Ethiopia’s Somali strongman
How Abiy handles his relationship with Abdi Iley, the powerful leader of Ethiopia's Somali Region, has implications for the country's fragile system of ethnic federalism.
Somali Regional State (SRS), Ethiopia’s second-largest region and home to its third most populous ethnic group, is at a crossroads. The secessionist Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) had been almost entirely defeated, but SRS is still, in the eyes of many Ethiopians, a byword for violence and lawlessness. “From the centre, Somali Region is seen as a wilderness,” says Fekadu Adugna, an academic at Addis Ababa University (AAU).
Last year, SRS’s long-standing tensions with the neighbouring region of Oromia, home to Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, erupted on an unprecedented scale. Amidst fighting between regional security forces, hundreds lost their lives and approximately one million civilians fled their homes. In the SRS capital of Jijiga, thousands of Oromos were herded into trucks by police and removed from the city. Many have not returned. Somalis, meanwhile, flooded back the other way.
Dealing with the legacy of the violence will be one of the most sensitive – and urgent – tasks for Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who was sworn in on 2 April and is the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)’s first Oromo leader in its 30-year history. At the heart of this task is his relationship with SRS president Abdi Mohamed Omar – known as Abdi Iley, ‘the one-eyed’. Abdi is one of the most powerful Somali leaders in the Horn of Africa. Over the past decade, he has acquired an authority unprecedented in the region’s recent history.
Hot-footing it to Jijiga
Both men hail from traditionally marginalised regions with secessionist histories, and both represent constituencies eyeing greater power at the centre. But last year’s violence fuelled mutual mistrust, especially a suspicion among Oromos that Abdi is too close to the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated Ethiopian politics, as well as the security apparatus, for much of the past three decades. Some in Oromia and elsewhere hope that the decline of the TPLF heralded by Abiy’s appointment might spell the end of Abdi, too.
Prime Minister Abiy’s decision to visit the SRS capital, Jijiga, on 7 April, as his first official trip, was thus symbolic. It was a bid to calm nerves in a region anxious once again about its fate in the hands of distant authorities in Addis Ababa, and fearful of what an Oromo prime minister might mean for Somalis. On a stage in Jijiga, Abiy and Abdi, who is said to have been deeply unhappy about the latter’s appointment, shook hands and promised peace between the two regions.
Bringing change to SRS will be Abiy’s “litmus test”, says Abdifatah Mohamud Hassan, former vice-president of the region, now in exile in Addis Ababa. “It is the epicentre of all the problems in the country”. The region is unique but in some respects it is Ethiopia in miniature: a Gordian knot of poverty, authoritarianism, corruption, and ethnic and clan rivalries.
Understanding SRS’s future means taking a look at its past. For this, the central statue in Jijiga offers some clues. Unveiled in 2013 by Abdi, it depicts Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, a turn-of-the-century warlord, poet and cleric known to the British as the ‘Mad Mullah’ and to Somalis as the father of Somali nationalism. Hassan resisted not only the invading British and Italians but also the then Ethiopian empire. The monument is a reminder that, more than a century later, SRS remains a land of conflicting loyalties.
Successive regimes in Addis Ababa have sought to incorporate SRS, or ‘the Ogaden’ as it is still widely known, into the Ethiopian state, with mixed fortunes. Before the neighbouring country of Somalia’s government collapsed in 1991, Mogadishu had claimed the region as part of ‘Greater Somalia’, and a bloody war was fought between the two neighbours between 1977 and 1978. The separatist ONLF insurgency emerged from the ashes of Somalia’s defeat. By the late 1990s, it was waging all-out-war against the EPRDF, a multiethnic coalition that seized power in Addis Ababa in 1991.
But a counterinsurgency campaign launched after a deadly ONLF attack on a Chinese oil exploration camp in 2007 brought a measure of stability. “People used not to be able to travel because of war,” says Mohammed Ali, a 24 year-old school administrator. “But now you can go anywhere.” Ermias Gebreselassie, a lecturer in journalism at Jijiga University, which opened in 2007, says that when he arrived in the region 10 years ago it was “almost a war zone”. He recalls “bombings everywhere” and an environment that was “very, very hostile. You couldn’t move around at night without being harassed by the police.”
Today locals also point to belated signs of economic development. Between 1994 and 2007, SRS had the country’s lowest economic outcomes and experienced the fewest improvements. Even today, its school enrolment rates are the lowest in the country. But now members of the Somali diaspora, such as Hafsa Mohamed, a US-Canadian who runs a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), are beginning to return home. There are now three airports, better hospitals and paved roads. A better-educated, younger generation is increasingly taking up posts in regional offices.
Until relatively recently, the region had almost no government. Clan rivalries and endless meddling by the authorities in Addis Ababa ensured the region churned through nine presidents from three different political parties in the two decades after its creation. Such was the political paralysis that, in the early 2000s, a chain was drawn across the entrance to the administration compound in Jijiga to keep vagrants from squatting in the buildings.
Now the administration is centred on an imposing palace overlooking the city, surrounded by freshly manicured gardens. “There’s been an improvement in the past five or six years,” says Hallelujah Lulie, a political analyst in Addis Ababa. “They’ve started building a state structure modelled on highland Ethiopia.”
