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Exclusive: “If we don’t treat this carefully and we meddle things, it will affect the entire region”: ONLF chairman on Jubaland

On Tuesday August 20, Abdirahman Mahdi Madey, chairman of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), gave a press briefing to local journalists in Addis Abeba regarding the party’s stand on federalism, election, as well as the progress of its registration on becoming a political party (click here to see the news). Shortly after that, Abdirahman sat down with our editor Tsedale Lemma for an exclusive interview.


Addis Standard: You revealed that the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) is processing its registration with the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) as a National Party. Am I right?

Abdirahman Mahdi Madey – Yes. We are at the final stage…

Do you plan to change its name?

No. It is a historical name because we built it over a long time. It is a brand name that cost us a lot. So if we change it again [we] just become someone new which will cost us a lot again.

But it’s a name which explicitly says Ogaden Liberation Front. How do you program yourself to become a national party when your name says you stand to “Liberate” the Ogaden?

Well if you look at the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which is governing this country for the past 27 years, who are they? Aren’t they the collective of ODP, TPLF etc..

But each of them are regional parties, not a national party and EPRDF is not a party per se.

But we want to align with other parties, we want to align parties from Amhara, from Oromia, from Tigray from all the parties working throughout the country; so it could it be coalition. Together we will rule the country.

Are you in tune with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s wish to create a united party? Is that what you are implying?

Well, what we are trying to do is to create a common ground because when you unite with a party, you need to have a common platform. Common ideology, common way of thinking. So what we think about is to look for commonalities between all of the peoples in this country and see with those common principles. We are, for example, a social democratic party, we want justice for everybody. We are pro-women party, we care about the disabled and the minority and everybody. So we know when you are united you are taking coalition with a party; you need people with similar ideology, with similar outlook. So we are studying the landscape now. We are saying ‘look together we can have the same ambitions’.  So you can create a synergy and bring value to the people.

The reason why political parties organize is to change people’s lives.  So we are not just doing it because we like it, we do it because we have special interests to create alliances with those who have special attitude that we believe need to be created. Actually, we are an African society. What we are finally aspiring is to create an African initiative. So we have a long vision literally. Not only for Ethiopia or in the Horn of Africa. Our vision is to become a Pan-African party. 

That brings me to the 2020 general elections. You stated that ONLF would like to see the election happen as scheduled, according to the Constitution, unless dire circumstances occurred. What are these dire scenarios that you think could potentially force the federal government to postpone the election?

Well, elections are very complex. We don’t want an election where it happens and parties get 96 per cent of the vote. What we want is a genuine election where all the people are happy about; very transparent and clear; where all the people have got the right to vote, all those who have a right to vote should get the chance to vote. So elections are very costly and very complex and we are going through a big transition right now, where there are conflicts here and there. The election commission is very new too; they have got so much in their hands, you know, registering parties, amending the laws of the election etc..there could be a lot of factors that can put the elections a little bit farther, maybe one year or maybe half year or whatever. But, for us we would like elections to happen now; that would be ideal for us. But even if it doesn’t happen it should be something we can carefully discuss together and see how to go forward from there. There are constitutional issues regarding that, if it is postponed. We should discuss how we should deal with that whole issue by working together. So I think if it’s properly set up and constructed and there is a dialogue between all stakeholders all the nations and parties, then I think we can easily manage it. We don’t want the election to become an issue to destroy this country.

This magazine believes in that too; but that is exactly what is missing now, a consensus between all stakeholders. Who do you think should take the initiative?

Well, there is the Prime Minister. He’s the head of the country. We all hope he would look into all those voices. I know he considers all the voices. There have been several occasions when he listened to the people. So I hope he will listen to the voice of the people.

I like to take you back to your take on the right to self-determination up to secession, which is enshrined in Ethiopia’s current constitution. You said that you, as a party, wouldn’t push for secession. But if the Somali people wanted it, for example, would your party be aligned with that, especially in line with your ambition to become a national party?

