The OLF statement, released on January 1st and announcing the results of its December 30-31 meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota, states that the Council “has examined all aspects of the Oromo peoples’ struggle; the political program of the OLF; the current conditions of the Ethiopian peoples under the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi; and the importance of working with all democratic forces in Ethiopia to end the suffering. ... The New OLF political program will accept the new federal democratic republic of Ethiopia that will work for the betterment of all of its citizens, neighboring countries and international communities. ... Therefore, we call upon all Oromo political forces and other forces in Ethiopia to join us to implement this new vision. The OLF National Council also appeals to International Community to stop supporting the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi’s regime that has engaged in terrorizing the Ethiopian people, selling the precious resources of the country to the highest bidders, and the government that does not respect the principles of democracy, human rights and rule of law.” (You can read the entire OLF press release here.)
Map showing the aspirant nation of Oromia within what is now Ethiopia
As is usual with these complex topics, a brief history lesson is in order.
Ethiopia is a country with no ethnic majority. The Oromo are the largest group, making up 34.5% of the population. The Amhara, with 26.9%, are the next largest, while the rest of the population is made up of dozens of groups with a 10% share or smaller. Emperor Haile Selassie, the national hero (and international hero to the African diaspora), who ruled Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, was a popular uniting figure partly because he was of mixed ancestry, being from the Oromo, Amhara, and Gurage ethnic groups (the Gurage are 2.5% of the population) (in addition to being, by popular tradition, a direct descendant of the Hebrew King Solomon).
Ethiopia’s ethnic regions
Mengistu Haile Mariam
The flag of Ethiopia
By 1974, when Ethiopia became Marxist, Somalia had for five years already been in the grip of the coup leader Mohammed Siad Barre, under a more moderate Socialist banner. Barre’s infatuation with Communism soured after the Soviet Union helped Ethiopia win the 1977 war with Somalia over the Ogaden region. After this, Barre began courting the U.S., which, not minding terribly much that Somalia was a socialist dictatorship, mostly wanted to seize the opportunity to partially encircle the Soviet client state of Ethiopia. The U.S. poured military aid into Somalia, while, according to the U.S.’s Somali allies, Ethiopia supported rebel factions throughout Somalia in an attempt to destabilize it. Around the time Ethiopian Communism fell in 1991, Somalia imploded, resulting in the Somali Civil War and the disastrous U.S. intervention there during President George H. W. Bush Sr.’s administration. Although Ethiopia was no longer an ideological enemy, the U.S. has since sought to prop up what passed for a unity government in Somalia, even as bits of it like Somaliland and Puntland split away (see map below). Today the U.S., with the rest of the international community, recognizes only the so-called Transitional Federal Government—I say “so-called” because it controls little more than much of the capital, Mogadishu. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, and especially after the first World Trade Center bombing, in 1993, the U.S. became concerned that Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations had found a haven both in the chaos of Somalia and in neighboring Sudan. Comfortable with Puntland and Somaliland as stable pseudo-states which did not allow Al-Qaeda to operate there, the U.S. began to focus, vainly, on helping the TFG control central and southern Somalia.
Areas of control in Somalia today
The orchestration of South Sudan’s secession from the Republic of Sudan in July 2011—a process initiated under President George W. Bush, and then completed under Barack Obama—can also be seen as a deliberate crippling of the terrorist-harboring regime of Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum. With South Sudan now a U.S. client state (without the U.S. it would not exist), and with the rump Sudan under ongoing international pressure for its human-rights abuses in Darfur and elsewhere, the past few months have also seen a major U.S.-led offensive to root out the al-Qaeda-aligned terrorist al-Shabab network which controls much of southern Somalia. In early 2011, the very southwesternmost region of Somalia—calling itself by a variety of names, including Azania, Jubaland, and even “Greenland”—attempted to set up an autonomous region and de facto independent state on the model of Somaliland and Puntland, specifically as a bulwark against al-Shabab. However, soon after, in the fall, a U.S.-supported invasion across the Somali border by Kenya put the kind of pressure on al-Shabab from the south that the U.S.-supported TFG never could from the north. Meanwhile, just in the past couple weeks, Ethiopia invaded southern Somalia as well, capturing some border regions and further tightening the noose on al-Shabab. Clearly, this represents a recent diplomatic success by the U.S. in securing Ethiopia as an at least temporary ally. Surely the U.S.-supported international sanctions current embargoing Ethiopia’s enemy Eritrea for supposedly backing al-Shabab helped ingratiate Ethiopia to the U.S.
The 2011 Kenyan invasion of southern Somalia
All of these events have helped transform the Horn of Africa, in a few short years, from a country with vast swaths of territory in the control of violent Islamists into an area with U.S. allies in the form of South Sudan, Kenya, Somalia (at least the southern half), and, now, perhaps, Ethiopia, all fighting alongside the U.S. against al-Shabab. Perhaps the U.S. hopes that this latest defection of one Oromo faction from separatist rebellion to unity government in some sort of emerging alliance with an Amhara- and Tigray-dominated government in Addis Ababa will be one of the puzzle pieces that helps consolidate the Horn of Africa, in these uncertain times of Muslim upheaval around the world, into a more or less safe region for American interests. Perhaps one side effect of this will be that the U.S. helps usher Ethiopia away from authoritarianism and toward becoming an ethnically unified country that is a stabilizing force in the region. But it may be a gamble. And, if it fails, Somalia may eventually succeed in dragging Ethiopia down into its own familiar chaos.
|Members of the Oromo diaspora in the U.S. display their ethnic flag at a demonstration|
[You can read more about Oromia and other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar. The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon. Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this special announcement for more information on the book.]