(many thanks – Carsten Peter for the Photo)
Afar in Ethiopia
Following the incorporation of the Afar into the Ethiopian state at the end of the 19th century,successive Ethiopian regimes’ policy toward the Afar focused largely on extending and strengthening the control of the centre, and extracting local resources chiefly for the benefit of the state. During the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I, the Afar region in Ethiopia was administratively partitioned into five different provinces (Harar, Shoa, Wallo, Tigray, and Eritrea). The Afar constituted a smaller minority within the provinces and were deprived of any political participation. In the early 1970s, a group of prominent Afars (elders, clan leaders, religious leaders, etc), motivated by Afar public resentment over the policies of the central government, unsuccessfully petitioned the emperor to bring the Afar territory (divided under the five provinces) under one administrative region. This resulted in the creation of an underground Afar political movement in the early 1970s that facilitated the creation of the Afar Liberation Front (ALF).
The military regime that came to power amid popular uprising against the emperor, the Derg, had to confront strong military pressure from various nationalist groups in Ethiopia. The Derg’s regional autonomy plan created hopes among some Afar politicians that brought a split within the ALF. While most ALF leaders doubted the seriousness of the Derg proposal and its implementation, some accepted it at face value and saw some hope,consequently breaking away to establish what was known as the Afar National Liberation Movement (ANLM).
The ALF that had doubted the seriousness of the Derg’s proposal from the beginning pursued its armed struggle against the military regime, cooperating with other nationalist fronts like the TPLF. Following the downfall of the Derg, the ALF was one of the participants at the July 1991 national conference (organized by the EPRDF) where they enacted a transitional charter and established a transitional government. During the transitional period, and later on when the federal structure was put in place, the Afar in Ethiopia were granted Regional State status – one of the nine autonomous regions.
Nonetheless, Afar nationalists in Ethiopia are clearly indignant that the widespread Afar aspiration for an Afar state within Ethiopia has not been fully met, mainly because of the incorporation of the Afar Red Sea Coast within the newly independent Eritrea. In this regard, the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF) insisted, ‘Afar Red Sea Coast and the Afar hinterland must go together’ (ARDUF, 2003:4). The spiritual and traditional leader of the Afar people, Sultan Ali Mirah, also remarked that ‘Afar is Afar from Leica to Massawa, even the camels know this land is one’. He further emphasised ‘our border is the sea’.
The ordinary Afar people are deeply grieved about the further division of Afar into three countries with theemergence of independent Eritrea.
( With many thanks to Brig Gen Tadesse Berhe and Yonas Adaye for their insights.)