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CommentaryGeopolitical hotspot: Afar's shifting landscape

Geopolitical hotspot: Afar’s shifting landscape

Nestled within the Rift Valley structures of northeastern Ethiopia and extending into southeastern Eritrea, the region of Afar has undergone a remarkable transformation. Today, it is organized as Zone 2 of the Afar Regional State within the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, a development that took shape in 1992. Encompassing the depression area waradas of Dallol, Berhale, Afera, and Erebeti, Afar’s geography is as diverse as its history.

Over the years, explorers and travelers from various nations have left their mark on Afar, resulting in a plethora of naming and renaming of physical features. However, in recent times, there has been a resurgence of Afar toponyms, propelled by the region’s newfound autonomy. For instance, Egogi Bad, previously known as Lake Giulietti (or Guida) during the Italian era and later anglicized as Julietti, now proudly bears the regional name of Afxeera (Afera). Similarly, Kibrit Afarle, originally derived from the Arabic term “Mountain of Fire,” has transformed into Gada Ale. Adjacent to it, the lake once referred to as Karumbae Bad and later shortened to Lake Karum in various publications has now been rightfully recognized as Lake Assal.

It is essential to note that the term “Danakil,” often associated with the region, has been rejected by the Afar people themselves. They view it as a derogatory highland term, preferring to embrace their own cultural identity. Consequently, the names used in this article reflect the most commonly used academic terminology.

The Afar region stands as a testament to the remarkable consequences of plate tectonics, where the African and Arabian shields collide. This collision has given rise to a landscape characterized by continuous change, including varying volcanic activity and fluctuating altitudes.

Situated within the East African Rift System, Afar showcases a complex pattern of fault lines, marking the southward extension of the Red Sea along the eastern escarpment of the plateau. These fault lines branch out along the Red Sea coast towards the Gulf of Aden, meeting faults aligned with the southern edge of the Arabian plateau.

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Notably, these fault systems extend westward, following the line of the Éntotto escarpment in Addis Ababa. The interplay of these major fault systems has given rise to a triangular area nestled between the Afar (Danakil) Alps in the north, the eastern scarp of the Ethiopian highlands, and the scarp of the Somali plateau to the south.

Despite large areas of seemingly flat plains, Afar conceals a graben—a depressed block of land—whose floor is believed to be at the level of the deepest areas of the Red Sea trough. The graben has filled with a complex mixture of sediments and evaporates, serving as a mineral-rich resource coveted by humans since prehistoric times. Stretching south from the Gulf of Zula, the graben originated as an arm of the sea extending towards the Gulf of Tagura. Over time, it was cut off by quaternary lava flows (Aden series), initiating the process of infill.

The northern part of the graben, which extends to the southern end of Lake Afera, lies approximately 75 meters below sea level. This area, known as the Kobar Sink, experiences processes of evaporation and condensation in extremely high temperatures. Combined with the upwelling of concentrates and sporadic occurrences of short pluvial periods (typically from July to September), the water levels and the presence of lakes across the graben floor undergo constant changes.

Unfortunately, long-term climate data for the region is not readily available. However, evidence suggests that Afar experiences exceedingly high daytime temperatures exceeding 50°C, coupled with high humidity, while night temperatures plummet well below freezing. Data from Dallol (1960–66) indicated an annual mean temperature of 34.3°C, which is likely surpassed further south in the plain.

Running through the heart of Afar is a line of volcanic activity, marking points along ongoing faulting where magma lies close to the surface. Advancements in technology have allowed for closer observation of these volcanic activities. Ertale, which lends its name to the chain of volcanic centers, is now recognized as occupying a much larger caldera formed by previous volcanic activity. Within this caldera, and slightly to the south of the main crater, a new crater has formed. Here, the convective circulation of magma generates frequent lava flows within the caldera.

The central line of ongoing volcanic activity begins at Mount Dallol, renowned for its solfataras that once supported a sulfur processing plant on Dallol Hill until the late 1960s. From there, the line extends to Gada Afarle at the southern end of Lake Assal, encompassing Alu, a twin cone with Mount Gabuli, and continuing on to Bora Ali. The most prominent feature along this line is Ertale, rising 550 meters above sea level and 625 meters above the depression. Southeast of Ertale lies Mount Ummuna, followed by Mounts Amart and Afdera to the east and south of Lake Afera, respectively.

