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The Somali-Oromo conflict

by Abdinur. Aw Ali
Sunday, December 23, 2018

Somali and Oromo peoples have been living next to each other and in some cases among each other for centuries if not millennia. And like any two communities that rub into each it is inevitable conflicts will arise over resource, politics, ethnicity or religion!

For the last two years conflicts between the two communities has been escalating. While there has been considerable reporting and media attention about these conflicts, often focusing on the plight of Oromo, its impact on Somalis has been nearly muted. In fact, the conflict has almost always being portrayed as Somali violence against Oromo casting Somalis as perpetrators of the violence, not the victims. A broad coalition of Ethiopian diaspora networks operating primarily from EU countries and North America opposed to the TPLF dominated government consistently framed the conflict as one instigated by the TPLF, and as a heavy-handed retribution against Oromo people for their opposition to the ruling coalition and their challenge to the TPLF control or monopoly over the federal state apparatus.

In an effort to, perhaps, not implicate all Somalis or maybe avoid alienation Somalis opposition groups opposing Abdi Ileys’ regime, then the president of the Somali regional state, Oromia media attributed all violence along border of the two communities to him and his “New Police”, a militia force jointly controlled by illay and Ethiopian army generals, belonging or allied with then dominant TPLF (representing Trigriya region) faction of the ruling EPRDF coalition. If the TPLF was master minder Abdi Iley was the junior partner or the puppet while the Liyu or New Police was the hammer that delivered the blows. Beneath this overarching theme, however, was a consistent subtext of Somalis’ victimization of Oromo.

The Oromo Regional State officials depicted the conflict in a slightly more nuanced way by limiting the blame to Iley, his “Liyu Police” and the Somali State while carefully avoiding any links to the army generals or to the TPLF, for obvious reasons, given the TPLF’s dominant power position and influence over the country at the time and their role in the ruling EPRDF ruling party. Ethiopian social media and oversea media outlets relentless portrayed the issue as one of aggressive Somalis, albeit used or manipulated by Tigriyans, victimizing innocent defenseless Oromo people. While the exodus of Oromo from various towns (mainly Jigjiga) which was with the blessing, if not at the instigation, of Abdi Illay garnered national and international attention and the Ethiopian Federal government provided assistance to those displaced, there was not corresponding out cry for tens of thousands of Somalis who were also forcefully displaced from their towns and homes including thousands of students who were forced to leave federal universities there were attending in Oromia region.

From the Somali ide

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Since its inception, the Somali State have not really experienced an extended period of peace. Following the Derg’s fall, Somalis were ill prepared to partake the power sharing that was to take place or have an input into the decision making process of reconstituting a new Ethiopia following the fall of Derg regime in 90’s and the ascension to power by the TPLF. Unlike the Eritreans, the TPLF and even the less organized and less muscular OLF, the Somali liberation movements against the Derg regime (or even during Haile Selassie’s rule) had not really developed much of local, community based institutions and organizational structures that could have serve them, the region and its people better should they succeed in their struggles or in the event the Ethiopian government were inclined to invite them in from

the cold. Mainly because their end goal was not to share power with the rest of Ethiopia and secure a place for Somalis in Ethiopian “system” but was to breakaway and join the motherland (Somalia) awaiting to embrace them with open arms. That heavy reliance on Somalia exacted substantial cost on Somalis in Ethiopia as they were hit by one-two punch, namely the implosion of Somalia they so much leaned on followed quickly by the collapse of the Derg regime in Ethiopia before they could recover from the effects of Somalia’s demise. Further, the very deadly political and communal viruses that infected and consumed Somalia proper naturally found its way in the region compounding the overall difficulties of unifying a largely nomadic tribal society that lack rudimentary modern state institutions and sufficiently galvanizing common causes that spur them into a common action.

