(OPride)— A budding protest movement is gathering momentum in Ethiopia’s Somali regional state. Demonstrators have taken to the streets in the Southeastern state since late April to denounce the regional government and to air long-suppressed political grievances.
Ethiopia is no stranger to popular protests. From 2014 to 2017, popular uprisings in Oromia and Amhara states have forced the country’s leaders to embrace reform.
However, the Somali region remained largely unperturbed during those protests, which forced authorities to decree two martial laws in as many years. The Oromo and Amhara protests culminated with the election of Abiy Ahmed on April 2. But the settling of the dust in those regions coincided with a defiant uprising in the Somali region.
The state has long been off-limits to reporters and civil society groups.As a result, the still-ongoing protest movement over pent-up frustrations with regional kleptocracy and fury over institutional killings, rape and abuse, has received no media coverage in and outside of Ethiopia.
Ironically, Ethiopian Somali protesters are drawing lessons and inspirations from the youth-fueled uprisings in the Oromia region, which swept Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power. Activists say recent political changes in the center have made the federal government much more receptive of their demands. Somali youth are now taking a leaf from the book written by the Oromo protests.
“Somalis are inspired by the gigantic difference made by the “Qeerroo” movement in Oromia,” says Mohammed Ismail, Chairman of the opposition Somali Regional Alliance for Justice (SRAJ) party. “The oppressive rule in the Somali region had [also] worsened in recent months.”
SRAJ is a newly established political party based in Minneapolis, Minnesota —home to the biggest population of Ethiopian Somalis in the diaspora. SRAJ was established abroad because political space remains completely sealed off for domestic opposition by governor of the region, President Abdi Mohamoud Omar, better known as Abdi Illey. He is a loyalist for key military and establishment leaders in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
Demonstrations were first reported on April 21 in the Somali region’s Shinile or Sitti zone. With domestic uprisings unheard of in the region, initial protests appeared sporadic, one-off demonstrations. Within weeks, they’ve transformed into a full blown movement, according to activists and Somali-based blogs.
The protesters demand political changes at the regional level. They accuse Abdi Illey’s government of murder, cronyism and corruption. They are calling on the federal government and Prime Minister Abiy to intervene and oversee the genuine implementation of the constitution and respect for the rule of law. This, they say, would require a removal of the man at the helm of the region’s political power.
With nearly 300,000 km square size, the Somali region is the second largest of Ethiopia’s nine federal states. During the 1970s, it was the target of neighbouring Somalia, which invaded and attempted to incorporate it as part of the greater Somalia project. Later, in the 1990s and well into the new millennium, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) waged a low level insurgency with the aim of seceding from Ethiopia and forming an independent Ogaden. In 2007, an Ethiopian military crackdown on the ONLF coincided with Abdi Illey’s rise to power. Abdi, then a low level intelligence officer, was rewarded for his efforts in pacifying the region and squashing the ONLF threat.
Abdi Illey’s Presidency
In his 10-year-long tenure as President of the Somali region, Abdi Illey has developed a reputation for being a czar of sorts. He has monopolized all aspects of life in the region. The media blockade enforced across the region during the military campaign in 2008 remains in effect until today. Foreign journalists, human rights groups and aid agencies are barred from accessing the region. There have not been any investigation of the endless reports of mass killings, detentions and rapes of his critics, and their relatives. To enforce his will and prolong his grip on power, Abdi Illey established the Liyu Police, a paramilitary force with a membership estimated in the tens of thousands. Critics characterize the notorious force as Abdi’s personal army catering to his every whim. Amnesty International and other rights groups have repeatedly accused the Liyu police of carrying out orders to kill and terrorize those who exhibit even the slightest form of dissent toward Abdi Illey.
Hirsi Mohamed is a former member of the Ethiopian parliament who ran for and won his Jijiga seat during the controversial 2005 elections. He fled Ethiopia shortly before the 2010 elections and is now based in the United States.
“Abdi Illey’s crimes know no limits,” he stated during a recent interview with OPride, in which he described the “unparalleled cruelty” of a mad man whose authoritarian measures Hirsi witnessed up close. “People have had their parents killed because they spoke out against Abdi Illey. He would feel threatened by intellectuals and educated people. We have so many articulate, educated individuals who cannot serve their people due to the danger posed by this man. It really is a tragedy.”
But of course not everyone agrees. Hafsa Mohammed, a Somali-American NGO worker believes the controversial president is the right man for the job. “Development in every sector or space, the expanded accessibility of water in the region and women’s active participation in all levels of politics has been introduced during his era,” she said. Hafsa insists these economic and social advances are possible only because Abdi’s administration was able to maintain “tangible peace and security.”
Felix Horne, a Canadian researcher at Human Rights Watch has helped document evidence of crimes committed by the Abdi Illey’s government. “For almost a decade, the Liyu Police have been implicated in extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and violence against people in the region, as well as in retaliatory attacks against local communities accused of supporting the ONLF,” Felix said. “The Liyu Police report to President Abdi Mohamoud Omar and neither he nor the federal government have taken any steps to reign in their abuses.”
