Done, not dusted

How does Abiy approach festering ethnic federalism?

President Abdi Mohamoud Omar of Ethiopia’s Somali region and President Hassan Sheikh of Somalia during the latter’s visit to Somali region.

By Fuad Abdirahman

Abdi Mohamoud Omar was the President of the Ethiopian Somali region since 2005, his tenure lasting close to thirteen years. He rose to power for what his adherent’s term as a “cleansing” the region of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

Omar was commonly referred to as Abdiiley, which loosely translates to “one eyed” –it is common in Somali tradition for one to be nicknamed on the basis of any physical defects one may have. Interestingly, both his eyes worked well; it was his father who was one-eyed, but his nickname stuck with his son.

Much of Mohamoud Omar’s pre-political life is unknown, but he reportedly dropped out of school in Grade Six, although he claims to have done his university education abroad. He once worked as a bill collector for a telecommunication company.

The conflict between him and federal government of Ethiopia was instantaneous; commentators didn’t foresee the escalation that caused the military to launch a surprise attack on Jijiga and seize important installations that included the presidential palace. Initially, it was thought to be a coup and there was no communication from the President, who had reportedly fled. Later, a senior official from the region confirmed, “the Ethiopian Federal Forces entered the town early Saturday morning, but I don’t know what they want.”

According to sources in Jijiga, the military moved in following intelligence reports that Omar planned to invoke Article 39 of the Constitution which allows self-determination, including through secession. It is a claim the army counters with the assertion that they entered city after an invitation from the Somali Regional Council.

Scores died in the confrontation; the fighting itself was brief and only lasted few minutes. When the army rolled in, Omar’s police left.

A statement from the Prime Minister’s office followed several days later:

“Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed deplores the violence and destruction of property in Jijiga and Dire Dawa. He expresses his condolences for the tragic loss of lives. These tragedies and cycle of violence must end,” Fitsum Arega, Abiy’s chief of staff said the on the Monday following.

Omar’s only credit is that security region tremendously improved, quickly neutralized by the fact that it remained the least developed and had the poorest infrastructure owing to perennial droughts; its inhabitant remained the poorest in the country.

In his fight against the ONLF, he used a paramilitary force known as Liyu Police – literally special police – which was formed by his administration in April 2017. Liyu Police was repeatedly accused by Amnesty International of human rights abuses that range from mass killing, kidnappings, rape, torture, arbitrary arrests, looting of livestock, destroying wells, and razing villages to the ground.”

For dissents, criticizing Omar meant either death or jail. Anyone who wanted to speak out against his regime first had to leave together with his family; only then could they freely speak.

When Abiy took over, his first visit, after only five days in the office, was Jijiga. His mission, it was reported, was to diffuse the conflict between the Oromo and the Somali, which has seen close to a million displaced and thousands others killed, by finding “sustainable solutions within a very short time.”

In what perhaps makes for an ironic anti-climax, a new escalation of violence was witnessed about a week later, when Liyu Police executed cross-border attacks in Oromia’s East Hararghe District, where at least 40 people were killed.

Evidently, containing the Liyu forces who are still loyal to the overthrown leader seems like the logical top priority; it is how to assure the region of peace.

But, to quote an article in Al Jazeera by Yohannes Gedamu, a political scientist, Abiy must begin a new phase of diplomacy and inclusion if he hopes to bring lasting peace.

Recent events, particularly after the military intervention are an indication that there are events for which singular interventions won’t cut it. Of necessity, the PM must begin a vigorous phase of ethnic diplomacy, to bring together warring tribes; he must then facilitate solutions mutually appealing to and arrived at by these groups.

To quote Gedamu, “the ethnic-federalist system that has been in place in Ethiopia has clearly failed to nurture tolerance among the country’s various ethnic groups. The current form of federalism is accentuating conflicts of interest between ethnic groups and heightening polarisation instead of promoting values of coexistence.”

Ethnic federalism – where ethnic groups “own” regions native to them, which “gives the right to eject “foreigners” – non-natives – is the biggest roadblock to Abiy’s unification agenda; it is what he must confront and work to dismantle.

Perhaps the place for him to begin would be to dismantle the networks of tribal elites, who, it is said continue to fan ethnic tensions to hinder Abiy’s reform efforts, because cohesion disfavours them. That Omar’s Liyu forces are still intact is testament that there is still active rank and order in the outfit he left behind. (



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