Teshome M. Borago
After Ogaden’s Liyu Police leader Abdi Mohamoud Omar tried to massacre his regional opponents and Somali elders in Dire Dawa City, Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed reportedly ordered his arrest on Friday. This has triggered a massive security vacuum and crisis in Ethiopia’s Somali region, according to local media.
The situation is tense and could potentially lead to an all out war between loyalists of Abdi Mohammed and the local Somalis aided by the Ethiopian federal government. Many non-Somalis have been attacked by Liyu Police and churches burned down, according to residents.
Relations between new Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy and the Liyu Police regional President Abdi were already sour, since Liyu Police was seen as an extension of the TPLF security network in the country. But after Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report condemning massive abuses by Liyu Police, Abdi Mohammed, known locally as “Abdi I Illey” was asked to resign by Addis Ababa. The proceedings were put on hold due to Dr. Abiy’s trips to Eritrea and the United States.
For many years, Abdi Illey’s human rights abuses were concealed by the TPLF generals and the Somali Diaspora media, including VOA Somali and BBC Somali. Various sources have confirmed that Abdi Illey has nationalist allies and ONLF members inside the VOA and BBC Somali stations; due to their shared long-term project known as “Somaliweyn,” to secede Somali region from Ethiopia.
After the Oromo faction of the ruling party, allied with the Amharas, took over the Ethiopian government, the TPLF has also reportedly advised Abdi Illey to use Article 39 of the constitution toward a referendum for secession. This strategy was seen as TPLF’s last resort to portray chaos in Ethiopia, as a pretext to reverse their marginalization or toward military coup.
However, facing political and legal crisis due to reports of human rights abuses in Ogaden with ramifications at an International criminal court, Abdi Illey suddenly pointed his finger at TPLF’s chief officer Getachew Asefa and other former Tigrayan military officials.
Isolated from all sides in Ethiopia, including local Somalis, Abdi Illey has suddenly declared war on the federal government, including his attempted assassination of Somali elders and politicians this week.
Another dimension of this conflict has been tribal territorial battles between Somali and Oromo nationalists. Around 420 wards and districts were contested between Oromia and Somali states when the TPLF & OLF established the infamous “Ethnic Federalism” system in 1990s. Some of these districts are also contested by the Sidama, another ethnic community. Out of the 420, over 300 areas were awarded to Oromia, which angered some Somalis and continue to be the cause of ethnic clashes to this day.
These tribal battles are also related to historic migration of both ethnic groups and their interaction over the past 600 years. Some Somalis blame the migration of Oromos since 1500s as an incursion to their land, as Oromos moved east and gradually adopted Islam.
After a mostly Somali army led by Imam Ahmad and the Ottomans invaded the Christian parts of northern Ethiopia (formerly Abyssinia) in 1530s, the northern movement of Oromos led to massive demographic changes and new settlements in the Horn of Africa. While the ethnic makeup of most of the region was being permanently shaped, the eastern Ethiopian areas remained contested due to scarcity of resources and the pastoral nature of its communities. While there was no agreement on boundaries locally, European powers nonetheless began drawing lines and dividing the region among themselves.
All countries in this African region became composed of multiethnic communities, with the only exception of Somalia, which was made up of only one ethnic group. This reality became an existential threat, a foundation of many conflicts to come, including the Ogaden War of 1977, as Somalia became a pariah state that continually wages wars on all its neighbors: including Kenya, Ethiopia, Somaliland and Djibouti.