Monday, July 23, 2018
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The Somali and Oromo Ethnic Conflict in Ethiopia amid Pogroms and Blame Games

By Mohamed Awale

There have been deluge of reports and articles of recent conflict and displacement between Somali and Oromo ethnic groups in Ethiopian. And Somalis, more often than not, are born brunt of the brutal conflict and massacre perpetuated by their counterparts. Contrary to the facts on the ground, Oromo ultra-nationalists, intelligentsia and diaspora extremists in coordination with sympathetic ears of Abyssinian old guards went on the offense in order to undermine any genuine Somalis grievances. It was a successful campaign as far as PR’s exercise aimed at the international and local consumption is concerned.

True to the age-old of Abyssinian propaganda fashion, the unholy alliance skewed narratives and history of the clashes into their advantage, thereby whitewashing the true nature of event and its main causalities– Somali civilians. It portrays them not as victims of uncalled aggression, but rather as a bunch of villains back by the Tigrian generals and lawless Somali Regional admin at worst. These baseless claims couldn’t be further from the truth; the driving forces behind the crisis are, among other things, the rise of Oromo ultra-nationalism; a system of asymmetrical ethnic federalism coupled with authoritarian streak of the TPLF dominated regime and the lack of Somali regional political vision beyond cadrism role and other repressive local chores.  This discussion is limited to the first issue –namely, the dangers of Oromo ultra-nationalism.

Relaying on eye witness accounts and other personal observation from recent trip to the region, I would like to share readers with some perspective and state of the current situation.

The Rise of Oromo Ultra-nationalism

Historically, Somali and Oromo communities had few conflicts except isolated cases of neighboring tribes over resources and lifestyle such as Gerre and Borana tribes in the Negale areas. The two main reasons that dwarfed major inter-ethnic clashes were the age-old  common thread of intermarriage and co-religiosity plus the notion that both nations had suffered enough under the oppression and excesses of the loathed Abyssinian rulers for generations. Current inter-communal conflict defies this well-established conventional wisdom, if not turned up in its head. So what has changed or what is fueling the deadly conflict you might wonder.

The primary factor behind the ethnic massacres and chaotic situation is none other than the rise of Oromo ultra-nationalism cum expansionism agendas toward neighboring communities, and especially against the ill-prepared Somali folks.  According to the Oromo’s ultra-nationalism dogma, nothing short of reaching to Somali coast is acceptable and those community living in close proximity should be either cleansed or conquered. This phenomenon coincided with a decline and defilement status of Somali nationalism itself over decades, which attracted further encroachment of enemies and onlookers alike. The said trend, which combines military, political, and ideological fronts, has been going on since 1970s, but Somali were either blindsided by neighborly etiquettes or were misreading the issue altogether.  Whatever the reasons might have been consequences haven’t so kind to them as recent slaughter and mass uprooting demonstrated. Furthermore, the political prominent role given to the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO) leadership within the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated coalition since 1990s also exasperated the volatile ethnic situation.  The organization and its predecessor of Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) become a conduit for virulent and ethnic chauvinistic sentiments. It accorded the Party with unique opportunity to manipulate/subvert host of issues at will and thus created unfair political arrangement among the diverse ethnic nationalities, and even more so against Somalis.

The big question(s) is now since when OPDO espoused on the idea itself or why its leadership suddenly ratchets up its chauvinistic and ethnic cleaning policy and what is the end game to the diabolical political maneuvers?  As I mentioned, things didn’t start with current Oromian leaders as it seems. Former OLF organization headed by Lencho Letta, who once publicly declared Somalis as being enemy number one of Oromos, charted the new policy trend.  After OLF has fallen out with former strong-man Melez and EPDRF coalition, it was replaced with seemingly moderate OPDO faction but to no avail.  Not only that; while its predecessor of OLF elites genuinely believed their cause and openly preached about expansionism and separatism, the current ones are political opportunists at the best.

Ethnic Somali IDP camp

Soon after, OPDO leaders crafted two-pronged policy approach in order to placate the mass expectations, on the one hand, and to extract more power from EPRDF body, on the other. It was all meant to prevail and prolong its political life at the expense of other stakeholders. To achieve both objectives, it devised devious scams including, but not limited to, manufactured inter-ethnic border disputes, bogus referenda, allegations of Liyu Police cross-border incursions, staged mob protests and so on.

