For a long time Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State or Ogaden has been a theatre of violent confrontation between the Somalis living there and the Ethiopian authorities. Through history such conflicts have been launched under different pretexts by different groups (Hagmann, 2005). Religion played a prominent role in the campaigns of Ahmed Guray in the early 16th century, the Dervish movement of Sayid Mohammed Abdullahi Hassan in the late 19th and early 20th century and the late Nasrullah movement of the 1960s (Abbink, 2003). Leaders on both the Ethiopian and Somali sides have often been religious men or they operated under the influence of a religious man. In contrast, however, from the 1970s up to today, secessionism, irredentism and nationalism have been the main parlance of the conflict.

Without denying the presence of al-shabaab and the United Western Somali Liberation Fronts (UWSLF) in the Somali Regional State, both of which are jihadists, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) are the primary actors in the Ogaden conflict, which has been ongoing since 1994 (HRW, 2008). According to Articles 11 and 27 of the Ethiopian constitution, Ethiopia is a secular state that recognises the equality of religions (FDRE, 1995). Similarly, ONLF claims to be a purely nationalistic organisation struggling for the freedom of the people in the region. In spite of these disassociations from religion, one can, in reality, observe that religion—Christianity in the case of the Ethiopian army and Islam in the case of ONLF—has a significant role in the waging and continuation of the conflict. Religion is intertwined with historical, social and political factors that contribute to conflict dynamics in Ethiopia’s Somali inhabited lowlands.

This article does not argue that either the ONLF or Ethiopia are religious entities, nor does it contend that the conflict between the two is a religious one. In order to understand the role of religion in the Ogaden conflict and the factors that may maximize it the article focuses on two interrelated themes. The first one concerns the religious identities that the parties to the conflict claim and how these identities have influenced violent conflicts so far. The second theme focuses on the behaviour of these actors in the conflict and how they deliberately mobilized religious overtones, which partly transformed a political conflict into a religious one.

Past Muslim-Christian relations

Historically, Ethiopia was a Christian empire involved in fierce expansionist conflicts with the Adal Emirate that was predominantly run by Somali religious elites with the help of Arabs and Ottoman Turkish Empire. With the appearance of Imam Ahmed Ibrahim Al-Ghazi, other wise known as Ahmed Guray or the left-handed in the early 16th century in Harar, the religious divide between Christian highlanders and the Muslim Somalis sharpened. The Portuguese and Ottoman empires’ support to Abyssinia and Ahmed Guray respectively reinforced the religious sentiment and hatred on both sides (Rediker, 2003). Almost four centuries latter Sayid Mohammed Abdullahi Hassan emerged with his Dervish movement, fighting in turn against Britain, Italy and Ethiopia for 21 years until he died in 1921. Sayid Mohammed had relentlessly called upon the Somali people to follow his jihad against Christian invaders (Latin, 2004). This revived existing religious tension and Somali anger at the continuous incursion and territorial claims of Ethiopian and Christian highland authority over the Ogaden.

The 1960s Nasrullah uprising was another manifestation of religious mobilization. It was established in 1963 in the Ogaden to struggle for the independence of the region. Garad Makhtal Garad Dahir was elected as its first chairman and highly respected local clerics such as Sheikh Ibrahim Hashi and Sheikh Ali Suufi were among its leaders (Ansari, 2008, Markakis, 1987). The Arabic term Nasru-laah itself has far-reaching meaning in Islamic terminology as it is another way of saying ‘sacrifice for the sake of Allah’. This connotation and the rhetoric used by the Nasrullah leaders are proof of the limited place of nationalism in the movement. In the course of these events, from Ahmed Guray to Nasrullah, perceived threats have been built up on both sides. The Somalis began to consider other Ethiopians as their primary enemy and vice versa. Since the wars that spurred this enmity were strongly driven by religious undertones, religion was prominent in how the two sides framed each other. Socioeconomic and political factors both aggravated or eased tensions between the two.

The 1969 coup d’état in Somalia and the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia both came with different discourses. The leaders of both revolutions, Siad Barre in Somalia and Mengistu Hailemariam in Ethiopia, committed themselves to secularism, namely scientific socialism. In Ethiopia it was at this point that Muslims felt that the regime was no longer a Christian one. The establishment of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs in Ethiopia in 1976 was another step forward in Christian-Muslim relations (Ahmed, 2006). Nevertheless, this was not enough to extinguish the religious factor in the ongoing tensions between Somalis and the Ethiopian regime.

