The ongoing intimidation of Harari property owners by groups of Oromo is the latest bout of tension in an ancient walled city that has regularly experienced political contestation. While Harari victims say they are being dispossessed, some Oromo activists claim historic wrongs need redressing.
When a group of Oromo carrying sticks and machetes entered his hotel construction site in Harar in October, Sabit Abdurahim drew his gun, pointed it upwards, and threatened to fire in the air. City police arrived and held him for five days, said Sabit, a U.S. resident of Harari origin. Officers said the detention was to protect him, but that was not the only threatening incident.
“About 100 organized Qeerroo forcibly entered my house this month and beat up my workers and attacked my cousin who went to negotiate,” he said on Dec. 6. Sabit says he acquired the land through legal lease tender in a court auction, but that the aggressors are trying to extort 1.5 million birr ($52,724) by threatening his family, and have told him to build a house for someone previously resettled from the site.
In July the water supply was cut off to the walled city for weeks. A letter demanding 10 million birr within five days for 15,000 unemployed youth from the neighboring Oromia district of Haramaya was sent to the Harari Water and Sewerage Authority on Oct. 3.
There’s “been continual tension in the city where one can hear groups of Qeerroo driving around beeping their horns at night yelling “ciao ciao Adare” (goodbye Harari), and banging on the doors of Harari compounds at night while yelling ‘kinyyaa’ (this is ours) and ‘pack your bags”, wrote Lindsay Bucklin, an anthropologist researching her University of Edinburgh doctorate, on July 23 on Instagram.
Because of the situation, some investors have reportedly left Harar, an important Islamic city and UNESCO World Heritage Site whose walled city, mosques, markets, and museums are popular with tourists. Sabit and others believe the intimidation is part of a campaign for the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), which is led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, to control the administration of Harari People’s National Regional State.
Harari is Ethiopia’s least populous region and surrounded by Oromia. It had 183,344 people according to a 2007 census but less than 10,000 Hararis when their homeland was formed. The 2007 ethnic composition was 53 percent Oromo, 22 percent Amhara and 9 percent Harari. It received regional status in 1994 following its history as an autonomous Islamic sultanate that some say was founded as long ago as the 9th century.
The distant past as well as recent history plays into the current political competition in a uniquely constituted region.
Political power is shared between ODP and the Harari National League (HNL), which has been aligned with Ethiopia’s four-party ruling front. However, the balance in the state is tilted toward ethnic Hararis on the 36-member Harari National Regional State Council, which is formed by two other bodies. The 14-member Harari National Congress in the walled city was given a “final say” on Harari affairs to protect the group’s self-rule rights, says a 2015 history published by the regional culture and tourism bureau.
The Assembly is elected by and composed of Hararis only—including, uniquely, voting rights for Harari elsewhere in Ethiopia—selects the regional president, and decides on identity issues such as language, according to Ethnicity and Power in Ethiopia by academic Sarah Vaughan. “Harari NRS is governed under a highly idiosyncratic internal arrangement, which artificially maintains a disproportionate ‘balance of power’ between the small Harari community, and the much larger Amhara and Oromo populations living outside the walled city but within the boundary of the state,” she wrote in the 2003 thesis.
HNL controls all Harari National Congress seats and also has four representatives from the walled city to ODP’s 18 on the other legislative body, the Peoples’ Representatives Congress, according to Council deputy speaker Amira Ali. The rights of Amhara, Oromo and Somalis suffered because the “inner city council” of ethnic Hararis, or Ge usu’, controlled regional affairs, wrote academic Kjetil Tronvoll in 2000 for a Minority Rights International report. “The political, economic, and social discrimination against non-Ge usu’ in Harar has created a tense political atmosphere,” it said.
Back in 1999, that led to demonstrations against those arrangements, according to Tronvoll. And this year, HNL representatives were pushed out through intimidation from Sofi, Erer and Dire Teyara districts, and the party is now under pressure from ODP in the city, said a senior Harari, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
“The political motive seems to be to remove the indigenous Harari minority from their place of origin. There is no legality to it; it is brute force. I know someone who was beaten just because he wore a t shirt with HNL written on it. Even the former head of justice and security of the region has preached hatred against Harari,” he said.
