The Ten Year War: Egypt’s attempted colonization of Eastern Oromia (1875-1885)
By Jilcha Hamid
The Mountains North of Harar City where the 1875 battles took place.
In late 1875 the Egyptian ruler Khedive Ismail Pasha dispatched an army to expand into the horn of Africa and establish a governorate based in the city of Harar. The army led by General Rauf Pasha arrived in the port town of Zeila in September 1875 and moved south-west towards the town of Harar. The territories stretching from the port town of Zeila through the neighbouring deserts were controlled by Somali Chieftains namely of the Issa and Gadaboursi clans. The army of Rauf passed through this region without conflict. Further south bordering the Somali region were the Oromos belonging to the Afran Qallo Confederation. The Afran Qallo (meaning ‘the four sons of Qallo’) a clan based confederation included the region surrounding Harar which they governed under the Raabaa Doorii administration. This was essentially a cabinet administration which was elected periodically. The Emirate of Harar itself did not belong under the Raabaa Doorii council and remained an independent state. However, Amir Muhammad Ali, the ruler of Harar (1856-75) was allied to the Raaba Doorii administration carrying the title of ‘Ilma Gosaa’ or ‘son of the clan’. This allegiance was seen in a negative light by rival factions in the town which were contesting for power. These factions would ally with the Egyptians who they hoped would swing the balance of power in their favour.
In late September 1875 as the Egyptian army headed by Rauf Pasha moved towards Oromo territory the Afran Qallo confederation mobilized for war. Orfoo Jiloo, the elected commander of the Afran Qallo army moved the army north and awaited the Egyptian force. The terrain they chose, situated roughly 30 km north of Harar in the northern part of Kombolcha district was the mountainous region of Iftoha.
When the Pasha’s army reached Iftoha, Jilo ordered the attack and the Afran Qallo army, armed with spears and daggers engaged the Egyptian force. As the Egyptian army repelled the attack with firearms and cannon fire, the Afran Qallo continued the attack with ferocity turning their attention towards disabling the cannons. This approach did not materialize as the Egyptians used their artillery to push forward past Iftoha. When the army reached the Eeguu meadows about 20 km north of Harar they were again ambushed by the Afran Qallo and faced stiff resistance in a day long battle. The Army of Rauf continued to use artillery fire to repel the defenders and advance towards Harar. Bimbashi (or ‘Major’) Muhammad Muktar of the Egyptian army would later write about his experience in the Harar war, saying that the Oromos ‘were dangerous warriors capable of rapid movement’ and described them as ‘savages’ who ‘ knew how to make good use of terrain’. Narrations from the Oromo side passed down from my forefathers who participated in the war recall the battles as very bloody with large loss of life, particularly from the howitzer artillery fire. The army of Rauf was able to repel the Afran Qallo army and enter Harar. Once they entered Harar they came under siege. In the town the Egyptians met with local notables and Amir Muhammad Ali was betrayed by his rivals (including his cousin, Ali Abubakr) and immediately put to death by Rauf Pasha.
The conflict with the Afran Qallo however was far from over. As the town came under siege Rauf’s focus throughout the winter of 1875-76 was on strengthening the city defenses.
“A fort was built atop Mount Hakim, along with a smaller one to guard the north-west. Both maintained a battery of howitzers and Krupp guns, more than sufficient to break up a concentration of enemy soldiers. Outside their range, however, Oromo cavalry were a match for the mainly infantry force available to Rauf.”
As Rauf’s forces began running low on supplies which were unable to reach them through the siege, Rauf arranged for a meeting with the Afran Qallo leadership and called for a peace agreement. The Raabaa Doorii council sent a delegation to Harar where an agreement was reached. However, Pasha used the opportunity to bring in much needed supplies and reinforcements, which were later used to launch a fresh offensive into Oromo territory. In the spring of 1876 Pasha ordered an attack on several fronts. An army was sent north towards Fallana in the Nole country which was ambushed and stopped at Doya Gofle. The army sent north east to Jarso was met at Goba and defeated. Likewise, the army dispatched to Ala territory via Kurfa Challe was ambushed and pushed back to Harar.  As narrated in our tradition the army of Pasha would launch periodic raids into Oromo territory where atrocities were committed against civilians in an attempt to break the resistance. One of such examples was the murder of the wise and respected elder Caammaa Nuur, a widely narrated story in Afran Qallo tradition. However, these remained acts of desperation as Rauf Pasha failed to make any gains and his control remained restricted to the gates of Harar city.
In 1878 the British Governor General of Sudan Charles George Gordon removed Pasha from his position accusing him of ‘mismanagement’. Muhammad Nadi Pasha took over the governorship of Harar and problems continued to mount. The Egyptian governorate in Harar was not able to secure the resources they needed to sustain their occupation and began turning to banditry, raiding neighbouring Oromo settlements for food. The state was in debt and suffering financial problems and their lack of success in Harar continued to be a burden rather than a source of revenue as the Khedive had initially hoped. In 1882 the Egyptian government had to implement austerity measures with budget cuts to the army. As the cost of the occupation of Harar continued to grow without success, and with continuous appeals for supplies and reinforcements, the Egyptians were forced to withdraw in 1885.
“Radouan Pasha returned to direct the evacuation, one that required a five-battalion offensive to clear away Oromo troops. In April 1885, the last Egyptian soldier left Harar.”
After 10 years of occupation the Oromos had achieved victory, but at a tremendous cost in loss of life and property. The late Oromo leader, Jaarraa Abbaa Gadaa, whose grandfather fought in the Harar war recalled that the war costed the lives of 20-30 000 people including civilians, fighters, celebrated military and political leaders, and elders. The war ravaged the economy as well. Before the Confederation had the opportunity to recover from the 10 year occupation, they were forced to mobilize again in January of 1887 to repel the army of Minelik.
- R.A Caulk, “\Harar Town and its Neighbours in the Nineteenth Century” ,The Journal of African History, Vol. 18, No. 3 (1977), pp. 369-386
- J. P Dunn, Khedive Ismail’s Army (2004)
- A. Abdurahman, Raammisoo (2012)