Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 363, 14 April 2021

Ethiopia: Massacre in Afar-Somali border reflects larger instability in the country
Apoorva Sudhakar

In the news
On 8 April, the Ministry of Peace announced that the presidents of the Afar and Somali regional states had reached an agreement to resolve issues between the two regions. The decision called for a withdrawal of "security forces of their regions and allow [the] federal government to investigate and hold to account parties responsible for the conflict."

On 7 April, Reuters quoted Afar's deputy police commissioner who confirmed that at least 100 civilians were killed in clashes with the Somali forces. Blaming the Somali Regional State Special Forces, he said the violence began on 2 April and lasted till 6 April. Similarly, the head of Afar regional state communication bureau said the Somali forces, using heavy weaponry, had killed children and women while they were sleeping. However, the Somali region's spokesperson blamed the Afar forces, saying 25 people had been killed on 2 April and an "unknown number of civilians" were killed on 6 April.
 
Issues at large
First, the Afar-Somali problem. The recent differences between the two regions stem from claims over three towns which were transferred to Afar from the Somali region in 2014. The 2014 agreement was finalised under the then ruling coalition. However, in 2019, despite Afar considering the three towns as integral to the region, the Somali administration withdrew from the 2014 agreement.

Second, the possible immediate trigger for the clashes. Addis Standard quotes a humanitarian worker who explained the recent unrest. They said the clashes were triggered after people, belonging to three disputed towns, protested the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia's decision to call off polling in eight kebeles (the smallest administrative units), mostly inhabited by Somali groups. Following this, Afar security personnel retaliated with force.

Third, the latest violence is not isolated. Reliefweb explains that the tensions between the two regions have resulted in displacement of 29,000 households in July to October 2020 alone. It also quotes Afar authorities who say that nearly 30,000 people have been displaced from areas under the Somali and Afar region, but live with a host community in Afar.

Fourth, the problem of governance across the country. The chief ombudsman said that in March alone, at least 300 people were killed during clashes in the Amhara region in western Ethiopia. The violence erupted between the Amhara and Oromo ethnic groups after an Oromo imam was allegedly shot down. Apart from the Amhara-Oromo clashes, the conflict in Tigray which began in November 2020 has also resulted in casualties and human rights abuses.

In perspective
First, the Afar-Somali problem reflects a larger problem of the federal government's equation with the periphery. Just like Tigray being a peripheral region, Afar is on the north western periphery of Ethiopia bordering Eritrea and Djibouti. Therefore, like the Tigray conflict-affected Eritrea, escalation in Afar is likely to follow the same path.

Second, the internal stability of Ethiopia has worsened over the three years under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's governance. As the elections are scheduled for June, instances of violence of this scale, in a different part of the country, are unlikely to favour him.


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