The past five years have seen international attention drawn to Ethiopia for all the wrong reasons; war and conflict, the worst drought in forty years, and a struggling economy. But despite these challenges, the SRS, which was one of the most conflict-affected regions of Ethiopia, has remained relatively peaceful. At a conference in Qabridahar in April 2019, the ONLF, who had been waging an armed insurgency in the SRS since 1994, officially announced their transition from an armed group to a political party. At the time, the then ONLF Secretary General Abdirahman Mahdi announced:
“When you transition from a position of war and conflict to democracy, it’s not an easy road. We will struggle and fight for our rights through peaceful means. We will be active participants in the politics of this country.”
Conciliation Resources has been supporting the peace process in SRS since 2012, and began supporting the ONLF’s transition away from armed conflict, even before the signing of the peace deal. And for many, this laying down of weapons opened up the possibility for peace in the region.
Dr Fowsia Abdulkadir is Deputy Head Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was established in 2021 to address the legacies of violence in the region:
“For the first time in this region’s history there is no insurgency. So the peace deal has been major in that historical sense because now people are like, ‘ok I can breathe, and I can even think about what happened to me’ for the first time.”
Alongside this new sense of safety, is a new sense of freedom. Before 2018, governance in the region was underpinned by the exclusion and repression of most of society. Thousands of people were sent to the notorious Jail Ogaden, as a form of collective punishment. Mohamed Husien, was imprisoned for three years, and has now helped establish the Somali Region Victims Network:
“There is a freedom of speech now. People can talk freely without fearing any interference from the government. They can criticise the government itself or the opposition leaders or they can talk about different aspects of life, whether it is a social thing or a political thing. People have the freedom to express themselves and bring their ideas to the table.”
Suldan Abdi, is a clan elder and traditional leader who is a member of the Council of Peace and Unity (CPU), a semi-government institution established to coordinate mediation support in the region:
“Currently there’s a freedom of movement, there’s a freedom of economy, there’s a freedom of business. So the most important thing is peace first, and we can say the Somali region is the most peaceful region in the whole of Ethiopia. And that was brought by the agreement between ONLF and the government.”
Dealing with the past
Safety and free speech are an important basis for a peaceful society, and so is reconciliation. After the Asmara agreement the Somali regional government and the ONLF set up a regional-level peace implementation committee, which recommended the establishment of a regional truth and reconciliation mechanism to address legacies of war and violence. The parties established a task force which, with support from Conciliation Resources, developed an inclusive policy and law on truth, justice and reconciliation in the region. The regional parliament passed the law that established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (In Somali - Komishinka Baadhista Tacaddiyadii Ka Dhacay Deegaanka Soomaalida, Dib u Heshiisinta Iyo Xaalmarinta Dhibbaneyaasha) in 2021, and seven commissioners are now supported by an advisory group from a cross-section of Somali society, including victims and survivors of the conflict. The commission has also taken inspiration from similar groups in the Philippines and from cutting-edge research on reconciliation. Dr Fowsia explains what the TRC aims to do:
“My one major thing out of this really is not pointing fingers at people, but finding a way for victims to heal. This is a region that has been caught in a vicious cycle of insurgency and counterinsurgency measures that has decimated communities. We need to find ways to create a historic record so what has happened to them is not forgotten, but also provide a platform for them to speak about it, heal about it, talk about what it means for them to move on.”
Linking this Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the various victims and survivors groups that have been developed across the SRS, is an important step in dealing with the past. The Somali Region Victims Network is a framework that brings together civil society organisations to jointly advocate for the rights of victims and survivors of the conflict, as Mohamed Husien explains:
“When the regime changed and the ONLF took the peace agreement, it created hope for the people in the Somali region. Everybody started to come up with new ideas and how they could improve their lives. The past atrocities should not be forgotten to prevent this happening in the future. We have established as an organisation to make sure what happened to us should not happen again, that victims get their rights, and that perpetrators are held accountable.”
Over 300 victims and survivors of the conflict have now engaged with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as with the SRS President Mustafa Muhumed Omar, opening up avenues for ongoing government help and services. But it’s a slow process and now the challenge is how the Truth and Reconciliation Commission can expand its reach beyond the regional capital of Jigjiga, to ensure that experiences across the region are included in the reconciliation process.
There is a lesson for the rest of Ethiopia from the SRS’s truth and reconciliation journey as the country attempts to come up with a national transitional justice arrangement.
