(OPride)—All eyes were on Jijiga last weekend, as the capital city of Ethiopia’s Somali state was the venue of a brief but tense military standoff between the federal army and the Somali state’s regional forces. Now, after 72 hours of chaos, unfortunate carnage and the confusion brought upon by an information blackout over the region, things have subsided as Abdi Illey agreed to step down from the presidency.
In a move that had observers questioning its constitutional legality, a contingent of the army suddenly swooped down on the city of Jijiga unannounced on Saturday morning and proceeded to occupy the headquarters of the region’s Ethiopia Somali Television (ESTV) network and the city’s airport. Despite reports of increasing friction between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Somali state government, most were caught off guard with the decision to launch a sudden strike. Since his appointment in April, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has established a reputation for himself as a reconciliatory figure with his calling on feuding entities to sort out their differences amicably and exiled politicians to return home and take part in the political process. News of his okaying a military operation to dislodge a foe is a far cry from the Abiy that many have become enamored with.
The operation appears to have achieved a number of its goals, but it is also a failure. A swift move to capture the President and cut off the commanders from resisting units of the Liyu Police was anything but. Exactly how the reported urban skirmishes panned out isn’t clear, as hours into the operation all power and internet service to the city was halted. But by Saturday afternoon, a lull in the fighting gave way for gangs of rioters to roam the city, looting businesses, setting homes ablaze and attacking people of minority background, innocent Amharas, Oromos and others who have lived in Jijiga for generations. President Abdi Illey, who was reportedly contained to a single location by the federal army, was said to have attempted to trigger article 39 of the Ethiopian constitution in an attempt to declare the region’s independence from Ethiopia. It was by all accounts, a last resort panicked measure by a man desperate to cling onto power.
By Sunday, a full 24 hours since the operation began, federal forces had still not pacified the city nor captured any high value targets. The intended clean, quick surgical strike, ended up being a sloppy, poorly coordinated banzai charge, contributing to a complete breakdown in order. Hooligans ran rampant and killings, looting and arson attacks were reported. With no power and internet services in the city, the only source for information came in the form of a hardly reassuring and vague press release from the Ministry of Defence.
But why was this all necessary? What proved catalyst to Jijiga becoming the venue for a showdown between the Somali regional government and the central leadership in Addis Ababa? Why would the new administration resort to mobilizing the army to settle a score? After all, in recent months the new leadership has chosen to settle feuds amicably with some of the most bitter of the Ethiopian state’s enemies. The Eritrean government, members of banned opposition groups including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ginbot 7 have all had olive branches extended to them by the Ethiopian government. Why did things have to escalate so quickly with President Abdi?
Debunking myths: the fictitious “Oromo vs Somali” narrative
On social media, less than savvy analysts and relative outsiders are pointing to the ethnic makeup of many of the central leadership’s politicians. Abiy Ahmed, an ethnic Oromo himself, is often flanked by his close allies in Minister of Foreign Affairs Workneh Gebeyehu and Oromia President Lemma Megersa, both of whom are Oromos. This has led to depictions of the conflict as being a battle between Oromo and Somali elites. The calamity in Jijiga, according to this version of events, was the aftermath of an attempt at establishing Oromo political hegemony being bitterly resisted by Somali regional government forces. This theory couldn’t be further from the truth. And yet, it has led to misguided and emotionally unrestrained people calling for reprisals against Oromos and Somalis. Innocent peoples from both ethnic groups have born the brunt of this ignorance, with reports of mob violence in Dire Dawa, Djibouti and elsewhere making tragic victims of both Oromos and Somalis.
The reality is that neither the federal government in Addis Ababa nor the deposed President of the Somali regional government and his allies have been recognized as fronts advancing the Oromo or Somali causes respectively. Their portrayals as being pan Oromo or pan Somali forces are inaccurate. In fact, the federal government and its representatives had been getting flak from Oromo activists and Oromo interest groups alike for an inability to weave the Oromo narrative into its rhetoric. The feted Oromo scholarly organisation Oromo Studies Association released a statement a couple of weeks ago in which it slammed the federal government’s adoption of what it refers to as an “Imperial Ethiopianist” narrative that excluded Oromos. Meanwhile, the Somali regional government has for months been dealing with a youth uprising calling for the overthrow of President Abdi Illey, a man they accuse of having no legitimacy to lead Somalis. Hence the description of the conflict as a collision of Oromo and Somali interests being superficial and farfetched at best.
What occurred in Jijiga was a showdown that was months in the making. Since his appointment to the post of Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed has made a name for himself as a reformist. With exiled politicians allowed back in the country, once banned flags and emblems of various resistance groups openly fluttering in the wind across the country and initiatives to privatize a host of national institutions being announced, the country has undergone a facelift. But the major bit of reform that has made the 42 year old former Ethiopian peacekeeper his fair share of enemies, is his cleaning up government, military and the intelligence services of the clique of Tigrayan elitists that monopolized these institutions for decades. This is what led to the events of the past weekend rocking Jijiga the way they have.
