“Economic war”: Confiscation of Livestock, the Trade Embargo, and Other Restrictions

The ethnic Somali population of Somali Region consists mostly of pastoralists and agro-pastoralists. Livestock production and trade are the principal economic activities in the region and are essential to the livelihoods and survival of the majority of rural inhabitants of Somali Region, as well as for the vibrant trader community in the urban towns.169

The economy of Somali region and the well-being of the population depend on the movement of persons and goods, both to access grazing and water for the livestock and in order to transport them to local markets. Livestock herders constantly move camp to ensure adequate foraging and water for their herds, which in turn are transported to Somaliland and Puntland, both for local consumption and export to the Gulf States, the main export market. In return, vital supplies such as rice, sugar, flour, and clothes are transported by truck from Hargeysa, Berbera, and other locations in northern and southern Somalia to Somali Region and sold at the local markets. Several important trade routes link Somali Region with coastal ports in Somalia: a northern trade route via Hargeysa to Berbera and a southern route through Gode to Mogadishu. Additional routes lead to Bossaso and other port cities.

Attacking and confiscating livestock as a way of penalizing or controlling ethnic Somali pastoralists is not a new strategy. Human Rights Watch described a similar strategy used by the government of Emperor Haile Selassie to subdue insurgent movements in Somali Region in the 1960s:

More serious for the civilian population in the area was the government’s policy of mounting punitive expeditions, which killed or confiscated large numbers of animals, depriving the pastoral communities of the basis for their survival.

Military administration remained in the Ogaden after the insurrection. Most major towns had curfews for at least a year. Ogaden clan leaders documented a number of incidents in May 1964, when 75 people were reported killed by the army, together with more than 14,000 domestic animals killed or confiscated, and July 1964, when 22 people were killed and over 8,000 animals killed or confiscated. This “economic war” against the Ogaden was supplemented by a policy of encouraging Amhara farmers to settle in the more fertile areas, especially in the Jijiga area. The process of land registration became a vehicle for settler farmers claiming land rights, depriving pastoralists of use rights. The lack of access to these pastures became critical when drought struck in 1973-4.170

The Ethiopian government adopted a similar strategy of confiscating or killing livestock, often in conjunction with efforts to forcibly relocate villagers, as the case study of Labiga illustrates above. When combined with a rigid trade embargo on the conflict-affected zones and restrictions on movement, the effect on civilians has been disastrous.

Effects of the Trade Embargo 

For years the Ethiopian government has intermittently tried to regulate livestock trade from the region. However, following the ONLF attack on Obole in April 2007, the Ethiopian government imposed a total commercial trade embargo on the war-affected area of Somali Region (Fiiq, Dhagahbur, Gode, Korahe, and Wardheer—the Ogaadeeni-inhabited zones), prohibiting all commercial truck movement in the region and across the border into Somalia,  as well as the free movement of livestock by foot. In meetings with UN officials, the Ethiopian authorities claimed that this embargo was necessary to impede the flow of arms and other supplies to the ONLF.171  The trade embargo effectively shut down the vital trade route between Somaliland and Somalia and the war-affected areas of Somali Region, and further prevented the mostly pastoralist population from bringing livestock to markets for sale.

The trade embargo was rigorously enforced through the confiscation of trucks and supplies that violated the embargo, as well as occasional killings of livestock and people who sought to evade it. The army patrols the main roads in the area and has set up checkpoints at entry points into towns to prevent embargo violations.

Within weeks of the April 2007 Obole attack, the armed forces began confiscating commercial vehicles that moved goods into conflict-affected zones of Somali Region. In May 2007 the last major trade convoy left Hargeysa in Somaliland, consisting of 18 trucks stocked with food items and clothing. All 18 trucks were stopped and confiscated by the army near Dhagahbur, and were taken to the military base in Dhagahbur. At the end of September 2007, four months afterwards, all 18 trucks remained confiscated at the military base, according to their owners.172

The army continued to confiscate goods and trucks moving in and out of the affected region, a tactic that soon forced the commercial traders to stop their trade, as the risk of losing their goods and vehicles was simply too high. In early June 2007, businessman Mohammed Abdi Khalif was transporting goods (sugar, oil, and other food items) from Hargeysa in Somaliland to Aware town in Ogaden when he was stopped by a military patrol 12 kilometers before reaching Aware, near the village of Dud Adaad. The patrol accused him of delivering food to the ONLF, and confiscated his truck, using the goods he was transporting for their own consumption without compensation. After keeping the truck for one month at an Aware military base, they released it, emptied of its goods. The loss of an entire truck of goods, not to mention the truck itself in many cases, is a crippling loss for small traders.

