Ethiopia’s Afar community
Diplomatic efforts to free five British citizens feared kidnapped in the far
north of Ethiopia have focused media attention on one of the most desolate
parts of the world.
The abductions took place last Thursday in the north of the large but sparsely
populated Afar Region, a desert area noted for its lawlessness.
Although the president of Afar, Ismail Ali Sero, has accused Eritrean soldiers
of kidnapping the group, local rebels are known to have kidnapped tourists
in the past.
Who are the Afars?
About 1.4m Afars live in Ethiopia with smaller, but still
very significant, Afar communities living as minorities in the neighbouring
countries of Eritrea and Djibouti.
Most Afars are nomadic herders. Some also trade in the salt that can be mined
from the Danakil Depression, a very hot and barren area lying below sea level
and straddling the Eritrea-Ethiopia border.
The Afars have their own language, Afar. Almost all of them are Sunni Muslims.
What is known about the area?
The region is known for frequent non-political banditry
and therefore the Ethiopian government requires tourists visiting the area
to be accompanied by a police escort.
Further danger arises from the area’s proximity to the border between Ethiopia
and Eritrea who fought a fierce two-year war in 1998.
Although a ceasefire between the two countries is in place, it remains fragile
and a permanent settlement to the border dispute continues to be elusive.
Both sides maintain a hostile media campaign against each other.
Adding to the danger is the existence of a small rebel group.
Who are the rebels?
The Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF) has been active for
more than a decade.
It was founded in 1993, bringing together three existing Afar organisations.
It kidnapped some Italian tourists in 1995, later releasing them unharmed.
An earlier rebel group, the Afar Liberation Front (ALF), fought against the
then-communist government of Ethiopia between 1975 and 1991. The ALF later
continued to lobby for Afar interests but not through military means.
Another, separate, Afar insurgency was mounted in 1991 to 1994 in neighbouring
Djibouti by the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD). A
splinter faction continued to fight until 2000.
What are the rebels’ aims?
The ARDUF seeks the creation of an independent Afar homeland, which would
include areas of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti.
There is disagreement on whether this would be an internationally recognised
sovereign state or an autonomous region within Ethiopia.
The group has always been very firm, however, in opposing the existence of
the separate state of Eritrea, as the creation of that country split the Afar
In Eritrea, Afars dominate the southeast of the country, including the Red
Sea port of Assab. One of the ARDUF’s slogans is “The Red Sea belongs
to the Afars!”
What are the rebels doing now?
During the 1988 Ethiopia-Eritrea border war, the ARDUF took Ethiopia’s side
and declared a ceasefire in operations against Ethiopian forces.
In 2002, one faction of the ARDUF went even further in its reconciliation
with Addis Ababa and declared that it would permanently abandon armed struggle
in favour of peaceful involvement in Ethiopian politics.
But a rival faction denounced this move, declaring that ARDUF leader Mohamooda
Ahmed Gaas had been expelled for treasonable activities and vowed to continue
the secessionist campaign by military means.
However, the intensity of the ARDUF’s military operations in recent years
does appear to have been weakened by these internal disagreements. At most,
it has been conducting a rather low-level insurgency.
But in 2003, Afar militants issued a warning to foreigners not to enter the
Afar region to demarcate the disputed Ethiopia-Eritrea border as they oppose
the existence of any boundary that divides the Afar people.