HORN OF AFRICA: Armed factions and the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict

NAIROBI, 14 May (IRIN) - Observers and analysts are increasingly concerned at the destabilising effects of the Ethiopia-Eritrea war on the wider Horn of Africa region. New supplies of weapons and ammunition are fuelling conflict while cross-border security incidents are on the rise. Deployment of landmines, refugee movements, population displacement and military recruitment of under-18s are also spillover humanitarian effects.

Both sides deny giving direct military support to client or "proxy" factions in Somalia or elsewhere in the region. Diplomats and observers agree, however, that there been significant re-awakenings and re-alignments of rebel movements and armed factions. The array and posture of civilian opposition movements in Ethiopia in particular have also shifted.

The picture is mixed for the two protagonists’ neighbours. The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea is widely expected to cause particular problems inside Somalia. The Khartoum government, however, might expect a lessening of conflict as a result of reduced support from Ethiopia and Eritrea for Sudanese rebels and closer bilateral relations.

A wider study on the repercussions of the conflict would have to include a survey of the interests and involvement of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Israel and Libya as well as international Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. This report concentrates on groups in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, but also mentions some ripple effects noticeable in Sudan and Kenya.

This report intends only to survey some of the groups mentioned in recent reports and provide some background on them for the benefit of humanitarian action in the region. Firm confirmation is hard to obtain on much of this material, but IRIN has relied on a review of reliable public information and off-the-record sources.

[For background on the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict and its regional repercussions, see IRIN Special Report, October 1998 and IRIN update 604, February 1999].


Djibouti has two main ethnic groups, the Afar and the Somali. Somalis have held the presidency since independence. A low-level Afar-dominated rebellion has gained some military momentum since the outbreak of the Ethiopia-Eritrea war, media reports suggest. Djibouti and Eritrea have broken diplomatic relations, while Ethiopia has lost access to Eritrean ports. This leaves the tiny port state both a diplomatic and strategic ally of Ethiopia. There has been speculation about contacts between Eritrea and Djiboutian rebels.

The Afar Front pour la Restauration de l’Unite et la Democratie (FRUD) split in 1994 after a sporadic three-year insurrection against the ethnic Somali-led government of Hassan Gouled Aptidon. Hassan Gouled’s chosen successor, Ismail Omar Gelleh, was elected president last month. One faction made peace and a coalition with the government, while the another, led by Ahmed Dini, remained committed to armed resistance. FRUD "combattant", as the Dini faction wants to be known, claims its most recent attack killed seven policemen when a mine blew up on 9 April.

The Dini faction claims Ethiopia has supplied arms to Djibouti and had stationed troops within Djiboutian territory in December 1998. Dini told IRIN this week that Ethiopian security agents were a common sight in Djibouti city, on the lookout for Oromo opposition activists (Ethiopia has also been accused of abducting opposition activists from Mogadishu). Dini told IRIN that FRUD-"combattant" had no support from Eritrea, but when asked if he had sought support from Asmara he said "yes and no". Ethiopia in 1997 had expelled FRUD leaders to Djibouti. Reacting to the increased regional tensions, France has sent additional naval and air forces to Djibouti, a former colony and military base.


Ethiopia’s relations with Sudan and Djibouti have improved since the conflict with Eritrea, while Ethiopia’s long border with Somalia makes it vulnerable to cross-border insecurity and military diversions. Armed Oromo and Somali rebels have stepped up activities since the war began. Ethiopian government troops pursuing Oromo rebels across Ethiopia’s southern border have, according to the Kenyan media, occasionally clashed with Kenyan troops. Recent mine incidents which have killed one and injured 12 people near Moyale in northern Kenya are being blamed by local politicians on OLF activity.

As well as Oromo and Somali armed opposition, mentioned below, Ethiopia had been dealing with a low-level insurgency in the northeastern Afar region. After the de facto independence of Eritrea in 1991, the Afar found themselves divided between three states: Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti. Afar rebels still fighting in Ethiopia are known as the Ugogomo or ‘revolution’ party. Djiboutian FRUD official Ahmed Dini said he had no recent information about Ugogomo. Some of the disputed areas on the Ethio-Eritrea border are within the Afar areas. The Eritrean government has published letters which show that Ethiopia was in pursuit of Ugogomo rebels in the Bada area in mid-1997.

