News Analysis

Federal action needed to end Ethiopia’s Somali-Afar conflict


Constitution-based federal mediation must address persistent clashes over disputed land on the Djibouti trade corridor.

The deadly protest on 27 March in the Aysha district of Sitti Zone in Somali region highlights once more the recurring conflict between Somali and Afar states in Ethiopia.

The territorial dispute that instigated the protest revolves around Adaytu Kebele of Mille Wereda, Undufo Kebele in Gewane Wereda, and Gedamaytu Kebele in Amibara Wereda. Formally, they’re located, respectively, within Afar zones 1 and 3 and in Somali’s Sitti Zone.

The protest, which reportedly led to the death of three, was said to have erupted as a result of the national army’s response to protesters from the Issa clan who had blocked the Ethio-Djibouti highway. 

Reports  on 30 March indicated that the conflict had escalated into a multifrontal engagement between Afar and Somali militants near the road. 

Somali Cause

The protesters were originally objecting to perceived federal support for the Afar security forces in the border dispute.

The Congress for Somali Cause (CSC), a Jigjiga based political movement advocating for Somali interests, accused the federal government of providing “tacit support to Afar militia” and expressed its fear of a repeat of the Ayisha massacre 60 years ago. It called on the federal government to bring the perpetrators to justice. 

This incident is part of a larger struggle that has been simmering for years, with sporadic clashes between security forces and militias from the two regions occurring over land.

Conflict Roots

The disputed areas contain important resources, including the Awash river, and the highway and railway between Addis Abeba and Djibouti, which both Afar and Somalis need for their livestock and other trading. 

Conflict over these resources has increased since 2018, with major clashes occurring in the context of heightened tensions during the run-up to the delayed national elections in 2021.

According to Ethiopia expert John Markakis in a publication about the conflict back in 2003, the struggle over the Awash river has historical roots, with the Afar being pushed northwards by their Somali Issa neighbors since the colonial period. 

The allocation of land and political power based on ethno-federalism in 1991 further divided communities. Violence has since expanded beyond disputed locations and is fought by formal and informal militias.

Failed Agreements

In 2014, an agreement was signed between the two regions handing the disputed territories to Afar while granting the Somali residents political autonomy as “special kebeles”. 

However, that deal failed to resolve the conflict, as Somali region withdrew from the agreement in May 2019. Moreover, Issa clan elders continue to oppose the arrangement and demand integration into Somali region.

The conflict reignited in March 2021 after the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia listed 30 polling stations in the disputed areas under the Somali region. Afar’s government disputed the decision, leading to the removal of the stations. 

In turn, the Somali government rejected this and warned of the “difficulties of participating in the upcoming election” if the polling stations remained closed.

Persistent Suspicions

Somali residents have expressed concerns that the federal government is supporting Afar, which had been a federal ally in the military campaign in Tigray from 2020-22.

The Sitti Diaspora Community, a Brussels-based group, claims that the covert motive underpinning the federal support is to expel the Issa from the vicinity of the Djibouti-Addis Ababa thoroughfare, thereby ending Somalis’ grip over Ethiopia’s main trade conduit. This agenda is said to have been pursued by previous regimes and remains in effect.

The alleged excessive use of force on 27 March by the national army will not dampen such Somali fears. 

Competing actors, including the federal government, Eritrea, Tigray, Amhara, and Oromo nationalists, and external actors like Djibouti, could leverage the Sitti conflict to advance their interests. 

External Action

The federal government, for example, needs Afar support to help keep commercial traffic flowing to Djibouti and so they do not provide support to any current or potential opponents, such as Eritrean forces, the TPLF, the Oromo Liberation Army and Amhara militia.

Djibouti is dominated by the Afar and the Issa, and so their traditional leaders have a strong influence on the country’s politicians, including President Ismail Omar Guelleh. 

TPLF, which historically had strong political and security ties in both Afar and Somali regions, was rumored to have fanned the Issa-Afar conflict during its dispute with the federal government as part of efforts to disrupt trade on the Djibouti-Addis highway.

Now, the embitterment over Sitti could also be used by allied Eritrean and Amhara interests to try and sway Somali elements to their side. 

Lasting Solution

In terms of the land dispute, Issa Somalis claim that their clan constitutes a majority in the area, making the transfer to Afar unconstitutional. What is evident is that constitutional processes, including a referendum, were not adhered to in the 2014 federally mediated settlement. 

