Born in 1973 in Degehabur zone of Somali regional state, Mustefa Muhumed Omer became the deputy president of the Somali region in the midst of a crisis following the ousting of his predecessor Abdi Muhamud Omer, a.k.a, Abdi Iley in August 2018. A well-known critic of Abdi Illey’s ten year iron fist rule in the region & the rampant human rights abuse by the region’s Liyu police (Special Force), Mustefa is an economist by training and has a Master’s of Science degree in Agricultural Economics. He has worked, among others, for the UNOCHA in Somalia, Kenya and Zimbabwe before being assuming his position in late August 2018. Since then, Mustefa has set in motion a sweeping reform which is largely credited for stabilizing the region which has seen the displacement of more than 1.3 million civilians during the 2016 – 2017 violence involving the security apparatus of Somali and Oromia regional states.
On May 06, 2019, Mustefa Omer participated in a BBC debate recorded in Addis Abeba along with three other panelists during which he stated that Ethiopia was more stable today than it was a year ago before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power. Addis Standard’s Tsedale Lemma and Nasredin Mohammed sat down with Mustefa to discuss this and other issues affecting national politics.
Addis Standard: You participated in a BBC debate on Monday May 06, 2019 during which you stated that Ethiopia was more stable today than it was a year ago, a comment which steered some controversy among Ethiopians who argue otherwise. Explain to me why you believe the country is more stable today when many others, including international analysts and journalists, believe otherwise, especially due to increased violence and internal displacements
Mustefa Muhumed Omer: I think there’s a misunderstanding in terms of how this stability is defined. If people are debating about the number of people displaced in this country, it’s a different matter. But, if we are talking about stability in its multiple dynamics then the issue that we have to look at are beyond internal displacements. Take for instance the key drivers of conflicts – we have to see where we were a year ago and where we are now. Let me elucidate some of them. For instance political violence: a year, two or three years ago we had a situation where government forces, or regional Special Forces were openly destabilizing millions of people. We also had a situation where several armed groups were strengthening their military might: some from abroad, some from inside the country, threatening the long term stability of the country.
So let’s look at a couple of points and see where we are today. Political violence, threats from armed groups, popular support for violent groups or for armed groups, unmitigated use of state security forces for political repression, and the criminalization of hundreds of thousands of civilians by state security forces. If you consider all these factors, I believe we are far better today than we were a year ago. It is true that we have a small issue with OLF, for instance, in some pocket areas of the country. Beyond that we don’t have an armed group openly at war with the country for political purposes. TPDM, ONLF, Patriotic Ginbot 7, Gambela Liberation Front and Liberation Movement and all the liberation fronts have now agreed that the political space is enough to accommodate their views and have come back to continue their struggle peacefully. So this is one indicator that the country is on a better footing today than it was a year ago.
We can also look at the issues of injustice and impunity; a lot has been done in the last couple of months to crack down on impunity by government and that is the key for the country. Impunity at the individual level or at community levels can always be handled by state security forces. There is a willingness by the government and there is a government capacity to reign down on vigilante; impunity by the state is what usually fuels the possibilities of a state collapse and large scale violence. So on all of these counts we have done major progress and that’s why I say we are in a better position stability wise than a year ago.
But I must make it clear that this is not to lessen the horrors we have seen in recent months, including the killings and internal displacements of civilians. But they are not a precursor for a very bad future, they are the residues of a very bad past. That is how I see it. This is the theoretical part of it. Practically if you look at the issue of internal displacement and communal violence, we should keep in mind that more than 1. 3 million people we now count as displaced in the last one year were displaced more than a year and two years ago by state security forces. That is why I am asking “stability for who?”
It’s unfortunate that we are talking about people’s suffering in numbers. But we cannot deny the fact that Ethiopia is now leading other countries in the world in terms of the sheer number of IDPs as a result of violence. Do you believe that at any given time in the past we have had a number closer to this because of the state led violence against civilians?
