Find the full issue of Horn of Africa Bulletin here


Somali and Ethiopian Diasporas for peace compared

Diaspora frequently has been conceptualized as product of war or other devastations that led to flight and exile. The longing for ‘homeland’ and the will of people in exile to collectively keep their ‘old’ identity was seen as a key component of the concept. Recent literature (since the 1990s) has expressed doubts about this monolithic and simplified understanding of diasporas[1]. I wish to stress that diasporas exist only in the plural (i.e., Somali diasporas, Ethiopian diasporas) and are dynamic and flexible. Flight or migration also does not automatically lead to collective diaspora formation. Only if the will to identify with a ‘home’ outside the country of residence is strong among a certain group of people can diasporas emerge. In other cases, migrants may simply assimilate into the host society. Second or third generation immigrants are not always willing to keep the idea of another ‘home’ alive[2]. The continued existence of a diaspora also depends on the intergenerational transmission of this kind of identity in exile. All diasporas are products of what ‘lies behind’ in the country of origin as well of what were the conditions of travel or flight and particularly what was the situation upon arrival in the country of residence. ‘Back home’ as well as in the ‘new home’, conditions are ever changing, which again has an impact on disaporas[3]. Besides, regional or global political and economic dynamics such as the 9/11 attacks and the war against terrorism or oil booms or crises play a role in framing diasporic and transnational activities[4].

This article deals with Somali and the Ethiopian diasporas and their recent engagement for peace and stability in their places of origin in the Horn of Africa. People originating from both settings have a considerable migratory history in the region and beyond. Already in the 15th century AD Ethiopian monks migrated to Jerusalem and Rome to establish religious centres. Bahru Zewde et al. (2010) underscore, however, that ‘these early migrations rarely arose out of situations of conflict. They were relocations that arose from the quest for religious redemption or in pursuit of knowledge.’[5] Somalis had established a presence in Aden across the Gulf of Aden in the 19th century; this presence was mostly economically motivated[6]. Only from the second half of the 20th century onward, did war, political oppression and natural disaster become the key matters in driving many citizens of both countries out of their homes. Worldwide, currently more than one million Ethiopians and one million Somalis live as refugees or citizens of other states[7]. Top destinations include Sudan (for Ethiopians), Kenya (for Somalis) and for both groups the USA, Europe and the Arabic Peninsula. Due to a lack of systematic data collection in the countries of origin as well as in the countries of destination, accurate statistics are not available.

Diasporic Engagement

Until recently, diasporas were considered a risk factor concerning peace and stability in a country. Some argued that there was a significant relation between civil war in a country of origin and the size of its diaspora. More recently, diasporas were ‘discovered’ as development actors and even as peace-builders in their country of origin. Western, particularly European, governments sought to enlist diasporic actors in their efforts to bring stability and development to countries in the ‘global south’[8]. Governments in the countries of origin realised that their diasporas constituted an important resource. Eritrea, for instance, established a diaspora tax. Other countries such as Ghana, Ethiopia and Somaliland opened diaspora liaison offices in their respective capitals. Politicians from the countries of origin ‘tour’ the diaspora in order to gain political and economic support or to motivate people to invest back home. It is only rarely, however, that the concrete effects of diasporic engagement have been studied ethnographically. In the following sections, I provide two examples drawn from Ethiopian and Somali diasporic engagement back home from a larger project called Diaspeace, which was funded by the EU between 2008 and 2011 and which involved ethnographic research in the region[9].

