NIAS AFRICA STUDIES

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NIAS AFRICA STUDIES
A profile on Ethiopia’s Somali ethnic group

  Sneha Surendran

The Somali people in Ethiopia are a part of the larger Somali ethnic group that has lived across the Horn of Africa region for centuries. Historically, the Somalis have travelled and interacted throughout the Horn of Africa region for trade, pastoralism, and cultural connections. The movement and settling of Somali people into present-day Ethiopia took place before modern political borders were drawn. Within Ethiopia, they primarily reside in the eastern Somali regional State which is also called Ogaden. The social stratification of this group is based on a strictly hierarchical clan system. Clans are composed of kinship groups and families.  Every clan has its territory, history, and role to play within the wider community. There are four major patrilineal clan families, namely the Darod, Hawiye, Dir, and Rahanweyn. The major clans can be further traced into sub-clans which testify to the intricacy of the clan system. Clans exhibit fierce competition with each other and male elders of clans play a vital role in resolving disputes. Family is an important unit for the Somalis, with people relying on their patrilineal clan relatives during tough times. Society is highly patriarchal. Occupation-wise, the Somalis are traditionally pastoralists while minor clan members also work as leatherworkers, blacksmiths, and “ritual specialists.” The Ethiopian Somalis speak the Somali language and are largely Islamic.

Following Italy's partial annexation of Ethiopia, the area was integrated under Italian Somaliland between 1936 and 1941. Later, the areas occupied by Ethiopian Somalis were divided into three provinces: Eastern Hararghe, Ogadeen, and Bale. Somali-populated areas in the three provinces were combined to create the Ethiopian Somali regional state in 1995 after the military rule was overthrown in 1991.

For over two decades, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) has been fighting for the self-determination rights of the Somalis in the Ogaden region. In 1984, the ONLF was founded as a nationalist organization. Following the collapse of the Ethiopian military administration in 1991 and the establishment of an ethnic federal system in Ethiopia, they won the elections for the first regional legislature in 1992. However, disagreements with the federal government over the Somali people's right to self-determination and targeted attacks on their leaders led to ONLF turning to armed insurrection in 1994. The insurgency movement along with the proximity of the Ogaden region to mainland Somalia is the reason for the deployment of state security forces. Numerous human rights violations have also fuelled the separatist tendencies.

The Somali region is one of Ethiopia’s most underdeveloped states, with low literacy rates, insufficient infrastructure, a population largely dependent on food aid and weak administration structures. Different administrative structures have been in place for the Ethiopian Somali area ever since it was incorporated into the current Ethiopian state in the late 1880s.

Conflicts and the involvement of state forces and militia factions have only worsened the socio-economic indicators. A majority of Ethiopian Somalis feel marginalized by the federal government. Moreover, since the regional government was instituted in 1992, this sense of alienation and lack of trust in institutions has also spread to the regional level. Despite efforts from the federal government to develop the Somali region, regional administrations have often struggled to effectively utilize allocated funds, facing challenges such as limited capacity and corruption. Somalis also look at the rest of the country as being one that is dominated by the “habasha” or Ethiopian “highlander,” which adds to a sense of political and cultural disunity with the rest of Ethiopia.

The Somalis in Ethiopia are engaged in disputes with neighbouring ethnic groups. For instance, there has been a long-standing violent border conflict with the Afar ethnic group over possession of land and resources. Ethnic Somalis reside in three kebeles or small administrative units; two of which lie in the Afar-occupied region and one in Somalia. The Somalis of these regions wish to unite with the Somali regional state, raising strong protests from the Afar authorities. The disputed region has resources like the Awash River and highway and railway lines that connect Addis Ababa and Djibouti. The river waters are used by both ethnic groups for whom pastoralism is a major occupation; while the connectivity lines help sustain the local economy. The dispute has often transformed into violence involving formal security forces and informal militia groups from both sides.

Similarly, conflict also exists between the Somalis and the Oromo people. Together, they share the longest internal border in Ethiopia, a part of which traces the Ganale Doria River, delineating the Oromia grasslands, and Somali desert. Despite close cultural and linguistic connections between the two communities, the significance of the border extends beyond administration; it has symbolic value, showing political and ethnic factors between Ethiopia's two largest regions.

Attempts to resolve these disputes have included referenda; however, full demarcation remains elusive, perpetuating ongoing tensions. The disputes have only worsened due to the involvement of other actors including federal, regional, paramilitary, and rebel groups engaged in conflicts across Ethiopia. For instance, the Liyu police, a specialized force based in the Somali region, have faced accusations of targeting Oromos, while also combating separatist factions advocating for self-rule of Somalis.

The Somali regional state is also a restive area. Civilians here have been subjected to abuse by both the Ethiopian army and the Liyu police forces. Since 2007, civilian abuse has been exacerbated due to the worsening armed fighting between the insurgent Ogaden National Liberation Front and Ethiopia’s Defense Forces. Ethiopian authorities instituted the Liyu police forces as a counterinsurgency force, which by 2008 had become prominent. In a 2008 report, Human Rights Watch revealed that both sides had committed numerous war crimes. They also reported that Ethiopian troops had forcibly displaced entire rural communities, destroyed villages, and tortured and killed civilians in the Somali region.


About the author

Sneha Surendran is a Postgraduate Scholar at OP Jindal University, Haryana.

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