These factors led to an extended political chaos, internal in-fighting leading to myriad of divisions and highly fragmented community. The relocation of the seat of the government from Jigjiga to Godey, seen by some as unilateral decision by ONLF, added fuel to the already disaffections among Somalis. And with ONLF and Meles fallout, Meles was able successfully able to capitalize on the leadership vacuum and implement his infamous “Iron fist” policy toward the regions characterized by his brutal treatment of the region and its population. It’s fair to say the chaos morphed into a thinly disguised military rule where the Region’s leaders were appointed by Addis Ababa, rubber stamped by the regional party and supervised by Jigjiga’s army headquarters. The common theme throughout has, invariably, been a routine brutality and total absence of basic individual rights and utter disrespect for human life and individual property. This made all but impossible for any political or social discourse to take place let alone the formation of independent civil institutions. Further, all foreign humanitarian organization and NGOs were banned from the region, in a region where life-threating droughts are a near certain to occur every few years and in a country largely sustained by foreign aid and international assistance in its calamitous times. The Somali region suffered more violence and repression than any other region in Ethiopia. Yet such suffering remained largely under reported and the Somali population, accustomed to such abuse and suffering, borne the burden largely in silence! Iley and his Liyu Police (under the watchful eyes of the army) committed far more, by many degrees, brutality and mass killings against Somalis than they did against the Oromo or any other group. This fact, however, hardly made headlines so it’s no wonder the massacres and displacements of Somalis by the Oromo side remains largely out of the news cycle. Even more telling is that in private conversations, chatrooms and in the social media it is not uncommon to see non-Somali Ethiopians openly characterizing the conflict as one between “Ethiopians and Somalis” in effect stripping Somalis of any claim to citizenship while insisting the Somali region as part and parcel of Ethiopia!

Unlike the Ethiopian diaspora who formed disparate but fairly well organized opposition to the government, which in turn informed and energized domestic opposition movements, the Somali opposition mainly consisted of individuals and small groups, disorganized and largely ineffective. This was due to a number of reasons. For one, the nature of repression that prevailed in Jigjiga was such that those who criticize Iley and his regime saw their family and relatives arrested or worse murdered. Secondly, tribal division played a significant role in its inability to form a unified front ensuring less effective opposition that was unable to bring about a change or even elevate the profiles the crisis. This was true both inside the region and overseas. Further, media outlets that operated out of Jigjiga were strictly under Iley’s control, and even some of the more well-known diaspora based Somali media outlets, such as Universal TV, were reportedly influenced by Jigjiga through payments and financial incentives! And there is that ubiquitous Somalis apathy which tend to inhibit any meaningful or long lasting social and political movements. Abdi Iley’s eventual downfall was not due to the Somali opposition. Nor his decade old brutality against his own people was the basis of his arrest or the cause

of the military intervention in Jigjiga. The actual case against him is his treatment of non-Somalis, and as this maybe right or legitimate on its own, it does underscore the glaring differences of power balance and influence of Oromo versus Somalis, even before the new era of Abiy Ahmed.

Root causes of the conflict

The Somali-Oromo conflict has been characterized in different ways by different commentators. They are those who assert that there is no fundamental Somali-Oromo problems and the current conflict essentially arises from resource contention, something rather common, exacerbated by the political volatility of the region and fuel by political expediency of the politicians. This view often points to the long history and relationships between the two communities, and the absence of defining major wars between them, unlike Amhara and Somalis or Oromo and Amhara. They cite as evidence the historical similarities of the two communities who were conquered and forcibly incorporated into Abyssinian Empire and the ensuing oppression this process entailed. They further emphasize the “Cushitic” common bond along with the significant assimilation and mixing of the two communities in some areas making it hard to differentiate one from the other (which raises the question of identity – who a somali or Oromo and what are the differentiating characteristics and attributes?). Others forward a conspiracy based theory in which hidden “dark” forces, diligently working behind the scene, ensure Somalis and Oromo are always in conflict, if not in actual war. The identity of these dark force(s) often depends on the eyes of the alleging point of view. However, the most commonly alleged dark forces are the TPLF and Ahmara accused of aptly making use of internal community elements who are willing to do their bidding for them and the dark forces themselves directly intervening when necessary in order perpetuate the efforts of fueling the conflict. The motif behind these dark forces is attribute to their fear of the two “brotherly” nations uniting and assuming their rightful places in Ethiopia, which would inventible erode the control and power of the aforementioned dark forces. Yet still some Somalis allege that the root of the conflict is the continuation of the great “Galla” expansion against Somalis that has been ongoing for centuries but with new impetus and energy of rejuvenated Oromo ethnic consciousness and a reconstituted unified Oromo state with significant (and now dominant force) national influence and power behind it. They point to the many historically Somali cities and towns, Dirir Dhabe, Negayle, Moyale for instance which has lately become the epic centers of the conflict (some say already lost). They also point to a historical trend where every time Somalis have major showdown with Abyssinia, from Ahmed Gurey, to 1960 brief somali-Ethipian war, to the 1977 Ogaden war, to the ONLF-Meles fall out, led to Somalis been pushed out of their areas and Oromo taking their place. On the flip-side some Oromos allege a Somali expansionism and land grab in which Somalis nomads are steadily pushing westward into Oromo territory and claiming it, to the exclusion and at the expense of the Oromos as well as recent history harking back to Siyad Barre’s claim of Oromo regions (as Somali Abo) in the Ogaden war of 1977.