Well one thing is clear. The dynamics have changed. Today people are displaced inside the country. In the past millions of Ethiopians have fled the country because of political oppression and state led violence. For example more than 200,000 Somalis are believed to have fled to Somalia, Kenya and other neighboring countries. By my reckoning I know there are some estimates that say more than 300, 000 Oromos have left their country and most of them were youth who fled state repression and ended up languishing in Somaliland, in Puntland and in war-torn Yemen and Libya, among other places. Yes, it’s now more visible because they’re concentrated in given areas inside the country. But you can’t say that today more people are displaced than before. Maybe you can say the nature of displacement have changed: we had more Ethiopians fleeing the country, now we have more Ethiopians who are internally displaced.
So if we put it in that way it balances the analysis but if it is presented as if nobody was displaced in Ethiopia, and only now all of a sudden three million people are displaced then I think that’s only telling part of the story and in that regard I don’t agree. I also know that communal violence is not new. It used to happen between Borena and Guji. It used to happen between several other ethnicities in Ethiopia; take for instance the Benishabgul Gumuz regional state, it happened in the past and was even debated in the Parliament. Perhaps now because of the transition and the fact that the government is now very cautious or not cracking down on vigilantes, we can say that the numbers have increased in some areas. But again, I think this is part of the nature of the transition. The comparison has to go beyond numbers. It has to also compare the context. We can’t compare Prime Minister Abiy’s government in terms of stability with the administration in place for the last 27 years. If this situation of internal displacement due to violence continues for the next three or five years, then I think we should be legitimately concerned.
But today I know that 50 percent of the Somali IDPs who were displaced before PM Abiy came to power have returned. This is not part of the story when it should be; we are only telling the story of displacement, we are not telling the story of reintegration and the work that’s being done which is a continued work in progress.
Of course I am not disputing the fact that once people are displaced they would continue to be counted as displaced. I am arguing that that does not necessarily mean the situation is worse. For instance in Somali and Oromia regional states, we had more than a million internally displaced people.
Are you referring to the 2016 – 2017 displacement of some 1.3 million civilians from the two regional states?
Yes, the Somali and Oromo displacement was the largest displacement pattern solely instigated by state security forces. If you take the Gedeo-Guji displacement of the last one year, it becomes clear that most of the large scale displacements are in Oromia and Somali regions and it involved state security forces, whereas most of the displacements in the last one year happened as part of the turbulence of the country when the transition was about to be made or was underway. So we have to look at how many people were displaced after PM Abiy came to power and how many people were already displaced and why.
In terms of the figures, the 3 million IDPs are the total IDPs both before and after PM Abiy came to power. I can say that those who were displaced before are now more stable than they were a year ago. A year ago they were running around, now they are at least sheltered in stable locations, receiving aid and other services and undergoing a gradual relocation and reintegration to their places of origin. We can always argue about the effectiveness and speed of relocation, but they have the government’s and that of development partners’ full support. Again, what I’m saying is I’m not trying to lessen the impact of the communal violence in the country in the last one year; I’m simply saying in our analysis we have to look at other factors and bring nuance to the assumptions and the narratives that compare Ethiopia to Syria, Iraq and Yemen in the making simply because of the number of IDPs. That is completely wrong. In Syria, Yemen and Iraq the governments have completely failed to enforce the rule of law. That’s why international forces have gone into these countries. In Ethiopia for all the problems we are talking about and despite its shortcomings, we have a state that is still enforcing the rule of law and protecting the internally displaced people. It’s not AMISOM, nor is it the United Nation. The state’s security apparatus and its capacity to address these issues is still intact.
But it’s undeniable that there is a glaring indication showing the government’s failure to preemptively prevent some, if not all, of these violence that led to such tragedies and reluctance and failure to detect precursor indicators and even early warnings from citizens about eminent attacks. There are instances when government forces have failed to prevent them and in some cases regional security forces have become bystanders in the midst of conflicts. Part of the blame is the perception that the federal government is weakened and its security structure is overwhelmed by an ever strong and partisan regional security forces. Is that how you see it?