Well I hope every nation should be aligned to it because if the Amhara nation today says we are not happy with this federal system and that we want to be given the right to leave, the constitution allows them to do so. So we should respect that. The Somali people should respect that. But we will not push the agenda now, as a party. As I told you, we will push the agenda for an Pan-African party. But first we will start at home. One thing is very clear, the government should be honest to make sure that the people don’t need to secede. So it is the kind of a sword and a carrot. The reason why people ask for self-determination did not come from the vacuum, it came from a need. For more than 100 years this country was embroiled in turmoil, conflicts and all and it goes around. Initially it was the Amhara who were blamed, then Tigray came, now Oromo is the majority and may be other nations will come tomorrow. So what we need is a guarantee for all nations in this country to have democracy over their head. You bring democracy, you bring equality. So let us look it in a positive way, kind of making sure that we live together in peace. That doesn’t mean that everybody wants to run away. It means everybody should have their right. It is a guarantee for their right. If you don’t satisfy their rights, then they have the right to leave. If you look at it that way, it’s positive but if we think about self- determination and people dividing the country, people throwing each other away, that will be negative.

One of the changes that we have seen during the last one year and half, since the current prime minister came to power, is people who are increasingly dismissing the Constitution’s Article 39 that states the right for self-determination up to secession. In fact I would say Article 39 is in the center of the controversy about the constitution. But I see that you are a protector of that even if you are envisioning to become a national party. Will you continue supporting Article 39 in the event that we are going to revise the constitution?

The Constitution and the inclusion of Article 39 is not the issue. The issue is the drivers’. The people who designed this Article do not drive the car very well and that is why everybody is being hurt. I have always been a human rights advocate for the people all over the country and I was in Geneva for a long time and Switzerland is a federal state, but it is well managed that people can live together. For example, as a party, as ONLF party, if an Amhara comes to the Ogaden, he’s my brother. I respect him. I don’t show him that he cannot participate in the life of the region. If I want to go to Amhara, I expect the same. But what I believe is both group rights and individual rights are needed; they are very important.

Because this country has gone through a very bloody conflict, this was the compromise. If you meddle this compromise, everything starts all over again. So for our society, for ONLF, this is a principle; it is a key principle for us to live in peace. We fought for many decades; our country has been destroyed. Actually we are very tolerant people – crimes of genocide has been committed against our people. Now we are ready to come in and embrace everyone and live as everybody lives together. So that should be respected. That’s what we believe. If we accept to live together with all other parts of Ethiopia we believe at least we have become competent enough. We will go through these; we will go through being together and trust each other. Tomorrow we might even develop to other bigger union in the Horn of Africa.

Today Ethiopia or Somalia or Kenya have a meaning in the world politics. What we are seeing now is that the people are coming together. We see America, America is almost 50 states; Africa is also 50 states but we cannot compete with America, [instead] we beg them. Why should we beg them? We don’t need 50 head of states, we need one African head of state, one African union, and we need one African people; that is our aspiration and Article 39 will not stop us from planing this big.

That is pretty ambitious!

Yeah, but that can come if we start from home. I come from a family, I respect my wife, I respect my children, I respect my neighbor, I respect my bigger community, I respect other nations near me. That’s how it begins; but we have to start from the beginning.

Let’s talk about the Somali nation, who as you said, who suffered imaginable pain for decades. You even said to the point that a genocide has been committed against them. That brings me to ask you about the Somali Regional State when it was dominated by the leadership of the former president, Abdi Mohamed Omer a.k.a Abdi Iley. He is now facing criminal charges at the federal court accused of masterminding the crime of the weekend of August 4/2018. But there are many people who have questions, including our Somali brothers and sisters, who are asking why he should be facing justice only for the alleged crimes of the weekend of August 04 when he was there for 10 years inflicting, as was documented, unimaginable pain on the Somali people. That as it is, you are also accused of having relationships with him and his sympathizers and that you really don’t believe he should face justice at all. How do you see his trial? Do you agree with the people who say he should face the force of justice for the 10 years of his leadership?

We believe hypocrisy is not very good. For 27 years, the Somali people have been killed, raped, and oppressed. We believe, Abdi Iley is just a small figurine. Who committed genocide is not only Abdi Illey. He was one of the agents; but the others are not on trial today. So what we say is if there is justice and it is needed, we need to deal with the past in a just way. The whole issue has to be investigated. We are waiting for the federal government on that end. We are not satisfied with only putting Abdi Iley on trial. There were other genocides committed which started before 2007. In the Ogaden alone, if you go back to the records, more than 100,000 people are missing. More than 15, 000 women have been raped. There are hundreds of thousands of orphans but it’s still a question which has not been answered.