Despite the cacophony of conspiracy theories and disagreement on the causes, the conflict is wreaking havoc on both communities. Many lives were and are being lost. A larger number of people lost their limbs in gruesome ways. Even much larger population has being displaced and lost their property and livelihood on both sides. And despite many “agreements” signed and “accords” reached between the leaders of the two regional states and among various local communities the violence and displacements continues unabated to date, ebbing and flowing with time. While the re-occurring persistence of the violence lends credence to the smell of some form of the conspiracies, many of the events that gave rise to these conspiracies can actually be explained in concrete terms as deliberate state policies. For instance, following the accession to power by the TPLF, Somalis briefly gained the upper hand in some of the contested areas - Nagayle (Negele) and Moyale - only to see such gains reversed as ONLF fell out

with Meles and as Addis sought to pacify ONLF supporters in those area by, at times, arming Oromo groups. Further, historically, as Ethiopian empire steadily expanded its boundaries to the east, Somalis were the last frontier that put up significant resistance relative to other “peripheral” nations (say to the south and west) forming a barrier to Abyssinia’s push to the coastal beaches of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

Being on the losing side of these dramatic power realignments in the region naturally exacted a costly price on the Somalis entailing population displacements, loss of land and territory, and loss of control over their fate. The most likely group to fill the vacuum is naturally the Oromo by virtue of proximity, shared long common borders with the Somalis and sheer population size. The nature of Somalis being largely nomadic society has also significantly contributed, and continues to do so even today, in its inability to fend off external pressures and challenges by inhibiting it’s capacity to develop durable institutions, rally around common goals and interests or the ability to mobilize itself and its resources in times of great need leaving each sub-community, tribe or geographical area to fend for itself and thereby making the overall Somalis constantly exposed and venerable.

The current conflict, however, can be traced back to, and be largely explained by two specific relatively recent events. First one is the Ogaden war of 1977 and ensuing Derg regime’s harsh (to say the least) policies toward the Somali population in the region which caused large Somali population movements to the east and to Somalia-proper. As many as two million Somalis were displaced the vast major of them finding themselves in refugee camps in Somalia (there were also over a million Oromo refugees in Somalia in the 80’s) leaving large swaths of the land, already sparsely populated, essentially depopulated. Many of these deserted areas attracted new Oromo inhabitants but whether this occurred by state policy design, as the Derg regime undertook various projects of population transfer during its reign, or by natural progression of things (there is no such thing as empty vacuum) is not quite definitive. While the nomads, less subject to the state controls, slowly drifted back most urbanites were unable to return until the cruel reality of the raging Somali civil war forced them to back track their foot- steps, with trepidation. This reverse migration coinciding with the loosening grip on power by the Derg’s totalitarian regime no doubt instigated clashes and confrontations over land and property. This is not unlike similar situations in many other countries where population transfers and shifts led to bitter land and territorial disputes. Sadam Hussein’s resettling of Arab population in the Kurds region or the mass deportation of a number ethnic group such Baltic states, tartars and others by Stalin’s Soviet era all led to conflicts decades later in those areas as survivors of the exiled communities trickled back to reclaim their land.

