Can the Somali region speak?

Ethiopian Somalis must reject politically motivated, shallow historical narratives and produce a new story that accurately captures their lived experiences.

(The author dedicates this article to the memory of Ahmed Ali Gedi ‘Borte.’)

Many years ago I conducted an interview with a leader of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). At the time, Ethiopia’s Somali regional state was often referred to as ’region 5’ or kilil amist. When I asked the ONLF leader about ’region 5,’ he became irritated and said “My home is not a number!” I thought he was just being nationalistic as ONLF members often refer to the Somali inhabited parts of Ethiopia as ’Ogadenia’ rather than Somali regional state, its official name. Much later, I realized that he was right. Who wants his or her home to be a number? Who wants to live in a place whose name has been externally imposed?

Admittedly, geographical names are never neutral. Most Africans had their names and identities imposed on them by European colonialists. But what if a society or a community never gets to choose its name? This has been and continues to be the case for Somalis living in today’s Somali regional state of Ethiopia.

In the case of Ethiopia’s Somali population, this conundrum goes far beyond geographical or territorial designations. Rather, it reflects a crisis both of representation and self-representation. In spite of ethnic federalism and a constitutionally guaranteed right to political self-determination, Somalis in Ethiopia never had the chance to decide on their political fate. Equally important, they rarely had the opportunity to write or narrate their own lives, history, and experience.

This enduring crisis of self-representation is maybe best formulated as a question, namely: Can the Somali region speak?

Here, I am referring to the famous essay by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak with the provocative title ’Can the subaltern speak?’ published in 1983. Her text is a classic contribution to post-colonial theory, which criticizes the continued dominance of Western knowledge in the representation of non-Westerners.

What does Spivak mean when she asks: ’Can the subaltern speak?’ By subaltern she refers to social groups—peasants, lower caste individuals, women, and so on—who have continuously been subordinated. Their history and collective experience have mostly been represented by others—by colonizers, by national elites, by intellectuals. They are often ’spoken about,’ but are rarely allowed to ’speak for themselves.’ Their agency and subjectivity is denied because others constantly speak for and about them.

When I ask ’Can the Somali region speak?’ what I mean is: can the people who live in this part of Ethiopia speak for themselves? Can they represent themselves? Can they define and shape their own narrative? So the question really is: has the Somali region ever spoken for itself? Or, has it mostly been others who have spoken for the Somali region and its inhabitants?

In their modern history, Somalis living in Ethiopia’s southeastern lowlands never had the opportunity to speak for themselves. Instead, it has been outsiders who have named, claimed, and defined the Somali region’s inhabitants. The outsiders speak about Somalis in such a way that goes in line with their political geopolitical interests.

Opposing historiographies

Why is it that Somalis in Ethiopia have struggled to speak for and represent themselves?

One reason is that the Somali region has been the object of two opposing national historiographies since the late 19th century. By historiography I mean both popular stories and academic writings that are told and written about a particular community, society, or nation. In its broadest sense, historiography includes the official history that is taught in schools, but also stories that are passed on from one generation to the next. In essence, I mean the historical interpretations that most members of a given society agree upon, often uncritically.

On the one hand, we have Somali historiography and the Somali studies tradition. Their accounts describe the Somali region—often referred to as Ogaden—as Somali territory colonized by Ethiopian highlanders, but also by British and Italian powers. In this narrative, the ’Somali region’ is a territory that, in reality, is part of Somalia and the Somali people.

The region is memorized as a place of suffering and repression by successive Ethiopian regimes from Haile Selassie to the TPLF and the former regional president Abdi Mohamed Omar ’Iley.’ The Somali region is seen as a place of displacement and the home of rich natural resources—from frankincense to oil and gas—which foreigners want to loot. From the viewpoint of Somali historiography, the Somali region of Ethiopia is a space of repeat victimization.

On the other hand, we have Ethiopian historiography and Ethiopian studies, which for a long time promoted what historians call ’the great tradition.’ The ‘great tradition’ offers an almost transcendental tale of the Ethiopian monarchy and nation-state, emphasizing the country’s past and future glories. Writings by Ethiopian historians, soldiers, and administrators reveal a completely different view of the Ogaden and of today’s Somali region.

