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Opinion: Ethiopia’s planned National Dialogue and the deep concerns of Somalis

Somali regional state flag. Picture: Regional communication bureau office

By Anwar Abdifatah Bashir

Addis Abeba – The Somali region in Ethiopia, formerly known as Ogadenia, has been under constant oppression since the British administration ceded the region to Ethiopia in 1954 under the iron fist rule of Emperor Haileselassie. Like his predecessor Menelik II, Haileselassie had expedited the oppression against other communities, mainly from the wider south such as Somalis and Oromos. Menelik II used to get a peerless weapon and ammunition support from the British Administration since he had received the Queen of Britain Victoria’s special envoy “Rodd Mission” amidst the second scramble for Africa in 1897. When Somalia got its independence in 1960 and claimed the Somali region as part and parcel of the Somalis plateau, the two states, Somalia and Ethiopia, had been at loggerheads leading two vicious wars in 1964 and 1977.

When Haileselassie was overthrown by troops led by Mengistu Haile Mariam in the 1974 student revolution, Ethiopia has shifted from the west to the former Soviet Union. Similarly, the former authoritarian regime in Somalia led by dictator Siad Barre was a close ally with the Soviet Union. Though the two countries, Somalia and Ethiopia, were henchmen to the Soviet Union, the deep-rooted dispute and the political resentment between the regimes were never solved. The mistreatment of Somalis as second-class citizens continued unabated under the 17 years military rule of Mengistu Hailemariam.

Although, the brutality of Mengistu’s rule was not confined only to the Somalis as he was named, Somalis were inflicted with more cruelty than the rest.

Somali region under EPRDF rule

In 1991, when the Derg regime was ousted by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition led by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the role of the Somalis had somehow changed as they were considered for the first time as the owner of their lands and won the right to use their own language to administer their state. To this effect, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi pioneered the multi-national federal arrangement that Ethiopia is using up until today. While Ethiopia had realized the paradigm-shift from the century old northern dominated rule to a federated system that conglomerated the diverse nationalities, the role of the Somalis was yet again relegated to the periphery. In 1992, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), as the successor of the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) that dissolved in 1978, won the local election in the Somali region by a landslide. Unhappy with the outcome, the late PM Meles nullified the results of the election. As a result, members of ONLF picked up guns, again, left the region, and ran helter-skelter. Since then, ONLF has been considered an arch-enemy of the Ethiopian state under the EPRDF’s rule, evetually being designated as a terrorist organization. All the while the TPLF dominated EPRDF regime and its military generals stationed in the Somali region committed heinous crimes, including extra-judicial killings, mass arrest, torture, castigation, rape, and other human rights violations, as documented by human rights organizations. And even though the regime had pioneered a federal system which guaranteed the rights of the different nations and nationalities to self administration and allowed the establishments of the regional states in order to govern their own constituencies and use their local language, it was at the same time accused of abusing its power and establishing a patron-client relationship between with regional state, including the Somali leaders.

Somali region under PP rule: The rejuvenation of unitary ethnocentrism

In April 2018, EPRDF selected Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as Ethiopia’s prime minister. In the beginning, he made several commendable steps such as releasing political prisoners, allowing press freedom, including women in top positions in his government, and preaching peace. These eye-catching events had mesmerized and captivated the world and paved the way for his Nobel Peace Prize win in 2019. However, the situation did not last and as Ethiopia became scene of several episodes of violence leading up top the war in Tigray region in November 2020.

Throughout these tumultuous post-Abiy years, the Somali region, under the leadership of Mustafe Omer, was hailed as an island of stability. But not so much anymore. Increasing numbers of Somali critiques are resenting the growing alliance between Mustafe and leaders of Amhara nationalists, including the infamous Fano advocates who are at the forefront of organizing the public mobilization in Amhara region in the war with Tigrayan forces, and who have recently been accorded a red-carpet in Jigjiga the Somali capital, regional leaders. Many Somalis already consider president Mustafe, aka Cagjar, as a leader who is handpicked by Addis Abeba and imposed on the Somalis with no election and no consultation with the wider local community.

Furthermore, Somali officials remain with only titular positions and zero to no role at the highest decision-making levels of the federal government. As such, they are not accountable to their constituency but to the power that brought them to this position in the first place, Addis Abeba. Add to that, the regional government in Jigjiga is accused of diverting funds meant to be for drought response for the most dubious general elections in Ethiopia in June last year in which the ruling party won a landslide victory. As we speak, the drought is ravaging Somali region; there are reports of death by of children and elderly by starvation; and hundreds of thousands of livestock have already perished. Rampant corruption and mismanagement of public resources, as well as increasing crackdown on dissidents are also among a litany of accusations the regional authority is increasingly facing.

The National Dialogue Commission in Ethiopia and the role of the Somalis

It is in the midst of this growing crisis that the federal government, using the national parliament that it controls, announced a commission for the national dialogue and worked on establishing the eleven commissioners to lead it, among them, a Somali political elite of the EPRDF/PP regimes, Ambassador Mahmoud Dirir. Though dialogue initiative looks a good one, it has become clear that the federal government has manipulating the process. For example, Somalis do not know how the good Ambassador was picked to become one of the commissioners although the national parliament said the candidates were elected by the public. It is therefore evident that the aim of this dialogue commission is to convince the international community more than to create a platform whereby Ethiopians across the country could discuss and carve out their county’s future.

Owing to these irregularities, the most prominent opposition groups, the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) all said they will not participate in the process boycotted it. Issues of lack of inclusiveness, transparency and impartiality are mentioned by all opposition parties that published statements of their respective organizations. The Somali opposition political party ONLF and newly formed Congress for Somali Cause (CSC) have also jointly issued a statement questioning the integrity of the dialogue commission.

It goes without saying that if Ethiopia wishes to reconcile and execute fruitful dialogue, all the stakeholders and dissenting voices should be accommodated and invited. Equally, a complete cessation of hostilities and the silencing of inflammatory speech among the communities are a must. Most importantly, the Somali people should have genuine representation and active participation in the dialogue commission’s process. At the moment, it is not clear how that will happen. AS


Editor’s Note: Anwar Abdifatah Bashir: Senior Lecturer at Somali National University and Horn of Africa Affairs Analyst.

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