Ethiopia is currently going through a tough time with reports of mass killings being reported from every corner. Still, the military operation in Tigray is seemingly the only one getting the most media attention.
Unfortunately, the deadly Somali-Afar border conflict, which resulted in massive casualties, is continuing in the dark with no proper media coverage. Issas (Somali) and Afars share more similarities than differences. Both communities adhere to Sunni Islam, speak two very related languages of the Cushitic family and pursue a pastoralist way of life.
They lived as feuding neighbours in Ethiopian lowlands and Djibouti for centuries, competing over scarce resources, including water sources and pasture. As a result, the history between the two nations is marred by deadly clashes.
However, Djiboutian Issas and Afars changed course following their independence in 1977 by establishing sustainable peace, paving the way for more interaction, notably myriad inter-marriages. To this date, however, Issas and Afars in Ethiopia fight over land with non-stop attacks and counterattacks. It is only in the recent past that some global mainstream media outlets paid attention to the matter.
Hence, this short piece of writing sheds more light on the key historical events, current status quo, and lastly, offers some possible solutions to the age-old stalemate.
Issas and Afars fought over water and pasture around the Awash basin for at least over a century, as documents from Ethiopian archives reveal. Among them was a government report in 1943 by the then Chercher Awraja administrator, Zewde Gebrehiwot, explaining how the two sides contested over Awash basin and the government’s futile efforts to contain the contention. The information offered by such documents is backed by oral narrations of local elders handed down from generation to generation. As in any other pastoralist culture, the rivalry was historically merely based on competition over limited natural resources, notably pasture and water. Each side strived to secure uninterrupted access. Ethiopian successive regimes paid less attention due to pastoralists’ negligible role in politics. Nevertheless, several nominal reconciliation meetings were held in several places, including Gewane and Awash towns, for decades. However, none of such meetings ever bore fruits on account of failure to address root causes.
Following the coming to power of TPLF-spearheaded EPRDF and the subsequent birth of ethnic-based federalism in Ethiopia in 1991, the Issa-Afar conflict further slid into an impasse after the federal government left the border between newly established Somali and Afar regions without official demarcation. Since the Ethiopian 1995 constitution established nine ethnic-based regions with borders along ethnic affiliation, the Somali-Afar border was informally drawn with Somali inhabited areas reporting to Jigjiga and Afar-settled localities falling under Assaita (then Semera). The de facto border demarcation was easier because Issa-Somalis and Afars never intermingled in settlements on account of the historic hostility between them. As a result, the Somali regional state started exercising its administration on exclusively Issa-inhabited areas of Garba-Issa, Undufo and Adayti, while on the other hand, the Afar administration took over Afar-populated areas of Gene, Awash and Mille.
However, from 2000 onwards, the Afar regional administration started to claim Issa-populated areas on account of unsubstantiated historical land claims. Unfortunately, the claim didn’t go through the legal procedure but instead opted for a forceful displacement of the Issas, a move that exacerbated the already fragile border tension. The border issue remained unresolved for years allowing the deadly clashes to continue. Nonetheless, the contested area remained as part and parcel of the Sitti zone (the then Shinile zone) of the Somali region by getting limited essential services such as water infrastructure, education and health.
The borehole drilled in Adayti and primary schools in the three towns, all implemented by the Somali region, started functioning. At the same time, the Ethiopian military shifted focus mainly on the security of the road connecting Ethiopia to the Djibouti seaport. Though the Ethiopian government appeared to be dealing with daily incidents instead of resolving the fundamental root causes, the federal military stationed in Garba-Issa, Undufo, and Adayti repeatedly backed the Afar claim both directly and indirectly.
The main and unstated aim behind this backing is to drive Issa-Somali away from the area of the Djibouti-Addis Ababa road so the two main channels through which Ethiopia’s commercial traffic flows will no longer be controlled by one region, namely Somali.
This is an old policy initially adopted by Haile Selassie and later applied by Mengistu Hailemariam and Meles Zenawi.
In the eyes of successive Ethiopian rulers, Afars were seen as genuine Ethiopians while Issa-Somalis were regarded as second-class citizens with all that this entails the psychology of an average Ethiopian.
It was in late 2014 that everything had suddenly changed when a military-arranged “agreement” was concluded in Awash by the two regional presidents illegitimately transferring the administration of the three towns from the Somali region to Afar region, a move vehemently opposed by residents by waging peaceful demonstration which met harsh measures from the federal military. The military never presented the contents of this so-called “agreement” to the public. The notorious Somali regional president of the time, Abdi Mohamoud Omar, aka Abdi Iley, had locked horns with Issa politicians weeks earlier after attempted dislodgement of himself from a seat by the ruling party’s executive committee. The executive committee declared that they fired Abdi Iley after holding a meeting in Dire Dawa. Issa intellectuals obviously hosted the forum amid growing discontent with Abdi Iley’s brutal administration. Therefore, Abdi Iley took the Awash’ agreement’ as an act of perfect revenge against the Issas. The so-called ‘agreement’ was not only illegal but also quite dangerous to the extent that it led to a murderous spree by Afar regional administration, who swiftly started to apply an ethnic cleansing campaign against Issa-Somalis. Heavily armed Afar paramilitary units established bases and notorious detention centers across the three towns. As part of the plot, Abdi Iley ordered zonal and district administrators of the Somali side to renounce the three municipalities and regard them as part of the Afar region. The Issa-Somalis were since denied access to basic services pushing many households to abandon their ancestral homeland.