Not at all. The state security apparatus is intact. It is strong. It can enforce the rule of law. The ability is not an issue. However, it’s exercising maximum restraint in dealing with these things. There can be a room for improvement in terms of early warning and preventing displacement before they happen. However, the state is dealing with the residual problems one of which is that so many issues that were planted between different ethnic groups: hate, and hate politics. And because of that the state cannot address all of these issues through simply enforcing the rule of law. In many parts the communities that are fighting are the same, and this has happened because of injustices and malpractices by previous administration which were there in the last 27 years. All of that cannot be addressed overnight. But if people are disappointed with the government for not enforcing the rule of law the government has already accepted that and has vowed to do that. But if people want to project the country as more unstable and to paint the future as more worrying, then I see the situation of the last 27 years was more worrying for the country than the situation today because today there is an agreement that the human rights situation has improved. There is an agreement that a democratic space has broadened and there is also an agreement that the political repression in the country has totally gone. There is also an agreement that the majority of populations who felt marginalized in the previous regime feel they got back their rights. If you would simply go by the regions, in most parts of Oromia people are happy with the change; in most part of Amhara people are happy with a change; entire part of Somali region people are very happy with the change, which means the legitimacy of the government and the prime minister in the eyes of the public has increased. A key factor of stability is when political legitimacy increases; the government has chances to survive. However, there are issues to do with the state and nation building nature in Ethiopia. The fact that the process is not defined and therefore there are lingering questions around accompanied by turbulence and ups and downs have to be carefully managed. On the bright side, I think there’s a good deal of national and international goodwill to make the country work. And that’s why I’ve been very optimistic that what we are experiencing now with sporadic outbreaks of violence and the breakdown of rule of law here and there is a passing cloud.
Let’s move to another topic that you’ve mentioned that left many people guessing. You mentioned about a new political party formation in the making. As we get closer to the election next year, provided that the election is going to take place, what is the significance of your indication about a possible new political party formation in the making? Where do you see your own party, Somali Democratic Party, in this alignment?
Thank you Tsedale. The fact that there will be new political formation is not a matter of conjecture. The Prime Minister already indicated that and we have already heard him say; he has already indicated that the way to go forward would be to come as one and form a united party to transform EPRDF from a Front into one a party where everybody who shares common ideas can come together as a national party rather than as a Front or as a coalition of different parties. So this indication has already been given by the Prime Minister. But also you don’t need to be a political scientist to understand that the interests of the constituent members of the EPRDF are diverging and therefore that will ultimately bring the question of who will be with who when the election comes. That’s why I am confident there will be a new political arrangements. As Somali Democratic Party and the Somali region, we are well aware of the dynamics, we are prepared and of course we have picked where we would fit in any potential political formation of the country.
One of the possibilities insiders are entertaining is a strengthening of what can be termed as a South-South political parties’ coalition within EPRDF itself. Do you expect SDP to have clear opportunities to become one of EPRDF’s mainstream ally? The other assumption is the Sidama regional state potential to become a regional state in its own. Does that give you the picture of a South-South alignment, particularly in the backdrop of TPLF’s recent outright rejection of the idea of uniting EPRDF as a single party despite it being in the making for years? Do you see the remaking of EPRDF or its disappearance all together? And where would SDP see itself in this?
I would not want to base my projection on my whims or what I think would happen. I think positively what I see is that there is a ground for a new political formation simply because the dynamics have changed and that ultimately means people will talk. Elites and politicians will talk and that talk will determine who will be with who; but in general it’s well known that some of the parties who have now a very good role in the national politics may not agree with the direction that has been given by the Prime Minister. In that situation I think nobody has a veto power to halt the progress that the political dynamics of the country now requires. I can see some dropping out, and I can see someone added to EPRDF. But I think the core foundations of the dominant political party in the country will remain the current party, EPRDF, and particularly the Prime Minister. I think the coalition would remain the dominant party in the country.
The other point you have mentioned as necessary to reconfigure EPRDF was the point of “de-ethnicizing the politics”. Do you think the new EPRDF in the making, assuming that there is one, will take this recommendation seriously?
