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By Guyo Dhenge Tache

In a paper based on a research implemented in 1993 I have discussed how the collapse of the Somali State produced a wave of massive return of the 1978 refugees from Ethiopia, mixed with new refugees from Somalia. In 1991 and 1992 this led to an influx of persons generally recognized as ‘returnees’.

They were assisted by UNHCR and several NGOs. In some districts and kebele the returnees overwhelmed the local population up to nearly 300%, a figure showing that returnees were actually mixed up with new refugees from Somalia and immigrants from Kenya. By registering as returnees, families were able to access individual support by UNHCR, provided on relevant scale until 1994. The sites with large presence of returnees have also received strong development and infrastructural support by several international organisations until 2004.

During their experience in Somalia and in the course of their repatriation, the ‘returnees’ had developed a higher opportunistic capacity to act in modern politics and to successfully interrelate to international refugees policies and to UN organizations. On their return they linked up to the local pastoralists of their own clan, but they retained a rather separate identity and life-style compared to the pastoral component. Getachew Kassa reports that the Garri returnees were identified as qohati (returnee), implying a rather differential world view, a higher inclination to adopt agricultural
practices and a stronger interest in Islamic learning.

While the Arsi and Guji ex-members of SALF re-defined their agenda and identity in terms agreed with the local Oromo and quitted the organisation, the Garri, the Gabra and the Mareexaan returnees changed the name of the organization into Oromo Abbo Liberation Front (OALF).

Claiming an Oromo identity was a way to legitimise their demand to be resettled into Oromo speaking country. The Borana identified this influx as a new organized attempt by the SALF to take over control of their territory. Conflict soon broke out both in Dirree and Liiban, before the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF — the core component of EPRDF) army entered the area.

In Liiban clashes occurred since June 1991 between Oromo groups and the Mareexaan who had managed to penetrate in large number, and from September 1991 between the Borana Oromo and Mareexaan. In Dirree conflict first broke out in November 1991 between the Gabra Miigoo and Borana, after an attempt to open an OALF office in Yaaballoo. It resumed in early 1992 in Mooyyale district, between the Borana and the joined Gabra Miigoo/Garri forces. According to Fecadu Adugna, at this stage the Digodia were not siding with the Somali, being not part of the SALF- returnees network and because of their clan affiliation in opposition to the Mareexaan in Somali politics.

They have rather supported the Borana in checking the movements of the heavy armed and motorized ex-soldiers of Siad Barre that have been supporting both the Mareexaan and the Garri/Gabra Miigoo against the Borana. In the meanwhile the TPLF army arrived and arbitrated among conflicting parties, while simultaneously re-organizing the administrative set-up and building its local net of alliances. These political dynamics can only be analysed in view of the OLF factor. At this crucial early stage, the Borana came to be identified as strong OLF supporter, despite the fact that this organisation was only active in this area during the short period of campaigning from 1991 to 1992, when it was part of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia. This impression was later exacerbated by the position of the Borana along the border with Kenya, in an area where one of the OLF military branches became active after 1992. Although I have implemented no research on the OLF, I can recall the opinion expressed in conversation by several Borana elders who were quite critical about the OLF decision to withdraw from the 1992 elections, a decision that exposed the youths, supporters and sympathizers to harsh State repression.

The 1992 OLF withdrawal from the district and regional elections, and its re-entrance into underground activities, had a negative impact on the relation between the Borana and the TPLF-led government of Ethiopia. Clapham notes how the practice of self-determination of the new Federal Ethiopia “amounted only to the exercise of local government in alliance with the EPRDF”.

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In Borana Zone the TPLF co-opted minority ethnic groups and clans that were previously in opposition to the Derg and have for long been competing with the Borana for pastoral resources,
such as the Garri, the Gabra Miigoo, the Digodia and, until 1994, the Mareexaan. On the other hand, due to the alleged sympathy of the Borana for the OLF, the federal government lacked the trust to devolve political authority to Borana representatives. The 1992 candidates in Mooyyale were only Garri and Gabra representatives of the OALF. They obviously ‘won’ the elections. I have no detailed information concerning the remaining districts, but Borana Zone is enumerated among the ‘unstable’ areas where the federal security forces have taken direct control, bypassing normal representative mechanisms. Based on her research implemented in 2003, Lister suggests that even in those districts that had remained under the administration of Region 4 (Oromia) after 1994, where the Borana had been squeezed, the Gabra Miigoo have generally been well-treated by the EPRDF in order to create a counter-force to the Borana, and have benefited with increased numbers of political positions. In 2004 the Gabra Miigoo were still representing the Borana in the House of People’s Representatives (the Federal Parliament) from Yaaballoo constituency, and members of other urban minorities of mixed ethnic background had mainly been empowered at zonal level.