Their stories portray the region as a place of hardship for habeshas. They describe Somalis as rebellious people who are “always fighting” and on whose loyalty the Ethiopian state cannot count on. They saw and often still see the Somali region as a land of nomads who need to be civilized and modernized by the Ethiopian state bureaucracy through sedentarization, development, planning, and administration.

In this narrative, the Somali parts of Ethiopia have to be defended to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity – in particular against neighbouring Somalia. But its inhabitants can never be fully trusted.

Which one of these two opposing historiographies of Ethiopia’s Somali region should we listen to? Which one is more accurate? Which one captures the past and present of this part of the world better?

Many readers familiar with the region will have their opinions on this. I want to argue that both historiographies make some important points, but both are also seriously deficient, reductionist, and ideological. Neither one of them does justice to the real history of the people of the Somali region.

Both historical traditions treat the Somali region as a periphery, which is of interest only as long as it is relevant to the political center. The Somali region has been and still is a double periphery – peripheral to both Ethiopia and Somalia. At the end of the day, both historiographies are the by-product of either the Somali or the Ethiopian nationalist project. Too often, they are not based on local people’s lived experiences or family histories. Rather, they tell the story of the Ogaden, now the Somali region, from the vantage point of male leaders with a particular political agenda.

Both historiographies of the Somali region silence the lives and struggles of normal people such as rural folks, women, minorities, and, generally, less powerful groups. As a result, both have prevented the emergence of a historiography of the Somali region that is thought, written, and told not from the viewpoint of Mogadishu or Addis Ababa, but from the viewpoint of Gode, Jigjiga, Degehabur and Shilabo, Afdheer and Qabridehar, Gora Babagsa, Kelafo, Wardheer, Fiq, Shinile, and so on.

Silencing ’Somali region’

Some might argue that history is always contested. Or that what matters most are not historical facts, but how history is used in present-day politics. In other words, what really matters is who can make his or her history count and whose history is being discounted or swept under the rug. My argument here is that both Somali studies and Ethiopian historiography have swept a large part of the lived experiences of Somalis in Ethiopia under the rug.

Like the rest of Ethiopia, the region underwent one regime change after the other—from Haile Selassie to the Derg and then the recent Abdi ’Iley’ dictatorship under the EPRDF. All regimes created and popularized new political narratives based on a selective and clearly instrumentalist interpretation of the region’s past. These narratives further complicated the writing and telling of local histories that did not comply with these state-sanctioned historiographies. The absence of independent research and academic institution further compounded this problem.

Some examples may highlight how important aspects of the Somali region’s political history have been silenced and overlooked by these two historiographies.

First, both have offered stereotypical accounts of the position of Ethiopian-Somali elites vis-a-vis the Ethiopian state. Rather than simply being for or against the central government, Ethiopian-Somali elites have gone through repeat cycles of compromise, partial acceptance, growing distrust, and full rejection of the Ethiopian state. A good illustration of this is the armed struggle against the Imperial government, which started in 1963 and was led by Makthal Dahir.

The Ogaden leader and his colleagues were former district commissioners working for the Haile Selassie administration before they took up arms. The Somali government of Aden Abdullah Osman supported the rebels initially until it agreed to a truce with Haile Selassie, leaving the insurgents in a limbo. The ONLF underwent a similar pattern of cooperation with the new Ethiopian government in the early 1990s followed by armed opposition between 1994 and 2018 and, today, a reintegration into the political system as a registered regional political party.

Both Somali and Ethiopian historiography have failed to account for this uncomfortable in-betweenness that has been the hallmark of Ethiopian-Somali political elites. When insurgents of the Western Somali Liberation Front started to mobilize against the Derg, the Somali government of Siad Barre again intervened to assist them. But, its agenda did not always align with the priorities of the WSLF. An eyewitness of the time whom I interviewed in 2012 about the 1977/1978 Ethiopian-Somali or Ogaden war told me:

“When the liberation movement reached Degehabur, the Somali army planted the Somali flag. The WSLF lost its temper and told them: ”Stop planting your flag there and don’t start collecting taxes!”

