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.
In retrospect, Ethiopian-Somalis’ continuous alienation from the national polity appears blatant. EPRDF’s inability to make Somalis feel at home within a decentralized Ethiopian political system was not the outcome that the ruling party had wished for. Quite the opposite is the case. After taking power EPRDF sought to accelerate development in the country’s heavily marginalized lowland areas belonging to the Somali, Afar, Gambella and Benishangul-Gumuz regional states. Despite their limited financial absorption capacity, federal budget transfers to the so-called ‘backward regions’ steadily increased over the past decade. The granting of self-government and investments in human capacity-building for the first time in modern Ethiopian history enabled the emergence of an educated elite within the periphery.  

Region 5 forcefully demonstrates that national identity cannot be decreed or engineered by financial subsidies, political quotas or the holding of elections. 14 Strategies to win people’s hearts and minds operate at the symbolic as much as at the political level. ‘Why are there no Somali flight attendants working for Ethiopian airlines?’ an intellectual from the region once asked in a private conversation.15 More than any all-embracing analysis, this question grasps a key problem; the persistent gap between EPRDF-propagated self-determination for the country’s ‘nations and nationalities’ and Somalis’ de facto exclusion from national institutions.

Absence of meaningful organized interest groups

Another conflict aggravating factor is the near absence of political groups and civil society organizations in region 5 who are able to garner popular support beyond their immediate constituency. Organized interest groups seldom reach out to the grassroots level and tend to pursue narrow agendas in the name of ‘clan’, ‘security’ or ‘humanitarian aid’. Their ability to contribute to problem-solving in the highly politicized context of the region is limited. A brief and inevitably superficial overview of the region’s most important actors confirms this observation.

Regional politicians and officials of the ruling SPDP are discredited in the eyes of the population, which views them as corrupt clients who are accountable to federal officials only. The Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and other federal representatives present in the region such as customs and security officials or party cadres are feared for their arbitrariness, harshness and dogmatic policies, which often clash with regional realities.16 Fearing repression or sanctions, regional politicians and international organizations have rarely dared to confront federal officials publicly.

ONLF draws on support from the Ogaadeen, but has been unable to overcome its parochial clan basis. Politically, the rebels have been wavering between secession and irredentism with parts of neighboring Somalia while their Diaspora based leadership is internally divided.17 Islamic militants of the United Western Somali Liberation Front (UWSLF), a small successor group of al-Ittihad al-Islaami, operate beyond the customary authority of clans and do not share ONLF’s secular nationalism. Jihadists belonging to al-shabaab, the radical youth wing of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), follow a global salafist agenda that brings them into opposition with the region’s traditionally moderate Sunni believers.   

In the realm of customary clan authority, the picture is only slightly better. While some clan elders have managed to maintain a standing within their community, many have been co-opted by the SPDP, the national military or the ONLF. The multiplication of titled elders who compete over the leadership of identical clan segments is an indicator of the politicization and weakened power of customary chiefs.

In the last years a number of local non-governmental aid organizations (NGOs) have sprung up in region 5. With few exceptions their beneficiaries and outreach are defined genealogically. Several NGOs more resemble private companies than charitable organizations, often serving as a vehicle to promote the careers of their founders within regional politics.

International aid organizations are eyed suspiciously by the federal government and their regional counterpart is disorganized. Implementation is challenged by the volatile security environment and dilapidated infrastructure and, in the case of UN agencies, by overly bureaucratic internal regulations. Consequently, few international organizations have managed to maintain a continuous presence in the field and to move from short-term humanitarian interventions to longer term development work. 18

This admittedly bleak assessment of political and development actors in region 5 is reinforced by the absence of a public space in which ideas and information can circulate freely. Region 5 is one of the few Somali inhabited territories without independent newspapers, radios or television programs. Existing media outlets such as BBC’s Somali service, the government’s Somali programme on Radio FANA, ONLF’s radio Xoriyo or different Diaspora websites either report from outside the region or broadcast highly partisan views. As the region’s pressing political and development problems are not relayed by the media, informed public debates that could result in constructive political change rarely take place. Consequently, political discourse is dominated by military actors and security considerations.

Long-standing ignorance by the international community

The ‘Ogaden problem’ is not new. Political violence involving Ethiopian soldiers, regional security forces, ONLF rebels and clan militias has a long history in region 5. Recurrent humanitarian crises triggered by droughts, floods, conflict and population displacement have haunted the Ethiopian-Somali lowlands for several decades. Until ONLF’s attack on the Chinese oil field in Degehabur in April 2007, international organizations, Western diplomats and aid agencies have by and large chosen to ignore everyday occurrences in region 5. Political developments were not monitored, elections not observed and human rights violations not made public. ‘The harsh environment’, ‘Somalis are always fighting’, ‘pastoralists do what they want’ – these are but some of the explanations that international community representatives have offered to excuse their chronic indifference towards the region. Both multilateral organizations and foreign donors would have been well advised to strengthen their presence in region 5, to connect with the local population, and to engage regional and federal authorities in a dialogue on the numerous unresolved political and development issues. Instead major Western powers including the United States tacitly support Ethiopia’s counter-insurgency methods in region 5 as part of their joint anti-terrorism agenda in the Horn of Africa.


