Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia


By Matt Bryden, UNDP/EUE Consultant

Overview and Executive Summary

Zone 2 is the most isolated zone of the Afar National Regional State (ANRS). Formerly part of Tigray, the zone served as a base of operations for the TPLF’s war against the Derg, and suffered heavily from bombardment, as well as from general neglect. Much of the remaining infrastructure dates from the Haile Selassie era. Sporadic attempts by successive governments to provide social services to the most important population centres have long since lapsed, and never successfully reached the pastoralist majority.

Today, only the western towns of Bercaale and ‘Ab’Ala (formerly Shekhet) benefit from a rudimentary administrative structure; in the south east corner of the zone, Doxom, a scattering of semi-nomadic communities, hosts a police post with a radio and a "parliamentary office," but no more elaborate form of public adminitration. Telecommunications beyond these towns are non-existent; roads are equally rare. Bercaale and ‘Ab’Ala are linked to Tigray by dirt tracks. The route to the zonal capital is crumbling where it descends a steep escarpment, and the access to Bercaale has recently been restricted by insecurity. The condition of the route to Dalul is not known.

The local economy is based on livestock, palm mats and salt. Livestock and salt are generally traded by pastoralist Afar in the western market towns against commodities (e.g. wheat flour, maize, cooking utensils, clothing) brought by Tigrayan and Eritrean merchants. Palm mats, an important source of household income and a common medium of exchange, tend to be traded between Afar themselves. Important mineral resources are also believed to exist in the area and, like salt, are of particular sensitivity to the Afar, who suspect outsiders (including Ethiopians from other ethnic groups) of seeking to exploit their natural wealth. The latent potential of the zone’s sodium and mineral reserves remains largely untapped, though salt caravans provide a key source of tax revenue.

Today, Zone 2 poses a critical political and developmental challenge to both the regional and central governments. A simmering conflict between federal army forces and those of an Afar guerilla movement, the Afar Revolutionary Democratic United Front (ARDUF or "Uguguma") has escalated during the month of May, raising local fears of a more violent and protracted confrontation. Government air and ground forces have swept the area, displacing numerous Afars from their settlements. Major markets in the zone have been closed and a number of schools have suspended activities.

Since February 1996, the population of the zone has also had to contend with a significant influx of rural Afar from Eritrea’s Red Sea Province. The latter, fleeing forcible recruitment for the government’s National Service programme, have settled widely throughout Zone 2 (and possibly other parts of Afar Region), depending entirely on their host communities for subsistence support. Many of the new arrivals are entirely destitute, but reject the possibility of return to Eritrea as long as the National Service programme remains in effect.

Prolonged closure of major trading centres and the burden of supporting Eritrean refugees has placed the local Afar community under grave economic strain; coping mechanisms have been further undermined by displacement and social dislocation generated by conflict. These combined problems contribute to a growing sense of alienation among the population at large: popular disaffection with government and resentment of the federal army’s military campaign, offer a rich recruitment opportunity to the ARDUF and other opposition forces, setting the stage for endemic conflict.


A mission led by UNDP/EUE visited Zone 2 of the Afar National Regional State (ANRS) from 01- 19 May 1996. The mission’s objectives included the following:

The mission would like to thank the authorities of Zone 2, Afar National Regional State, for their endorsement and generous support.


The mission comprised one consultant from UNDP/EUE, one consultant anthropologist, one Afar interpreter, one guide, and one animal handler (camel and mule).

In accordance with working guidelines developed over the past three years by the Afar Relief Association, the mission tried to adhere as closely as possible to Afar custom, duplicating living and travel conditions for ordinary pastoralists. Travel was conducted exclusively on foot employing camels and mules as pack animals. Foodstuffs also reflected a customary Afar diet (ga’ambo and go’go (breads), buti daro (flour paste), subac ("subah" -clarified butter or ghee), and occasional goat meat; water supply depended on local wells and pools. This approach proved to enhance community acceptance of the team and improve response to our interrogatory technique.

Discussions were conducted through an interpreter, primarily on an informal basis with the male elders of communities we encountered. Occasionally, more formal, open meetings (also exclusively male) were held at the request of local elders and authorities. Several interviews were conducted with women, usually informally and inside family dwellings.