The region’s seismic activity reflects its dynamic nature. Between 1950 and 1977, nearly 600 earthquakes were recorded, with 218 of them occurring in the unstable escarpment area overlooking Afar but affecting the region in various ways. Additionally, around 4,000 earthquakes were documented in 1961 during the devastating events around Karakore.

Approximately 360 earthquakes took place within or around the margins of the Afar Depression, resulting in new fissures and damage in various areas. Notable occurrences include the Assal area in 1952 and 1967, Sardo in 1965 and 1969, south of Afdera in 1969, and Gewani in 1971. These figures do not account for the considerable number of severe shocks recorded in the Tagura area during the same period, which are likely connected to earth movements and volcanic activity in the Afar region.

The Afar Depression has long been a significant source of common salt. Initially, salt was collected from the pans north of Dallol and later extracted in blocks in the Dallol area, locally known as the Tantal (or Téltal / Téntal) plain. This region has been the primary source of the salt bars (Amole) used as currency throughout Ethiopia since ancient Aksumite times.

Beyond salt, Afar boasts a wealth of other valuable resources, including gypsum, potash, and sulfur. In 1918, a light railway was constructed from Märsa Fatma to Colluli to transport common salt and potash, initially brought by camel and truck. Recent efforts have focused on utilizing geothermal sources for power generation and extracting potassium and other salts to establish a chemical industry near Assab. The objective is to cost-effectively produce agrochemicals and fertilizers at a strategically located port along major shipping routes. However, the realization of these projects hinges on favorable political and investment conditions.

A significant step forward occurred in October 2001 when the Ethiopian Roads Authority initiated the construction of the 188 km “salt lake” rural road. This vital artery connects Sardo on the Assab highway with Afdera, facilitating the export of salt, sodium chloride, and gypsum. The project’s next phase links Afdera with Maqelä, enabling the transportation of marble and other commodities from Tigray. Along the route, innovative plastic-lined ponds have been strategically established to provide water, fostering tourism and supporting geological and archaeological research efforts.

Improvements in surface transport could potentially support the advancement of the regions pastoral economy, granted that the conflicts arising from the North East Rangelands Development project in the mid-1960s, concerning management structures, land ownership, and resource rights, are effectively avoided.

The Afar people, also known as the Danakil, Adali, and Odali, are ethnic group residing in the Horn of Africa. Their primary settlements are found in the Afar Region of Ethiopia, northern Djibouti, and the southern coast of Eritrea. The Afar language they speak belongs to the Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic family. One unique characteristic of the Afar people is that their traditional territories border both the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, making them the only inhabitants of the Horn of Africa with such geographical proximity to these bodies of water.

The region where the Afar people reside is commonly referred to as the Afar Triangle. This area is known for its extreme climate, being one of the hottest and driest spots on Earth, while also experiencing some of the lowest temperatures. Much of their territory consists of deserts and salt flats, marked by deep cracks caused by the intense heat of the sun.

Estimates suggest that there are approximately 1.4 million Afar people distributed among Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Eritrea. The 2007 Ethiopian census reported 1,276,374 Afars in Ethiopia. Djibouti’s population estimates for Afars are uncertain, with sources generally suggesting that around 45 percent of the population is Afar, although the World Factbook suggests a lower figure of 35 percent. Eritrea’s Afar population is generally reported to be around 300,000. However, some radical Afar sources claim a population of over five million.

In terms of historical references, the earliest surviving written mention of the Afar people dates back to the 13th century, when the Andalusian writer Ibn Sa’id reported their presence in the area around the port of Suakin, extending as far south as Mandeb, near Tadjoura.

Ethiopian records also consistently mention the Afar people. They are first mentioned in the royal chronicles of Emperor Amda Seyon, where they are described as devout Muslims. The chronicles describe battles between the Emperor and the Afar people, with the Emperor ultimately pillaging and destroying their settlements.

In later centuries, during the reign of Emperor Baeda Maryam, the ruler of the Danakil offered support to the Emperor’s campaign against their neighboring group, the Dobe’a. The Danakil ruler sent the Emperor a horse, a mule loaded with dates, a shield, and two spears as a gesture of support. According to historical accounts, the Danakil ruler expressed his intention to stop the Dobe’a and seize them if they were the Emperor’s enemies.

During the 16th century, Portuguese explorer Francisco Álvares described the Kingdom of Dankali as being confined by Abyssinia (Ethiopia) to the west and the Adal Sultanate to the east.

A Cultural and Linguistic Heritage

Language holds the key to understanding a community’s identity and heritage. Among the diverse linguistic tapestry of Ethiopia, the Afar language stands out as a significant cultural and historical treasure. As the mother tongue of the Afar people, it belongs to the Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family.

