More than a week into the war in Tigray, hundreds, including civilians, have been killed. Ethiopia continues to descend further into the abyss. Sudan says over 17, 000 people, including soldiers, have fled to the country. The ruling Prosperity Party is organizing parades and forcing citizens to contribute financially and in-kind for the war effort.
Regional states are sending their special forces to aid in the fight, while opposition parties have issued statements some in support of the war, others calling for de-escalation and political dialogue.
This piece seeks to shed the spotlight on the Somali Region in light of recent events in Ethiopia by commenting on its relative status in the national space, recent political developments, and by contextualizing current events in the region within the necessary framework. This week, the Somali Regional State and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), the leading opposition party in the state, organized joint rallies in support of the war in Tigray.
Last week, the ONLF called for restraint and dialogue. On Friday, the group doubled down by issuing a deeply uncharacteristic and contradictory statement sanctifying not just Abiy’s war, but also his broader vision through prayer. Their support for the war, with no mention of the bigger political issues facing the country, underscores the party’s paradoxical existence under the current political dispensation. It also speaks to the broader political dynamics in the Somali region, which requires a look back at recent politics and events.
A history of marginalization
Occupying little to no space amidst national conversations about the future of Ethiopia at this pivotal moment in the country’s history, the Somali Region is far from a silent observer, much less a passive recipient of the unfolding national dynamics.
Ravaged by the brutality of successive Ethiopian regimes over the course of a century, the Somali region has fluctuated between various modes of resistance against the state—from armed rebellions, organized insurgency, to full-blown war. The ruling Ethiopian elite perpetuated and cemented into the national psyche the image of the unruly Somali nomad posing a threat to the unity, stability, and survival of the state.
As a result, the Somali region became one of the most militarized and aggressively surveilled administrative areas. It shares a history of violent incorporation into the state structure with other peripheral nations and peoples. Since the inception of the modern Ethiopian state, violence and resistance characterized the Somali periphery. The institutionalized discourse of the “illegitimate secessionist” Somali and the enduring resistance mounted against this oppressive state structure has given rise to longstanding debates on the position of Somalis in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s new multinational federal system, adopted in 1995, marked the first occasion where Somalis, as a nation, were officially recognized as constituent members of the Ethiopian state. The promise of redressing the subordinate positions of historically marginalized peoples in Ethiopia materialized in the form of an auspicious new constitution. This Constitution codified the ethno-cultural rights of nations, nationalities, and peoples promising a departure away from previous hierarchical systems of governance, which reinforced the hegemony of dominant groups at the expense of marginalized others.
In reality, the Tigrayan-dominated Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the architect of this new system, ignored two major tenants of the federal Constitution: the principles of autonomy and the right to genuine self-rule, and to increase the representation of the peripheries at the center putting an end to their longstanding marginalization.
Instead, the new ruling elite undermined federal structures and afforded no meaningful representation to peripheral peoples. This hurt the Somali Region, home to the third-largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and the second largest in terms of geographic area. Mass atrocities marked the EPRDF era, including large-scale human rights violations, economic deprivation, and violations of all kinds permeating the fabric of society.
Reform in the Somali region
In December 2019, Somali Region leaders joined Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s unitary Prosperity Party (PP), which replaced the ruling EPRDF coalition. While it was no simple decision to make for key members of the then Somali Democratic Party (SDP) leadership, they cited one major reason for joining the “national” party: to have a seat at the table.
Having a seat at the table that Somalis were structurally excluded from under the EPRDF seemed attractive to some, but it also drew criticism from other Somalis. The mechanics of this “table” was never really elaborated, raising the question: if the table is going to be one that undermines the fate of Somalis in Ethiopia, what benefit does having a seat at the table bring?
As the civil-rights icon, Malcolm X once said, “sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner, unless you eat some of what’s on that plate.” The justification for why we need a single unitary party was to have a seat at the table and integrate the peripheries into the center, giving them a chance at a presentation in the national decision-making process.
But what use is this representation considering that PP branch leaders are only accountable to the national PP central committee, and not to any specific group since PP follows an individual-based membership model that eschews ethnic or group affiliation. This nullifies the “seat at the table” argument used to appeal to historically marginalized peoples such as Somalis. Indeed, so far, sitting at the table has not resulted in the increased bargaining power of the Somali people as a collective.
Over the years, the struggle towards democratization and a more just system throughout Ethiopia were supposed to lead to a political transformation. What happened instead was a rebranding of the old repressive system of governance. Under the EPRDF regime, the federal government intervened at will in the internal affairs of regional states undermining the core tenants of the system of self-rule – an illegal and informal intervention.
Under PP, informal meddling in local or regional affairs is provided with a legal framework (by the merging of all regional parties and through a system based on individual rather than group membership). By default, this is a complete takeover of the regional governments and the individual parties which represented their constituents. Currently, local PP branches exist merely to implement centrally administered policies. As Bahar Oumer notes, “If EPRDF’s democratic centralism was akin to indirect rule, PP’s organizational structure resembles a direct rule.”
