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Understanding the Ethiopian-Somalia Relations & seeking Permanent Solutions to the Conflict in the Horn of Africa

                                        Ghelawdewos Araia PhD.

It is of paramount importance that we must first understand the complexity of the Ethiopia-Somalia relations by delving into and dissecting the history and cultures of these peoples and reasonably deciphering the root causes of the conflicts. It is for this apparent reason that I wrote several articles pertinent to the Horn crisis including the following: The Horn of Africa: Conflict and Conflict Resolution (1997)1 and The Enigma of the Ethiopia-Somalia Relations and the Islamic Factor (2002)2 The latter was picked up by ‘Camel Milk Threads’ or www.somaliaonline.com, a Somali cyber group, and some found my article “an interesting piece regarding history of the Somali Ethiopian animosity;” others regarded ‘the Amhara and Tigray colonial ambitions’ as the cause of the conflict.

I did not mind reading the various points of view entertained by many discussants on the ‘ Somalia online’. However due to lack of knowledge of history and their fixation on the differences, rather than similarities, of the Ethiopian and Somali people, their analysis of the conflict was for the most part flawed. At the very beginning of the Article (The Enigma…), for instance, I stated the following: “the peoples of Ethiopia and Somalia have a lot in common when it comes to physiognomy, culture, social organization, and thousands of years of interaction, although this contiguous network was at times uneasy and many times turned into violent clashes.”3 None of the Somalis responded to or critically examined the commonality (or shared historical destiny, e.g. geography) of the Ethiopian and Somali people. Instead, they focused on their differences and some even emphasized on ‘Christian/ Islam differences’ as if the former is attributed to Ethiopia and the latter to Somalia . Ethiopia , after all is a country of Christians, Moslems, Jews, and Polytheists (those who believe in traditional African religions) who have lived side by side peacefully for millennia. Incidentally, there are more Moslems in Ethiopia than in Somalia .

Similar opinions are also entertained by Ethiopian discussants that view the Somalis as erstwhile deadly enemies. In view of the latter, some Ethiopians have advanced legitimate criticism against the current government of Ethiopia and others, jitters who only react to the Meles regime (in fact, only to ‘Meles’ dissociated from the government), and not to the history and overall picture of the conflict, have altogether missed the subtle nuances of the Somalia-Ethiopia relations. Therefore, as I have done in the past, I shall underscore here a background history to the conflict so that we can have a better understanding and also empower ourselves for the provision of permanent solution to the crisis in the Horn.

The conflict between the Somalis and Ethiopians stretches back to the late 1520s when Imam Ahmed Ibin Ibrahim al-Ghazi (Ahmed Gragn), a Somali from Adal declared a Jihad war against Ethiopia and Emperor Libne Dingil. Reciting the wars between the Somalis and Ethiopians in the first quarter of the 16th century, this is how I put it in The Inigma, “…the Gragn forces crossed the River Dukem and this was a wake up call for the Ethiopian king Libne Dingil who soon mobilized his forces (close to 200,000) from Tigray, Agaw, Gojjam, Begemdir, Shewa and the rest of his domain. Gragn, on the other hand, had assembled only 12,000 troops but he had a distinct advantage of the Turkish muskets, which the Libne Dingil forces were lacking. Gragn was not only victorious. He routed the Ethiopian king, destroyed a sizable of the Libne Dingil forces, burned down churches, and took booty unparalleled in Ethiopian history. The Gragn campaign to destroy Ethiopia was conducted in the name of Islam and Jihad, and to be sure there were some Arabs (especially from Mahra in southern Arabia ) among the rank-and-file of his forces who came to assist in the Jihad wars.”4 Almost five centuries later, in the fist decade of the 21st century, may be history is repeating itself.

In 1964, Ethiopia and Somali clashed on the disputed territory of Ogaden . Soon the conflict escalated into a major war, and Ethiopia , with its superior air and ground forces, virtually destroyed the Somali army at the forefront. The Ethiopian army made advances into the Somali interior and secured Ethiopian victory. Again, in 1977, another major war erupted between Ethiopia and Somalia when Said Barre, the then president of Somalia , invaded Ogaden under the pretext of aiding the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF). This time, the Somalis had the upper hand and they were in firm control of the Ogaden and the adjacent surrounding areas of Harar. They even claimed that Somali territory is up to the Awash River . This perhaps was Barre’s fantasy of putting himself in Ahmed Gragn’s shoes and crossing the Dukem once again. But soon, the Ethiopian forces gathered momentum, recaptured the Ethiopian territory – including the Ogaden – from Somali forces and pursued the latter to Somalia .

