WHO IS THE O.N.L.F.? An Inside Look into The Organization and the Idea.

WHO IS THE O.N.L.F.? An Inside Look into The Organization and the Idea.

Ogaden Online Special Report


An Inside Look into The Organization and the Idea. 

November 25th 2001 (Re-posted on July 25, 2018)


The year was 1978. The Horn of Africa had just witnessed the largest mechanized war in Africa since Hitler’s desert Fox, General Rommel rolled his tanks across North Africa. The war was known as the Ogaden War, and it brought Somalia and Ethiopia to the brink of mutual destruction. Ethiopia, backed by thousands of Cuban troops and Soviet “Advisors” succeeded in ejecting Somali regulars sent into Ogaden in support of the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) from territory it claimed as it’s owned. Observers at the time point to the fact that what had taken place was a high stakes chess game between the Super Powers in which Somalia and Ethiopia were pawns. At the end of it all, a massive refugee crisis existed and the Somali military, which was no match for Cuban armed troops and their Soviet puppet masters, was in shambles.

But beneath this headline was another story. A deeper story. The people of Ogaden, the very ones whom Somalia had sought to liberate and Ethiopia had claimed as it’s own were witnessed the carnage of war on their own territory and suffered the vicious reprisals of Ethiopian troops after the Somali army had withdrawn.

The WSLF for its part, continued to wage an armed struggle but political understandings between Addis Ababa and Mogadishu meant that material support from Somalia was dwindling. This support had been the lifeline of the WSLF. As such, it was no surprise that Mogadishu also yielded great influence in the leadership and conduct of the affairs of the WSLF.

This fact did not escape some senior members of the WSLF who following the Somali pullout of Ogaden, resented the fact that their struggle’s intensity was largely dictated by Mogadishu.


It was this feeling of over dependence which lead 6 men, all members of the WSLF to come together in secret for the purposes of creating a new organization which was accountable only to the people of Ogaden and independent of any government in Mogadishu.

However, this simple principle, soon developed into a philosophy whose core elements were:

The Ogaden struggle is not a conflict between Somalia & Ethiopia but rather a struggle between a colonized people and their oppressor.

Only a home grown movement free of foreign influence will be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the people of Ogaden.

The term “Western Somalia” only serves to confuse the issue portraying it as reclaiming land once belonging to the Somalia Republic and as such is not appropriate Using the term Ogaden, as so-called by the British, achieves the objective of identifying a geographical area while rejecting the notion that the struggle is merely a border disagreement between two sovereign states.

Both the Scientific Socialism model of Somalia and the Marxist Leninist model of Ethiopia should not be the economic and social ideology of this truly independent national movement since that opens the door for potential reliance on communist bloc nations thereby allowing future manipulation of the struggle by foreign powers.

A movement for National Self-Determination cannot succeed unless it is democratic at it’s core and has proper mechanisms to ensure democratic changes of leadership and collective decision-making.

The struggle of the people of Ogaden for Self-Determination should go beyond the geo-politics of the Horn of Africa and ascend to the global stage as a legitimate international issue in it’s own right in order for their to be a successful conclusion.

Upon completion of this ideology, the Ogaden witnessed the birth of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) on August 15th 1984

Almost immediately, the movement was dismissed as no threat by Ethiopia and looked upon unfavorably by Mogadishu. The first target for the ONLF was to systematically seek out all disgruntled members of the WSLF who had grown weary of outside domination and who were not blinded by Socialist ideologies.[1] The recruitment process was both slow and dangerous. In the capital of Somalia, Mogadishu, where many young and educated WSLF sympathizers lived, was fertile ground for recruitment. Yet it had to be done delicately so as not to tip off the expansive intelligence network of the Barre regime. Going more smoothly was the recruitment of students from Ogaden sent to Arab capitals for education under a scholarship program largely set up as a request by Somalia to Arab governments.

In Ogaden itself, the heavy presence of Ethiopian troops backed by newly received Soviet hardware and Cuban foot soldiers made the logistics of recruitment more difficult, yet news of disgruntled WSLF fighters left without supplies was quick to reach young educated Ogadenis in Mogadishu leading them to question the continued viability of the WSLF, to say nothing of the fact that this also brought them a step closer to the philosophy of the ONLF.

Throughout the 1980’s the ONLF continued it’s careful and systematic indoctrination of the youths in Mogadishu and the Middle East. By the late 1980’s, rather large gatherings of former WSLF members were taking place both inside and outside of Ogaden under the auspices of the ONLF.


The collapse of the Somali government and the catastrophic civil war that followed resulted in a mass exodus of both refugees from Ogaden who had sought refuge in Somalia and intellectuals tracing their roots to Ogaden. The migration pattern in general followed two routes. One was a move back into Ogaden and the second was a move to countries in Africa and beyond.