An HNL woreda official corroborated the report that the party had been pushed out from rural areas around six months ago during protests and a chaotic national political transition, but he was also too afraid to provide his name, or that of his district. He said initially it appeared OLF was involved as ODP officials were also targeted, but subsequently all positions were filled by ODP.
Activists sent video testimonies from Harari who’ve suffered violent evictions. “A group of Qeerroos invaded my house every night between 2am and 5am. They entered my home compound wielding all sorts of weapons like machetes. At the end, they escalated their threats by throwing stones on to our house and we had to leave the house in fear of our lives,” said Alfuleila Abubakri in one clip, alleging that 30 families endured a similar experience.
While not denying unruly incidents, some Oromo activists view the underlying unjust political arrangements as the cause. “It is utterly against democracy and was only designed to marginalize Oromo. It has to change,” said Mohammed Abdella, a former judge in neighboring East Hararghe Zone of Oromia, who fled Ethiopia in 2015 after being detained at a military camp with other protesters.
“The Oromo are demanding the simple right to have democratic and fair representation, the right to use their own language, develop their own culture, the right to equality, the right not to be evicted from their ancestral land, and, most importantly, the right to be owners of their economy,” he said from Cairo. (See full comment below).
In a 2009 report, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council partially agreed, saying the region is “structured and governed in a manner that primarily promotes the rights and interests of a single ethnic group, i.e. the Harari nationality.”
While Harari may benefit from the political arrangements since 1991, those rights provide no privileges regarding budget allocation and they have also consistently lost land disputes in rural areas adjudicated by ODP officials, according to the senior Harari figure. “In name it became Harari Regional State but in practice it became a place where Hararis cannot get justice,” he said.
Even if there are concerns about Harari privileges, the ODP and Oromo elites are unlikely to try and alter Harari’s constitutional arrangements, said Jawar Mohammed, an influential Oromo activist. “It contradicts our own view on federalism. Second, this is a historic city, it has to be preserved and protected. Back in 1991 it could have been special province in Oromia. But there’s no point in changing constitution now. It will remain a regional state. Oromos have nothing to lose from Hararis having their own regional state.”
Jawar said instead there needs to be democratization to ease disputes: “The government became weak and too corrupt to handle the relationship between citizens and state, and that was exploited by local rivals to create havoc.”
Anthropologist Sidney R Waldron said the Harari and Oromo first encountered each other in 1559 after the Oromo spread from southern Ethiopia. “In the next eight years, the Oromo had reduced the political and trading domain of the ‘Adali capital of Harar to such an extent that only the city itself survived,” he wrote in the The Political Economy of Harari-Oromo Relationships, 1559-1874.
The Harari ruler, Amir Nur, built the wall for security before he died in 1567 and the capital of the Adal Sultanate moved a decade later. “The Harari who remained behind the new city walls were the sole survivors of a once much wider spread ethnic and linguistic community,” Waldron wrote in 1984.
Until it was conquered by Egyptian-Ottomans in 1875, Harar was an independent trading emirate that coexisted with the neighboring Afran Qallo grouping of four Oromo clans partly through mutually beneficial economic arrangements. Key commodities included coffee, saffron, cattle, salt, and khat. Menelik of Shewa took Harar in 1887 and became Emperor in 1889 as he expanded the Christian empire.
But despite Amhara influence strongly increasing, Harar retained its religious and social character, and Harari largely maintained their status as officials, merchants, and landlords in the last century. “While the city had been relegated to a position of minor importance in Imperial terms, the Ge usu’ continued to dominate neighbouring populations in the local political economy,” said academic Christine Gibb.
Academic Oromo expert Assefa Jalata describes the pre-Menelik Oromo movements as partly defensive. He says the ethnicity were caught in a religious war as Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi (Ahmed Gragn), who was from the Harar area and backed by the Ottomans, confronted Christian Abyssinia for more than a decade beginning in 1527. “The Oromo fought twelve butta wars between 1522 and 1618, recovering, expanding, and establishing Oromia (the Oromo country) to its present boundaries,” he said in a 2012 paper in the Journal of Pan-African Studies.