In early September 2007, the army eased up the trade embargo slightly, allowing commercial trucks from Hargeysa, Somaliland, to travel to the non-conflict affected town of Hartasheik in Somali Region, a longer route, and then proceeding with a military escort (paid for by the truck owners) to Dhagahbur.173  However, the government continued to restrict most commercial access to the conflict-affected zones: in mid-September, three commercial trucks traveling from Hargeysa, Somaliland to Aware were confiscated by the army in Bukudhaba village.174

While the government’s confiscation of commercial trucks and the restriction of trade were the most visible signs of the trade blockade, its impact extended much deeper, threatening civilians in affected areas with a humanitarian crisis. Vital supplies such as rice, flour, sugar, clothes, and other food items virtually disappeared from the markets in the region, except for small stocks smuggled into the region at great risk. The goods available in the market doubled or even tripled in price, placing them well beyond the means of most ordinary citizens, particularly as they could no longer sell their livestock because of the same blockade. One trader explained the rise in prices to Human Rights Watch in September 2007:

Before the blockade, the price for a sack of sugar was 220 Birr (US$24) [wholesale]. During my last trip, I sold them for 550 Birr ($60). Rice was 200 Birr ($22), now it costs 550 Birr ($60). Maize was 80 Birr ($9), now it is 200 Birr ($22). The farthest you can [smuggle] food is Dhagahbur. Before, I used to transport to Fiiq three or four times per month.175

An interagency United Nations humanitarian assessment mission to Somali Region conducted in late August and early September 2007 estimated that the trade embargo had reduced the flow of commercial goods by 80 to 90 percent (since the assessment included some non-conflict affected regions, the reduction in conflict affected zones would be even greater). The assessment mission also estimated that an estimated 60 to 80 percent of the population depended on livestock sales for their income, and had been gravely affected by the ban on livestock trade. On average, in the areas visited by the assessment team, food prices had increased by 95 percent since the commercial embargo. The mission found that “food prices have increased so dramatically that access is severely constrained for the urban poor….the food availability in rural areas is reported far less than in major towns.”176

As of March 2008, many of the restrictions on commercial traffic described above were still in place. Monthly convoys were reportedly permitted to travel to the major towns with military escort, but not to the rural villages.

Restrictions on Movement, Herding, and Access to Water Sources

Concentrating the civilian population in military-controlled urban areas, ordering rural residents to relocate to these urban centers and often burning their rural homes has been accompanied by severe restrictions on the movement of the civilian population, goods, and livestock. The conflict-affected rural areas of Somali Region have effectively been “closed” and put off-limits to the civilian population. Civilians found in these “closed” areas risk being killed or detained, and often have their livestock confiscated.

Although the food situation in the major towns has been affected significantly by the trade embargo, the conditions in the “closed” areas where villages have been burned and villagers forced to relocate is much worse because of the severe restrictions placed on movement. Local residents told Human Rights Watch that men from the “closed” Lahelow area have been arrested when trying to leave Wardheer town with food supplies, and that restrictions have reportedly been placed on the amount of water and food that can be taken out of towns.177 The existence of these restrictions was confirmed by an interagency UN assessment mission that visited the area in late August and September 2007:

The team also found that the movement of food from towns to villages and from one village to another was strictly monitored and controlled by the military in some areas. For instance in Birqod of Dhagahbur wereda, all the food stocks were registered by the military and checked on a daily basis to ensure that food was not leaving the towns. Those interviewed reported that the reason for these restrictions were to ensure that ONLF members did not access food.178

Among those most severely affected by the ban on movement are the pastoralists. Their livestock cannot be relocated to urban areas for long periods of time, as there is inadequate access to grazing and water in these locations. However, the livestock herders risk arrest and death, and the confiscation of their livestock, if they continue to live their pastoralist lifestyle. When they enter towns to sell milk or livestock, they are often detained on suspicion of supporting, supplying, or spying for the ONLF. The ban on livestock trading to Somaliland has deprived them of their income, and contributed to a substantial drop in livestock prices within the region.179 One woman who fled the area described the plight of her relatives to Human Rights Watch:

The nomads are not allowed to move freely to the areas they want to go to feed their camels. They can only feed around the towns. It is difficult for the nomads because the soldiers go on foot, so the nomads can’t see them coming. If the soldiers see the camel tracks, they will follow them and accuse you of feeding the rebels and they may kill you, or take some camels, or shoot the camels.180