So it was only matter of time to witness full-fledged crisis of ethnic onslaught and mayhem in which Oromian leadership is fanning behind the unruly mob violence and murder.  Since then the main political preoccupation remained the same except the rising death toll and displacement of Somali and other civilians. The grotesque massacre of over 50 Somali merchants in Hawaday of last September was the tipping point.

The Grotesque Massacre

Civilian Massacre in Hawaday, a bustling small city located via the highway of Harar and Deri- Dewa cities where Somali Kat traders heavily invested and pampered, was like no other in terms of the death toll and the way it was carried out.  Majority of residents are Oromo farmers and it is far off from the alleged Somali-Oromia border disputes with zero chance of Liyo Police incursions. In any rate, it was bad omen and prelude of what was to come for Somali and non-Oromo civilians living within Oromia admin. Soon after, atrocities committed against unarmed civilians only intensified and become more brazen, including over 170 ethnic Somalis who were either hacked to death or missing in Hawi Gudina, Daro Lebu and other places of eastern Harar in last month; in one particular gruesome case more than 70 women and children were butchered and buried in police station.

To this date, no one knows the immediate trigger factor of the Hawaday mass killing or perpetrators of the crime. No one is accountable to the atrocities so far, though, clearly blame lies with OPDO operatives. However, conspiracy theories, some credible and others less so, and rumors are abound. For instance, why የአንዳንኛ ክ/ጦር or First Division of the army based in short distance from the crime scene in Harar failed to intervene the feeding-frenzy of mob attacks, which terrorized passengers on the highway for days?  How perpetuators acquired combat swords and other military gear accessories. Why victims who managed to escape and sought refuge in police stations were either shot to death or handed back to mob?

One thing is for sure, some rumors are deceptively planted by OPDO cadres and leaders to mask scale of the crime and make confusions.  Obviously the Hail Police of Oromia State were the main culprits of the ethnic cleansing.  According to Addisu Arega, the head of OPDO propaganda office, chain of events was triggered by incursions of Somali Liyo police in Hawaday and other locations. He also falsely cites an equal magic number, if not more, of Oromo deaths every now and then to downplay the mounting Somali causalities. Worse even, they are now publicly justifying civilian mass killings in their midst as a legit revenge against Somali Region misdeeds. Talk about criminal-minded and immoral regional administration of highest order.

A Daredevil of Short Trip to Harar

As I mentioned on the Wardheernews pages years ago (see Years of Living Dangerously) about my adventure into the Ethio-Somali war of 1978 as teenage freedom fighter, I am inclined to be a risk taker by instinct. Maybe I am addicted to the adrenaline rush or the near-death experience.

Whatever the reason, I always felt duty-bound to be better informed and inform others about major issues and crises. My latest trip to region the wasn’t much different. After visiting Deri-Dewa, Awbare and other destinations, I returned to the Jigjiga city where I spent a week or so in its modest hotels and Kat salons with friends. Soon after, I got bored with the monotonous conversation; I wanted to explore other interesting places and issues, including a short trip to Harar city. I did this against the advice of good friends and family members and rightly so. It was the aftermath of the Hawaday massacre and the inter-ethnic situation was tense, but I was undeterred and packed up next day anyway.

I went to the mineria or bus station next morning and inquired drivers, who were either Gurages or Amharas ethnic, about the situation on the road and they told me it is all well. Still unsure what to make of it, I found to my comfort another Somali man inquiring the same thing. He was middle-aged short man with accent and an immense sense of humor. “war waayadan danba waan bacaysnanayne ka warama meesha,” was his opening line. It literally translates to: tell us how the situation is, we have been paranoid and apprehensive about the whole things lately.  Once the mini-bus became full, I found other Somali passengers but none of them destined to Harar. They all dropped off before Babile town and left the other guy and me behind.   An elderly Somali whom I had conversation during the trip gave me a stern look before he got off and said” from now it is your own; shut up your mouth or communicate with other vernacular languages!” That was when I felt crossing into a dangerous territory and thought for a moment to collect myself out of the bus and make U-turn before it is too late but I resisted. I took his valuable advice to the heart anyway.

