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The Issa (also Eesah, Aysa) (Somali: Ciise, Reer Sheikh Ciise, Arabic: عيسى) are a northern Somali clan, a sub-division of the Dir clan family and is one of the largest clan of the Dir with a large and densely populated traditional territory.[1]

Flag of Ethiopia.svgFlag of Djibouti.svgFlag of Somalia.svg
Sheikh Issa Tomb.png
The tomb of Sheikh Issa, the founding father of the Issa clan.
Regions with significant populations
Islam, (Sunni)
Related ethnic groups
Dir, other Gadabuursi, Akisho, Gurgura groups and Somali clans

The populations of six major cities of Djibouti: Djibouti City, Ali Sabieh, Arta, Dikhil, Holhol, Ali Adde and Assamo – are predominantly Issa and in Ethiopia: Dire Dawa, Ayesha, Biki, Harar, Adigale, Mieso, Erer and Āfdem. And Somalia-Somaliland: Zeila, Xariirad, Jidhi and Lughaya. As a sub-clan of the Dir, the Issa clan traces their paternal ancestry to Irir, one of the sons of Samaale.



The Adal Sultanate which was largely on part of the gadabuursi territory and the conquest of Abyssinia which they contributed to.

The Issa clan has produced numerous noble Somali men and women over the centuries, consisted of a King (Ugaas) and including many Sultans. Traditionally, Issa men ruled these settlement pockets until the European colonial powers changed the political dynamics of Djibouti, Somalia and Ethiopia during the late 19th century.

The name of Dire Dawa means were the "Dir Hit" Meeshii Dir Dhabah in reference to 14th century battles between the Sultanate of Ifat and Gallas. Since the colonial period, in the construction of the railway line from Addis Ababa to Djibouti City at the beginning of the twentieth century, the French builders used mainly the Issa as workers and guards. In the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935/36, Issa fought on the Italian side, in return benefited from weapons and military training and lucrative marketing opportunities for their cattle. In the second half of the twentieth century, Somalia supplied additional weapons to the Issa, which it upgraded as part of the West Somalia Liberation Front. All this contributed to the fact that the Issa repressed the Afar from the area of today's Shinile zone. The Aysha massacre was a massacre of ethnic Issa Somalis by Ethiopian army on 13 August 1960 in Aysha, Ethiopia. The Ethiopian troops had descended on the area to reportedly help defuse clan-related conflict. However, according to eye-witness testimony, that Somali men were then taken to a different location and then executed by Ethiopian soldiers. Among the latter, those who fled to Dikhil and Ali Sabieh in Djibouti. The drought and hunger crisis of 1972-1973/74 intensified the conflicts. The Ethiopian army intervened against the Issa and in 1971/72 killed hundreds and seized nearly 200,000 cattle. After the defeat of the Western Somali Liberation Front, the Issa Division remained under the name Issa and Gurgura Liberation Front. Their continued to receive support from Somalia and joined the EPRDF. In 1987 the autonomous region of Dire Dawa was created for the Issa (which had previously belonged to the province of Xararge) as part of a new administrative division of Ethiopia. Since the EPRDF took over in 1991, the Issa areas in Ethiopia were part of the ethnic definition of the Somali Region.[2]

In Djibouti, which was colonized by France under the name of the French Coast of Somalis, (up until 1967, then to the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas), there were also tensions between Issa and Afar, as the Issa sought to connect with Somalia independent since 1960. Most Afar preferred the fate of France. Mahamoud Harbi was a major leader of the independence movement but was killed in 29 September 1960 and his comrades Djama Mahamoud Boreh and Mohamed Gahanlo disappeared on a flight from Geneva to Cairo. Officially, they were killed in a plane crash, but a possible role of the organization de l'armée secrète is speculated. In 1977 Djibouti gained its independence, but did not unite with Somalia. Under Hassan Gouled Aptidon, Djibouti developed into the one-party state of the Rassemblement Populaire pour le Progrès (RPP) In which the interests of the Afar minority were little considered. In 1991-1994, there was therefore a civil war in Djibouti between the Issa-dominated government and the Afar rebels of the FRUD. Finally, other opposition parties were admitted and Afar was involved in the government, while Issa still dominated political life. In 1999 Ismail Omar Guelleh, a nephew of Hassan Gouled Aptidon, succeeded Djibouti as his successor.

A map of Gulf of Aden with Djibouti in 1888, featuring the Somali clan of the Issa.

