The government of Somalia is defending a controversial decision to hand over a prominent Ogaden rebel leader to authorities in Ethiopia.
The transfer of Abdikarin Sheikh Muse, a top member of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), has sparked a social media uproar and protests against the government by nationalist politicians. Small demonstrations took place in Mogadishu on Monday and at Kenya’s Dadaab camp for Somali refugees on Tuesday.
Muse, who is in his sixties, was detained by security forces August 23 in the Somali city of Galkayo. His supporters say he is a dual Somali-Ethiopian citizen who fought in Somalia’s 1977 war against Ethiopia.
Following a cabinet meeting Wednesday in Mogadishu, the government described the transfer as “a legal step taken to remove a security threat.”
Speaking to reporters in Mogadishu, Somali Information Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman said Somalia and Ethiopia reached an agreement in 2015 that designates both the ONLF and Somalia-based al-Shabab as terror groups.
“The agreement recognizes the armed groups … to be a threat to the security and stability of both nations and, therefore, both countries should collaborate in the fight against them,” Osman said.
“This individual was an ONLF member who was involved in activities destabilizing the security of both nations and had a close relationship with al-Shabab,” he said.
Osman declined to take questions from the journalists.
The previously-unknown agreement was signed for Somalia by the former head of the Galmudug region, a former Somali communications minister and the former minister of state for presidential affairs, the statement said.
Two of the men mentioned in the statement spoke to VOA’s Somali Service and said there was no federal-level agreement on handing over ONLF members.
“It was a very strange and mistaken decision committed by the Somali government when they handed over a Somali citizen to Ethiopia, and now they did another mistake,” said Abdulkarim Guuleed, the former governor of Galmudug. “That agreement cannot be used as a justification for the handing over of Muse to Ethiopia because it had nothing to do with ONLF or exchange of criminals or prisoners.”
Guuleed acknowledged he signed a security agreement between his region and the Somali region of Ethiopia.
“Ethiopian officials mentioned ONLF during our meetings, but I do not know any agreement that we signed concerning ONLF and I was not representing the federal government of Somalia,” he said.
Mahad Salad, Somalia’s former minister of state for presidential affairs, also denied the existence of a federal-level agreement.
“We were representing people in the region and went to Ethiopia in search of a solution for a regional conflict. The agreement was collaborating on security in general and pacifying the local people, but ONLF was not in the eight-article agreement we signed,” Salad said. Like Guuleed, he said he was not a government representative.
Handing over prisoners
In July, more than 100 Somalis released from Ethiopian detention facilities and handed over to the Somali government arrived in Mogadishu.
Ethiopia is planning the release of more Somali prisoners in an effort to improve relations between the Horn of Africa neighbors.
The Ogaden regional conflict goes back to 1963, when ethnic Somali guerrillas started an insurgency after Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie rejected their demand for self-government.
Somalia invaded the Ogaden in 1977 in an effort to annex the region, but Ethiopian troops drove them out with the help of Cuban soldiers and Soviet arms.
In 2007, the ONLF attacked a Chinese-owned exploration facility, killing 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese workers. That attack prompted the Addis Ababa government to intensify its anti-insurgency campaign in the region.
The Ethiopian government considers the ONLF a terrorist organization, but the United States and United Nations do not.