The Political Roots of the Current Crisis in Region 5
Published on: Sep 21, 2007


Thirty years after the 1977/78 war between Ethiopia and Somalia the Ogaden is back in the international limelight. Following a major attack on a Chinese-operated oil field in Degehabur district of Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State or region 5 by the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in April 2007, the Ethiopian military undertook major counter-insurgency operations in the region’s Ogaadeen heartland.1 Reports about attacks on civilians, collective punishments, abuses of food aid and intimidation of the local population by both parties to the conflict as well as a trade blockade imposed in different localities by Ethiopian security forces have raised concerns about a looming humanitarian crisis. Developments on the ground have been accompanied by a plethora of allegations and counter-allegations voiced on cyberspace and in other media outlets. Ethiopia blames ONLF for the use of terrorist tactics and a string of recent bomb attacks in the region’s capital Jijiga. The latter accuses the national army of committing ‘war crimes’ against the civilian population.2

This essay aims to provide a better understanding of the internal political dynamics underlying the current crisis in Ethiopia’s Somali region.3 It challenges popular misconceptions about local politics, draws attention to the root causes behind the confrontation between ONLF and the Ethiopian government and offers a number of conclusions in regard to conflict mitigation. Although politics in the region are closely interwoven with developments in neighboring Somalia, particularly the confrontation between Somali Islamists and Ethiopian armed forces, this essay privileges a domestic rather than a geopolitical perspective. 4

Three popular misconceptions

A first misconception derives from the use of the name ‘Ogaden’, which experienced a revival in recent media reports.5 Many observers ignore its highly politicized connotation. Until last year ‘Ogaden’ was either employed to refer to the heydays of Somali nationalism and irredentism that culminated in the Ethio-Somali or Ogaden war of 1977/78, recalling the administrative entity Ogaden that existed both under imperial and Derg rule, or it was propagated by ONLF as part of its nationalist agenda aiming to establish an independent ‘Ogadenia’.

Many commentators and particularly Ogaadeen Somalis in the global Diaspora pay no attention to the fact that the name ‘Ogaden’ is, rightly or wrongly, associated with majority rule by the Ogaadeen clans, respectively with their claim for power within the Somali Regional State. Since the introduction of ethnic-based administration by the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in 1991, Somalis and other ethnic groups in Ethiopia came to perceive ethnic identity and territorial claims as one and the same. The region’s non-Ogaadeen clans, including non-Ogaadeen Darood, Isaaq, Dir and other genealogical groups, strongly refute the ‘Ogaden’ label for their region, fearing that it rhetorically justifies Ogaadeen domination.

With the recent conflict escalation, the ‘Ogaden’ label has been resurrected by media coverage, unconsciously building a semantic bridge between the present conflict and the Ogaden war of 1977/78. The ‘Ogaden’ label is not only contested by the region’s different clan groups, but also fundamentally conceals the fact that today’s political realities in the Somali inhabited territories of the Horn of Africa are radically different from those of the 1970s. Ethiopia has effectively decentralized much of its administration, the Somali Democratic Republic has been defunct since 1991, and Somali nationalism remains severely challenged by centrifugal clan politics. Consequently, I use the more technical designation ‘region 5’ to refer to the Somali Regional State.

The second misconception about the current crisis is nourished by a stereotypical perception of Somali-Ethiopian history. The ONLF insurgency is often framed as the latest stage of an ancient confrontation pitting Muslim Somali lowlanders against Christian Ethiopian highlanders. According to this view there is a historic continuity of Somali-Ethiopian hostility dating back to the 16th century jihad of Ahmed Ibrahim al-Ghazi ‘Gran’ (or ‘Gurey’) and the 19th century rebellion by Mohammed ‘Abdulle Hassan’s Dervish fighters. Considering Somalis and Ethiopians as eternal enemies is, however, rather shortsighted. Why so?

On the one hand, periods of both partial integration and of fierce opposition are discernible in past relations between Somalis and the Ethiopian state since the incorporation of the (then) Ogaden into the Abyssinian empire at the end of the 19th century.6 Only recently, region 5 was ruled by ONLF, which held key administrative posts after the creation of the Somali Regional State at the beginning of the 1990s. Following ONLF’s ousting by EPRDF in 1994, ethnic Somali politicians belonging to the Ethio-Somali Democratic League (ESDL) (1994-1998) and later on to the Somali People’s Democratic Party (SPDP) (1998-today) governed region 5. While many Ogaadeen perceived the creation of the ESDL and the SPDP as a stratagem by EPRDF to marginalize ONLF, almost all of the region’s clan groups were represented in these two political parties.

On the other hand, the Somalis versus Ethiopians stereotype projects an image of internally homogenous groups. This is not the case, neither on the Somali nor on the Ethiopian side. The notorious political infighting between Somali clans, particularly between Ogaadeen and non-Ogaadeen clan coalitions, is a case in point. Similarly, Ethiopia’s ethnic diversity and the at times contradictory federal policies towards region 5 challenge the idea of two uniform blocs. A closer look reveals that multiple conflict lines fueled by political, economic and genealogical logics co-exist within region 5.7 Both sides, EPRDF cadres and Somali-Ethiopian politicians, have skillfully exploited these conflict lines to extract political spoils for their own constituencies.  

