There is a shameful silence over the ongoing systematic removal of Hararis from Harar

What began in the middle of 2018 as nightly chants of “ciao, ciao Adare” (‘goodbye Harari’), pack your bags, and “kinyyaa” (‘this is ours’) culminated with the Harari National League (HNL) surrendering half of the administration of Harar to the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP). Unchecked, this will end in the complete removal of Hararis from Harar—politically and physically. 

Hararis are a unique ethnic minority group in Ethiopia, who have now also become a minority in their indigenous home, the ancient city of Harar. While Hararis used to inhabit a much larger area in the past, they have been relegated to behind the walls of Harar (Jugol) and its environs since after the Jugol was erected in the mid 1500s.

For centuries, Harar was an important city in Ethiopia: Richard Burton called it “the Timbuktu of the East”; UNESCO references it as one of Islam’s holiest cities. During the Italio-Ethiopian war in 1935-36, The New York Times, The Times of India, The Globe, and others wrote much about Harar, some describing it as Ethiopia’s second-largest city.

Today, virtual silence. While there is no war, a serious crisis is taking place. Ethiopia recently gained the unfortunate distinction of having the largest number of people internally displaced by conflict, almost 2.9 million in 2018, surpassing war-torn countries like Syria. As Ethiopia grapples with the challenges of political change and reform, Harar faces its own challenges.

In 2018-19, Harar experienced a litany of abuses: Municipal services such as water and garbage removal were disrupted and cut off for weeks and their return was extorted for great sums of money; ethnically motivated mobs marched the streets of Harar chanting racist and incendiary slogans; historical mosques have been occupied and their religious leaders chased out; several Harari properties and lands have been illegally looted and stolen. And, when the government does respond, they do so at the speed of molasses.

Two buildings were set ablaze

One notable illegal seizure of property and land is that of the Aw Abdal Institute, a school with historical significance to Hararis. Its compound and surrounding area is occupied; the surrounding trees have been illegally uprooted and around 50 houses and shops are in the process of being built unlawfully. Finally fed up, the Aw Abdal board members and the community at large decided to have a meeting at the Amir Abdullahi Conference Centre in September of 2019. Moments before the meeting, local police arrived and forcibly cancelled it without any explanation. To this day, there has been no resolution on the issue. 

While Hararis wait for the government of Ethiopia to address their grievances, those borne out of inter-ethnic strife, a new crisis befell Harar in January 2020, one that is religious in nature. It has now been widely reported that, amid the Orthodox Christian Celebration of Timket in Harar, Amhara celebrants and Oromo residents fought over the draping of the former Ethiopian imperial flag—a controversial symbol amongst Ethiopians.

Amhara and Oromo have had numerous clashes over this same flag. This time, however, some used this incident as a rallying cry, claiming Christianity was under attack. Thereafter, a faction of Ethiopian Christians attacked mosques, Muslims, and Muslim properties in the city of Harar and Dire Dawa. 

In Harar, local authorities reported, two buildings were set ablaze while another 11 had their windows smashed, two cars were set on fire, and several properties were damaged; several of the properties and buildings belonged to Hararis. The loss of two lives was also reported. One of the lives lost, of the two, was a Harari man, Riad Hassan. After having lunch with his parents, for the last time, Hassan left taking his usual path, unaware of any conflict. Caught up in the confusion, Hassan was shot by police and died three days later. 

Power baring

Last year, to a backdrop of ethnic and communal violence and civil unrest, the ODP forced HNL into an agreement. It was formalized in a swearing-in ceremony in October 2019. In fact, before the agreement was made public, there were several leaks of it on YouTube, some indicating ODP originally sought complete control over Harar, with the supposed caveat that it was only for alternating election cycles. The idea was, Oromos would have 100 percent control over governance, including the president, and in the next election they would cede total control to Hararis until the next election. The lexicon used to describe this new agreement was “fifty, fifty”—meaning “we” (Oromos) get half and “you” (Hararis) get half, suggesting equality. 