Date  Location 
28/04  Addis Ababa - Dessie
29/04  Dessie - Mekelle
30/04  Mekelle - ‘Ab’Ala (Shekhet) N13°21.254 E39°45.105
03/05  ‘Ab’Ala - Asangola N13°20.504 E39°52.800 
04/05  Asangola - Sheekti Dora N13°25.378 E39°59.375
05/05  Sheekti Dora - Leeleh N13°25.514 E40°00.994
06/05  Leeleh - Gordoc ("Gordoh") N13°26.334 E40°02.437
07/05  Gordoc - ‘Unda Garbeena - Kadda Garbeena N13°22.573 E40°08.058
09/05  Kadda Garbeena - Harsuuma N13°29.726 E40°17.086
11/05 Harsuuma - Doxom (police post) N13°27.079 E40°29.953
12/05  Abdalla Lee N13°30.955 E40°30.724
13/05  Abdalla Lee - Kadiida N13°33.087 E40°29.886
14/05  Kadiida - Ugacburu - Garda’ N13°45.399 E40°25.155
15/05  Garda’ - Gayaheerun (?) N13°45.514 E40°22.859
16/05  Gayaheerun - Bota’aa - Sawra’ N13°40.514 E40°03.062
17/05  Sawra’ -Leyla’ala N13°40.514 E40°03.062
18/05  Leyla’ala - Bercaale ("Berhale") N13°45.853 E40°02.010
19/05  Bercaale - Mekelle
20/05  Mekelle - Addis Ababa

See below for Note on Spellings

Politics and Security

Zone 2 represents a microcosm of social and political contradictions within Ethiopia’s broader Afar community. It is both the heartland of the ruling Afar People’s Democratic Organisation (APDO or "Adde") and home to the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF or "Uguguma"). The two groups represent opposite poles on the Afar political fringe: the former are clients of the EPRDF, political allies and exponents of its democratic model; the latter oppose both the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments through force of arms and under a "revolutionary" pan-Afar banner. While the APDO are eager to share with other Afar the benefits of their long association and linkages with Tigray, the ARDUF accuse them of subordinating collective Afar interests to those of the central government. In between these positions would seem to lie a dormant majority of the Afar people: anxious to reap the benefits of government, viscerally opposed to bearing its costs.

A low-intensity conflict between Ethiopian government forces and the ARDUF has already begun to erode the political middle ground, forcing many Afar to choose between two diametrically opposed positions, neither of which they feel comfortable with. Military action by both sides has led to deterioration in security conditions throughout the area, with predictable humanitarian consequences. Since the beginning of May, government forces have been engaged in air and ground operations apparently intended to deprive the rebels of their base of support. Although casualties have deliberately been kept to a minimum, Afar civilians, rather than the Uguguma, have borne the brunt of the offensive.

Furthermore, a substantial recent influx of rural Afar from Eritrea has affected most parts of the area visited. These fugitives, fleeing enforced conscription into Eritrea’s National Service programme, have abandoned their personal belongings and must depend entirely on the generosity of their relatives in their host communities. Although the new arrivals probably do not number more than a few thousand, in some areas their numbers may rival or exceed the resident population, placing coping mechanisms in both groups under enormous strain.

In view of the dearth of accurate information and the mission’s prior lack of familiarity with the area, it is difficult to get a clear picture of developments in the Zone. During a visit to Zone 1 in December 1995, officials of the Regional government in ‘Aysa’ita were uncertain about the general situation, but expressed vague concerns about security. Upon the team’s arrival in ‘Ab’Ala, the Zonal capital, at the beginning of May 1996, local authorities depicted a degree of insecurity they ascribed to banditry associated with the salt trade, but emphatically denied any political dimension to the problem. References to closure of markets and schools were imprecise and opaque, with no direct allusion to security or political issues.