Widely spoken in the Afar Region of Ethiopia, as well as in southern Eritrea and northern Djibouti, the Afar language reflects the nomadic lifestyle of its speakers. Its influence extends beyond regional boundaries, reaching even further afield due to the migratory nature of the Afar people.

The language forms an integral part of the Saho-Afar dialect cluster, along with the Saho language. This linguistic connection deepens the cultural bonds between these communities, fostering a rich tapestry of shared heritage.

Religious Traditions

Religion plays a pivotal role in shaping the Afar people’s worldview and cultural practices. Overwhelmingly, the Afar community identifies as Muslim, with a profound historical association with Islam. The adoption of Islam traces back to the 13th century, as the influence of holy men and traders from the Arabian peninsula expanded. The Afar predominantly follow the Sunni sect of Islam, while also embracing Sufi orders like the Qadiriyya.

Intriguingly, Afar religious life exhibits a unique blend of Islamic concepts and pre-Islamic traditions. This syncretic approach manifests in rituals such as rain sacrifices at sacred sites, divination practices, and folk healing. The Afar people’s religious beliefs reflect a profound connection to their ancestral roots while embracing the tenets of Islam.

Cultural Fabric

The Afar people’s social structure revolves around close-knit clan families, led by respected elders. Within this framework, two main classes emerge: the asaimara (‘reds’), who hold significant political influence, and the adoimara (‘whites’), who form the diligent working class, often residing in the Mabla Mountains. Notably, the fluid nature of clans allows for inclusivity, with even outsiders like the Issa clan finding a place within the Afar community.

Renowned for their martial prowess, the Afar people carry the jile, a curved knife symbolizing their strength and resilience. Their rich cultural heritage also encompasses a repertoire of battle songs that resonate with the echoes of a storied past.

Identity

As custodians of a pastoral tradition, the Afar people have traditionally relied on livestock.

Despite their resilience in the face of change, the Afar people’s identity remains shrouded in mystery. Limited historical records and their remote geographical location make it challenging to obtain objective information. Yet, through their myths of origin, the Afar clans trace their roots to Arab descent, while their language and animistic practices reveal a shared history with neighboring Cushitic peoples.

The Afar people, as a distinct Eastern Cushite ethnic group, are intricately connected to the Somali and Oromo communities. Their cultural beliefs and practices serve as a testament to their enduring heritage, preserving ancient Cushitic traditions through the passage of time.

Political Landscape

The Afar people have historically maintained a loose confederation of four sultanates, which serve as both religious and political leadership positions. These sultanates include Aussa (also known as Asayita or Asaita) and Biru in Ethiopia, as well as Tajoura and Raheito in Djibouti. It is worth noting that an older source mentions a fifth sultanate, Gobad, in Djibouti. The appointment of a sultan is not hereditary but rather chosen by the people, with alternating segments from each of the four sections of the Afar community.

The Afar people have displayed a tendency to remain independent from central governments, resisting external domination and remaining cautious about embracing change. While they may show openness to specific benefits such as medical care or water programs, they generally maintain a self-contained and mobile society. At times, groups can be observed camped just outside Djibouti town, visiting periodically for trade or medical assistance.

Traditionally, the Afar society revolved around activities such as salt and fish trading, as well as making stops at oases during their journeys through the salt desert, which was generally avoided by others. Throughout history, the Afar people have encountered various influences, including Muslim militarists advancing from the Red Sea Coast and forces defending or expanding the territory and influence of their highland Christian king.

In the past, the Afar people actively participated in military campaigns led by Muslim leaders against the Christian highland peoples. For instance, they fought for Ahmad Gran, the Amir of Harar, who sought to establish a Muslim Empire in Abyssinia during the 16th century, causing significant devastation in the Ethiopian Highlands. Today, Aussa (Asayita) serves as the capital of the Afar State in Ethiopia.

Aussa States

Afar society traditionally consisted of independent kingdoms, each ruled by its own sultan. These included the Sultanate of Aussa, Girrifo, Dawe, Tajourah, Rahaito, and Gobaad. In 1577, the leader Imam Muhammed Jasa of the Adal Empire relocated his capital from Harar to Aussa in the modern Afar region.

In 1647, the rulers of Harar broke away to form their own polity, although Harari imams maintained a presence in the southern Afar Region until the 18th century when they were overthrown by the Mudaito dynasty of Afar, subsequently establishing the Sultanate of Aussa. The Sultan’s primary symbol of authority was a silver baton believed to hold magical properties.

