Oromo-Somali Relations

The research project examines inter-ethnic relations between the Oromo and the Somali of southern Ethiopia along the Ethio-Kenyan borderlands. Oromo and Somali belong to the eastern Cushitic linguistic family. Inhabiting the lowland semi-arid part of the Horn, the Somali are nomadic pastoralists. Likewise, the neighbouring Oromo groups are pastoralists and agro-pastoralists. Despite their linguistic affinity and similar livelihood the Oromo and the Somali have, nevertheless, differences, which are socio-cultural in nature. The Somali are characterised by camel pastoralism, while the Oromo are characterised by cattle. Recently, even though their distinctive social and ritual importances are still maintained, both sides are adapting the livestock that they used to ignore in the past.

Another dimension of cultural differentiation is differential incorporation into the Islamic social world. The Somali adopted Islam earlier, while most of the Oromo groups took up Islam only as a result of recent socio-political developments in the region. In fact, some Oromo groups, such as the Borana, maintained their traditional belief system. A historically friendly relationship has characterised the interaction between the Somali and the Muslim Oromo groups, such as the Arsi. Shared pilgrimage centres, such as the Shrine of Sheikh Hussein, in Bale, have facilitated religious integration.
On the other hand, the relation between Borana Oromo and Somali clans has been characterised by competition and conflict. The Borana and Somali conflict can be understood only within the longstanding territorial competition and the interaction of the ethnic groups in relation to the state within the framework of the politics of the Horn in general and that of Ethiopia in particular. In 1991 the Siad Barre government in Somalia and the Mengistu’s regime in Ethiopia were both overthrown. While the government in Somalia did not revive to date that of Ethiopia was soon replaced by a new regime that changed the country’s administrative structure. The new regime, presided over by the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has restructured the age-old rigidly centralised Ethiopian state along an ethnic based federal state. In post 1991 Ethiopia, Oromo-Somali relations are reframed within the new political context. The two ethnic groups have got their own regional administration. This contributed in reshaping the already existing competition to have inter-regional form. In this case regional borders and territorial claims became centre of the conflicts. The problem is being intensified gradually involving violent conflicts. Indeed, within the new system not only the magnitude and frequency of the problem intensified but its dimension has also broadened. It included all the Oromo and Somali groups that share resource borders. The groups which used to have a relatively friendly relationship, such as the relationship between the Arsi Oromo and the adjacent Somali groups, have been reversed even involving violent conflicts. In current Ethiopian context ethnic borders are also, in most cases, political ones.

The Ethiopian Government has preferred political solution to the territorial competition, to solve it by undertaking referendum in the disputed areas. Indeed, the Ethiopian Government’s so-called referendum did not take into consideration the socio-economic situation of the area. The livelihood of the majority of the community depends on pastoralism, which requires seasonal mobility and extensive use of the environment. Thus, it is difficult to demarcate a solid line between pastoral communities. Both Oromo and Somali transcend international borders. While the Oromo inhabit in Ethiopia and Kenya, Somali inhabit in four countries of northeast Africa: Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia. Besides, the area is characterized by political turmoil with the presence of different liberation movements and interest groups. Practically the problem goes beyond the current borders of Oromia and Somali Regional States.
On the other hand, there are minority groups, around this resource border, who reveal ambiguous ethnic identity. They either couldn’t clearly categorize their ethnic identity to Oromo or Somali because of centuries-old identity construction, or they considered that categorizing themselves into one of these ethnic groups might affect their economic and political interests in the region.
Against the background of such complex identity formations and their entanglement with state politics the research project examines the following issues:

  1. the role of longstanding competition and conflict over resources in sharpening distinct ethnic identities.
  2. the role of religion in building differential relationship, between Somali and different Oromo groups and its role in identity building.
  3. the conditions and impact of the changing alliances between the ethnic groups and the various states
  4. the politicisation of ethnicity following the ethnic based federal arrangement and the impact of the solid boundary formation along the ethnic border.
  5. the position of the minority groups around these ethnic borders within the context of the current Ethiopian politics.
  6. the liberation movements, the state(s) and the complication of ethnic relations along the Ethio-Kenyan borderlands.