Many in the WSLF were eventually frustrated by the Somali government. The latter had helped them, but also internationalized and instrumentalized their rebellion. Somali state media like Radio Mogadishu and Radio Hargeisa covered the Ogaden war with vivid interest. But locals from the region were rarely on the airwaves. Instead, Somali military generals spoke on their behalf. This demonstrates how, historically, both the Ethiopian and the Somali governments have sought to appropriate and speak on behalf of the Ogaden (today, the Somali region).

Internal conflicts and contradictions

A second shortcoming of the Somali and Ethiopian historiographies of Somalis in Ethiopia is their unwillingness to consider internal differences and tensions.

The Somali region does not have a single historical and socio-political narrative. Rather, there are multiple—at times competing— narratives, which reflect divergent historical trajectories and experiences of its people. The region’s population is not just ’Somali.’ It consists of various social groups: from urbanites to agro-pastoralists, from livestock producers to traders, and from ancient inhabitants to newcomers.

Many of its inhabitants have multiple loyalties, family ties, and allegiances. Communities are thus not homogenous. The northern parts of Somali region, in particular Shinille and the Jigjiga lowlands, have a different political history than the Ogaden heartland. The southern and western parts of the region also have distinct historical features.

Ethno-national discourse always seeks to suppress internal contradictions. The longstanding conflict between the ONLF and the Ethiopian government was often portrayed as the latest edition of an age-old confrontation between ’Somalis’ and ’Ethiopians.’ This was true at the initial stages of the war when ethnic Somalis predominantly fought against non-Somali troops of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces.

However, for a decade—roughly between 2008 and 2018—the conflict was between Somali special police members sponsored by the government and ethnic Somali that supported ONLF. This conflict was in many ways a civil war among members of the Ogaden clan family, pitting supporters of regional president and strongman Abdi ’Iley’ against his enemies. These internal conflicts and tensions among the Ogaden, but also between many other clan lineages in the region are an uncomfortable topic for Somali historiography. They are regularly glossed over given the perceived political imperative to present a unified front vis-à-vis the Ethiopian state and its representatives.

If Ethiopian historiography casually overlooks the repressive legacies of the Ethiopian state in its Somali periphery, Somali historiography ignores the ambiguous agendas of Ethiopian-Somali leaders past and present.

These examples demonstrate that there is a good chunk of Somali region history that contradicts, or at least complicates, both Somali and Ethiopianist historiography. Admittedly, political instability, repression, and remoteness have for a long time made independent research very cumbersome. This has rendered the emergence of a more nuanced and more empirically founded historiography very difficult. Basic ethnographic and historical accounts of the Somali region have yet to be written. To this day, the rural histories of the region— the histories of pastoralists, in particular—remain undocumented and unwritten.

Letting the Somali region speak

It is tempting to think that Somalis in Ethiopia have simply been unlucky with regard to their geography, that their home will always be the double-periphery of Somalia and Ethiopia, or that the region will always be stuck in its unfortunate colonial history. Others will argue that Ethiopian-Somalis’ difficulties in speaking for themselves are largely the product of an oral society with low levels of formal education. Some will point out that much of my critique and analysis is not specific to Somalis in Ethiopia, but that it applies in equal measure to many of Ethiopia’s historically marginalized groups, reflecting imperial legacies of the Ethiopian nation-state that remain unresolved today.

These reservations confirm that the history of Somali region and its people has not been told yet. They call for a paradigm shift in documenting and narrating the experiences of Somalis in Ethiopia. Their histories need to be told again, told anew, told on the basis of solid empirical data, and told from a different vantage point. The Somali region is not a periphery, it is a center. It is at the heart of the Horn of Africa, connecting highlands and lowlands, sea ports and inland cities, Islam and Christianity, and various ethnic groups.