After this process of protecting and asserting itself in preceding centuries, the Oromo nation and its Gadaa democracy were decimated by the Amhara-Tigray ruling classes with the assistance of European colonialists towards the end of the 19th century, he wrote. An “authoritarian-terrorist” Ethiopian empire was established and continued after 1991 under the rule of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), according to Assefa, a sociologist from the University of Tennessee.
Such viewpoints are the ideological fuel for an Oromo movement that now has federal power after capitalizing on mass protests over the last three years. Although there were many peaceful demonstrations against the suppression of Oromo rights and state repression, farms, factories, hotels and government buildings were also torched and officials killed.
Regional and federal security forces shot dead hundreds of protesters in Oromia and arrested tens of thousands more in an attempt to crush the resistance that in fact served more to boost it. The crackdown followed two decades when many Oromo opposition activists were jailed for alleged links to the then banned Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which clashed with the rebel TPLF as the Derg regime collapsed in the late 1980s, and was later supplanted by the ODP.
Since 2016, Oromia has experienced conflicts on various parts of its long border with Somali region; between the Oromo Guji and the Gedeo people of Southern Nations region; and with ethnic Gumuz in Benishangul-Gumuz state. Those clashes and others have forced at least 2.4 million Ethiopians from their homes. Oromia has more than a third of Ethiopia’s estimated 108 million people. Activists say remnants of a TPLF-dominated regime are deliberately provoking conflict to derail reforms.
Regardless of the veracity of such claims, there is also clear evidence of Oromo political aggression in Harari. For example, a Dec. 5 video shows an Oromo crowd marching through the city. The Harari official said at regional government offices they demanded the removal of officials and replaced the state flag with Oromia’s. Photos show Harari region police accompanying the protests with Oromia and OLF flags draped on vehicles.
Those pictures capture the power but also reflects the incoherence of current Oromo politics, as the Oromia and federal governments are now battling the OLF in western Oromia. The liberation movement—which objected to the creation of Harari state during the post-Derg transition—returned this year to participate peacefully in politics, but has not disarmed and a plan for integration into regional security forces has not been implemented.
While OLF is the most popular Oromo movement, Prime Minister Abiy and Oromia president Lemma Megersa are the most respected and powerful politicians. The Qeerroo concept is potent yet they are amorphous. Therefore so-called Qeerroo elements are easily instrumentalized at local levels by political actors. The word means bachelor in Afaan Oromo and now refers to any youthful Oromo protester; positively by Oromo activists and pejoratively by opponents.
After years of passivity within the federal structure, an assertive Oromia has recruited former activists such as Milkessa Midega and OPride’s Mohammed Ademo and hired former OLF faction leader Kemal Gelchu as security chief. Its ruling party is working with former OLF leader Lencho Lata, but it is taking strong measures against OLF sympathizers, which is likely to include those who assisted ODP’s political victory. Amidst this activity, the situation in easterly Harari has received relatively little attention.
In another example of the intimidation in the city, an anonymous investor said armed Oromo invaded his shopping and hotel complex on Dec. 19, saying they were taking from the rich. What was his grandfather’s former property just outside the city walls was occupied during socialist land reforms in the mid-70s and bought back from the government in 2010, he said. Harari Diaspora organizations have written letters to Abiy’s government about the intimidation, but say they have received no meaningful response.
“The investment has so far cost me and my family everything we’ve worked for in our professional lives. We need the federal government to break its deafening silence and uphold the rule of law and rescue whatever is left of this once beautiful ancient walled city,” he said. The investor was planning to have his name published for this article but pulled out two days prior to publication due to insistence from colleagues in Harar that they would face violent retribution if he went on-the-record.
Yet some activists say Harari is Oromo land, while others claim that Oromo rights are not respected. For example, a 2011 report by OPride website about the murder of a Harari businessman said the region had given land to wealthy Hararis who evicted poor Oromo farmers, and that the state’s existence had “always been questionable”.
Rights and wrongs
Those sentiments are familiar from the debate over Addis Ababa, which is Ethiopia and Oromia’s capital. The constitution grants Oromia a “special interest” in the autonomous city, but that hasn’t been defined. The Oromo protests were triggered by 2014 claims that a development plan for Addis Ababa and surrounding Oromia areas was a blueprint for further annexation of Oromo land.
