(OPride)—Somali State President Abdi Mohamoud Omar, better known as Abdi Illey used a speech to the region’s parliament and a press conference held later the same day to deny responsibility for a host of atrocities committed in his jurisdiction over the years. In both cases, the much maligned regional governor’s discourses included something of a tirade, blaming recently dismissed head of Ethiopia’s intelligence services Getachew Assefa for all the woes in the region.
During President Abdi’s decade long tenure at the helm of the regional government, news of human rights violations, detaining and killing of dissidents by the state became all too frequent. In recent times, incursions into neighbouring Oromia state by his regional Liyu Police force have been blamed for displacements and murders of unsuspecting villagers. Last week, a detailed 88 page report by international rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the rape, torture and murder of inmates at Jijiga’s “Jail Ogaden” prison. The backlash from this most recent report appears to have put Abdi Illey on the ropes.
In what is being described as a spectacle for the ages, he took to the floor of the state parliament to shift the blame elsewhere for all these and more. Somali information portal Rajo published snippets of the speech they say they obtained. “Let me make everything clear today,” he reportedly told the house of astonished Somali lawmakers. “Every order to kill came from Getachew Assefa and the TPLF (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front). Getachew would hold a gun to my head and give me orders.”
“Getachew ordered all the killings, every mistake I made is because of him! He used me!” he was reported as saying in his speech given in the Somali language.
Later, in a videotaped press conference attended only by reporters of the state Ethiopia Somali Televsion (ESTV) network, he continued from where he left off. Speaking in Amharic this time, Abdi continued to accuse the former National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) director of complicity in a variety of crimes.
“He (Getachew) used his NISS office in Addis Ababa for mischief!” the President looked relaxed in his comfortable looking armchair, but his rhetoric suggested anything but. “We know what Getachew did in our region. He controlled our democratic process from Addis Ababa, personally selecting his cronies to join parliament or the security services. These cronies of his helped him arrest, kill many of our people and rob the region of its resources,” he stated.
“Prime Minister Abiy is a Godsend,” the Somali leader also added. “A true man of the people. I am willing to involve myself in his initiatives to help Ethiopia prosper.” He would continue to lavish praise upon the Prime Minister for nearly another ten minutes.
President Abdi’s bizarre rants have caught many off guard. Normally unrepentant and unapologetic in his demeanor, social media is awash with people either expressing shock with his sudden change in tone or ridiculing what is deemed by many as a vain attempt at damage control and appeasing the federal government. While former NISS director Getachew Assefa has been accused of using his influence to detain, torture and kill, it’s virtually impossible to confirm if the latest allegations levied against him are accurate.
“He is just trying to jump off a sinking ship,” said Hirsi Mohamed a former member of Ethiopia’s federal parliament. Hirsi was ran for and won the Jijiga seat during the 2005 elections. After around five years of service, he renounced his ties with the government and fled the country. A renowned Abdi critic, he now resides in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
“He is just trying to assimilate with the pro Abiy side because he knows he is in danger of losing his position,“ said Hirsi, who told Opride he believes the Prime Minister has run out of patience with Abdi.“The President is now trying to escape liability for what he did to his own people and to Oromos. But he can’t. He has caused countless deaths.”
By “losing his position,” Hirsi is referring to rumours in Addis Ababa that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed recently ordered President Abdi’s dismissal from his position as regional leader. Whether or not the removal of a regional leader by the federal government would be constitutionally permissible is unclear. But Prime Minister Abiy, who until Tuesday was in Asmara sealing a historical restoration of ties with Eritrea, is believed to have at least requested he step down, in response to the shocking HRW report.
Addressing the Jail Ogaden report, President Abdi stated in his interview that everyone detained at the facility had been released, although this has not been confirmed independently.
“The prisoners are released. We plan on converting Jail Ogaden and many of our prisons into clinics, education centers and mosques.”
“As a government we have made mistakes, everyone makes mistakes. But now is the time for forgiveness, reconciliation and answering Prime Minister Abiy’s call to join as one,” President Abdi said using the Amharic term for “add” popularized by the Prime Minister to mean unite.
The Ethiopian government faces growing calls to force his resignation. Hundreds of Somali community elders and academics remain holed up in Addis Ababa, demanding a meeting with the Prime Minister, who has thus far declined to meet them. They are calling on the federal government to intervene on the behalf of the people and remove Abdi Illey from power. In a recent editorial for Addis Standard, Somali writer Bashir Farah slammed the Prime Minister for his refusal to meet with the contingent of elders. “Clearly, this indicates that the Somali plight is not included among the Prime Minister’s top priorities,” he wrote. There are also calls among Oromo activists for him to be prosecuted. “No immunity for Abdi Illey,” wrote renowned activist Jawar Mohammed to his over one million Facebook followers. “He must face justice for the mass killing of Somali and Oromo civilians.”
Earlier this year, a region wide uprising led by the “Barbaarta” (Somali for “youth”), had seen youths across the region hold anti-Abdi Illey demonstrations, demanding his resignation. But a government crackdown on the movement, including the imprisoning of some 40 activists at Jail Ogaden on June 5th appears to have tamed the movement somewhat. Nevertheless, a combination of the efforts of lobbyists, the general outrage provoked by the HRW report and the federal government’s reported irritation may have forced the embattled Abdi Illey’s hand.
Despite his having something of an eccentric streak (there’s a video of a furious Abdi repeatedly swearing at someone who confronted him while he was on visit in the US), this is the first time President Abdi has employed use of a defeated, concessionary tone. It remains to be seen if this new approach will see him weather the storm.