Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia

Peace and Unity Conference of the Somali Nation of Region 5

"Aan wada hadallo waa aan heshiino."
"‘Let us talk’ means ‘let us agree.’

- Somali Proverb



A mission visited Qabri Dahar from 14 - 16 February 1995, during the closing days of the "Peace and Unity Conference of the Somali Nation of Region 5." Meetings were held with various participants in order to gauge their reactions to the conference, and the prospects for an improved climate of peace, stability and security in the region - objectives of the conference and conditions upon which development programming for the area evidently depends.

Background to the Meeting

The Somali region (Region 5), formerly known as the Ogaden, is an area that has been historically plagued by instability and neglect. Long an arena of conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia, in more recent years the region has been the stage for armed confrontation between the forces of the EPRDF and guerrillas of radical Somali "liberation" movements, notably the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Al-Ittihad Al-Islam (Islamic Unity). Although fighting has been sporadic and of low-intensity, it has restricted travel through and access to the area, circumscribing opportunities both for commerce and for development assistance.

Politically, the region has also suffered the effects of chronic instability. Since the advent of the Transitional Government in Addis Ababa, three Presidents have come and gone in Region 5, and most of the area is still lacking anything resembling an effective administration. The 1994-5 regional budget remains unspent, largely because the government lacks the organisation and institutional coherence to spend it. Rivalry between members of the various Somali clans who inhabit the region - particularly between those of the Ogaden clan and those who are not - ensures ceaseless competition for positions of authority and scarce resources that has effectively paralysed government decision making. Though Region 5 has escaped the kind of fratricidal violence that has plagued its neighbours across the border, it has not exactly been a paradigm of peace and stability.

Over the last few months, several different efforts to improve conditions in the region have been gathering momentum. On the one hand, the relatively recent establishment of the Ethiopian Somali Democratic League (ESDL) has succeeded in grouping most non-Ogadeni clans under the same political umbrella, with a platform of Somali unity. On the other, Ogadeni elders have been active since about August 1994, trying to draw together the diffuse political threads of the Ogaden clan left by the collapse of first the Western Somali Liberation Front and then the Western Somali Democratic Party. Their efforts finally produced the Qabri Dahar meeting, which opened, officially, on 17/5/87 (E.C.) Although they were not initially invited, last ditch efforts on the part of a committee of elders also succeeded in convincing the ONLF and Al-Ittihad to sent participants. While the ESDL did not contribute a delegation, several members of its constituent clans were in attendance.

"Peace and Unity Conference of the Somali Nation of Region 5"

The official title of the conference reveals much about its rather grandiose ambitions, which are contained in a declaration issued by the organisational committee on behalf of all delegations (several different "declarations" on behalf of the conference were reportedly issued by several different groups, including one through the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA), which are not entirely consistent with one another). The version contained in this report has been issued by the conference’s organisational committees, and there exists some dispute as to whether this document actually represents the conclusions of the congress. In any case, its resolutions are so broad that they would be difficult to contest.

Broadly the conclusions are:

1. Resolution of Complete Peace and Security (to strive for peace and security through the region; to send a delegation to visit Somalia).

2. Resolution of Unity (affirms the unity of Somali people in Region 5 and strives to combat "tribalism" and divisive influences).

3. The People’s Future (affirms the principle of self-determination enshrined in article 39 of the constitution, and the need to proceed through peaceful means).

4. Summons of the Conference:

Other salient points include; Typically, many of the most crucial pacts reached at Qabri Dahar are not contained in the declaration (and may not be documented anywhere). It is these details that hold out the greatest promise of the accord’s success, as well as the ominous risks of its failure. This report will attempt to clarify some of the "unwritten" protocols of the conference and their possible consequences.

Al-Ittihad Al-Islam (Islamic Unity)

The presence of a delegation from Al-Ittihad at the conference, though somewhat unexpected, may prove to be one of the meeting’s categorical successes - if the optimism of the elders is to be believed. Although the leader of Al-Ittihad’s Ogaden chapter, a sheikh "Abdiselam" did not personally participate, his deputy Abidllahi Omar and a small band of followers did come to Qabri Dahar. Several groups of elders with whom we met asserted that it may well be Al-Ittihad’s last public appearance since the conference elders have collectively agreed and insist that:

If these conditions are fulfilled, then Al-Ittihad will effectively cease to exist as a political and military force within the Ogaden. Financial and material support from the international Al-Ittihad organisation are likely to dry up, the incentive for many of the less idealistic fighters will thus disappear. Disarmed, the group will offer little threat to stability and security in the region; any militants who continue to favour armed struggle will probably opt for membership in the ONLF rather than persist with their de-clawed Islamist tiger.

