Superficial political changes have so far made little headway in addressing Afar region’s very real problems.
Ahmed Seid was born and raised in Arado ke Lahiguh, a small village in Aysaita district in Afar region. He spent his childhood on the ancestral clan-owned lands where his father and grandfather reared livestock and farmed. They provided: “Food on the table and a roof on top of their house. The land, along the Awash River, was green and fertile with abundant pasture. Happy people leading a happy life.”
It all came to an abrupt end when the government decided to build the Tendaho Sugar Factory in 2006, requisitioning more than 40,000 hectares of land for cane plantations.
Ahmed and others resisted, refusing to move until clan elders conspired with the government to bring objections to an end. In return, clan elders were given custody of compensation money allegedly misused for personal use.
But, the compensation was meager; once shared out it came to no more than 300 birr a person. Dry desert land, kilometers away from the clan’s ancestral land along the Awash River, was all that was offered as an alternative.
Thirty-five-year-old Ahmed, a father of three, now lives in Aysaita town. He had a job at the sugar factory, but that did not last long. Five years ago, Tendaho was a lively and busy place, crowded with employees and clients, an oasis in the middle of a desert, a green landscape with well-protected trees. Two years ago, the government abruptly closed it down.
Now, the giant machinery, imported from abroad at great expense, is covered with spider webs and rust. The compound is deserted, a city of ghosts.
This is a story shared by many Afar agro-pastoralists, forced off their ancestral lands, victims of state-sponsored land-grabbing in the near three decades of Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) control. Of the land Tendaho originally took, much of it was never used.
Many in Afar hoped the closure of the factory and the creation of the Prosperity Party to replace the EPRDF in late 2019 would mean restoration of former ownership and fairer land administration. But, they have been disappointed. Most of the plantation land has been taken by wealthy Afar businessmen for growing crops including wheat, while the rest is covered by Prosopis, an invasive tree.
Disappointment has not been confined to land use. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s reform agenda allowed exiled political parties to return, raising the possibility of regional political change, but the question remains: Has anything significant changed positively in Afar politics and for the Afar people since the Prosperity Party appeared?
Located in the north of the Rift Valley, the majority of Afar comprises lowland areas, with extremely hot temperatures throughout the year and limited rainfall. Consequently, the Awash River constitutes a vital source of water for the region. While the Afars have been resistant to external intrusion, Afar territory has long been peripheral to Ethiopian economic and political power. The core problem for Afar and its people is continued marginalization and poverty.
The Ethiopian state’s attempts to promote economic ‘modernization’ through agricultural development in the Imperial era, the Derg period, and under the EPRDF have been an almost unmitigated disaster for Afar pastoralism as a result of the loss of grazing land and access to the river.
Intertwined processes of state-building and development over the past 70 years have resulted in the loss of land and water resources for local populations, significantly contributing to food insecurity.
The federal government’s “Accelerated and Equitable Development for the Emerging Regions,” a strategy document that gave birth to schemes similar to the now-defunct Tendaho, has had a devastating impact on the livelihood of so many pastoralists. There have been few comparable successes.
Losses of livestock due to drought, compounded by the deteriorating terms of livestock trade, have worsened food insecurity for pastoralists. The region has become steadily more dependent on food aid since 1984, with nearly a third of the Afar people reliant on overseas assistance. Moreover, pastoralists have also been badly affected by the Prosopis Juliflora, a thorny, dominant, and thirsty invasive tree that has been spreading across Afar grazing areas, taking over a third of the southern part of the region.
Thus, Afar is still one of the poorest and most marginalized areas in Ethiopia. Decades of suffering at the hands of successive central governments that sidelined it from the country’s major political and developmental benefits has left it in its current diminished state.
This is the daunting morass of entrenched challenges that faced regional elites in the era of Abiy—and, so far, little of substance has been revealed to lie under their new shiny political cloak.
Politics and leadership
One of Abiy’s major reforms was to replace the 27-year-old EPRDF coalition with a single national party, the Prosperity Party (PP). In December 2019, the members of eight regional governing parties and their leaders joined the party, only one, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), did not.
One of those which abandoned the previous regional political structure was the Afar National Democratic Party (ANDP), which had been in power in Afar from the early 1990s.