Similarly, Oromia was given a stake in Harari in the 1992 proclamation that established autonomous regional governments during the transition from military rule of a unitary state to today’s multinational federation. “The special national interests and political right of the Oromo over Region 13 [Harari] and Region 14 [Addis Ababa] are reserved,” it said.
However, there was no mention of Oromo rights in Harari in the 1995 Constitution and so the proclamation’s “promise wasn’t delivered,” said Betru Dibaba, a masters candidate in international human rights law at Addis Ababa University. Furthermore, Oromo people are given language rights in the Harari regional constitution, but “contrary to this fact, Oromo People are not well represented in the Council,” he said in an interview.
Author Bertus Praeg said in 2006 that realizing their privileged position, Harari became “unconditional” supporters of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, which the TPLF was the founding member and driving force of. That Harari positioning was to counter opponents who resented the creation of the state within Oromia, he wrote in Ethiopia and Political Renaissance in Africa.
“As a result Oromos generally try to weaken the position of the Hararis by mobilizing the surrounding Oromos to vote for the OPDO, in order to secure supremacy in the state council,” he wrote. The ODP was known as the OPDO until a September name change.
An Aug. 14 report by Oromia’s public broadcaster said the party had come to an agreement with HNL to amend the Harari constitution so the region is administered equitably. That deal struck by new HNL chairman and regional president Ordin Bedri was rejected by Harari, according to the investor, but speaker Amira said the legislative bodies had not yet considered it.
Ordin took office after his predecessor Murad Abdulhadi resigned in June following violence in Harar. Southern Nations officials stepped down in July following a request from Prime Minister Abiy for the leaders of four zones to resign following communal violence in their districts.
Khalid, a Harari who lives in the U.S., argues the region was created to “protect a vulnerable ethnic minority and as a mechanism for overcoming detrimental policies and actions that have systematically disenfranchised Hararis from their ancestral homeland.” But now that protection of the Harari minority is being used against them.
“There is no doubt that people have legitimate grievances to settle, but it is patently clear that those grievances are being opportunistically exploited to craft a narrative that legitimizes the current state of affairs,” said Khalid, who asked for his father’s name to be excluded to protect his family. (See full testimony below)
“Narrow nationalist militias in Harar have been empowered to operate as a de facto government methodically displacing Hararis from their homes, seizing and looting their businesses and properties, and creating a social climate where it has become fashionable to assault and intimidate Hararis for the mere offense of publicly speaking their own language. It is still not too late for the government to do the right thing and re-institute the constitutional order of law,” he said.
Former judge, Mohammed Abdella, says Oromo in Harari face de jure and de facto discrimination
In terms of representation of Oromo, the political and legal system of the Harari People’s Regional State was arranged in such a way to minoritize the demographic majority of the Oromo, thereby marginalizing them from socio-economic and political affairs, and to majoritize the minority Harari.
Oromo constitute close to 60 percent of the Harari population and ethnic Harari are about eight percent. However, if you see the current composition of the regional legislature both Oromo and Harari have equal representation. How on earth can the people which constitute eight percent and 60 percent of the population have the same number of legislators?
The Harari People’s Council has 36 members and is composed of two bodies: Harari National Assembly and Harari People’s Representatives. Out of 36 members of the Council, 14 are from the Assembly. However, only ethnic Harari have the right to elect and be elected to the Assembly and other ethnic groups are not allowed to elect or be elected to it.
Yet Harari people also have the right to be elected to and the right to elected to the People’s Representatives. (Article 48-51 of the amended Harari constitution). This is utterly against democracy and was only designed to marginalize Oromo. It has to change.
The Oromo are demanding the right to have democratic and fair representation, the right to use their own language, develop their own culture, the right to equality, the right not to be evicted from their ancestral land, and, most importantly, the right to be owners of their economy.
As per article 5 of the state constitution, Afaan Oromo and Harari are working languages. However, practically, only Amharic and Harari language are working languages. Oromo can’t access services in their language, especially in the court and prosecution office. Oromo farmers can’t vendor their products in Harari as traffic police chase them in the name of keeping the city clean. Really, our people are being oppressed.
Oromo were given political and cultural rights according to proclamation 7/1992 and the first Harari state constitution. However, none of these rights were implemented and even worse the above-mentioned right was excluded from the amended constitution.