Human Rights Watch documented a number of cases in which army soldiers apprehended or killed nomadic herders in “closed” rural areas. In mid-September 2007, as discussed above, the army reportedly killed five young camel herders in the Lahelow area of Ogaden. According to the brother of one of the victims:

My younger brother, Abdulrahman Hassan, was killed with four other relatives, just in the last five days. They were killed in the Lahelow area—every week the soldiers used to conduct sweep operations in this area. The soldiers are ordering the people to leave this area with their animals, so that there are no animals in the ONLF areas [to feed the ONLF fighters]. Those who refuse are shot dead with their animals if they are found there. My brother was 19, he was there with 80 camels. The others were killed in the same area, and all of the camels were taken away. The boys from the other camps [who were killed] had their own camels.181

In late June 2007, soldiers reportedly killed Abdi Asker Muhumed and his brother Ahmed Asker Muhumed, both in their early 20s, when they were discovered watering their camels at a water well in Maleyko, southwest of Garbo. The bodies of the two brothers were left behind by the soldiers, and discovered and buried by other pastoralists.182

Three other herders were killed in the same area in April 2007, according to the elderly sister of two of the victims. Ahmed Mohammed Gedi was found alone by soldiers in the Helo-Dere area, just west of Garbo, looking for a group of stray camels, and was killed: “They shot him in the head with three bullets. They don’t like to see a lone man in the bush, and worse, Ahmed tried to escape from them.”183 According to the sister, four or five days later, Ahmed’s brother Dayib Mohammed Gedi, was looking for the same stray camels in the area between Garbo and Sagag, together with an unidentified man he met on the road, and was discovered by the soldiers. Both men were shot dead and their bodies were found after the army moved on.184  

Human Rights Watch received additional credible reports of similar cases of Ethiopian forces shooting livestock—and sometimes the men accompanying them—dating from December 2007, indicating a continuing pattern of abuse.185

Water is equally essential to human and livestock survival and the Ethiopian government has placed draconian restrictions on water access in many locations, preventing civilians from accessing vital water sources and shooting camels transporting water in some regions.

For example, in late July 2007, the army placed military guards at water points throughout Wardheer town, preventing the civilian population from accessing the water sources. Women and children were repeatedly chased away by the soldiers when they attempted to collect water, and the soldiers also shot dead donkeys brought to the water sources to ferry water. At that time, a well owner from Wardheer confirmed that he received orders from the military not to allow civilians to use his well, and that soldiers at his well were chasing away any civilians who had come to seek water.186 Another resident reported similar restrictions in Qoriley:

We have a well in Qoriley which is surrounded by wire. The army has prohibited us from using it, so you have to sneak in at night. All these things have been imposed on us this year. At nighttime, we will try and get some water to store in our houses. But if the soldiers see you are fetching water, they can kill you.187

At the same time, the military began killing and confiscating camels transporting water from villages around Wardheer, including an estimated 28 camels transporting water shot outside Ubatale in early July.188 In some of the villages burned by the ENDF, soldiers also purposefully destroyed water sources. In August, the army lifted some of the restrictions on water use for the residents of Wardheer, but kept up a strict ban on access to water for nomads from outside the town.189

Restrictions on Humanitarian Assistance

Despite longstanding humanitarian needs and a worsening humanitarian situation, the Ethiopian government has severely restricted humanitarian agencies from operating in the conflict-affected areas of Somali Region.

On July 25, 2007, the Ethiopian authorities expelled the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from Somali region, accusing the organization, which has been working in Ethiopia for more than three decades and operates on the basis of strict neutrality, of “collaborating with the enemy [ONLF]” and “spreading baseless accusations” against the Ethiopian authorities.190  The ICRC was the only international agency working throughout the region and had a large water and sanitation project constructing boreholes and wells, conducted livestock management trainings for herders, and confidentially monitored prison conditions and the adherence of all parties to the laws of war during the conflict, its mandated activities.191

Aside from the ICRC, only a handful of international and Ethiopian humanitarian non-governmental organizations (including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Médecins Du Monde, Save the Children, and Action Contre la Faim) were operating in the region, and most faced severe restrictions on their ability to operate effectively as of mid-2007. In September 2007 the Ethiopian authorities refused two MSF country sections permission on three separate occasions to enter or move around conflict-affected areas of the region. An emergency request by MSF-Belgium for 24 to 48-hour access to the war-affected town of Fiiq to supply urgently needed medicines was among the requests that were refused by the Ethiopian authorities.192