Contemporary conflicts and the religious factor

Due consideration must be given to the historic evolution of Muslim-Christian relations in Ethiopia when analyzing current discourses about the conflict in the Somali Regional State. Perhaps this is why Ezekiel Redikel asserts that

To understand the conflict in the Ogaden during the 20th century, it is necessary to go back to the 15th century, when the Abyssinian Christian Empire, the predecessor of modern day Ethiopia, and the Muslim city-state of Ifat fought periodic wars for control of the Ogaden region (Redikel, 2003:204).

A number of factors support and explain this proposition. First, neither the religious identities nor the socio-economic and cultural values of the primary stakeholders in the conflict have significantly changed. Orthodox Christian elites continue to dominate the political process in Ethiopia, despite its vast Muslim population. In the eyes of many, Ethiopians and foreigners alike, Ethiopia is still considered a Christian enclave, which attracts the support of other powerful Christian states (Desplat, 2005). Similarly, despite attempts to project itself as a purely nationalist organization, ONLF has to be looked at from the vantage point of its Muslim members and the community it represents. Although both sides seek to dissociate themselves from religious agendas, neither the Ethiopian government nor the Ogaden insurgents have taken steps to reduce the memory of the past, which would allow people to see the conflict from a different, less religiously driven, perspective. The ongoing conflict is given a religious colouring as it is perceived in continuation with historical conflicts that occurred between the same two religious groups.

Second, the political system established by the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has little legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of the population in the Somali Regional State. Reciprocally, the majority of the Ethiopian highlanders consider the Somalis in Ethiopia as alien to the country. As a result the political allegiances of the former continue to be strongly contested (Hagmann and Khalif, 2006: 24). Unlike the central regions of Ethiopia, the peripheral Somali Regional State has never been fully incorporated into the Ethiopian state (Lister, 2004). This reinforces a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ between the Somalis and other Ethiopians. Religious tensions that existed for a long time and which were never fully eliminated can thrive under such circumstances. The point here is that religion acts as one of the identity traits a group may resort to in order to differentiate itself from others. This tendency is further exacerbated by the socio-economic and cultural marginalization of Somalis within Ethiopia, which encourages the formation of religiously framed collective identity. Third, political manipulation by leaders on both sides reinforces the role of religion in the conflict. To begin with the ONLF does not make it a secret, at least when addressing its supporters, that this conflict is nothing but the continuation of Ahmed Guray and Sayid Mohammed’s wars against highland Ethiopia. The following lyrics are drawn from one of the most famous songs ONLF cadres recite to instigate supporters during public gatherings.

Axmed guray ma uu dhiman Ma gablamin darwiishkii Geenyaduu ma daalanaa.

It can be roughly translated as follows:

Ahmed Guray has never died, The Dervish has never lost, and The horse is not retired.

Accordingly, if one recognizes that religion had a big influence in Ahmed Guray’s and Sayid Mohammed’s struggles against Abyssinia, there is no reason to deny that in the current conflict between the ONLF and the Ethiopian government religion has a place as well.

Despite portraying itself as secular when communicating with the international community, buzzwords such as jihad and fighting for the Muslim nation against invader ‘infidels’ characterise ONLF’s strategies for mobilising supporters.1The author of this article has observed ONLF mobilization campaigns both within and outside of the Somali Regional State and has regularly interacted with senior ONLF officers in the past. The majority of ONLF’s top officers live abroad where they are allowed to campaign relatively freely. In order to present ONLF’s struggle as legitimate, its leaders deliberately appeal to Somalis’ Muslim identity to garner Diaspora support. ONLF cadres in the rural areas of Somali Regional State use a very similar rhetoric to justify their cause and rally support. Other proof of ONLF’s reliance on religious propaganda is a recent fatwa by Sheikh Sharif Abdi Nur, a most respected and knowledgeable Somali cleric based in Saudi Arabia, who describes the Ogadeni rebels as Mujahideen and their war with Ethiopia as a legitimate jihad against Christian aggressors.2The fatwa was posted on a website supportive of ONLF’s cause, (accessed: 23 January 2009).

Whether political Islam is genuinely pursued by ONLF while it uses a secular rhetoric to mislead the Western countries in which a majority of its leaders reside, or vice versa—whether ONLF is genuinely secular and has used religion for tactical reasons only—their religious undertones influence the conflict lastingly. Whatever leaders’ true intention may be, the combatants are mobilised under the banner of jihad against Christian aggressors. Consequently, combatants will remain loyal to ONLF as long as they see it through the lens of jihad. Any other organization with more dedication to a radical Islamic ideology might be able to attract ONLF combatants in the future in case the latter fails to uphold its religious principles. In the case of Afghanistan during the Soviet-Mujahideen war, religion was an important factor in mobilizing the insurgents. To generate the support of a Muslim people invaded by a non-Muslim power, leaders have not spared any chance to manipulate religion to win the war. This has been the case despite a majority of leaders’ tendencies towards nationalism rather than religion. The jihad rhetoric and idea has attracted many Muslims around the world, which are part of a transnational network of Islamic militants that goes far beyond the Afghan context in which they originally emerged. (Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, 2005:15).