This speaks to the inherent flaw within the architecture of PP. The party is set up to administer a centralized state. The organizational structure of PP is at odds with the multinational federal system, where states are constitutionally guaranteed meaningful regional autonomy.
Moreover, just because the promises of true federalism did not bear fruit, it does not mean that a federal structure that guarantees genuine autonomy and self-rule is not in the best interest of Somalis or other marginalized groups in Ethiopia. In other words, the fact that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) misused and failed to implement federalism doesn’t make Abiy’s prosperity politics any more appealing.
Under PP’s centralist doctrine, Somalis risk losing what little they have gained from the previous political order: an autonomous Somali Region which clearly demarcates both the spatial and temporal boundaries of the Somali in Ethiopia. The Prosperity Party’s underhand pursuit of a federal arrangement that divides the country into multiple provinces based on geography poses an existential threat to the Somali people.
ONLF and PP: Uneasy coexistence
For the first time in the Somali region’s recent history, 2018 marked the end of decades of armed resistance. It also saw: the triumphant return from exile of the ONLF; the disposal of Abdi Illey, a tyrannical ruler responsible for unprecedented levels of abuses; and a promising change in the state’s leadership. Under the TPLF rule, the region has seen the complete disintegration of social structures, including the breakdown of institutions and civil society groups, large-scale human atrocities, while state violence and a culture of impunity regulated the day-to-day lives of the populace.
Following the momentous transition, the regional leadership, including opposition groups and other political figureheads, seem to have fallen short on the most imminent task that lay ahead of them: Reconciliation through dialogue and consultation—redressing the impact of decades of widespread abuses and unifying the Somali people in the face of an uncertain national context.
Instead, leaders of the PP Somali branch and the ONLF are engaged in a power-struggle over competing interests and agendas as well as the leadership of the region rather than offering the Somali people a sense of direction, or at minimum, jointly working toward a set of common objectives.
In many ways, the PP-ONLF rivalry in the region is not about larger and more existential questions on the place of the Somali in Ethiopia or how Somalis should organize themselves during this critical time. Their politics is inward-looking. Key actors are preoccupied with the day-to-day happenings in the Somali Region, from project inaugurations to the ordinary routine of daily governance. It has also become apparent that competing for the political leadership of the region means competing for the appeasement of the center.
This is why the leadership of the region has failed the Somali people on multiple fronts, avoiding any contentious issue which may draw unfavorable attention and the ire of the center.
Examples include the failure to meaningfully address the legacies of mass abuses, and turning a blind eye to the catastrophic impact of natural resource exploration in the region. On the latter, the widespread health and environmental crisis unfolding in the vicinity of Calub gas fields, as detailed in the Guardian’s recent report and repeatedly voiced by victims, was responded to with indifference. The regional leadership failed to simply request an impartial investigation into the health and environmental concerns raised by local civilians. Instead, it endorsed an apathetic state-led fact-finding trip consisting of a 2-day visit to affected areas around Calub on February 28, 2020. It was no surprise that the findings of the investigation led by the Federal Ministry of Mines and Petroleum unequivocally dismissed the concerns of Somalis, and in an unpublished report referred to them as baseless “rumors.” Neither the Somali government nor the opposition groups have challenged those findings.
The lack of viable opposition groups only serves the interest of the state; we often hear that the Somali Region is the most peaceful state in Ethiopia. While it is certainly more peaceful than at any period in recent history, one wonders if the region would still be peaceful had the regional opposition parties posed a real challenge to the ruling party (as opposition groups are supposed to).
In other words, the Somali Region is the most peaceful precisely because it has kept its head down, not because of the benevolence of the system. The intolerance toward political differences and any form of dissent is best illustrated by the arrest of opposition politicians in other parts of the country, particularly in the Oromia region and Wolaita zone.
In this context, if the ONLF starts to act the way opposition parties do, is there any guarantee that they will not follow suit? The government’s crackdown on the opposition certainly does not provide much hope to Somali opposition groups. ONLF seeks to struggle for the rights of Somali people via peaceful means as detailed in its 2018 peace agreement with the government, but how does one struggle peacefully in Ethiopia? There is no agreed roadmap for this. But history, and indeed experience in the Somali region and beyond, shows that even peaceful struggle does not guarantee the freedom to carry out political activities.
Between 1992 and 1994, ONLF, as an elected party “struggling peacefully” and within the framework set by the state, mobilized the Somali population ahead of putting the question of self-determination in front of the parliament. Yet this period saw a record number of arrests, disappearances, and extra-judicial killings including that of senior ONLF figures such as Ugaas Miraad Leyli, Maxamed sheekh Muxumed Iraad, Kaafi Cali, Maxamed Cumar tube, Deeq Maxamed Carab, and many others. Similarly, in 1994, when the ONLF triggered Article 39 of the constitution, the Ethiopian government responded by massacring 80 civilians in Wardher in pursuit of ONLF chair Sheikh Ibrahim Abdalla. They were once again “struggling peacefully” within the limits of the Constitution.