In rural areas, community leaders tended to be more forthcoming, taking advantage of the mission’s presence to air their views and priorities. Overwhelmingly, their articulated concerns related to the government’s military operations and to the recent influx from Eritrea, rather than to more conventional development concerns. Throughout the area visited by the mission, community elders, ordinary civilians, and local authorities (including Members of Parliament) described a pattern of harassment and intimidation by government air and ground forces including non-lethal helicopter bombing of villages, strafing of livestock, house-to-house sweeps, detention, interrogation and abuse of civilians, and looting and destruction of property. Military authorities in Mekelle further confirmed that military operations were in progress in the zone, but did not confirm or deny details. Observations of the mission were able to verify accounts of bombardment and strafing, but could not ascertain the accuracy of charges concerning looting, interrogation or physical abuse.

Markets in Bercaale, Garamoyti, Gacarta ("Gaharta"), ‘Ala, Mergis and Dande are reported to have been closed for several months, leaving only ‘Ab’Ala open to traders from the zone. Market closure was routinely described in terms of an "embargo" imposed by the government and resented by the Afar population, although this could not be verified. Closure of schools in Bercaale, Erebti and Magaale districts was described in the same terms, although education officials in ‘Ab’Ala attributed the closures to "problems" of an undefined nature.

The unexpected siutation encountered by the mission precluded a more thorough and exclusive pursuit of the mission’s original objectives (described above). This report reflects instead the urgency given to these issues by the Afar community, and their desire for support in the early resolution of these problems. It also reflects the mission’s view that unless new approaches to conflict management are employed, there exists a serious risk of expansion of the conflict and aggravation of the humanitarian consequences.

ARDUF Activity and Claims

The extent of ARDUF activity and influence in the Zone is indeterminate. Residents across a considerable area insist that the guerrillas have been inactive for years, while the actions of government forces imply that they have intelligence to the contrary. The mission encountered no signs of ARDUF activity between ‘Ab’Ala and Doxom; north of Doxom, however, between Garda’ and Bercaale, evidence of an ARDUF presence was irrefutable. Residents of several villages warned us that "Uguguma" was active in the vicinity, and in some areas, the guerrilla appeared to move freely and without constraint.

According to ARDUF fighters encountered during the course of the mission (see footnote #8), ARDUF and "Uguguma" are in fact the same organisation, the latter being simply the popular name for the "Afar Revolutionary Democratic United Front." This version contradicts accounts that the "Uguguma" originated during the Haile Selassie era, while the ARDUF is the more recent progeny of a former governor of Asab under the Derg, Mahamooda Ga’as. It would seem likely that like other Afar resistance groups over the years, ARDUF has simply adopted the mantle "Uguguma" in order to acquire greater credibility and to lend historical perspective to its struggle. Whatever the case, today’s ARDUF claim to trace their own roots to Ethiopia’s Imperial period, implying that if the "Uguguma" and ARDUF were once separate, they are for the time being indistinguishable.

Foremost among the ARDUF’s poorly articulated aims is the unity of the Afar people, although it is not immediately clear whether this objective is to be realised by the reabsorption of Eritrea by Ethiopia, the secession (and fusion?) of Afar territories in Eritrea and Ethiopia, or whether ARDUF’s ambition includes western Djibouti as well. ARDUF fighters apparently participated in the FRUD’s (Front pour la Restauration de l’Unité et de la Democratie) failed offensive against the Djibouti government in 1992-94. It seems unlikely, however, that they approve of the FRUD’s political platform, which envisions the continuing unity of the Djibouti state. For the moment, the ARDUF’s horizon seems limited to an almost visceral opposition towards both the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments, which it views as "brothers" who have joined forces to "grind" the Afar between them ("making coffee with the Afar"). Its leadership denounces Ethiopia’s present regional autonomy policy as a fabrication, and the regional APDO government as a powerless instrument of central government authority. Regardless of the validity of these views and their basis (or lack thereof) in truth, they were widely echoed in discussions with ordinary Afar throughout Zone 2 and seem to enjoy a degree of popular sympathy (which seems likely to be enhanced by the prosecution of military operations against the civilian population). In contrast, the regional commander in Mekelle described the government’s military campaign as enjoying the full support of the Afar people.