In the Awdal region of Somalia there were battles with the Gadabuursi, another Dir subclans. The conflict drove some of the Issa to escape to Ethiopia in the late 1990s. A refugee camp was opened at Degago/Ayisha. A second wave of Issa refugees left the coastal town of Zeila in 1991 after fighting with the SNM of the Isaaq and Gadabuursi.[3] The Issa organization United Somali Front had previously tried to connect Zeila to Djibouti. In the same year, the north-west of Somalia, including Awdal under the leadership of the SNM as Somaliland, a country which has as of 2019 not been recognized by any country. In the lower house of the Somaliland Parliament (House of Representatives), six out of 82 were members of Issa in 2005. Since the 2005 elections, only one Issa (as a member of the government division UDUB ) has been represented. This decline is mainly explained by the fact that the Issa in Awdal instead of to Somaliland are increasingly oriented towards the neighboring Djibouti.


The Issa primarily live in Ethiopia largely where they reach the Oromia and Afar regions and make a large chunk of the Chartered city of Dire Dawa. They also inhabit Djibouti, were they make up half of the population, thirdly they inhabit northwestern Somalia too.[4] The Issa are the largest clan by population within the Djibouti. Also the Issa is the second largest sub-clan within the borders of the Somali region of Ethiopia based on the Ethiopian population census 2008.

The immediate neighbor to the Issa to the west are the Afar (or Danakil) with whom the Issa used to frequently fight. I. M. Lewis used to refer to it as "a of an almost constant state of enmity between the 'Ise and the 'Afar" , To their east the 'Ise are in contact with the Somali Gadabursi to whom they feel themselves akin and share same descent and culture. To the South the Gurgura, Hawiye and Oromo.[5]:70[6]


The Issa traditionally traces its connexions through its Dir, his actual grave lies between Rugay and Maydh in northeastern Somalia.[7] Sheikh Issa tomb most likely pre-date the local arrival of Islam, which would mean their construction took place in the 13th century or earlier.

The traditional Ugaas (King) comes from the smallest Issa clan, Wardiiq and rules from his settlement Waruf located about 180 Km south of Djibouti, west of the Harrar road. One of their Ugaas's was Ugaas Hassan Xirsi Ugaas.

Clan treeEdit

Issa man and woman in traditional attire (1844)

There is no clear agreement on the clan and sub-clan structures and many lineages are omitted. The following listing is taken from the World Bank's Conflict in Somalia: Drivers and Dynamics from 2005 and the United Kingdom's Home Office publication, Somalia Assessment 2001.[8][9]

Based on the Notes on the social organisation of the 'Ise Somal. The Isse is divided into the following branches.[5]:73

  • Issa
    • Ēlēye' (Musse & Mamasan)
    • Hōlle (Mahadle & Saaib)
    • Hawlagadee(Walāldōn)
    • Hōrrōne
    • Ūrweyne
    • Wardīq

In the south central part of Somalia the World Bank shows the following clan tree:[10]

Notable Issa peopleEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ King, Preston (1987). An African Winter. Puffin. ISBN 978-0-14-052365-2., p.169.
  2. ^ Tobias Hagmann: Challenges of decentralisation in Ethiopia's Somali Region, Briefing for Review of African Political Economy Vol. 32, No. 103, 2005 (PDF)
  3. ^ Guido Ambroso: Pastoral society and transnational refugees: population movements in Somaliland and eastern Ethiopia 1988–2000. New Issues in Refugee Research, Working Paper No. 65, UNHCR – Evaluation and Policy Analysis Unit, 2002 (PDF; 492 kB)
  4. ^ Olson, James S. (1996). THE PEOPLE OF AFRICA: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. London: GREENWOOD PRESS. p. 244. ISBN 978-0-313-27918-8.
  5. ^ a b Lewis, I.M. (1961). "Notes on the Social Organisation of the ʿĪse Somali". Rassegna di Studi Etiopici. Istituto per l'Oriente C. A. Nallino. 17: 69–82. JSTOR 41299496.
  6. ^ Tesfaye, Aaron (2002). Political Power and Ethnic Federalism: The Struggle for Democracy in Ethiopia. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America Inc. p. 135. ISBN 978-0-7618-2238-7.
  7. ^ Lewis, "Historical Aspects of Genealogies in Northern Somali Social Structure", Journal of African History, 3 (1962), p. 46
  8. ^ Worldbank, Conflict in Somalia: Drivers and Dynamics, January 2005, Appendix 2, Lineage Charts, p.55 Figure A-1
  9. ^ Country Information and Policy Unit, Home Office, Great Britain, Somalia Assessment 2001, Annex B: Somali Clan Structure Archived 2011-07-16 at the Wayback Machine, p. 43
  10. ^ Worldbank, Conflict in Somalia: Drivers and Dynamics, January 2005, Appendix 2, Lineage Charts, p.56 Figure A-2