In 1988, however, in an effort to silence internal opposition and resistance, Said Barre and Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia met to make peace and recreate normal relations between Somalia and Ethiopia . But in just three years after the peace accord was signed between the two countries, the United Somali Congress (USC) and the Ethiopian Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ousted Barre and Haile Mariam from power respectively. In January 1991 Said Barre fled Mogadishu and in the same year Mengistu fled Ethiopia to Zimbabwe .  

The political scenario that followed Barre and Mengistu in their respective countries, however were entirely different in terms of preserving the nation and the continued performance of the central government. Ethiopia , as a nation, with the exception of the loss of Eritrea , is still in tact; a functioning central government also continued to prevail in Addis Ababa . By contrast, Somalia virtually killed itself under clan fratricidal wars; the Somali clan lords, oblivious of their ancestral civic nationhood, wittingly or unwittingly, signed a death warrant of the only one nation in Africa that is, by all measure, homogenous in terms of language, culture, and religion. Out of the estimated 10 million Somalis (in Somalia alone), only 10% are Bantu and Arab; the rest are Somali; they speak one language and all of them profess (Sunni) Islam. Ethiopia , by comparison, has over seventy-five linguistic groups and the followers of Islam and Christianity are of equal number. Ethiopia , thus far, has not signed tribal-ethnic warfare death warrants unless the contagion theory is applicable to Ethiopia as well, and unless Ethiopians wittingly turn their historic nation into an ignominious morbid political entity, a mortification process unheard off in the history of Ethiopia .

It is against the above background that we must now try to fathom the present clannish warfare in Somalia and the Ethiopia-Somalia conflict. The factions that opposed Said Barre in the late 1980s and early 1990s were, after all, clan-based organizations although most of them bear the name of ‘ Somalia .’ Here are some of them: the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF), the Somali Democratic Movement (SDM), the Somali National Movement (SNM), the Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM), the United Somali Front (USF), the United Somali Party (USP), and the 16-faction United Somali Congress (USC).5

Ethnic-based politics is dangerous not only to the existence of a supra-national state, but it is also detrimental to the very existence of the clan or ethnic group itself. As in the former Yugoslavia , the Somali experience clearly demonstrated that clan warfare or sub-clan fratricidal wars (as in the case of Ali Mahdi and Farah Aideed) can easily destroy the nation. The center cannot hold in a clan-based politics; the pillars that support the clan superstructure inevitably collapse as it happened in Somalia . This is what exactly happened to the United Somali Congress. Out of the 16 factions that comprised the USC, 12 supported Ali Mahdi, who was proclaimed president of Somalia in 1991, and the four factions (now known as Somali National Alliance) gravitated toward Farah Aideed. The two groups had irreconcilable differences, had no agenda of dialogue, and soon fighting broke out between the factions and in the middle of their senseless skirmishes the historic town of Mogadishu was destroyed.

As the maxim goes, ‘in chaos there is opportunity’; and using the unfortunate disturbances and instability of Somalia , the northern Somalis at Berbera (former British Somaliland) declared their province as independent Somaliland *. The mini-state formation is a logical deduction of the degeneration of the clan into sub-clan. Therefore, out Somaliland or “the northeast of the country, a regional administration, led by Colonel Abdullahi Yusuf, was formally established in August 1998. The Majerten clan controls this area, which is now called Puntland.”6 “Clan politics undermines accountability and merit,” argues Samatar, “since blood is the ultimate test of ability to hold public office.”7

The bloodletting warfare in Somalia did not only undermine accountability and merit, but it also turned Somalia into a wasteland and political quagmire. This scenario, in turn, created a wonderful opportunity for Jihadists (Somali or non-Somali alike) and regional governments to operate proxy wars for their own selfish interests on Somali soil. After all, it is the Somalis who are dying and their national fabric torn into shreds, not that of the intervening shadowy elements.