In practical terms, the ARDUF rebellion manifests itself in sporadic attacks on government military forces and officials, as well as in competition for control of the salt trade in the ‘As’Ale and Dalul area. ARDUF guerrillas claim responsibility for attacks on a government vehicle near Lake Afdheera during the month of April, and several military convoys in the Bercaale area. Unconfirmed reports suggest that ARDUF were also responsible for an attack on the SOGEA construction company’s camp on the Sardo - Afdheera road (ARDUF allege that they intended only to target the camp’s military guards). In the ‘As’Ale and Dalul areas, both ARDUF and government military officials collect a salt tax from trader caravans - an activity that apparently gives rise to government charges that ARDUF is essentially a mercenary organisation, thriving parasitically on its proceeds from the salt trade. The merchants and camel drivers seem to be themselves undecided. Although few praise the ARDUF, complaints about the government’s military presence in the ‘As’Ale area and its new salt taxation policy were widespread. Beyond its opposition to the government, the ARDUF seems to have no social platform, and provides no services other than dubious "protection" in areas under its control. The advantages it offers to ordinary Afar remain therefore somewhat obscure.

Pitched battles between ARDUF and government forces are apparently rare, although not unknown. Reports of such clashes appeared in the Indian Ocean Newsletter edition of 14 May, although they are as yet unconfirmed. At the time of the mission’s visit to Bercaale, the road to Mekelle was reportedly closed due to mines and government forces were reportedly involved in action near Magaale, some 5-7 kilometres east of Bercaale.

Humanitarian Perspectives

Throughout much of Zone 2, conflict-related issues have superseded more routine developmental concerns. But in many areas visited by the mission, elders and authorities seemed equally anxious about urgent humanitarian problems, including a broad influx of rural Afar from Eritrea and the forced displacement of residents in the Kaala area, east of Maych’ew (Region 1).

Influx from Eritrea

Over the past four months, Zone 2 has experienced a continuing influx of rural Afar, mainly nomads, from Eritrea. The new arrivals claim to be fleeing the Eritrean government’s recent enforcement of its National Service programme and a parallel agenda of disarmament. According to numerous individuals interviewed by the mission, Eritrean forces began in February to practice forcible conscription in support of the governments broad National Service policy; in rural areas, the fugitives allege that troops swept villages, taking arms, livestock and any men or women eligible for service. Fearing the intolerable disruption of their communities they assumed this to represent, it would appear that Afar from throughout Eritrea’s eastern region have fled the country en masse. Those encountered by the mission named the following communities as being among their places of origin (the list is incomplete):

Abbey Iddi
Afambo Igidoli
Badda Mabàrá
Barra’ Asoli Morayum
Balobuy Ragali
Baylul Ti’o
Biru Waddey
Bori Wey’ima

Given the mission’s objectives, we were not in a position to investigate nor document fully the details of this influx, but on the basis of direct observation and anecdotal evidence, it would appear that the dimensions of the migration are cause for concern. The presence of new arrivals was registered or reported in virtually every settlement visited between ‘Unda Garbeena and Leyla’ala, and although absolute figures do not seem to be alarming, their importance relative to the resident population puts the influx into a somewhat more disturbing perspective:

Kadda Garbeena/ diméyta

*Figures represent households, not individuals.

The majority of the newcomers arrived without household possessions or livestock, claiming to have fled their homes at very short notice and often at night. Upon arrival they seem to have been generally accepted by the resident population, with whom they appear to share, in most cases, clan affiliation. Assistance from the local population, in the form of land, straw mats for sleeping and shelter, livestock, and - in Harsuuma - access to dom-palm trees for the production of doma liquor has been organised by the community elders.

In Garbeena and Yelibaace, elders informed the mission that they had reported the influx to the zonal authorities, and that a delegation had even visited the DPPC offices in Addis Ababa (unconfirmed), but that no assistance had been forthcoming. Elders in Leyla’ala asserted that the refugees were subject to arrest by security forces based in Bercaale, until three guarantors could be found from among the local residents. In the absence of external support, traditional sharing and coping mechanisms seem to be effective in the short-term, but the long-term consequences of such shared stresses could be intolerable, and are already beginning to take their toll on both the displaced and their host communities (to be discussed below in further detail). In any case, the arrivals have made clear their intent to remain in Ethiopia until Eritrea relaxes the National Service policy - an event that would seem highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Displacement of Afar Civilians in Kaala Area

Another problem of small, but nevertheless disquieting, dimensions concerns the reported displacement of Afar civilian from mixed communities along the Danakil escarpment in vicinity of Kaala, near Digdigsala.