We passed through few check points during trip in which respective regional police of both sides and the federal one run. They would get on the bus, take a full view of passengers and quickly get off without asking much. At one point, a middle-aged man, who appeared a plain cloth security officer caught us from Goray village on the Somali side and sat beside me. Judging from his manners and the heavy communication cellphone carried, he definitely was security agent.  He constantly would chat with another person on the line during the trip, switching back and forth in Amharic and Oromo languages. I had friendly chat with him and we suddenly come across huge refugee camp with endless of white and brown plastic huts (see below picture of Kollenchi camp.)  They were thousands of displaced Somali ethnic from Oromian region in the last few months.  Unsure what to make of it, I asked him who they were and he responded with typical Abyssinian demeanor of የሶማሌ ዜላኖች ናቸው or Somali nomads, which carries a unique connotation for Ethiopian rulers and  politicians. The response was in line with the age-old characterization of Somalis as being transient people in order to discredit their land and citizenship rights.

As we moved farther away from border and got closer to our destination, anxiety of the unknowns on the road ahead overwhelmed. We have been through few check points but every stop, every technical glitch or slow down triggered alarm bells. We finally reached Harar with great sense of relief and joy. The city seemed busy cosmopolitan which is in peace with strangers and with its self– a complete contrast to what we been through few hours ago. I stayed the newly refurbished Ras Hotel for few days and visited the historic sites, including various museums and the Jugol.

The return trip was repetition of the same rout except one thing:  an even more heightened sense of fear, paralysis and apprehension of the situation on the road sets on. Traveling with airplane would have been preferable method but it was out of option. So I braced myself for the worst.  I went the next morning to a Kat market and bought a bundle of green stuff in order to calm down an increased anxiety, in party, and to give away as a gift to friends back in Jigjiga, on the other. As I was bargaining it for the right price with an Oromo merchant lady, I met another nervous Somali looking young man who was doing a similar transaction.  He was suspicious of being Somali and asked me in Amharic where I was travelling to. This caught me as a surprise and suspicious question as well and I tried to deny it, but I was holding travelling bag in my hand. I told him I was travelling to Babili in order to hide my destination and left the spot, lest he poses further questions.

The camps for displaced Somali in the lee of the Kolenchi hills in the Ethiopia’s Somali region. Credit: James Jeffrey/PRI

I caught a mini-bus at the station and sat one of the back seat without interacting to anyone except bus operators.  All passengers spoke either Amharic or Oromo, though I found later few Somali among them.  The music in the bus intermittently plays those languages as usual.  We went through the same checkpoints and drill; I didn’t interact much or spoke with anybody until we reached in the Somali Regional border. To my surprise, I saw the young fellow in the Kat market sat in the bus as we approached to Karamerada check point. We didn’t notice each other during the whole trip and it tells you how situation became so distracting and intense.

 A Call for Unity and Sense of Purpose

What ethno-Somali in Ethiopia needs most is a unity and sense of higher purpose in the face of current ethnic cleansing and threats of their neighbors; they have to rise to the challenge, especially if the law and order collapses and central government paralyzed. The region has gone through periodic and state-sanctioned repression, ethnic cleansing and exploitation. Successive Ethiopian rulers and regimes, starting from Menilik to Mengistu, committed those crimes.

Somali  community in the  region  outlasted time and again, if not thrived, against all odds; and the main reasons being the sheer determination to survive plus a sense of belonging and other socio-cultural identities that bind them together, regardless of geographic and clan affiliations. They also should be wary of the intrusion of the weaponized clan politics in the region—something similar to what has consumed the soul of the Somali Republic and its citizens.  Ditto, the groups who dwell on myopic and clannish entities in the name of liberation movement doesn’t stand a chance; in case the hell break loose,  they are no match to the impending  of Oromo offense in terms of ideology, military and population wise. Similarly, a few hundred of lightly armed and poorly trained Liyu Police, not to mention its dubious creation or mission, is not up to the task.  It is no match to the professional Ethiopian army, where Oromos constitute majority of its lower and middle ranks.

United we stand, divided we fall!

Mohamed Awale


Related Articles

Roots to the Somali Massacre: Challenging False Narratives 

– The Orchestrated Massacres of Somalis in Oromia is Tantamount of Ethnic Cleansing

Implications of the killings in Awaday and other Oromo towns


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