Analysis: Violence once again leaves scores of civilian casualties as Afar, Somali regions continue to trade blame

By Bileh Jelan @BilehJelan

Addis Abeba, April 7, 2021 – Reports of renewed bouts of violence along the border areas between Afar and Somali regional states kept flooding social media since the weeknd when first violence was reported. According to Ahmed Humed, the deputy police commissioner for the Afar regional state police commission who spoke to Reuters and blamed the violence on the Somali Regional State Special Forces “Around 100 civilians were killed since clashes broke out on Friday and continued through Tuesday.” On the other hand, the head of the Somali Regional State communication bureau, Ali Badal put the number of confirmed casualties at 25 while stating that an “unknown number of civilians” might have died in subsequent bouts of violence. 

Afari and Somali online activists  flooded social media platforms with two conflicting narratives with the Afari activists and prominent personalities claiming that Issa Somali militiamen from Djibouti backed by Somali Regional State Special Forces are behind the violence, claiming that the violence is mostly targeting Afar residents of the area. Kontie Mousa, a senior member at the Afar People’s party even went as far as accusing the Djiboutian president, Ismail Omar Guelleh of supporting the conflict between Afar and Issa Somlis in Ethiopia, “Let the world know the war between Afar and Issa  in Ethiopia is your proxy war,” further adding,  “You have financed, sent your military for years to occupy Awash river, Addis-Djibouti road to destabilize Ethiopia.” These accusations have been denied by Ethiopian authorities repeatedly over the course of the conflict 

Ahmed Koloyta, the Afar regional state communication bureau head told Addis Standard, “The data I have now is that 30 people were killed and 50 injured in Haruka, Geware and Gelalo. The casualties are civilians who all fell in the ongoing violence since Friday.” The regional spokesperson denied the involvement of Afar Special Forces and Instead blamed the current Somali Regional administration who he described as ‘Third Party’ of waging war against Afar, he said, “The Somali Regional State passed a resolution nullifying and withdrawing unilaterally from a 2014 agreement that transferred some Kebeles to Afar region jurisdiction. They waged war on the Afar region and now their forces are deep inside Afar territories,” he continued, “Afar special forces are not even in these areas, they have been redeployed to theTigray-Afar border areas.”

Ahmed explained that the Somali region has bigger agendas that are destructive for the country, “The Somali regional state wants to claim all territories that have a major Somali population, by that logic they might claim Bole Michael (a neighborhood in the capital Addis Abeba) as part of the Somali region,” he concluded, “We have notified the relevant authorities like the ministry of peace and as much as we want to solve the matter peacefully and through constitutional means, the Somali Regional State wants to solve it through violence.”

“The number of displaced people who we are providing assistance to is estimated to be around 5,000.”

Humanitarian Aid Worker

However,  accounts given by a humanitarian aid worker who now works and resides in the area who spoke to Addis Standard on the condition of anonymity differ from that of Ahmed Koloyta. The witness said, “The recent bouts of violence however are politically motivated,  it started when the Somali residents of Garba Issa, Undhufo and Adayti towns went out to protest the decision undertaken by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) to call off polling stations at 8 contested kebeles. The Afar special forces responded with violence and inflicted a lot of damage to the protestors.” When asked to confirm figures of casualties and death he said, “The conflict has been ongoing since friday and it is not possible to find the correct figure of the dead or the injured but the number is high.”  He further explained, “The conflict is long standing and used to have traditional means of solving like similar conflicts between Borana Oromos and Garri Somalis, Karrayu Oromos and Afar because these are pastoralist communities,” he added, “However, with downfall of Abdi Illey who signed what many Somalis consider an illegal agreement handing these territoires without following the method applied to solve the Oromo-Somali border conflict resolution example by holding referendums and the rise of a new administration under Mustefe Omer agitated the feeling of the population in these area who are mostly Issa Somalis.” He expanded, “Afar regional state was not happy with this new situation and started attacking Somali civilians in the aim of suppressing demands by both the Somali population and regional state, that left hundreds of dead on both sides as result of attacks and retaliatory attacks.”

The humanitarian aid worker who insisted on remaining anonymous for fear for his safety told Addis Standard, “The number of displaced people who we are providing assistance to is estimated to be around 5,000.” Addis Standard was not able to independently verify these figures.

This comes in the backdrop of an election controversy between the Afar and Somali regional states that saw the intervention of the NEBE which decided to call off 30 polling stations in 8 disputed Kebeles Gala’eto/Adayle; Adaytu/Adayti; Teot/Alale; Gurmudali/Danlehelay; Undafo/Undhufo; Gadamaytu/Garba Issa; Afaso/Afuase; and Balaiti Gona/Medeni (different name in Afar and Somali Languages). The Somali regional state has unilaterally withdrew from a 2014 agreement that saw the handover of three Kebeles (Gadamaytu/Garba Issa, Undafo/Undhufo and Adaytu/Adayti) to the Afar regional state on May, 2019. The area saw multiple Incidents of violence short after the decision that was undertaken by the Somali regional state, the latest of those incidents reported in December, 2020, the Afar and Somali regional states engaged in a war of words in which the latter accused its counterpart of committing “a massacre” on Somali civilians. 

In a statement issued by the Somali regional state on April 6, 2021, the regional administration accused the Afar regional state of flaming the conflict and testing its patience. “Following the announcement of the NEBE, Afar regional state has intensified their crackdown on civilians, “ the statement read, it continued, “Accordingly on March 28, 2021, the Afar Regional State Special Forces, in collaboration with Afari Separatists ( known locally as Uguguma) carried out large-scale attacks in four kebeles of the Somali region.”

The statement by the Somali regional state concluded by calling on the Afar regional state to device restraint, “We urge the Afar regional administration to practice restraint before the situation escalates into a full-scale conflict,” it ended with warnings of decisive actions to stop civilian death, “As the efforts of one party will not bring a lasting solution and we will have to take all necessary steps to prevent further deaths, displacement and destruction of our region.” AS

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