Finally, a third misconception concerns the nature and scope of political violence in region 5. Although reliable cumulative casualty figures are unavailable for the time period between 1991 and today, most victims of direct physical force were unrelated to the conflict between ONLF and government troops. Until last year the ONLF insurgency largely consisted of a low intensity conflict characterized by hit-and-run attacks by the Ogaadeen rebels who avoided sustained military engagements with the Ethiopian army. A far greater number of battle deaths arose from inter-clan fighting between Somali clans, which went largely unnoticed by the outside world. Prominent examples are the repeated clashes between the Shekash (or Shekal) and various Ogaadeeen sub-clans or the 2006 Guji-Borena conflict along the Somali-Oromiya regional border. Although ONLF and Ethiopian soldiers at times took part in these inter-clan clashes, they were mostly driven by tensions over administrative boundaries and political competition at local, district and regional level.

With the gradual intensification of the ONLF uprising over the past years, civilians from the various Ogaadeen clans have become increasingly torn between the two conflict parties. Both ONLF and government forces pressurize civilians to collaborate, to provide information about enemy activities, and to mobilize either for the ONLF or government cause. Refusal to collaborate may result in allegations of being either pro-government or pro-ONLF and makes communities highly vulnerable to sanctions and punishments by either side. As a result a heavy toll is extracted from the civilian population whose freedom is drastically diminished in the reciprocal logic of insurgency and counter-insurgency.

The political roots of the current crisis

Bearing in mind these considerations, the question arises as to the causes of the armed conflict in region 5. Who bears responsibility for the political deadlock, fighting and insecurity in the Ethio-Somali borderlands? Different answers are given to this question.

According to the federal government the intransigent behavior and terrorist acts of the ‘anti-peace elements’ – meaning ONLF and cells of Islamist militants backed by Eritrea – are to be blamed for the region’s instability and underdevelopment. In the eyes of many highland Ethiopians, region 5’s predicament emanates from Somalis’ segmentary clan structure, which is blamed for the permanent infighting, shifting alliances and destructive competition that make the region ungovernable. The regular reshuffling of senior politicians and bureaucrats within the regional administration is given as a proof of this view.

Conversely, for many Somalis the region’s troubles lie within its corrupt and irresponsible political leadership. Particularly government and parliament officials are perceived as hand-picked ‘puppets’ of the federal government who lack popular support and legitimacy outside of their immediate kin group. The true power in the Ogaadeen heartland, according to this interpretation, is concentrated in the hands of national military commanders, security officials and their Somali tataki8 loyalists stationed across the region. While each of these partisan views holds some truth, they do not provide a full picture of the underlying causes of the current crisis in region 5. The following section offers an alternative explanation of the political roots of the current conflicts in the Ethio-Somali lowlands.

The failure of ethnic federalism to deliver in the Somali periphery

EPRDF conceived ethnic federalism as the institutional strategy to achieve development and ‘self-determination’, yet it failed to deliver the widely expected benefits for a majority of region 5’s inhabitants.9 In terms of public infrastructure and service delivery (education, health, roads, security etc.) the region fares worse than both Ethiopia’s highland regions and neighboring Somaliland and Somalia. While progress has been achieved in expanding local government, administrative capacity for service delivery remains extremely limited.10 The potential advantages of ethnic-based decentralization did not trickle down sufficiently to the rural masses in the Somali periphery. Popular frustration with and ill-will towards the government are a result of this failure.

Instead of mitigating the region’s manifold political problems, ethnic federalism heavily politicized group relations. It facilitated the ascension of a small, mostly Jijiga-based, Somali-Ethiopian elite that acts as a gatekeeper of resources and opportunities channeled into and allocated within the region. The expansion of bureaucratic spoils such as government jobs, aid projects or public contracts into remote rural areas aggravated clan competition. Decentralization sparked quarrels over the control of districts and kebeles11 and led to the contentious redrawing of local administrative boundaries. Finally, the appointment to office of former politicians of the Somali Democratic Republic, young Somali Ethiopian Civil Service College (ECSC) graduates, Ethiopian army collaborators and clan elders fractured clan-based group cohesion.

Losing the ‘hearts and minds’ of Ethiopian-Somalis

If the US administration’s post-September 11 ‘war on terrorism’ alienated Muslims globally, the same applies to the Ethiopian government’s attempts to incorporate Ethiopian-Somalis into the country’s ‘new political order’.12 EPRDF lost Somalis’ ‘hearts and minds’ by dishonoring the region’s constitutionally guaranteed autonomy, by meddling in its internal decision-making, and by the ruthless conduct of its security forces.13 Ethiopia’s military support for Abdullahi Yusuf’s Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFG) furthermore bolstered anti-Ethiopian sentiments among large segments of Somali society. Likewise, consecutive regional administrators proved unable to win a reputation as accountable and committed leaders who defend the interests of the population at large.