Opinion: By Faisal A. Roble
Editor’s note: Following is part 1 of a two-part series to assess the return of past mis-governance in the Somali region. In part one, Faisal Roble will look at how Somalis are cursed to always be at the mercy of someone else picking up their leaders. In part II, is an in-depth information that he gathered by talking to several current advisors and some key defectors from Mustafa Omar’s inner circle. As we post this article, the US Department of State, Consular Affairs released strongly worded travel advisory to the Somali Regional State stating, “Do not travel to the Somali Regional State due to the potential for civil unrest, terrorism, kidnapping, and land mines.”
As they say history repeats itself. This is only a cliché to underscore how often people make similar mistakes repeatedly without learning from past experiences. Some doubt whether this cliché is even a true interpretation of episodic happenings.
However, America’s s preeminent novelist, Mark Twain, tweaked with this cliché and made it more realistic by writing, ‘history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes.” In other words, our past often imitates our present unless a radical change is instituted.
In fact, what is happening or thus far has happened in the Somali Regional State in the last one year is not a total repeat of what had taken place in the past ten years. Alas, the political shenanigans of yesterday and today rhyme in unison! I will come back to the issue soon.
Society should never repeat or even allow past mistakes rhyme in our day-to-day governance in the present time. To the contrary, leaders must be able to learn lessons from the past and be able to fashion our present-day experiences free from past shortcomings. To forge progressive and practical policies in sync with the demands of citizens are key to the creation of practices that ensure a better future than our painful past. Our woes are the type of leaders and the method they come to offices.
In the case of Somalis, Addis Ababa always handpicked rulers or administrators. Emperor Haile Selassie used the old colonial system designed and implemented by Lord Lugard, framer of England’s policy of indirect rule. Perfected in the Hausa-Fulani parts of Nigeria and later applied to East Africa, Somalia in particular, England ruled natives through proxy traditional rulers. The root of this system of rule lies in what Max Webber called “patrimonialism.”
Emperor Haile Selassie religiously fashioned his rule of Somalis on Webber’s concept of patrimonialism. So is true with the cases of Afars, Oromo, Sidama, Walayta, and others. Case in point is the effective and enduring patrimonial institution of Balabat. It helped the Imperial state of Haile Selassie to collect taxes, extract surplus from the South to Northern Ethiopia, recruit spies and local militia as well as maintaining a tight lid on any popular dissent. In return, he handsomely rewarded Balabat by educating their children at Kotabe and Wonderad schools in Addis, provided them with cars, cash stipends, light weapons, and real estate.
Departing from the emperor’s patrimonial system, Mengistu Haile Mariam unsuccessfully designed a socialist rule where ruthless bureaucracy or trained cadres (Bandas trained by the office of hisbi-dirijit) were used to implement state objectives in the Somali region. Drawing on Hailu Fidda’s vicious intelligence and scholarship, youngsters were recruited from
Dire-dhabe, Jigjiga, Gursum, Babile, Moyale, to just to name a few, to spy on the Somali youth and help the Dergi’s machine to suppress Somalis in their territory.
Between 1991 and 2018, the one-dominant party, EPRDF/TPLF governed Somalis and others through locally developed parties that were affiliated with the center. Somalis for the last 27 years were never accorded the opportunity to pick their leaders. Abdi Muhumed Omar was not the last handpicked ruler who in time wronged the region and its people. As a matter of fact, Mustafa Omar is also handpicked. Not only is he misruling the region like his predecessor, but he is also imposing his own interpretation of history on the people’s complex relationship with their past oppressors, and at that to their dismay. In fact, Mustafa has been deserted by the very people he says he represents.
Muatafa Omar’s interpretation of Ethiopia’s history, which is laden with oppressions, subjugation, and marginalization of ethnic groups, is an offense not only to Somalis but to all those that had fallen to the conquest of Menelik.
What Went Wrong in the Somali Region in the Era of Abiy’s Rule?
In April 2018, a meaningful change took place in Ethiopia; a political Tsunami swept this 105 million-strong and complex ancient empire. A hitherto unknown 42-year-old former Minister from the Oromo majority nationality took power. With charisma, Prime Minister Abiy captured the imagination of the world for his reformist agenda both locally and regionally. He freed political prisoners, made peace with armed groups such as Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Ginbot 7, Sidama Peoples Liberation Front. Moreover, he brought to an end the 20-year-old war with Eretria.
