Shedding light on the recent violence in the border areas between Somali and Oromia regions of Ethiopia
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Shedding light on the recent violence in the border areas between Somali and Oromia regions of Ethiopia

By Ismail Mohammed Abdi
Tigrai Online, March 12, 2017

Shedding light on the recent violence in the border areas between Somali and Oromia regions of Ethiopia

During the last few months, the border conflict between the Oromia and Somali Regions of Ethiopia has taken anew turn. First, it has attracted lots of media attention mainly originating from the Oromia opposition groups and individuals outside the country. The conflict has become a rallying point for such rogue groups as the Oromo Liberation front (OLF) whose intent is only to add flames to any domestic fire solely to advance their obviously crooked agenda which none of us here in Ethiopia has any doubts about.



Secondly, the Oromo People’s Democratic organization (OPDO) itself has ironically not chosen a different path and merely replicated a terrorist agenda of turning Ethiopian people against itself. Instead of choosing to resolve the land-related problem peacefully with its neighbor, the Somali Region, as the case used to be in the past, all that the regional government, with the whole weight of its lawmakers and intellectuals, has done in the past seven or eight months was to send thousands of heavily armed militia and paramilitary police members to border areas to fight pastoralists in their villages of origin, leading to catastrophic casualties including unnecessary human deaths, displacement and devastation of local livelihoods mostly on the side of Somali regional state.

The fact that there are also some deaths reported by the Oromia opposition press and Oromia regional government on their side does not necessarily wash this tragic mess off the hands of the Oromia administration. Rather, it only confirms the common wisdom that no one is immune to the ills of warfare and even aggressors, like attackers from Oromia in this case, could be killed once fighting breaks out.

A very important question to be asked at this juncture is this: where did the reported deaths of the militiamen and paramilitary members from Oromia take place? The indisputable answer remains inside Somali Region and not otherwise. This fact does not change regardless ofwhatever side one may take in this conflict but most interestingly it says a lot about who is the attacking foreign the first place and who is been attacked. In other words, those who are dying in a territory other than their own are the attackers, refuting all claims of the Oromia regional lawmakers and the opposition press that Somali communities in the border areas are on the offensive side.

It is not the first time that we have seen OPDO joining forces with malignant Oromo groups that have fallen out with the country’s constitution. However, this last one brings the OPDO into new heights where senior members of the Oromia regional government, including the current president and regional lawmakers, clearly feed on opposition propaganda and are openly praised by the opposition press for complementing their agenda. It seems that there are clear complementarities in the roles for each party here: the OPDO domestically becomes the operational arm running the fighting machinery intended to destabilize Ethiopian Somali communities in border areas whereas opposition groups, including those banned by law, would run the media warfare needed to shape the opinion of domestic and international audiences and entities.

The recent Oromo protests that led to the reversal of the decision of FDRE government to expand the base territory of Addis Ababa city came, by the way, as a total surprise to many in and outside the country but mostly to the Oromos themselves. None from the Ethiopian Oromo community ever expected such concession given the history of repression and dictatorship in Ethiopia under previous regimes. The Oromos also hailed the protests as a gateway to increasing their ministerial leadership share within the federal government. This itself was another important surprise waiting them just around the corner. After all, as this is not Mengistu’s Ethiopia and FDRE is an elected government, good surprises like these can be a part of our lives through a government response to public demands.

While the outcome from the protests in both cases should be fine with every Ethiopian, the downside is that they emboldened the Oromo political elite, from both opposition and ruling party alike, giving birth to a new attitude towards the approach of handling traditional land conflicts with neighboring ethnicities, the Somali Region being a case in point. The mistaken and newly conceived impression that they can apply the same Addis Ababa experience to the border issue with the Somali Region is the cause for the new derailment of stability and peace in the border areas for more than half a year. With this new attitude, the frequency of attacks from Oromia’s armed militia and trained policemen has sharply risen to new levels in the past few months.