This dilemma opens a Pandora’s box of related challenges, but it boils down to one fundamental issue: That regardless of the political set up of Ethiopia—ranging from the monarchical rule, military autocracy, to revolutionary democracy—the ruling Ethiopian elite have continually denied the Somali people their right to political self-expression and pursuit of fundamental rights and freedoms even when guaranteed by the constitution. Thus, we find ourselves in an endless cycle of violence and resistance. Simply put, the system has certain repressive characteristics that are resistant to change regardless of its political configuration at any given time in history.
“No one will go back to the bushes” is a phrase used repeatedly in the Somali Region to denote the sheer unwillingness of the population to fight another war. Meanwhile, opposition groups (namely ONLF) are left to exist and function within the narrow parameters set up by the central state. As such, today, ONLF’s attempt to struggle peacefully is centered upon accommodating the center whilst attempting to retain its core identity as the only means to avoid a repeat of the last 30 years.
Despite their shortcomings, ONLF, the vanguard of the struggle for Somali sovereignty, still poses a serious challenge for the ruling party. Their symbolic appeal alone has a powerful place among the Somali society.
Though the Somali PP leadership accuses ONLF of embodying out-dated ideals, it is precisely these ideals that render the group so popular among the masses. The ideals have symbolic significance and emotional resonance with a large number of the population who have experienced a lifetime of subjugation and domination.
ONLF is now battling to keep this appeal and identity in the face of enormous political uncertainty. This is best evidenced by ONLF’s silence on key issues over the past two years, and uncharacteristic statements regarding others, especially their most recent contradictory comments on the PP-TPLF war in Tigray; on the one hand supporting the state’s war, and on the other hand calling for an end to the war without mentioning the bigger issues at stake. Worryingly, ONLF’s most recent public statements imply its passionate satisfaction with the policies and actions of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose ambitions are antithetical to their core values and beliefs.
Abiy’s War on TPLF
The narrative surrounding the war with TPLF is fraught with paradoxes. On the one hand, it is the proponents of the TPLF-led EPRDF that are beating the drums of war and fueling the anti-Tigrayan narrative. This same group is responsible for eliminating the forces responsible for toppling the TPLF-led system from the political arena by jailing them.
The jailing of Oromo opposition leaders by the same officials that served the TPLF during the height of their reign renders today’s anti-TPLF rhetoric as disingenuous and simply a means to consolidate power and achieve certain political aims. To be clear, for the Somali, TPLF represents a long-time foe and it is difficult to conjure sympathy from a people whom the group has persecuted beyond imagination. Somalis share one fundamental belief: The necessity of eliminating the TPLF.
This view is shared by Somalis not only in the Somali Region but across the Somali territories as demonstrated by statements from senior politicians even in neighboring Somalia. Somalis are voicing support for the war in Tigray based on their historical engagement with the TPLF. The crimes against humanity that TPLF committed in the region are very much alive in the historical memory of Somali society as a whole, and their physical manifestations are still visible.
Somalis are aware that the ongoing war against TPLF has nothing to do with punishing the group for their violent history. Yet it is nevertheless welcome based on those specific reasons alone. Their position is in many ways parallel to that of Abdi Iley who is not imprisoned for the crimes committed against Somalis at the direction of the TPLF, but for other unrelated purposes. Likewise, his departure and subsequent imprisonment were also welcomed with a sigh of relief.
In other words, the Somali rationale for supporting Abiy’s war differs significantly from that of other supporters who openly cite the need to reconstruct the political system and undo the legacy of TPLF, namely, multinational federalism. Nevertheless, short-term fixation on the damage this war will inflict on the TPLF as an entity, and viewing this war as some form of retribution is problematic. We should be alarmed by the fact that we are governed by an administration that is willing to use force against its opponents. A violent system benefits no one, especially not Somalis.
Somalis should, therefore, practice caution and not turn a blind eye to the ideological component of the war against the TPLF. Focusing on the TPLF alone is short-sighted and does not address the looming danger that may be ahead of us.
That the TPLF is the enemy of the Somali people, as it is often said, is not the be-all and end-all. Without simplifying the diversity of Somali viewpoints on this war, commentary on the government’s war against the TPLF shows a lack of appreciation for the larger issues at stake, including how the Ethiopian state should be organized, and what ideologies will gain traction over others in the near future.
Abiy’s supporters are openly calling for constitutional changes, blaming the TPLF for sowing the seeds of division and disunity by instituting an ethnic-based federal structure. By extension, they blame all of Ethiopia’s problems on the TPLF and the governing structure it instituted. This point of view presumes the existence of an idyllic political disposition before federalism, free of divisions and deep-seated grievances fueled by historic marginalization and injustice. Whereas, in fact, instituting a federal structure was perhaps the only means to save the Ethiopian state after the fall of the Derg regime. The problem is not with multinational federalism, it is with its lack of proper implementation and a repressive state structure which fuels many of today’s problems in Ethiopia.
At this critical time, the Somali Region is in dire need of alternative political discourses which grapple with the most pressing and essential questions of our time: how the Ethiopian state should be organized, protecting Somali autonomy, and the importance of preserving the federal Constitution which is increasingly coming under fire.