This, coupled with the seemingly federal government-sanctioned forceful takeover of Western Tigray by Amhara forces in 2020, sets a dangerous precedent for trying to settle border disputes between regional states, which are present across the country.1The nature of the dispute appears to be not too dissimilar to the high stakes Amhara-Tigray conflict over Welkait. Similar to the Amhara, the Afar stake a historical claim over the disputed territories while the current demographics allegedly favor the Somali. However, as a referendum hasn’t been conducted, it is difficult to conclude that the residents are predominantly Somali. 

The May 2019 withdrawal of the Somali government from the 2014 settlement demonstrates that the ambiguous and informal agreement did not lead to a lasting solution. 

This time around the federal government therefore needs to devise a better researched and constitutional approach to resolving the conflict.

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Main Image: Somalis in Somali regional state protesting the Afar regional forces attack on Garba Isse and the death of civilians; 28 July 2021; social media.

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

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  • 1
    The nature of the dispute appears to be not too dissimilar to the high stakes Amhara-Tigray conflict over Welkait. Similar to the Amhara, the Afar stake a historical claim over the disputed territories while the current demographics allegedly favor the Somali. However, as a referendum hasn’t been conducted, it is difficult to conclude that the residents are predominantly Somali.

About the author

Abel Tesfaye

Abel is an Ethiopia Insight reporter, who also does freelance consulting and translation work. He has a Master's degree in Psychology. Contact him at


  • Yes, fair, balanced and immediate intervention is sorely needed on the part of the federal government to solve the problem but to no avail. It is long time coming. The one-sided interference done either through covertly or overly won’t work. On the contrary, it has been a disaster for both sides and for the national interest. Without going long past centuries, both communities in the area has been interacting and living together over a century with minimum or manageable skirmish from time to time. But it seems now the central government has made a conscious decision to support one party, the Afar side, while alienating the other for strategic or other convenient political reasons. The best opportunity or worse meddling came few years ago when the disputed were taken from Somali region and given to Afar region without putting in place binding agreement. It was given in condition of being treated fairly and as a minority group in a especial zone where their language, culture and other socio-econmic developmental issues such as schools, water needs, healthcare needs are observed. But to the contrary happened. The Afar regional admin. disregarded all and immediately started killing, ridding villages and expelling people physically from the area and federal has done nothing to stop it so far. That is why Somali Region has little option but to oppose or withrow from the previously oral negotiated settlement of the dispute.

  • The choice of timeframe to start analyzing the territorial may be misleading. Until the XIIIth the Harlas (ancestors of Issas) were occupying the Ifat district of Kalagur (a Somali word which means the separation) which was designating the modern day Oromia zone) but also Gabal (another Somali word which means sunset) which corresponds to Shoa slop toward Awash River. Somalis maintained grazing land on the West bank of Awash river until at least the Oromo migration of the XVI – XVIIth century.

    It is in 1736, that the Afars Modaytu overthrew the Somali/Balaw Emirate of Awsa and expanded their domain at the expenses of both the Oromos in the West bank of Awash River and the Issas in the Eastern bank of that river. The Modaytu initial attempt to secure to cut trade road from Gewane towards Harar was met by the fierce resistance of Issas in the XIXth and XXth century.We should therefore talk of Issas return into lower part of Erer valley rather than a continuous push Westwards.
    In addition, it is important that Somalis continued to occupy the oasis of Doha (Somali name) in Awash and the plain of Halay Dage (Somali name) mis-orthographed Alidegli in Ethiopian cartography. Similarly, the Somalis maintained continued presence in the Mareehan shet (Somali Name) which connect the modern towns of Hundhufo and Adayte.

    In conclusion, Afars and Somalis, bound by the geography and sharing same cultural heritage should desist from ethnically motivated violence to grab land and the federal government can help in the settlement by providing the security to the civilians which were ethnically cleansed from the three Kebeles in broad daylight.

    • All ur intention here totally not fact
      Bro we have alot of evidence afar have no broder with Somalia ever but if u have a fact as muslim i tell u a fact we was in zelia and diredwa in 1930 after Great Somalian invention at time of Seaidbare afar pushin to ward west of erre river that to day far from 100 km from place u mention here 3 kebel u cliame to need Ethio-Djoubti High way road this is center of afar region. I know the intentions of issa Somali we have engouh Documentary that Hussin boha issa extermist in 2012 in England i will share!!! why u hide truth as a muslim read Sura nisa 4:93 think in detials we shall meet in hereafter who are in truth inshallah our word to day written on this Fb be witeness

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