Update on the Situation in Region 5 (Somali) of Ethiopia

Majority Rule

Equilibrium in Region 5 today hinges upon the single, simple and intractable political calculation of majority rule. Who makes up the majority of the population in the Region: the Ogaden clan and its affiliates, or the coalition of largely non-Ogadeni Somali clans now grouped together under the umbrella of the Ethiopian Somali Democratic League (or ESDL)? The question, to which no disinterested, objective response exists, is the key determinant in whether the people of the region will know peace and stability for the next few years, or a return to the insecurity and endemic violence of the recent past.

Moderate Somalis from all groups routinely deny that the population issue is of real importance. Somali unity - that is to say the unity of the Somali population of Region 5 - has become the battle cry of leaders across the clan spectrum who advocate a concerted Somali platform in the context of a national democratic forum (i.e. vis-a-vis Ethiopia_s other ethnic groups). In their view, clan differences must be put aside in the interest of the common Somali good. Both the ESDL and the Qabri Dahar Declaration espouse this point of view.

In practice, the reverse is more often true. Much of the leadership_s energy on all sides has been devoted to electoral issues - including the allocation of electoral districts - that serve to emphasise rather than to soothe clan-based antagonisms. Ogadenis, for the most part, perceive a fundamental injustice in the way electoral districts have been arranged, arguing that their clan will be denied representation to the constituent assembly commensurate with its community_s actual size and importance. Many assume - without clear justification - that the Ogadeni constitute a clear majority of the region_s population.

Proponents of the ESDL, generally satisfied with the electoral arrangements, can better afford to speak of Somali unity: they seem assured of the upper hand in voting whether or not they actually enjoy numerical superiority in the region. League supporters tend to assume that the Ogadeni, though large (perhaps the single largest group) make up less than half of the Region_s inhabitants and that the ESDL has managed to cobble together a substantially larger group from among other clans. Though a number of League supporters cite the 1994 (Ethiopian 1987) census as a basis for population figures, these statistics have yet to be officially released and there is anyway reason to doubt the precision of the count in Region 5, given the multifarious problems encountered by census teams.

In the course of such debate, the concept of Somali unity has become an early casualty. The balance of seats within the regional assembly is of far more immediate importance than the share of Somali representative in the national parliament. Victory, democratic or otherwise, of either group in the upcoming elections will undoubtedly be received as blatantly unjust by their political opponents and, under certain circumstances, could lead to a manifest deterioration in the prospects for stability and security throughout the region.

Ogadeni Alternatives

Theoretically, Ethiopia_s experiment with democracy and its new constitution provides political space for legal dissent while guaranteeing the rights of minority groups and nationalities. In practice, however, numerous opposition groups have recently chosen to abstain from the electoral process, jeopardising its credibility and implying that room for opposition does not actually exist. An international election monitoring team will be given the opportunity to pass independent judgement on this issue. Meanwhile, the ESDL, ostensibly a pro-government movement, intends to participate fully and is well organised for the vote. The Ogadenis, as a community, remain divided over the issue. Several options are open to them.

ESDL (Ethiopian Somali Democratic League): The ESDL contains some Ogadeni members, though they have little following among their kinsmen. Realistically, the League is not perceived by Ogadenis as representing a true pan-Somali platform, or a potential vehicle for Ogadeni clan interests. Prevailing Ogadeni distrust of the ESDL runs so deep that Ogadeni politicians who stand for the League risk isolation and even rejection by their clans. Their participation under the ESDL flag should be interpreted for the moment as a matter of personal choice and not of widespread Ogadeni support for the party.

WSDP (Western Somali Democratic Party):

The WSDP, though practically moribund over the past year, may represent a compromise platform for Ogadeni moderates. Candidates who had hoped to stand for election as members of the ONLF have increasingly looked to the WSDP as the ONLF hesitates over whether or not to participate. Some have even suggested that the WSDP offers a kind of protest vote for those who resent the ONLF_s attempts to monopolise the Ogaden political field.

Though it lacks the organisation and structure of the ESDL, the WSDP could possibly emerge from the election revitalised, and a powerful alternative to the ONLF - especially if the ONLF abstains. Whether or not his is the case will depend on how the Ogadeni community at large perceives the electoral procedure: general ambivalence could work in favour of the WSDP, while outright suspicion and hostility to the process would make it unlikely that the community endorse any candidate under any banner.

ONLF (Ogaden National Liberation Front):

It is not possible to identify a single, coherent ONLF structure or platform. Representation appears to be diffused between the Front_s Addis Ababa and London offices, while operational decision-making remains effectively the domain of the leadership in the field. Statements by one or another group cannot therefore be taken at face value, since the relationship between the movement_s spokesmen and its armed formations is uncertain. In terms of renouncing the armed struggle and embracing the new Ethiopian democracy, it is probably the decision of the ONLF_s field commanders and executive committee that matters most . It is also the most difficult position to ascertain, given the guerrilla group_s penchant for isolation and relative secrecy.