Ethiopian Muslims in the diaspora for social reform back home

Ethiopia is a multi-religious country. According to the official census of 2007, 43.5 per cent of the population are Orthodox, 33.9 per cent are Muslims with the rest belonging to other denominations. Traditionally, the country was dominated by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church that had a close symbiotic relationship with the state. Muslims in Ethiopia were often viewed with suspicion. In the past Ethiopia was depicted by its rulers and the church as a ‘Christian island in a hostile Muslim sea’, referring to the tense relations with the Islamic-dominated neighbouring states (particularly Sudan and Somalia). Against this background, which produced the systematic marginalization of Muslims in Ethiopia, Dereje Feyissa (2011) described diasporic initiatives of Ethiopian Muslims in Europe and the USA to increase the profile of their Muslim compatriots back home and demand rights and recognition from the government in Addis Ababa[10]. The two key organisations were the Network of Ethiopian Muslims in Europe (NEME) and its counterpart in the USA, Badr-Ethiopia. Both organisations established close contact with homeland Muslim activists and sought to bring to the attention of the country’s political leadership the concerns of Ethiopian Muslims. Apart from a very strong presence in cyberspace, representatives of NEME participated in various delegations to Ethiopia sent by a consortium of diaspora organizations, to foster the Muslim cause.

One of these delegations in 2007 explicitly focused on peace building in the area of religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence, aiming at making the Ethiopian national identity more (religiously) inclusive. The initiative enjoyed several successes. Over a decade the Ethiopian ulema was divided between the so-called local Sufi and Saudi-related Wahhabi camps. The delegation moderated the polemical theological debate through the creation of an ulema unity forum where compromises were made to accommodate doctrinal differences. Second, the delegation also sought to reach out to the Christian establishments to foster inter-faith dialogue at a time when religious conflicts were on the rise in Ethiopia. Third, the diaspora activists framed their endeavour in the globally recognized rights language, citing the country’s constitution, international conventions as well as drawing on their experiences of democratic practice in their host countries. This delegitimized calls for violent change espoused by some fringe radical elements within the Muslim community.

One key aim of the local and diasporic Muslim activists was the establishment of a new and stronger Muslim leadership in Ethiopia that would be able to bridge ethnic divides and represent Muslim interests in the country credibly. The exiting Majlis (Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council) had been strongly influenced by the state. Feyissa and Lawrence (2014) mentioned that in 2009 popular pressure had finally led to a change of the Islamic leadership. The new council, however, failed to generate legitimacy and become a representative and effective institution. Government interference in Muslim affairs increased (possibly also against the background of the rise of Al Shabaab to power in Somalia) from 2011 onward, when Addis Ababa sought to promote a particular group of ‘moderate’ Muslims called Al-Habash as the ‘true’ Ethiopian Muslims, which led to new tensions among Ethiopia’s Muslims[11].

Stabilizing war-torn Somaliland through economic investments

Civil war began in northern Somalia in the 1980s. It culminated in the bombardment of the cities of Hargeysa and Bur’o by the Somali national army in 1988. Eventually, the Somali government was toppled by armed opposition forces in the south in early 1991. Subsequently, southern and central Somalia descended into protracted armed conflict. In north-western Somalia, however, the Republic of Somaliland was declared as independent state. Local communities engaged in peace and state-building. Yet, until the mid-1990s Somaliland was essentially a volatile and still war-ridden place.

Against this context, Mohamed Hassan Ibrahim (2010) analysed two economic investments in Hargeysa, the capital of Somaliland that significantly contributed to sustainable peacebuilding in Hargeysa and beyond[12]. In the early 1990s, Hargeysa lay in ruins. Additionally, a new civil war between various groups raged in the town between 1994 and 1996. In May 1994, an engineer who originated from Hargeysa but had made his fortune in Kuwait decided to invest his savings in the construction of a major hotel in the north of the town. Construction was complicated due to shortage of material, funding limitations and the fighting in Hargeysa. But finally, on August 30, 1996, Maansoor Hotel was officially opened.

However, the situation in Hargeysa remained volatile. The whole south of the town was still in a situation of ‘no war, no peace’. It was where the previous fighting had happened about the control of the airport, and where members of a particular clan resided who felt marginalised by the government of Somaliland. Around 1998 a diaspora actor from the UK decided to build a major hotel near the airport. Initially, local community representatives sought to discourage the investor by stressing that he would be putting all his money into a deserted and insecure place and therefore lose it. But in 2000, the Ambassador Hotel opened and soon became highly profitable.