Political rights and Oromo special interest were reserved over Harar city but that didn’t include the current rural district of the state. However, because the government wanted to diminish Oromia by portioning it among different nations and nationalities, it annexed Hundane district of Oromia to create a somehow economically and geographically viable Harari state.
But the Harari can’t possibly have viable state in terms of economy, population and geography. Just because they wanted to diminish Oromia, the EPRDF organized the tiny Harari as regional state, while nearly four million Sidama were denied a regional state.
In June, Harari police killed at least three protesters when they protested the land grabs and overall marginalization of the Oromos. There have been massive land grabs on the outskirts of Harar as the city expanded. Oromo farmers have been evicted with no or meager compensation.
One of the areas where evictions were carried out is Gaara Haakim where the Harari Diaspora have built mansions. The government promised compensation and alternative livelihoods for those evicted from ancestral land. But later reneged and left them empty-handed.
It was at this moment the Oromo people revolted against the regional government.
A group of concerned Harari in the U.K. outline the theory and reality of Harari regional state BULLET POINTS
To press the case for a Harari state, the following points were passionately presented to the transitional authorities by H.E. Ambassador Mohamed Abdulrahman, a Harari lawyer who specialized in federalism. He backed each of these point with concrete evidence:
- We Hararis had independent governments going back several centuries.
- We had unique history, folklore, and culture.
- We were invaded and occupied in 1887 by Ethiopian Emperor of Menelik II.
- All our subsequent resistance struggles and movements have been mercilessly squashed.
- We were tortured, imprisoned and forced into exile.
- Our lands have been taken away from us.
- Unlike others, Hararis are the only people in Ethiopia that have detailed Title Deeds for ALL their properties including farms going back several centuries.
- We have been deliberately reduced into a minority.
- How could an ancient people like Hararis who built one of the major civilizations in sub-saharan Africa be called stateless?
- How could we, the ancient people of Harar be Ethiopians and be called stateless at the same time? Do you (parliamentarians) think we built our great civilization in the air?
- We Hararis must be given a unique state status, to preserve our culture, heritage, and language.
- Please demonstrate that you, the new EPRDF government, has come to stand for the oppressed. Following the presentation, Harari region was approved by unanimous parliamentary vote. The OLF was vehemently against the formation of a Harari region claiming the territory belongs to Oromos. A few Hararis were killed in early to mid 90s by OLF in broad daylight in both Harar and Dire Dawa to try and prevent the region from being established.
The Harari government was established from a regional constitution, which was based on countries like Switzerland, Canada, and Norway with the aim of preserving minority rights. As stated by UNESCO, the only people who are able to stop the constant destruction of unique historical Harari homes and preserve the rich cultural heritage of the ancient city are native Hararis themselves.
As per the Harari constitution, the regional president is nominated by Harari National Assembly and later confirmed by Harari National People’s Council. This position is to be held by native Harari who speaks fluent Harari only. The Harari regional vice-president and cabinet are nominated by the president and later confirmed by the Council, while all other state employees are recruited on merit.
Today, the regional president is Harari and for the past 25 years the vice presidency has been held by OPDO/ ODP. Cabinet is 55 percent Hararis; 45 percent Oromos with 2 Amhara. The ethnic makeup of public sector employees within Harari region are: 1,400 Hararis, 2,400 Oromos, 2,100 Amharas, 600 other. Over 90 percent of patients in public hospitals in Harari and students in state education are Oromos.
Harari region is by far the smallest of all Ethiopian regions, and yet has one of the lowest poverty rates of around seven percent compared to Oromia region, which is around 29 percent. The latter is also by far the worst performing in Ethiopia regarding economic development. In summary, one can easily see that the main beneficiaries of public services within Harari are Oromos.
Khalid believes that Oromia’s ruling party is orchestrating the campaign of intimidation, which is part of a history of marginalization of Hararis
During the reign of Menelik, Tafari Makonnen, and, to a lesser extent, the Derg, state power was used to dismantle the structure of Harari society and seize control over Harari assets. These policies were rooted in seemingly divergent ideological motivations that resulted in the same social outcomes.
