Political and Historical Context

The People and the Area

Precise demographic data is difficult to obtain but it is estimated that approximately four million ethnic Somalis, largely pastoralists or agro-pastoralists, and almost entirely Muslim, currently inhabit Ethiopia’s Somali Region.3 It is one of Ethiopia’s poorest states, with some of the lowest literacy rates and levels of services in the country. Geographically on the periphery, the region’s lack of infrastructure, weak administrative structures, and pervasive historical mistrust of what many Somalis perceive as “habasha” or Ethiopian “highlander” dominated culture have all contributed to an ambivalent affiliation with the Ethiopian polity and national identity.

Many Ethiopian Somalis share mistrust of the federal government and a sense of marginalization from their rightful national share of services and development. Since the regional government was established in 1992, the lack of confidence has increasingly included regional as well as federal institutions. While the federal government has made attempts to develop Somali Region, regional governments have frequently failed to absorb and spend available funds due to insufficient capacity, corruption, and other problems.

Beyond this general disillusionment with state structures, however, Somali communities at the regional and local levels are often deeply divided by clan, political, ideological, and resource-based tensions. All of the major Somali clan families are found in Somali Region. The Somali Darood are the largest clan family numerically—with the Darood Ogaadeen clan estimated to be the largest single clan, constituting perhaps 40 to 50 percent of Ethiopian Somalis. Non-Ogaadeeni Darood such as the Marehan, and other clan families including the Dir (Isse), Isaaq, Hawiye, Bantu, and Rahaweyn also inhabit Somali Region.

The Ogaadeen clan of the Darood clan family mostly inhabit the central Ogaden plateau of Somali Region, or the administrative zones called Fiiq, Dhagahbur, Gode, Korahe, and Wardheer, along with other non-Ogaadeeni clans. The Issa live in the area north of the Hareghe highlands north of Dire Dawa (today called Shinile zone), and the Isaaq inhabit the prized pasture land known in the colonial era as the Haud, on the border with Somaliland, as well as parts of the Ogaden.

The division between Ogaadeeni and non-Ogaadeeni clans—and the historical fear among many non-Ogaadeeni clans of Ogaadeeni dominance—is an important fault line in the region’s dynamics, affecting affiliation to the various armed opposition groups, competition for power sharing, and the strategies used by the federal government to suppress opposition.

The Ogaden and Somali Nationalism in the Colonial Era

Somali political struggle in the Horn of Africa has a long history and the area known as the Ogaden, which constitutes a key part of Somali Region, has had a pivotal role in that history. As early as 1899, the Dervish fighters of Sayyid Mohammed Abdulle Hassan launched a 20-year struggle against British, Italian, and Ethiopian occupiers, retaking control of much of the Ogaden and other Somali territories before finally suffering defeat at the hands of British forces in 1921.4

The territory was also the subject of an intense power struggle during the colonial period, pitting the competing claims of Ethiopia (then called Abyssinia), whose Emperor Menelik II first extended his claim to the region in 1887,5 against the colonial powers Italy and Britain. When the Italian military invaded Abyssinia in 1936, the Ogaden region was incorporated into the Italian East African Empire. Just five years later in 1941 the Allied powers defeated the Italian forces in East Africa and all the Somali territories, including the Ogaden, were briefly united under a single British military administration.

Following World War II, the Allied powers established the Four Power Commission (Britain, United States, Soviet Union, and France) to decide the fate of defeated Italy’s colonial possessions. Divergent claims were presented to the Commission, which was itself deeply divided. Italy wanted its colonial possessions returned; Ethiopia wanted control over the Ogaden territory; while Britain supported a united Somalia under British colonial administration. Somali clans were also divided, with some petitioning to remain with Ethiopia and others advocating for a “Greater Somalia.”6

In the end, Britain restored Ethiopian sovereignty over the Ogaden territory and abandoned its vision of one united Somali state administered by Britain. On September 23, 1948, the Ogaden was transferred from British to Ethiopian control, with little incident, but over the strenuous objections of Somali nationalists.7 The additional territories of the “Reserved Areas,” which are largely inhabited by non-Ogaadeeni Somali clans, were handed over to Ethiopian control in 1948 and 1954.

The Role of Somalia and Insurgency Movements in the 1960s and 1970s

Somali nationalism gained significant momentum with the establishment of an independent Somalia in 1960. The new Somali constitution called for the “union of Somali territories” and the Somali flag featured a five-pointed star against a UN-blue background, each point of the star symbolizing one of the five Somali regions.8

Somalia’s new government swiftly started a diplomatic and military campaign to unite the three “missing” regions to the new Somali state. The latter effort included supporting Somali insurgent groups in southeastern Ethiopia, the beginning of a strategy of cross-border insurgency support on both sides of the Ethiopian-Somali border that was to endure for decades.9 

The first insurgent activities began in the early 1960s, supported by the Somali government. Activities escalated in 1963 to include attacks on police stations and convoys.10 This, alongside rising Oromo nationalism, provoked an Ethiopian military crackdown on southeastern Ethiopia and a series of clashes with the Somali military.11 Under Emperor Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian military employed abusive counter-insurgency tactics to deal with the problem of Somali “agitation” in the east. Many of these tactics, including the confiscation or destruction of large numbers of livestock to put pressure on Somali pastoralists and controlling water points,12 have been replicated by successive administrations.

