Ethiopia’s Somali region: New faces, same problems

Abdirahman Ahmed
By Abdirahman Ahmed

Assistant professor of sociology at Jigjiga University, former humanitarian staff at UNICEF, Danish Refugee Council, and Oxfam.

Posted on Tuesday, 15 June 2021 15:47

Supporters attend an election rally of the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA) opposition party, also attended by party leader Berhanu Nega, at Agena town in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region of Ethiopia Saturday 22 May 2021. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

Opposition party candidates and independents in the Somali region of Ethiopia are using social media to share their policies and gain popularity, but there are still problems about the registration process.

This article was first published in Ethiopia Insight.

A much less brutal party-state is set to consolidate its power in a slightly more democratic environment. It has been almost three years since former regional president Abdi Mohamoud Omer (‘Abdi Iley’) was forcefully removed with the help of the federal military as part of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s 2018 reforms. The Somali region is now preparing for the 21 June elections. Or at least part of it is.

With three main opposition parties – the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party (Ezema) and the Freedom and Equality Party (NEPA) – as well as independents standing against the ruling Somali branch of the Prosperity Party (S-PP) in the region, it’s looking relatively competitive.

Opposition party candidates and independents are using social media extensively; some of it has even been the talk of the town in the region. However, there have been major complaints about the registration process, which has delayed voting in more than half the 24 constituencies.

Some of the independent candidates running for office are former members of the administration of the current acting president, Mustafa Omer. They include the ex-director of the Somali region Center of Competence, Hassennur Mohamed, who is standing as an independent candidate for Jigjiga city administration, and Abdikadir Sheik Ahmed, Mustafa’s former protocol officer, a candidate for the Freedom and Equality Party in Degahbour, the constituency where Mustafa is competing for a regional parliament seat.

Hopes rise

The election is taking place against a background of significant changes in the regional government and the political structures. In 2019, the Ethiopian Somali People’s Democratic Party (ESPDP) was renamed the Somali Democratic Party (SDP). Eight months later, it merged with Prime Minister Abiy’s new Prosperity Party, becoming the S-PP.

Under the SDP and ESPDP, the Somali people had no say in decision-making at the federal level as the party was not a member of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. However, under the S-PP, the Somalis are part of decision-making.

Abdi Iley, regional president from 2010 to 2018, was removed with the help of the federal government, and replaced by Mustafa, an activist and former advisor to the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, as acting president – ‘acting’ as he did not fulfil the requirement of being a member of the regional parliament.

Since it was created in the early 1990s, the Somali region has had a history of insecurity, mass killings, human rights abuses, conflict, poverty, marginalization, and political instability, reaching the worst levels under the brutal control of Abdi Iley. Following a major 2007 ONLF attack on a Chinese oil facility in the region, Abdi Iley created the paramilitary Liyu (‘special’) police in 2008 to fight the ONLF, allegedly encouraging its members to carry out extensive abuses of the civilian population.

After he was arrested, he was charged with sponsoring the Liyu police and other organized youth groups for committing atrocities in Jigjiga during August 2018. According to most people in the Somali region, this is only a fragment of the violations he was responsible for.

Human rights violations worsened after Abdi Iley’s cabinet unsuccessfully attempted to remove him from power in 2014. Extrajudicial killing, torture, and rape became normalised.

Between 2014 and 2018, many of the lucrative business activities were monopolised by the president and his relatives. Trust between members of the community eroded; patronage and clientelism, characteristic of politics before Abdi Iley, intensified. A university lecturer based in Jigjiga even described his regional government as a portrait of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, in the 21st century.

In August 2018, Abdi Iley was finally ousted by the federal government. Mustafa soon launched a series of reforms. These included the closure of the infamous Jail Ogaden in Jigjiga, the start of a reconciliation dialogue to resolve conflict with the neighbouring Oromia region, expansion of freedom of speech, and an improved business environment, dismantling previous market and business monopolies.