According to elders in Asangòla and Leyla’ala, clashes between members of an alleged Tigrayan "militia" and Afar inhabitants of several communities have led the latter to flee, seeking protection and support from clan relatives. The mission visited the site of one such camp of displaced near Asangòla, comprising some 20 families. The displaced described themselves as members of the Hartu clan from the Dayda’-Labacat ("Labahat") area near Kaala whose community was attacked some time in January or early February. Following the first skirmish, many women and children were sent away to safety. The zonal authorities were approached about the problem but assured the villagers of their safety and told them to return. A second clash ensued, following which the government made a single food distribution to dispossessed Afars. Following a third confrontation, the remaining Afars abandoned the area, and say that they are afraid to go back. Two men from the group reportedly died in the clashes, leaving two widows with whom we met briefly.

The group interviewed told the mission that many more settlements of displaced existed further south, but time constraints prevented a visit to this area and no further displaced were encountered. Elders in several locations, including Leyla’ala, had also heard of the problems and gave similar accounts.

Early Warning & Opportunities for Pre-Emptive Action

Rural Afar lead a marginal existence, though they are by no means strangers to adversity, nor are they a "vulnerable group." However, a potent combination of hostile circumstances could tax or overwhelm their traditional coping mechanisms, leading the population of the Zone into a spiral of economic depression, human hardship, and possibly greater violence. In sum, these factors are:

Early and appropriate pre-emptive support measures could strengthen traditional coping mechanisms, forestalling a more evolved and less manageable crisis. It would also underline government commitment to the welfare Afar people - an assumption that has been profoundly challenged by recent events.

Free distribution is to be discouraged, or employed only as a last resort; anecdotal reports of previous experiences imply that free distribution - especially of food - may actually undermine individual and collective coping mechanisms rather than strengthen them. Numerous Afar leaders with whom the mission met rejected the idea of food aid out of hand, although there does not appear to be full consensus on this within the broader Afar community. A number of more innovative approaches might therefore be considered instead, in the hopes that more conventional "relief" activities will be unnecessary. Options include:

Development Framework: An Alternative Strategy for Child Development and Survival

Fundamentally, development issues are the same throughout the Afar region. Some illuminating differences were nevertheless observed in ‘Ab’Ala and Bercaale, where support in terms of administration, logistics, and human resources has been made available by the government of Region 1. Medical supplies, school supplies, transport and even personnel have been provided from Mekelle (two out of five staff in the ‘Ab’Ala dispensary are still on loan from Region 1). This dependence on Tigray, however, should not been seen as a solution to developmental problems; it fills a temporary lacuna until the ‘Aysa’ita government is prepared to assume these basic responsibilities. It also underscores the need for flexible and decentralised decision-making and administrative structures within the ANRS. Most of Zone 2 will be more accessible from Mekelle than from ‘Aysa’ita for the foreseeable future, regardless of where the political and administrative leadership of the region is located. Continuing use of Mekelle as a platform of logistical support for services in Zone 2 should be considered as an element of a long-term development strategy.

Within the zone, government services effectively reach no further than Ab’Ala and Bercaale, although some limited educational and health initiatives have been undertaken in rural areas. Any further extension of services beyond the major towns will have to begin essentially from scratch: transport beyond these centres is impractical (if not impossible) by vehicle, and infrastructure is non-existent. Communications possibilities are extremely limited, depending primarily on messenger rather than radio. Any plan of action will have to make allowance for these constraints if its implementation is not to be indefinitely delayed.

Expansion of social services will necessarily begin in the towns, which will ultimately serve as reference points for administartion, logistics, and monitoring of activities in rural areas. Outreach to pastoral communities, however, will require a highly modified approach from that employed in settled areas. Transport, infrastructure, and training will all have to be adapted to a pastoral setting, not simply extensions of urban-based programmes into rural areas.