The Somali-backed insurgency in Ogaden and neighboring Oromo territories caused Ethiopia to declare martial law in parts of the region in 1966. It took Ethiopia until 1971 to pacify the region through a combination of military campaigns and the careful cultivation of pro-Ethiopian Ogaadeeni and Oromo figures.13 The 1969 military coup of Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre in Somalia also focused Somalia on domestic priorities, leading to diminished support for the insurgent groups previously supported by Somalia.14

The Somali-Ethiopian War over the Ogaden, 1977-78

In 1974 the political landscape changed dramatically when Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed by Mengistu Haile Mariam, who established the “Derg” (literally “committee” in Amharic) military rule. This development coincided with increasing efforts by Somalia’s President Siad Barre to bolster his regime. Siad Barre’s deals with some clan elders resulted in the 1976 establishment of the Western Somalia Liberation Front (WSLF). Based in Mogadishu and Hargeysa, the WSLF was able to recruit disgruntled Ogaadeeni pastoralists who had suffered from the Ethiopian military campaigns and the famine of 1974-5.15

Somalia increased its support for the rebel groups fighting in the Ogaden but their guerrilla raids made less headway than the Somali army wanted. In early 1977 President Barre began sending in soldiers from the Somali regular army with the rebels, without uniform or heavy weaponry.16 In July 1977 the Somali army scaled up its campaign and launched a full-scale invasion, taking control of Jijiga and much of the southern Ogaden in September 1977.17 But Barre’s invasion of Ethiopia soon led to a Soviet (and Cuban) military intervention on behalf of Ethiopia, and by early 1978 Somalia had suffered a devastating military defeat.18 Many of the worst abuses against civilians occurred after the Ethiopian victory, during the reoccupation by Ethiopian forces. Up to 500,000 people were internally displaced, and thousands of ethnic Somalis fled with the retreating Somali army into Somalia.19 

The Ethiopian-Somali war and Mengistu’s military victory had significant consequences in the region, setting the stage for Somalia’s fragmentation and the eventual ouster of Somali President Siad Barre more than a decade later.20  In the interim there were years of insurgency and counter-insurgency operations.

Mengistu’s “Secret Wars” in Southeast Ethiopia, 1978-84

Although riven by internal divisions, Ogaadeeni and Oromo insurgencies continued their operations in southeast Ethiopia, sometimes from bases on Somali soil.21 By early 1979, the insurgents controlled a substantial part of the countryside.22

Africa Watch (the precursor to Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division) analyzed Ethiopian counter-insurgency operations in this period and found that they followed a four-pronged approach: i) the forced displacement of much of the civilian population into shelters and protected villages; ii) military offensives against people and economic assets outside the shelters; iii) the sponsoring of insurgent groups against the WSLF and Somali government; and iv) attempts to promote the repatriation of refugees.23 In December 1979, a new Ethiopian military offensive, this time including Soviet advisors and Cuban troops, “was more specifically directed against the population’s means of survival, including poisoning and bombing waterholes and machine gunning herds of cattle.”24 Militarily, the counter-insurgency operations succeeded in greatly weakening the insurgents or driving them across the border into Somalia.25

Abuses connected to the counter-insurgency operations in the Ogaden, Harerghe, and neighboring Oromo areas of Sidamo and Bale from 1978 (when the “official war” with Somalia ended) until 1984 generated several million displaced people. Human Rights Watch concluded in 1991:

[T]the great majority of the war affected population of southeast Ethiopia from late 1979 onwards was affected not by the fighting between the Somali and Ethiopian armies in 1977/8, but by the counter-insurgency strategy of the Ethiopian government which was implemented from December 1979 onwards. Many of the people were affected by the military operations of the army, others were affected by the forced relocations.26

The policy of forced relocation affected more than two million people. The forced relocations, other abuses, and restrictions on movement posed by the ongoing military activities combined with drought in 1984 to worsen what was already chronic famine in the region.27

Another key development in the region in the early 1980s was the formation of the Somali National Movement (SNM), which drew support from the Isaaq clan in northern Somalia. The SNM obtained support from Mengistu’s government to fight Siad Barre and the WSLF, a deliberate strategy of divide and rule shared by both the Somali and Ethiopian governments, which further fragmented communities along clan lines.28

The 1991 Overthrow of Mengistu and the Collapse of Somalia

In 1984 the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) split and a breakaway group called the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) was formed.29 Meanwhile, across the border in northern Somalia, the Ethiopian-backed SNM increased activities against the Somali government, which responded by arming Ethiopian Somali and Oromo refugees in the camps in Somalia.30

By 1988 Mengistu’s government was under pressure from Ethiopian insurgent groups, particularly the Tigray Popular Liberation Front (TPLF) and its then-ally, the Eritrean Popular Liberation Front (EPLF). In April 1988 Mengistu signed a peace agreement with Siad Barre in which both countries pledged to end support to cross-border insurgent groups.