Certainly the political pronouncements made by the Prime Minister and by implication his party the EPRDF – and therefore it’s safe to assume that his statements also reflect the positions of the party – indicate that the intention is to de-ethicize the national politics. This is not to say abolish ethnicity in this country. These are two different things. Ethnicity is an identity. However, whether our politics should entirely be based on delineations along ethnic lines is an issue that I think many people agree can lead to endless violence and inter-communal clashes as we have seen.
In Ethiopian history the Ethiopian state has never been seen as ethnic neutral. This historical fact that the Ethiopian state has never been ethnic neutral was one of the core reasons why people are organizing themselves along ethnic lines. If the state can now function as a national state that respects all citizens, regardless of one’s background, and that also insures the different divergent interests of groups in Ethiopia, including minority ethnic groups, and addresses the issues of political representation in a very democratic and just way, I think we can eventually transcend the distractive aspect of identity politics.
That said, I am not someone who believes identity politics will disappear from Ethiopian political landscape any time soon. For that matter even advanced democracies are finding it difficult to transcend. The conventional wisdom has been that identity politics is a primitive thing and therefore when democracies mature it will disappear and people will move out of that. The evidence we are now seeing in America, Europe and everywhere is that that’s not the case. In fact it is now agreed that identity is an intrinsic thing and people will continue to identify themselves as something and that will also influence their political outlook and political association. That cannot be de-legislated through constitution or whatever. However, how we arbitrate the different feelings or different groups in a just manner should be the challenge and the task of the government.
I know that the term “de-ethnicizing the politics” is a loaded term that requires its own dissection. But taking it at face value, do you think it is the emphasis on ethnicizing the politics or is it failure to separate the state from the party that contributed to recent political upheaval in Ethiopia? It is a clear fact that the state and the party are constituted as one and the same, often aborting any effort to democratize the state. If you were to choose abolishing one, which one do you think should come first? “De-ethnicizing the politics” or separating the state from the party? Or are they one and the same?
I think the starting point, the reason why the state and the party was not separated is because there was no democracy; there were no democratic elections in the country. If you have proper, free and fair democratic elections you will not have one party dominated parliament and one party dominated government; you will have horse-trading and negotiations that will automatically take the party calculations out; you know every party has its own calculation, but when it comes to the state as a representative of its party it will not behave as a party, it has to negotiate, which means whatever is agreed between the different parties who are leading the state – provided that it is not a landslide for one party – will become the national policy. In institutions where a dominant party wins the election that party will discuss with other opposition parties when it comes to national issues and look at things not only from having won the election but also from the interests of the others who do not agree with the ruling party.
But I think the first thing that has to come is we should have a free and fair elections and we should separate the direct influence of the party on the state so that the state is a different thing than the parties. However, you can also understand how difficult it will be when the party and state people are still the same. So you can theorize about it but in actual fact it does happen even to democratic parties unless one is not led by the people who owned it and who are also leading the government. In such cases such parties have a separate person who is busy on the research and development and looking at ideas that can help the party win elections. Whereas the person who was elected to the government will lead the government in the direction the party has given. I think we are not yet there in Ethiopia; our political culture is not mature to that level. So I foresee a situation where for a continued period of time the state and the party will interface. I foresee that situation but the direction has to be to reduce that.
Speaking of elections, as you mentioned, one way of lessening this collusion between a state and a party is holding a free and fair elections. Do you think we will have that election in 2020? I am of the view that postponing the election will potentially open the doors for destabilizing factors particularly in the form of de-legitimizing the governing party by several interest groups that are already keen to do so. What’s your view on that? Should the elections be happening? Should the government give ensuring peace and security a priority so that we can go to the polls? Or do you think it should be postponed given current circumstances?
In my view, considerations of the issues of peace and security and stability as well as smoothening the transition have to take precedence over ticking the box simply to fulfill the requirement of having an election. I believe that and I think the government is properly assessing the security situation in the country, the political developments, institutional reforms that need to take place before elections, etc. And I think the government, from what I understand, is open minded on whether to have the election in time or delaying it. But it doesn’t want to be seen to be rushing the election because it is the most organized and prepared only to see later on that the opposition party will cry that they haven’t been given enough time to prepare for it. At the same time the government doesn’t want to be seen as being too keen to delay the elections just for self-preservation reasons of staying in power. So I think the government is balancing that. But my personal opinion here is that the current transition requires some time and therefore, I would have liked to see ongoing efforts of broadening the political space, strengthening the institutions including the electoral board, the justice system and the security sector reforms finalized before rushing to the election. That’s my personal opinion.
