For as long as its people can remember, cycles of drought-induced famine and underdevelopment have plagued Ethiopia’s eastern Ogaden region.
One of the least developed corners of Earth, the people of Ogaden often joke that “if Adam returns, he will definitely recognise our land”.
But the once-sleepy regional capital Jijiga is slowly stirring awake. The Ethiopian government has in the past few years embarked on a charm offensive to woo the people of Ogaden, whose woes have exposed the flawed policies toward its mostly ethnic Somali population.
Ogaden’s recent history is also clouded by conflict that has killed thousands. Ceded to Ethiopia by the British in 1954, Ogaden has twice been fought over with Somalia, which claims the region as its own.
And for the past two decades, the Ogaden National Liberation Front has waged a rebellion, fighting for secession from Ethiopia.
As a result, there has been heightened military activity in Ogaden in recent years. Tens of thousands of Ethiopian troops and special counter-insurgency police have been deployed to fight the rebels, but also to secure the border and counter what is perceived as a threat by Somalia’s al-Shabab militias.
The last thing Ethiopia wants is trouble along its long border with Somalia, and it is wary of further unrest being stoked among its ethnic Somalis.
Ethiopian Somalis are traditionally nomadic pastoralists, and have been so for centuries. Life and survival revolves around livestock, with people constantly moving about to feed their animals. But as a result of increasingly frequent drought and chronic overgrazing, the region is facing serious environmental degradation.
There are attempts by the government to turn the nomads into agro-pastoralists -to settle and grow crops while still tending their livestock. But poor rains continue to hamper these efforts, too.
Near Qabribayah town, 50km outside the capital, Ahmednoor Abdullahi and his younger brother use their only camel to plough their small maize farm. Seventeen members of their family depend on the farm, about a quarter the size of a football pitch.
“We did not get a harvest during the last season, our crops failed,” says Abdullahi. “Life here depends on rainfall. Most people moved away with their livestock, but we chose to stay and wait for the rain.”
Ogaden’s barren land is littered with remnants of past conflict, including dilapidated military equipment such as rusted tanks and armoured-personnel carriers.
Jijiga on the rise
Jijiga, the regional capital, is a jumble of villages with a sprinkling of administrative buildings, shabby hotels, a busy market and a military base -all intertwined by countless mud houses with corrugated-tin roofs.
Many people who fled the hinterland and the battlefields have sought refuge here. Big 4×4 vehicles share the streets with squeaky horse-drawn carts that act as taxis. Nomads drive their herds of camels down the roads.
At midday in Jijiga, the temperature can rise to 35°C. The men have taken to chewing khat, the leafy narcotic brought from the Ethiopian highlands.
A visitor would be surprised by the sudden commotion on the dusty streets as a cacophony of car horns, screeching brakes, and shouting herald the happy news that the khat has arrived.
“Universities now stand where there used to be frontlines or military bases. It has changed the perception of people about this region.”
– Sultan Muhidin Odowaa, university VP
In the afternoons, Jijiga becomes a ghost town, abandoned to the camels and cats. Locals are firmly ensconced behind closed doors in the confines of the mabraz -the khat den.
Here, people recline on cushions, smoke cigarettes and sip sweet tea while chomping on the stimulating leaves. Later, after the drug takes effect, lively debates break out.
From their conversations, it is clear most Ethiopian Somalis feel culturally and socially closer to their kin in Somalia than they do with the Ethiopian highlanders.
Economic ties to Somalia
On the economic side, Ogaden’s trade with and through Somalia is many times greater than that with the rest of Ethiopia. The Somali shilling is the main currency in some areas of Ogaden.
With the Somali border just 30 minutes away by car, smuggling flourishes. Rice, sugar, utensils, furniture, and even industrial machinery are brought into Jijiga in the dead of the night. Security checkpoints do nothing to stop it.
Ethiopia’s government has recently initiated numerous development projects, and the sprawling capital, being the most accessible and peaceful in the region, has received the bulk of these schemes.
Hundreds of kilometres of roads linking Jijiga to other areas have been constructed.
Workers were recently putting the final touches on a multi-million dollar hospital. Named after Ethiopia’s late prime minister Meles Zenawi, it will serve as the main medical facility for the region.
But it is investment in the education system that is most profound. At the Jijiga University, 15,000 students are attending 30 faculties.
“That universities now stand where used to be frontlines or military bases. It has changed the perception of people about this region,” says Sultan Muhidin Odowaa, the university’s vice president. “Unlike before, education opportunities are now available to all.”
Women, too, are benefitting from the construction boom. They’ve been taught how to pave roads and now can earn a decent living.
“For any force to be effective they have to speak the language of the people they serve, and belong to their religion and culture”
– Abdi Mohamud Omar, Ogaden leader
Rights abuse allegations
Critics, however, say most development projects are limited to Jijiga and few other places. Ogaden’s leader, Abdi Mohamud Omar, says there are reasons for that.
“There is no doubt some provinces are ahead of others in terms of growth. There are those you can easily send workers to implement projects, and others that are insecure due to the activities of the rebels,” he says.
A dearth of skilled manpower, inadequate infrastructure, and an acute shortage of communication facilities also constitute formidable constraints to developing the region. Neglect by previous regimes has not helped.
Abdi Mohamud’s administration has been effective in bringing security to some parts of the volatile region.
He created a special unit of counter-insurgency police, which now forms the backbone of the region’s security apparatus -so much so that they’ve replaced the Ethiopian army in fighting the rebels.
“For any force to be effective they have to speak the language of the people they serve, and belong to their religion and culture,” says Abdi Mohamud. “It became necessary for the regional government to face head on its security challenges -hence the formation of the Liyu police.”
Human rights groups, however, accuse the Liyu of engaging in serious abuses against civilians, including allegations of extrajudicial executions and torture.
“The Liyu police … fit into the context of impunity where security forces can more or less do what they want,” says Laetitia Bader, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.
It is a claim the regional president denies.
“Human Rights Watch should be impartial,” Abdi Mohamud says. “They usually peddle lies and propaganda from our opponents around. They should also examine the atrocities being committed by the rebels.”
With tight controls imposed on access to Ogaden for independent journalists and aid workers, it is difficult to confirm these claims and counter-claims.
This month the Ethiopian government and the Ogaden National Liberation Front rebels announced they had commenced peace talks in neighbouring Kenya.
But until these negotiations result in a formal agreement, lasting peace in the Ogaden desert will remain elusive -as it has for the past 50 years.