Neither government fully implemented the pledge and Ethiopia soon began supporting other Somali insurgent movements in southern Somalia.31 However, Ethiopia’s threatened expulsion of the SNM provoked an escalation of fighting in northern Somalia that soon led to full-scale civil war, provoked a reverse influx of Ethiopian returnees and Somali refugees into eastern Ethiopia, and was the beginning of the end of the Siad Barre government.32 In January 1991 the Somali government collapsed.

In May 1991 the TPLF led by Meles Zenawi,33 Ethiopia’s current prime minister, succeeded in taking control of Addis Ababa and ousting Mengistu’s repressive Derg government. The TPLF headed a coalition of political opposition groups called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The TPLF gained support by including within the EPRDF groups claiming to represent different regions and ethnicities. It also established a federal administrative structure based on ethnic and linguistic distinctions, a model commonly known as “ethnic federalism.”

3 The Ethiopian Office of Population and Housing Census Commission estimated in 1997 that the total population of Somali Region was almost 3.4 million.

4 I.M. Lewis, A Modern History of the Somali (4th ed.) (Oxford: James Currey, 2002), pp. 63-91.

5 I.M. Lewis, A Modern History of the Somali, p. 51.

6 Cedric Barnes, “The Somali Youth League, Ethiopian Somalis and the Greater Somalia Idea, c.1946-48,” Journal of East African Studies, vol. 1, no.2, July 2007.

7 Ibid.

8 Article VI (4) of the Somali Constitution reads: “The Somali Republic shall promote, by legal and peaceful means, the union of Somali territories…” The five regions included the three “missing” Somali territories administered by other countries: the Somali territories in Ethiopia, Kenya and French Somaliland.

9 Somali support for self-determination and secessionist movements was not confined to the Somali population in eastern Ethiopia. Kenya declared a state of emergency in 1963 to respond to a secessionist movement in its Northwest Frontier District (now called North Eastern Province). The emergency powers associated with this declaration were maintained until the early 1990s and led to widespread and serious abuses of human rights by the Kenyan security forces against Kenyan Somalis. See Africa Watch (now Human Rights Watch/Africa), Kenya: Taking Liberties, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1991), pp. 269-272.

10 John Markakis, National and Class Conflict in the Horn of Africa, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 177–180. See also Paul B. Henze, Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia (New York: Palgrave Press, 2000), pp. 262-263.

11 Markakis, National and Class Conflict in the Horn of Africa, p. 180.

12 Africa Watch (now Human Rights Watch/Africa), Evil Days: 30 Years of War and Famine in Ethiopia, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1991), pp. 71-72.

13 Markakis, National and Class Conflict in the Horn of Africa, pp. 191-200.

14 President Siad Barre sought to placate the Ethiopian government by formally disbanding the leading insurgent groups, but did not renounce Somalia’s claim to the Ogaden. Africa Watch, Evil Days, p. 72.

15 Africa Watch, Evil Days, p. 72-73.

16 Ibid, p. 75.

17Markakis, National and Class Conflict in the Horn of Africa, p. 230.

18 For a detailed description of the events in 1977-78, see Gebru Tareke, “The Ethiopia-Somalia War of 1977 Revisited,” International Journal of African Historical Studies, vol. 33, no. 3, 2000.

19 Africa Watch, Evil Days, pp. 79.

20 Somali army officers led an unsuccessful coup attempt against Siad Barre following the 1978 defeat in the Ogaden. The surviving coup leaders later formed a new insurgency movement against the Somali government called the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF) and briefly garnered Ethiopian support, but later fell out of favor. Then-Colonel Abdullahi Yusuf, currently the President of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, was one of the SSDF leaders detained by the Mengistu government in 1985. Africa Watch, Evil Days, p. 94.

21 Gebru Tareke, “From Lash to Red Star: the pitfalls of counter-insurgency in Ethiopia, 1980-82,” Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 40, no.3, 2002, pp. 468- 469.

22 Africa Watch, Evil Days, pp. 81-100.

23 Ibid, pp. 83-84.

24 Ibid, p. 85.

25 Tareke,“From Lash to Red Star,” Journal of Modern African Studies, pp. 469 – 472.

26 Africa Watch, Evil Days, p. 85.

27 Ibid, p. 100.

28 Ibid, pp. 95-96, 347. See also Africa Watch, Somalia: A Government at War with its own People, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1990).

29 Human Rights Watch noted in 1991 that the words “Western Somali” in WSLF reflected a commitment to a “Greater Somalia” while the use of “Ogaden National” indicates “the belief that the Ogaden are a nationality, not merely a clan, and indicates no relationship with the Somali state.” Africa Watch, Evil Days, p. 347.

30 Ibid, pp. 347-351.

31 By 1989 Ethiopia was providing arms and other support to the United Somali Congress (USC), a largely Hawiye clan supported insurgency operating in southern Somalia.

32 Africa Watch, A Government at War with its own People.

33 As a TPLF leader fighting Mengistu, Meles Zenawi spent years in Mogadishu in the 1980s.