do not help diffuse the ethnic tension which is mostly fueled by the dominating group, the Tigreans in this case. Al Qaeda or any other terrorist group could join in throwing embers. But Africans are smart enough to know that terrorism or religious extremism will not promote equality and democracy. They are also aware that not all smart and crafty writers have Africa’s best interests in their minds, especially in the lobbyist-infested politics of DC. Ironically, poor countries like Ethiopia can still afford hiring lobbyists for millions of dollars. Short-sited interest should not condemn east Africa to political turbulence more fertile to lobbyism than terrorism. This underscores the need for the US to forge strong ties with local representatives of the people as recently initiated in Iraq, and bypass despots like Meles. To achieve these strategic objectives, the US needs to support popular resistances as a long-term useful strategy. Why support a regime built from straws, whose days are numbered, and has no mass base at all?
* The author is based in the USA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org