For a long time Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State or Ogaden has been a theatre of violent confrontation between the Somalis living there and the Ethiopian authorities. Through history such conflicts have been launched under different pretexts by different groups (Hagmann, 2005). Religion played a prominent role in the campaigns of Ahmed Guray in the early 16th century, the Dervish movement of Sayid Mohammed Abdullahi Hassan in the late 19th and early 20th century and the late Nasrullah movement of the 1960s (Abbink, 2003). Leaders on both the Ethiopian and Somali sides have often been religious men or they operated under the influence of a religious man. In contrast, however, from the 1970s up to today, secessionism, irredentism and nationalism have been the main parlance of the conflict.
Without denying the presence of al-shabaab and the United Western Somali Liberation Fronts (UWSLF) in the Somali Regional State, both of which are jihadists, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) are the primary actors in the Ogaden conflict, which has been ongoing since 1994 (HRW, 2008). According to Articles 11 and 27 of the Ethiopian constitution, Ethiopia is a secular state that recognises the equality of religions (FDRE, 1995). Similarly, ONLF claims to be a purely nationalistic organisation struggling for the freedom of the people in the region. In spite of these disassociations from religion, one can, in reality, observe that religion—Christianity in the case of the Ethiopian army and Islam in the case of ONLF—has a significant role in the waging and continuation of the conflict. Religion is intertwined with historical, social and political factors that contribute to conflict dynamics in Ethiopia’s Somali inhabited lowlands.
This article does not argue that either the ONLF or Ethiopia are religious entities, nor does it contend that the conflict between the two is a religious one. In order to understand the role of religion in the Ogaden conflict and the factors that may maximize it the article focuses on two interrelated themes. The first one concerns the religious identities that the parties to the conflict claim and how these identities have influenced violent conflicts so far. The second theme focuses on the behaviour of these actors in the conflict and how they deliberately mobilized religious overtones, which partly transformed a political conflict into a religious one.
Past Muslim-Christian relations
Historically, Ethiopia was a Christian empire involved in fierce expansionist conflicts with the Adal Emirate that was predominantly run by Somali religious elites with the help of Arabs and Ottoman Turkish Empire. With the appearance of Imam Ahmed Ibrahim Al-Ghazi, other wise known as Ahmed Guray or the left-handed in the early 16th century in Harar, the religious divide between Christian highlanders and the Muslim Somalis sharpened. The Portuguese and Ottoman empires’ support to Abyssinia and Ahmed Guray respectively reinforced the religious sentiment and hatred on both sides (Rediker, 2003). Almost four centuries latter Sayid Mohammed Abdullahi Hassan emerged with his Dervish movement, fighting in turn against Britain, Italy and Ethiopia for 21 years until he died in 1921. Sayid Mohammed had relentlessly called upon the Somali people to follow his jihad against Christian invaders (Latin, 2004). This revived existing religious tension and Somali anger at the continuous incursion and territorial claims of Ethiopian and Christian highland authority over the Ogaden.
The 1960s Nasrullah uprising was another manifestation of religious mobilization. It was established in 1963 in the Ogaden to struggle for the independence of the region. Garad Makhtal Garad Dahir was elected as its first chairman and highly respected local clerics such as Sheikh Ibrahim Hashi and Sheikh Ali Suufi were among its leaders (Ansari, 2008, Markakis, 1987). The Arabic term Nasru-laah itself has far-reaching meaning in Islamic terminology as it is another way of saying ‘sacrifice for the sake of Allah’. This connotation and the rhetoric used by the Nasrullah leaders are proof of the limited place of nationalism in the movement. In the course of these events, from Ahmed Guray to Nasrullah, perceived threats have been built up on both sides. The Somalis began to consider other Ethiopians as their primary enemy and vice versa. Since the wars that spurred this enmity were strongly driven by religious undertones, religion was prominent in how the two sides framed each other. Socioeconomic and political factors both aggravated or eased tensions between the two.
The 1969 coup d’état in Somalia and the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia both came with different discourses. The leaders of both revolutions, Siad Barre in Somalia and Mengistu Hailemariam in Ethiopia, committed themselves to secularism, namely scientific socialism. In Ethiopia it was at this point that Muslims felt that the regime was no longer a Christian one. The establishment of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs in Ethiopia in 1976 was another step forward in Christian-Muslim relations (Ahmed, 2006). Nevertheless, this was not enough to extinguish the religious factor in the ongoing tensions between Somalis and the Ethiopian regime.