As detailed in Ethiopia Insight, political power is shared between ODP and HNL in the Harari Regional State, both having won 18 seats each in the last election. The Harari National Regional State Council is a 36-member council composed of two bodies: the Harari National Assembly, a 14-member body reserved  for Hararis; and the Harari People’s Representatives, a 22-member body open to all in the Harari Region. The Assembly nominates the regional president who in turn appoints the cabinet with the approval of the Council.

Both ODP and HNL merged with other ruling parties to form the Prosperity Party in December 2019. The consequences of the merger are yet to be seen in Harar; and since the merger occurred after the ODP/HNL “fifty, fifty” agreement, it has no bearings on that deal. It will be the status quo until the upcoming election. Due to concerns over the peculiar alternating governing idea, ODP, sticking to their messaging of “fifty, fifty”, instead sought 50 percent of the ministerial positions in Harar—for now. In the end, Hararis capitulated to give ODP half of the Harar administration, under the pretence of fairness to Oromo people. 

But what about fairness to Somalis in the region, or Gurage, or Afar or any other group? This new arrangement creates more problems than it solves. Since Harar today is quite multi-ethnic —with sizable populations of Amhara, Gurage, Oromo, and Somali—eroding Harari governance over Harar will result in others competing for their share.

Damage incurred in Harar during violence in January 2020.

As with nearby Dire Dawa, three large populations of Ethiopia covet Harar: the Oromo, Amhara, and Somali. Historically, each of these groups has gone to war over Harar and in recent times expressed claim over the city. If power shifts to any of these groups, you run the risk of destabilizing the region by the other two groups competing for their share. 

Harari people, however, have a unique and legitimate claim. Hararis have actually been exclusively ruling Harar for almost a millennium, minted their own currency, boast dynastic rule of 212 years long, and even once ruled over the kingdom of Adal with its capital in Harar. But the Harari population has faced continuous pressure. It had been further decimated after Menelik II conquered Harar in 1887, annexing it into Ethiopia proper and especially under Tafari Makonnen’s reign. 

During the Kulub movement, when Hararis organised peacefully for justice, Makonnen’s deputy governor of Hararge, Blata Ayele Gebre, clamped down on the Hararis most viciously. It was so bad, Tim Carmichael writes, “One local Oromo proverb refers to the event as: “On that day [Hareris] were eliminated from earth.””

The reason Hararis have a quasi-state today is in recognition of Harari culture, language, history, and, perhaps most importantly, to redress the injustices perpetrated against them. Preserving Harari governance will prevent a tyranny of the majority, protect indigenous and minority rights, and, quite simply, is just fair.

To further put things into perspective, the Harari Region is 333.94 km2 while the Oromo region is 284,537.84 km2—over 800 times larger than Harari. Jawar Mohammed, an influential Oromo activist turned politician, aptly said, “Oromos have nothing to lose from Hararis having their own Regional State.”

The Afar have Afar, Amhara have the Amhara Region; the Oromo Oromia, the Somali have Somali Region. What is the alternative for Harari people? Should they merely cease to exist and become fables like their bygone progenitor, the Harla?

Survival struggle

The issue of who gets to govern over Harar might be philosophical arguments about true democracy and equitability for some communities. For Hararis, it is an existential matter. The mere continued existence of Harari people and their ability to maintain their identity was described as an interesting phenomenon back in 1975 by anthropologist Sidney R. Waldron. Ethnologue, a global authority on languages, had classified the Harari language as endangered, when Ethnologue used to have that classification. 

Indigenous peoples have long regarded self-determination as the best means to ensure cultural preservation. Further, the right to self-determination is guaranteed in Ethiopia’s constitution to all “Nations, Nationalities and Peoples” of Ethiopia and it is a fundamental principle in international law. Ethiopia’s provision of self-determination is manifested in its nine regional states. 