Returnee roles

These were significant steps and they were welcomed by many Ethiopian Somalis. Yet many in the region have also remained sceptical about just how effective the reforms are. This is particularly evident in the government’s failure to hold the perpetrators of past abuses accountable and compensate the victims of past abuses.

As a civil servant in Jigjiga noted: “there is relative peace and stability now. But the existing stability and relative peace that has blossomed after the change cannot be solely attributed and credited to the efforts of the current administration.”

The government was certainly part of the initiatives to bring stability in the region, but more important was the collective responsibility and actions of the Somali region community as a whole.

The community refrained from taking revenge for the abuses of the previous administration, some of whose perpetrators still live with them today. That even included members of the Liyu police and the ONLF, which returned to continue its struggle as a registered political opposition party.

Mustafa’s administrative and political changes included appointing younger and comparatively well-qualified heads to regional government offices. Some were members of humanitarian organisations and political exiles chased away by Abdi Iley. Others held key positions under Abdi Iley prior to 2014, including the vice-presidency, and heads of the finance and disaster prevention bureaus.

Among the returnees were some of Abdi Iley’s former cabinet members that were chased away in 2014 and ONLF members, as well as supporters of the Somali Region Alliance for Justice, a loose network of reformers who supported president Mustafa.

Initial attempts by Mustafa to put returning diaspora exiles into official positions ran into problems. As foreign passport holders, they couldn’t hold formal government positions. He, therefore, appointed them as advisors, to the president, to the vice-president, and even to heads of bureaus.

Aiming to satisfy his supporters, he created one of the largest groups of advisors in the region’s history, even to the point where there were three advisors to the president for some areas, such as communications or humanitarian issues. It was hardly a success.

As one pro-PP senior public servant based in Jigjiga put it to Ethiopia Insight in a cafeteria located around the university: “Within a year of their nomination, many of his advisors had left him. Too often they weren’t consulted. There were also other disagreements related to their role as advisors to the president.”

By the end of 2020, many of the original advisers had left, but Mustafa replaced them, again largely with diaspora returnees. Apart from these political changes, deep-seated institutional reform has yet to take place. Our interviewees indicated that there’s been no improvement in the way institutions in the region deliver services. They aren’t sufficiently guided by policies or planning, and few of the staff know their duties as public servants.

As the head of a civil society organisation in his office in Jigjiga explained: there are even “no performance evaluations based on agreed indicators and, in most cases, not even job descriptions for the staff.”

Clan dynamics

Clan factors, more than the match between qualifications and position, have continued to play a key role in nominations for political posts. The chaos that affected Mustafa’s administration during its first year related mainly to the distribution of positions among different clans, from the vice-presidency down to kebele level.

Mustafa’s initial attempt to appoint two vice-presidents, Aden Farah and Abdiwasa Bade, failed because it was challenged by different clan interests; Abdiwasa later had to return to teaching at Addis Ababa University.

Similar problems arose in most of the districts in the region. In Harawa and Awbare districts in Fafan Zone, for example, local elders were dissatisfied with the officials nominated for the districts, mainly due to the division of district-level key positions into the sub-clans. This delayed service delivery and created tension among the sub-clans.

Since the clan plays such a significant role in the appointment of officials, bureau heads and their deputies are not only accountable to the regional administration but also to local clan elders and now others as well. These may now include a more youthful element, mainly successful young businessmen.

But while they represent changes in who makes decisions within the clan, the clan influence on those officials still remains paramount, and clan interests remain the major factor in appointments

On the other hand, most of the victims of the previous administration have yet to be dealt with properly. The regional government has proposed the creation of mechanisms to deal with past injustices but this has not materialised, demonstrating the meagre government commitment to meaningful transitional justice.

Only a few people have been compensated for being victims under the previous regime, but many of these were actually part of the previous administration at some stage, including some who had been imprisoned because of misconduct.