In late August and early September 2007, the Ethiopian authorities finally allowed an interagency United Nations humanitarian assessment mission access to some of the conflict-affected areas to investigate humanitarian conditions. In its report, which was the subject of intense negotiations between the UN and the Ethiopian government before its release, the UN assessment team confirmed the growing humanitarian needs. The report also stated that the UN team “encountered a pervasive fear for individual safety and security among the population visited,” and that “the human rights situation and protection situation for the civilian population in the areas of military operation is alarming and requires urgent attention.”193

Human Rights Watch received credible reports that Ethiopian security officials severely threatened several Ethiopian nationals working for the United Nations on the assessment mission, accusing them of links to the ONLF and threatening their families.

After an itinerary for the mission was agreed upon following two days of negotiations in the regional capital Jijiga, advance parties of Ethiopian officials were sent to the areas to be visited, carefully preparing local elders for the meetings and threatening them and local residents with serious consequences if they made unauthorized statements to the mission. A number of prominent individuals were arrested prior to the UN mission’s arrival, including Suldan Fowsi Mohamed Ali and Ahmed Mohamed Tarah, prominent clan elders who had participated in efforts to negotiate between the Ethiopian government and the ONLF.194 Suldan Fowsi remains in detention as of May 2008 (see below). On at least one occasion during the UN mission, dozens of residents were arrested after meeting with the UN assessment team in Dhagahbur, and apparently released the next day after the UN team protested.195

Following the UN mission, the Ethiopian government agreed to an expanded UN presence in Somali Region, a positive step, and the UN soon opened two regional sub-offices. In early November, after further negotiations with the UN and under mounting fears of a humanitarian crisis, the Ethiopian authorities also permitted a dozen or so humanitarian non-governmental organizations to begin or resume programs in Somali Region.196  Yet humanitarian agencies remained subject to severe limitations on their access to vulnerable populations, and not just physical restrictions. They are constantly threatened by Ethiopian government efforts to silence any publicity—much less criticism—on conditions in the region, particularly regarding human rights abuses or a potential humanitarian crisis. Even the collection of essential medical and nutritional data to assess humanitarian needs is considered a political exercise by the government, which uses its Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency (DPPA) to “coordinate” relief, especially the distribution of food aid.  

In December 2007 two staff working for Save the Children-UK (SCF-UK) were expelled on accusations of “diverting food aid to rebels,” not long after the organization published a report indicating that malnutrition levels among children were rising.197  One aid worker described the atmosphere in Somali Region as “an ambiance of fear,” affecting both the residents of the region as well as the aid workers trying to provide services. Many communities are afraid even to attend food distributions because of fear of the military, and everyone, including aid workers, is afraid to voice even basic concerns over conditions due to fear of arrest or harassment.198 Journalists who have visited the region, usually on government-agreed visits, have also noted the pervasive culture of fear among civilians, including aid workers.199 Since December 2007, at least 25 aid workers, including some international staff, have been detained without charge for varying periods of time.200

As of May 2008 there were more organizations active in Somali Region than a year earlier, with the significant exception of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has not resumed activities. However, the presence of a larger number of aid organizations alone is by no means an accurate or significant indicator of progress, since there are serious questions over whether aid—and specifically food aid—is reaching the people who most need it.  There are concerns at every stage: from inadequate independent assessment of needs to the manner of distribution of food aid to the lack of post-distribution monitoring to ensure that the food is not being diverted. 

Independent and impartial assessments of humanitarian needs in the conflict-affected zones remain extremely difficult due to official restrictions. Independent nutritional assessments are an essential tool to determine malnutrition rates and guide response—but are rendered almost impossible due to physical obstruction of access to all areas (specifically areas under ONLF control), threats to individuals participating in the surveys, or repression of the data.  

Even where the food needs are clear, there are serious concerns about the degree to which food aid actually reaches the most vulnerable groups given widespread reports of military control and diversion of food aid, for instance to their militia partners, and the substandard independent monitoring of food distribution.  In March 2008 one aid worker noted concerns that the government’s manipulation of food amounted to the use of food as a “weapon of war” and recommended that management of the relief food operation should be immediately given to the UN’s World Food Program, which currently only supports the DPPA.201 While Human Rights Watch was unable to fully investigate these allegations, there is sufficient evidence of grave concerns in the delivery of food aid to warrant an independent audit and evaluation of the humanitarian response in Somali Region, and donors should insist on such a step.