A new history of the Somali region of Ethiopia needs to be written from this vantage point of centrality. It needs to make the voices of its men, women, children, and elderly heard. It will have to tell the story not of one people, but the stories of many people—of camel herders, female traders, khat sellers, school girls, farmers, administrators, returnees, rebels, investors, daily laborers, poets, and many others. It will have to tell stories of the powerful and the powerless, of joy and grief, of hope and despair. It will have to break free from the tropes of the existing politicized narratives.

Importantly, this new historiography of Somali region will have to be written by intellectuals from the region and its neighbouring territories. Rewriting the histories of Somalis in Ethiopia is not a purely academic exercise. It can help pave the way for a new political imagination that is liberating. A political imagination that allows Somalis in Ethiopia to finally speak up, to make themselves heard, and to be heard.

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

Main photo: Abole Memorial in Somali Region; 31 August 2019.

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About the author

Tobias Hagmann

Tobias is an associate professor in international development at Roskilde University and a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute. He has published on politics in Ethiopia and Somalia. Follow him on Twitter @writingpolitics


  • Mustafa was note elected by Somali region people but elected by Highlanders and Abbey Ahmed and us Somali people we can yes Mustafa cant be a Somali regional president because he is before he was just nominated by other people and now he was just elected a group of people but not Somali regional people so he cant be a president of Somali region.
    Secondly Somali regional people are originated by Somali and us Somali people we are believed that we are Somali nationalism but living with Ethiopia country for us dole citizenship

  • WOW! Just wow…

    The article went from genuinely addressing certain realities to making outrageous claims. The first being that the region’s history is manufactured in Addis and Mogadishu. Perhaps more primary sources need to be looked at.

    Are you by any chance 1 of those people that say Somali was written in 1974? lol.

    You outright call for “Rewriting the histories of Somalis” and add more insult to it by suggesting other regions need to be involved in the endeavour. You already do it here when talking of the Somali identity and some Ogaden civil war *sigh*

    We basically birthed Somali nationalism (decades earlier than i.e. Arab nationalism) by fighting for them since 1899. Also, since all Somali clans live here and we mostly speak the clearest Somali understood by all, it means that WE are the real Somalia.

    Being briefly infected with clannism from the politically hijacked Somalis in the coast doesn’t change our identity. Centuries old documentation and poetry (how events were orally recorded) means our identity is safe.

    When they’re done (with the political theatrics) either we join them or they join us. Either way, our fates are connected so the other people we share the region with need to get comfortable with that…

  • Nice article. Mustafa Omar may want to buy Abysinnian support by sweet words, but the moment he starts implementing those words, he is a dead man walking.

    Awale’s point is impeccable.

  • Testa

    Dont feel you smug by trying to insult our intelligence.! Me think this is a new illusion are gifts that l Habesha parents handed handed down to their new generation for posterity as a political gift. It’s only the fool and patronizing otherr so they won’t suspect their true intentions and past harms. Look , regardless, no one in the Somali Region give a damn thing about Musfa .So if he is good or bad is besides the point. BTW, he isn’t to accountable to no one nor elected by any one the Somali community by either merit or otrwi thus far Don’t tell me that you would be happy with if Mustafa become a national leader, unless you have made secret deal with him, No chance. I know that and you know that is the naked fact.. Secondly, If the Amhara regionl leader has guy or bad guy it’s none business . it’s upto the Amhara to tell and deal with. Why then keep telling and patronizing other regions then? Is it good to tell someone the that his home cooking is good while keepng your home cooking you under the dark?

  • Kudos to Tobias for your insight on the The Somali Region’s voicelessness . Much better than many other opinion pandering class of expats and amateurish academicians. As to whether Somali Region would be allowed to express or speak for isf, I would say big no in the foreseeable and the simple reason is that Abyssinian/ Ethiopian system a being as anathema to the very idea of noble expressions and enlightenment ideas , whether at individual or ethnic group or tegion level. Because of the rotten system itself worked and still a cloaked in dark secretary at all cost regardless of abuses, death and destruction of cultures and other social atrophism that come with it. Especially this is true it is for those conquered and prephery communities eventhough it would be difficult to keep thing on led in the coming generations.