A majority of the victims had no links with the government. They have had to live with the damage inflicted on them. There has been no proper compensation nor rehabilitation programs. In most cases, they have not even been encouraged to file court cases against those responsible.

As the head of a civil society organization in Jigjiga underlined to Ethiopia Insight: “there are many ways that transitional justice could be dealt with, including trauma healing, direct reconciliation and/or even symbolic recognition of the past injustices. None have been properly managed in practice.”

 Service delivery

Another lens to evaluate reform through is service delivery. There might be a general consensus that the current administration has carried out significant infrastructural improvements, including building roads, particularly in the cities, and construction of schools. But there have been few tangible improvements in basic service delivery.

Access to water, for example, remains problematic. Apart from the rainwater, the main towns, indeed most parts of the region, face a serious shortage of water most of the year. Even Jigjiga, the regional capital, faces a serious shortage.

Poor maintenance had led to Jigjiga’s dam drying up early last year and the regional government has failed to find any alternative and sustainable source of water. This has affected construction projects, irrigation, and domestic use, and inflated the price of water. Water threatens to become unaffordable for many in the region.

Corruption remains substantial and blatant. Bribery is common. Service providers ask for money in exchange for passports, national identity cards or civil documents, and even investment and business-related licenses. This is the case for government contracts as well. Many higher officials in regional government bureaus demand kickbacks.

One diaspora investor and company manager interviewed in a Jigjiga cafe explained the process to Ethiopia Insight: “For someone to win a bid, it is a prerequisite [to offer] a bribe for the facilitators. I am not accustomed to this and this is why in most cases our company, though qualified, doesn’t win the bid. Yet those who were given the bid then give us a sub-contract as they don’t have the expertise and machinery to carry out the work.”

It all affects the quality of project implementation, causes delays, and throws the idea of proper monitoring against performance out of the window. Improper use of public properties and facilities remains the culture of public officials with no effective mechanisms of monitoring or holding corrupt officials accountable.

Services and solutions for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the region seem to have been forgotten. IDP numbers have hardly changed in the last couple of years, falling from one million to 0.84 million; a majority still live on an informal basis, hosted by local communities suffering from meager services and resources.

For example, a thousand or so drought-affected households were resettled from Qoloji in the Babile area to Warder and other areas in 2020, but no services were provided to them. As a result, the existing services for the host community are stressed, which has the potential to affect the peaceful coexistence between the two communities. The priority for IDPs remains access to water, shelter, food, and means of livelihood – but durable solutions need huge funds.

All too often, however, there is also mismanagement of government funds allocated or obtained from partners. The head of a private college in Jigjiga underlined the point to Ethiopia Insight at Sahal Hotel: “Yes, the freedom of speech is respected and people can talk and speak of whatever they want today. But the institutions and the way they operate and deliver services have not changed at all. The IDPs in the region lack access to basic services and they have been displaced for around four years now.”

State power

Recent elections in the Somali region have been selections rather than elections. Most people were not interested in standing as candidates or even in electing members proposed by the government and for whom they were told to vote. It was only the 2005 election that was relatively competitive, and local elders then played a significant role in the selection of candidates and in organizing the election.

This time, there are four parties involved (S-PP, ONLF, Ezema, and FEP) and a considerable number of independents. There are even three non-ethnic Somalis from Ezema running for positions in the Jigjiga city administration council.

Despite issues of governance failure, most people in the region think the S-PP, the current ruling party, will win for several reasons. The majority of its candidates are people respected by the communities they represent and are qualified in terms of education, even though a few are young, fresh graduates who in some cases appear to be claiming degrees they have yet to complete.

According to S-PP, 64 per cent of its candidates are government employees both at federal and regional levels. While the electoral law indicates that the government employees shall take unpaid leave to run for the elections, the S-PP candidates did not do this. This allows them to take advantage of their government positions, using their office budgets and facilities for their campaigns.

