Mogadishu, Asharq Al-Awsat- Admiral Mohamed Omar Osman, leader of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), one of the most prominent armed groups that are opposed to the Ethiopian Government, believes that the issue of the Ogaden region is a forgotten Arab-Islamic cause, on the basis that the region, which Ethiopia considers its “fifth province”, is an occupied Somali land. He says it is one of the last occupied Arab territories in the 21st century.
Osman defends the use of the name Ogaden for its historical significance, which is also the name of a tribe that resides in the region. The region’s other name is Western Somalia, which the former Somali government preferred. In Addis Ababa, it is also called Ethiopia’s fifth province.
Osman denied that his party receives aid from oil-rich Arab states to prevent Ethiopia from drilling for oil and gas in the Ogaden region.
He calls for holding a referendum in the region to determine its future.
Osman says that his front effectively governs 90 percent of the desert areas and rural villages in the region. As for the cities, he says, the Ethiopian Army governs them during daytime and the front at night.
Commenting on his relationship with the current Somali Government, he said they exchange views. With regard to his relationship with the Somali groups that are fighting against the Mogadishu government — the Youth Movement and the Islamic Party –he said: “If these groups are fighting against Ethiopia, we have a common enemy. However, there is no political coordination between them and us.”
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When was the ONLF founded, and what are the goals for which it is fighting?
[Osman] The ONLF was founded in 1984, but began armed action 10 years later, in 1994, after the ruling party in Ethiopia reneged on its promises to the political parties and to the peoples of Ethiopia and revoked an agreement to resolve the Ogaden issue in a peaceful way. The front’s goal is to liberate this region from the Ethiopian occupation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the difference between the ONLF and other Somali fronts that existed in the region before?
[Osman] With regard to the primary goal of liberating the region, it does not differ from other fronts. However, it differs from them in the administrative aspect. The Western Somalia Liberation Front enjoyed support from the Somali government, which used to interfere in its administration, policies, and decisions. As for the ONLF, it is independent from any Somali government and relies only on the people’s support.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the political and military conditions in the Ogaden Region?
[Osman] First of all, the region is in a state of war to liberate it from the Ethiopian occupation. Our struggle has achieved important successes, and our friends are increasing every day. There is a great conviction of the legitimacy of our struggle and of our right to self-determination.
The Ethiopian Army is in a very bad psychological state as a result of our continuous attacks on it, and the number of deserters is on the increase.
In addition, the Ethiopian regime commits atrocities against the people in the Ogaden Region, which has been under siege for three years now. This siege prevented international organizations from entering the region. The aim behind the siege is to hide from the world the acts of killing and rape that take place in the region. The more losses they suffer in military confrontations with us, the more they take revenge against the defenseless people. We call for bringing the Ethiopian regime to account for these heinous crimes.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The name Ogaden continues to cause controversy in the region because it is the name of the tribe to which it belongs. Why do you insist on this name? Does this mean a firm adherence to your tribe, Ogaden?
[Osman] This is the internationally recognized name, which is shown on world maps. The Front sees no use in creating a new name for the region and then introducing it to the world anew. The former Somali government called the region Western Somalia, but few people in the region know this name, and it has not been introduced on the world map.
The former Ethiopian government of Mengistu Haile Mariam gave the region another name, and so did the current government, which is led by Meles Zenawi (the fifth province of Ethiopia). No one knows all of this. Nevertheless, we might hold consultations to change the name when the region has been liberated. If we change the name Ogaden Before this happens, we will only confuse the people and the world.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are accusations against the front. You are accused of fighting a proxy war against Ethiopia for Eritrea. What is your response to these accusations?
[Osman] The Ogaden Region and Eritrea were under Ethiopian occupation, and we began the war before Eritrea was liberated and also before the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict. There is no connection between this conflict and the ONLF struggle. Regardless of whether this conflict continues or not, we will continue the war of liberation until we secure our rights.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is the ONLF a secular, Islamic, or tribal organization?
[Osman] To begin with, we are Muslims. Besides, the people for the liberation of whom we are struggling is a Muslim people, and the front is a liberation organization that seeks to end the Ethiopian occupation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that Ogaden is an Ethiopian or Somali region or what?
[Osman] Currently, Ogaden is a region occupied by Ethiopia. Ethiopia calls it the fifth province of Ethiopia, where Somalis live. But it is the Somali people in the region who will have the final say in this matter. We call for holding a free referendum. When this question is put to them, everything will be settled.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What was the effect of the situation in Somalia and collapse of the Somali state on the ONLF? How can you continue the war without having a supportive strategic reserve, represented by the neighboring states?
[Osman] All the problems that happen in Somalia have a great effect on us, and it would be good if there was a Somali state not controlled by Ethiopia. In spite of this, however, the struggle will continue through the available means.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you willing to negotiate with the Ethiopian Government, and what are your conditions?
[Osman] Yes, we are willing to negotiate with the Ethiopian Government. The choice of war was not ours in the beginning. It was imposed on us. We negotiated with the Ethiopian Government in the past, but the dialogue did not succeed. We are still ready for the option of negotiations, and our only condition is that the negotiations take place in the presence of a neutral third party and in a neutral place.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It is said that there are disagreements within the ONLF and that there are conflicting wings within the front. What is the true situation?