The return of this educated, former middle class students and bureaucrats who had fled Ogaden during the 1977-78 war to their homeland meant the ONLF now had tangible assets on the ground in Ogaden which had the capacity to promote their philosophy.

Elsewhere, the ONLF was not as lucky in that the uprooting of families and their new refugee status proved to difficult to overcome, at least in the beginning, for ONLF cadres to seek to indoctrinate this group.

By 1993, every major city and town in Ogaden had ONLF sympathizers. Their success in gathering recruits was in part due to the early disconnect between the new EPRDF government in Addis Ababa who was itself still consolidating power. Another often overlooked factor was the general belief in Addis Ababa that the collapse of the Somali State also meant the collapse of any real “rebellion” in Ogaden.

It came as no surprise therefore that when the central government of Ethiopia, who had now renamed all regions under it’s control in line with the Ethnicity of it’s inhabitants, announced the holding of elections for regional parliaments, the ONLF registered and participated as a legitimate political party.

What did come as a surprise, at least to the authorities in Addis Ababa, was the winning of 84% of the seats in the regional assembly by candidates fielded by the ONLF.

It soon became clear to the government of Ethiopia that they were dealing with a new player in Ogaden, one which could not be said to be controlled by Somalia and as such was free to take it’s own path.

While Ethiopia felt no military threat from the ONLF, they did regard the ideology presented by the ONLF to be dangerous. Ethiopia had not foreseen that an organized political movement would emerge from Ogaden which was able to demand that Article 39 of its constitution guaranteeing the right of nations to self-determination be implemented.

Indeed, the first act voted on by the new assembly of which 84% were ONLF delegates was to beginning the process as outlined by article 39 of the Ethiopian constitution and to seek the holding of a referendum on independence for Ogaden.

Almost immediately, the Ethiopian government disbanded the regional assembly and arrested almost all ONLF deputies.

Less than 10 years after the formation of the ONLF, it faced its first major crisis. The leadership of the ONLF entered into a series of high-level discussions, which lasted for several months. These discussions held in different capitals sought to set a direction for the movement now that Ethiopia had struck its first blow by arresting ONLF deputies and disbanding the regional assembly.


The ONLF had several things going for it in 1993 and early 1994. The first was that it had succeeded in forming and promoting a clear philosophy among it’s rank and file which had swelled following the collapse of the Somali government. The second was that since it had not been engaged in armed conflict with the Ethiopian government, years of focusing on indoctrination and recruitment had paid off.

The public was agitated in Ogaden. The hopes for a new future after the overthrow of the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Marian were shattered. There was only one avenue left. Armed struggle.

Initially, there were doubts as to whether the ONLF would be able to transform itself from a movement composed largely of students, intellectuals and civilians, into an effective guerilla force. Debates within the inner circle of the ONLF exposed this concern. The leadership was faced with turning political activists into freedom fighters.

After much discourse, it was clear what had to be done. The ONLF needed to seek out and re-activate former WSLF fighters who had largely returned to their homes after years of fighting without supplies and resources following the Somali pullout of Ogaden and the collapse of the Somali state. What was thought to be a difficult marriage of political idealist s and guerrilla fighter actually turned out to be a perfect fit to the joy of the ONLF leadership.

The ONLF now had a military wing. The Ogaden National Liberation Army. Items of immediate concern such as the securing of weapons and supplied proved less difficult than first thought, since Ogaden was flooded with small arms of all sorts. All the ONLF had to do was organize and discipline large numbers of fighters and provide a guiding principle and philosophy. While the military organization was left to former WSLF commanders, ONLF political officers attached to each unit served to solidify the fighters understanding of what exactly they were fighting for. It was here that the battle cry of the ONLF, Unity-Militancy-Self-Reliance-Victor (Midnimo, Mintid, Isku-Tashi, Guul) was branded into the hearts and minds of ONLF fighters.

By mid to late 1994, the Ogaden National Liberation Front had begun armed operations against the Ethiopian government forces stationed in Ogaden.


Ethiopia, who had thought the ONLF problem had been solved by the dissolution of the regional assembly and the arrest of ONLF delegates, was once again caught off guard.

Authorities in Addis developed a two-part strategy to combat the growing ONLF threat.

The ONLF should never be mentioned by name as an armed “rebel” group operating in Ogaden. Instead, Ethiopia’s heavy military presence in Ogaden should be justified by saying that a vigorous effort was underway to eliminate Islamic Extremists forces in the form of Al-Itihaad Al-Islaamiya. This would ensure that the Ogaden question would be prevented from being raised again as an issue in the Horn of Africa and present the Ethiopian government in the eyes of the West as worthy of military and financial support. A truly independent regional assembly as called for in the constitution should not be established in order to avoid a repeat of what happened when the first freely elected regional assembly chose to embark on the path to self-determination. This strategy could only be implemented with the creation of “suitcase parties” lead by ethnic Somali cronies of the EPRDF such as the Ethiopian Somali Democratic League (ESDL), which eventually filled the seats of the reconstituted regional assembly.