At the time, ANDP politicians welcomed the change, describing the creation of the PP as a hard-earned victory elevating the Afar people to the national level, granting them equal status with fellow Ethiopians. In conversations with Ethiopia Insight, these same Afar-PP leaders emphasize that the change has given them the ability to speak and express political opinions freely.
As a senior government official underlined in an interview: “During the EPRDF era, we merely followed the direction given to us from the top and amplified the views and opinions of powerful regional leaders. We never dared to utter a word of our own opinion. Now, we are free to say whatever we want to without having to face ramifications of the big men who control regional politics.” (However, regardless of the claimed liberation, and their positive stance towards PP, the interviewee requested anonymity.)
The PP has also been able to open up a very limited new window of opportunity for young professionals and the educated elite to join the regional administration. But many believe officials are still hand-picked on the basis of clan affiliation. More qualified technocrats often remain left out of the selection process. In the name of advancing the national reform agenda at the regional level, there has been an increase in hiring and firing in Afar since the early days of PP—but much of it remains linked to clanship.
In advancing reforms regionally, clan membership serves as a tool to gain acceptance by clan leaders, although the weakest and most obedient ones are brought to leadership posts as clan representatives. The brightest minds and highly educated members of a clan are the least favored by the administration for they are believed to be a threat to dominant elites of the region.
Perhaps the most important political change has been the PP government’s commitment to allow previously exiled political parties to operate freely in the region. This has been welcomed, and the Afar Peoples Party (APP), the Afar Liberation Front (ALF), and Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity (ARDUF) are three of a strong line-up of regional political parties who ran for office last month—though none managed to gain any seats, either at the federal or regional level.
In Afar, election day went smoothly and there was no reported significant security issue, but the leading opponent, the Afar People’s Party, rejected the result, claiming the poll was rigged by the authorities and the ruling party. On its official Facebook page, APP informed its supporters that the election didn’t happen in a “just manner” and myriad of problems whose details the party promised to communicate to its supporters in the near future were observed in several polling stations.
The party promised to file a legal suit against the regime to seek justice. Similarly, on 29 June, a Council of Afar Opposition Political Parties issued a joint statement through which they declared the election ‘illegal and undemocratic’ and demanded re-election.
At any rate, Afar-PP secured a rather familiar landslide victory.
In addition to the EPRDF-style outcome, the advent of a national ruling party also provides further grounds for criticism. For Kontie Moussa, Chairman of Afar People’s Party, it means Afars have lost the privilege of an independent regional political entity and, accordingly, decision-making autonomy at the regional level. He is clear that regardless of its weaknesses, the former EPRDF-affiliate, the ANDP, represented Afar interests.
“Despite an undeniable, if often indirect, intervention of invisible hands from the center, at least Afars had their own regional political entity that allowed them to take control of regional affairs,” he told Ethiopia Insight. “Today, after joining the PP, the region has lost its privileges and decision-making autonomy because everything is decided at the center.”
This is emphasized by the fact that under the PP, representation in the national executive and central committees is based on population. According to Kontie, the current PP approach can be defined by the Amharic proverb “Endayamah traw, endaybela gifaw” literally translated as “invite him to the food lest he complains, but push him away lest he eats”.
In this case, to stop Afars complaining of being only an ‘affiliate party’ as they were under the EPRDF, it brought them closer to the center, but to prevent them from having any decisive role in national affairs, they were pushed back by being given only six percent representation.
As ‘Yassin’, a prominent youth activist and keen political observer, points out to Ethiopia Insight, today, Afar-PP representatives cannot block harmful policies or laws that go against the interest of the region. In practical terms, Afars remain ‘affiliates’ and this will be the case until the PP grants an equal number of representation from all regions to its decision-making committee. He believes it would be better for each region to have equal representation at the national table irrespective of population size, as under the EPRDF for its four-member parties—although that was a major point of tension between the TPLF and its sister parties who represented more populous regions.
Overall, for opposition parties, despite the structural change allowing participation, the system still operates in pretty much the same way as it did during the EPRDF era.
After 1991, with some decentralization of administration to local levels, power in Afar was taken over by a handful of political figures who claimed to be freedom fighters and founding fathers.