The 1995 and 2000 regional and federal elections, and the 2001 wereda and kebele elections were formally held, but implemented without any opposition, to the point that all political representatives and administrators were considered to be simply “appointed” by the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) through an internal party’s process. Very a few Borana, with low educational background who had in the meanwhile affiliated with OPDO, had managed to get some political positions, mainly at the lower level of district (wereda).

Some elders in the countryside were co-opted in the leadership positions of the kebele administrative structure, increasingly used to mobilize small militia groups to guard the territory against the low-scale cross border military incursions of the OLF, and for routine food distribution.

Lack of political representation was a crucial element influencing decision making on cross border movements of population, a factor that has later strongly affected the process of demarcation of new administrative boundaries. In 1992 the regions were re-organized according to the ethnic federalism introduced by the Transitional Chart. Region 4 and Region 5 where created, subdivided into zones and administrative districts (wereda). Borana Province, with the exclusion of Dooloo district inhabited by the Digodia and other Somali speaking minorities, was changed into Borana Zone of Oromia (Region 4), with the addition of Jamjam Province, a highland in the north inhabited by the agro-pastoral Guji-Oromo. The administrative centre was set in Nagelle Borana, that had previously served as centre of Borana Province. The Borana and Guji inhabited districts of Areero Province were also incorporated under Borana Zone.

The Somali National Regional State (Region 5) was divided into nine administrative zones, but the formalisation of the internal demarcation was slow, especially along the border with Oromia.

The south-western corner was called Liiban Zone, bordering Kenya to the South, Afder Zone to the east and Oromia Region to the north and west. In 1994 the TGE tried to solve the territorial dispute that had arose between Region 4 and Region 5. It emanated a declaration by which eight kebele from Liiban District of Region 4 were transferred to Liiban Zone of Region 5.

They formed Filtu district, in addition to Dooloo district. Despite being just a small rural village, Filtu obtained the de-facto status of Zonal Administrative Center and grew with the support of the
international cooperation. The zonal authorities formed their own militia. According to local sources and to several appeals presented by the Borana elders since 1996, this militia was used to further push the Somali territorial claim to Liiban district of Region 4. Armed clashes between the Borana and the Digodia occurred from 1997 to 2001, particularly in Qorati and Hadhessa kebele.

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In the meanwhile the Garri had managed to resettle in large sectors of the Oromo speaking Mooyyale and Areeroo districts of Borana Zone in Dirree. From 1992 to 1994 the OALF leadership shifted from the Oromo to the Somali identity. By formal decision of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia, 11 kebele of Mooyyale district were annexed to Region 5. These included the tulaa wells and surrounding rangelands of Eel Lae and Eel Goof, crucial to Borana pastoralism.

Seventeen kebele, including the entire town of Mooyyale, were instead confirmed under the administration of Region 4. The Garri were allowed to form their own militia and, according to several written complaints made by the Oromo and by Liiban Jaldeessaa – at that time standing abbaa gadaa arboraa of the Borana – the Garri super-imposed their own administration to seven kebele legally assigned to Region 4, including part of Mooyyale town, where they established the administrative headquarter for their new district. Similarly, they obtained the administration of the important pastoral area of Udat from Areero District of Region 4.

By 1994 the administrative configuration of Liiban Zone (Region 5) was thus emerging as divided into the three districts of Filtu, Dooloo and Mooyyale. Mooyyale town was formally under Region 4, but de facto divided into two, serving as administrative centre for both Mooyyale District of Borana Zone (Region 4) and Mooyyale District of Liiban Zone (Region 5).

Several kebele legally under Region 4 were either controlled by the militia of Region 5 or under the facto double administration. According to several complaints filed by the Borana elders, the Oromo living in the kebele administered by Region 5 were either displaced by conflict or have suffered serious abuse and were ultimately forced to leave.

By the time of the 1995 regional and federal elections the new configuration of the ethnic alliances and the position of the respective customary leadership were quite settled. In April 1992 the abbaa gadaa arbooraa of the Borana, Boruu Guyyoo Boruu, was assassinated just after attending a peace-making meeting arbitrated by the TPLF. This event produced a strong diffidence and distance between the customary leadership of the Borana and the EPRDF officials. In 1995 the Borana were excluded from institutional politics, had lost important seasonal rangelands in Liiban and crucial market-oriented permanent water and pasture resources in Dirree.

