Silence and pain: human rights in the Ogaden

Martin Plaut


The Ogaden is Ethiopia’s dark, dirty secret. It is far from prying international eyes, where almost anything can be done to anyone the government does not like.

The Ogaden was conquered and forcibly incorporated into Ethiopia by Emperor Menelik II in the last quarter of the 19th century. Its Somali speaking, almost exclusively Muslim community, never really accepted an Ethiopian identity. In 1977 it was the scene of an international conflict, as Somali President Siad Barre attempted to wrest the region from Ethiopia. The Soviet Union poured arms and Cuban troops into Ethiopia and the invasion was halted. The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) has been fighting the Ethiopian government since 1995, and local people have been caught up in the conflict.

Oagen 1The Ethiopian authorities have sealed off the region to international journalists.

As Human Rights Watch wrote as early as 2008: “The Ethiopian government’s reaction to reports of abuses in 2007 has been to deny the allegations, disparage the sources, and actively restrict or control access to the region by journalists, human rights groups, and aid organizations (including by expelling the International Committee of the Red Cross in July 2007)”. [See Annex below] When two Swedes, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, entered the Ogaden with the ONLF in July 2011 they were captured. The two men were sentenced to 11 years in jail and only freed in September 2012, after appeals for clemency.[1]

As Human Rights reported:[2]

“Ethiopian troops have forcibly displaced entire rural communities, ordering villagers to leave their homes within a few days or witness their houses being burnt down and their possessions destroyed—and risk death. Over the past year, Human Rights Watch has documented the execution of more than 150 individuals, many of them in demonstration killings, with Ethiopian soldiers singling out relatives of suspected ONLF members, or making apparently arbitrary judgments that individuals complaining to soldiers or resisting their orders are ONLF supporters.”

Since 2008 few reliable reports have been published. The UN Commissioner for  Human Rights has received submissions from time to time – some of them detailed and well sourced.[3] But they have received little international media attention.

A terrible silence has descended over the Ogaden.

In recent weeks I have been contacted by Ogadenis living in exile, who have begun to send me information. These testimonies cannot be independently verified, but since the alternative is not to speak about the human rights violations that are almost certainly taking place, I have decided to publish them.

The testimonies come at the same time as the mysterious disappearance of two senior ONLF negotiators from Nairobi.[4] The two men – Sulub Ahmed and Ali Hussein were members of the ONLF negotiation team that was in Nairobi for a proposed third round of talks with the Ethiopian government. They disappeared from a restaurant by men in three cars – the ONLF believes they were abducted by Kenyan and Ethiopian security forces and possibly taken by force into Ethiopia. The ONLF say this is the second time the Ethiopians have abducted and killed negotiators – the last time it happened in 1989.[5]

The story of Balidhuure

Balidhuure village, 150 kilometres South-East of the city of Harar, has been the scene of repeated atrocities carried out by Ethiopian security forces.  The village, which is home to about 1,500 people, lives on its goat, sheep and camels. This is a dry semi-desert region, with low bushes providing what fodder the animals need.  It should be a peaceful rural scene, but this is a region living in fear.  Ethiopian troops patrol the villages and have bases in the main towns.  Over the past 5 years repeated atrocities have been inflicted on local people, who are accused of supporting the liberation movement, the Ogaden National Liberation Front. This is the testimony of Captain Hassan Mohammed Abdi, who has since fled from the country. It offers a rare glimpse into an area from which all independent journalists have been banned, and from which international aid agencies are banned.

The Liyu Police – brutal arm of the Ethiopian state

Ogaden 3Repression in the Ogaden is mainly carried out by the notorious Liyu Police; this is a locally recruited force that has been widely condemned for the repressive methods that it uses.

This is how the force is described by Human Rights Watch:[6]

“Ethiopian authorities created the Liyu (“special” in Amharic) police in the Somali region in 2007 when an armed conflict between the insurgent Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the government escalated. By 2008 the Liyu police became a prominent counterinsurgency force recruited and led by the regional security chief at that time, Abdi Mohammed Omar (known as “Abdi Illey”), who is now the president of Somali Regional State.

The Liyu police have been implicated in numerous serious abuses against civilians throughout the Somali region in the context of counterinsurgency operations. The legal status of the force is unclear, but credible sources have informed Human Rights Watch that members have received training, uniforms, arms, and salaries from the Ethiopian government via the regional authorities.”