Today, these leaders have moved from leading the ANDP into leading the Afar-PP. So, regional power has remained in the hands of small groups who installed a culture of rotating their control of one regional bureau after another. It underlines the need for the educated youth of the region to be given a chance to breathe some fresh air into leadership and policymaking.
Afar ruling elites joined PP because they had no other viable alternative; all former members of the regional administration were directly admitted to the PP, so there was no change in the leadership. Clan-based bias and tribalism have continued to flourish. The ANDP dissolved itself and its members joined the PP without any discussion over how to govern national or regional affairs.
Under the former system, Afars had a limited or minimal role at the federal level but some control over regional affairs. Now, the opposition argues, they have joined the PP without any assurance the system will not go against the interests of the Afar people. PP officials firmly denied this to Ethiopia Insight, insisting: “we have veto power” to stop unpleasant policies and programs that go against the interests of the Afar people. However, the stated ‘’veto power’’ privilege can be found neither in the constitution nor the PP manifesto.
After Abiy took power, many in Afar were optimistic, but in recent months, they have been losing hope in the supposedly reformist government. People who once rallied tirelessly in support of the premier are now depressed by the failures to meet expectations. Prosperity being a party that has forgiveness, peace, and brotherhood as its core values, Afars expected the end of the Afar-Issa conflict and the arrival of peace to their land, only to know their demand was too ambitious of a hope to be met.
Even after its election victory, given the loss of faith in the Prosperity Party, the party needs to make real efforts to show its ability to meet the urgent demands of the people and so enable it to establish a strong foundation in the region.
The regional political failures of recent years have produced a significant loss of trust in political leaders. Popular perception towards the regional administration has always been largely negative. In the past, analysts of the region suggested that “Regional leaders are seen by many, particularly in urban areas, as subservient to the [EPRDF], acquiescing to federal directions and pursuing self-enrichment, all to the detriment of the Afar people”.
Officials are still being seen as corrupt and self-centered, paying little or no regard to public interests.
The emergence of new youth-led social movements such as Dukko Hina (an Afar term that means ‘defiant to subjugation’), which successfully challenged the authorities and regional status-quo by organizing a massive youth assembly in Ab’ala town on 21 September 2019, is one of the indications of continuing public outrage. Dukko Hina’s main political agenda was the quest for an answer to two demands of true reform: utilization of Afar resources by Afars and unity among the Afar people.
Reducing corruption is also a critical and necessary precondition to allow any genuine reform agenda to take root.
Afar has been a region where corrupt officials could become affluent businesspeople in the blink of an eye. Selective awarding of construction and large procurement bids to family members and friends through bid rigging is a common trend that government officials frequently manipulate.
Corruption in Afar is also partly instigated by officials from the center who usually make a deal to release a big chunk of money to regional bureau heads provided that they get a cut. Upon receiving the funds, regional bureau heads settle the expenses with false documents and share the money with their partners in crime in Addis Abeba.
It’s also been one of the regions where government offices go poorly audited year-in, year-out, and where the previous EPRDF regime successfully discouraged citizens from intervening in national affairs by pumping money to corrupt regional officials who got away with their crimes.
The current drivers of Ethiopia’s reform agenda seem to have chosen to follow the same strategy, ignoring the damage from corruption to social service delivery. Promising change while ignoring corruption has led to doubts about the sincerity of the new government’s commitment to genuine change.
Another area of concern is security. Afars and Somalis are two brotherly communities that share a common religion, livelihood, traditions, and, to an extent, culture. They have far more in common than differences. Despite this, they have engaged in armed confrontation for more than half a century. Successive Ethiopian governments have tried to resolve the antagonism, none have succeeded in bringing about any lasting solution.
Recent fighting is even raising questions over wider regional peace and security.
The historical antagonism between Afar and Somali-Issa clan and border dispute have been among the reasons for continual clashes between the two communities. In 2014, the two regional presidents agreed to grant a special kebele status to the three disputed kebeles, Gadamaytu, Undafo’o, and Adaytu, under the administration of Afar.
Federal troops helped remove the Somali regional president in August 2018, and a few months later, in May 2019, the Somali regional administration unilaterally withdrew from the “agreement” which had granted residents of the three towns a special kebele status within Afar administration.