It is really not a joke that the upsurge in politically driven violence in the border areas between the two Region comes with a new catch phrase increasingly becoming common among the Oromo political elite, particularly after reversal decision. It goes like this:We have won the west we shall now win the east. This basically means the Addis Ababa expansion plan was defeated through protests, so it is now time to take the crushing weight of the Oromo to the eastern neighbor, the Somali Region, to wreak havoc and expand the Oromia territory to the east. However, the two issues in the same Oromo catch phrase are indeed very different things that can be revealed by a closer look. For instance, the Addis Ababa expansion plan dropped by the FDRE government covered territory settled by Oromo farmers but the fighting in the Somali Region is driven Oromo’s insatiable quest for territorial expansion, which is not new at all and continues through decades of history.

The consequence inherited by Somali Region currently from the ongoing border conflict with Oromia Region is not only deaths and destruction of property so far. It is also the media portrayal of a misleading picture of what this standoff is all about and its ferocity, unfairly hijacking the views of the international community and eclipsing the facts regarding the origins of the crisis, its new driving factors and why it is so different this time than those in the past. This apparently makes the conflict one of the most misunderstood issues in the Horn of Africa today, putting the Somali pastoral communities, the real victims of this stalemate, on the losing side and the Oromiya government leadership and opposition elements, the actual perpetrators of the ongoing violence, jointly on the winning side.

The silence of the Somali regional government on the issue and the absence of its voice in the domestic and international media were not easy but understandable. On the one side, regional attention and effort was consumed by the struggle of responding to a debilitating drought affecting most parts of the Region, while on the other, regional authorities have kept the conflict to a low profile in the hope that it can be addressed peacefully through constructive engagement with its counterpart as the case has always been in the past. In either case, such silence has not helped the situation as it has given the oramia government and opposition activists to bury down the truth about the border crisis through the use of predatory media. This has ultimately spread a false but unfortunatelyunchallenged impression that Oromia Region is the perceived recipient and victim of attacks from its neighbor, Somali Region, though reality is undoubtedly otherwise.

The artificially-created confusion surrounding the conflict is not only shocking to the Somali communities and authorities affected by the inter-state border crisis but also to most ordinary Oromos who are struggling understand the real intentions and the approach of their political elite and think that the issue has been taken too far than necessary and at the expense of what is best for both Regions and communities – peaceful dialogue. The beneficiaries of this confusion are neither the Somali nor the Oromo people but the Oromo political elite who is persistently looking for scapegoats, using the conflict to hide their withering confidence by the public and dwindling support for such elite.

Given this state of affairs between the two sides, displacing truth in favor of fabricated lies would, by anyone’s standard, yield dangerous consequences for all parties concerned in the long-term regardless of who may benefit from it in the short-term. Most importantly, however, such act would make the prospects for amicably settling the problem more remote than ever before. In my role as an independent researcher of such issues lately, this is to provide ground level clarification of facts based on assessments I have undertaken and on the consistent outcomes of investigations made by various individual sand entities in and outside the Region. This work is not about making conclusions by merely quoting what others have said on the matter, but also includes field visits I personally made to more than ten conflict-affected Woredas, giving me the first hand opportunity to talk to victims, assess locations of fighting and study conflict incidents in detail.

2. Background

Traditionally, the Somali and Oromo communities have been mostly peaceful neighbors, inter-connected by cultural, social, economic and historical bonds. They lived side-by-side for centuries and have built alliances in many occasions against common enemies like the Italian fascist invader. Apart from occasional disputes over rangelands, both communities have thrived through their inter-dependence, co-existence and mutual accommodation, rendering benefits to both sides. We need to understand that this will not change whatever the political elite of today decides regarding the border issue.

Historically, the land conflict between the Oromo and Somali communities in Ethiopia goes back to many decades but it has always been a slowly burning issue. Ethnic regionalization under federalism and the need to demarcate borders between Oromia and Somali Regions came up with challenges from the very start: both Regions laid claim to some of the same borderline areas as their own, re-awakening and sharpening the old and traditionally dormant ethnic conflict between the two sides.

With support from the federal authorities and based on agreement between the two sides, a land referendum was carried out to peacefully solve the land dispute. Out of the 420 kebeles covered in the referendum, only 80 went to the Somali Region and the rest to Oromia. Although the Somali regional government transferred all the kebeles it has lost which were originally under its administration to local Oromia authorities, it did not receive equal treatment from its Oromia counter-part. Up-to this every day, the oromia regional government retains kebeles that were previous under its control but which they lost during the referendum to Somali Region.

