An Ogadeni feud and Somali folktale

An Ogadeni feud and Somali folktale

Just like the she-camel, the Ogaden National Liberation Front old guard is torn in different directions, and risks losing everything as a result, writes a former member of the party’s International Relations Committee

Igrew up in an oral society rich with folktales and, through this, was able to connect myself with knowledge and wisdom. I was always delighted with how these ancient songs and riddles delineate complex human relations. In recent months, as the feud evolved within the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), one such folktale, of the greedy ‘she-camel’, came to me.

As the tale goes, the ‘she-camel’ wished to graze on Karan pasture in the west of the Ogaden cultivated from a short burst of rains, and drink from the raindrops of the Dayr—another brief rainy season in the east that immediately preceded—in order to digest the chunks of Karan grass at the same time. Knowing that it is impossible to simultaneously go east and west, the herder sang into the ears of the camel:

Howda karantiyo,

hilaacyada bari,

iskuma heshide,

miduun kuhagaag

Which loosely translates as:

The aroma of the Karan are in the west,

and columns of clouds in the east,

you cannot have both of them at a time,

So just go for one.

This ancient wisdom helps us understand the political rhythm we have observed in the ONLF leadership, which seeks power in Ethiopia’s Somali region, but has become greedy and so internally discordant like the she-camel. The cause relates to a web of conflicting interests more complex than being caught between the aroma of the Karan and the columns of rain. The desire for attaining one leads to the forfeiture of another. For ONLF, this may lead to it losing everything.

Slivers of information expose the contradictory impulses at the heart of the organisation that have been leading it into conflict: the continuation of insurgency-style politics, old practices of Somali transnational politics (reaching through into Ogadeni and other areas of Somalia and northern Kenya and beyond), unpopular dalliances with agents of the former regime of Abdi Mohamoud Omar ‘Illey,’ and reckless internal arrangements relating ties with governments in Jigjiga and Addis Ababa.

Since ONLF returned home in 2018, beckoned like the she-camel amid the promise of democratic transition in Ethiopia, it has becoming increasingly apparent that the organization was not fully prepared for the puzzles that would come with transforming itself from an insurgency to a party seeking to compete in elections and govern in a ‘post-war’ setting. Even to achieve minimal aims for the latter, a plan should have been in place well before any settlement was reached for the return. On leaving Asmara, ONLF was not even close to this.