The construction of these hotels had lasting effects extending much beyond the immediate economic benefits accruing to the investors. Around both places, a wholly new infrastructure developed. Houses, shops and roads were built and the value of land increased dramatically in the wider areas around Maansoor and Ambassador. Both investments also created jobs directly (in the hotels) and indirectly (around them). More importantly, they gave people a stake in the local polity and an interest in continued peace. Menkhaus (1999) argued correctly that that large and visible investments by the diaspora ‘are important not only for the jobs they create but also for the sense of confidence they build locally that wealthy diaspora members believe in the future of the area enough to make a major fixed investment there.’[13] The construction of the two hotels created a balance between different parts of the town and different powerful groups.


Peacebuilding presupposes long-term commitment to a process and addressing the material and immaterial levels of a given conflict. It can be distinguished from other developmental and humanitarian activities because, ‘it has the specific political aims of reducing the risk of resumption of conflict and contributing to the creation of conditions most conducive to reconciliation, reconstruction and recovery.’[14] Against this background, both examples mentioned in this article show the potential of diasporas from the Horn of Africa to contribute to peace in the region. Of course, as initially outlined, various structural factors (in the countries of origin, of residence, but also globally) enable or hinder diasporic engagement.

Looking at the conditions in Ethiopia and Somaliland, respectively in which the diasporic engagements occurred, it becomes clear that the general contexts were quite different. Ethiopia is a stable state with a long history of institutionalisation of politics. Government control is strong and opposition is frequently met with force. In Somaliland state institutions are rather weak and frequently, social capital counts for more than the positions individuals hold. Back in 2007, when the Ethiopian Muslim diaspora sought to reform Muslim organisations in Ethiopia and negotiate on behalf of Muslims in Ethiopia, it had to manoeuvre carefully. Within the country, it had to play the national card and clearly distinguish itself from radical elements in the Muslim community. NEME and Badr-Ethiopia also had to deal with the ‘siege’ mentality of the Orthodox Church; at the same time the government was incrementally creating a more regulated framework for civil society activism;[15] additionally Islamists in Somalia threatened the stability of the region. NEME and Badr-Ethiopia also had to deal with a global situation after 9/11 in which transnational Muslim activism was viewed with suspicion. Nevertheless, they achieved some success in mediating between opposed sections of the Ethiopian ulema and increasing the recognition of the legitimate concerns of Ethiopian Muslims.

In contrast, when the private economic investments to build Maansoor Hotel and Ambassador Hotel happened in Somaliland, government restrictions were minimal. The local setting was characterised by war and instability and massive lack of any kind of development. The commitment of the investors and social relations between them and local people proved central for the success of the investments. The absence of strong statehood and government regulations provided the moral and economic impetus for the investments in a non-recognized state, which comes with its own complications, e.g., concerning the ordering of construction materials from the international market or legal guarantees of property. The transnational activism of many Somalis in the 1990s was also not followed up by most external actors, since officially, Somaliland did not even exist and the international community concentrated on containing the disaster in the south. It was a time of domestic and transnational liberalism with all chances and risks upon those who engaged in it. Simultaneously, to become active, as the founders of Maansoor Hotel and Ambassador Hotel did, one needed to have pre-existing private capital. Most Somalis who had fled only after 1988 were not yet established enough abroad to engage substantially back home. A new period of diasporic activities with massive investments in hospitals, schools, universities, businesses and infrastructure began only in the late 1990s and early 2000s and up until today contributes massively to the economic development and the stabilisation of peace in Somaliland.

Markus Hoehne is a Lecturer at the Institute for Social Anthropology, University of Leipzig. He is the author of the book Between Somaliland and Puntland: Marginalization, militarization and conflicting political visions (RVI, 2015). He can be reached at



[1] In the older literature, ‘classical’ diasporas such as the Jewish, Greek and Armenian diaspora have frequently been presented as such. For a genealogy of the concept ‘diaspora’, see: Baumann, Martin 2000: Diaspora: Genealogies of Semantics and Transcultural Comparison. Numen 47(3): 313–337.