In the past decade, transferring this land was always an issue for the successive regional administrations on both sides, but various Oromia regional administrations had one thing in common: the use of various tactics to delay the transfer though they never objected openly. As a heavyweight member of the EPRDF, Oromo authorities have always known for dragging their feet when it comes tissues of land, eventually denying any progress forward.

Facing uncertainty and mounting frustration and despite the lack of any viable breakthrough in this matter throughout the years after the referendum, one simple strategy that has been used by Somali Region authorities and which indeed paid off in terms of keeping both sides at peace until recently was as follows: patiently wait the best opportunity to sort out this peacefully with the Oromia neighbor.This was a regional policy that did not change throughout various administrations that came to power in the Region. I strongly commend the Ethiopian Somali authorities for holding on to this approach, while there was no any incentive for keeping peace in border areas from the other side- Oromia.

3. Recent developments in the border areas between the two Regions

In recent months, there were two unprecedented developments that have changed the peaceful landscape of relations between the cross-border communities in the Somali and Oromia Regions. The first development pertains to the systematic expulsion of tens of thousands of ethnic Ethiopian Somalis in areas transferred to Oromia Region after the referendum. This was implemented through a brutal campaign subjecting locals to killings, torture, rape and lootings at gunpoint at a horrific scale. This clearly contradicts with the very essence and spirit of the referendum, which was meant to draw administrative borders between the two Regions but was never about pushing people out from areas they lived in for centuries.

The influx produced by such expulsion has nearly reached every zone and Woreda in the Somali Region in recent months. The most painful and heart-breaking case among the expelled involves those from areas like Balbalaiti, Bardode, Mina and Burqa-tirtire who lived in there for centuries and have no knowledge of Somali Region but were forced to leave their villages, farms, livestock and other property behind only to live in a land they never saw before under deplorable conditions of poverty created by man. These communities have not committed any crime or anything else to deserve this but just happen to be ethnic Ethiopian Somalis put by the referendum under Oromia administration. Today, the expellees are spilled across the Somali Region, unable to economically integrate themselves with the rest of the Region’s population and struggling to survive. The Dakhato IDP camp in Fafan zone is a typical example giving anyone wishing to know this more a grim glimpse of this little known horror story.

The second development instigated by the Oromia authorities was even more shocking and unexpected. Instead of keeping the long-awaited promise of returning kebeles won by Somali Region through the referendum which are still in Oromia hands, the same authorities rolled out new armed campaign in many kebeles both within and outside the traditionally disputed areas but which were cleared for Somali Region by the referendum. The start of never-seen all-out brutality characterized by well-coordinated daily incursions and attacks along the long border between the two Regions is dimming prospects fora peaceful settlement to the crisis. It also confirms the close involvement of the top leadership of the Oromia’s regional government as confirmed by a recent meeting of regional lawmakers in Adama town.

The hostility of the Oromia lawmakers and regional leadership was brought to light a week ago by the unusual and abrupt ending of the live transmission on the meeting of the regional council by the Oromia TV. When insults against the Somali regional government and its leadership erupted, outbursts driven by misguided emotions took the stage and chaos broke out in the parliamentary conference hall, the network took the decision to cut it to avoid disseminating further such poisonous views to the rest of the country. Incidents involving armed raids from Oromia into Somali Region have literally jumped up in number following the meeting of lawmakers and so are the casualties.

Current border conflict between the two sides is distinguished from those in the past by Oromia’s relentless use of well trained militia and uniformed paramilitary force, armed to the teeth and savagely attaching civilian communities they think have no matching combat skills nor arms capacity to confront cross-border raids from Oromia. Today, this crisis is extended to more than 15 Woredas in the Region. The interesting aspect about all this pertains to the specific locations where the actual fighting is taking place all of which are in Somali Region territory and most of which Oromos have never claimed asbeing a part of their own Region in the past.