The Freedom and Equality Party (FEP) candidate for Degahbour, Yusuf Ahmed, who served in the regional election board as coordinator for the 2005 elections, notes that while “the S-PP is using every platform including service delivery gatherings to campaign for their party, the opposition parties do not have that privilege.”

A senior regional official denied the allegations, although he said the electoral law provision that government workers running for office should take unpaid leave had not been implemented.

“No government budget is used for election campaigns. The party office covers expenses and the rest is raised by the candidates,” they told Ethiopia Insight.

The opposition parties have certainly proved far less effective in terms of campaigning or introducing their programmes to the public, in effect reducing support to friends and few of their clan members.

In Degahbour, for example, a local businessman who runs a small business explained: “except Abdikadir Ahmed who used social media … other members and parties have not shared their agendas and programmes with the public.”

However, Mustafa and other S-PP candidates paid visits to their constituencies a number of times and have met with different sectors of the Degahbour community since the start of their campaign.

After voter registration commenced, opposition parties and independent candidates complained about the management of the process. The opposition was supposed to be kept informed of the arrival and distribution of voter registration cards, but that did not happen.

According to one FEP candidate interviewed at the party’s office in Jigjiga: “The opposition parties were not allowed to observe the registration process. In some areas, those we sent to observe the process were even harassed by the district level authorities.”

The FEP believes more than 70 per cent of the cards are now in the hands of the ruling party members. Other registration cards have fallen into the hands of the public and are being illegally traded in Jigjiga.

The FEP candidate interviewed in the party’s office explained the case to Ethiopia Insight: “Every day we receive phone calls from people who tell us that they will give us 200 cards if we are willing to pay 2,000 or 3,000 birr, but we don’t listen to them.”

This, partly, can be explained by the National Election Board of Ethiopia’s (NEBE) inability to operate fully independently and, therefore, relying on the government and the ruling party financially, logistically, and, to some extent, technically.

On 18 April, representatives of the opposition political parties and independent candidates consisting of four representatives from ONLF, FEP, Ezema, and independent candidates suspended their election activities and called on the electoral board to investigate. They insisted they would be unable to participate unless the voter cards were canceled and there was a new more transparent process.

The electoral board responded on 8 May, suspending seven key constituencies including Kebridahar, Warder, Kelafo, and Gode. This has not satisfied the opposition parties and candidates’ questions over the distribution of voters’ cards though; they have collectively reiterated that their participation in the election will depend upon the board’s response.

Opposition struggle

When the ONLF abandoned its armed struggle in August 2018, the initial support demonstrated by the public in many areas was massive. However, internal issues, including a lack of clarity on how to move from insurgency to a political party, have prevented the ONLF from translating this support into meaningful political action, even among Ogaden clan constituencies.

What the ONLF agreed to in joining the political process has remained unclear, even to many ONLF supporters; some still propose the party should keep emphasising self-determination rather than political action. The issue of the party’s name has continued to cause concern with many non-Ogaden clans criticizing the ongoing use of the clan name. This has been exploited by S-PP and its leadership.

Indeed, the ONLF has now split, with the result that it has lost much of the backing of its young ‘elite’ members, many of whom now express support for Mustafa’s government. The ONLF Central Committee held a meeting 21 to 23 January, ousting its chairman, Abdirahman Mahdi, and appointing Rayale Hamud, the deputy chair from the Sitti Zone, as interim leader. The NEBE promptly declared the decision unacceptable and not in line with the party’s bylaws.

Other key ONLF leaders have resigned, including Hassan Moalim, a former member of the ONLF executive committee and chair of the party’s Addis Ababa office who is now running as S-PP candidate for Degahbour, and some executive members including Ahmed Yasin from Warder who led the group that opposed Abdirahman.