But because for us, the ONLF, what we believe now is that we have to deal with the past in a constructive way we are not emphasizing on the dark part of the past. What we are emphasizing now is reconciliation, coming together, and peaceful resolution of this conflict. If we started blaming people now what will happen is that there will be polarities and we will not go anywhere. 

But what is your response to those who are rightly blaming the former president? Can there be reconciliation without justice?

Why would they blame only one person? Does the history start only on August 04? The history of Ogaden didn’t start there. What’s going on in Ogaden is very complex and very long drawn out conflict. There has been a lot of crimes committed there and there are a lot of issues that need to be looked at. So the best way forward is to create an investigative body that looks into the whole picture and decides what happens, how to stop that from happening again, and how to go forward. Yes, I believe it’s very simple to blame Abdi Illey or the likes him.

But it is not that simple for the people who are accusing you of having a relationship with him in the past and his sympathizers today. There are strong opinions about your meeting with him in Nairobi in 2017, for example.

No. We were meeting with the Ethiopian Government. We were meeting with the Ethiopian government from 2012. The meeting in 2017 was the last leg of our meeting before he fail on. He was just an element of a delegation. But there are people in office today with special interest in the region who want to use that as a card against ONLF and always emphasize this because their struggle started few months ago and I know some of them are even in power. People who are committing crimes against the Somali people are still in power in the Somali Region. We are not hiding that. That is why our forgiveness is looking over many, many things. For us the struggle did not start in August 2018; it started back in 1994 when our headquarters was attacked. So it is a long struggle; many of us have sacrificed a lot and we see it as a holistic. But people want to distill everything to this guy [Abdi Iley]. This guy has been just an agent. He was not even elected by our people.  He was nominated by a regime. So it’s very simplistic. As I said to you, the people who are trying to blame us are just trying to get a political score; they are not genuine. We shed the blood of our sons and daughters for this country. Not only for Ogaden; we supported the Oromo when their insurrection was there; we supported the Amhara when there was an insurrection; we supported the Konso and others, we supported all Ethiopian people, we were shading our blood for democracy, for change in the whole of Ethiopia and we have been doing this for long. I am almost 60 years old. I started this struggle when I was 16. I was in it for 45 years of my life which I spent for the right of people in this country to live in peace and democracy.

Let me ask you about your relationship with Somali Democratic Party (SDP) and its leadership. As a returnee former rebel group, how are you maneuvering your own existence in the regional state? How are you fine-tuning the transformation of your liberation front into a political party within the existing context of the political infrastructure that is run by SDP, whose chairman, Ahmed Shide, is at the federal government, and Mustafa Omar as deputy president of the region? Simply put, how is your relationship with Mustafa for example, and how do you evaluate your own political prospects within this context?

Mustafa is a newcomer; Somali Democratic Party was there before Mustafa. And Abdi Illey was even at one time its chair. So the issue of the Somali Democratic Party, as I said to you, for us we decide to play a constructive peaceful role because if you look into the past, you don’t move forward. We are in dialogue with the leaders of SDP. We want to rebuild our country together. We want to create democratic space. We accept that we will compete in a peaceful and democratic manner. Now they are in power and we are not even acting as opposition party; we are supporting them. We are constructively supporting them to maintain the peace and reach at a peaceful transition in Somali region. So for us there is not much context of conflict. We are building bridges. That is what our position is as ONLF. We are very positive about that. And Ahmed Shide, as a chairman of the party, we are in a very good terms. He is our colleague. He is a well-educated member of our community representing us in the federal government. So we are building bridges. President Mustefa is now president of the region; he is now responsible for our region. So we have to respect him. We have to work with him and we are building this transition together.

Having said that, there is also competition, a free competition. Because that’s what we are doing. Constructive competition. But even beyond that we want to be involved in building a democratic environment where we can build the Somali Region. A peaceful democratic way with good governance. So we are good at common understanding. Of course there are issues, issues of inequality. They have everything, we have got nothing. But we have our people. About 80 per cent of the people in Somali region support us. For example, last week we celebrated our founding anniversary and hundreds of thousands people came out to celebrate with us. Unfortunately not even one reporter from Ethiopian media reported about it. That’s what we feel about you reporters; you don’t pay attention. I challenge you to go to the region, meet our people, talk to the people and find out what they believe.