The current crisis in region 5 is not the logical outcome of the 1977/78 Ogaden war. Several opportunities for more peaceful and prosperous development have arisen since the creation of Ethiopia’s Somali region in 1991, and different actors bear responsibility for not seizing them. ONLF missed the chance of establishing a more inclusive administration before 1994 and, later on, of winning followers among the region’s different clans groups. The federal government’s brutal anti-insurgency tactics reduce the scope for political dialogue between the conflict parties and instead turn large parts of the Ogaadeen population into ONLF supporters. The international community could have declared resolving the decade-old conflict between ONLF and the Ethiopian government a priority a long time ago. It missed a major window of opportunity when it ignored the Ogaadeen elders’ mediation initiative between the federal government and ONLF after the 2005 elections.
For a long time a buffer zone between Ethiopia and Somalia, region 5 has transformed into a hotspot where Ethiopian and Somali, global and local forces are clashing with one another. The recent escalation of the ONLF insurgency and targeted killings and bombings in the region are indicators of this trend. Another and equally worrying indicator is the fact that the two sides, ONLF and the Ethiopian government, have run short of political visions. On the one side, the Ogaadeen rebels have set their mind on ‘decolonizing’ region 5 militarily, but have no proposals on offer regarding what future political, economic and administrative solutions for the region might look like. On the other side, the federal government has lost impetus in attending to the region’s development and humanitarian problems, choosing instead to make ‘security’ and ‘anti-terrorism’ the overriding policy agenda. No attempt is made by either side to genuinely address the political roots of the current crisis.

From an outsider’s viewpoint, new political visions are therefore urgently needed to remedy the current stalemate in region 5. To be met with success, such visions have to transcend the Somalis versus Ethiopians stereotype, draw on popular support and not elite interests, and take into account the Somali territories’ wider political economy as well as Ethiopia’s national security concerns. Ultimately, concrete solutions to improve the well-being of the region’s inhabitants seem far more important than the question of which national flag should fly over Jijiga.

Zürich, 21 September 2007


1 To distinguish Ogaden as a geographical area from the clan, I use the Somali spelling ‘Ogaadeen’ to refer to the latter. The Ogaadeen heartland roughly consists of Degehabur, Fiq, Godey, Kabridehar and Godey zones.

2 Ogaden National Liberation Front, ‘O.N.L.F. Statement on War Crimes in Ogaden’, 23 July 2007, available from <> (accessed 19 September 2007).

3 An overview of the region’s recent history is provided by Tobias Hagmann and Mohamud H. Khalif, ‘State and Politics in Ethiopia's Somali Region since 1991’, Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies, Issue 6, 2006.

4 See Roland Marchal’s contribution to this web-forum.

5 Jeffrey Gettleman, ‘In Ethiopian Desert, Fears and Cries of Army Brutality’, New York Times, 18 June 2007.

6 Cedric Barnes, ‘The Ethiopian State and its Somali Periphery, circa 1888-1948’, PhD thesis, University of Cambridge, 2000.

7 Tobias Hagmann, ‘Beyond Clannishness and Colonialism: Understanding Political Disorder in Ethiopia's Somali Region, 1991-2004’, Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 43, No. 4, 2005.

8 Amharic for rifleman.

9 The following paradox is observable. Although improvements in social services delivery and building of infrastructure under EPRDF have surpassed those of previous regimes, people’s demands for more development and democracy are unabated. Lahra Smith, Political Violence and Democratic Uncertainty in Ethiopia, Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 2007.

10 Tobias Hagmann, ‘Challenges of Decentralisation in Ethiopia's Somali region’, Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 32, No. 104-105, 2005.

11 The kebele (peasant or pastoralist association) is the lowest administrative unit in Ethiopia.

12 John Markakis, ‘The Somali in the New Political Order of Ethiopia’, Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 21, No. 59, 1994.

13 Abdi Ismail Samatar, ‘Ethiopian Federalism: Autonomy versus Control in the Somali Region’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 6, 2004.

14 A quite different example is Kenya whose Somali inhabited Northern Frontier District (NFD) has increasingly been made part of the national body politic in recent years following several decades of marginalization and an almost permanent state of emergency.

15 Author’s interview.

16 A case in point is federal trade policy and government attempts to eliminate cross-border contraband.

17 An ongoing power struggle pits ONLF chairman Admiral Mohamed Omar Osman and his followers against a group led by the rebels’ head of Planning and Research Department, Dr. Mohamed Sirad Dalool. Abdi M. Abdulahi, ‘Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF): The Dilemma of its Struggle in Ethiopia’, Review of African Political Economy, forthcoming 2007.

18 A notable exception is the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who had a long standing presence in region 5. ICRC was forced to shut down its operations in end of July 2007 after the Ethiopian government accused it of collaborating with ONLF.