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The future of the Afar people and the new political developments in Ethiopia

Afar region of Ethiopia indicated with red line. (google map)

By Hamad Y. Issa
Uppsala, Sweden 

Ethiopia is in the middle of a civil war that has been going on since November 2020 that killed thousands and displaced more than two million people. The Afar people are  not immune from these conflicts. The future of the Afar people in Ethiopia depends on  stability of the country. 

For three decades Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) ruled Ethiopia with iron  fist. TPLF has dream of creating an independent Tigray state, a “Greater Tigray” that include the resource-rich parts of the Afar region. 

When TPLF’s came to power thirty years ago, the Afar people had two strong guerrilla  groups (ALF & ANLF) that was the main reason why the TPLF decided to postpone its  Great Tigray project in Afar region. 

Systematic marginalisation of the Afar people 

Immediately upon taking power in 1991, TPLF began to plan to systematically  dismantle the structures that existed in Afar society by weakening the Afar  traditional/political leadership, activists and freedom fighters. An Afar proverb reads,  “The beauty of the Afar man is his cane, his sword, and his weapon.” 

The TPLF regime forbade the Afars to wear precisely these attributes, which led to  discontent and strong protests. Many clashes took place between Afar and TPLF regime when they were in power. To name a few, in 1992 in Gawani hundreds of Afars, 

including tourists from Djibouti and Eritrea were killed and a couple of months later at  Dat Bahari pastoralists were ruthlessly murdered. 

In 1996, the TPLF succeeded in manoeuvring the two Afar guerrilla groups that ruled  the region and replacing them with their own, the Tigray Afar Democratic  Organization (TADO), which later changed its name to the Afar Democratic  Organization (ADO). 

To further undermine traditional Afar rule, they moved the Afar capital from its  traditional administrative and cultural centre, Aysaita, located on fertile farms along the  Awash River, to the new and completely artificial city of Samara, built in the middle of  the desert. In addition to dismantling the traditional authority, the purpose of the move  was to be able to quickly strike at the Afar resistance movements and remotely control  the region with the help of its agents in Samara. The TPLF instructed so called advisers  for the Afar region to put aside any serious developments in the region on favour of  reflecting TPLF goals. 

Much has happened to weaken the Afars during TPLF rule. The Afar region was  declared a security risk area where martial law prevailed, partly to counter the Afar  Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF) formed in direct response to the  TPLF’s brutal policy towards the Afar people, and partly to facilitate the takeover of 

natural resources in the north as well as to allow the Issa-Somali terrorist group  supported by the state of Djibouti to ravage freely in the south-eastern part of the  region. Issa-Somali terrorist group succeeded with TPLF’s help to occupy large areas  of land along the asphalt road as well as savannah-like fertile areas around the middle  course of the Awash River. 

The Tigrayan security police worked to persecute dissidents inside otherwise  inaccessible parts of the region with the help of paid informants. This made it  impossible for Afars to gather and discuss the current situation without being arrested  and charged with terrorism linked to ARDUF. Because of the laws of war, the area was  closed to the outside world; no information could be leaked about the human rights  violations that took place. 

New hope aroused after all these oppressions 

In 2012, the late Prime Minster of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi, who has ruled the country  since 1991 passed away. He was replaced by Prime Minster Haile Mariam Dassalegn,  who has no real power to govern. Power was retained within the TPLF, which  appointed many deputy prime ministers who held real power. People in Ethiopia, tired  after half a century of oppression, began to act when they saw that the regime had  weakened with Meles’ death. Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, took the lead  in the popular protests that spread to all regions of Ethiopia, with the exception of  Tigray. 

The bloody and deadly street protest led to the resignation of Mr Dessalegn. In 2018  with the help of the popular protests, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power and  the TPLF lost control of the state apparatus.

Mr Abiy’s government declared peace with all guerrilla groups based in arch-enemy  Eritrea, including the Afar guerrilla ARDUF. He ended a long-standing territorial dispute  with Eritrea, earning him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. 

In the spring of 2021, the TPLF leadership decided to leave all government  assignments in the new government and move to Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray Regional National State, to prepare for action plan to weaken the already fragile  government. TPLF concentrated its efforts on developing its own region, and enriching  itself by seizing state assets and money. The Ethiopian National Army was actually a  Tigrayan army. They transferred weapons, tanks and other military equipment from  military bases around country to depots in Tigray. Even the traditional home of the  Ethiopian air force Bishoftu/Debre Zeyt was completely emptied of its arsenals.  Therefore, the TPLF knew that the new Ethiopian army would not be able to resist if a  war breaks out. 