Abdi Iley has been key to this. A member of the Ogadeni clan, the largest in SRS, Abdi was regional security chief from 2005, and, unlike many of his predecessors, was prepared to work with the Ethiopian state while at the same time championing Somali nationalism. This had the effect of neutralising the ONLF while winning him a following among his fellow Ogadenis. “After Abdi came to power, he removed the bandits from the region,” says Abdo Hilow Hassan, a lecturer in journalism at Jijiga University. “And it has been at peace.”
But it is an uneasy sort of peace. The counterinsurgency campaign of the late 2000s was effective but also brutal. A June 2008 report by the NGO Human Rights Watch found that the Ethiopian National Defence Force and the ONLF committed war crimes in the Somali Region between mid-2007 and early 2008.
Abdi, aided by the federal authorities, established a special police force known as the Liyu, who continued to report to him directly even after he became president in 2010. Members of the 40,000-strong outfit have been implicated in extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and violence against civilians. “It’s a state within a state,” says Abdiwasa Bade, an academic at AAU. “They [the Liyu] will only listen to Abdi Iley.”
The Ethiopian government’s approach has been likened, by government officials and outside observers alike, to Vladimir Putin’s counterinsurgency strategy in Chechnya: handing a local strongman resources, state power and unprecedented autonomy in exchange for stability.
The price of stability is extreme authoritarianism. When, in 2015, anti-government protests erupted across Oromia and Amhara, SRS was quiet. Locals in Jijiga laugh at the idea of protests against Abdi’s rule – though there have been sporadic demonstrations in parts of the region dominated by non-Ogadeni clans since April. Abdi’s critics refer to the region as a ‘fiefdom’ in which all power is concentrated in the hands of the president and his family.
“For the last 10 years, people have not been safe,” says a local teacher, who claims he was arrested and beaten twice, and who asked not to be named. “There is collective punishment. If one person speaks out, the whole family will be arrested and punished.” He continues: “Why is the federal government quiet about these things? […] I feel like it’s two different countries: you can be safe in Addis Ababa, but you are not safe here.”
Many of these dynamics coalesced in last year’s conflict with Oromia. The border between the two regions has been contested– often bloodily – since the introduction of ethnic federalism in 1995. Members of both regions have a history of seizing land and resources from each other, often with the backing of local politicians. Last year, violence took on a worrying new dimension, as regional security forces engaged in open warfare. Each side blamed the other for the dramatic upsurge in bloodshed.
Oromos pinned the blame squarely on Abdi and the Liyu. Many pointed to the SRS president’s close links with generals in the federal military, and argued that the failure of the federal authorities to intervene was evidence of political involvement at the upper-echelons of government.
Even outside Oromia, many argue the conflict was deliberately engineered to weaken the region’s new leaders, notably Abiy and Oromia president Lemma Megersa, who were then clamouring for more power. As for Abdi, his economic clout is underpinned by the flows of contraband commerce that run through his region. Some people say he acted in order to halt efforts by Oromo authorities to disrupt the smuggling routes he and his allies rely on. When violence escalated and Addis Ababa stayed mostly silent, it seemed a blind eye had been turned once again to Abdi’s excesses.
But leaders in Oromia also share part of the blame, not least since atrocities went unpunished on both sides. Indeed, for many ordinary Somalis, the little attention paid to victims on their side, of whom there were also many thousands, merely highlights their relative invisibility in Ethiopian public life. “I feel like the Oromo narrative is quite dominant,” says Hafsa, the returnee who last year met with Somali women who had been brutally attacked and sexually assaulted by Oromo men. “Somalis are often criminalised in this particular conflict. It seemed like only Oromos were victims, even though both sides had victims.”
Abiy’s subsequent election and the rise of his Oromo faction to pre-eminence within the multiethnic EPRDF sparked fears of a backlash against Somalis. “People worried he would punish us,” says Abdo, the Jijiga University lecturer, though he adds that such anxieties have been largely quelled since the prime minister’s visit to the region. But how long will the truce last?
Abiy’s room for manoeuvre is limited. Any attempt to tame Abdi’s autonomy will likely be met with stiff resistance. His power to remove elected regional officials is limited. Efforts to reform or even disband the Liyu security force would face similar constitutional hurdles, and in any case would be politically difficult without tackling the special police that operate in other regions at the same time. Moreover, reforming the federal security apparatus in SRS will depend largely on the extent to which the new prime minister manages to assert his control over the entire military hierarchy.
Even more vexing, though, is the age-old challenge of turning SRS into a fully paid-up member of the Ethiopian federal state. On one level, this may mean doing away with the second-tier status of the Somali People’s Democratic Party within the EPRDF. Unlike the coalition’s four main constituent parties, the Somali faction is merely an ‘affiliated’ grouping, a legacy of deep-seated prejudices against Ethiopia’s nomadic populations. One consequence of this is that Somalis remain woefully underrepresented in the federal government: Abiy’s cabinet has only two Somali ministers.
That might change as Ethiopian Somalis slowly become more assertive. “If we continue like this, one day we will lead Ethiopia,” says Abdo, the Jijiga University lecturer. “We’ve had a Tigrayan, a Southerner and an Oromo prime minister. Why can’t we have a Somali prime minister one day?”