Afar-Egyptian War

Survivor accounts provide insight into the Afar-Egyptian War. On October 5th, Werner Munzinger, accompanied by his wife and child, arrived in Tadjoura with the objective of opening up roads between Ankober and Tadjoura and establishing communication with King Menelik of Shewa.

Munzinger was also tasked with annexing the Afar Sultanate of Aussa and expanding into areas like Wollo. His forces included 350 soldiers, two guns, and 45 camels. On November 14th, their arrival in Aussa led to a nighttime attack by a large number of Oromos. The Afar and Oromo forces managed to defeat and destroy the Egyptian army, leaving only a small group that fled to Massawa. Among the Egyptian casualties were Werner Munzinger, his wife, and child.

According to historical accounts, the Afar people, known for their resilience and unity against common adversaries, can be classified into two main groups: the Asaimara and the Adoimara. These groups further divide into over 150 sub-tribes, each with distinct interests. However, they unite when faced with external threats.

During the pre-19th century, the Afar people played a significant role in facilitating trade routes and ensuring the security of Western caravans traversing the region between the Red Sea coast and central Ethiopia. The powerful Modaitos, based in the lower Awash region, were particularly influential. European travelers often claimed the right of hospitality or the brotherhoodof blood before traversing, further solidifying their reputation.

Nevertheless, the arrival of European powers in the late 19th century marked a turning point for the Afar people. The coastal sultanates of Raheita and Tadjoura, situated along the Red Sea, fell under colonization. Italy established Italian Eritrea, incorporating Assab and Massawa, while France established French Somaliland in Djibouti. However, the inland sultanate of Aussa fiercely maintained its independence for a longer period, despite being surrounded by arid desert landscapes.

Ethio-Afar relations

One of the defining moments in the Afar-Ethiopian relations occurred during the First Italo-Ethiopian War (1895-1896). Ethiopia aimed to neutralize the Afar people and prevent their potential support for the Italians. Emperor Menelik’s show of force dissuaded the Afar sultan Mahammad Hanfare, Sultanate of Aussa, from honoring his treaties with Italy. Instead, Hanfare accepted the Emperor’s indirect rule, securing a degree of autonomy within the Ethiopian Empire.

Liberation

In the post-World War II era, when Ethiopia introduced a modern administrative system, the Afar territories were divided among several provinces. Efforts by tribal leaders, elders, and dignitaries to reunify the Afar areas under a single administrative unit proved unsuccessful. A rebellion led by Afar Sultan Alimirah Hanfare was met with resistance, leading to the establishment of the Afar Liberation Front in 1975. Sultan Hanfare was subsequently exiled to Saudi Arabia and the insurgency continued until the early 1990s when the Derg regime fell, which had established Assab.

Similar movements took place in Djibouti throughout the 1980’s, culminating in the Afar insurgency in 1991. Hanfare returned from exile after the fall of the Derg regime.

The establishment of the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Front (ARDUF) in March 1993 marked a turning point. This political coalition, which included the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Union (ARDUU), the Afar Ummatah Demokrasiyyoh Focca (AUDF), and the Afar Revolutionary Forces (ARF), aimed to protect Afar interests. In 2012, the ARDUF became part of the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) coalition opposition party.

Today, the Afar people primarily inhabit the Danakil Desert in Ethiopia’s Afar Region, as well as areas in Eritrea and Djibouti. With a population of 2,276,867 in Ethiopia (comprising 2.73 percent of the total population), of which 105,551 reside in urban areas according to the 2007 census, the Afar people continue to navigate their political landscape while preserving their cultural heritage.

The Afar region faces an evolving future as developments intersect with its dynamic geographical and political landscapes. Opportunities in infrastructure, resources, tourism and renewable energy show potential to unlock prosperity if managed sustainably and for the benefit of Afar communities.

With careful planning and prioritizing Afar priorities and ownership, the region’s shifting terrain may continue its transition toward greater stability and autonomy for its resilient people. Its abundant mineral resources, untapped geothermal energy reserves, and unique geological wonders, Afar continues to captivate researchers, investors, and adventurers alike. The region’s journey towards unlocking its full potential promises to be an exciting endeavor, poised to reshape the landscape and bring prosperity to its inhabitants.

Contributed by Teshome Berhanu Kemal

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Video from Enat Bank Youtube Channel.

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