Although the local Al-Ittihad leadership are said to have accepted these conditions, it is not clear what means of persuasion have been used. The conference elders argue that the Islamists in fact have little choice: that they are members of the Ogaden community, and that only the community can put an end to their rebellion. Now that the community has made its will known and is prepared to enforce it, the group has no alternative but to acquiesce. They assert that their success in employing social solidarity to deal with militant Islamists offers a key example for other communities facing the same problems world-wide.

In practical terms, two major question marks exist: first, the assumption that members of Al-Ittihad, both within and without the Ogaden, will accept the dismantling of the Ogaden chapter so graciously has yet to be proved. The international movement is unlikely to look favourably upon the same group under a new name, nor to appreciate the expulsion of non-Ogaden members (much of Al-Ittihad’s appeal to the Somali community derives from its multi-clan, pan-Islamic character). On the other hand, the Ogaden group has provided a vital linkage between Al-Ittihad branches operating throughout Somalia, conveying arms, cash and information - a link that must somehow be retained or replaced. Ogaden elders may accept that these channels remain open, as long as the movement ceases all other activity. If not, Al-Ittihad within Somalia is likely to be painfully weakened, and will probably require restructuring.

Second, the issue of disarmament. Although Al-Ittihad have reportedly agreed to hand over their weapons to the community elders, this arrangement is unacceptable to the EPRDF. In view of the informal linkages between Al-Ittihad and the ONLF, there is some danger that a proportion of the membership will defect to the ONLF, rather than hand their weapons to the EPRDF or lapse into inactivity. Since the more militant members of the group are the least likely to agree to disarmament and to "defect," an imminent "radicalisation" of the ONLF membership may be a distinct possibility. Talks between Al-Ittihad and the EPRDF were still in progress at the time of the mission, and much obviously depends upon their outcome.

Ogaden National Liberation Font (ONLF)

While Al-Ittihad’s opposition to the EPRDF has perhaps been more sensational, the ONLF (otherwise known by its Somali acronym JWXO - Jabhada Wadaniga Xoreynta Ogadeenya), has in fact enjoyed a broader popular support base and poses a greater potential threat to peace and stability in Region 5. Unlike the Islamists, whose militant religious overtones isolate many more moderate Somalis, the ONLF’s secessionist platform has struck a popular chord, particularly (one might venture "exclusively" ) among members of the Ogaden clan. This tendency has served to politically segregate the Ogaden clan from members of other clans in the killil who do not endorse a secessionist platform. Dr Ahmed Yusuf Farah, describing the political evolution of Region 5’s Somali community, writes of "the undemocratic and aggressive tendency of the radical ONLF to dominate the killil administration and regional affairs" breeding a collective resentment and political solidarity on the part of non-Ogadeni Somalis, politically expressed through the ESDL. Nevertheless, the ONLF have managed to sustain a low-level military offensive against EPRDF forces in the Somali Region, ostensibly without significant external means of support (the Ogadeni Somali diaspora notwithstanding). Presumably, they have the means to persist in their campaign if they so choose; their adherence to the terms of the peace accord will be critical to its success or otherwise.

Discussions with the ONLF delegation to the conference indicate that the organisation is highly sceptical of the Qabri Dahar meeting and suspicious of the motives of both the EPRDF, and of the ESDL (whom it accuses of collaborating with the government). ONLF delegates described the concept of a "popular" conference as "camouflage," asserting that the meeting was in fact a fabrication of the Transitional Government and the League. Their spokesman, Abdulqadir Hasan Adane, went so far as to say that "Somali ‘Unity’ means unity with the League (ESDL)," and dismissed the whole meeting as superficial. Real issues, according to the ONLF, can only be dealt with through bilateral discussions with the central government. Two days later, on February 16, the ONLF issued a statement renouncing armed struggle in favour of a "peaceful political struggle," and praising the "recently ratified Ethiopian Democratic Republican Constitution." The statement is contained in a request to the Political Parties Registration Board of Ethiopia for official recognition of the ONLF’s eligibility to run in the May 7 elections as a political party, and is unsigned.