The second event is the formation of, and the methodology used in establishing, the current Ethiopian federal state system. While each local community was given the right to choose what state (or ethnic) to belong to, it was not necessarily by a majority vote. Which made it possible for a minority in a locale to actually determine the state allegiance, and by extension define the ethnic identity, of that community or area. If say there is a three-way political contest in a given town or city, the party with the largest number of votes, even if it received far below a fifty-percent, would take control and dictate all decisions. This is essentially what happened in the city of Dirir Dhabe where the two parties representing Somalis had significantly higher combined votes than the single Oromo party. Which is the reason why the city became a federal city because even though Somalis “lost” the vote, there was little doubt who formed the majority at the time, not to mention the historical background of the city. It was so egregious that Meles had to find a way to make it palatable to the Somalis by designating the city a federal city. Many other border towns, however, with a Somali majority met the same fate without raising an eye brow because they were not as large, well know or strategic as Dirir Dhabe. Again, lack of

organization and absence of unified leadership and common strategy led to political infighting among Somalis costing them to yield wide swaths of territories. It was such competitions that also led the leadership of a large section of Somali community, the Jaarso tribe dominant in the Shinacsan (Chinaksen) region, northeast of Jigjiga and butting into Somali proper, to intentionally throw its luck with the Oromo region and opted in to politically identify with the Oromo. This shift of political identity brought considerable confusion of identity, political suspicion and bitterness in the Somali community. For some Somalis, the fact that a Somali community, Somali in every sense of the term (culturally, linguistically and ethnically) decided to identify and ally itself with the Oromo was a jarring event seen as rejection of their roots and a betrayal of a common bond. Such a reaction is what underpinned Abdi Iley’s mistreament treatment of that community resulting confiscation of businesses and properties of some of its members in Jigjiga as well as expelling them from the city, which further deepened the already raw wounds.

Despite the widely accepted view that Abdi Iley and his sponsor, the TPLF, were the instigators of the conflict, there is ample evidence that the conflict predated him. Indeed, there are documented cases of hundreds of Somali families displaced from area as far as 100 KM northwest of Negayle as far back 1990-91. Therefore, while the creation of the current state administrative structure aggravated the situation by injecting regional level politics into local clashes, and notwithstanding Abdi Ileys’ heavy handedness, it is fair to say that the Somalis have being largely reactive and on the defensive for decades now. The towns and the cities that are being fought over are not just historically Somali towns and cities but are also Somali majority. Yet not a single Oromo majority town or city has being contested! Furthermore, the Somali region accepted number of proposals and recommendations to settle the conflict over the disputed areas through a referendum but the Oromo regional party, the OPDO which is party to the ruling coalition, emphatically opposed it. Ironically, since the former Somali regional state president was arrested and the Liyu police withdrawn from border towns, the conflict has not only NOTsubsided but in fact has intensified in many cases this time with the tide decidedly turning against Somalis, leading to a sharp increase in the number of Somalis displaced and rendered refugees. Even more alarming is the copious evidence of highly organized and coordinated Oromo attacks on Somalis at times assuming a form of frontal assault on the scale of 10 to 15 towns or villages coming under attack almost simultaneously with clear evidence of Oromo regional state paramilitary playing an active role in these attacks. The disruption of communications such cell phone services just before an attacks are becoming a hallmark. In the case of Dirir Dhabe, basic services such as water and electricity was cut to the predominantly Somali area of the city for a week last fall forcing many families to evacuate to the outlying areas. Inflicted much stronger strangulation for longer extended period (18 months) is Moyale which is completely isolated from the rest of the country and subjected to a relentless well organized attacks undoubtedly with the blessing of the Oromia state. It is hard to believe that the OPDO leadership and the Federal authorities are unaware of these events but apparently has chosen to turn a blind eye!

The role of the new leadership of the Somali State

The current Somali state leadership is largely pre-occupy with consolidating power and generally restarting the business of governing. Not only does the new president inherited a very chaotic situation where a personality based state authority had just disintegrated, but also the unenviable way in which he came to power makes it rather challenging for any new leader let alone one with virtually no preparation time. From re-assuring the public of his fidelity to them, since he was, when the push comes to shave, hand-picked by the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and he owes his position to him regardless of the rubber stamping formality of the regional “party”, to bringing the presumably

