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Hararis in Harar Must be Restored and Protected: A Rejoinder to Abdullah Sherif


In an article published on Ethiopia Insight on 7 December 2023 titled Hararis in Harar are Being Erased and Dispossessed, Abdullah Sherif recounts a disturbing story of displacement and despair of Harari residents of Harar and its environs. We are deeply troubled by the atrocious acts perpetrated against the Harari with impunity and the federal government’s failure to protect the Harari citizens’ constitutional rights.

In the article, our names were mentioned in connection with our interest in Harar’s history. In our careers, we have practiced our craft as dispassionate scholars loyal to our profession’s canons.  As conscientious individuals, we have always used our knowledge to defend truth, advocate justice, and promote peace among people. We write this piece not so much to refute Sherif’s statements but to express our support for the Harari community’s plea for the protection of their fundamental human rights, identify the culprits that have made the Harari’s life unbearable, and offer evidence that counters some unsubstantiated historical assertions.

As the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King once observed, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” we believe the injustice perpetrated against the Harari in their historic regional state is as much an injustice directed against the majority Oromo as against the Harari residents. We assert with a profound conviction that Oromos cannot enjoy exclusive freedom for themselves while their Harari neighbors live in an atmosphere of fear and deprivation.

The core principle of any functioning federal system is respecting minority rights. In this vein, we consider protecting Harari rights to be the primary duty of the Ethiopian federal government. If Ethiopian government leaders fail to protect Harari’s rights in the Harari regional state, they cannot claim they respect the rights of people in other regional states of Ethiopia. Their minority status notwithstanding, the Harari people have a fundamental right to live in a regional state where they enjoy all the rights recognized in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Harari and Oromo in a Historical Perspective

Harar and its people have a long and rich history extending back several centuries.  For much of its history, Harar was the second oldest city in Ethiopia after Aksum and one of the oldest cities along the East African coast. The region’s Semitic language-speaking people are famous for their innovative agriculture and enterprising mercantile class. The British explorer and orientalist Richard Burton, who visited Harar in 1854, described the city as the “Timbuktu of East Africa,”1 underscoring its significance as a commercial hub and Muslim education center of the Horn of Africa. In its heyday, Harar attracted traders and Islamic students from several regions in the Horn of Africa and beyond.

Harar became famous in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East during the rule of Imam Ahmad (1506-1543), the charismatic and military genius who, in 1529, led a Muslim army from Harar, defeated the larger Christian forces, and established a vast Muslim empire that included most of today’s Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somaliland. Vilified in Ethiopian historiography as an iconoclast and a complete philistine, Imam Ahmed was, in fact, the first Muslim leader who united Ethiopia under his rule more than three centuries before Emperor Menelik II. Under the Imam, Harar served as the political capital, educational center, and commercial entrepôt of the first Muslim empire in the Horn of Africa.

Though the empire did not survive the death of Imam Ahmad in 1543, Harar survived as an independent Muslim city-state for more than three centuries.

Hundreds of mosques and shrines of Muslim saints adorn the city and its surroundings. The city also boasts more female saints than any city in the Islamic world.2 Because of these distinctions, Harar is considered the fourth holiest city of Islam.3 Islamic ideas radiating from the city strongly impacted the Oromo who lived around that city and relatively distant places.  The Canadian writer Camilla Gibb has produced a list of “Harari saints, which includes 41 Oromo saints.”4

The sizeable number of Oromo saints in Harar signifies two things.  First, it reflects a longstanding Oromo relationship with the Harari residents of the city and its surroundings.  Second, it indicates the pivotal role Harari Muslim missionaries played in the early spread of Islam among the Oromo in the Harar region.  Moreover, Harari scholars and missionaries spread Islam in Bale while Harari merchants extended it to southwestern Ethiopia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Beyond a common religion, the Harari and the Oromo shared a marketplace and a public space for social interactions. The Oromo brought their agricultural commodities to Harar and exchanged them for local and foreign goods that Harari merchants imported from abroad. Intermarriages were commonplace, including several Emirs of Harar marrying the daughters of prominent Oromo individuals. Oromo leaders also formed alliances with Harari emirs by adopting some emirs as members of Oromo lineages.5

