Edmonton man helps broker historic peace deal in Ethiopia

Imprisonment in an Ethiopian prison cell. That was the singular thought racing through Ahmed Abdulkadir’s mind as he returned to his home country for the first time in more than 30 years.

'I'm grateful that this peace deal took place but it's fragile,' Ahmed Abdulkadir says

Edmonton's Ahmed Abdulkadir travelled to Ethiopia this summer to help a prominent rebel group broker a long-awaited peace deal with the government. (CBC)

Imprisonment in an Ethiopian prison cell.

That was the singular thought racing through Ahmed Abdulkadir's mind as he returned to his home country for the first time in more than 30 years.

The Edmonton man feared he would be arrested the minute he stepped off the plane in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital.

Instead, he helped broker a peace deal which marks the end of the oldest arms struggles in Ethiopia.

Back at home, Abdulkadir remains humble about his role in the historic negotiations between the Ethiopian government and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a separatist rebel group. The two sides were locked in a violent conflict for decades until a peace agreement was reached last month.  

"It was combination of luck and time," Abdulkadir said in an interview with CBC Radio.

An Alberta man is being recognized for helping broker a peace deal in East Africa. Ahmed Abdulkadir is the executive director of OSCAR - the Ogaden Somali Community of Alberta Residents. Ahmed fled to Canada in the early 1990s as a teenager when violence erupted between the Ethiopian government and the Ogaden National Liberation Front. But recent political changes in Ethiopia have suddenly made peace between the two groups a possibility...And Ahmed Abdulkadir was called upon for help. 5:19

Abdulkadir's family fled Ethiopia in 1991, when a conflict between the government and ONLF rebels erupted into renewed violence.

Formed in 1984, ONLF had been fighting for more than three decades for the rights of ethnic Somalis living in eastern  Ethiopia to have self-determination rights, including the option of secession.

In 2007, Ethiopian forces launched a large-scale offensive against the group after the rebels killed 74 people in an attack on a Chinese-run oil facility.

The conflict made war part of his family's life for generations, Abdulkadir said.

Recent political changes, including the appointment of new prime minister Abiy Ahmed, suddenly made peace between the two groups a possibility.

'Window of opportunity'

Ahmed​, who took office in April, is presiding over a push to shake the Horn of Africa nation of 100 million people from decades of security-obsessed rule.

He has acknowledged and condemned widespread abuses by the security forces, likening the situation to state terrorism. He has also worked to forge peace with Eritrea. Addis Ababa has been locked in a military standoff with Eritrea since a 1998-2000 border war in which 80,000 people are thought to have died.

Ahmed has attempted to broker peace with ONLF, a group the government previously outlawed as a "terrorist group."

"He said they are not terrorists anymore," Abdulkadir said of Ahmed. "He said he would treat everyone fairly and he wanted every Ethiopian to come back to the country.

"That was the window of opportunity that we took on." 

'A fragile peace' 

It was during this shift in the political landscape that Abdulkadir —  executive director of the Ogaden Somali Community of Alberta Residents and a longtime advocate for peace in Ethiopia — was called upon to help.

At the invitation of ONLF members, Abdulkadir flew to Addis Ababa on Aug. 4. He spent months attending more than 100 meetings and acting as a middle man between the two sides.

The trip marked the only time he had returned to his home country since 1991.

Watching the conflict from afar in Edmonton, Abdulkadir said he's had many sleepless, tearful nights over the years, feeling helpless and restless.  

When the call came, he was keen to help.

It seemed the country's best chance for peace in decades, Abdulkadir said.

"That's what made me made go back, expecting that I would be put in jail when I landed there," he said.

After months of tense negotiations, an agreement was finally signed on Oct. 21. It stipulates that both sides end hostilities and that the ONLF would "pursue its political obligations through peaceful means."

Abdulkadir's optimism for his home country is restrained. 

"I'm pessimistically hopeful," Abdulkadir said of the prospect of long term peace. "I'm grateful that this peace deal took place but it's fragile.

"It depends on how long this prime minister stays in power — which is sad —  and how the international community enforces this peace."

About the Author

Wallis Snowdon

Journalist

Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has nearly a decade of experience reporting behind her. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca

With files from Reuters