disaffected Liyu police under control, to ensuring Abdi Iley’s toxic legacy does not mutate into an explosive inter-Somali conflict, tribal warfare or wide spread revenge killings. And as if that was not enough of a challenge, the returning ONLF has injected an additional layer of uncertainty and concern of potential power struggle. Despite all this the new president has taken some steps to deal with the conflict such appearing with the Oromo activist Jawar (whose comments are alleged to instigate the violence) In Dirir Dhabe to calm the situation there and met with Oromo regional leadership which led to signed a “peace” agreement. It is, however, quite clear that his choices are rather limited. He can’t send the Liyu police, even in a defensive posture, as that may anger Oromia state as well as Addis Ababa where the OPDO currently wield more power and influence than any other party or ethnic group. Somali state officials’ meek appeals for peaceful resolution of the conflict, as they visit Jigjiga’s main hospital overflowing with casualties from the conflict, only underscores the terrible dilemma they found themselves in. On one hand, the sustained attacks by Oromo on Somali towns runs the risk of Somali public becoming disillusioned with the new leadership if they can’t show some sort of progress on the issue or, failing that, take a more resolute stand. On the other hand, going against Addis Ababa posts its own set of risks. Either way, it looks the new Somali regional state president, Mustafa Omar, will have to either (a) convince Abiy Ahmed to intervene the situation and pressure Oromia state to cease the assault (unlikely scenario given the PM seems unwilling to go against his own support base), (b) adapt a more muscular stand by allowing the Somali regional paramilitary units to help defend Somali villages and towns, (c) or risk becoming a diminished figure lacking the support and the confidence of his own people.

But there is also a significant risk for Prime Minister Abiy if the conflict continue untamed. Overtime, it may grow in size and intensity as the warring factions throw more resources into the fight as the stakes get higher and higher and desperation intensifies. The siege of Moyale may be replicated in other cities such as Dirir Dhabe, which would disrupt the crucial trade route to the Djibout Port so critical to Ethiopia’s economy (and Djibouti itself) negatively impacting the overall economic conditions of the country and the region. It also has the potential to derail Prime Minister's domestic agenda of transforming Ethiopian into more stable, democratic and prosperous nation as well as his larger regional integration ambitions. The contrast between the drastic way, justified or not, in which Prime Minister Abiy intervened in the Somali regional state and deposed Abdi Iley (legitimately or not) and the clear indecisiveness or unwillingness to do likewise in places where Somalis are besieged, like Moyale, sends a very troubling message that could potentially undermine the wide spread support and the goodwill the Prime Minister enjoys not only among Somalis but also the larger public. It could also provide a fertile ground for his detractors and political enemies waiting for an opportunity to weaken him. Already there are troubling signs of some factions and some of the elites pushing for the elimination of the current regional state system and its replacement of highly a centralized system and concentrated power at the center, not exactly a recipe for freedom and brighter future.

The Somali Diaspora – Neither “Hiilo” nor “Hoo” -

One of the most shameful and sad things in all of this tragedy is the complete indifference by the Somali diaspora to the suffering and the plight of the tens of thousands (now estimated over 100,000) of displaced and dispossessed Somalis now languishing in hastily erected make-shift camps. Though the issue is widely known among the Somali communities from the region and larger Somali communities overseas, there has not been any visible efforts in mobilizing relief activities for those affected by the conflict. In Oromia, both the regional and federal government has being providing relief services to the

displaced Oromo population. There has also been significant Oromo public participation in organizing relief programs. But not so much among the Somalis despite the fact little or no federal assistance is reaching displaced Somalis. And in Some cases, like Moyale, what little assistance the Somali state attempted to deliver was looted by the sieging force. It appears the very social, cultural and political ills that brought about the region’s current unenviable situation are straining our most basic common bond and identity of “Soomaalinimo”! If we are indeed unwilling to come together to offer what little relief and assistant we can to those Somalis affected by this terrible tragedy what use is “Somalinino”? Unfortunately, the loud voices of “Soomaali Wayn” are nowhere to be found in times of need. Always eager to wave a flag, they often forget it’s the people that matters the most. The combine ills of fatalism, apathy and indifference could ultimately unravel the tattered fabric of Somali identity and common bond. The Somali diaspora can play a number of constructive roles in the conflict. The first and foremost is organizing itself and undertaking fundraising events to provide relief assistance to the displace Somalis. Second is forming a relief organization (s), akin to “Somali Crescent Society”, that responds to humanitarian crisis such the one arising from this conflict and others like the more regular severe droughts of our age. Further, the diaspora, not subject to certain political constraints the Somali regional state leadership maybe, can help advance the cause of peace by engaging with the Oromo community, the Oromia state and the federal government.


Abdinur. Aw Ali
[email protected]


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