Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia 

Report of Trip to Cam Aboker and Rabasso Refugee Camps
17-19 February 1995

by UN-EUE Consultant Matt Bryden


A UN-EUE mission visited Cam Aboker and Rabasso villages and refugee camps from 17-19 February 1995. Discussions were held with representatives of different community groups including new arrivals from "Somaliland," refugees of the "old-caseload," and elders from among the permanent residents of the "degaan". The main objective of the trip was to solicit perspectives on the current situation in "Somaliland", particularly with respect to an eventual resolution of the current conflict and the return of refugees and new arrivals to their homes. This report contains observations and analysis based upon this recent field trip.


"Refugees" from the recent conflict in "Somaliland" have been arriving since October, 1994 - even before the outbreak of open hostilities. The volume of the influx swelled significantly with the escalation of fighting in November and December, but has been little more than a trickle since early January and the number of asylum-seekers has levelled off at less than 80,000. Although some people continue to seek assistance from UNHCR in Ethiopia, there is reason to believe that a temporary ceiling has been reached, and that many among the "new arrivals" may actually be members of the "old-caseload" or local inhabitants.1Across the border, the situation in "Somaliland" has lapsed into a phase of relative military inactivity since government forces took over Hargeysa airport in early January, inflicting a sound defeat upon the 'Iidagale militia who had controlled it for most of the past two years. Egal's administration then began to consolidate its position, reportedly sending forces to Burao and other destinations, and dispatching envoys throughout "Somaliland" to establish and enforce Hargeysa's authority. The opposition forces, having suffered heavy losses of both men and materiel, have not offered any further resistance.

Politically, however, the situation remains more of a stalemate than a victory. The 'Iidagale enjoy the sympathy of their clan relations among the Habar Yonis ('Iidagale and Habar Yonis together form the Garxajis clan), who still possess a formidable military capacity. Although they have little appetite for a conflict, the Habar Yonis are generally antagonistic to the Egal administration, and claim to be prepared to resort to military force in defence of their clan interests. Contacts between the two sides seem to have made little headway over the past month, and despite the absence of conflict, the situation is far from stable: most Garxajis residents of Hargeysa are reluctant to return to the city, preferring to remain displaced throughout the country and within Ethiopia. No comprehensive agreement upon either a cease-fire or a truce has yet been negotiated, and high level contacts between the two sides do not seem to be in evidence.

The fragmentation of the opposition's leadership is one complication. Certain Garxajis political leaders are not even in the vicinity: Abdirahman "Tuur," Jaama' Mohamed Qaalib, and Isma'il "Buubaa," having denounced "Somaliland's" secession and opted for a united, "federal" Somalia, have shown no interest in direct talks with the Egal government. Within "Somaliland," Garxajis elders do not endorse Tuur's repudiation of "Somaliland's" independence, but lack the kind of prominent political leadership necessary to rival that of the Muqdisho group. Decision-making is left to a diffuse network of community elders, field military commanders and unsteady "political committees." The government complains, with some justification, that there is no one on the opposition side to talk to.

In the meantime, "Somaliland" enjoys an uneasy calm, though with nearly 80,000 people still displaced in Ethiopia, and perhaps an equal or greater number within the country, the situation can hardly be described as "peace." The government's confidence in the wake of its victory is matched by resentment and alienation on the part of its opponents. Over the last week, a number of Habar Yonis residents of Burao have sought refuge across the border fearing imminent clashes (the government has reportedly re-inforced the garrison in Burao with members of its united "field force" from Hargeysa). Government supporters seem assured that they have the capability to dominate in any military confrontation with the opposition: this would seem to be a reckless and naive assumption given the salient lessons of recent Somali conflicts - both sides are likely to suffer heavily, to little advantage.

'Iidagale Perspectives

Although the 'Iidagale clan (and its somewhat unruly militia) have offered the most virulent opposition to the Egal government, they do not in fact pose the greatest threat. Their might presently derives more from their relationship with the large Habar Yonis clan than from the means at their own disposal, which have in any case been gravely reduced by their defeat at the hands of the government. Clan affiliation dictates that Habar Yonis political behaviour is directly influenced by the conduct of their 'Iidagale cousins: if the 'Iidagale go to war with the government, the Habar Yonis will probably feel obliged to lend moral, political and perhaps, even military support. If they choose otherwise, however, they can exert powerful restraint over the 'Iidagale. .

Discussions with 'Iidagale elders during the mission suggest they are prepared to accept a negotiated settlement to the present conflict. If they do so, the Habar Yonis are unlikely to pursue an independent course of confrontation. But it remains uncertain whether the "conditions" under which the opposition are prepared to negotiate would meet with the acceptance of the government and its constituent clans. The main issues at stake would seem to be:


A clear majority of 'Iidagale elders encountered rejected the possibility of a federal Somalia as a solution to "Somaliland's" problems, and seemed to be generally opposed to the idea. Although a number of people raised the subject with us, they were vague about exactly what a "federal" government would entail, and seemed unwilling to share such a polity with the major political leaders from the south (i.e. 'Aydiid, General Morgan, 'Abdillahi Yusuf, General Mohamed Xashi Gaani etc.). In one meeting, a "federalist" who denied any other way for "Somaliland" to retrieve stability was denounced by others as a "fanatic" and asked to leave the meeting room.