By regional intervention, I mean covert or overt meddling in the Horn affairs from the Horn of Africa, the Middle East , the Gulf, and others who have a stake in geopolitical interests. I will further substantiate the intervening governments that are masquerading behind the Somali crisis, but first I like to make my position clear why Ethiopians should strike a balance between the Meles regime and the defense and national interest of Ethiopia . With or without Meles; with or without the present threat (Somali Islamic Court), the conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia will linger for some time in the future unless the two countries come to their senses and are no longer manipulated by regional and international regimes. It is in light of the above rationale that I justified Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia in 2002 and this how I put it then: “…the Ethiopian government was after the Al Itihad since 1996, and to some extent the Ethiopian move is justified because the Al Itihad could have been responsible for the bomb sabotage in Addis Ababa and the assassination attempt of Abdul Mejid Hussien, former Ethiopian minister of transport, and this same group may have been involved in the bombardment of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salam. But in the wake of the September 11 tragedy, the Al Itihad al Islamia may be a force to reckon with.”8   

In fact, I was right. The Al Itihad al Islamia gradually disappeared and is now defunct although some of its members are now affiliated to the Islamic Court. In a power vacuum and no man’s land environment, it is no wonder that factions could be forged almost overnight and declare themselves as a viable and legitimate forces of Somalia . The vultures are always there to finish up the remains of the dead factions and to coach and arm the newly emerging and seemingly powerful factions. This reality is most fitting to the Somali Islamic Court, and the veteran organizations, namely the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the WSLF (now reconstituted as the United WSLF or UWSLF).  Quite obviously, the ONLF is a duplication of the WSLF with a political program to help secede ‘Ogaden’ from Ethiopia . These organizations may or may not have a sincere political agenda of “liberating” their respective peoples but they are serving as ‘dark horses’ for intervening forces as we shall see below.

According to David H. Shinn, former US ambassador to Ethiopia, “the UN Monitoring Group for Somalia reported that between May 2005 and October 2005, Eritrea provided arms to the ONLF, the governor of lower Shabelle, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, and others for the purpose of countering support provided by Ethiopia to the TFG…Their report added that Eritrea then provided at least four consignments of arms, ammunition, and military equipment to representatives of the Islamic Courts in March 2006.”9    

It is interesting to know who Hassan Dahir Aweys is! Apparently, Colonel Aweys was a commander in the national Somali army under Said Barre during the 1977 Ethio-Somali war. Aweys was in the temporarily occupied Ogaden region of Ethiopia till the Ethiopian forces, as mentioned earlier; counter attacked and dislodged the invading Somali troops. Sheikh Aweys, like other mercenaries and their patrons, is also aware of the potential gas reserve in the Ogaden, especially in the Hillal and Calub districts. So, it is not just terrorism as is often superficially covered by the Western media that is the cause for the conflict; it is also a war conducted for the control and exploitation of strategic minerals, very much like the civil wars executed in Sierra Leone and Liberia .

Eritrea , of course denied its presence in Somalia , let alone admitting to supporting the ONLF or the Islamic Court. By the same taken, Ethiopia also denied the presence of its troops in Somalia except for few hundreds that train the army of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

There is no doubt that many countries are involved in the Somali crisis. Again, as per Ambassador Shinn, “the UN Monitoring Group reported the delivery to the TFG between November 2005 and April 2006 of small amounts of military aid or dual-use equipment by Djibouti , Italy , Saudi Arabia , and Yemen . The more recent, confidential UN report added that both sides in the Somali conflict have major outside backers. In addition to the support already discussed, it said the Islamic Courts receive aid from Iran , Libya , Saudi Arabia , and the Gulf States .”10  

It is also highly probable that Egypt , with its freak obsession of controlling the waters of the Nile and her wish to destabilize Ethiopia , would support the Somali Islamic Court. Dubai and Qatar from the Gulf have recently showed interest (and have already invested) in running the port of Djibouti and the businesses of Somalia ; and to facilitate this objective, the Islamic Court representatives have been allowed to use the good offices of the Emir of Qatar for diplomatic purposes.

The meddling of all these political actors in Somalia may actually further foment fratricidal wars and instability in the Horn. It is therefore very crucial that the UN-sponsored peace mission takes initiative as has already been declared and stay there as long as it takes. Unlike the masquerading forces, the UN Blue Helmets are impartial and will help Somalia resuscitate from its deathbed.