The Digodia and the Garri had fully re-aligned themselves with the Somali People Democratic Party (SPDP), a party highly coordinated with the EPRDF, standing in opposition to the secessionist political organisations of Region 5 since 1994. The Digodia were not part of the returnees SALF network, but have contiguous territory in Kenya and could move people cross border. They obtained most political positions both at district level, in Dooloo and Filtu, and at zonal level, in Filtu (Region 5). By 2004 their customary leaders appear to be fully incorporated
into modern politics, a process facilitated by the official policy and constitutional and constitutional provision of Region 5. The Garrii and their customary leaders had obtained full control of Mooyyale district of Region 5, and representation in the House of People’s Representatives.

By 1995 the Maareexan seem to have fallen out of the EPRDF sympathy. In 1998 the pastoral component of the Maareexan gave up with the Somali territorial claim in Liiban District of Region 4, and recognized the Borana traditional system of resource managements. They slowly reestablished themselves in pastoral life.

The returned Gabra Miigoo retained their Oromo identity and aligned with the OPDO, the Oromo branch of the EPRDF. As mentioned, the Gabra pastoralists slowly re-built their relations with the Borana pastoralists by revitalizing their customary leadership and yaa’a.

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In 2002 the boundaries of Borana Zone were again changed. It was divided into Borana Zone and Guji Zone, with Yaaballoo Borana and Nagelle respectively as administrative centres.
Despite the naming, this division does not correspond with the territory of the two groups. The districts of Areero, Dirree, Taltallee, Yaaballoo, Mooyyale, mainly inhabited by the Borana, and Hagaramaram, Galaana, prevalently inhabited by the Guji, were included under Borana Zone, while Adoola, Oddo Shakkisoo, Uragaa, Booree, prevalently Guji, and Liiban, prevalently Borana, formed Guji Zone. The inclusion of ‘Guji’ as name of one of the administrative zones was regarded as a corrective measure, that, according to several local observers, was facilitated by a progressive engagement of one of their abbaa gadaa with the OPDO. While most Borana interviewed in 2005 agreed that the recognition of the Guji at zonal level was a due act, many complained about the failure to consult civil society and the community at large about both its naming and boundary demarcation. It was feared that the proposed ethnically connoted but misleading names could provoke confusion and mistrust between these two communities that had managed to build very peaceful relations since the fall of the socialist government.

Derg party badge, c. 1979.



The entire Liiban Zone of Region 5 was cut out of the customary territory of the Borana Oromo, without any consultation, while the Borana were politically not represented in formal institutions.

Out of the three districts of the newly established Zone, only Dooloo was not used any longer by the Borana herders. This administrative reshaping would not be problematic in terms of human and territorial rights, had the Borana been allowed to continue to live in the area, to access and use their customary pastures and water resources. As mentioned by Hagmann and Mulugeta, ‘pastoralists mostly interpreted ethnically defined administration as the exclusive rule by a dominant group within a given home territory’. My field interviews with Borana customary leaders, informed elders and with abbaa eelaa (‘father of the well’) of Eel Goof, recorded in 2005, confirm that the Borana were displaced from the area under the administrative or military control of Region 5.

Until 2005 the Borana, including the owners of the wells, were actively prevented to enter these areas, either as individuals or herders, by the militia, the police and the Ethiopian army. In term of current international law the displaced communities should be regarded as Internally Displaced Persons, having been both displaced and deprived of their property, not only houses but, especially, the wells on which investment was made over generations, and the rangelands, a key asset for their own livelihoods and for the Borana pastoral system. They have of course been hosted by the neighbouring Borana community, but at a high environmental and economic collective cost.

Not only had the Borana community at large lost their eastern territory and squeezed with their herds in the remaining part, but more and more land in their wetter areas, especially in town
outskirts and bottom valleys, was allocated for farming by the local administrators and by the leaders of the kebele. Being the Borana politically under-represented, the main beneficiaries of this process of internal allocation and individualisation of commons were non-Borana urban minorities or few Borana individuals affiliated to the OPDO.

Under this double external and internal pressure on the water and grazing resources, the pastoral system of the Borana became more and more unviable, exacerbating the state of permanent dependency on food distribution.

The Borana community and customary leaders have constantly appealed against their territorial loss and the abuse of human rights to various governmental officers at federal, regional and zonal levels, either in written form or orally on occasions of important customary events attended by the highest regional and federal authorities, as well as during international gathering.

About Whispers from the North

Whispers from the North is an online platform that appreciates the ecological, cultural and socio-economic diversities of Northern Kenya. We also acknowledge that the lives of the communities of northern Kenya has been shaped by a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors which have led to complex challenge that calls for a multifaceted approach.

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