These practices fostered fraternal relationships that cultivated amity and brotherhood and reciprocally impacted both communities’ social structure and political institutions. The Oromo and Harari sometimes engaged in conflicts followed by long periods of cooperation and interaction as co-religionists and codependent economic actors. In this way, the Harari and Oromo forged a complex modus vivendi, which allowed them to live as interdependent societies exchanging commodities, culture, and community life until both were conquered and incorporated into the Ethiopian empire in the late nineteenth century.

Changing Times and Relationships

Sherif correctly states that the Harari exodus from their famous historic city started during Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign. In 1947, suspecting Harari elites of plotting a rebellion against his government, the emperor imprisoned thousands of Harari and kept them incarcerated for years without charge. Many more were forced to leave Harar and sought refuge in Addis Ababa, Jimma, and several Hararge towns, including Dire Dawa, Dadar, Bedano, and Chiro.6 Still others managed to escape to Somalia and Middle Eastern countries.7

As more and more Harari left, an influx of immigrants from other parts of Ethiopia settled in Harar. As the Ethiopian government extended its administration into the region in the aftermath of the Italian occupation, soldiers, police, and government employees flocked in, swelling the number of the non-Harari population in Harar.

The second wave of Harari outmigration occurred during the military regime (1974-1991), specifically after the 1975 Land Reform Proclamation, which abolished private land ownership. Camilla Gibbs states the law severely affected the Harari land-owning class, for whom land was the basis of their wealth. Much of the “agricultural land was collectivized … [and usufruct was granted to] farmers who actually worked the land, thereby undermining the feudal basis which had kept Oromo in a position of relative serfdom vis-à-vis their [Harari] landlords.8 With a minimal amount of independently owned land and dispossessed of their livelihood, the Harari continued to leave and settle elsewhere, including becoming a part of the Ethiopian Diaspora in the West.  As a result, the number of Harari continued to decline, rendering them a small minority in Harar by the time of the fall of the military regime in 1991.

When today’s regional states were created in 1995, the Harari region was created based on its history as an independent Islamic sultanate whose origin arguably goes back to the ninth century, the Harari’s constitutional right to self-determination and indigenous people’s right to preserve and cultivate their identity, language, culture, and heritage. In subsequent decades, the principles of the majority right to proportional representation and the indigenous people’s minority rights to protection were balanced by political arrangements and adjustments to settle periodic challenges.

Harari colour; Harar, Ethiopia; 13 September 2012; Rod Waddington

In practice, the compromises to balance majority and minority rights did not work smoothly at the household level. Sherif’s family was affected. During his first visit to Harar in 2013, Sherif found his family farm intact, with his family members working it without encumbrance. When he returned to Harar in 2023, the situation had changed dramatically. He says poignantly, “I didn’t dare set foot on my family farm.” Something has gone awry in the interim that prevented his return to the family farm. The answer explains Sherif’s unhappy experience and the sorry state that has nearly emptied Harar of its Harari residents.

In 2013, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ruled Ethiopia. While the EPRDF did not fully respect Ethiopia’s multinational federalism and the self-rule of nations and nationalities, the party did not waver in its commitment to preserving them in principle. It was a strong state of Joel Migdal’s variant that possessed the capacity to effect intended change and exercised enough control over local leaders to prevent the emergence of “strongmen” in the periphery.9 The ruling party kept in check members who otherwise would have gobbled up Harari properties or encouraged others to do so.  In effect, the ruling EPRDF party protected the rights of Harari citizens to administer themselves in their regional state and to operate their farms and homesteads as long as the coalition remained in power.

However, the EPRDF government did not last in power. In November 2015, the Oromo qeerroo (youth) launched a peaceful protest across Oromia. Despite firing live bullets on peaceful protestors and killing thousands, the ruling party’s military and security forces proved unable to extinguish the resistance. By the end of 2016, the protest in Oromia had spread to the other regional states.  The phenomenon led to an intense four-way power struggle among the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front (SEDF), and the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). At the beginning of 2018, OPDO and ANDM formed a common front to remove TPLF dominance in the coalition.