In January 2013 it was reported that the Liyu police numbered between 10,000 and 14,000. The force was accused of numerous human rights abuses and summary executions.[7] The Guardian newspaper reported that it had seen an internal British government document, from the Department for International Development, indicating that there were plans to spend £13m–15m of aid money on the force as part of a five year “peace-building” programme. The report was denied by the British government, which said all funding would go via United Nations agencies and not through the Ethiopian authorities.[8]

 Despite these assurances concern about the behaviour of the Liyu police remains. The testimony below and the reports of atrocities carried out in recent weeks indicate these are well placed.

 Testimony of Captain Hassan Mohammed Abdi aka Hassan Afo, a former member of the Liyu Police, who was active with the force in Degehbur Province. June 2012.

“In Balidhuure village (Eastern Degehbur Province) located in between Gurdumi and Koore, a Liyu police unit that left from Aware and commanded by Major Kidinbir rounded up and finally driven away most of the people that lived in the area. Among them was a disabled man who walks with a stick named Ina-Yul-yul or the son of Yul-yul. Not far from the village of Balidhuure, the handicapped man, Ina-Yul-yul could not continue walking. One of the Liyu policemen noticed this and he informed Major Kidinbir by radio. Major Kidinbir said, “He can’t walk? Then kill him where he is at right now.” That’s how Ina-Yulyul was shot and killed. He was killed because of one of his brothers was among the ONLF fighters.”

Reports of human rights atrocities committed in the Ogaden Region over the previous month.

25/12/13: In Guna’gado district of Degahbur province, at least 25 civilians were  detained and 25,000 Ethiopian birr was stolen from them

5/1/14:  In Gasaangas in Hamara district 5 civilians are unlawfully detained. They were: Hassan Geday, Hassan Nour Moalim Ibrahim, Rukiya Moalim Ibraahin, Anbiya Sheikh Mohammed and Nafis.

5/1/14:  In Dhuhun a girl named, Halimo Duulane was detained .

10/1/14: In  Eastern Iimay, Fadumo Wacdi Ahmed, Sa’ada Hassan and Gordo Abdi God were detained by the Ethiopian Security Forces.

10/1/14,In Guna’gado, Mohammed Isse Gu’had was tortured, detained and his 11 camels were stolen.

3/1/14: Hamuud-ka, in Fiq Province, the security forces detained Mohammed Ibrahim.

5/1/14:  Ya’hob Village in Fiq Province, the security forced killed in a cold-blood Abdullahi Lo’bari in cold blood and injured Ahmed Hassan Awl.

5/1/14: Hamaro in Nogob Province, the security forces detained several people : Mohammed Abdi Rahman Omar, Abdirahman Bade, Ta’kal Yousouf and Ina-Barud.


Amnesty International on Ethiopia’s Ogaden region[9]

In September, the government and the ONLF briefly entered into peace talks with a view to ending the two-decade long conflict in the Somali region. However, the talks stalled in October. The army, and its proxy militia, the Liyu police, faced repeated allegations of human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, extrajudicial executions, and rape. Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees were widely reported. None of the allegations was investigated and access to the region remained severely restricted. In June, UN employee Abdirahman Sheikh Hassan was found guilty of terrorism offences over alleged links to the ONLF, and sentenced to seven years and eight months’ imprisonment. He was arrested in July 2011 after negotiating with the ONLF over the release of two abducted UN World Food Programme workers.


Human Rights Watch on Ethiopia’s Ogaden region

Ethiopia: UPR Submission September 2013 [10]

November 14, 2013

Ethiopia’s human rights situation since 2009 has been marked by a harsh intolerance for any criticism of government actions and a sharp decline in freedoms of expression and association. Critics of government policy continue to be subjected to harassment, arbitrary detention, and politically motivated prosecutions. Two repressive laws passed in 2009—the Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSO law) and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation—have been used to decimate independent media and civil society organizations.

Political space has also constricted as the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has consolidated control, the EPRDF officially won 99.6% of the votes in the 2010 parliamentary elections after intimidating political opponents, restricting media, and ensuring political support through its control of access to government services and other resources. Over the past five years most legitimate political avenues for peaceful protest have been shut down and opposition leaders, civil society activists, and independent journalists have been jailed or forced to flee…

Lack of Accountability for Abuses by Security Forces

Ethiopian security forces have committed serious violations of international humanitarian law in at least three separate armed conflict situations over the past decade: in the Somali Region in 2007, in Somalia between 2006 and 2008, and in Gambella in 2003 and 2004.  Human Rights Watch concluded that abuses committed by Ethiopian forces in Somalia amounted to war crimes, and that abuses committed in Somali Region and Gambella amounted to crimes against humanity.