While the notion of people is difficult to define, Hararis as a people is a foregone conclusion. Sarah Vaughan goes further by saying Hararis qualify as a nation rather than just a people. “Members and outsiders agree that Hararis share distinctive and defined language, culture, territory, history, and economic life: if any group in Ethiopia was to qualify as a ‘nation’, rather than just a ‘nationality’ or ‘people’, it was surely the minuscule population of Harar”, Vaughan writes in Ethnicity and Power in Ethiopia.

As such, in spite of their small population, Hararis have a regional state, albeit a qualified one. Examples of other peoples’ lack of self-determination or a regional state, however, is not reason to deprive Hararis of theirs. Self-determination and cultural rights are human rights. For Hararis, both are under threat as Hararis are being pushed out of Harar politically and physically. As this is occurring, the Ethiopian government appears to have turned its back on Harar, most media outlets do not report on Harar, and non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or Survival International are nowhere to be found. 

In 2020, Hararis are under serious threat. The question is, who will speak out?

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

Editor: William Davison

Main photo: Damage incurred in Harar during violence in January 2020; social media.

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Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

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About the author

Abdullah Sherif

Abdullah is a contributor to Endangered Language Alliance Toronto (ELAT) focusing on the Harari language. He holds a B.A. in Environmental Studies from York University.

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17 Comments

  • True that our silence is shameful, and much more embarrassing is our reticence about the inept organization that claims to represent our endangered indigenous Harari community, and “govern” the Harari State in our behalf. I think it’s high time that we get organized and make our voice heard to the international community.

  • Great and commendable work in expatiating the plight of Hararis now and before.It falls upon us Hararis to work hard to secure judicial, constitutional and international protection for our land, right and privileges. Yet above all, we have to acknowledge and seek a remedy for the disease that has been eating our soul, our flesh and our very existence, without doubt, our great adversary namely, our self-centered psyche! apathy, disinterest, disunity, and indifference towards our community’s welfare and well-being, that indeed is the question The monumental question that has to be solved first and foremost above all others if we indeed want to survive as Hararis and Harar as our refuge! We must open our eyes and hearts and learn from others, like Somalis,Afar, Oromo,Amhara, etc,etc etc how to stick to one another in the time of peace as well as in the time of adversities.

  • An important and timely article. The Harari people, who speak a distinct Semitic language, have not only preserved their rich and unique culture over the centuries, but have served with distinction at all levels of Ethiopian society, including in high positions at the national level and throughout the economy. Their small numbers, and the fact that they are surrounded by far larger Oromo and Somali populations and that the city is, as mentioned, as diverse (at least outside the walls) as any other in the country should not blind those in power to the historical and moral obligation to protect their heritage and their rights.

    A minor point, though: I do wish English-language writers and editors would stick to referring to Ethiopians by their own names instead of using their fathers’ as (non-existent in Ethiopia) western-style surnames. In this case, the reference to “Makonnen’s Deputy Governor” clearly refers in fact to Teferi’s instead, an inaccuracy that is all the more confusing as Ras Mekonnen, Teferi’s father, had in fact been the conqueror and later the governor of Harer. English-language publishers seem to be okay with a Prime Minister Abiy, so I don’t see why that courtesy cannot be extended to all Ethiopians, living or dead, honored or reviled (or both). Ethiopia Insight, in particular, should make this its editorial policy, and enforce it.

  • Don’t forget your creator Meles Zenawi whispered to you when you claimed to have self regional state “we are looted this land from Oromo and giving you with our power, better you soothe and live friendly”

    • Ignorance and greed are catapulting this country into an abyss of rancor, infighting, and butchery.Melese Zenawi didn’t create Harari state.Harar has been in existence for more than a millennium and the indigenous population of Harar has been only Hararians, however hard this truth may be hard for you to swallow.It would have been wise of you had you flip pages of history,(history written by Ethiopians, western and middle eastern historians,) before writing such a shallow and short-sighted invective statements. For many many centuries, Harar was a sovereign state ruled by Harari Amirs and only lost its statehood about a century ago when it was vanquished by the overwhelming army of Emperor Minilik at the battle of chelanko.The great wall of Harar, the majestic beauty of Harari traditional homes, handwritten great Harari Islamic works of literature, different types of ancient metallic coins to expedite trades within themselves and with outsiders, unparalleled beauty and skill of basketry, the elaborate and splendid traditional dresses etc etc are all the glowing testimony that once upon a time the Hararis were a great nation in the land called Harar.