Fourthly, ONLF’s dependence on the stronger Islamist groups in Somalia such as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) also contributes to the religious colouring of the conflict. ONLF relies both directly and indirectly on the Islamists. In some cases ONLF has cooperated with Islamists to weaken or defeat Ethiopian troops according to the maxim ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. Even though credible reports have shown that relations between ONLF and al-shabaab have reached the worst stage since they first got into conflict in Degahbur Zone in December 2007, the same reports also indicate generally good relations between ONLF and other Islamists in Somalia (Abdullahi, 2007). Furthermore, the second deputy chairman of ONLF, Abdulkadir Hassan Hirmoge has confirmed that good ties exist between ONLF and Islamist fighters in Somalia. In an interview with Al-Jazeera’s Arabic channel he claimed in mid-March 2008 that ONLF entertained all kinds of cooperation with neighbouring Somalia’s Islamists.3Al-Jazeera interview 13/3/2008 at 11:17 GMT. The Islamists’ popularity in many parts of Somalia forces ONLF to keep good ties with the former since they rely on Somalia as their main supply route. In addition to that, Eritrea, which provides material and moral support to both ONLF and Somali Islamists (HRW, 2008; Menkhaus, 2007) has an interest in bringing the two into alliance. ONLF’s partial dependence on the Islamists and the need to recur to religious discourse to mobilize supporters comfort Islamic sympathizers within ONLF and may attract jihadi support from outside the region. This keep Islamic sympathizers within ONLF’s camp, but also provides them the opportunity of pursuing their jihadist ideologies within the organization.

Unlike ONLF, the Ethiopian government rules a population of which almost half are Muslims. Moreover it enjoys military, economic and political superiority over ONLF. These are two important factors that significantly reduce its need to employ religion in its confrontation with ONLF. Despite these advantages, the Ethiopian army recurrently resorts to measures that produce chilling effects. To silence opponents, avoid international criticism and maintain the support of the United States, Ethiopia labels ONLF as a terrorist organization. Muslims around the world believe that former US President Bush’s ‘war on terror’ was little less than a ‘war on Islam’ (Vaughn, 2005) and many Somalis share this viewpoint (Terdman, 2008:59). Ethiopia has spared no occasion to frame its conflict with ONLF in terms of the global, US-led ‘war on terror’. This in turn serves the interests of jihadists who seek to radicalize Somalis under a joint Muslim banner.

Finally, underdevelopment, political crisis, poor socio-economic conditions in the region and Christian elites’ domination in Ethiopia make it promising for local politicians to use religion as an instrument of realizing their political ambitions.


Based on the above observations three points should be clear by now. First, the Ogaden conflict is not a religious conflict, but religion has a prominent place in it. Second, the history of the Somalis in their relation with other Ethiopians is laden with religious tensions, and because the lessons of what went wrong in the past have gone unheeded, these religious tensions extend into the present. Third, the major parties in the current conflict adopt policies and measures likely to widen the importance of religion in the future. In combination, it is conceivable that in the long run religion may outweigh all other factors contributing to the Ogaden conflict.

Another cause for concern is that the presence of religion as one factor in the conflict excacerbates the other issues involved in the conflict and attracts additional actors. The more actors and issues involved in a conflict, the more it will be protracted and intractable (Mial et al., 2005). So, if this trend continues unchanged it is likely to further complicate the conflict between the Ethiopian troops, ONLF and Somalis Islamists. This will make a peaceful solution to the conflict even more cumbersome. On top of that, thorough research on the role of religion in the many conflicts in the Somali Regional State has been missing. Surprisingly, the very few studies conducted so far have hardly mentioned the role of religion in the conflict, despite its obvious importance. This contribution thus acts as an invitation to other authors to give more attention to this important topic.


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The author thanks Tobias Hagmann for comments and editorial support.


The author of this article has observed ONLF mobilization campaigns both within and outside of the Somali Regional State and has regularly interacted with senior ONLF officers in the past.
The fatwa was posted on a website supportive of ONLF’s cause, (accessed: 23 January 2009).
Al-Jazeera interview 13/3/2008 at 11:17 GMT.