SRAJ has published multiple communiques condemning the types of atrocities described by Felix. “Abdi Illey uses the Liyu Police to arrest and kill whoever he feels threatens his authority,” said its leader, Mohammed Ismail. “He will repossess the private assets and wealth of certain people and distribute them among loyalists or military generals who can fend off federal inquiries into his activities. This is one way he has sustained himself to this day. Land grab, rape and murder are systematic in our region.”
London-based Amnesty International on Thursday called for the dissolution of the Liyu Police, citing the unit’s latest rampage across Oromia, in which several people were killed and dozens of homes belonging to Oromo families were torched earlier this week. Locals say up to 250 homes had been burned by the Liyu Police in East Hararghe zone since the border raids began on May 23, 2018.
Hafsa, the NGO worker, contends Abdi Illey’s administration is trying to address human rights violations. “The regional government provides diverse support for the families of victims, sadly the administration’s efforts often go unnoticed as it is often confronted by media that is overtly biased against it,” she told OPride.
Asked about widespread reports of the administration’s own egregious human rights abuses documented by organizations such as Amnesty International, Hafsa retorted, “I think the bias at Amnesty and Human Rights Watch needs addressing.”
While specific incidents might be up for debate, the horrors that dissenters in the Somali region and their unsuspecting friends and family are often subjected to are well-known and well-documented. Despite this, the anti-Abdi Illey campaign of civil disobedience appears to have the wind in its sail. In late April it may have appeared to be nothing more than a show of force by hundreds of determined youths in and around the Sitti zone. It has clearly gained ground since and has inspired at least 20 rallies and mass demonstrations across the region.
From as far north as the border town of Aysha’a, to the towns bordering southern Somalia such as Kelafo and Mustahil, the Somali region’s streets have been taken over by demonstrators calling themselves “Barbaarta,” a Somali word for youth. As with the Qeerroo of Oromia, Barbaarta is used to collectively refer to the protesters
Video footage of some of the rallies show hundreds of youth carrying posters denouncing Abdi Illey; placards with slogans or pictures of political detainees; others simply waved the Ethiopian flag. The chartered city of Dire Dawa, the second most populated city in Ethiopia, has seen a number of rallies in its jurisdiction including a large one held on May 4, 2018. The protesters in Dire Dawa can been seen making the crossed arm gesture made famous by the Oromo protesters, which was later outlawed under Ethiopia’s emergency decree in a vain attempt to curb its popularity.
“Down down Abdi Illey!” chant a crowd of protesters in a video from a similar demonstration in the city of Kebri Dahar. In another video, shared by Somali portal Rajo, dozens of young men are seen making the crossed arms gesture, while one young protester holds aloft a sign that simply reads, “freedom.” Among the widely used slogans heard at protests and echoed by exiled activists are “Cadaalad Baan Rabnaa!” (we need justice) and “Waxxan ka soo hor jeednaa kufsiga!” (we are against rape).
Why protest now?
To outsiders, even those who follow Ethiopia current affairs closely, it wasn’t immediately clear why the Barbaarta chose this time to rise up against Abdi Illey’s repressive rule. After all, in 10 years, this is the first instance of sustained and open resistance to his authority in the region. Hirsi says the arrival of a new Prime Minister — deemed a reformer — has emboldened the Somali youth.
“Somalis have noticed the political changes in Addis Ababa,” Hirsi explains. “Many Somalis celebrated the appointment of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed! For as long as we can remember, the federal government has simply ignored the region and allowed Abdi Illey to do as he pleases.” The Somali protesters hope their voices and cries for help will now get a fair hearing.
If Somalis back home were delighted with the appointment, they most certainly couldn’t express it publicly. However, the Somali community in Minnesota held an event to celebrate the occasion. Somalis see Abiy’s ascension as a new opportunity to press for democratic reforms in the Somali region.
Mohammed Ismail attributes the rise of Barbarta in part to the strategic use of social media and the Somali activists willingness to take bold risks. “We must also recognize the contributions of activists living abroad,” he said, noting the fact that dictatorships thrive when there’s an information blackout. “These activists speak openly about the extrajudicial killings, indiscriminate arrests and forceful displacements which are routine practices of the Somali regional government. There is no accountability and people must hear about this.”
According to Mohammed, Abdi Illey routinely purges those he feels could pose a threat to his hold on power. Key posts, positions of authority and prominence are kept in the family.
OPride made a concerted effort to seek comment from the Somali State government on the anti-government rocking the region. The state’s Communications Affairs Bureau responded to our query on Facebook. “There is a regional movement known as the “Heego,” which is a collection of youths dedicated to fostering economic growth in our region,” the unnamed press officer said in a brief response. “We do not know of a Barbaarta movement.” The office did not respond to follow up questions or requests for an interview.
Hafsa meanwhile, insists the fuss is much ado about nothing and says that the protests are isolated incidents and “insignificant.”
