The ruling party in Oromia region, Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO), is a member of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and a close partner of the Tigrian Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF). The question is whether Somalis are in any position to stop the expansion of Oromia territory at the expanse of Somali inhabited districts.
When History is a Witness
According to Fatuh-Al- Habasha, the Conquest of Abyssinia, a traveler’s account of the struggle between Somalis and Christian Abyssinias in the distant past, Sihab ad-Din Ahmad bin Abd al-Qadir bin Salem binUtman gives us a clear account of where Somalis lived in the 16th Century. In reading this book, one gets a clear account that Somalis occupied the land stretching between the Makhir coast to the east and the Axmar mountains to the west , as far west as Ankobara in the Awash valley, and between the scourged rocky deserts of Djibouti to the north and the Shebelle valleys south of the Jarar river. What is remarkable about the Somali settlements in this region is that today’s Somali clans (the Geri, Absame, Bartire, Issaq, Harti of Miad, Issa, Marehaan, Gurgure, Samaroon and other) occupy and reside in the same geographic areas today as they did during Ahmed Al-khzali’s confrontation (Ahmed Guray) with the kings of Abyssinia in the 16th Century.
Multiple invasions by Abyssians as well as draconian measures by successive feudal regimes in Ethiopia did not successfully remove Somalis from their natural ecology. Perhaps that is why the Somali saying: “dhulku waa ma guuraan ” or “ecological belongingness is a permanent phenomenon,” is one of the most endearing Somali concepts.
In an epic expedition stretching from Zaylac to Harar, Sir Richard Burton of England also gives us a perceptive observation of the same Somali ecology almost four Centuries later after the accounts by Sihab ad-Din Ahmad bin Abd al-Qadir bin Salem binUtman. In 1885, Sir Burton, who intimated himself with Somali Garads and Chiefs in this area encountered some Oromos who were indentured servants for (not a community of scale).
A significant trace of Oromos in the Somali inhabited areas (between Shinilee and Zaylac and between Zaylac and Harar) were first seen in the 1930s, only after Haile Selassie was crowned as the viceroy of Ethiopia. In addition, local oral history has it that Garad Ali Garad Koshin (great grandson of Garad Adan who hosted Richard Burton in 1885) brought some Oromos into Jigjga zone as indentured laborers in the late 1930s and 1940s. Today, the powerful Oromia region, under the protection of the ruling EPRDF, is using the children of those indentured laborers as a conduit to expand its territory into traditionally Somali regions as part of its grandiose quest to get access to the warm waters of Somaliland.
Federalism or Fleecing Somali Districts
In 1991, when the victorious TPLF, under the leadership of Mr. Meles Zenawi defeated the fascist regime of Mengistu Haile Marian, a new map depicting Ethiopian ethnic groups was drafted as part of the implementation of the new charter for the country. The new map, intended to be the basis for federalism among multi ethnic groups, divided the country into several ethnic-based states. Among the major nationalities depicted in the map were Somalis, Afars, Oromos, Amharas, Tigres, Sidamas, and a host of other smaller groups.
Out of this ethnic based regionalism, Western donor countries and the United States of America in particular expected that a new federal government of Ethiopia would emerge to fully move away from the long history of ethnic conflicts and wars that stunted any type of progress in the region. Now, after 20 years of constantly tampering with the spirit of the map, one is forced to feel uncertain about the goals of the pending boundary demarcation.
The agonizing memories of the 2004’s sham plebiscite are still fresh in the Somali region. Also, fresh in memory is the many times the late Dr. Abdulmajid Hussein came close to resigning his Ministerial position, because of his worries about the lack of fair arbitrations to resolve the Somalo-Oromo tension. He also loudly complained about the eastward expansion of Oromia at the expense of Somali territory. To dramatize the issue, the late AbdulMajid went to one of the disputed districts (Jinacsani, which lies only 15 miles to the northwest of Jigjiga) with a large entourage and confronted the Ormoia army who were holding the city as their hostage by sheer brute force.
Oromo soldiers in the Somali region that were at the same time part of the national armed forces and members of the political coalition of EPRDF, were too strong for civilian Somalis to challenge during the 2004 sham plebiscite. It was in this context that OPDO soldiers openly intimidated Somali and assumed temporary and soon-to-be permanent custody of Jinacsan, parts of Shiniila, Fiiq, Libaan and Afdheer. For Oromia, the coming final phase of boundary demarcation could be icing on the cake and legetimize those districts they robbed and possibly annex some more. Where is Balayo Aas (Baalaayo Cas) when I need him to wail with us – Aan ooyee Albaabka iixira (please slam the door so I can wail in private)!
Role of the Regional Government
In 2004, Somalis unfairly lost significant and resource-rich districts to the Oromos. Several reasons were given to why Somalis were on the losing side. It is widely speculated that the President of the region at the time, Abdi Jibriel, was uncharismatic and weak leader who is alleged to have received a hefty bribe from Oromia state in order to cede without resistant several key districts.
Another reason often cited is that Mr. Abdi Jibriel and his government at the time was hapless and did not show any meaningful governance in the area it was supposed to control. But a third and certain reason is that Somali were divided along clan lines, and those who were losing their districts were left to fend off for themselves without any meaningful role assumed by the regional government. In that instance, poorly funded and haphazardly organized Somali clans could not marshal enough resources and manpower to withstand the powerful machine of Oromia.
However things may not be as hopeless today as they were in 2004. This current demarcation comes on the heels of a very charismatic leadership occupying the President’s office. Moreover, the President himself is said to be directly involved and managing the Somali side of this effort, hence would not most likely cede any more Somalis districts to the Oromos.
Reports coming from Jigjiga confirm that the residents of the contested areas have shown great confidence in how so far the President is tackling this issue. In that regard, the Somali communities in the disputed districts as well as those in the rest of the territory and the Diaspora communities must give the President all the confidence he needs on this matter to help him strengthen his position. It is within this vision that Somali Diaspora from all parts of the Somali region are in the process of convening a summit within the next thirty or forty-five days to assess the matter. The goal of the conference shall be to direct energy of the Diaspora in having one unified voice on this burning issue.
Faisal A. Roble