The area around the Afar-Somali Regions border experiences frequent violent conflict due to long-running disputes over contested territory. Conflict is centered around three Kebeles inhabited by ethnic Somalis from the Issa Clan. These three Kebeles are located in Afar’s Zones 1 and 3 and Somali’s Sitti Zone. The areas include Adaytu Kebele of Mille Woreda, Undufo Kebele in Gewane Woreda, and Gedamaytu Kebele in Amibara Woreda.
Ethnic Somalis who inhabit the contested territory want to join the neighboring Somali regional state in Ethiopia, an action that the Afar regional authorities strongly oppose. The disputed areas have important resources, including the Awash river and the highway and railway between Addis Ababa and Djibouti. Violent conflict over these resources has increased since 2018, with major clashes occurring in the context of heightened political tensions during the run-up toward the national elections in 2021.
Both Afar and ethnic Somalis need the Awash river for their livestock and trade routes between Addis Ababa and Djibouti. According to John Markakis (Review of African Political Economy, September 2003):
“[s]ince the beginning of the colonial period the Afar have been pushed northwards by their Somali neighbours…the Ise [Issa] pushed the Afar from Dire Dawa northwards to claim the eastern portion of the Alighedi plain and came within sight of the Awash river; which the Afar believe is the Ise [Issa’s] ultimate goal” (p.447).
When ethnic federalism was introduced in 1991, both Somali and Afar became regional states with their own state council and constitutions. The allocation of political power based on ethno-federalism divided communities further, and like other locations in Ethiopia, conflict has expanded beyond disputed locations and is fought between both formal and informal militias.
In 2014, an agreement was signed between the two regional states granting Somalis residing in the disputed territory greater political autonomy as “special kebeles” within the Afar regional state. However, the agreement failed to resolve the conflict, as elders of the Issa clan continue to oppose the arrangement and demand integration into the Somali regional state.
In February 2021, ACLED recorded three incidents between the Afar and Somali militias in Mile, Adaar, and Amibera Woredas of the Afar regional state. Intense violence in 2019 left more than 30 people dead in the same area. Violence escalated in April 2021.
Current fighting between the two regional states was reignited after the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) listed 30 polling stations in these three areas under the Somali regional state. When the Afar regional state disputed this decision(Ethiopian Reporter, 21 March 2021), NEBE decided to cancel the disputed 30 polling stations and instead advised residents in the contested areas to register and vote in neighboring Kebeles (NEBE, 24 March 2021). The Somali regional government rejected NEBE’s decision and warned of the “difficulties of participating in the upcoming election” if these polling stations remain closed (Somali Communications, 25 March 2021).
Fighting on 2 April and 6 April 2021 resulted in an estimated 100 fatalities (BBC, 6 April 2021; Al Jazeera, 7 April 2021). As the conflict has intensified, so too has the dialogue between warring parties who each accuse the other of instigating the violence (VOA, 6 April 2021; Somali Communications, 6 April 2021; DW Amharic, 7 April 2021). The Afar regional state communication office claims that soldiers from the Somali regional state special forces attacked Hanruk, Gelano, and Gewanew Woredas on 2 April and 6 April 2021. Meanwhile, the Somali regional state Communication Office insists that it was the Afar region special forces, along with other militias (called Uguguma (ኡጉጉማ)), which attacked civilians in Deawdi, Kerefa, Deawdid, Gewrean, Kelale, and Denlehe Kebeles.
To resolve the conflict, the Ministry of Peace invited both parties to meet with participants from the country’s peace and security institutions for dialogue on 8 April 2021. Presidents of both regions attended the dialogue conference with their delegations. At the end of their discussion, both parties agreed to stop the violence, remove their respective forces from the disputed territory, and to respect and abide by previous agreements. They also agreed to allow the federal government to investigate the latest round of conflict in order to identify the perpetrators of the recent clash (Ministry of Peace, 8 April 2021).