Since then, there has been a sharp rise in the intensity and frequency of the Afar-Issa conflict, to the point where a dispute that once had the character of a feud is now best described as war—especially in the contested territories.
For the last two years, solutions have been primarily the responsibility of the PP, which controls both regional administrations, but many in Afar believe the ruling party has emboldened the Somali leadership (partly through high-profile federal appointments) and Issa fighters.
The federal government, media and political entities, and, most recently, PP leaders, seem to have underestimated the problem. Meanwhile, another aspect that worries Afars is the suspected involvement of foreign actors, particularly the government of Djibouti, which many believe has an interest in a war between the two communities.
Back in October 2019, after at least 17 people were killed and 34 injured at Obno district in Afar, the head of the Afar Region Peace and Security Bureau, Ahmed Sultan, claimed on national television: “We are fighting external invading forces who crossed into Ethiopian border through Djibouti and killed unarmed civilians, mainly women and children.” Djibouti is home to both Afars and Somalis.
The fact that the perpetrators of the massacre covered their faces is seen by some as indicating external involvement as Afars and Issas have never concealed their identity in previous fightings. More recently, in April this year, President Ismail Omar Guelleh of Djibouti tweeted that using the Awash River is the next strategic direction of the Djibouti Government. There have also been allegations this year that Djibouti has been arming Somali militias against Afar forces.
An old dream of realizing ‘Greater Somalia’ is also mentioned by regional opposition political parties such as Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF) as the leading cause for the involvement of foreign forces in the conflict and escalation of the antagonism.
Even when the federal government has taken some action, it has only been at the last minute after the damage has been done, and the painful consequences of successive wars have continued to send shock waves through Afar society.
In 2019 and 2020, Afars and Somalis were engaged for almost a year in fighting. The federal government took almost a year to summon the two regional presidents to Addis Abeba and tell them to sign a peace deal. And then it had no real effect. As of April this year, the two sides were again engaged in fierce battles around the contested kebeles.
Renowned Afar community leaders who participated in several previous national-level bilateral peace deal negotiations believe the inaction and lack of federal government commitment to ending the war is contributing to the problem.
Until recently, the Afar region’s relationship with its westerly neighbors, Oromos and Amharas, was considered relatively peaceful. The rare occurrences of communal skirmishes with Amharas and Oromos were mainly over pasture and water, lasting no more than a day or two, and quickly disappearing.
However, since the coming of the PP to power, new battlegrounds have emerged, and the impact of new conflicts could have some far-reaching consequences.
Habilalo was a small village with an estimated 50 to 60 households on the border between Afar and Bati town, which lies in a special Oromo zone in Amhara region. Last December, week-long fighting between Oromos and Afars destroyed the village, leaving a scene of devastation. When Ethiopia Insight visited months later in April, there were still dozens of burnt-out houses, reduced to ashes, no people, no animals, not even birds to be seen.
Habilalo was in Afar but has had a growing number of Oromo-speakers move there in recent years. The conflict started after two Afars, a man and a woman, were shot dead, apparently by unknown people from Habilalo. The confrontation escalated and only ended after six days and nights of intense fighting with an estimated 74 dead, 56 Bati Oromos and 18 Afars.
Eyewitness accounts made it clear that this was the sort of meaningless conflict that could have been suppressed had security forces from the two regions intervened quickly before disagreement escalated into armed confrontation. PP officials in Afar defended the failure to control the increasing regional peace and security problems, stressing “the ongoing instability in Afar region is the cost of transition from the dictatorship under EPRDF to the democracy of PP”.
They added: “The security apparatus of Ethiopia is currently overstretched. Anti-peace elements who realized this are leveraging the gap. However, it will not be long before peace prevails in Afar and Ethiopia at large.” Opposition party leaders are not so sure. One senior official, a renowned political figure from Afar People’s Party, thought “this all shows how loose and ill-managed PP’s security system is.”
Now with new problems emerging and old disputes intensifying, as well as the danger of insurgent groups infiltrating the region and committing atrocities, restoring peace and order has become a major issue. It has left Afars with considerable concerns over security.
It all adds up to a number of very real issues in Afar that are far deeper than the cosmetic political changes.
What is needed now is for all regional elites to work together to restore the trust of the long-suffering Afar population in politicians and their policies.
