Ethnic Federalism and the Somali Region under the EPRDF

Ethnic federalism promised, for the first time in Ethiopia’s long history, to respect the country’s cultural diversity and give meaningful autonomy to its different ethnic groups. For Ethiopian Somalis, it was the first time that they were officially recognized as one of the country’s peoples rather than as on the periphery of the Ethiopian political, cultural, and social center. This new stake in the national Ethiopian identity was bolstered by the collapse of the Somali state and the failure of Somali irredentist efforts in the 20th century.34

By 1992 Somali Region became one of nine ethnic regions of Ethiopia delegated regional autonomy with its own president and Parliament.35 That year the first regional elections took place, contested by a number of clan-based, politically inexperienced, and disorganized political parties in what was nonetheless an unprecedented display of multi-party politics.36 Although the ONLF was not a member of the EPRDF coalition or an ally of the TPLF,37 it won 60 percent of regional parliamentary seats and formed the new government.38

As the ONLF continued to assert its demands for self-determination for the Ogaden, its relations with the EPRDF soured. The ONLF’s Ogaadeeni clan perspective also alarmed members of other Somali clans, and disagreements over the name of the region (“Ogaden” or “Somali Region”) and the location of the regional capital were the basis of early parliamentary disputes.39

There was little political experience or administrative expertise within the new regional government. Divisions among the clans, and concerns over the ONLF’s functioning were compounded by mismanagement and allegations of corruption and by mid-1993 the regional executive council and president were replaced.40

The Ethiopian government responded by attempting to limit the support base of the ONLF by throwing its support behind non-Ogaadeeni clans and politicians such as the minister for economic and international relations, Abdulmajid Hussein, an Isaaq clan member and former Ethiopian representative to the UN. For the ONLF and many Ogaadeeni clan members, the efforts of the central government to undermine the ONLF’s support base were seen as unwarranted central interference in their regional affairs and political issues.

In February 1994 the ONLF-dominated regional assembly triggered a confrontation with the central EPRDF government by voting to exercise the “right to self-determination” for Somali Region.41 The federal government moved swiftly, removing the second regional president, Hassan Jire Qalinle, and his deputy from their posts on charges of corruption and neglect of official duties (charges that were to be frequently used to replace Somali officials in later years). Most of the regional administration was replaced later that year and a new EPRDF affiliate party, the Ethiopian Somali Democratic League (ESDL), was formed by 10 non-Ogaadeeni political parties, with Abdulmajid Hussein as its president.42

Although the ESDL was supported by the EPRDF, it also benefited from substantial support from non-Ogaadeeni clans alarmed by the ONLF’s Ogaadeeni dominance and agenda.43 In the 1995 national and regional elections, the ESDL won a strong majority in the regional parliament (76 of 139 seats). It also won 15 of 23 seats allotted to Somali Region in the federal assembly.44

The ESDL governed the region for almost four years, longer than any of its predecessors, but was also plagued by internal divisions and eventually lost credibility among the population, which perceived it as an EPRDF instrument due to the repeated federal interference in regional affairs. In 1998, a new party, the Somali People’s Democratic Party (SPDP), was formed from a merger of ESDL and a splinter group of ONLF.45 This party too has suffered from the widespread popular perception that it is an EPRDF puppet and has also been wracked by charges of corruption and incompetence.46

Implementing Federal Policy: Structures of Control

The government has retained the administrative structures established under Mengistu’s Derg government to ensure tight control over the population. Ethiopia is divided into ethnic regions which are further divided into zones, weredas (districts) and kebele (village or neighborhoods). The latter two are the primary units of administrative control and they exert enormous power over the daily lives of ordinary Ethiopians.47

In Somali Region, this system of social control is enhanced by security committees, called timmir committees, which exist at every administrative level—region, zone, wereda, and kebele. At the wereda, zone, and regional levels, the committees usually include members of the armed forces, military intelligence, security, administration officials from the zone or wereda respectively, and representatives of the SPDP.48

The security services exert intensive scrutiny and create a pervasive sense of intimidation through these administrative structures, many of which are dominated by regional party members. For example, the committees concern themselves with every detail of peoples’ lives. One eyewitness described to Human Rights Watch the military’s questioning of a 60-year-old man about an elderly relative visiting him. He said that they were questioning the man about the woman, “She is 70 years old, [and they were] asking for information about her son….That is the level of intimidation. They knew about her—you have to register your guests with the kebele.”49

Another way the federal government seeks to keep close control is through the presence of a number of federal advisors. These individuals work closely with certain regional officials, such as Abdi Mohammed Omar (also known as Abdi Illey), the regional head of security, and often become informally implicated in regional politics.

Although regional government officials, such as the regional president, theoretically exert significant power, most observers view the federal-regional dynamics as riven with factions and competition, with the regional president himself dependent on personal alliances and ever-fearful of powerful federal officials such as Abbay Teshaye, who is informally viewed as the top federal policymaker in Somali Region.50 The rapidly shifting alliances were amply illustrated by the December 2007 detention of Ibrahim Haad, the businessman previously perceived by many Somalis to be a powerful figure with close links to the government, whose farm was attacked by the ONLF in April 2007.