In November 2020, forces belonging to the Tigray National Regional State attacked a  military post belonging to the Ethiopian central government. Mr Abiy said TPLF  “crossed the red line” and started military operation against them. In early 2021 the central government occupied most of the cities in Tegray including the capital Mekelle  and replaced the regional government with a group loyal to the central government. 

After a few months, the Ethiopian Defence Forces decided to leave Tigray region. As  a result, TPLF, which had been transformed into a guerrilla movement, took over the  entire Tigray. TPLF decided to go from defensive to offensive. 

Unprovoked attack on the Afar people 

In July 2021, when the Ethiopian army declared a unilateral ceasefire and left Tigray,  the TPLF attacked the retreating army. On July 4, TPLF annexed Yallo, the first Afar village bordering Tigray. They advanced and conquered several villages in the Afar  Regional State. They burned houses and mosques; they emptied food depots and  hospitals in several cities, which led to many people fleeing and being referred to as  internally displaced persons. Many of these refugees settled in the village of Gaali  Kooma, which was also attacked by the TPLF. Hundreds of children, women and the  elderly fell victim to their artillery and were killed, as well as their Livestock. 

When this massacre became known locally and internationally, the Afar National  Regional State government began mobilizing its special force, guerrillas and militias to  defend its territory. In its attempt to take control of the strategic village of Mille, the  TPLF deployed tens of thousands of ground soldiers, supported by cannons, tanks and  mines. When they failed to penetrate the Afar defence, they retreated. 

After a defeat in Afar villages, the TPLF changed strategy and decided to occupy Wallo,  part of the Amhara region, which borders the Afar region. They attack the village of  Shifra so that they can advance towards strategic city of Mille. However, they were  defeated. Subsequently, several new fronts were opened with the goal of reaching  Mille, but they met great resistance from the Ethiopian defence forces in cooperation  with the Afar forces. In a final attempt, they opened new fronts in another part of the 

Afar area bordering the Oromia zone within the Amhara region, but all attempts led to  losses. In all the villages previously occupied by the TPLF, wide spread incident of loot, murder, torture has been reported. 

The lasting peace and development for all Horn of Africa region 

The TPLF has failed to regain power by force. The central government has, at least  temporarily, averted the threat thanks to Afar’s brave resistance. All peace-loving  Ethiopian leaders from all regional states must now gather for a reconciliation meeting  where the future of Ethiopia is decided, with the help of the UN, but without the  influence of foreign stakeholders who have been involved in providing both sides with  weapons during the war. The Afar National Regional State must be given a major role in these all-inclusive national dialogue as it is the most affected region and there is an  imminent risk that the TPLF will persist on claiming part of the Afar region. 

It is important that the Afars, as a strong minority, are given a significant role because  they are a bridge to a just and lasting peace in Ethiopia. If there is a lasting peace and  all ethnic groups in the country get the respect they deserve, if each regional state  works to improve the living conditions of its citizens, then this country will flourish, which  in turn will have positive effects in this otherwise hard hit region in the north-eastern 

part of the African continent. 

The better future for the Afar people in Ethiopia will be achieved through a lasting  ceasefire and with an inclusive intra-Ethiopian dialog, at same time for Afar regional  state to form the political structure they require to meet the challenges of economic  development, health, education, and social services. 

Last but not least, we have a hope of a future where we see the united horn of Africa,  and where the natural resources of the countries are extracted to build the prosperity  of every citizen and not for the benefit of few in leadership positions. 

Hamad Y. Issa, EC member of the Swedish-Afar humanitarian organization the Afar  Friends in Sweden 


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  1. Afaris are ancient society and Tigrigna speakers just lije wanting to destroy Ethiooia, they also want to destroy the great Afaris by separating Afar family, now half in Eritrea, half in Ethiopia, not to mention exploiting its resources. These Tigrigna speakers are mercinaries of Egypt et al, they dont care even for their people except serve outsiders. Today, they have set up another mercinary Olf bleeding people, All Ethiopians must see this.


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