The peaceful co-existence of EPRDF and ONLF forces in Qabri Dahar for the duration of the meeting is perhaps in itself an indication of the intent of both sides to reach a settlement and - if the ONLF’s request for registration as a party can be taken at face value - it has produced a positive result. Nevertheless, the road can not have been a smooth one. At the Qabri Dahar meeting, the ONLF tabled a four point plan with numerous conditions attached. These included the following:

In return for this, the ONLF was prepared to abandon the armed struggle and seek "a peaceful, democratic solution."

According to the ONLF team at Qabri Dahar, the EPRDF ignored all these demands and replied with two of its own:

* that the ONLF must go to camps and register weapons and soldiers
* that the ONLF must declare themselves to be Ethiopians

In return, the ONLF would be permitted to participate in the May elections. If these conditions were not met, the ONLF reported that the EPRDF negotiators had warned them of repercussions involving "blood and iron." Discussions at this stage seemed therefore to have taken the form of an exchange of ultimatums rather than a constructive dialogue.

As late as February 14, 1995, the ONLF had refused the EPRDF’s conditions, which they felt demonstrated that EPRDF does not take them seriously enough. Faced by a stalemate, EPRDF representatives reportedly suggested that both sides carry the other’s message back to their "people," and then meet again after some indefinite period. The ONLF delegates voiced suspicions that the "indefinite period" was an ominous sign foreshadowing a renewed government offensive. They accused the EPRDF of having profited from the cease-fire pertaining to the peace talks by reinforcing their major garrisons throughout the Ogaden. Despite their wariness, the ONLF said they had not entirely given up hope in the prospect of peace, and would wait some time before again taking up arms. On February 16, they had apparently agreed to renounce their armed struggle, though additional details of their rapid and astonishing breakthrough in talks with the government (if any) are not publicly known.

Some observers have suggested that the understanding hinged upon an unwritten protocol allowing the ONLF units to be integrated into a standing national (or regional) military force - a process which would begin with their cantonment and registration. Only time will reveal the accuracy of this hypothesis, which would indeed signal an end to the armed struggle for Ogadeni secession.

Ethiopian Somali Democratic League (ESDL)

The ESDL essentially fuses the interests of non-Ogadeni communities in Region 5, while representing the option of continuing unity between the Somali Region and Ethiopia. In contrast to the bellicose ONLF

platform, the ESDL advocates a democratic process to determine Ethiopian-Somali attitudes towards self-determination. Exponents of the League tend to argue that although the Ogaden clan is clearly the largest single community within the region, it constitutes less than half the total population of the Killil and cannot claim to solely represent Somali interests. While there are grounds to support the argument that the Ogadeni may not be in the majority, reliable population figures are scarce and it goes practically without saying that the Ogadenis are as certain of their absolute majority as League supporters are to the contrary).

Whatever the ESDL may feel about Ogadeni political tendencies in general (and the ONLF's secessionist aspirations in particular), its members seem broadly supportive of the Qabri Dahar initiative as a step towards peace and stability throughout the region. Most of the conference leaders (notably Mohammed Mursal "Shiil", secretary to the conference's Organising Committee) echo the ESDL's own appeals for Somali unity, and the need to reach collective decisions through peaceful democratic means. Whether or not this means unity or separation will be a matter solely for the Somali nation of Ethiopia to decide at a later stage. In future, most observers expect the League to try to broaden its constituency to include some members of the Ogaden clan and perhaps to exert some influence upon wider Ogadeni political option; some already point to Mohammed 'Mijerteen', formerly of the failed WSDP and now a Member of Parliament, as being groomed for just such a role.

Region 5 Administration

Since the suspension of Abdirahman Ugaas from his duties as President of Region 5, the administration has been functioning under the leadership of the Executive Committee. Abdirahman's former deputy, Ahmed Makahil, has been appointed by the Committee to assume Abdirahman's responsibilities for an interim period (probably until the May election), backstopped by the Committee's Executive Secretary, Iid Dahir.

The circumstances surrounding Abdirahman's suspension are still unclear, though the decision seems to have been taken by the Executive Committee rather than the central government. Accusations that Abdirahman was incapable of his discharging his leadership functions in full and that he routinely blocked plans for development of the region and its administration, are generally lacking in detail.

