Was the constitution an issue?
After walking out of the recent peace conference with the ONLF, the Ethiopian delegation released a statement spelling out the reason they left the conference via their embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. “The peace talks failed after the ONLF group refused to accept and respect the constitution of Ethiopia and work within the constitutional framework,” the statement said.
On its part, the ONLF didn’t reject this claim but explained why they objected to accepting the Ethiopian constitution as precondition and offered their take on this ‘contentious issue’ which had derailed the talks. “The ONLF position on the constitution is that it must reflect the will of the people and that the Somali people never exercised a referendum on the constitution. ONLF believes that the solution of the conflict in the Ogaden can only be achieved by accepting the principles of the right to exercise their self-determination without any preconditions or restrictions,” the ONLF statement read.
The irrelevance of the constitutional argument
For a start, the Ethiopian constitution does not concern the Somalis in Ogaden. Leaving aside the fact that the Ogaden has never been part of Ethiopia proper historically speaking and that Ethiopia occupies the Ogaden through illegitimate treaties it signed with Britain, France and Italy in the 19th century and the transfer of Ogaden to Ethiopia during the 2nd World War by Britain unwillingly after coercion by USA, the people of Ogaden have not voted for the current constitution when it was promulgated in 1994 nor have they had any input in its draft. (For more on this, please read: why the Haud was ceded).
Even if we were, hypothetically speaking, to accept the constitution in order to find a lasting solution, we must ask: why is the constitution not implemented in Ogaden? Where is this constitution when the people of Ogaden are arbitrarily arrested daily en masse and hoarded into military camps to be tortured, raped, and killed? Where is this document when our people are massacred, their villages burned, their meager belongings confiscated, and the rest forced to flee out of their country? What happened to those beautiful statues enunciated in the constitution which guarantee the sanctity of the citizen’s life, property, and the many other rights such as the right to freedom of speech and association, where are these rights when it comes to Ogaden? If the constitution is truly the supreme law of the land which all must uphold, ‘respect and accept’, why is it not implemented in Ogaden?
So far we can only conclude from this and past experiences that the Ogaden is not part of Ethiopia proper, which means the writ of the Ethiopian constitution, does not reach or apply to the Ogaden. In any case, the constitutional issue was non starter in the first place which was introduced as scapegoat to derail the peace process. The Ethiopian government delegation, who comprised mostly of army officers and security personnel, came to the talks not to find amicable solution that suits both sides but to try arm-twist the ONLF and force the movement to surrender to their dictates; and when the ONLF rejected their demands outright, they walked-out of the meeting in protest. There was an agenda to deliberately stonewall the progress of talks when the regime’s delegates discovered that they were losing the argument to the ONLF. After all, the ONLF argument was very simple and it all was about the implementation of the right to self-determination. Knowing that they cannot grant this right to the people of Ogaden for fear the region might cede from Ethiopia, the regime resorted to dilly-dally around the constitutional issue. The ONLF delegation asked for confidence building measures to be taken, such as monitored ceasefire and the cessation of hostilities, thereafter the region to be opened up to humanitarian agencies and the siege to be lifted. The Ethiopian delegation rejected it. Again, one may ask: does their constitution sanction the human rights abuses, the siege and starvation policy currently in place in Ogaden? Or is the land Ethiopia and not the people? In which case, the people of Ogaden are within their rights to reject this un-working document.
It is possible that the regime has not been genuine about the talks in the first place and they were using it as propaganda tool to convince their Western backers that they’re ready for peace and the ONLF is not.
Whatever their motivation was, it has miserably backfired as everyone saw the Ethiopian delegations as the one responsible for the failure of the talks.
The Ethiopian officials, who have been used to humiliate and buy Somali political figures over the years, must have been caught off-guard by the resolute and principled position taken by the ONLF delegates. Little do they know about ONLF; it seems years of fighting the ONLF in the bushes and cities of Ogaden have not acquainted them as to what makes this movement, which had survived every one of their assaults, tick and strong.
Now that the talks have stalled, or ‘failed’ according to the regime version, any future gung-ho mentality aimed to coerce the ONLF is sure to fail again, in case the Ethiopian regime returns to the negotiation table. The ONLF represents the collective wishes and aspirations of the masses of Ogaden and swore to fulfill them to the end. That is why the movement survives and blossoms, defying all odds and overcoming difficulties through the resilience and dedication of the Ogaden people’s selfless sacrifices and heroism. The Ogaden peoples’ demand is very simple: they want to exercise the right to self-determination.
Our advice to the Ethiopian government is to stop hiding behind an irrelevant constitutional argument to obfuscate attempts aimed at finding a just and lasting solution to this long simmering conflict.