But on the other side I want to tell you that we are not confrontational towards this or that party. What we see now is the whole country is in transition. We don’t emphasize parties. What we emphasize is ideas, beliefs and shared destiny. So that’s ONLFs’ position. We don’t emphasize the party differences. We need to build the state with the federal government, because this issue is not limited to Somali region, all the other regions have the same issues. There are ruling parties and there are opposition parties. So actually we can become a model because we are working closely with the ruling party. We are creating an environment where the people can have a chance to express their rights, to democratic rule, to live in peace…that’s what we believe.

Let’s cross the border now. I’m sure you’re following what’s happening in the autonomous region of Jubaland in neighboring Somalia. This is politics we cannot ignore. first, let me ask you if you know and can confirm the rumors that Jubaland leader Ahmed Mohamed Islam, otherwise known as Ahmed Madobe, is still carrying an Ethiopian passport.  

Well, I am not sure about that.

You are not sure?

I am not sure.

As you know tension Ethiopia and Kenya are tussling particularly on the fate of Ahmed Madobe in the run up to the election. What do you think should Ethiopian position have been? Do you think Abiy Ahmed should have dealt with Madobe in a more strategic way? As leader of ONLF who is well versed in the geopolitical intricate of Somali politics, do you agree with the way Ethiopia is handling the case currently? As you know a few days ago a plane carrying Ethiopia army members was denied access to Kismayo airport and that can fairly be consisted as a blow in the face of PM Abiy’s diplomacy. What’s your take on that?

Well, first of all I appreciate very much Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s burden; he is dealing with a lot of burden and a lot of patience. I believe he’s doing very well on many issues. That said, we Somalis have got a lot of stake in the horn of Africa. In Kenya, in Somalia in Djibouti, even as far as Eritrea. So what we would like very much for the Prime Minister, and also the ruling party, is to consider the interests of the Somali people in these region regarding Somalia. What we feel now is our voice is missing from there; if our voices were always there we could have added more nuances. What we would like to see as ONLF and as the people of Somali region is for the Ethiopian government, in dealing with Somalia, to have wider perspective, to know exactly what other dynamics are there; at times we feel that they may not know the final analyses; so what we feel is our voice is missing and what we believe and what we would like is that Ethiopian involvement in Somalia to be in a positive way; that is welcome and we should play a role in that. The Somali-Ethiopia conflict has been going on for quite a long time. Now, things have changed and Somalis and Ethiopians do not see each other as enemies anymore. So we will avoid anything that could create again that scenario which destroyed the Horn of Africa. So we believe we have a common destiny; we can walk together and we have to project friendship and neutrality, not an opposition towards them.

How do you see Ahmed Madobe the person? It is fair to say that he has been an Ethiopian project for a good part of the last two decades. Some even go as far as saying he has influenced Ethiopian politics in Somalia. Provided that he’s going to win this election, as expected, and knowing he will be staying as the leader of the Jubaland, how should Ethiopia position its foreign policy to deal with him and avoid confrontation with kenya? What do you personally advise the government of PM Abiy Ahmed to this end?

One key issue for Ethiopia and even for the Somalis in the regional state, is security. Kismayo is a very strategic position. And if things change there, it will affect the security of this country. And I believe Ahmed Madobe has so far done a good job to that end. For now, we are not sure that if others come the security issue will be maintained. Our fear is that if we don’t treat this carefully and we meddle things, it will affect the entire region because there are forces that are inimical to the peace in Ethiopia. And I believe Ahmed Madobe is handling that force.

But there are well placed diplomatic sources within Ethiopia who are accusing him of training more than 1000 Somali Garre militias drawn from southern tip of Ethiopia as we speak. Can you comment on that?

To be frank with you, all the allegations are manufactured. We are Somalis, we know what’s going on in Jubaland. We know. No Garre are trained in Jubaland; even if they want to train people they would have trained Ogadenis. So this is absolutely false accusation, no Garre is trained in Jubaland. You know what, we have a culture of politics in the Horn of Africa that if you want to fight something you can create a lot of false accusations. So we should be careful about those accusations. AS

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