The convergence of local repressions and relatively favorable economic conditions in other regions of Ethiopia and beyond set the stage for a massive Harari exodus, which was juxtaposed by policies which incentivized the influx of people from historically antagonistic regions.
Harar’s profile was reduced from being one of the most important cities in Ethiopia—a place of international relevance and hub of cooperation between regional ethnic groups—to a declining relic whose historic legacy was continuously eroded by antagonistic elements.
The great hope of the ethnic federalist arrangement was to provide a political framework that can mitigate regressive distortions of the social, political and economic progress of marginalized peoples made by the policies of prior regimes. Unfortunately, the demographic situation in the Harari State, which itself was a byproduct of such distortions, has become a favored rhetorical rallying point for opposition groups and narrow nationalist elements within ruling parties that exploit seemingly progressive language of democratic reform to undermine the institutions of the Harari State.
Cadres within the various ruling parties and opposition movements have waged a campaign of hostile propaganda auspiciously predicated on the demographic statistics to stoke ethnic hatred. The irony of groups who supposedly believe in the institution of ethnic federalism agitating in this way exposes the superficial and opportunistic nature of their support.
OPDO orchestrated a campaign of intimidation to coerce numerous non-Oromo ethnic groups in Harar’s countryside, like the Argoba, to claim Oromo identity. The OLF had also previously waged a campaign of terror to undermine the Harari State through arbitrary executions of Harari and Amhara residents.
Today, narrow nationalist militias in Harar have been empowered to operate as a de facto government methodically displacing Hararis from their homes, seizing and looting their businesses and properties, and creating a social climate where it has become fashionable to assault and intimidate Hararis for the mere offense of publicly speaking their own language. In a bizarre twist, the social project initiated by Menelik II and sustained by Taferi Makonnen is being completed through the proxies of the current ruling elites.
It is worth noting that the initial victims of these reactionary militias were Oromo peasants who did not comply with their protest initiatives; Oromo farmers who rejected the largely symbolic economic boycott or spoke against the burgeoning expressions of hateful rhetoric. The intimidation campaign was expanded to target Oromos who served as representatives of the Harari National League party, labeling them as traitors. brutally assaulting them, razing their farms razed stealing their property.
The campaign then escalated to target the Sheekhaal Somali clan, whose origins trace back to Harar around 1000 CE but went on to stretch into the territory of today’s Somali Regional State. The Sheekhaal were displaced from the Somali region due to the hostility of the ONLF, and had trekked to Harar in an effort to find refuge in their ancestral homeland in the early 2000s.
With considerable support from selfless volunteers, the Sheekhaal were settled on vacant land in Harar’s Erer district and provided the means to establish a small, but relatively self-sufficient village. Over the years, the population of this community grew to nearly 10,000 people.
However, their relatively isolated position made them an easy target for narrow nationalist militias who decried the Sheekhaal as ‘settlers’, and successive raids were instrumental in displacing this traumatized community once more. At one point, after the community was subjected to numerous raids, armed protection was provided by the government which allowed the 2,000 or so remaining residents to live in relative peace.
However, almost immediately after the OPDO/ODP appointed head of regional security arbitrarily dismissed their protection, the narrow nationalist militia issued an ultimatum for the remaining Sheekhaal to leave Harar or face dire consequences. This forced the Sheekhaal to be displaced once more, with many now residing in abhorrent conditions in disparate camps. The displacement of the Sheekhaal represents anywhere from three to five percent of the overall population of Harar.
There is no doubt that people have legitimate grievances to settle, but it is patently clear that those grievances are being opportunistically exploited to craft a narrative that legitimizes the current state of affairs. All the circumstantial evidence indicates that the narrow nationalist militias who now dominate the Harari State are being systematically enabled by the ODP and the federal government. It would take no more than 200 federal troops to secure the regional state and allow the formal government a chance to function properly.
Instead, the military officials idly watch as the situation steadily degenerates. ODP pretends like it has no influence over the highly coordinated chaos being executed in Harar. The big question is why? Why enable social forces predicated on ratcheting up such hateful rhetoric? Why subject such a tiny regional state of the country to this sort of conditions? What can possibly be worth inflicting so much generational trauma to the local population? It is still not too late for the government to do the right thing and re-institute the constitutional order of law.
William Davison, Leake Tewele(ethiopianinsight)