Peace for all
To be truly sustainable, anyone with a stake in lasting peace needs opportunities to shape it. Civil society organisations play an important role in bringing local expertise and knowledge, representing the interests of different communities and monitoring the progress of a peace deal.
One of the biggest transformations in the SRS over the past five years, has been the opening up of civil society space and new opportunities to connect with, and challenge, those in power. Mohamed Husien explains:
“The government used to say that if you say something against the government, you will be registered as a terrorist. So now that is not there, which is very important.”
The Somali Non-State Actors Coalition was established to map and link together activities of civil society organisations across the region, and have signed an agreement with the regional parliament to hold regular meetings for public engagement. The regional government has also adopted a CSO law to protect civic space.
In a move that would have been unimaginable just five years ago, women in the Somali region are planning and leading movements for change. Marwo Abdi is a founder of the Women’s Dialogue Space (Ugaaso), which brings together emerging women leaders in politics, civil society and business to amplify women’s voices in the public sphere:
“The fact that I am free and I am speaking to you today, shows how much change has happened. One of the problems that women have always had was the absence of a safe environment where women from various backgrounds could come together, discuss matters that are significant to us, and raise our voices in unison to demand solutions to problems that we confront. The WDS has given us the chance to unite women from all walks of life and across social and political divides. It has given us the resolve to unite and fight for change.”
There’s growing support in the region for women to play an active role in decision making, including from traditional and religious leaders, as well as the regional government. The WDS has now joined a coalition of 50 organisations advocating for meaningful participation in Ethiopia’s National Dialogue, and to make the process inclusive of women’s needs, perspectives and aspirations. Historically, Somali women, and Somali people more broadly, have been underrepresented in national discussions and institutions, so the inclusion of the Women’s Dialogue Space is a significant step forward. The challenge now is ensuring the progress made in women’s participation at a regional and national level is also reflected in communities across the Somali region.
The road ahead
The journey to peace is long and winding, and despite the transformations that have already taken place in the SRS, challenges remain. The reintegration of ex-combatants, reparations for victims of the conflict, political divisions and economic instability are all unresolved issues that could rock a fragile peace. Communal conflicts, fuelled by clan-based competition over resources, discrimination and exclusion, are also on the rise. The conflict facing much of the rest of the country heightens this sense of the unknown. Dr Fowsia explains:
“It’s kind of like a strategic peace [in SRS] where insurgents aren’t fighting any more, there is peace but there is a lot of apprehension about the instability in the rest of the country, and for some people who have been so marginalised, like the Somalis in Ethiopia, people are like ‘ok, when is the other shoe going to drop, is this real?’”
Many are calling for a country-wide dialogue process to help bridge divides, including Abdullahi Ibrahim, a board member of the Umbrella of Somali Region Intellectuals (USRI):
“Our peace is still fragile. We’d like to see Ethiopians have a national dialogue which is genuine, that can at least respect differences, culture, religion.”
The conflict left the Somali region one of Ethiopia’s poorest states - on average nearly two million people are dependent on food aid each year.* The progress towards peace in the SRS can’t happen in isolation - and many see the importance of connecting with and contributing to federal peace and dialogue processes that addresses legacies of conflict and violence in SRS. Suldan Abdi, from the Council for Peace and Unity explains:
“As Somali people we want to prioritise carrying the Somali agenda to different dialogues in Addis Ababa. The Council for Peace and Unity and some of the civil society meet the different sections of society to ask them what are the priorities and agendas that you are willing as Somali people to take to Addis Ababa.”
“The Asmara agreement should be given the same consideration as the federal government and the international community gave to the Pretoria agreement [in Tigray]. As a community we believe that this agreement was the backbone and the base of peace and stability in this region.”
Despite the many challenges to overcome, there is a sense of pride in the things that have already been achieved, and of hope for things to come. Mohamed Husien says:
“When I compare the past and the present, I see the changes. I see some hope for different aspects of life. I see economic change in the future, I see political change in the future. I also see civil society’s capacity to to stand for the rights of the citizens.”
Dr Fowsia adds:
“Ethiopia is a poor country, but when you look at the Somali region, even by the standards of the rest of Ethiopia, we are so far behind. So my hope is to move the needle from that marginality into a place where hope is consolidated and people can focus on harnessing the natural resources they have, stability, economically and politically. So I could be dreaming in colour, that’s my hope.”
This work would not be possible without our partners and donors. With particular thanks to KasmoDev, Irish Aid, the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, and the German Federal Foreign Office.
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