“A few pockets of anti-government protesters held demonstrations in the Sitti/Shinille area,” she said. “They were followed by community assembled pro-government activities. The influence of the protests has been exaggerated.”
Hafsa concedes that the protesters have the right to hold anti-government demonstrations. But she says the impetus for the ongoing demonstrations was tribal issues and the youth chanting critical slongs were spurred on by opposition elements from abroad. She claims without providing specifics that Abdi Illey’s government is taking steps to address the people’s concerns.
Mohammed Ismail objects to the characterization of the Barbaarta’s demands as tribal issues. “This is a denial of the truth,” he told OPride. “The President is trying to make it appear as if the protests were nothing but a clash between the region’s clans. This narrative serves to prolong his rule, because he wants to appear as the solution to help solve this fictional inter clan instability.”
Asked to explain why the Shinille zone has emerged as the movement’s stronghold, Mohammed Ismail said the area’s proximity to what were once protesters hotbeds in the East Hararghe zone of Oromia, has something to do with it.
“The Shinille area borders Oromia. The inhabitants of the area have seen the progress and change brought to parts of Oromia by the Qeerroo movement,” said Mohammed, reiterating the link between the two movements. “The youth in Shinille have seen the progress made towards good governance in Oromia when people demanded it. It has spurred them on to demand it for themselves.”
One grievance of the protesters is over a government initiative that deploys public employees in the development sector to work in different parts of the region. It is portrayed as an attempt to mobilize skilled professionals to areas in great need of expertise. Dubbed the “renaissance” program, critics refer to it as a tool to disperse young educated, budding youths into areas far from their birthplaces where they can influence others.
Mohammed said ending this program was one of the protesters key demands. “You have the whole region’s manpower displaced as many people are sent deep into rural areas,” he said. “Abdi Illey’s family members are exempt from this scheme. They remain in the urban centers, get all the available jobs and key posts. They are at the summit of every sector and have control over the region’s wealth. Protesters want an end to the Somali region’s total monopolization by a single family.”
Brutal murder sparks more protests
The Somali protests had seen a steady rise since the Barbaarta movement began in late April. On May 11, the outrage grew exponentially when police in Kebri Dahar kidnapped and hanged a young woman as retribution for her uncle’s criticism of Abdi Illey. The victim, Tayasir Omar Food, worked at a city district bureau for women’s affairs. Her uncle, Haji Ali Abdulle Hersi, had been in Addis Ababa as part of a group of 150 community elders, who met with officials of the federal government to discuss the region’s deteriorating human rights conditions under the Abdi Illey leadership.
Haji Ali, who was reportedly very open about his disdain for Illey, told the VOA’s Amharic language service that the president is responsible for his niece’s death. “It’s clear my travel to Addis is the reason why my niece was killed. She isn’t the first member of my family to be killed by the order of Abdi Illey. In an attempt to silence me, in the past they have killed my grandmother as well.”
As soon as Tayasir’s murder became public, riots broke out across Kebri Dahar with rock throwing protesters clashing with police. Gunfire can be heard in video footage posted online by activists and similar clashes were reported in other towns across the Somali region. Some protesters carried posters of Tayasir to pay homage to her.
Abdi Illey’s government responded by sending in security forces with orders to quell the uprisings by any means necessary. Until May 10, a day before the barbaric killing of Tayasir sparked even more protests, there had been at least five confirmed cases of protester deaths. As the protests intensify, so has the crackdown, according to local reports. The exact number of casualties and arrests are unknown, but activists say hundreds of protesters have been locked up since April.
Somali communities in the diaspora have rallied behind the Barbaarta. The protests have only just marked a month since they first erupted, yet numerous solidarity events and gatherings have been held across Europe and North America. Expats paid tribute to those spearheading the protests and to those victimized by the subsequent crackdown. Tayasir has become a rallying symbol for the movement’s supporters. Many Somalis have immortalized her as a martyr.
Somali diaspora community leaders have reportedly travelled to Addis Ababa in recent weeks and are lobbying federal officials on behalf of the protesters. Reconciliatory rhetoric from Prime Minister Abiy, calling on exiled opposition parties to return home and participate in the country’s political process, has seen some, particularly the Oromo Democratic Front, take up his offer. However, in the Somali region, which sometimes seems to operate outside the perimeters of the federal arrangement, it is still unthinkable for Somali groups such SRAJ to return home and pursue peaceful struggle.
Unfortunately for the Barbaarta, there are no home-based Somali political organizations that can take up their cause. There are no private newspapers or television networks amplifying their voices. But at the start of the Oromo protests in 2014, the current changes in Ethiopia seemed inconceivable. Amid reports of renewed Oromo-Somali conflict, growing tensions in the Somali region may become prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s first real test. The chorus of calls for removal of Abdi Illey and disbanding of Liyu police is growing. The only question is: Would the new leader heed the protesters demand or continue to relegate their demands to the periphery as many before him did?