The repeated removal of regional presidents and the continuing presence of powerful TPLF/EPRDF “technical advisors” in the region have reinforced the view of many Ethiopian Somalis that the regional administration has little real power and that the autonomy promised by ethnic federalism has been a hollow pledge. This perception is exacerbated by the EPRDF policy of appointing a parallel system of government-paid elders called amakari (advisor in Amharic) at each administrative level. This policy is viewed by some as proof of the government’s intent to extend its authority over communities at every opportunity in the interest of maintaining security.51

Military forces are, of course, another key part of the federal government’s security arsenal. Although there is little information available about the number and type of troops in the area, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) maintain a heavy presence. Well before the 2007 escalation in the conflict (see below), there were at least two ENDF kifletor (army divisions) present in Somali Region.52 According to a former member of the armed forces, in 2005, Division 12 was based in Jijiga and Division 14 in Kabridahar. More recently, sources told Human Rights Watch that at various times Divisions 11, 12, 13, 14, and 32 were deployed in the region.53 Each division has four brigades of about 2,000 men each, which are stationed in major towns or weredas. Each brigade consists of two battalions of 1,000 troops commanded by a shaleka (Amharic for commander of 1,000). The bulk of the troops are from elsewhere in Ethiopia, such as Oromia and Amhara states, and do not speak Somali.

The increasing presence of federal security forces in Somali Region has done little to increase the legitimacy of the regional administration or ease tensions with the federal government. Although some Ethiopian Somalis support military presence in the region as a means of containing the ongoing conflict in neighboring Somalia, many people, including Ethiopian Somalis who do not necessarily support the ONLF, view the federal security forces as “TPLF military” and the latest manifestation of a long history of security-dominated central policy towards the region.54

The conduct of the ENDF operating in Somali Region since the early 1990s has been regularly punctuated by allegations of serious human rights abuses such as arbitrary arrest and detention, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances, including of regional government officials.55

34 For further analysis of the dynamics of Ethiopian Somali identity since 1991, see Tobias Hagmann and Mohamud H. Khalif, “State and Politics in Ethiopia’s Somali Region since 1991,” Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies, vol. 6, 2006; and Tobias Hagmann, “Beyond clannishness and colonialism: understanding political disorder in Ethiopia’s Somali Region, 1991 – 2004,” Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 43, no. 4, 2005.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 The EPRDF’s members are the TPLF; the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), which governs Oromia; the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), which governs Amhara region; and the Southern Ethiopia People’s Democratic Front (SEPDF), which administers the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR). The TPLF has also created satellite parties in the country’s other regions, but they are not full members of the EPRDF.

38 The ONLF won about 70 of the total 110 seats in the regional assembly, and the WSLF won 10. This provided Ogaadeen clans with a majority of seats. John Markakis, “The Somali in Ethiopia,” Review of African Political Economy, no. 70, 1996. However not all Ogaadeeni supported the ONLF, see Abdi Ismail Samatar, “Ethiopian Federalism: autonomy versus control in the Somali Region,” Third World Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 6, 2004.

39 The ONLF succeeding in selecting Gode, deep in the Ogaadeeni heartland, as the regional capital, but lost their effort to name the region “Ogaden.” Abdi Ismail Samatar, “Ethiopian Federalism,” Third World Quarterly.

40 Ibid. Regional presidents were repeatedly replaced in the following years. Between 1993 and 2005, there were 11 changes of president.

41 The 1994 Ethiopian constitution includes the right to self-determination and secession. Article 39 (1) states: “Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession.”

42 Hagmann and Khalif, “State and Politics,” Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies. See also Samatar, “Ethiopian Federalism,” Third World Quarterly.

43 Hagmann and Khalif, “State and Politics,” Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies.

44 Ibid.  The ONLF split on whether to participate in the regional elections, and there were charges of gerrymandering to support the ESDL and other electoral irregularities.

45 Ibid. See also Samatar, “Ethiopian Federalism,” Third World Quarterly.

46 Ibid.

47 As one study noted: “As is the case in many countries where state structures are poorly emancipated from society, the administrative and political structures in Ethiopia overlap and intersect in such a way that, in practice, the local administrative units [kebele, wereda, and zone levels] are infrequently politically neutral or independent bodies. Rather […] they work in ways which often make them barely distinguishable in practice from the ruling party itself.” Sarah Vaughan and Kjetil Tronvall, “Structures and Relations of Power,” SIDA, March 2003, p. 41.

48 Human Rights Watch interview, (name and location withheld), December 20, 2007.

49 Human Rights Watch interview, (name and location withheld), December 21, 2007.

50 Abbay Tsehaye is one of the seven founding members of the TPLF, was formerly the Minister for Federal Affairs charged with overseeing developments in the regions, and is considered to be a senior member of the Prime Minister’s inner circle. He is informally viewed as the central decision-maker on policy in Somali Region within the federal government.

51 Credible sources told Human Rights Watch that the amakari exist at three administrative levels: regional, zonal, and wereda. At the regional level they are reportedly paid 2,500 Ethiopian birr per month. Human Rights Watch interview (name and location withheld), December 20, 2007.

52 Human Rights Watch interview with 24-year-old refugee, Kenya, October 6, 2008.

53 Human Rights Watch interviews, Kenya and Hargeysa (Somaliland), September and October 2007, and telephone interview with (name withheld), Jijiga, November 2007.

54 Samatar, “Ethiopian Federalism,” Third World Quarterly. 

55 Mohamud H. Khalif and Martin Doornbos, “The Somali Region in Ethiopia: A Neglected Human Rights Tragedy,” Review of African Political Economy, no. 91, 2003.