If at all we are going to have a lasting peace in the Horn of Africa, the following political parameters should be seriously considered:

  1. Ethiopian and Somali scholars and intellectuals should organize conferences and/or workshops to address the Horn crisis and come up with proposals and solutions to the problem.
  2. The United States , the European Union, and the neutral nations in the Horn region, should once again pressurize the TFG and the Islamic Court to conduct dialogue and resolve their differences amicably.
  3.  In view of the failure of the Khartoum Peace Process and other initiatives taken previously, the African Union, the UN, the G8 and other influential bodies should recommend coercive measures to stamp out the ills that bewitched Somalia for 15 long years.
  4. Civic and religious leaders from both Ethiopia and Somalia should make their input by delivering a peace proposal.
  5. All intervening forces –especially uniformed personnel- should leave Somalia by an UN-monitored mandatory order.
  6. A Transitional Somali National Government that is inclusive and pan-Somali in its structure should be established under the supervision of the UN till the Somalis reorganize themselves to elect their own representatives to the parliament and the executive branch of government.


Concluding remarks: When the clouds of famine hovered over Ethiopia in the 1980s, irrespective of the nature of the Derg (the Mengistu regime), I campaigned and gave talks on the causes and solutions for the Ethiopian famine. In fact, I ended up writing a dissertation entitled The Politics of Famine and Strategies for Development in Ethiopia. At that juncture, the Derg was irrelevant to me although I vigorously opposed the barbaric atrocities committed by this regime. Ethiopia comes first at all times, for it is a special institution that is historically constituted and is destined to stay. The vagaries of famine will come and go, and with a patriotic and committed government the famine will disappear for good. But not the nation!


By the same token, Ethiopia comes above and beyond the Meles government that will sooner or later enter into oblivion. Those who have concerns that Meles and his associates are suing the Horn crisis as a cover up to a domestic crisis may have a legitimate standing. I am not opposed to their criticism and political stances, for I myself have directed critical remarks against the EPRDF government especially with respect to Ethiopia ’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. But the complicated and complex Ethiopian-Somali relations is beyond the current government of Ethiopia , and it is in this context that the Ethiopian opposition in the Diaspora must reckon with the hard fact of threats directed against Ethiopia . Whatever the Meles or EPRDF regime is responsible for is already documented by history and they will be judged by their deeds. I am not saying that we should set aside the “charges” directed against EPRDF officials; it is only to remind the reader to make distinction between impending calamities (e.g. famine) and a political catastrophe (incursion of all forms to destabilize Ethiopia) that could only be averted by a united and concerted action of Ethiopians. If necessary, for the sake of Ethiopia ’s national interest, we might as well cooperate with the Ethiopian authorities at least as a minimum program. During the Japanese aggression against China in the 1930s, the Chinese Communist Party collaborated with the Kuomintang Party, its nemesis, in order to defend its motherland. We must learn from history and from our own experience. 




  1. Ghelawdewos Araia, “The Horn of Africa : Conflict and Conflict Resolution,” African Link, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1997
  2. Ghelawdewos Araia, “The Enigma of the Ethiopia-Somalia Relations and the Islamic Factor,” December 2002
  3. “The Enigma…” Ibid
  4. “The Enigma…” Ibid
  5. F. Jeffres Ramsay, AFRICA , McGraw-Hill , Eighth Edition, 199, p. 126
  6. Abdi Ismail Samatar, “Warlord Games,” in Ramsay, AFRICA , p. 206
  7. Samatar, Ibid
  8. Ghelawdewos Araia, “The Enigma…” op cit, pp. 2-3
  9. David H. Shinn, “ Somalia , the United States and the horn of Africa,” Remarks before the Somali Institute for Peace and Justice, Minneapolis , Minnesota , November 11, 2006
  10. Shinn, Ibid, page 5     

*In a Pan-African conference (November 3, 2006) sponsored by the Africana Studies of the Central Connecticut State University , I participated in the panel and presented a paper. Here I met a Somali and in due course of our conversation, he said, “we [the Somalis from Berbera] told the British to grant us independence as separate Somaliland .” The British and Italian Somaliland that were united to form one Somali nation was a good start but this initiative was bedeviled and already undermined by clan politics.


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