Four Ethiopian Afar parties merged and aligned themselves to the ruling Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in September 1998, including the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Front (ARDUF) led by Mahamooda Gaas, which had previously claimed to be engaged in armed opposition. ARDUF and Ugogomo are thought to be closely associated.

ARDUF was one of several Ethiopian groups whose indignance towards Eritrea outweighed their opposition to the Addis Ababa government. This has been, some observers say, a spin-off benefit of the war to Addis Ababa. Previously troublesome opposition groups have shelved their differences and rallied to the cause of "national defence", analysts say. However, the leading Afar party was left out of the new - as yet unnamed - alliance. The Afar Liberation Front [Party] (ALF/P), founded by Sultan Ali Mirah Hanfary in 1975 is currently represented by his son, who has had a sometimes rocky relationship with Addis Ababa, reports say.

The ethnic Somali Ogadeni clan occupies much of southeastern Ethiopia and their pre-eminent political party, the Ogadeni National Liberation Front (ONLF), has resisted attempts by the Addis Ababa government to have it join the Ethiopian Somali Democratic League (ESDL), which is a multi-clan umbrella party affiliated with the ruling EPRDF. The ONLF and OLF recently made a joint statement saying the people they claim to represent were being "forced to fight by a ruling clique." The ONLF, led by Mohamed Omar Osman recently abducted and later released an aid worker in Ethiopia, accusing him of giving support to the Ethiopian army. The ONLF has often been linked with one of the oldest opponents to Addis Ababa, the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), formed in 1963. The ONLF is more likely to seek union with a future Somali state than outright independence.

The Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, but have had little political power since the expansion of Ethiopia in the nineteenth century. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), formed in 1974, was the first major Oromo political party, but has been overshadowed by the ruling EPRDF coalition member, the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organisation (OPDO). The OLF pulled out of an interim government with the EPRDF in 1992.

The OLF, which does not advocate an independent state but "self-determination", recently announced a series of alliances with other Oromo and anti-Addis Ababa movements. A recent OLF statement said that relations with Djibouti, Sudan and Kenya had suffered from "malicious propaganda" sown by the Ethiopian government. An OLF spokesman Abiyu Geleta told IRIN that recent reports of OLF bases and arms deliveries through Somalia were "fabrications" and that the OLF had no forces in any "foreign land".

Somali faction leader Hussein Aideed acknowledges the presence of about 700 "politically organised" Oromos at Qoryooley in Somalia. Thousands more Ethiopian refugees live in Somalia, he added in a recent interview. Aideed has been described as a conduit for Eritrean support to the OLF. In effect, some "proxies" are themselves acting as middlemen. The OLF has cooperated with the ONLF since a 1996 agreement.

The United Oromo People’s Liberation Front (UOPLF), led by General Wako Gutu Usu, signed an agreement with the OLF on March 21 1999. "Coordination of the national liberation struggle" was one of the elements in a joint agreement. General Wako, a veteran of the Oromo opposition, like the OLF pulled out of cooperating with the EPRDF after a brief spell in the transitional assembly of 1991.

The Oromo Peoples’ Liberation Organisation (OPLO) signed an agreement to cooperate with the OLF on March 14 1999, saying there were no differences between the program of the OPLO and OLF, and that both sought to "enable the Oromo people to exercise the inalienable right of self-determination". The OPLO, formed probably in 1994, is a little-known movement, but is of interest because it surfaced in 1997 as part of an Islamic rebel grouping of six parties based in Somalia known as the Oromo-Somali-Afar Liberation Alliance (OSALA). Nothing further has been heard from OSALA. Another Afar-Somalia military alliance was reported between ARDUF and ONLF in 1997 in the ‘Horn of African Bulletin’.


Eritrea’s sole legal political movement is the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). The PFDJ is the post-independence incarnation of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which led the rebellion against Ethiopian rule for almost 30 years.

