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In-depth Analysis: ONLF buckles under the pressure of infighting, resignation & disputed removal of leadership. What’s next?

A remarkable turn of events within ONLF means the party has currently both its Chairman Abdirhman Mahdi (left) and Rayaale Hamud as interim chairman (right)

Bileh Jelan @bilehjelan

Addis Abeba, February 04/2021 – The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) was established as a successor of the Western Somali Liberation Front ( WSLF) in 1984. WSLF was a key player in the 1977 Ethiopian-Somali war and was backed by Somalia’s dictator Mohammed Siad Barre to achieve about his grand vision of uniting all Somali territories and bringing it under the sovereignty of one political entity Greater Somalia or in Af Soomaali, Soomaaliweyn.

The war saw the dissolution of the WSLF and its key members founded its successor ONLF. The ONLF, as its predecessor, took part in the Ethiopian Civil War (1974-1991), and their participation culminated in the party’s role in the 1991-1994 transitional government and subsequent ruling of the newly constituted Somali National Regional State. But ONLF’s rule in the Somali region lasted only for 7 months when then president of the region, Abdullahi Muhammed Sa’di, was removed from office. This was largely attributed to internal conflict within the party and external frictions with the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) at the center. The EPRDF then eliminated its opponents in the newly established regional state, pushing the ONLF to take up armed struggle before its leaders’ December 01/2018 return to Ethiopia to pursue peaceful political struggle. The party’s return was made possible following a historic peace agreement signed in Asmara, Eritrea, in October 2018.

Huge following

The ONLF has a huge following among the Somali population of the Somali Regional State, especially the Ogaden clan (a major sub-clan of Darood) that constitute a majority in the Somali Regional State. But that support, along with the official name of the party, has made Somalis of other clans wary of its activities. It is also one of the arguments its detractors often use to attract Somalis who don’t belong to the Ogaden clan and are residents of the region to oppose the ONLF.

This huge support seen in recent rallies held by the party in the Somali Regional State did not only raise alarms among its opponents, including the regional branch of the ruling Prosperity Party, but it failed to prevent the party from showing signs of fractures.

” Intra-party conflict and changes in leadership has also continued long after the party was removed from the terror groups list by the Ethiopian Parliament…”

The ONLF is not new to internal fractures; after the military campaign by the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) was carried out between June 2007 and May 2008, for example, the party suffered huge loses with its foreign relations director being killed as a result of the military campaign prompting several senior members of the party led by Abdul Wali Hussien to break away and form their own faction by appointing one of the group as chairman for the new ONLF, according to their claims. Intra-party conflict and changes in leadership has also continued long after the party was removed from the terror groups list by the Ethiopian Parliament and returned home in 2018. For a close observer, ONLF has seen a series of events that showed early signs of fraction within its ranks.

On Tuesday August 20/2019, Abdirahman Mahdi Madey, chairman of the ONLF, was joined by his former vice chairman Hassan Moalim to give 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. It all seemed perfect.

It all began with what seemed to be a resignation

In November 2019, a month shy of the first year anniversary of ONLF leadership’s return to Ethiopia, its long serving chairman, Admiral Mohammed Omar Osman, stepped down. He served the party in his capacity as chairman for more than 20 years, a period where he oversaw, among many other things, the 2007-2008 conflict in the Somali Region.

His resignation paved the way for the election of a new chairman. Subsequently, the party’s Central Committee has elected Abdirhman Sheik Mahdi as the new chairman, overcoming his challenger, Ahmed Yasin, by 93 votes. As Abdirhman reorganized the party and prepared it for Ethiopia’s general elections, first sign of objection to his chairmanship emerged in March 2020 when Addis Standard received, through a producer at the Somali Regional State Television, a memo that detailed a secret meeting between members of ONLF Executive Committee in which the removal of Abdirhman Mahdi from the leadership position was discussed. Addis Standard at the time asked Hassan Moalim, who was vice chairman and head of the party’s Addis Abeba chapter as well as a member of the central committee, about the details of that meeting, Hassan Moalim denied the occurrence of that meeting and dismissed it as an attempt to attack the party’s unit; Hassan Moalim still denies the occurrence of that meeting long after his resignation from all party positions. Abdirhman Mahdi, the ONLF chairman insists that such information was propagated by the camp opposing his chairmanship to sow doubts about his ability, “It’s a dirty game for them and I know who is standing behind them,” he told Addis Standard. His opponent Ahmed Yasin also denies the occurrence of the meeting but admits, “there were attempts to hold a meeting of the central committee to discuss many issues among them the chairmanship of Abdirhman Mehdi but I have no knowledge of the meeting in question,” he said.

October arrests, what was behind them? What followed?