Since the 'Iidagale seem to consider themselves loyal "Somalilanders" for the most part, federalist tendencies are probably best explained in terms of intemperate antagonism to the Egal administration. In opposing the present government, many 'Iidagale also seem prepared to oppose everything that it claims to stand for. As one elder described the situation: " we would ally ourselves with the devil if necessary to fight this man (Egal)." Such extreme reactions are a typical political expression of Somalis' segmentary social organisation, and should not be confused with a real desire to re-unite with the south. Many "opposition" elders described Abdirahman "Tuur" and his federalist group (as well as Egal) as "criminals" and "political elements" responsible for the conflict, and seemed prepared to reject them publicly - an important step towards reconciliation.

Clan Peace Talks

The issue of who should be party to negotiations is perhaps the most crucial and the most sensitive. The 'Iidagale refuse to engage in direct negotiations with the government, and insist instead upon discussions between the clan elders of the Garxajis and the Habar Awal (Egal's clan). The government has so far rejected this approach, arguing that the government represents the interests of a coalition of clans (Habar Awal, Habar Je'elo, Gadabursi, and some Warsengeli, Dhulbahante, and 'Isse), and that the Garxajis is fighting with all them. The government argues that it is therefore inappropriate for the opposition to meet solely with the Habar Awal, and that the government itself is the appropriate party with whom the opposition should negotiate.

The 'Iidagale seem to feel that the Habar Awal are the linchpin of the government alliance, and that bilateral talks would pave the way to discussion within a broader forum (they do not exclude the possibility of talks with the government at a later stage). Accusing the government of being the aggressor (a charge of questionable validity or value) they are unwilling to meet with Egal or members of his administration. They cite the Sheikh peace talks of 1992 as a precedent for this kind of arrangement, when the Habar Yonis (the clan of then-President Abdirahman "Tuur") supposedly accepted demands of the 'Isse Muse / Habar Awal clan that negotiations take place on a traditional clan basis, rather than with the existing government (a coalition of Habar Yunis, 'Iidagale, Arab, and some Sa'ad Muse / Habar Awal). The Sheikh talks led to an enduring cease-fire, and later to the Booraame conference (of early 1993) which established a framework for peace and the mandate for the Egal administration. The 'Iidagale argue that the same kind of process could work now.

So far, neither party seems to be very flexible upon the issue of who should be party to peace talks. Since the problem is effectively blocking any progress between a negotiated settlement, both sides should consider making concessions on this point in the interests of peace.

New Government

Our discussions with the 'Iidagale (and earlier talks with the Habar Yonis) lead to the conclusion that most Garxajis no longer consider the Egal administration to be legitimate, and call for a change of government. This does not, however, seem to be a precondition for negotiations (if it were, further clashes would probably be inevitable). It will undoubtedly be tabled as a demand by the Garxajis at a later stage.

This kind of ultimatum is clearly unacceptable to the government. While the opposition may harbour certain legitimate grievances, the government received its mandate through a peaceful, relatively democratic process at the 1993 Booraame conference. There is some well-grounded concern from government supporters that opposition figures provoked a military confrontation simply to throw doubt upon the legitimacy of the present regime and to bring about a change; if this tactic is successful, it would set an unfortunate precedent for opposition groups to follow.

On the other hand, Egal's mandate (from the 1993 Booraame conference) will expire within the next three months. A national conference will then be necessary to decide the succession issue, and may provide an appropriate forum in which to address Garxajis demands for equity within the framework of a "Somaliland" state. Government supporters point out that the opposition must have actually wanted a war, because if they had only wanted change, they could have waited for the national congress in the first place. The explanation for the escalation of the Garxajis political grievances into conflict probably lies with the aspirations and tactics of the "federalist" clique, who had little hope of winning popular support for their platform through peaceful means. With Tuur and his group now effectively marginalized, the Garxajis seem more likely to opt for peace rather than continued confrontation.


Having offered numerous concessions to the 'Iidagale concerning Hargeysa airport over the past year and a half, Egal does not seem to be in the mood for further compromise. Nevertheless, there appears to be a genuine desire on the part of his government for peace. The 'Iidagale also seem prepared to come to the bargaining table. It remains only to determine whether the Habar Yonis are also ripe for negotiation. If so, then the ingredients for a peace accord already exist. Only the catalyst for the process is missing.

The increasing isolation of the "federalist" lobby should help to take some wind out of the current conflict, now that the menace from Muqdisho is diminished: another war civil between "Somalilanders" would be much harder for leaders on both sides to sustain than an "inter-state" war in which "Somaliland's" independence appears to be at stake. Nevertheless, clan sentiment within the Isaaq has been sufficiently inflamed that the danger of confrontation remains. If so, and one sides succeeds in finally claiming a military "victory" the anguish for "Somaliland's" people and the damage to its reputation will be irreparable. The greatest casualty of another round of violence will be the "Somalilanders'" own aspirations to self-determination.

For a peace formula to be adopted, both sides will have to demonstrate a commitment to make peace and a willingness to compromise. If not, "Somaliland" risks a return to the kind of conflict that blackened 1992 and the last months of 1994 - or worse. But another "Somaliland" war will not only affect "Somalilanders:" it will mean another humanitarian crisis, and a further exodus of refugees into neighbouring states. Other countries who will suffer the consequences, either as humanitarian donors, or as hosts to asylum seekers, have good reason to let their interest in peace be known, before they find themselves managing the fallout of war.


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 delimitations of its frontiers or boundaries.

1 This report was written before the recent fighting around the village of Salaleh, near the Ethiopian border.


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