Although ONLF has sought registration as a party in the elections, its leadership_s commitment to the democratic process is probably weak. Despite having met regularly with EPRDF officials at various levels over the past few months in the hopes of reaching a negotiated settlement, the organisation has yet to take a firm stand. The confusion probably stems in part from a contradiction between the ONLF_s reluctance to challenge the popular desire for peace (manifested at Qabri Dahar), and the field leadership_s reservations about the electoral process. Many see it as little more than a trap, an mechanism for realising EPRDF colonialist aspirations through the their League clients; others are no doubt simply aware that more sophisticated (and in many cases newly arrived/returned) Ogadeni politicians are likely to emerge during the elections, marginalising the former guerrillas (to retire and savour their glory days as freedom fighters). This potential challenge to ONLF leadership from within the clan may well back ONLF hard-liners into a corner: rather than risk a return to anonymity and impotence in the democratic arena, some may well see little option but to continue the armed struggle. Discussion with elders and ONLF members in several locations tend to confirm the belief that some ONLF groups have a vested interest in the failure of the electoral process and will work towards that aim.

ONLF_s informal membership and its potential base of support is widespread. A remarkable number of people encountered on this and previous missions identified themselves proudly as ONLF members, whether they are active or not (a pattern that would imply widespread identification of the Ogaden community with that of the ONLF cause, not as evidence of an effective organisational structure). Many local leaders wear their ONLF credentials openly. The Peace Committee and Popular Opinion

From our discussions throughout the region and in Addis Ababa, it seems clear that Ogadenis and their leaders are deeply committed to the maintenance of peace in their region. The Qabri Dahar conference represents a milestone in the evolution of Ogadeni solidarity and the community_s determination to put an end to the violence of the past few years. In every town, news of discussions between the Elders Peace Committee and the central government was eagerly awaited in the hopes that it would reinforce the public_s commitment to peace. Leaders everywhere affirmed that even if the news was bad, they would do everything possible to preclude a relapse into violence.

Preliminary reports suggest that the news from the capital has not been positive. Having reached agreement on only some, but not all, of the concessions sought by the elders, the talks apparently unravelled. Though some elders remained behind to try to salvage the dialogue, the majority have reportedly giving up, while broadcasting their disappointment. Their complaints will do little to enhance the community_s confidence in the prospects of a settlement. Far from supporting the cause of moderates, the failure of the talks may well serve to convince even fence-sitting Ogadenis that they are the victims of government injustice and that participation in the election is futile. In such scenario, a net radicalisation of Ogadeni opinion should be anticipated, offering the more extreme elements of the ONLF the opportunity to pursue their military agenda. Despite public fatigue with the ONLF_s guerrilla campaign, the front will probably be quick to exploit any popular disillusionment with the democratic process. Elders and other community leaders admit that if ONLF fighters resume their attacks on government forces they will be able to rally public support to their cause. Even the most reluctant civilians are afraid of the EPRDF reprisals they believe would follow such actions, and would feel obliged to seek protection with the ONLF. As recent events in Somaliland so clearly demonstrate, even a few militia, if determined, can drag their kinsmen into a conflict no one wants or anticipates (N.B. The killing of two EPRDF soldiers in Qabri Dahar this week has not yet led to the reprisals feared, but if such attacks persist, it is unlikely that the government could continue to respond so passively).


Present conditions of peace and security throughout Region 5 should not be taken for granted. Prospects for the future will become clearer in the post-election period, as various communities come to grips with new political realities. Although some areas - particularly those controlled by the ESDL - are unlikely to see any change, Ogadeni dissatisfaction could produce unrest in other parts of the region. Serious planning of rehabilitation and development work in Region 5, although clearly a priority of the Ethiopian government and of its UN partners, should wait until the situation clarifies itself over the coming two months.

Paradoxically, a determined ONLF confrontation with the government will not in fact lead to a political solution. As Ogadeni elders readily admitted to us, their grievances have much less to do with the EPRDF than they do with the ESDL. It is primarily the EPRDF_s presumed support for the league that leads the ONLF to consider the government as an adversary. Only a resolution of the rift between the Ogaden and no-Ogaden communities of the region is likely to bring long-term peace and stability. A sustained military confrontation between ONLF and the government will do nothing to address this fundamental schism within the Somali community, and will serve only to broaden Ogadeni support for the ONLF and their bellicose political orientation. The diplomatic energies of leaders on both sides would be better spent forging understanding between the Ogadeni parties and the League, than in managing conflict between the ONLF and the central government.

Given the present peaceful environment and general optimism, expectations of the population are high that their circumstances will improve. Establishment of a more efficient, progressive administrative, increased investment, and greater UN and NGO activity are all expected benefits of new-found stability. Failure to realise these expectations would certainly shake public faith in the commitment of the government and of the international community to the betterment of the area. If the danger of a military confrontation during or after the elections can be contained, donors, UN agencies and NGOs should seriously consider acting rapidly to re-inforce stability in the area through support to public services and reducing post conflict stresses within the community.

Although essential public services - primary health care, schooling, clean water and veterinary services - all deserve priority, the complexity of the current political climate would suggest that issues such as demobilisation and integration of former militia into new professions or a national army will acquire immediate importance. Although numbers of militia are probably small in comparison with Somalia and Somaliland, they are a key factor in the equation of peace and stability. Upgrading of transport, communications, and police activity within the region will also be crucial. As part of the international community_s new thinking upon crises and emergencies, it should be possible to forecast the need the to support the government in this regard and to develop a long-term strategy for conflict elimination for Region 5. Partners in this field are many, and a co-ordinated initiative for Region 5 could be sought.

Back to document index

  • Disclaimer for EUE Materials

    Editor: Ali B. Dinar, (aadinar@sas.upenn.edu)