In February 2018, the OPDO-ANDM alliance nominated a hitherto obscure Abiy Ahmed as the new chairperson of the EPRDF coalition. In April, he assumed office as prime minister with no known record of accomplishments and without a declared governing agenda. Ethiopians were euphoric that the country was finally poised to make a successful democratic transition. Little did they know that the darkest period of the country’s history was in the offing.

The Unindicted Culprits

Emboldened by their party’s assumption of the senior partner position in the OPDO-ANDM dyarchy, OPDO officials in the Harar started to act without restraint vis-à-vis their counterparts in the Harari regional state. They organized and deployed vigilantes to conduct unlawful seizure of Harari properties. They went as far as executing their members to conceal their illegal actions. Mohammed Amin, a civil servant who audited OPDO officials for corruption, was dragged out of his home and shot, and his mutilated body was left in the woods for hyenas. The purpose was to send Oromo and Harari officials a message that resistance to their “legal” brigandage would be crushed mercilessly.

Dispossession and displacement of the Harari continued unabated. Sherif states that in 2018, private “properties belonging to the Harari were destroyed, burned down, or forcibly taken over, including the historical Harari Institute, Aw Abdal.” Even members of the Harari Diaspora, who had built a 200-home neighborhood outside Harar, were barred from living in their own houses. Municipal services were discontinued by extortionist Oromia officials demanding 10 million birr in payment.  OPDO officials used the Oromia Special Force to pressure a president of the Harari regional state, forcing him to resign in June 2018.

Only government officials are capable of performing these acts. We assert that OPDO officials in Harar commissioned or encouraged the unlawful confiscation of Harari farmlands in a malicious quest to enrich themselves at the expense of Harari victims. If they had not been behind the criminal enterprise, federal or regional officials would have removed the squatters and returned the farms to their Harari owners. The thieves acted with impunity because they were openly encouraged to confiscate the properties of the civilian population.

It is difficult to fathom that OPDO officials flouted the Harari state constitution with such impunity without the knowledge and tacit approval of Prime Minister Abiy. Though defending the constitution and the federal arrangement was its primary responsibility, the federal government did not protect Harari’s property rights and autonomous self-administration without OPDO officials’ interference.  The prime minister used the tussle between Harari leaders and OPDO officials as evidence to undermine the idea of regional governments and underscore the need for their dissolution into the unitary state he was determined to rebuild.

Mistaken Attributions

Despite incontestable evidence that OPDO officials are the sole culprit in the Harari saga, Sherif insists that the qeerroo movement encouraged Oromo youth to take over Harari farms and homesteads in 2018. The qeerroo has a proud track record of restraint and avoidance of collateral damage. Not a single person was deliberately killed, and not a single property was unlawfully seized during the tumultuous four-year struggle the qeerroo conducted. The movement must not be blamed for actions initiated and executed by government officials bent on advancing private economic causes and a political project.

Nothing justifies finding an elusive criminal when the culprit has no alibi. Sherif claims that “today it is Oromo extremism that poses an existential threat for Hararis.” As with any political space, no doubt extreme views exist within the Oromo political community. However, Oromo nationalism is not a comfortable political niche for extremists and supremacists. As such, it is hard to pin the label of extremism on the Oromo political movement.  The threat to Harari’s future in Ethiopia today, and for that matter the Ethiopian polity itself, is the breakdown of law and order, represented by Prosperity Party (PP) officials who have normalized impunity and unaccountability.


