The Ogaden Muslims’ long history of resistance and suffering under Ethiopian rule

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Fahad Ansari

Dhu al-Hijjah 22, 1428 2008-01-01

Special Reports

by Fahad Ansari (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 11, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1428)

Ethiopia’s war in Muslim Somalia has been one of the major news stories of the last year. However, less well-known is the fact that Somali Muslims living under Ethiopian rule in the Ogaden have a 700-year history of resistance against Ethiopian rule. FAHAD ANSARI reports.

On December 28, 2006, Ethiopian troops succeeded in occupying Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. The excuse cited was to end the supposedly oppressive rule of the Union of Islamic Courts, which had come to power six months earlier. With reports even by Western think tanks describing the brief rule of the UIC as a ‘golden age' of peace and security for Somalia, it was apparent that Ethiopia's intervention was far from humanitarian.

In fact, for the Ethiopians the occupation of Mogadishu was the final chapter in a series of wars fought in the Horn of Africa which began with Abyssinia's aggression against its Muslim neighbours over 700 years ago. Most of these wars took place in the Ogaden, an ethnically Somali and Muslim-majority province under Ethiopian occupation. For 700 years the Muslims of the Ogaden have refused to live under foreign rule, repeatedly taking up arms against any foreign power that tries to subjugate them. That resistance continues today.

The Christian Abyssinians' hatred of Islam and subsequent aggression in the fourteenth century stemmed from the rapid spread of Islam throughout the Horn of Africa, and the creation of small but powerful Islamic emirates and sultanates, such as those in Ifat and Adal in the Ogaden region of what later became Western Somalia. These emirates, and in particular the city of Harar, were centres of Islamic learning and civilisation in the region and were specifically targeted for this reason. Jihad was subsequently declared against Abyssinia, with Muslim forces repeatedly gaining the upper hand in the many battles against invading armies. In 1535, when on the brink of defeat, Abyssinia appealed to the Pope and to Christian Europe to rescue their fellow Christian nation: an appeal which was to be repeated by every subsequent leader in almost every battle against the Muslims to the present day. With the assistance of the Portuguese, Abyssinia finally succeeded in reducing Adal to the city-state of Harar.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Menelik II became king of Shoa and set in motion plans to Christianise the Muslim and pagan inhabitants of the region. With Italy, Russia and France all providing Ethiopia with military and political assistance, it was only a matter of time before Harar was occupied. The atrocities that followed were some of the worst the region has witnessed: boys being skinned alive and mutilated, girls being raped and slaughtered, and mosques razed and replaced by churches. Menelik's contempt for Islam was apparent in his victory speech, in which he stated that “This is not a Muslim country as everyone knows”. He was duly rewarded for his actions and became emperor in 1889, proclaiming himself “king of kings”.

Ethiopia's ties with the Christian world were further cemented by Ethiopia's being admitted into the Brussels General Act, which permitted Ethiopia (as a “Christian nation”) to import arms without restriction. Ethiopia's unique standing among the colonial powers can be seen from the circular sent by Menelik to the European powers during the scramble for Africa, in which he stated that “I have not the least intention of remaining a disinterested onlooker if powers from a distance come with a notion of dividing Africa among themselves, Ethiopia having been during the course of quite 14 centuries, an island inhabited by Christians in a sea of pagans.” This became the mantra of every subsequent emperor who appealed to Europe for political, military and economic assistance.

At the turn of the century came the beginning of the legendary Dervish jihad of Sayyid Mohammed Abdilleh Hassan. Dubbed the ‘Mad Mullah' by the British, the Sayyid spent the last two decades of his life waging the longest and bloodiest colonial resistance Africa has ever witnessed. Having frequently travelled around the Muslim world in search of knowledge, the Sayyid was very well informed about the oppression of Muslims by imperialists in various parts of the world. On his return to his homeland, he realised the disastrous consequences of living under Christian imperial rule, in particular with the spread of missionary activity on an enormous scale. Deeply concerned, he began to advocate a return to Islamic practices and methods; in particular he condemned un-Islamic practices such as the chewing of khat, consumption of alcohol and free mixing of men and women.

In anticipation of the repression that inevitably follows preaching of the truth, the Sayyid began to encourage Muslims to commit themselves to jihad with gifted eloquence in his speeches, writings and, most importantly, his poetry, which remains a source of Somali pride to this day. Despite not being a ruler of any sort, he wrote to the British colonialists, giving them the choice between being at war and paying jizya. Although his immediate concern was the Ethiopian occupation of the Ogaden, the Sayyid's letter resulted in his being labelled a rebel by the British, and war was subsequently declared on him and his followers.

Surprised by the ferocity of the resistance, Britain enlisted the support of Ethiopia and Italy to defeat the Sayyid. But even with infantry, firepower and organisation far superior to the Dervish forces, the colonialists could not overcome the spirit of the resistance and suffered huge losses. Unfortunately, like many contemporary Islamic movements today, the Dervishes were unable to hold onto the territory they liberated and were ultimately driven from the land in 1920, when an unprecedented military campaign consisting of camel corps, Indian infantry, scouts, the navy and (for the first time) aerial bombardment was launched against the Dervishes.