An Ethiopian government web site, Walta, on 9 March broadcast details of a new alliance of 11 Eritrean opposition parties. Many of the parties were previously unknown. The parties met in Khartoum and agreed to work together to "topple the government in power in Asmara." Eritrea claims that Ethiopia supports the opposition groups, among them the organisation known as Islamic Jihad - which has changed its name to the Eritrean Islamic Salvation Movement (EISM), replacing "Jihad" with "Salvation".

The new group is called the Alliance of the Eritrean National Forces and includes some veterans of the fragmented Eritrean politics, including the Eritrean Liberation Front - Revolution Council (ELF-RC) of Abdellah Idris, who will lead the new alliance. The Ethiopian press reports ELF military activity from within Sudan. Another member of the alliance which had occasionally been active militarily was the Eritrean Democratic Resistance Movement (Gash-Setit), which had been active in southwestern Eritrea, drawing support from the Kunama ethnic group.

Ethiopian state radio has quoted a Red Sea Afar Democratic Organisation (RSADO) official, Osman Mohammed, who is critical of the Asmara government. Royalist Ethiopians in the US have suggested Ali Mirah of the Afar Liberation Front [Party] (ALF/P) is opposed to Asmara.

The Sudanese rebel coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), recently admitted the future of its base in Eritrea was under review. The NDA includes northern and southern Sudanese rebel groups. A rapprochement between Sudan and Eritrea, brokered by Qatar last month, threatens the rear bases and political headquarters the NDA enjoys in Eritrea.


Somalia is particularly vulnerable to new influxes of arms and ammunition, given its fragile political landscape since the total collapse of the state after the removal of the government of Siad Barre in 1991. The northwestern state of Somaliland is a natural partner of Ethiopia, given the strategic port of Berbera.. The mini-state of Puntland, in the northeast, is also thought to be allied with Ethiopia, which has sent a diplomat to represent its interests in the "capital" of Puntland, Bosasso.

Further south, the patchwork becomes less clear, but Eritrea is thought to be allied to Hussein Aideed in Mogadishu, while Ethiopia has allies in border areas near Luuq. The Islamic group Al-Ittihad al-Islami is active in southern Somalia, but its strength and position seems little changed by the Ethiopia-Eritrea war so far.

Somali factions mentioned as allied to Ethiopia include the USC-PM (United Somali Congress - Patriotic Movement) led by Omar Hashi Adan of the Hawadle clan. Also in southern Somalia, Ethiopia has been accused of supporting Colonel ‘Shaat-Gaduud’ of the Rahanweyn Resistance Army (RRA) which recently clashed again with Aideed in Baidoa. In north Mogadishu, Hussein Hajji Bod has been reported as a recipient of weapons from Ethiopia.

The Somali National Front (SNF), a Marehan group led by Omar Hajji Masale near the Ethiopian border is split between pro- and anti-Ethiopia factions. Fighting between the two continued this week, in the town of Luuq, according to Mogadishu media reports. The pro-Ethiopia faction is reported to be led by Mohamed Sheik Ali Buraleh, after the killing of Ali Nur Mohamed Mukhtar in April 1999. Ethiopia itself is alleged to have made repeated military incursions from the border area of Dolo into Somalia in recent years.

Eritrea is mentioned as a supporter of Mohamed Hussein, head of the Somali National Alliance (USC/SNA) and son of General Aideed. Mohamed Aideed has acknowledged in an IRIN interview that Eritrea and Uganda have offered support, including uniforms.

Osman Hassan Ali ‘Ato’ and Musa Sude Yallahow, two Mogadishu faction leaders, as well as Abdullai Yusuf Ahmed of the mini northeastern "state" of Puntland are among a group of faction leaders who have protested at Eritrea’s "violating the existence and dignity of the Somali people by shipping in arms" and "hosting foreign forces".

Ethiopia-leaning RRA officials reported last week a meeting at Baidoa which included an Eritrean "general", a representative of Aideed, Ogadeni faction leader Omar Jess, the ONLF, Oromo General Wako Gutu and Abdi Warsameh Isaq, the Dir chairman of the southern Somali National Movement (SNM). The report claimed the group was forming an anti-Addis Ababa grouping.

Kismayu-based faction leader General Mohamed Hirsi Morgan is also reported by Mogadishu media to be receiving ammunition from Ethiopia and has clashed with Al-Ittihad.


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