Ethiopia soon realized that another component to this strategy needed to be implemented. In order to defeat the ONLF, Ethiopia had to create the illusion that the ONLF had “merged” with the ESDL and that political dissent had disappeared in Ogaden leaving only the fundamentalists to deal with.

It is with that in mind that Ethiopia announced the formation of the Somali People’s Democratic Party and sought to sell it at a union between the ONLF and the ESDL.

Ethiopia continued to claim that any armed clashes in Ogaden were between Ethiopian forces and that of Al-Itihaad Al-Islaamiya despite the fact that Al-Itihaad had long since abandoned the Ogaden altogether as a base of operations beginning as early as 1995 through 1996.

In august 1998, the ONLF held a long awaited central committee meeting at an undisclosed location in Ogaden. The movement, having reviewed progress on the ground in Ogaden then elected a new leader which quickly made news.

However beyond that election, a more significant decision had been made, one which was sure to put the ONLF on the map for good.


Following the election of a new President (formerly the position had been a Chairmanship) and a Secretary-General, along with a central committee and an executive council. The movement was forced to face a hard reality. Ethiopia was winning the propaganda war outside of Ogaden if the ONLF was winning the hearts and minds of the citizens of Ogaden.

It was at that time that the ONLF, just as it had called on former WSLF fighters when it was in need of a military component, turned to it’s political officers, to take the message of the struggle to Ogadenis in the Diaspora.

By now, citizens of Ogaden who had settled in Europe, North America and the Middle East having fled the collapse of Somalia had established a foothold in their new homes. For the first time, they had seen what life was like living under a democracy (for those in the West) and peace.

What the ONLF sought to sell to the citizens of Ogaden in the Diaspora was that this same opportunities and freedoms were lacking in their land of origin and they had a responsibility to help their brethren in the struggle. ONLF political officers, some of whom had settled in these communities got to work right away in sensitizing these communities outside of Ogaden to the struggle back home.

In early 1999, the ONLF sent delegations to North America, Europe, The Middle East and other nations in Africa aimed specifically at enlisting the support of natives of Ogaden who had settled overseas.

However, the ONLF had more ambitious ideas.

Among the most important and least mentioned decisions of the 1998 central committee meeting was the intensification of diplomatic contacts with the outside world. For this, the ONLF once again relied on a different breed. ONLF cadre’s educated in the West and the Middle East were specifically targeted for recruitment to form the diplomatic corps of the ONLF.

This diplomatic corps began contact with the governments, NGO’s, human rights agencies and others in a bid to raise awareness of the Ogaden struggle. On the media front, ONLF cadres were also specifically recruited to put the struggle on Ogaden on the news radar of journalists. Something that had been lacking.

The formation of homegrown media outlets was a central piece of this effort. The ONLF appears to have used it’s access to RADIO FREEDOM (Radio Xoriyo) to further spread the message and philosophy of the front. Even though the ONLF maintains its own web site (http://www.onlf.org/ it has also benefited from it’s access to another independent homegrown media outlet OGADEN ONLINE (www.ogaden.com)


The ONLF’s popularity continues to grow both in Ogaden and overseas among the citizens of Ogaden. With this growth in popularity has come not only support but also increased calls for participating in the decision making apparatus of the ONLF among the citizens of Ogaden overseas.

As such, the ONLF challenge will be to find a balance between increasing transparency, without adversely exposing the organization to Ethiopian intelligence which are currently intensively seeking to penetrate the organization.

In this area however, the ONLF appears to be on the right track. Choosing a decentralized structure with local decision making over a highly centralized hierarchy susceptible to collapse will serve not only to satisfy those who seek increase public input into the organization, but also to root out enemy agents by forcing them to gain the confidence of their local communities before ever being in a position to even have the potential to gather any useful intelligence on the ONLF.

While the ONLF, like all political movements, has it’s share of critics, it appears to contain the fundamentals needed to sustain a political movement into the foreseeable future.

As long as the ONLF continues to by a ‘Dynamic’ and not a ‘Static’ organization, prospects look bright for this 17 year old organization. When the people of Ogaden finally achieve Self-Determination, the legacy of the Ogaden National Liberation Front will not be armed conflict, diplomacy or even it’s ability to disseminate information to the masses.

It will be quite simply that they stood up when many believed that the struggle was dead and revived a hope among the people of Ogaden that they can achieve what they have sought for so long. A country of their own.


[1] It should be pointed out that at this time, Socialism was popular among freedom fighters throughout Africa and indeed the world leaving a back door to Soviet influence. Early ONLF cadres were suspicious of WSLF member trained in the ideas of Scientific Socialism by the Bare regime and generally thought of them as being susceptible to influence by external communist powers.

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