Abdirhman Mahdi, the party chairman, believes the conspiracy against him and the party’s leadership is aimed at dismantling and dismembering the party’s infrastructure, a concern he shared with Addis Standard back in October when the Somali Regional State Police arrested senior members of the party who are reported to be loyal to its chairman Abdirhman Mahdi. “We have been talking about the harassment, which we were on the receiving end for the last two years now. The regional government is using tactics of intimidation and harassment to provoke and push us into breaking the peace agreement we signed two years ago,” Abdirhman Mahdi said, adding, “We signed a peace deal with the government and we intend to keep our end of the deal, the question remains what is the regional government doing to keep its end?”

“Abdirhman Mahdi, the party chairman, believes the conspiracy against him and the party’s leadership is aimed at dismantling and dismembering the party’s infrastructure.”

Hassan Moalim, the former vice chairman and head of the Addis Abeba chapter of the party who resigned a week after the October arrests disagrees with the chairman’s sentiment and asserts, “not everything is a conspiracy; in the political landscape your opponents will try and overcome you by any means necessary, your responsibility as a party leader is to fend these attacks and move forward.” But he added that, “the arrests of individuals without warrants is a matter of breaking the law, the regional government says that they arrested the individuals for breaking the law but I haven’t seen any evidence to support that.”

Hassan Moalim’s own resignation from all party positions would come just few weeks later on November 06/2020. Hassan attributed his resignation to a division within the party, failure in leadership and failure to transform the party from an armed movement into a political party operating within the system. The party’s chairman Abdirhman didn’t provide any comment on the sudden resignation of his longtime ally and vice chairman and refused to discuss the matter all together. “I only talk on behalf of my party and party members, I wish Mr. Hassan good luck in his future endeavors but I will not discuss any issue related to him,” he told Addis Standard.

Ahmed Yasin, a leading figure in the camp opposing to Abdirhman Mehdi’s chairmanship, sees the resignation as indicator of failure in leadership. “Contrary to what anyone believes, my issue with Mr. Mehdi is that of leadership qualities not personal. He only works with members who share his agendas while ignoring everyone else, even those who matter like Hassan; you saw what happened.”

Shortly after that a source who insisted on remaining anonymous told
Addis Standard that Hassan Moalim’s resignation was followed by the resignation of 12 executive committee members, namely: Mohammed Badri, Hussen Nur, Ahmed Yasin, Ahmed Abdullahi, Dr. Mahmoud Dayib, Fuad Hussen, Halimo Shire, Mohammed Anni, Abdi Hassan, Abdulsattar Indhaburr and Deeq Elabee, from their posts in the committee while maintaining their membership of at the central committee. Ahmed Yasin the central committee member and a leading figure in the camp who is opposed to Abdirhman Mehdi’s chairmanship confirmed to Addis Standard his resignation; and Abdirhman Mehdi, the party chairman, acknowledged the resignation of Ahmed Yasin but disputed the rest. “The executive committee is still intact and I doubt the intention of the people who spread such rumors.”

“Shortly after that a source who insisted on remaining anonymous told Addis Standard that Hassan Moalim’s resignation was followed by the resignation of 12 executive committee members…”

So what seems to be the problem?

The party is, according to Hassan Moalim, who served the party in various positions since 1991, “de facto operating in two factions.” When asked about the details within the party he simply said, “I already told everyone what the problems within the party were that made me resign.” Hassan Moalim explains that beside the issues he mentioned in his resignation letter, the party leadership’s inability to operate and defend itself from attacks, its tendency to ignore the factors that the Somali people have suffered too much in the past 27 years, and the absence of a policy to build a judicial system that guarantees the application of restorative justice for the Somali people in Ethiopia are the main issues he wrestled with while holding positions, including vice chairman, within the party. “When we were abroad, the party’s only policy was to fight against successive Ethiopian governments. When the party came back to the country, it had so many issues that it didn’t discuss before. I mentioned those issues in my resignation letter,” he said, adding, “my inability to take sides within the party, my repeated attempts at reaching a solution that satisfied both parties and both camps accusing me of supporting the other made me question everything and that’s how I came to the decision to resign.”

Ahmed Yasin on his part asserts that “the nature of our dispute with Abdirhman Mehdi lies in the way in which he is running the party.” He explains that there are several points of disagreement with the chairman, including “the absence of restorative justice policy that sees victims of Abdi Illey’s regime (the former president of Somali region facing multiple counts of criminal charges at federal court in Addis Abeba). [These include] receiving compensation and their abusers jail time, the chairman’s alleged alignment with remnants of Abdi Illey’s regime, and the TPLF, the chairman’s sympathy with TPLF made clear by the unilateral statement he issued on the war in Tigray, and lack of leadership qualities needed to make transition into an operational political party.” Ahmed further complains that “When you lead an organization like the ONLF at this critical time, unity should be your utmost priority and his failure to unite the party leaving it to operate in two wings, makes me believe that that he doesn’t have the ability to work with his opponents in the party, and to be honest that is a big issue.”