Sherif criticizes anti-Harari opinions expressed by individuals such as Mohammed Abdella, a former judge in Oromia, and Jawar Mohammed, an Oromo activist, suggesting they are the invisible hand instigating Harari dispossessions. We do not pretend to know the opinions of every Oromo intellectual regarding the Harari regional state and the rights of the Harari community. What we know for sure is that Oromo intellectual opinions are not uniform. We can attest that several Oromo intellectuals fully respect Harari’s rights for self-rule in the same way they support similar rights of the Oromo and other people of Ethiopia. It is particularly unwise to conflate the idiosyncratic opinions Of Oromo individuals with the independent voices extant within the Oromo intellectual community.

We fully agree with Sherif, who argues that the Harari are entitled to self-administration rights enshrined in the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution and an autonomous regional state where they cultivate their language, history, and cultural heritage. Both the Harari and the Oromo peoples share a history of dispossession and displacement in the Ethiopian empire. Under the PP government, the Oromo people have witnessed unprecedented death and destruction. The PP government and its regional offshoot are responsible for the atrocities the Harari people have been subjected to. In this regard, the Harari and Oromo should be bound by solidarity in suffering and a mission to fashion a common future of mutual respect, shared prosperity, and sustained social peace.

Unsubstantiated Assertions   

The existing scholarly literature generally agrees with Sherif’s argument that the ancestors of the Harari, the Harla, the Gatouri, and others inhabited the Harar plateau.10 Sherif‘s assertion that the “hundreds of ruined urban centers that dotted the region” were destroyed by the Oromo in the sixteenth century is a conveniently constructed conjecture, resulting from the mysterious but unceasing propensity in Ethiopian scholarship to portray the Oromo as the vandals of the Horn of Africa. The historical records attest that hundreds of Muslim villages and market centers existed up to the 1560s. They were, however, abandoned between 1575 and 1577 because of a contemporary three-way Harari vs. Oromo, Harar vs. Abyssinian, and Harar vs. Harari conflict.11

The conflict was initiated by Sultan Muhammad, the Harar leader who ruled between 1573 and 1576. Perhaps motivated to bolster Harar’s security, he strengthened the Harari administration and military and deployed them against the Oromo. He succeeded in forcing the Oromo away from Harar but left Harar defenseless against an Ethiopian Christian army operating in Bale. The sultan attacked the Christian army garrison in 1575, but he lost the battle, his life, and Harar’s elite army, rendering Harar defenseless.12

Following the Harari army’s departure for Bale, Oromo forces launched a counterattack against Harar. The conflict forced the inhabitants to evacuate hundreds of villages and several commercial centers and seek refuge in Harar and other towns.13 The Oromo moved against Harar, but the city’s residents resisted strongly, blocking the assault and ensuring Harar’s independence for the next three centuries.14

After the death of Emir Nur (1552-1567), an internal power struggle broke out among the Harari leadership. A nephew of Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi, Emir Nur was an influential Harari leader who built a wall around Harar. His death in 1567 ushered in a power struggle in which one emir was assassinated, and two were deposed within a decade. The fourth, Imam Muhammad Jassa, came to power in 1577 and immediately transferred the capital from Harar to Awsa in the Afar desert. There, the power struggle continued, grinding down to extinction the political and economic centers of the once-powerful Islamic state in the Horn of Africa.15

Similarly, Sherif’s assertion that the Battle of Chelenqo was a Harari-only affair is historically inaccurate. When Emir Abdullahi (1885-1887) realized that King Menelik of Shewa was preparing to invade his land, he mobilized Harari, Oromo, and Somali. In particular, he planned to raise “24,000 warriors from among Muslim Oromo around the city of Harar.”16 However, Menelik arrived with his forces before Emir Abdullahi could effectively organize his troops. Nevertheless, on January 7, 1887, at the Battle of Chelenqo, Emir Abdullahi’s Harari, Oromo, and Somali warriors fought bravely and died together and were buried in mass graves.17 It is likely the Harari contingent was numerically the largest fighting force. However, the brave resistance at the Battle of Chelenqo was a collective endeavor of the Harari, Oromo, and Somali warriors under Harari’s leadership.