The situation is deteriorating, in part due to the worsening drought, but this factor should not obscure the significant and ongoing human rights abuses that are creating the conditions for humanitarian crisis. These are the excessive trade restrictions, the unnecessary restrictions on movement of individuals and livestock and access to water and grazing, the continuing obstruction of genuine humanitarian space, and the pervasive, systematic abuses that are besieging the civilian population in the conflict-affected zones. Even the most innocuous humanitarian analysis cannot ignore the way these fundamental factors are exacerbating the situation.202 Humanitarian response—even at its best—is not a substitute for the most urgent need: protection. 

169Agro-pastoralism is practiced in many parts of Somali Region, particularly the northern and southern areas around Jijiga and Shinile, as well as along the perennial Juba, Genale and Shabelle rivers. However, poor rains in 2006 and 2007 caused extensive crop failure throughout the region. See S. Devereux, “Vulnerable Livelihoods in Somali Region,” IDS Research Report No. 57, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton, 2006.

170 Africa Watch, Evil Days,  p. 71

171 Confidential information on file with Human Rights Watch.

172 Human Rights Watch interview with trader, Hargeysa (Somaliland), September 26, 2007; Human Rights Watch interview with businessman, Hargeysa (Somaliland), September 28, 2007.

173 Human Rights Watch interview with trader, Hargeysa (Somaliland), September 26, 2007.

174 Human Rights Watch interview with businessman, Hargeysa (Somaliland), September 26, 2007.

175 Human Rights Watch interview with businessman, Hargeysa (Somaliland), September 28, 2007.

176 United Nations, Report on the Findings from the UN Humanitarian Assessment Mission to the Somali Region, Ethiopia, 30 August-5 September 2007, p. 13.

177 Confidential information on file with Human Rights Watch.

178 United Nations, Report on the Findings from the UN Humanitarian Assessment Mission to the Somali Region, Ethiopia, 30 August-5 September 2007, p. 13-14.

179 United Nations, Report on the Findings from the UN Humanitarian Assessment Mission to the Somali Region, Ethiopia, 30 August-5 September 2007, pp. 5, 11-12.

180 Human Rights Watch interview with (name withheld), Nairobi, September 22, 2007.

181 Human Rights Watch interview with (name withheld), Garissa (Kenya), September 20, 2007.

182 Human Rights Watch interview with (name withheld), Nairobi, September 22, 2007.

183 Human Rights Watch interview with (name withheld), Nairobi, September 22, 2007.

184 Human Rights Watch interview with (name withheld), Nairobi, September 22, 2007.

185 Confidential communication to Human Rights Watch, January 2008.

186 Confidential information on file with Human Rights Watch.

187 Human Rights Watch interview with (name withheld), Nairobi, September 22, 2007.

188 Human Rights Watch interview with (name withheld), Nairobi, September 24, 2007.

189 Human Rights Watch interview with (name withheld), Nairobi, September 24, 2007.

190 “Ethiopia Deadline for Red Cross,” BBC, July 24, 2007; “Ethiopia: ICRC deplores expulsion from Somali Regional State,” ICRC press release, July 26, 2007.

191 “Ethiopia: ICRC deplores expulsion from Somali Regional State,” ICRC press release, July 26, 2007.

192 “MSF Denied Access to Somali Region of Ethiopia,” MSF Press Release, September 4, 2007.

193 United Nations, Report on the Findings from the UN Humanitarian Assessment Mission to the Somali Region, Ethiopia, 30 August-5 September 2007, pp. 5-6.

194 Amnesty International urgent action: prisoners of conscience/fear of torture, September 14, 2007.

195 Confidential information on file with Human Rights Watch.

196 “Ethiopia: Six more NGOs to operate in Somali region,” IRINnews, November 20, 2007.

197 The report does not appear to be publicly available. “Ethiopia expels UK, Australian aid staff,” Reuters, December 7, 2007, (accessed March 23, 2008).

198 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, (name, location withheld), March 7, 2008.

199 Nicholas Benequista, “In Ethiopia, does staying silent save lives?” Christian Science Monitor, February 26, 2008, (accessed April 6, 2008).

200 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, (name, location withheld), March 7, 2008.

201 Confidential information on file with Human Rights Watch.

202 As noted by USAID in a recent update, “insurgent activity and security operations have disrupted trade networks, and restrictions on movement of people and livestock, combined with the onset of drought conditions, have exacerbated food insecurity for vulnerable populations.” “Ethiopia: Complex Emergency,” USAID Situation Report #2, May 16, 2008.