  • As a somalis we hold high the historical significance of Herer,and the Herreri people.Herers are peaceful people.They welcomed all sorts of people into Herrer,and coexistence peacefully.Itwas a place one one could acquire an Islamic knowledge,and a submission to superior being.Unforunately,Herrer was decaying since Richard Burton visited,unlike Herreri people,neighboring nationalities,and authorities were invading consistently.since 1883 Herrers were under attack .I happen to know an scholar of Islamic studies who were persecuted during Mengistu Haile Mariam regime.He flee to Hargeisa and lived among us for decades,until the maniac dictator Said Bare destroyed Hargeisa.People around the world must wake up,and pressure the Ethiopian government to step up to plate ,and preserve the language,culture,and their rights of the Herreri people,before the larger surrounding other ethnics swallowed them either by brute force,or by simply overwhelmed, by assimilation.

  • Thank you for the informative article. The Harari people have special place in the hearts of the people of Horn of Africa. So many Somalis have been educated by Muslim scholars with connections to Harar.

    Please continue to raise this issue through public forums and social media. I know the Harari people have widespread support in the East Africa region.
    Thanks,
    Makhtal Ahmad

  • I dont disagree a bit on what you wrote but not only Harari,I am from that city and I am not Harari we have faced rants telling us we are NAFTAGNAS,operesors,go back,you took our land, all sorts of biased comments not to mention the biting and killings forget the past recently my family and their neighbors were robbed in a day light and displaced from their homes the neibourhood known as “METELAYAA” (Took Shelter in Gabriel church for more than a month scared for their childrens life)and the HARARI adminstration never said anything why? I can’t say any reason if I do it will be speculations, I dont even think the HARARI adminstration knows our neighborhood the whole ARATEGNA so if you are a real writer write the whole truth dont single out that fits your profile

  • Harar is a region with internal problems, especially the administrative problem is the most visible of all but scholars like you have to play a significant role in solving the problems of this region and its people.

  • This great effort to put it together with the facts. I think the Hararis need more individual like you who speak out for the voiceless Hararis in Harar. Keep up the good work. In Solidarity!

  • Sad but true that the beautiful historic Harar city and its Harari minority face existential threat as a community
    and cultural wise. This endangerment started with Milik and Habesha invasion over century ago and situation incrementally deteriorated since. Just look no further the demographic composition, religious and linguistic marks they left behind. Only in the last 30 years or so and since the fall of Dergist and the formation of Kilil political entity things have reverse a bit or rather slowed down. I believe now Oromos, in the name of tyranny of majority, are hell-bent to relive the old Habesha brutal domination role that would speed up Harar’s final demise. It’s irony that an ethnic Oromo ,which constitutes among one of the historically oppressed major Harari residents after Harari and Somalis are doing this scheme The best interest of Hariri like many other minority or majoring groups lies with strong democratic institutions, genuine equality, respectful coexistenct and fair power-sharing among all citizens regardless of preconceived status.

  • Thank you William and Abdella. You’ve eloquently and systematically explained what we indigenous Hararis are going through in our own home land, Harar. We will speak up the truth and the international community will listen!

