Sustaining peace and reconciliation in the Somali region of Ethiopia: cross-border Somali...

Peace in the Somali Regional State in Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s 2018 political transition, after Abiy Ahmed Ali became Prime Minister, initially brought a heightened sense of openness in the country. This greatly contributed to political and economic integration among Somalis in SRS, as well as across the Somali-inhabited territories of the Horn of Africa. In SRS, the 2018 peace deal agreed between the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Ethiopian government was a big part of the new sense of possibility.

After 2018, many individuals returned to SRS for various reasons, such as professionals seeking new opportunities, people reuniting with families they had not been able to see during times of war, and displaced individuals going back to their homes. This process of reintegration and reconnection has been likened to the fall of the Berlin Wall, as it allowed people to come together again after many years of separation.

Regional Somali relations

Connections across national borders have always existed between Somalis in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. In Kenya, some of the most influential figures in politics, religion and business can trace their roots back to SRS. A prominent business leader referred to Nairobi as the place where SRS politics is ‘cooked’. While there might not be explicit alignment of political interests between Somalis in Kenya and Ethiopia on a broad societal level, strong familial bonds contribute to shaping alliances and shared interests. The connections between Somalis in Kenya and Ethiopia are multifaceted, encompassing historical, personal, professional, political, economic, and humanitarian ties, and sit within the context of long-standing relations between their respective states. Kenya and Ethiopia have strategic military and diplomatic relations, including a defence pact and visa-free travel, although these state-to-state relations are largely disconnected from the cross-border relations between Somali individuals and communities.

Kenyan Somali politicians were instrumental in facilitating peace negotiations between the ONLF and the Ethiopian government, which led to the 2018 peace agreement. This agreement is often cited as a significant example of the interconnectedness between Somalis in Kenya and in SRS. These connections exist in numerous visible and invisible ways, binding people together across time and space.

Political events in the Somali region of Ethiopia affect communities in Kenya, which, despite returns over recent years, still hosts large communities of refugees from SRS. Some politicians aspiring to run for office in Kenya solicit clan and other support from SRS communities and networks in Kenya. At a broader level, the Absame clan [an identity that encompasses the Ogadeen, Jidwak clans and other clans], and Degodia and Garre clans capitalise on their flexible identity, allowing them to settle and utilise their networks wherever they find themselves. Intra-Somali political and cultural connections manifest differently in various parts of the Horn of Africa. For example, political ties exist between SRS and Jubbaland, a federal state in Somalia led by an Ogaadeen president, Ahmed Madobe. In the case of the Degodia and Garre clans, the overall traditional clan leaders reside in SRS, but their decisions are binding on clan members across the border in Kenya.

The axis between business and religion holds immense influence. Prominent religious leaders like Sheikh Shibile and Sheikh Umal are based in Nairobi but trace their roots to SRS. Sheikh Shibile himself remarked that Godey city in SRS and Nairobi are ‘the same for me’. Such influential figures are driven by both business and religious pursuits, and harbour keen interests in agricultural ventures in Godey and Jigjiga in SRS, as well as emerging tourism projects. They also play a vital role in mediating political, clan, and religious conflicts within SRS.

In 2022, Nairobi-based sheikhs extended a special invitation to the five most senior figures in the SRS Majlis – the highest religious authority. They were hosted in Nairobi for two weeks, returning to SRS with Sheikh Umal to embark on an extensive tour throughout the region. This tour served a dual purpose: to raise awareness and combat the harmful ideology of Al-Shabaab, while also promoting coexistence and peace among various clans. These leaders have also spearheaded humanitarian and diplomatic efforts. A remarkable instance occurred in March 2022, when religious leaders donated $460,000 in cash to the SRS government during a large-scale humanitarian relief campaign.

Many communities from SRS travel to Kenya for educational purposes and bring back cultures and norms in ways that have the potential to shape governance in SRS. From Nairobi, religious and business leaders oversee a number of successful private integrated schools in SRS, with more projects in the pipeline. The selection and vetting of teachers for these schools take place in Nairobi, ensuring the maintenance of high standards.

Somali peace networks

Senior Kenyan government officials of Somali heritage played a crucial role in mediating between the ONLF and the Ethiopian government in the past. The ONLF is now transformed into a political party within the Ethiopian political system, and Addis Ababa no longer sees the ONLF as a threat, and so there is no longer a perceived need for such external mediation. Nevertheless, mediation still has a potentially significant role to play, and Kenyan Somali officials can use their status as clan elders to provide them with an alternative mandate to engage with the ONLF and SRS’s leaders, and foster dialogue and reconciliation between various parties and communities.

According to a senior Jubbaland official in Nairobi, SRS has become a focal point for Somalis worldwide with great socio-economic potential. Stability in SRS is crucial, and part of that involves strengthening customary institutions. While connections already exist, there is a pressing need to enhance and solidify them. The prospects for transnational peacebuilding efforts are immense, and there is a clear appetite for such endeavours.

Politicians, businessmen, and clan elders in Nairobi are actively engaged in managing land disputes and other clan-related conflicts within the Somali region. They possess the respect and legitimacy of local communities and leaders in SRS. These influential figures, hailing from Nairobi and beyond, lead ongoing peacebuilding initiatives in collaboration with various stakeholders in SRS. Operating informally and voluntarily, they use their own resources to foster cooperation. However, there is a need to establish a recognized social and economic framework in cooperation with interested partners and state institutions to address the lack of a clear mandate and further build upon the progress achieved through ongoing peacebuilding activities.

One significant challenge faced by the Ogaadeen clan in particular (as well as other major clans with significant cross-border affiliations and linkages) is their geographical dispersion across three different countries. This dispersion gives rise to diverse interests, priorities and allegiances. However, exploring the establishment of a traditional elders council (a guurti system), which is linked to an existing cross-state regional framework such as Inter Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) – partly to address fears of states about possible revival of greater Somali ambitions – would greatly benefit them and support good governance and peaceful political settlements in all areas.


About the author:

Dr Juweria Ali is a Research Fellow at the University of Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD), and has conducted PeaceRep research on behalf of Conciliation Resources. Her research interests focus on critical international relations theory and practice, and the politics of nation and state-building in the Horn of Africa.

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