But what do you think is more destabilizing? Is it a government whose already questionable mandate is over or is it the possibilities of a post-election violence because opposition parties will have serious misgivings on the election process? I am asking this question in the backdrop of our experience with the nationwide protests against the current government mostly due to lack of mandate after having claimed 99 percent parliamentary win. I can also mention movements here in Addis Abeba inspired by absence of popular mandate the current city government lacks; movements that can already serve as a window to see what it means to be dealing with a government whose constitutional term in office is finished.
Well, the presumption that the government had lost the popular mandate is wrong in the first place and therefore, the issue of a popular mandate should not be raised at all. If that was the issue, the government that was elected five years ago and claimed total victory had already lost its popular mandate soon after. But it got a lease of life simply because of the reforms undertaken by Prime Minister Abiy and his team. In that regard the Prime Minister and the reforms he has done have got a popular mandate now. I don’t think anybody will complain if the Prime Minister said he needed more time to fix the current problems. I think he is largely popular in the country right now and trusted by the majority of Ethiopians; in that regard I don’t see the postponing of the elections as destabilizing factor.
But I also know that certain groups will not be happy; but if you look at it from the national perspective I think many people will not mind postponing the election. What will be destabilizing is if we rush to the election before we have fixed the security issues we have earlier discussed, which I said were part of the transition. Also where we have not prepared the ground in terms of reforming all the institutions that are required. I know that a good work is being done already but that has to be finalized and opposition parties should also do their part. Reform is not only on the part of the government. I think the government has done a lot of progress in its part in terms of respecting the rule of law, in terms of principles of mutual toleration and institutional self-restraint. I am yet to see that from the opposition parties. And I think, that’s also a progress that we expect will happen in a year or two or so. So in general to summarize, rushing to the election when we are not ready is more destabilizing than delaying it and the issue of popular mandate, I think, cannot be raised because that has been lost soon after the last election and that’s why we had the change after the uprising in many parts of the country. And if now the only mandate we look at is the mandate of the reform team, which is led by Prime Minister Abiy, I think he has a popular mandate to govern. That’s why the opposition parties are happy; that’s why the armed groups have laid down their arms; and that’s why in many parts of the country, people are supporting his reform and his vision for the country.
Of that reform though, let’s talk about parallels often drawn between “Perestroika”, in Gorbachev’s former Soviet Union and “democratic transition”, if you will, in Abiy’s Ethiopia of today particularly in economic and political fronts. Let me leave the details for political scientists and ask you straightaway if what you see is what others see. Do you think it is a healthy parallel to make? Is it aptly contextualized?
If you look at how the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were organized as countries, you will notice that they were ethno-federalist states by and large. And if you also look at the diversity of ethnic groups in those areas and the different actors, both at the regional and federal levels, the similarities are not misplaced. And in that sense, I think the comparison is not entirely wrong. However, there are also some other dynamics, external dynamics, if you will, that are missing in our case and were present in the Soviet Union’s case. In the latter’s case the West with all its political and economic might, were determined to destroy the Soviet Union because of the ideological rivalry. We don’t have that external push factor now in Ethiopia. If at all, we have the reverse. We have a lot of good international will to keep Ethiopia together as a country. So that is one area where this is a difference . Also, at the national level, I think we have a lot of people who agree that the breakup of this country is bad for everybody, not only for a particular group, and therefore, however difficult it is, I think there is a broad consensus that pushing for a state collapse or the breakup of the country is not an option. I have not seen elites who are entertaining that as an option, which is encouraging. However, if the transition is not properly managed and if the dogmatic and extremist forces that are now popping up in different parts of the country continue with their “my way or highway” kind of mentality yes, we can get into trouble. The only saving grace I see in this is that the federal government of Ethiopia can still enforce the rule of law in the regions. I think ultimately we will escape the Soviet Union scenario. I’m very optimistic.