  • I think instead of lamenting about the Harrari fate in Harar, and trying to stand up for what you say are “historical” presence [and presumably rights?] to Harrar, to get out of this game is a better strategy altogether. What is happening to Harrar and Harrari is upsetting, but in a federal state set up “al-la-third world”, the majority “ethnic group” will rule and will use the numbers to squash any dissent. Please if you care about the Harrari, as a minority community, get out of the “Harrari rights”, “Harrari 1000 year glory”, “Harrari subjugation by Menelik” discourse. Really. Even if Harrar is controlled 100% by Harraris you still have to deal with being surrounded by ORomia…or as Jawar Mohammed reminds Berhanu Negga “Even if you win the Addis Ababa vote, you are still surrounded by Oromia”. Think again if you believe that grating 100% rights of Harrar to Harraris will solve your problems.

    • What contradictory your thoughts are! you wrote”what is happening to Harar and Hararis is upsetting” but soon you added “get out of the “harari rights”,”Harari 1000 year glory” etc, and finally reminded and warned us by saying”….the majority”ethnic group” will rule and will use the numbers to squash any dissent.” I sincerely believe that the majority of the Oromo population are peace-loving, abide by the rule of law and live in harmony with their neighbours. Nonetheless,
      there is a good portion of your population who share the same warlike stance like you towards others as the result of people like you inculcating the seed of hatred and delusion in the minds of the poor Oromo people. Open your eyes and think of South Sudan, think of Rwanda and think of endless blood bath in Syria! Is this what you yearn for your people? Hararis are quite minuscule in number to stand up to your aggression, but remember that there are sizeable minorities who are adept in the art of war! In conclusion, how strange is this that it didn’t occur to you that the world is ruled and controlled by a minority group who has that brain and money;and remember that the universe is in constant change and nothing stays static in this stratum of life.

      • Sorry my English is approximative…but I hope it can convey my thoughts

        When I look at the statitistics the Oromos represent more than 50% of the regions population…
        To my eyes Oromos getting 50% of the regions power seems fair …and to yourseyes its “Capitulation from HNL”…this is mystery to me.
        I am an Oromo from Harer region, with close link to Hareris(with familys from ethnic hareris)…I always think of the missed occasions between Hareris and Oromos since that fateful day of Azala battle.
        By systematically excluding any alliance with oromos, you lost your “empire” and now you are losing your soul.

        Imagine, if your ancestors chose alliance, you could have been the Persians of the Horn and us the Turks of the horn..
        Today that you became a negligeable minority your last action before leaving this world is to serve as rallying point for an anti oromo crusade!

        When you are a negligeable minority, its very dangerous to claim SPECIAL RIGHT …its much better that your neighbours extend that right to you…for that u must have good relations with them…something alien to you.

        • It is not 50% but 90% of the government has been taken over by Oromos through violence, aggression, and intimidation against Harari people;If I am not mistaken all Oromo government officials are from wellega,shoa etc which proves that the Harar Oromos are not fit or capable of administering yourself! The world is marching on while you people are standing still fixated on jealousy and hatred against Hararis;as such you will not be able to extricate yourselves from poverty. For over forty years you have been saying loud and clearly in front of the whole world that you would get rich, only by taking over the homes, businesses, pieces of jewelry, and properties of Hararis ! During the reign of Derge,the military government,when the land reform was declared, through its reckless and inept Marxist policy, Harari farmlands were handed over to you,and our people were left empty-handed, agonized and at loss how to support themselves.Just after a year or two your people from the surrounding farm-lands (formerly Harari lands) came up to the outskirt of the city in their thousand, brandishing their menja, kind of scythe,to finish off the Hararis and take over all their wealth, homes and business. They were stopped by the heavily armed government soldiers before going into their rampage. Yet again a year ago, the Aw Abdal Harari mosque and elementary school, just outside the city wall, your people invaded the compound of the school and built shops and homes illegally and by force! and most of the students in the school were Oromos! when are you people going to learn to differentiate between right and wrong? To get out of poverty you must learn how to think right or else you will be continuing as you are doing now, trudging along the path of darkness and poverty! On the other side, there are Oromos, though in minority, who think and act rationally and live with neighbors peacefully and amicably.