Ahmed Abdulkadir figured one of two things could happen when his plane touched down in Ethiopia.
Things might go according to plan: he would be greeted by supporters of the armed liberation movement who’d asked for his help negotiating peace with the Ethiopian government, and they would get to work.
Or, he might be thrown in jail.
“I was scared to death … going there,” said Abdulkadir, an Edmonton community organizer. “I did not know what to expect. I was expecting as soon as I land, the security would come and arrest me. In all honesty, that’s what I thought.”
In the end, it was option one, to help negotiate peace with the Ethiopian government.
Abdulkadir returned to Edmonton Saturday, weeks after a historic peace deal between Ethiopia and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). The deal, signed Oct. 21, marks the end of one of East Africa’s most enduring armed struggles.
Abdulkadir, executive director of Edmonton’s Ogaden Somali Community of Alberta Residents (OSCAR), was contacted by members of the ONLF in the summer, asking if he’d serve as a go-between in peace talks with the Ethiopian government.
It was the first time Abdulkadir has returned to Africa since he fled as a teenage refugee in 1991. He’s going back to the region in the next week for more negotiations.
“It was luck, and timing,” he said. “You have a government who are ready, you have ONLF leadership who are ready to negotiate, and myself, who was available at the time and could do this thing.”
The ONLF and the Ethiopian government have been locked in a violent struggle for decades over the Ogaden region. While inhabited mainly by ethnic Somalis, the Ogaden has been within Ethiopia’s border since the British pulled out of the region. Ethiopia repulsed a bloody Somali invasion in 1977, keeping the disputed region within its territory. Previous Ethiopian governments have been accused of human rights abuses against Ogaden Somalis.
A new prime minister in Ethiopia, though, has restored hope.
Abiy Ahmed became Ethiopia’s prime minister last April and generated glowing headlines by ending the border war with Eritrea and ordering the release of thousands of political prisoners.
Abdulkadir and others in Edmonton’s East African diaspora communities said it was the region’s best chances for peace in years.
In late July, members of the ONLF reached out to Abdulkadir. He has been outspoken about peace and reconciliation in the region, and both sides saw him as a credible intermediary, he said.
He said Ethiopia welcomed opposition groups to the table, and both sides came without preconditions.
Abdulkadir flew to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, on Aug. 4. Members of the local Somali community helped pay for his tickets. When he landed, he called family members and ONLF leadership every two hours to assure them he was OK.
Over the next few months, he attended around 100 meetings around East Africa between the Ethiopians and Ogaden groups. He returned to Edmonton twice, but never for more than a couple of days.
Returning to the region gave him mixed emotions. “It was overwhelming. It was sadness. It was not feeling that I belong there. I don’t share much with the people there other than I happen to be an African.”
He’s hopeful the peace sticks and people in the Ogaden region can gain self determination — whether the region is in Ethiopia, Somalia or independent. He added he thinks the Canadian government needs to support the peace.
Abdulkadir said the peace is fragile, but whatever happens, he’s proud Edmonton’s Somali community played a role. “Everybody in the community (was) praying for us,” he said.