Tension continues to run high in Ethiopia’s Somali region after federal and regional forces clashed last week, resulting in at least 29 deaths and the resignation of the regional president.
A temporary successor has been named, and a semblance of normalcy has returned to Jijiga, the regional capital. But the flare-up raises important legal and political questions about Ethiopia’s system of government, known as ethnic federalism, in which the country’s nine states are defined largely by ethnicity.
And the aftermath will challenge Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s ability to turn inspiring rhetoric into real change for communities that have endured years of violence, according to experts on the region.
Friction between the federal and Somali regional governments has been building since April, when Abiy became prime minister. His reformist vision for the country — which has already led to a historic reconciliation with longtime foe Eritrea — put him at odds with Somali Regional President Abdi Illey, who is known for ruling his territory with an iron fist.
Attempts to negotiate a path forward faltered, according to Zecharias Zelalem, an Ethiopian journalist who writes for OPride.com, a news site focused on the neighboring Oromia region.
Conflict erupted a week ago when Abdi ordered Liyu police, a special force under his command, into Dire Dawa, a federal city outside the Somali region’s jurisdiction.
That was an “illegal act,” Safia Aidid, a researcher and expert on the region, told VOA.
Federal forces responded by confronting the Liyu and entering Jijiga on August 4, leading to dozens of deaths and displacing hundreds of people, according to various media reports.
Across the region, Abdi is deeply unpopular, but Somalis in the region reacted negatively to the federal takeover of Jijiga. There are also questions about whether the federal government’s actions were constitutional.
The clash in Jijiga is just the latest incident of conflict in the region, where armed militant groups have for years instigated violence and attacked local populations.
Unrest has been so severe that close to 1 million people in the region have been displaced from their homes since April, according to the United Nations.
Much of the violence has played out along ethnic lines between Somali and Oromo people, although most residents simply want to live in peace.
Following the confrontation in Jijiga, Ethiopian Defense Ministry spokesperson Mohamed Tesema said efforts are underway to restore peace in the region. “The main roads in Jijiga are seeing some movements now, and some of the shops on the roads are reopening,” he said.
Federal forces have entered Degehabur, Kebri Dahar and other nearby cities and are working to calm situations across the Somali region, the spokesperson added.
But residents in Jijiga told VOA that their lives have been upended by the conflict.
“I can say that almost 95 percent of the people [in the city] are self-employed,” a local business owner told VOA’s Amharic service. “All of the people have lost their companies, and their money has been looted.”
Other residents described dire living conditions. “The entire city is destroyed, and there is nothing left,” another resident told VOA.
Even as humanitarian concerns deepen, events unfolding in the Somali region may set precedents in other parts of the country.
Experts question the constitutionality of both the federal and regional governments’ moves, and the long-term effects of this past week’s actions could redefine the power structure between the nine regions and the central government.
“The meaning of the federal system and how the regions relate to the federal government has been called into question,” Aidid said.
Since assuming office, Abiy has garnered accolades for his uplifting, inclusive rhetoric and his tangible strides toward democratization. His language of unity has resonated with many Ethiopians, and his efforts to forge regional peace may have far-reaching repercussions.