Localities like Qansaxdhere, Dhungoo, Galuun, Bisiqa and Bardaha cas of Dakasuftu Woreda, Qardhisan, Har-ogaadeen and Barnicade of Salahad Woreda, Kulmiye, Koore and Qarfodhule of Babile Woreda, Dhagax-galaal and Karaare of Jigjiga Woreda, Hardin and Nimcaale of Ma’ayso Woreda, Julul of Mayumuluqo Woreda, Xero-homay of East Imay Woreda, Dire-Luja of QarsadulaWoreda and Sekh-salan of Gursum Woreda have seen more than their fair share of the fighting but all of them are lie off the border between the two Regions.Almost all of such localities are reachable by only deep incursions into such Woredas. As I have already stated, this very simple and plain truth easily distinguishesattackers from the attacked and the victims from the villains.

4. Testing the veracity of Oromia’s claims about the Liyu-police force

Of all the things that the Oromia lawmakers and their government said about Somali Region, the weirdest remains the unsubstantiated claim that the Liyu-police force of Somali Region is involved in the border conflict between the two sides. Although I can clearly understand how the liyu-police got into the opposition press, frankly, I do not know how this got into discussion agenda of the lawmakers as such claims have no roots in reality. Was this just a misplaced anger about something else or was it driven from behind by Oromia opposition groups, which may have close links with some of the members within the Oromia regional government? In the sections below, I will try to address the issue of what is the mandate of the liyu police but most importantly will provide some clarifications on how involvement of the liyu-police in the border conflict is null and void claim from a practical point of view.

The liyu-police force of the Ethiopian Somali Region remains a counter insurgency force intended to dismantle the operational machinery of terrorist groups like the so-called Ogaden national liberation front (ONLF), better known as UBO locally, OLF and Alshabab. The unit had proven this in practice through its historic achievements in uprooting the UBO from Ethiopian soil and denying cross-border infiltration of Alshabab into Ethiopian territory. Since its establishment some ten years ago, it has never been the mandate of this well trained force to turn its guns on civilian population and has never done so in practice.

Looking back the history of this force, it only operated in areas within the Region where insurgency groups used to be active and in areas along the Ethio-Somali border where border protection is deemed necessary. Therefore, the claims of members of the Oromia regional government and Oromia opposition groups that the liyu-police has anything to do with border conflict between the two regional states are simply false and do not hold any grain of truth. For a highly trained police force that has a reputation for putting hardened gorilla groups like the ONLF to a terminal end, It is only a common sense to understand that casualties on the Oromia side would have been much higher than its reported levels if the liyu-police would have engaged the Oromo militia terrorizing poorly armed pastoralists.

Following the end of ONLF operations in recent years, the police turned its attention to development and thousands of its members have been trained into civil servants including animal and human health technicians, tractor and construction operators and agricultural specialists. More than 40% of the remaining members of the force are currently engaged in assisting the emergency response programme ongoing in the drought-affected areas of the Somali Region. If truth would matter to out Oromia brothers in areas affected by the inter-state conflict, they themselves know that they have not seen any liyu-police members that have ever engaged them ever in battle. A deployment of the liyu-police to the border areas between the two regions would normally come before operational engagement is talked about. However, how can our Oromia brothers complain such military engagement in a context we know for sure that such deployment has never took place?

After all, the historic success of the liyu-police in the Somali Region has earned it many enemies both inside and outside the country. Armed opposition groups fear the prospect of engaging the liyu-police one day and therefore turned their propaganda machinery against such disciplined unit, which is a national asset in Ethiopia and beyond.

The false concerns and accusations from members of theOromia lawmakers are nothing but a mere reflection of one thing easily explainable by this Somali saying:He who intentionally and willfully starts blaming someone for something he knows he should be blamed, sows the seeds of confusion about the truth and misleads others and therefore has the advantage of smearing others who have nothing wrong. The claim from Oromia is a practical demonstration of this saying in that they are using paramilitary policemen and trained militia to raid and kill Somali pastoralists and have started to blame the Somali Region. Now you see that they have the advantage and in the eyes of outsiders, it is all confusion that reigns what is actually happening between the two Regions.