Practical steps for implementation of a development strategy in Zone 2 could include the following:



Unlike Zone 1, some education in Zone 2 is already conducted in Afar language. Schools in both ‘Ab’Ala and Bercaale offer instruction in Amharic, English and Afar, the latter being taught by part-time Afar instructors. This represents a considerable improvement in accessibility to education over other parts of the ANRS. Extension of this kind of programme should be encouraged and formally incorporated into the regional education curriculum. Inclusion of health, nutrition, hygiene and sanitation as subjects within the school curriculum would be complementary to a broader health strategy throughout the zone.

It should be noted, however, that no schooling above the primary level exists in Zone 2. Students who wish to study further must either go to ‘Aysa’ita or leave the Afar region. Both options are too costly for the majority of the population, and the mission encountered no education officials, nor local authorities, who were aware of students who had continued their education outside zone 2.

Most teachers in Zone 2 are drawn from other parts of Ethiopia. Despite an obviously high level of commitment to their work, they are assigned to their present posts on temporary duty, and are generally unable to communicate in Afar language. Initiation of a programme of teacher training and "training of trainers ," aimed at building a corps of Afar educators is an essential element in the expansion and sustainability of an education programme for the zone, and for the region as a whole.

Other Sectors:

Although health, hygiene, sanitation education and nutrition are those most sectors relevant to the specific aims of the UNICEF/UNDP-EUE approach, several other disciplines are also critical to an integrated development strategy for Afar communities: water development, veterinary services, and agriculture (especially "oasis" or date-palm agriculture) are all sectors with a direct or indirect impact on the welfare of women and children, and all require further exploration and development.

Some suggestions concerning these sectors have already been articulated in the UNDP/EUE December 1995 report on Zone 1 of the ANRS and do not require elaboration here.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Like the rest of Ethiopia, the Afar region faces enormous developmental challenges and choices. Bu the ANRS is among the least prepared of the country’s regions for self-government. Capacity is extremely limited, human resources are rare, and a revenue base is virtually non-existent. Politically, the segmentary nature of Afar society makes it virtually impossible for a single party (or administration) to sustain a popular support base, leading to fragmentation along clan and territorial lines. Overcoming these centrifugal forces requires the regional government to engage in political consensus-building, together with articulation and implementation of a coherent, integrated and non-partisan development strategy. Over-dependence on the central government, whether for guidance, revenue or military force, will impede progress towards regional autonomy rather than accelerate it. In the context of a segmentary political culture, it may also serve to alienate all but those closest to the centre of power, narrowing the government’s base of support rather than broadening it.

The present security problems in Zone 2 are no doubt subject to divergent interpretations by the central government and by the Afar population at large. What military officers may regard as a limited and legitimate response to provocation by armed dissidents, Afars are prone to interpret as excessive use of force and interference in Afar affairs. Further, the difficulty in isolating members of the guerrillas from the broader civilian population gives rise to Afar charges that the military is behaving indiscriminately. Such beliefs go far to explain the confusion, fear and resentment widely expressed to the mission by ordinary Afar throughout the Zone.

These sentiments reinforce the sense of alienation and hostility many Afar seem to feel towards their regional government - sentiments that stem primarily from a general incomprehension of modern state systems and a resistance to the external forces of change and development that are altering their lives. At the community level, development is, in a very real sense, the most basic expression of government; a more participatory approach to development, and thus to governance, might therefore help to mitigate these stresses, providing alternatives to confrontation and to conflict.

Realistically, the capacity of regional government to function effectively throughout the ANRS will remain extremely limited for some time to come, for both institutional and political reasons. A role may therefore exist for the administration’s international partners - UN agencies, NGOs, and donors - to fill these gaps for as long as necessary. Short term interventions of any kind should of course take place within a long-term development framework, but they should also reinforce notions of peace and stability through the participation of target communities, and through promotion of the beneficiaries themselves as agents of change. Such a development approach would have a complementary, and perhaps even multiplier effect, on political progress towards reconciliation and the achievement of consensus.

 June 1996


The designations employed and the presentation of material in this document do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever of the UN concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.

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