But the dynamics within regional states such as the centralization of monopoly of violence coupled with the privatization of monopoly of violence, which is paving ways for private citizens to mushroom in the form of armed groups – which I should mention in many instances are aided and abetted by regional Special Forces – does present chilling similarities of what happened in Yugoslavia. What do you think should be done in this regard? You’ve seen the kind of havoc it wrecked in your own Somali regional state for example. Do you think this should be regulated?
I think one of the biggest mistakes made along the way is this issue of creating autonomous security structures in the regions. No country can survive that. That is one of the reasons why we are having this problem. In that regard a serious security reform and re-look is imminent; it has to be done and that it should also address the issues of the relationship between the different regional armed forces and how they interact with one another; I believe that has to be rationalized and streamlined. Regions can have a police force, for instance, but their mandate has to be clear on what they do. But as far as keeping the peace of the country is concerned, I think we should have one national army; if there is the issue of representation in the national army, then that should be addressed by improving the recruitment process, not by having separate armed groups everywhere. If serious discussion happen to insure how the national army interface and interact with people whose languages members of the national army do not happen to speak, for instance, then it’s an area that can be discussed and further improved by looking at how the process can be improved. Based on such discussions deployment process and deployment mechanisms can be changed; but we cannot have different armed groups and autonomous security forces in one country in the name of federalism. So I think that should be addressed and I think that is one of the lessons we should learn from Yugoslavia. The sooner it is, the better.
Are you recommending the gradual phasing out of the so-called regional Special Forces?
Yes, definitely. I recommend the gradual phasing out of these regional Special Forces.
One latest incident involving a regional special force is the accusation against Afar regional state special forces for the recent death of eleven civilians of Somali origin, which triggered tensions between Afar and Somali regional states. I understand that you are having a discussion with the president of Afar Regional State to find a middle ground to solve the problem. Are there any amicable solutions the talks have brought about?
Most people heard about it last week but the issue did not start last week. I think by our estimate, close to 75 people have died on the Somali side and maybe the same number or more have died from Afar side in the last six months. So it’s not an issue that was not there. We had a bit of instability in that area. Now we have agreed to discuss and resolve this peacefully and amicably; the ministry of peace has put a direction on that and we believe we will soon make public the contents of what have been agreed, but I can already tell you that it’s good for the Somali and Afar people. There’s no hostility between us that cannot be solved peacefully and there will not be war.
Should we expect the details of the discussion anytime soon? I must mention that Addis Standard was also told by Afar regional state officials that they will be releasing more details on the matter.
Yes. There is an agreement that there should be no questions off the table, and that violence is not a means to advance political objectives on both sides. In that regard, if there are any questions that the Afar people have and if there are any questions that the Somalis have it should be processed in a democratic and peaceful way. In that sense regarding the issue of those three areas, we are discussing, and we have agreed that the terms of that agreement to be seriously looked at because I think the lack of implementation of the agreement is what triggered the current problem. It’s under discussion, so I don’t want to preempt a process that is under discussion.
Lastly, what cannot be ignored is the role of the media in such instances vis a vis freedom of speech and freedom of expression. It is an open secret that as a result of the opening of media space in Ethiopia we are witnessing the rise of media contents that can fairly be described as contributing factors to potential violence, as well as the proliferation of hate speech and fake news on social media. What do you think should be the balance between freedom of expression and of the press and the rise of such contents particularly at times of this?
My stand is we need free media; but not only free media, we need free and responsible media. When the media incites people and fails to play its role, I think there are laws that provide how to handle such transgression by the media. Apart from that, I think the concern over irresponsibility of some media should not lead us to go back to regressive laws that stifled freedom of speech for many years. I think the balance has to be kept. If the calls on the control of media comes from a genuine concern that they are not being responsible, then we have to work to make them responsible and in the case where they are not responsible we have to take the legal steps that are needed to make them discharge their duties responsibly. But if the concern over the media freedom is about going back to where we were, which is stopping whatever we don’t want to hear, I think we are beyond that now, we cannot enforce that. We don’t need that. AS