Despite serious efforts to liberalize and somewhat expand political space, less change in terms of governance is felt in the Somali region. Why? Simply put it, Addis Ababa picked the wrong person for the Somali region once again.
In a short period of time, a system that rhymes with old TPLF political culture reigns supreme in the Somalia region. A runaway corruption, inept and inaptitude management of public resources, wasting millions of hard-earned budgets through fake contracts, often to cronies and relatives, a decayed public service throughout the region some of the problems that never changed in the region.
The current sitting Deputy Acting President, Mustafa Omar, is handpicked and then parachuted into the Somali region – a somewhat similar process that rhymes with the past – he is chosen by the Prime Minister’s office. PM Abiy did not know him in person and perhaps did this with no malice intended.
Mustafa’s coming to Addis in mid-August was unexpectedly engineered by unsuspecting well-meaning interlocutors who were in the moment to stump out the political crisis in the Somali region. The Prime Minister’s team were responding to a leadership vacuum once Abdi Muhumad’s adventurism landed him in an unceremonious jail, following the now-infamous August 4 fiasco in Jigjiga. Time was of the essence, and picking Mustafa was a gamble that nonetheless disappointed many of his former supporters including ONLF leadership, Oromo Intellectuals, and budding Somali activists.
One serious folly associated with parachuting Mustafa into the presidential duties was that he was not evaluated politically, socially, intellectually, and health-wise. In an extraordinary rush, on August 28, 2018, he was sent to Jigjiga and was paraded to take over an office for which he may or may not have had the credentials to assume. Prior to becoming an acting vice president (his official tittle), he was a low-level staffer at United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Somalia.
Prior to this assignment, which seems to be over his head, he did not run a large scale office or managed a budget of any significance. Add to that the fact that he was only remotely familiar with the working culture of the Somali Regional government.
Out of the blue, on August 28, 2018, flanked by one of Kenya’s mercurial and enigmatic politicians and many other kinfolks from Kenya, the Middle East, USA, and Canada, marched a triumphalist, largely clannish mood, into his predecessor’s office. The skies of what once used to be my beloved hometown was flooded by extended relatives of the new tsar of the region.
With a never scene fanfare, Mustafa was finally made the sole inheritor of largess that was beyond his wildest dream, thanks to his benefactors in Addis Ababa.
With the stroke of a pen by occupiers of powerful offices in Addis Ababa, he took over the riches of his predecessor and seized control of a vast bounty of cash and real estate, on top of the power to command over 40,000 militia called Liyu Police (special forces). Sooner he settled in his oversized presidential chair than did he reorganize the top leadership of the Liyu police. Of the top ten commanders, seven or eight are from his sub-clan. His predecessor did the same but to a much lesser extent.
Like proverbial Ali Baba and the forty thieves in the Arabian Nights folktales, Mustafa and his kinfolks inspected the abundance of the treasures his predecessor left behind. He suspended all of his past beliefs and chose to mirror his nemesis in every way possible. He started showering free air tickets, lodgings and stipends to mostly his kinfolks in a way that the region has never experienced. Social media was awash with people who knew nothing about the region with no added value to the effort to renovate the lives of thousands of displaced people (IDPs).
After one year in office, we now know that PM Abiy and his team grossly erred in their judgment to parachute Mustafa without seriously evaluating his personality. Thus, it is only fitting to write that today’s history of the region rhymes with its past. Not quite the same, but as Mark Twain modified the famous cliché that “history repeats itself, rather our immediate past rhymes with our present-day governance.
Indeed, Deputy Acting President Mustafa is different from Abdi Muhumed Omar, as I have written elsewhere, he is more nuanced and better schooled. But the two have a lot of similarities. For those who are not familiar with the history of the region, the two have grown up together. According to Mustafa himself, they have been friends during their childhood days in Dhagahbur (Abro-adag naajow). Not only were they friends, but Abdi Mohumed Omar used to frequent Mustafa’s house and eat as many meals as possible in the latter’s house. But their relationship went sour due to political differences.
Faisal A. Roble