Fourthly, ONLF’s dependence on the stronger Islamist groups in Somalia such as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) also contributes to the religious colouring of the conflict. ONLF relies both directly and indirectly on the Islamists. In some cases ONLF has cooperated with Islamists to weaken or defeat Ethiopian troops according to the maxim ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. Even though credible reports have shown that relations between ONLF and al-shabaab have reached the worst stage since they first got into conflict in Degahbur Zone in December 2007, the same reports also indicate generally good relations between ONLF and other Islamists in Somalia (Abdullahi, 2007). Furthermore, the second deputy chairman of ONLF, Abdulkadir Hassan Hirmoge has confirmed that good ties exist between ONLF and Islamist fighters in Somalia. In an interview with Al-Jazeera’s Arabic channel he claimed in mid-March 2008 that ONLF entertained all kinds of cooperation with neighbouring Somalia’s Islamists.3 The Islamists’ popularity in many parts of Somalia forces ONLF to keep good ties with the former since they rely on Somalia as their main supply route. In addition to that, Eritrea, which provides material and moral support to both ONLF and Somali Islamists (HRW, 2008; Menkhaus, 2007) has an interest in bringing the two into alliance. ONLF’s partial dependence on the Islamists and the need to recur to religious discourse to mobilize supporters comfort Islamic sympathizers within ONLF and may attract jihadi support from outside the region. This keep Islamic sympathizers within ONLF’s camp, but also provides them the opportunity of pursuing their jihadist ideologies within the organization.
Unlike ONLF, the Ethiopian government rules a population of which almost half are Muslims. Moreover it enjoys military, economic and political superiority over ONLF. These are two important factors that significantly reduce its need to employ religion in its confrontation with ONLF. Despite these advantages, the Ethiopian army recurrently resorts to measures that produce chilling effects. To silence opponents, avoid international criticism and maintain the support of the United States, Ethiopia labels ONLF as a terrorist organization. Muslims around the world believe that former US President Bush’s ‘war on terror’ was little less than a ‘war on Islam’ (Vaughn, 2005) and many Somalis share this viewpoint (Terdman, 2008:59). Ethiopia has spared no occasion to frame its conflict with ONLF in terms of the global, US-led ‘war on terror’. This in turn serves the interests of jihadists who seek to radicalize Somalis under a joint Muslim banner.
Finally, underdevelopment, political crisis, poor socio-economic conditions in the region and Christian elites’ domination in Ethiopia make it promising for local politicians to use religion as an instrument of realizing their political ambitions.
Based on the above observations three points should be clear by now. First, the Ogaden conflict is not a religious conflict, but religion has a prominent place in it. Second, the history of the Somalis in their relation with other Ethiopians is laden with religious tensions, and because the lessons of what went wrong in the past have gone unheeded, these religious tensions extend into the present. Third, the major parties in the current conflict adopt policies and measures likely to widen the importance of religion in the future. In combination, it is conceivable that in the long run religion may outweigh all other factors contributing to the Ogaden conflict.
Another cause for concern is that the presence of religion as one factor in the conflict excacerbates the other issues involved in the conflict and attracts additional actors. The more actors and issues involved in a conflict, the more it will be protracted and intractable (Mial et al., 2005). So, if this trend continues unchanged it is likely to further complicate the conflict between the Ethiopian troops, ONLF and Somalis Islamists. This will make a peaceful solution to the conflict even more cumbersome. On top of that, thorough research on the role of religion in the many conflicts in the Somali Regional State has been missing. Surprisingly, the very few studies conducted so far have hardly mentioned the role of religion in the conflict, despite its obvious importance. This contribution thus acts as an invitation to other authors to give more attention to this important topic.