[Osman] This information is untrue, and those who promote it like that to happen.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the weight of the Ogaden Region in Ethiopia in terms of its area, population, and economic resources?
[Osman] The area of the Ogaden Region is 400,000 square km (in other words, one-third of the total area of Ethiopia, which is 1.1 million square km). Ogaden comes second after the Oromia Province, the largest Ethiopian province.
As for the population, the Somali people in the region number approximately eight million. They represent the third ethnic group after the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups.
With regard to the economy, the region is famous for its natural resources, including oil and gas. In addition, it enjoys water and agricultural resources and a huge animal wealth. Yet, there are no development programs in the region because of the occupation and the ongoing war. Also, there are no noticeable schools. Moreover, there are no hospitals in the region, and the infrastructure is almost non-existent because of the occupation and its consequences.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You sent a warning a while ago to companies that drill for oil and gas in the Ogaden Region. What was the reason for this warning? At the time, it was reported that you asked for a bribe to allow these companies to operate.
[Osman] Yes, we warned the oil and gas-prospecting companies against operating in the region for a simple reason. The reason is that we are under occupation and will not allow these natural resources in the region to be used before the occupation ends. If the occupation authorities exploit these resources, they will not use them to develop the region. Rather, they will use them to destroy the region and repress the people.
We do not seek a bribe from the prospecting companies, and I believe that they would welcome us if we asked for a bribe. We arrested a number of these companies’ employees and released them after telling them that they are not welcome in the region in these current circumstances.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are reports indicating that some Arab states support the ONLF to prevent the production of oil and gas in the region, so that Ethiopia would not become a source for the supply of oil and gas in the region.
[Osman] This information is new to me, and I have not heard it before. This information is untrue at all.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] what is the relationship between the ONLF and the Somali Islamic movements, such as the Youth Movement and the Islamic Party?
[Osman] If these groups are fighting against Ethiopia, then we have a common enemy. However, there is no political coordination between them and us.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there areas in the Ogaden Region that are governed by your armed front?
[Osman] The ONLF effectively governs most of the desert areas and rural villages. It governs about 90 percent of these areas. As for the cities, the Ethiopian occupation Army governs them during daytime, and we govern them at night.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Most of the ONLF leaders are based abroad. What is the reason?
[Osman] Some of the leaders are based abroad, and this is very important. Yet, they travel in and out of the region. There are enough leaders inside the region. I was personally in the Ogaden Region where I spent the past eight months, alongside other leaders. Also, we are able to reach all parts of the region and leave them safely anytime we want.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As leader of the ONLF, do you consider yourself an Ethiopian citizen, a Somali citizen, or a citizen of another nationality?
[Osman] I do not want to answer this question at present.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the connection between the ONLF and your tribe, Ogaden, and between the ONLF and other tribes in the region? It has been said that most of the front’s leaders belong to your tribe, Ogaden.
[Osman] I do not wish to enter into such labyrinths. Tribalism is not among the principles of the ONLF. Tribalism is the disease that destroyed the Somalis everywhere. Had we depended on tribalism, the front would have collapsed long ago, because tribalism is like an onionskin that has no end.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you see the future of the Ogaden Region? Will it remain as an Ethiopian region or will it become a Somali region, or a region representing an independent state?
[Osman] Our main demand is to hold a referendum for the Somali people in the region to enable them to determine their future by themselves and decide whether they want to remain part of the state of Ethiopia, vote for an independent state, or join another country. The decision should be up to the people alone. We also demand that they be allowed to exercise their right to self-determination.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the connection between the ONLF and other Somali parties, the transitional Somali Government, Puntland, and the Somaliland?
[Osman] As is known, the Somali Government is new, and there are some contacts between us to exchange views. However, there is no large relationship between us. As for the Puntland Region (northeastern Somalia) and the Somaliland (the north), they cooperate against us and with the Ethiopian authorities outright. Therefore, these two regions represent a big problem to the ONLF-led struggle.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is the Ogaden issue a national Somali cause or an Arab and Islamic one?
[Osman] It is all of them. It belongs to the Somalis and it is an Arab-Islamic cause because the Ogaden people are an Arab Muslim people. Some quarters might not be interested in this issue. However, we assert the Arab and Islamic character of the Ogaden issue. Ogaden also represents one of the Arab territories that labor under occupation in the 21st century.
Admiral Mohamed Omar Osman in brief:
Admiral Mohamed Omar Osman, leader of the ONLF, was born in the Ogaden Region in Ethiopia in1940 and received his basic education in that region. Afterward, he moved to Mogadishu where he received the secondary-stage education.
He was sent on a course to Egypt where he graduated from the Cairo-based War College. Then he traveled to the Soviet Union to complete his military study.
He was appointed as member of the central committee of the ruling Somali Socialist Party in the middle of the 70s, then chief of the party’s political bureau .Afterward, he was appointed as commander of the Somali naval forces and promoted to the rank of admiral.
After the collapse of the central government in Somalia in 1991, he returned to the Ogaden Region and was chosen in 1998 as leader of the ONLF, a position that he has held to date. He travels between Ethiopia, the neighboring states, and Europe.