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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Somalis in Ethiopia

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Ethiopia Facts
Area:    1,251,282 sq. km.
Capital:    Addis Ababa
Total Population:    55,000,000 (source: Ethiopian Embassy, Washington, D.C., 1994, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Somalis in Ethiopia exhibit four factors that encourage rebellion: current rebellion, territorial concentration, high levels of group organization and government repression. As long as anarchy and cross-border insurgencies continue from southern Somalia, it is likely that Somalis in Ethiopia will remain a minority at risk. It is still typical for regional authorities to arrest and detain persons without charge or trial for activities allegedly in support of armed opposition groups and the military campaign against the ONLF persists. Somalis’ history of opposition to the Ethiopian state, their social and religious dissimilarity to Tigreans, demographic and economic stress, and the novelty of Ethiopia’s democratic transition make it difficult to predict a peaceful and stable future for Somalis in Ethiopia. However, the voluntary return of several thousands of Somalis to Somaliland, continuing well into 2004, might ease some of the tensions that refugees endure while living in Ethiopia.


Analytic Summary

The Somalis live mainly in Eastern Ethiopia (in the Ogaden region and Somali Regional National State) near the border of Somalia. The Somalis are predominantly Sunni Muslims, as is the plurality Oromo population (BELIEF = 0). However, they are linguistically (LANG = 2) and culturally (CUSTOM = 1) distinct from the Oromo. Demographically and ecologically, the Somalis have been impacted by the severe droughts common to the Horn of Africa. This problem has been exacerbated through the anarchy that has plagued Somalia throughout the 1990s, resulting in Somalis fleeing southern Somalia and residing in refugee camps (195,345 Somali refugees were resident in 8 camps at the end of 2000, down from 600,000 Somali refugees in 1996).

A rural and pastoral people, Somalis in Ethiopia had not been very active in central Ethiopian politics before the mid-1990s, but had been caught on the fringes of Somali-Ethiopian conflict over the Ogaden during the 1970s and 1980s. The Ethiopian victory of this war allowed for the establishment of two semi-autonomous regions (Dire Dawa and Ogaden). While this dispensation of autonomy to Somali regions initially opened new political opportunities for ethnic Somalis, these opportunities have yet to be actualized due to central government/ruling party interference in and manipulation of Somali regional politics (POLDIS06 = 2).

As with most other ethnopolitical groups in Ethiopia, Somalis have organized into multiple associations which are ethnically-based and vary in their militancy or desire to work within the EPRDF-sanctioned system. The leading combative Somali organization remains the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which has engaged in small- to medium-scale guerilla activity in recent years (REB99-00 = 4; REB04-06 = 5). The appearance of the al-Itihad al-Islam, an organization based in Somalia that has carried out raids in the Somali region of Ethiopia, has also added to regional instability. Yet, more conventional Somali organizations also exist in Ethiopia such as the Somali People's Democratic Organization (SPDO) and the Somali Democratic Party (SDP), which are officially recognized by the government in the hopes of preserving its fledgling ethnically federal democratic state (GOJPA06 = 3).

In 1994, a new constitution divided Ethiopia into regions based on ethnicity in an attempt to ease ethnic tensions by giving the largest ethnic groups some control over their traditional territory. Throughout the transitional period, some Somali groups, particularly one faction of the ONLF, continued to wage low-level warfare against the government of Meles Zenawi. In January 1994, the ONLF and other Somali groups declared their continued fight for self-determination of the Ogaden. The Ogaden was tense and police reportedly harassed people, arrested suspected supporters of the opposition, and committed arbitrary executions. After the ONLF announcement, 10 other Somali organizations in the region denounced the secessionist intentions of the ONLF and pledged their continued cooperation with the transitional government. These groups merged to form the Ethnic Somali Democratic League (ESDL) which went on to win regional elections in 1995. The ESDL remains more popular than the ONLF, and it appears that Somalis for the most part want peace and development for their region and are willing to work through the democratic process in order to achieve these goals. One faction of the ONLF has merged with the ESDL, as has the WSLF, and younger members of the organization are more willing to cooperate with the government of Meles than older, entrenched members.

One other problem that has surfaced in the Somali/Ogaden region recently is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism with the appearance of al-Itihad al-Islam. The organization is based in Somalia and has carried out raids in the Somali region of Ethiopia. It has encouraged Somalis to fight the Ethiopian government and has declared its intentions to rule Somalia by political or military means. For the most part, Somalis have resisted the call to engage in a “holy war” against the state, yet the government remains concerned about the movement. Meles’ troops have carried out raids into the Somali Republic and currently occupy some border towns. They captured the town of Luq which has been the al-Itihad al-Islam headquarters. Since Somalia has no central government at this time, Ethiopia’s invasion has gone largely unchecked. Ethiopia, with an equal split between Christians and Muslims, hopes to remain a secular state and the government is unlikely to tolerate armed rebellion from Islamic, or any other, extremists.



Human Rights Watch. 2008. "Collective Punishment: War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity in the Ogaden area of Ethiopia's Somali Regional State."

Human Rights Watch. 2007. "Ethiopia: Crackdown in East Punishes Civilians."

Khalif, Mohamud H. and Martin Doornbos. 2002. "The Somali Region in Ethiopia: A Neglected Human Rights Tragedy." Review of African Political Economy 29:91.

Library of Congress-Federal Research Division. 2005. "Country Profile: Ethiopia."

Samatar, Abdi Ismail. 2004. "Ethiopian federalism: autonomy versus control in the Somali Region." Third World Quarterly 25:6.

U.S. State Department. "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Ethiopia." 2004-2006.


© 2004 - 2022 • Minorities At Risk Project

Information current as of December 31, 2006