Although he had been defeated, memories of the Sayyid's initial victories and his heroic resistance lingered in Somali minds for many years, with newfound certainty that it is not impossible to liberate the Ogaden. Additionally, he pioneered a new form of organisation and leadership that was completely alien to Somalia. Until then, the Somali people had had no allegiance to any authority other than loose clan affiliation. But his organisation of the Dervishes as a militarised religious autocracy gave Somalia the unprecedented experience of a powerful centralised authority that transcended the traditional divisions of Somali society. As we shall see, it was this legacy which inspired later generations to rise up against the occupation and which continues to inspire Somalis today.

For the next few decades non-violent political organisations, such as the Somali Youth League (SYL), became more popular. However, their failure to achieve any substantial progress in their efforts to liberate the Ogaden meant that it was only a matter of time before the fire of the Sayyid was lit once more, this time in the body of Garad Makhtal Dahir. Deeply frustrated by the SYL's lack of progress, Garad, a senior member, rallied together a band of men willing to raise arms against the Ethiopians ( to whom the British had since ceded the Ogaden) and launched a series of random attacks on Ethiopian forces. After spending twelve years in an Ethiopian jail, Garad emerged in 1962 to find a new generation of Somalis prepared to die in pursuit of freedom. The following year he was elected leader of the newly-formed Ogaden Liberation Front (OLF), or Nasrullah, as it was known locally.

War broke out again in 1964: the OLF incited people all over the Ogaden to rebel against the brutal rule of Ethiopia, thereby inflicting heavy casualties on the occupation forces. Ethiopia blamed the newly-independent Somali state for initiating and supporting the uprising and in retaliation began a full-scale aerial bombardment of Somalia. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) brokered a peace between the two countries, following which the people of Ogaden were betrayed by the Somali state. Between 1967 and 1969, in an attempt to win Western political, economic and military support, prime minister Egal adopted a détente policy under which he suppressed the OLF and other resistance movements and prevented them from operating withinSomalia. Although Egal's compromises earned him an invitation to the White House in 1968, the economic and political benefits he had expected in exchange failed to materialize.

Egal was eventually overthrown in a coup d'etat led by Mohamed Siad Barre, who condemned his policy of détente. By 1976 the Somali government had helped to create the West Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) out of the ashes of the OLF. At the height of the Cold War Barre signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union, while Ethiopia continued to be backed by the US. With tensions once again rising, Ethiopia began to portray itself as a socialist state to the Soviet Union and criticised the revolutionary credibility of its neighbour. With the WSLF resistance gathering in momentum, war was inevitable and broke out in 1977. Military aid from theUS and the Soviet Union flooded into Ethiopia, but the Somali onslaught was irresistible; more than 90 percent of the Ogaden was liberated. However, although Somalia was winning the war, Ethiopia was racing ahead in the political battle, persuading the US to increase funding to it and persuading Russia to cease supporting Somalia. Realising that Somalia had been betrayed, Barre abrogated the friendship agreement with Russia in November 1977.

The result was predictable: thousands of South Yemeni and Cuban fighters were airlifted into Ethiopia alongside East German and Russian advisers. The Somali forces could only hold out for a few months against armies three times their size before being forced to withdraw in February 1978. With absolutely no support whatsoever from the international community, the OAU or the Muslim world, Ogaden was once again occupied by Ethiopia. But once again the people of the region had seen that victory is possible, as it had been under the Sayyid. Consequently, the grassroots resistance in the Ogaden continued and continues today.

With Somalia eventually abandoning all claim to the Ogaden in the eighties, it fell to the people of the Ogaden to continue the struggle themselves. Two new groups were formed to wage this jihad: the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Ogaden Islamic Union (al-Ittihad). Like previous movements, the current jihad involves almost all sectors of Ogadenese society: young and old, men and women; some correspondents say that to live in the Ogaden and not be part of the jihad in some form or another is virtually impossible.

Violations of human rights are rampant in the Ogaden. The Somalis of the Ogaden are constantly terrorised, massacred, abducted, detained, imprisoned, tortured and displaced. Even human-rights monitoring bodies such as the Ogaden Human Rights Committee have been declared illegal, with their members hunted down and executed around the world. Institutional Islamophobia has also been on the rise in Ethiopia itself, with hijab and Muslim prayer bans being introduced into all educational establishments. Last month, when secondary-school students in Chagni tried to challenge the ban by praying, the police were called: they detained, beat and tortured hundreds of Muslim students, many of whom are still in detention to date. It is a far cry from the country which Allah's Messenger (saw) described 1,400 years ago as having “a king in whose realm no one is wronged”.

Using the ‘war on terror' to delegitimise the resistance and declaring Ethiopia to be a “a secular island in a sea of Islam”, Ethiopia has again managed to earn political, military and economic assistance from the Western world, to the extent that it was finally able to occupy the Somalian capital of Mogadishu one year ago. The move came out of fear that the Union of Islamic Courts would reinvigorate the jihad in Ogaden. On the other hand, the Muslims of Ogaden remain forgotten, unheard of by their Muslim brethren at best and deliberately abandoned to the Ethiopian wolves at worst.

On a positive note, memories of liberation and victory are fresh in the minds of the Somalis. With knowledge that victory was in their grasp but for the armies of four continents and a superpower just thirty years ago, their hunger for the fight lives on. It is this energy and determination that are lacking in many other Islamic movements around the world: having suffered defeat after defeat for many decades, they have forgotten the taste of victory and become content with their losses. For the Somalis of the Ogaden, victory is not just possible; it is a certainty, insha'Allah.

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