[2] Schlee, Guenther and Isir Schlee 2010: Limits of political engagement: The case of the Somali diaspora. Working paper 125, Halle/Saale: Max-Planck-Institute for Social Anthropology (online:, p. 8-10.

[3] Pirkkalainen, Paivi 2013: Transnational Responsibilities and Multi-sited Strategies: Voluntary Associations of Somali Diaspora in Finland. Unpublished PhD, University of Jyväskyla, p. 28.

[4] The two concepts of ‘diaspora’ and ‘transnationalism’ are closely related but, in my eyes, still different. Diaspora very often is ‘identity-related’. It concerns a group of people living in exile and keeping up their version of their ‘original’ identity. Transnationalism concerns practices of individuals or groups within and between different nation states. Transnational belonging is not confined to national or ethnic containers. See: Glick Schiller, Nina; Basch, Linda; Blanc-Szanton, Christina 1992: ‘Transnationalism: A New Analytic Framework for Understanding Migration.’ In: N. Glick Schiller, L. Basch, C. Blanc-Szanton (eds.), Towards a transnational perspective on migration: race, class, ethnicity, and nationalism reconsidered. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, pp 1-24; Cohen, Robin 1997: Global diasporas, London: UCL Press.

[5] Bahru Zewde, Gebre Yntiso and Kassahun Berhanu 2010: Contribution of the Ethiopian Diaspora to Peace-Building: A Case Study of the Tigrai Development Association. Diaspeace Working Paper 8, p. 8 (online:

[6] Alpers, Edward 1986: The Somali Community at Aden in the Nineteenth Century. Northeast African Studies 8(2-3): 143-168; Ingrams, Leila and Richard Pankhurst 2006: Somali Migration to Aden from the 19th to the 21st Centuries. African and Asian Studies, 5(3-4): 371-382.

[7] The total population of Ethiopia is roughly 80 million; the one of Somalia is roughly 14 million; of course, there are also several million Somalis living as citizens in Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia who are not refugees, but belong to these states due to colonial partition. Still, the ratio of people abroad compared to those back home is much higher in the Somali than in the Ethiopian case. Gundel (2002) aptly characterized Somalis as a ‘globalized nation’. See: Gundel, Joakim 2002: The Migration-Development Nexus: Somalia Case Study. International Migration 40(5): 255-281.

[8] For a good overview of this debate, see Pirkkalainen, Päivi and Abdile, Mahdi 2009: The Diaspora – Conflict – Peace – Nexus: A Literature Review. Diaspeace Working Paper 1 (online

[9] For further details, see:

[10] This section draws on Dereje Feyissa 2011: Setting a Social Reform Agenda: The Peacebuilding Dimension of the Rights Movement of the Ethiopian Muslims Diaspora. Diaspeace Working Paper 9 (online:

[11] Dereje Feyissa and Bruce B. Lawrence 2014: Muslims Renegotiating Marginality in Contemporary Ethiopia. Muslim World 103(3): 281–305: 295.

[12] Mohamed Hassan Ibrahim 2010: Somaliland’s investment in peace: analysing the diaspora’s economic engagement in peace building. Diaspeace Working Paper 4 (online:

[13] Menkhaus, Ken 2009: The Role and Impact of the Somali Diaspora in Peace-Building, Governance and Development, in: R. Bardouille, M. Ndulo & M. Grieco (eds.) Africa’s Finances: The Role of Remittances, Newcastle: Oxford Scholars Publications, pp. 187-202, p. 196.

[14] Ramsbotham, Oliver, Hugh Miall and Tom Woodhouse 2003: Contemporary Conflict Resolution. Cambridge: Blackwell/Polity Press, p. 195.

[15] In early 2009, the Ethiopian government passed a law that restricted the fundraising activities and operations of NGOs, and imposed stricter requirements for registration. Engagement in the spheres of human rights and security was basically prohibited by this law.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.