Citing Richard Caulk, Sherif asserts that Orfo Jilo Beki, one of the Oromo leaders, did not participate in the Battle of Chelenqo because of a conflict with Emir Abdullahi. This may be the case since the two were in an intense power struggle for supremacy in the region.18 However, his assertion that Orfo instructed Menelik to mutilate “…Harari men and women after the battle” is untrue. First, Richard Caulk never mentioned that Orfo Jilo suggested to Menelik for mutilating Harari men. In any case, Menelik’s soldiers were exceptionally experienced in mutilating people before they ever got to Chelenqo to need Orfo’s counsel.  Menelik’s soldiers mutilated the men they captured alive on the battlefield after the Battle of Chelenqo.

Final Thoughts

As repeatedly mentioned above, we fully support the democratic rights of the Harari to administer themselves in their regional state without interference and to be able to own property as Ethiopian citizens. The federal government that does not provide safety and protection for the Harari minority cannot be expected to provide safety and security for other peoples of Ethiopia. The last five years have amply demonstrated that Abiy Ahmed is unwilling and incapable of living up to its fundamental responsibility of providing security to and protecting the property of citizens.

We urge other Ethiopian intellectuals and politicians to support the Harari indigenous right to self-administration. If activists, scholars, politicians, journalists, and media outlets become the voice of the voiceless Harari minority, their collective endeavor hopefully will create the political condition for bending “that moral arc of the universe a little closer to justice” for the Harari community. This event would be marked by the federal government accepting full responsibility for protecting the Harari community, bringing to justice those who took  Harari farms and houses, and paying compensation for Harari who lost their properties.


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Main Image: Harari women; Harar, Ethiopia; 21 August 2012; Rod Waddington

This is the authors’ viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

1    Burton, Richard F. 1856. First Footsteps in East Africa or, An Exploration of Harar. London: Longman. Richard Francis, First Footsteps in East Africa, Or, an Exploration of Harar (London: Longmans, 1856).
2    Camilla Gibb, “Religion, Politics and Gender in Harar, Ethiopia” (Ph.D diss., 1996), p. 291-309.
3    Patrick Desplat, “The Making of Harari City in Ethiopia: Constructing and Contesting Saintly Places in Harar,” in Dimensions of Locality Muslim Saints, Their Place and Space, ed. Georg Stauth (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2008), 149.  See also Serge Santelli, “Harar: The Fourth Holy City Of Islam”. In The City in the Islamic World, (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008) doi: Accessed on February 12, 2024.
4    Gibb, “Religion,” 92-93
5    Avishai Ben-Dror, Emirate, Egyptian, Ethiopian Colonial Experiences in Late Nineteenth-Century Harar (Syracuse University Press, 2018).
6    After leaving Harar, nearly all Hararis settled in the towns and cities inhabited by Muslim Oromo. The only exception is Addis Ababa.
7    In September 1983, Mohammed Hassen conducted extensive interviews with the late Muhammad Ismail in Cairo. He was a popular Harari poet, and scholar in the Middle East at the time. Ismail escaped the 1947 persecution and lived in the Middle East, mostly in Egypt.
8    Camilla Gibb, “Baraka without Borders: Integrating Communities in the City of Saints,” Journal of Religion in Africa 29, no. 1 (February 1999): 88–108.
9    Joel S Migdal, Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988).
10    Wolf Leslau, Ethiopians Speak (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965), 96.
11    Enrico Cerulli, Documenti Arabi per La Storia Dell’etiopia. (Roma: Dott. Giovanni Bardi tipografo della R. Accademia nazionale dei Lincei., 1931).
12    Ibid., 90.
13    John S. Trimingham, Islam in Ethiopia (Oxford University Press, 1952), 96.
14    Cerulli, 91.
15    Ibid., 62, 73.
16    The National Archives of the UK (TNA): FO 78/4077/folio 92.  “Claims to Sovereignty in the Red Sea, Africa, and Arabia (Somali Coast). Egypt.” January 1887.
17    All relevant sources confirm that Emir Abdullahi mobilized Hararis, Muslim Oromo and Somali warriors for the Battle of Chelenqo.
18    Ben-Dror, 18-19.

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