The Ethiopian government routinely dismisses serious allegations of human rights abuses as unreliable or politically motivated. On a handful of occasions, the authorities have established investigations into large-scale abuses, including after allegations of crimes against humanity in Gambella in 2003, the post-election violence in 2005, and in response to a Human Rights Watch report documenting war crimes in the Ogaden area of Somali Regional State in 2007. The inquiry into post-election violence was the most credible initiative, but after the members of the inquiry concluded that police used excessive force against protesters, killing up to 200 people, the inquiry’s findings were altered and the authors of the report were threatened and fled Ethiopia. The 2008 inquiry into events in the Ogaden failed to meet basic standards of credibility and failed to find any evidence of serious abuses by Ethiopian security forces.

Ethiopia rejected recommendations during the 2009 UPR to investigate human rights abuses committed by security forces in the Somali Region.

Human Rights Watch Report June 2008


 Tens of thousands of ethnic Somali civilians living in eastern Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State are experiencing serious abuses and a looming humanitarian crisis in the context of a little-known conflict between the Ethiopian government and an Ethiopian Somali rebel movement. The situation is critical. Since mid-2007, thousands of people have fled, seeking refuge in neighboring Somalia and Kenya from widespread Ethiopian military attacks on civilians and villages that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

For those who remain in the war-affected area, continuing abuses by both rebels and Ethiopian troops pose a direct threat to their survival and create a pervasive culture of fear. The Ethiopian military campaign of forced relocations and destruction of villages reduced in early 2008 compared to its peak in mid-2007, but other abuses— including arbitrary detentions, torture, and mistreatment in detention—are continuing. These are combining with severe restrictions on movement and commercial trade, minimal access to independent relief assistance, a worsening drought, and rising food prices to create a highly vulnerable population at risk of humanitarian disaster.

Although the conflict has been simmering for years with intermittent allegations of abuses, it took on dramatic new momentum after the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) attacked a Chinese-run oil installation in Somali Region in April 2007, killing more than 70 Chinese and Ethiopian civilians. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government, led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, responded by launching a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in the five zones of Somali Region primarily affected by the conflict: Fiiq, Korahe, Gode, Wardheer, and Dhagahbur. In these zones the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) have deliberately and repeatedly attacked civilian populations in an effort to root out the insurgency.

Ethiopian troops have forcibly displaced entire rural communities, ordering villagers to leave their homes within a few days or witness their houses being burnt down and their possessions destroyed—and risk death. Over the past year, Human Rights Watch has documented the execution of more than 150 individuals, many of them in demonstration killings, with Ethiopian soldiers singling out relatives of suspected ONLF members, or making apparently arbitrary judgments that individuals complaining to soldiers or resisting their orders are ONLF supporters.

These executions have sometimes involved strangulation, after which their bodies are left lying in the open as a warning, for villagers to bury. The information confirmed by Human Rights Watch is only a glimpse of what is taking place—real figures are likely to be higher.

Mass detentions without any judicial oversight are routine. Hundreds—and possibly thousands—of individuals have been arrested and held in military barracks, sometimes multiple times, where they have been tortured, raped, and assaulted. Confiscation of livestock (the main asset among the largely pastoralist population), restrictions on access to water, food, and other essential commodities, and obstruction of commercial traffic and humanitarian assistance have been used as weapons in an economic war aimed at cutting off ONLF supplies and collectively punishing communities that are suspected of supporting the rebels.

These crimes are being committed with total impunity, on the thinnest of pretexts.

They are generating a perception in the area that simply being an ethnic Somali—and particularly a member of the Ogaadeeni clan which constitutes the backbone of the ONLF—is enough to render a person suspect in the eyes of the national government.

As one young man told Human Rights Watch, “Anyone with a bowl of water is suspected of supplying the ONLF.” Ethiopian military personnel who ordered or participated in attacks on civilians should be held responsible for war crimes. Senior military and civilian officials who knew or should have known of such crimes but took no action may be criminally liable as a matter of command responsibility. The widespread and apparently systematic nature of the attacks on villages throughout Somali Region is strong evidence that the killings, torture, rape, and forced displacement are also crimes against humanity for which the Ethiopian government bears ultimate responsibility.