The former President has denounced his dismissal as unconstitutional (although several observers have ironically pointed out that his own inauguration was also somewhat irregular). He describes his removal in terms of a "coup" engineered by certain members of the Executive Committee, but never legitimised through a full Committee meeting nor through a special session of the Regional Council. Although he has sought clarification from the central government on its position vis-à-vis his discharge, he says that Addis considers this to be a "regional" matter and will not officially intervene one way or another. Nevertheless, he believes the government endorses his suspension since it is upheld by the police and EPRDF forces. Although he seems prepared to accept his discharge, he says he is still waiting for an official confirmation that he is absolved of his responsibilities before he considers the matter closed.

In political terms, Abdirahman feels his replacement to be part of a broader strategy by the government to shift the regional balance of power away from the Ogaden clan towards the League, and that the timing - only months before the general election - may not be coincidental. In particular, he cites the redrawing of electoral districts as a way of stacking the electoral deck against the Ogadenis; according to his calculations, an area like Jigjiga (4 districts) which the Ogadenis share with other clans will receive 4 seats in parliament - two for Ogadenis, two contested by other clans; Gode, on the other hand, which includes 7 almost exclusively Ogaden districts, will receive only 2 seats. The ex-President is convinced that the proposed arrangements weight the odds in favour of a non-Ogadeni majority in the next regional government (League supporters assert that such a result would be borne out by demographics, since the Ogaden are in any case a minority clan). He argues that in the absence of solid statistical data, such arrangements are unacceptable to the majority of the Ogadenis, and he is afraid that the Ogaden are not ready (or politically mature enough) to find themselves in a subordinate position following an ESDL electoral victory, fair or otherwise. Defeat will probably only serve to radicalise the Ogadenis and to inflame militant opposition to the new government. Even if an Ogadeni splinter group is incorporated within the League, its members will probably find themselves objects of suspicion and politically ostracised by their own clan.

In any event, Region 5 must await the coming elections before its administration will again be complete (not only is there no President, but the heads of 9 key Bureaux have yet to be appointed). Only then will it be possible to forecast trends of security and stability with any degree of certainty.


What all of this means for Region 5 over the coming months is far from clear, though the immediate effect of the Qabri Dahar conference is likely to be at least a short respite from confrontation and instability. Though precedents should not be exaggerated, the conference would seem to follow the tradition of other, similar palavers between traditional elders in Somalia (Mudug) and "Somaliland" (Booraame) which came to happy endings. Over the long term, however, there are several reasons to doubt that the good work of the clan sages will prevent a return to instability or even violence. Qabri Dahar's peace is at once a true achievement and a truly fragile one.

Already, diverse political actors are undermining the true strength of the conference, which lies in the attempts of the elders to create an atmosphere of peace and stability through more or less traditional methods (there are no "traditional" guidelines for dealing with groups like the ONLF and Al-Ittihad). A number of groups are using the same conference as a vehicle to widely divergent ends, and a conflict between their respective hidden agendas seems inevitable. Serious disagreement could quickly unravel the accords completely.

The Ogadenis are by no means united within themselves; the ONLF represent only one radical tendency in a broad spectrum of political opinion. Moderate Ogadeni sentiment is further divided between those prepared to take up the call for Somali unity, though with anti-League overtones of self-determination and those apparently willing to collaborate actively with the League (or join it) in struggling for Somali unity within a united Ethiopia (a minority, judging by our discussions at Qabri Dahar).

As for the ONLF, it is too early to take their denouncement of armed struggle seriously most probably, they have simply decided to play two cards - freedom fighters and democrats - at the same time. If they fail to achieve their electoral objectives and head back to the bush to resume their armed struggle, it would seem that they can count on some popular support. On the other hand, if the EPRDF has succeeded in striking a deal with them, it will augur well for the prospects for long-term peace in the killil.

Perhaps more problematic is the fundamental political schism between Ogadeni and non-Ogadeni communities in the Somali Region. Members of both camps still tend to see regional politics in terms of a bilateral balance of power, despite mutual appeals for "Somali Unity". The issue is exacerbated by an apparently deep-seated Ogadeni attachment to the principle of "self-determination" (read: secession) which is not universally shared by members of other clans. These tensions emanate in large part from entrenched clan prejudices, and probably represent, for the moment, a zero-sum equation in which neither group is willing to cede ground to the other. Certainly, neither is likely to accept passively the fiat of a regional administration it believes is dominated by the other group (even if it comes to power through ostensibly democratic means). If this is the case, then 1995 may prove to be as turbulent a year for the region as 1994.


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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