The ONLF now has four factions: a group headed by Abdirahman that will participate in the elections, some of whom are optimistic that they will win seats; a faction led by Rayale that decided not to run; and another group of relatively older members – mostly former Western Somali Liberation Front and ONLF combatants – who are sceptical about the new role of ONLF as a political party, and insistent that self-determination should remain the priority focus.

The fourth is headed by Australia-based Dr Mohamed Ismail, former ONLF vice-chairman, who rejected the peace deal signed with the Ethiopian government. They believe that they represent the real ONLF, and that they stand true to the principles of “self-determination up to secession” that the ONLF was established upon.

The result of these internal divisions has meant the ONLF has had difficulty coming up with acceptable candidates even in historic ONLF strongholds in areas like Degahbour, Warder, and Shabelle. The visible disorganisation and policy disputes, according to Ethiopia Insight’s informants, have put the ONLF at the bottom of any list of possibilities for election by the public.

The S-PP has also gained from the fear among the general public and local elders that support for the opposition will lead to a loss of trust and support by the ruling party, which can lead to loss of government employment opportunities or even exclusion from future benefits.

Local elders and business people’s support always tends to incline towards government candidates rather than to opposition parties and independent candidates, who need to offer serious policies to attract support and have less to offer practically.

Moreover, the S-PP has followed a deliberate strategy of recruiting qualified individuals as electoral candidates, and who are respected among their clan lineage, in order to increase their chances for electoral success.

Similarly, while, in theory, not all government staff have to support the ruling party, it is difficult not to do so in practice. A civil servant in Degahbour explains: many government officials are S-PP members and “they even deduct party contribution fees from our salaries irrespective of your party membership.”

Elders’ role

One intriguing change in this election has been in the S-PP’s method of selection of candidates. While the clan has remained a major determining factor of both regional politics and political inclusivity, this time – unlike previous elections, particularly 2005 where the local elders played a significant role in the process – it has often been younger government officials who have represented the clan in the selection process.

In addition, the process avoided consultations with different segments of the community including local elders. In some areas, this gave rise to disagreements between the young politicians and local elders over the proposed choice of candidates. Awaare and Jigjiga city administrations represent examples where the local elder’s proposed candidates ended up competing, independently, against the S-PP’s candidates.

The main difference between the young officials and the elders is generational. While some young officials appeared to devote greater attention to the ideological interests of the proposed candidates, the elders focus solely on clan factors.

One local elder interviewed in Jigjiga explained that there was “no organised local elders committee in the region that can have an influence.”

Attempts to establish a local elders’ council, which might have had more impact on choice of candidates, have not succeeded.

Despite such problems, clan dynamics do continue to play a crucial role in the choice of candidates. The S-PP candidates in Degahbour, for example, were selected on the basis of their membership of the five major sub-clans in the town. Independent and opposition party candidates may not have followed this pattern, but only because not all the opposition parties were able to put up as many as five candidates.

Depending upon the individual candidates’ support base, this can lead to a situation where two members from the same sub-clan can gain elected positions – for instance, at the regional, city administration, or even district level. This, in turn, causes problems with other sub-clans that failed to achieve representation.

Election expectations

The majority of the population in the region are not expecting the elections to be free and fair, whatever the current administration might say. This was mainly related to their experiences of the past elections but also the political developments that transpired at the federal and regional levels earlier to and during the election preparations.

As a local elder and former politician in Degahbour put it to Ethiopia Insight: “I have known Ethiopian politics for a long time. I will not expect a different result than what we have had. The arrests of the major [opposition] political party leaders in Ethiopia says a lot.”

If the elections are not transparent, the results may lead to tensions in the main towns like Jigjiga, but it is unlikely to lead to substantive violence – most people in the Somali region are tired of conflict, insecurity, and unrest.

With the ONLF’s disorganisation and lack of electoral preparedness, and other opposition parties and independent candidates’ lack of effective campaigns, people will probably mostly accept the predictable S-PP victory, irrespective of whether it is fully credible.

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