5. Federalism and its inherent changes into Ethiopia’s political landscape

The birth of federalism and decentralization in Ethiopia in the early 1990s marked the historic begging of all-inclusive Ethiopia. Unlike past regimes, this created an environment where no one is left behind on ethnic, cultural or religious grounds. The creation of a federal constitution that cherishes diversity as a source of strength and unity and which devolved economic and political decision-making from the center to grass-roots firmly established agreed principles for sharing resources, accommodation of various ethnicities and pluralism becoming the hallmark of the new Ethiopia. This is the clearly simple and indisputable face of federalism.

As an Ethiopian Somali who long suffered from the tyranny under the derge, I clearly understand what would have been at stake in the absence of federalism. As one of our wise elders said about federalism immediately after the downfall of the derge, federalism is like being born again and starting a new life from afresh after you have died under the misery and repression of a brutal tyranny. Whatever views you may hold about this subject, to the Ethiopian Somalis, the advent of federalism was the most important political miracle and milestone in the history of Ethiopia.

To most Ethiopians who do not confuse between the past and present political chapters of Ethiopia, the fact that ethnic groups in Ethiopia could demand more rights and go in the streets of big cities as they wish today does not necessarily signify the existence of oppression, but rather an indication of how far Ethiopian democracy has thrived and flourished. I am saying this in the light of how such actions were unthinkable under previous regimes.

Coming to the role of federalism in ethnic conflicts, ethnic-wise and region-wise, we should see that the country’s continuation has given us the power to manage our own affairs, including solving conflicts – both old and new. So from a practical point of few, there is need to point fingers to the federal government as far as ethnic conflicts are concerned. This means that regional states can entirely settle such conflicts between themselves and the Somali-Oromo border tension is not an exception.

The people of Tigray and TPLF are not a symbol of oppression. Their history signifies struggle for freedom from oppression and were a lead force in the determination that has liberated Ethiopia from the Derge, making all of us owe gratitude to them and to everyone else who has contributed to this noble cause. After all, Ethiopia remains one family of various nations and nationalities among which the Tigray nation and nationality constitutes a core component. So there is no any reason to smear their proud image as actors of repression and dictatorship as some political elements like to put it.

Therefore, we all Ethiopians need to think constructively and protect the most important national asset to which we all owe our current progress, peaceful co-existence and uninterrupted pursuit of prosperity –i.e. federalism.

6. Conclusion

My conclusion comes down to clarifying few points. The first is that federalism remains the driver of our individual and collective survival, peaceful co-existence and accommodation of each other both from an ethnic and individual perspective. We need to pay back our country through ensuring the protection of federalism. Those who think otherwise, wish nothing for this country and its people less than the return of the doomsday situation under pervious regimes. As far as the Ethiopian Somalis are concerned, I strongly believe that they accept nothing less than federalism in its current form and therefore would defend it at any cost.

Secondly, Oromia regional government needs to reform itself to the depth of its capacity to remove elements from the opposition groups that has melted into its system. In the name of reforms, it is sad to see that the regional lawmakers removed outstanding members like the former president, Mukhtar kadir, and his deputy within the ranks of the OPDO party, who have broad and health vision for Oromia and the country as a whole. This decision that remove both from their positions actually amounted to taking steps backward instead of progressing forward. Somali Region has gone through similar painful reforms a decade ago to cleanse the government system of the political parasite that used as a host. This has paid off well in the end despite the tough struggle at the beginning. I am sure that the Region would be valuable asset in terms of providing you with valuable lessons and experience in your process to get rid of noxious elements paralyzing your system and slowing progress.

Finally, I advise the Oromo regional government and opposition groups hailing from the same ethnicity, to abandon the ill-rhetoric about the conflict situation at the border between the two Regions, respond to demands of the common Oromo man, which is peace and the pursuit of happiness and respect the wishes of people in both sides of the border to decide on their own which Region they would like to be a part of. The latter is better than resorting to violence, especially if you would not respect the results of the referendum. Most importantly, please stop the detrimental media campaign propagating lies about Somali Region; you surely know that the ``region and its people is the victim of all this and not the aggressor. Constructive engagement from both sides remains the only viable option towards peaceful and mutually prosperous future for both Regions.

Ismail Mohammed Abdi
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article only represent the views of the author and not that of anyone else

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