In February 2018, Hailemariam Desalegn resigned as Ethiopian PM following years of civil unrest, paving the way for Abiy Ahmed to assume premiership in April 2018. The event unlocked massive reforms, including the return of political exiles. Oppressed Issa-Somalis took advantage of this new era of freedom to show their outrage to the world by waging peaceful demonstrations only to meet deadly crackdowns from the Afar security forces, igniting a fresh round of violence.
The Afar region took advantage of the agitations and low-level insurgency in various parts of Ethiopia to strengthen its grip and push forward ethnic cleansing in the three towns. The mayhem reached a level at which the new Somali regional administration couldn’t bear watching and decided to announce a unilateral withdrawal of the “2014 Awash agreement” in May 2019. The Afar security forces, angered by the Somali regional decision, doubled their subjugation on civilians leaving Issa pastoralists no option but to disobey and defend.
- Current situation
Frequent fatal clashes have become standard in the Issa-inhabited areas of Adayti, Undufo and Garba-Issa. At least 900 Issa-Somalis pastoralists have lost their precious lives in the last three years, while around 2,000 people were wounded and over 40,000 others got internally displaced. Although casualties exist on both sides, the fact that the contested land is almost exclusively Somali means the magnitude is far more significant on the Issa-Somalis side. It is also worth mentioning that several former Afar rebel groups such as ARDUF and Ugugumo actively participate in the bloodshed.
In one of the latest serious incidents, Afar police forces with its affiliated militia and rebel groups invaded Adayti town in early April 2021 to kill, loot and burn down the entire town to ashes in broad daylight. The attack was made in full view of the mechanized Ethiopian military units. On top of hundreds of Issa-Somalis deaths and injuries, the incident resulted in the displacement of thousands of households who are temporarily sheltered in a makeshift camp in Birta-dheer, some 10 miles south of Adayti. To this date, the Ethiopian military is banning displaced households from returning to their burned homes.
Similarly, Garba-Issa town remained under total besiege of Afar special forces and affiliated rebels since early April 2021, with most of the residents trying to flee. The undue town is not spared and blocked from Awash water access, triggering expensive and unsustainable emergency water trucking from distant locations.
This is coupled with the Afar regional government’s ongoing establishment in originally Issa-inhabited localities surrounding the three towns. All these amount to a well-articulated and meticulous calculation of the Afar administration to cleanse ethnic Somalis from the area and then claim the land as their own.
As usual, the Ethiopian government turned a blind eye as they dragged their feet to resolve this catastrophe.
Afar forces helped by various armed and well-trained rebel groups such as ARDUF and FRUD are so confident that they are waging armed attacks further deep into the Somali region in places like Madane, Danlahelay and Adayle besides the three towns that have already constantly been under attacks. The invading Afar coalition forces are heavily armed with armoured vehicles, light technical vehicles with machine guns and rotary cannon pressuring Issa-Somali pastoralists to employ a do-or-die strategy.
- Possible Solutions
With this background and other realities on the ground, here are proposed legal solutions to avert further bloodshed and end the mayhem once and for all.
- Applying the Ethiopian constitution to its fullness: Had the Ethiopian constitution appropriately been applied long ago, Article 46 would have offered a clear and effective remedy. According to Article 46 of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, “States shall be delimited on the basis of settlement patterns, language, identity and consent of the people concerned.” Failure to refer to the constitution has resulted in all these unrepairable losses. It is not too late to pause and return to the constitutional redress.
- Referendum as an option: When the two biggest federal member states (Somali and Oromia) conflicted over ownership of several towns and villages in 2003, the federal government was too swift to arrange a referendum which both sides admitted the results. It is entirely unjustifiable why the same practice cannot be replicated in the Somali-Afar case.
- Supporting genuine traditional conflict resolution mechanism: It is beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Somali-Afar conflict is a proxy war with the hands of other Ethiopian regions and corrupt high-rank military officials being deeply involved. The strategic location of the contested area attracts the interest of other Ethiopian bodies, institutions and political entities. The involvement of these third parties has repeatedly thwarted local negotiation processes. Somalis and Afars are akin communities both adhering to the same religion. They often exchange olive branches during ordeals. President Mustafa Muhumed Omar was the first to declare millions of financial support to the Afar region following the flash floods in 2020. In the same year, Ugas Mustafa and other Issa elders joined Somali regional officials to pay a high-level visit to Semera to condole the Afar nation following the death of Sultan Hanfareh Ali Mirah. These gestures can be strengthened to cement a long-lasting peace settlement.
Sitti Diaspora Community
08 May 2021
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