But despite these accusations that the party is operating in two factions Abdirhman Mehdi insists that the party is operating as a united front and challenges Ahmed Yasin’s assertions. “My opponents use an old argument that because I am from the same clan as the former regional president, I am doing his bidding in the region now,” he told Addis Standard, adding, “the arguments that they present lack rational thinking behind them, how can a political party hold a government accountable without going through the proper channels. This argument is what they use to say that I am incompetent and frankly speaking that is nonsense since demanding [restorative] justice and seeking it should come from within institutions already established.”

A pro-Somali region administration twitter account reports the alleged defection of ONLF leadership to join the regional branch of prosperity Party.

“…the chairman accuses the regional administration, led by Mustefa Omer, deputy president of Somali region, and the ruling Prosperity Party (PP) of trying to dismantle his party.”

When asked about the presence of outside actors’ involvement in what is happening within the party, the chairman accuses the regional administration, led by Mustefa Omer, deputy president of Somali region, and the ruling Prosperity Party (PP) of trying to dismantle his party, “There is only one party in the country that has all the resources, all the logistics and human resources needed to win the elections. They are using their resources to support elements that have no support with the people because they (PP) don’t have the vote and want to divide ONLF votes.” But Ahmed Yasin denied these accusations, and instead blames the chairman. “He (The chairman)  is scapegoating PP for his leadership failure. I deny any involvement with PP either by me or my team. We tried multiple times through many means to convince the chairman to change his mind on important issues and we failed. There lies the conflict.”

What do party observers and even former members think is the problem

Juweria Ali, a PhD Candidate in Politics & International Relations, a writer who has contributed to Addis Standard on ONLF’s history, and an astute long time party observer, sees this development as nothing new. “The dynamics within the party has always been that of fraction and division,” she told Addis Standard. “What makes this time different is the fact that it is about principles. It is over operating either as a political party or a satellite Party.”

“What makes this time different is the fact that it is about principles. It is over operating either as a political party or a satellite Party.”

Juweria Ali

Faisal Roble, a prominent regional observer on Horn of African politics, agrees about the nature of the conflict but adds, “Fear of the center, the stigma the party name has on other major Clans residing in the region, and pressure from the regional administration might have helped exacerbate the problems the party has,” he said.

The former vice chairman Hassan Moalim sees the involvement of PP in party affairs to be unlikely, and cites the absence of a real threat from the ONLF on the national agenda as a reason. “When it comes to the situation in the country the OLF [Oromo Liberation Front] and OFC [Oromo Federalist Congress] were rooting for federal domination unlike the ONLF, which sees itself as a regional party and want to focus on the Somali region alone. Even if ONLF wanted to run for federal positions they can’t do it without support from other populations that are larger in numbers, which I believe ONLF does not have,” Hassan says and insists, “all these factors make decision makers in PP believe that ONLF is not a major threat to their agenda.” However, he acknowledged that there was a possibility of PP’s involvement in ONLF’s internal affairs. “Politics is a game and if you can push your opponents out of the way without harming them and stripping them of their rights then that is a fair game. All opposition parties will do the same to PP if they had the resources and power to do so, if you don’t have a problem with that then you shouldn’t have a problem with PP doing the same to its opponents,” he said. He sees the problem within the party as a problem over principles: “It is two competing agendas, those who want to operate within the system and those who want to stay out of it.”

Social Media adding to contradicting statements

The opposing camp within the ONLF party took to social media as a new technique to resolve the conflict. ONLF under the leadership of Abdirhman Mehdi has been operating a twitter account @ONLFofficial as its official and only twitter account. However, since reports about the fracture within the party emerged, several accounts that claim to represent the official stand of ONLF began surfacing and disputing the information published by the original account. Most notably a twitter account @ONLF_Official popped up and began gaining followers and disseminating information that contradicted many statements issued by the original twitter account of the party. The new handle, which has since been deactivated, claimed it represented the official stand of the party’s leadership. This led the operators behind the original account to issue a statement distancing the party from the new account, and accusing those behind it of “spreading lies.”

Quickly, a new account claiming, yet again, to represent the official stand of ONLF, emerged. @ONLFofficial2 started spreading information that caused a lot of controversy within what’s inside and outside the party; although some of the information published under that account, such as the meeting that took place between members of the central committee between Jan 22-23, was confirmed to Addis Standard as having taken place by both Ahmed Yasin and Abdirhman Mahdi , both gave different accounts of what actually happened in the meeting.