The ONLF has also been responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law (the laws of war). These include the summary execution of dozens of Chinese and Ethiopian civilians in the context of its April 2007 attack on the oil installation, the ONLF practice of killing suspected government collaborators, and the indiscriminate mining of roads used by government convoys. Those who ordered or carried out such acts are responsible for war crimes. Many civilians feel trapped with no refuge from ONLF pressure or the abuses by Ethiopian troops.

The Ethiopian government has repeatedly dismissed or minimized concerns about the human rights and humanitarian situation in Somali Region. It often claims, particularly to the international audience, that insecurity in the region is the work of Eritrean-backed “terrorists” seeking to destabilize Ethiopia. There is no question that the political dynamics in Somali Region intertwine with regional dynamics and are influenced by the continuing hostility between Eritrea and Ethiopia as well as events in neighboring Somalia. The application of terrorist rhetoric to the internal conflict with the ONLF, however, appears designed mainly to attract support from the United States as part of the “war on terror.” It does not justify violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

The government faces complex challenges in Somali Region. The ONLF, which claims to be seeking self-determination for the region, represents only a segment of the divided Ethiopian Somali community. There are legitimate fears that the escalating conflict across the border in Somalia could spill into Ethiopia. The authorities face difficult questions on how to best establish the rule of law in a remote, poverty stricken region largely inhabited by pastoralists who have little knowledge of or confidence in state institutions that have long neglected them. Instead of addressing these challenges in good faith with efforts to build institutions and accountability to support the rule of law and reduce the appeal of armed groups, the government has implemented violent repression, echoing the response to the region of previous Ethiopian administrations. The Ethiopian government’s reaction to reports of abuses in 2007 has been to deny the allegations, disparage the sources, and actively restrict or control access to the  region by journalists, human rights groups, and aid organizations (including by expelling the International Committee of the Red Cross in July 2007).

Due to increasing alarm over humanitarian conditions, particularly malnutrition rates among children, the UN and some nongovernmental organizations were permitted to expand humanitarian programs in parts of the region in late 2007, a small positive step. However these operations have been limited to certain geographic areas, are vulnerable to constant government threats and harassment, are sometimes unable to operate with sufficient independence from government control, and have no protection mandate or capacity to respond to the attacks on civilians which remain the biggest priority for many affected communities.

The Ethiopian government’s politicized manipulation of humanitarian operations, particularly food distribution, plus the continued restrictions on commercial traffic and trade are creating a situation that—in combination with the drought produced by failed rains—could quickly slip into catastrophe.

The Ethiopian government should take urgent action to ensure that the needs of vulnerable civilians in Somali Region are prioritized, including in emergency appeals. Yet due to government obstruction and restrictions on access to conflict-affected zones, humanitarian agencies cannot even conduct the independent nutritional assessments needed to fully assess the scale and formulate a proper response to the potential crisis.

The international response to the situation ranges from insipid to disingenuous. Western governments, including the US, UK, and European Union, which  cumulatively provide almost US$2 billion of aid to Ethiopia every year and rely on the Ethiopian government as a key ally in a volatile region, have sent a number of delegations to the region but have refrained from even mild public concern, much less criticism. The US government, which is a staunch Ethiopian ally—particularly in counter-terrorism efforts—and has probably the greatest leverage of any of the donor governments, has minimized and possibly actively ignored internal concerns and reporting on the situation.

Instead of maintaining the complicity of silence, donor governments should start using their leverage to insist on three sets of immediate actions in Somali Region.

First, both the Ethiopian government and the ONLF should support full, unhindered and immediate access to the region for independent aid organizations, the media, and human rights groups, and the government should lift restrictions on commercial trade and civilian and livestock movement, including across the border with Somaliland. Implementing this recommendation would have an immediate positive effect on civilian access to water and grazing for their livestock, food, and local markets and could mitigate the impending food crisis. Humanitarian organizations should also have immediate, unimpeded access to conduct independent nutritional surveys in all affected areas and properly monitor food distribution to ensure it is not diverted.

Second, the Ethiopian government should immediately issue clear public orders to the armed forces and all other security agencies in Somali Region to cease abuses of civilians, including the military’s forced relocations, extrajudicial executions, mass detentions, and mistreatment of detainees. The ONLF should also cease killings of civilians, including government officials, desist from the indiscriminate use of mines along key roads in Somali Region and publicly commit to abide by international humanitarian law.

Third, Ethiopian authorities should establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the allegations of abuses by all parties to the conflict and begin short and long-term efforts to ensure accountability for abuses by government security forces in Somali Region and elsewhere, including judicial and security sector reforms.

[10] UPR – Universal Public Review of human rights by the United Nations.