    And one more thing. Surely there is a stoking of false nationalistic narratives and unjust and unilateral militaristic adventures spew by Abyssinian elites without regard to the feeling about historical facts of others who shamelessly suffered would continue in the past.
    One good example is the
    recent patspaganga of the so-called rhe 1977 Kaaramardha victory in the Somali Region by which the Ethiopian occupation army, with the help of Socialist Cuba to keep the justified Somali resistance in the check thus with much destruction of Somali civilian their livelihoods while the other side only the ooccupation army suffered and tightly so. Now Amhara actors, agitators and political gangsters are fawning for this criminal, unncalled and undignified as an Abyssinian issue against the Somali Region regional peole and local that the horrific conflict affected. These people are not sleeping nor for got the events but they almost horrified and mystified the ongong charade and insensitiv ideas oncoming from Abiy’ s amen corners . Worse yet, many of this agitators and have-beens and chauvinists ever have been of were present in those events.

  • Kudos to Tobias for your insight on the The Somali Region’s voicelessness . Much better than many other opinion pandering class of expats and amateurish academicians. As to whether Somali Region would be allowed express o speak for isf, I would say big no in the foreseeable and the simple reason is that byssinian Ethiopian system a being as anathema to the very idea of noble expressions idea enlightenment , whether individual or ethnic group or tegion. Because the rotten system itself worked and still a cloaked in dark secretary at all cost regardless of abuse, death and death of culture and other social atrophism that come with it. Especially for those conquered and prephery communities eventhough it would be difficult it keep on led the in the comingg generations.

    And one more thing. Surely there the stoking of false nationalistic narratives and unjust and unilateral militaristic adventures spew by Abyssinian elitrs without regard of the feeling about historical facts of others who shamelessly things affect would continue.
    The Good example is the
    recent so-called rhe 1977 Kaaramardha victory in the Somali Region by Ethiopian occupation army with the help of Socialist Cuba to keepthe justified Somali resistance in the check thus with much destruction of Somali civilian their livelihood with while the other side only thevoccupation army suffered and tightly do. Now Amhara actors and political gangsters are fawning for this criminal, unncalled and undignified as an Abyssinian issue issue wjhilr local people that the conflict affected horrified with idea . Worse yet, many of this has-beens and chauvinistnever have been of were present in those events.

  • Mustafa has been speaking, and he is very popular in Ethiopia. I don’t think Somali region is the periphery anymore. Very interesting to note that Somali region is very diverse, I hope that does not work against them as it does in Somalia.

    • Testa

      Dont you feel you smug by trying to insult our intelligence.! Me think thir new illusions are gifts Habesha parents handed handed down to their new generation for posterity as a p olitical gift. It’s only the tool and patronizing otherr so won’t suspect their true intentions and past harm. Look ,regardslrs, no one in the Somali Region give
      a damn thing about Musfa .So if he is good or not good is besides the point. BEW, he not accountlr to any one nor elected by any one I Somali community by either merit.or not. Secondly, If the Amhara regionl leader has guy or guy it’s isn’tour business
      but it’s upto upto the Amhara. Why telling and patronizing other regions then? Isn’t it good to tell someone the his cooking home is good while keepng cooking your smoking under the dark?

      • I don’t understand what I said that is wrong. I was happy that Somali region is not in the periphery, and I hoped the clan divisions does not hurt the region. If you disagree, and you believe that Mustafa does not represent Somali interests, than say so without gibberish insults. I thought he was popular in Somali region too even if he was appointed. Ofcourse, in the end, leaders have to be elected, something we need to work on in Ethiopia, including in Amhara region.

    • Who elected mustafa than abiy ahmed and highlanders? Somalis never had justice nor elected thier leaders , they are oppressed till today they even not second citizens … looting, terror and denial of their rights.. and whenever they fight the usa , eu,portugal , ussr, cuba.. was highladers aid..

      Now testing and last chance if ethiopia accept free inclusive and democratic ethiopia or final bush for liberation will start hope first will be best for all horn of africa people.

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