Provocative statements accusing the Somali region administration kept being issued through the ONLF original twitter account.On January 31, the handle issued a statement accusing the regional administration of meddling with its affairs and attempting to rig elections in the region by supporting the breakaway faction within the party. “The Admin in the #Somalistate in #Jigjiga has ordered the 20 Kebeles of the town to bring each 30 persons to attend the so-called meeting they are organizing today in order 2 publicize & get credibility for the fabricated “ONLF” leaders they created.”

Latest development, future plans and solutions to the conflict

In an apparent escalation of the situation within the party, members of the central committee opposed to Abdirhman Mahdi chairmanship have issued a press statement on January 23 in which they announced that an extra-ordinary session of the central committee took place between Jan 20 – Jan 23 and the following decisions were made: the termination of Abdirhman Mahdi tenure as chairman of the party and the appointment of Rayaale Hamud, the vice chairman of the party, as interim chairman until national congress is held and a new chairman is elected.

However, Abdirhman Mahdi told Addis Standard, that “the move is against party bylaws and therefore unrecognizable.” He added that, “this is an attempt by the regional administration, and president Mustafa Omar in particular, to divide votes and get a leg up in his campaign to retain control over the regional administration in the upcoming election.” Mr Mehdi explained that he was in Addis Abeba attending an event related to building regional stability while the said central committee meeting was held and that he was on his way to Jigjiga, the capital of Somali region, to deal with the matter head on.

On the same day on January 23, Mustafa Omer, the regional deputy president, contacted a senior member of Addis Standard with the picture of Rayaale Hamud and a message: “Rayaale Hamud, new interim chairman of ONLF. Is this not news worthy?

Ahmed Yassin said he attended the meeting as part of the 91 central committee members and participated in the discussions that led, according to him, to a majority (50% +1) supported decision to remove Abdirhman Mahdi and appoint his vice chairman Rayaale Hamud as interim chairman. The decision will be confirmed in the upcoming meeting of the party’s general congress scheduled to take place in 4 months from the date of the meeting. “After a long heated debate, we arrived at this decision. It is unfortunate but necessary for the party to remain united and face future challenges,” he said.

On the same day on January 23, Mustafa Omer, the regional deputy president, contacted a senior member of Addis Standard with the picture of Rayaale Hamud and a message: “Rayaale Hamud, new interim chairman of ONLF. Is this not news worthy? Please follow this story.” But it is not clear why the internal events within ONLF picked Mustefa’s keen interest in getting the news published.

Few days after the meeting, the offices of ONLF in two capitals of two zones (Jarar and Qorahay) in the Somali Regional State were closed down in the cities of Degehabur and Qabridahare. The leadership of the party under Abdirhman Mahdi accused the regional government of closing the offices down the offices in what it described as “An attempt to provoke ONLF into violence and an attempt to hinder its ability to participate in the election.” In a series of tweets on the original twitter page (@ONLFofficial), ONLF promised that it will maintain peace in the region.

In a YouTube message published on January 30 the party’s disciplinary committee said it took what it described as disciplinary measures and discharged 23 members,including members of the central committee and rank and file members, and suspended six more for six months. The party’s disciplinary committee cited breaking party bylaws as a reason behind the discharge and suspension of these members.

In an incredible twist, the discharged members include Rayaalae Hamud,  who was former vice chairman and has just been appointed as interim chairman at the January 22-23 extraordinary session of the central committee, attended, among others, by Ahmed Yasin , a former contender to chairmanship and a former member of the Central Committee.

Still, for Ahmed Yasin the only solution is the removal of Abdirhman Mahdi he told Addis Standard. “The only solution is Mr. Mehdi’s removal and the holding of a central committee meeting followed by a general congress where a new chairman will be decided.” When asked if he will stand for election if what he described took place, his reply was, “Of course!  I will be contending for the chairmanship position.” Abdirhman Mahdi doesn’t acknowledge his opponents’ complaints and dismisses them as “Part of PP campaign plan to divide the Somali vote supporting ONLF.” But he concedes that their complaints could be addressed within party bylaws, “if their concerns are real and require leadership change, they could have gone through proper channels within party bylaws instead of going public, which was not in the best interest of the party.”

Abdirhman lays the blame on his main opponent Ahmed Yasin and says, “his attempts at trying to remove me without going through the proper channels means two things: he is motivated by outside actors and he doesn’t have the votes to carry out his motion.” 

In a dramatic escalation of things, the latest statement published via the twitter handle controlled by Abdirhman and his team came today (February 04) in which the party accused the administration of Somali region of removing the security of its Chairman Abdirhman Mahdi. “The responsiility of any harm to the chair lies with the Somali state,” the message ends. AS

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