A far-sighted solution
Successful solutions to the Afar-Somali conflict will require determination and strong political will by the federal government to look into the root causes of the security problem and deal fairly and justly with the conflicting factions. The federal government will need to maintain a neutral position and enforce the implementation of the peace deals signed in the past by the leaders of both regions.
Parties need to keep within their respective regional borders and reconcile their differences in a peaceful manner by investigating the relevant historical facts and evidence. Any territorial claim must be addressed legally at the federal level or through political give and take. The alternative is continued armed confrontation to the detriment of everyone.
More generally, for far too long, the federal government has pursued development plans in Afar that negatively impacted the livelihood of local communities. The government continues to propagate the myth of targeting ‘unutilized’ lands in the Afar region to promote development endeavors, which in reality is used as an excuse to capture some of the most fertile lands in the region on which pastoralists relied to feed their animals during dry seasons. Hence, this false narrative of ‘developing the region through large-scale development interventions’, which then leads to state-led land grabbing by outsiders, needs to stop.
Tendaho Sugar Factory is a living testimony to learn how devastating the effects of such state-led large-scale development projects have been.
Recently, the federal government inaugurated a similar large-scale investment—an industrial park—in the regional capital. Its sustainability is very much in doubt, because of practical issues like sustainable provision of water and electricity for the park. Considering the fact that industrial parks in highland Ethiopia where water is abundantly available are struggling, it is easy to imagine how the parks in the Afar desert will flounder.
Development plans of genuine concern should be made in consultation with regional stakeholders, particularly with regional elites who know the local context better than policymakers and development experts in Addis and even further afield. It is also high time that the regional administration develops a comprehensive development plan to help foster social reform and chart out a rosy future for the region.
People’s lack of trust in current leaders underlines the difficulties of achieving economic progress in the region. Having won the election, the Prosperity Party will need to empower additional regional elites and open the doors of opportunity for those who have a genuine interest in serving the public.
Bridging the gap between the regional administration and regional elites, including accomplished academics, would be another important move to help mend relationships between the public and the administration. Organizing regular forums where the authorities and scholars can deliberate and debate on policy matters will help narrow the gap, as well as help uproot tribalism and clan divisions.
Meanwhile, it should be noted that the reform process accelerated by Abiy and his team is unlikely to succeed in Afar as long as the public harbors negative attitudes towards the government. This mistrust of state institutions by Afar society is a historical product, based on longstanding disappointments and negative experiences with government interventions.
So this is something that needs to be addressed first if the reform program is to take root. Since reform is a team effort that demands the cooperation of government and citizens, the public should have faith in its leadership before extending its hands to advance the reform program.
Finally, at the regional level, the ruling elite is discredited. The same faces, the same people as in the EPRDF era, are still running the region. Trying to govern the region with the existing leadership is like serving ‘a new wine in an old bottle’. There is, therefore, an urgent need for a new regional elite that can break with entrenched habits.
On the political front, regardless of the complaints, after this disappointing outcome for the opposition, the returned politicians should consider merging their fragmented parties into one strong institution, which could benefit from pooling human and material resources.
With the return of the previously exiled parties, the election, for the first time, offered some real choices. But the parties were not able to capitalize on the popular concerns over the failures of the previous ruling Afar National Democratic Party and the Prosperity Party, leaving the region in political limbo.
After all, the opposition faces a lot of problems because Afar-PP is now part of a national party. This creates a power imbalance at the regional level as PP has access to much larger financial and material resources. It was easier for the opposition to compete against a regional party, which was hardly better resourced or more competitive in terms of policy formation and development planning. While all the opposition parties struggled to raise funds for the election campaign, PP candidates had no problems.
If the opposition merged, it could then potentially compete with Afar-PP to create a genuine competition of ideas about the best way forward for Afar to finally shed its historical baggage of underdevelopment.
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This article is part of the Ethiopia Insight Election Project (EIEP), a series of in-depth reported pieces from across Ethiopia in our ‘Elections 2021’ section that analyzes issues related to this year’s polls.
Main photo: The Semera Industrial Park being inaugurated in the presence of senior higher officials, including Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed; 16 May 2021; Industrial Parks Development Corporation.
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