The TPLF’s downhill tumble: the root of it all
Since 1991, Ethiopia has been governed by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). For nearly the entirety of that period, the EPRDF has been lambasted by observers as being nothing more than a facade for an elite clique of powerful members of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a member party of the EPRDF coalition. Despite the EPRDF appearing to be a wholly inclusive all incorporating government on the outside, the upper echelons of the army and intelligence services were solely TPLF enterprises. It led to the formation of a Tigrayan oligarchy that sought nothing more than maintaining its shacklehold on Ethiopia and pulverizing those who stood in its way.
Decades of this unbalanced sharing of power led to simmering resent which eventually boiled over and paved the way for two years of nationwide protests that culminated in Abiy Ahmed’s election. Emboldened by the way the protesters in his constituency rocked the entire country to the core, the new Abiy Ahmed led administration decided it would no longer play second fiddle to a generation’s worth of Tigrayan kleptocrats. The new administration started to target the powerful ruling clique. It went after politicians, intelligence and military heads who were once thought untouchable. The leading architects of Ethiopia’s establishment who for decades enjoyed unwavering authority over all aspects of life in Ethiopia, were dismissed, forcibly retired or pressured into resigning. The clique who were often mistaken as being inseparable with the EPRDF party itself, were replaced with reformists. Fresh faces ascended to prominence, the old guard was gradually downgraded and cast aside.
With the rise to prominence of a new rank and file, age old state policies were reevaluated. It’s this new look government that decided to compromise on age old party ideals. Among them, agreeing to respect a 2002 Ethiopian Eritrean border ruling that declared Badme to be Eritrean territory. The decision to eventually vacate Badme, led to the restoration of ties between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The new leadership also decided it would amend the 2009 Anti terrorism proclamation. That bit of legislation made it a crime to even criticize the government, leading to the detention and exiling of journalists and activists. Mere talk of the law being changed has already seen many prominent reporters return from exile. Under the previous administration, suspected members of the OLF could look at lengthy indefinite terms in prison. It led to the Afaan Oromo language being described as being the official language of Ethiopia’s jails. Thousands of prisoners have been let out of jail under this policy change, and more are slated to leave.
Supporters of the old guard have decried these measures as having made the country much more vulnerable to internal and external security threats. But their critics claim that the country is in the process of shedding its oppressive nature. Within months, the EPRDF government no longer had the TPLF’s shadow cast over it.
Tigrayan aristocrats in need had in Abdi, a friend indeed
The process of cleaning the government of it’s long serving stalwarts was always going to lead to confrontation with the Somali regional government. President Abdi’s close ties with them meant that he was always going to be at loggerheads with the federal government. After all, President Abdi’s ascension to power in 2010 came as a result of his direct involvement in a 2007-08 Ethiopian military campaign to wipe out insurgents in the region. Abdi Illey’s rise to prominence came as a direct result of his acquaintances and friendships within the military establishment, the one that once upon a time was completely monopolized by members of the TPLF. It is via the likes of former army head General Samora Younis that President Abdi was able to become President, consolidate his power and build a powerful regional army. Allowed to do as he pleased in the region as long as the interests of his Tigrayan cohorts were maintained, he presided over one of the most suppressed regions in Ethiopia where brutality and systematic human rights violations were institutionalized. His personal army, the Liyu Police killed people and pillaged lands wherever they roamed, and the federal government rarely intervened to reprimand the renegade president. Portrayed as a terrorist fighting force, the British government itself poured millions of British pounds into the organization’s coffers. But all too often, it was accused of playing a terrorizing role itself. Despite this, and despite President Abdi’s forces often crossing into Oromia state, massacring villagers and playing the instigator role in a 2017 of communal violence that led to a million Oromos and Somalis being displaced from their homes, he was never reeled in. The old guard saw President Abdi as one of their own and thus immune from any prosecution or scolding, despite damning evidence of his complicity in everything from mass rape, to the razing of entire villages.
This is why the regional and federal governments clashed in Jijiga. They had been on a collision course with each other for some time. Abdi Illey represents the old guard in everything from his ruthless intolerance for dissent, to his keeping power concentrated in the hands of a few clique linked close confidantes. Not only has Abdi espoused everything preached by those atop the TPLF hierarchy, he has entrusted them with crucial posts that should normally be occupied by Somali politicians.
For example, over the past decade, the Ethiopian government has held sporadic sit down sessions with armed rebel group the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). During one such round of peace talks in October 2012, ONLF leaders met with an Ethiopian delegation in Nairobi that didn’t include a single member of the Somali state government. Instead, present to lobby on its behalf, was General Abraha Woldemariam, TPLF member and former chief of the Ethiopian army Eastern Command. Earlier this year meanwhile, the ONLF and the Ethiopian government met again in Nairobi for similar discussions. While Abdi Illey led the Ethiopian delegation this time, among his three chosen delegates, featured Colonel Gebregziabher Alemseged, another TPLF member accused of war crimes in Somalia. It seems that as President, everything Abdi did was with the inclusion of or blessing of TPLF party high ranking military officers. Last year, Opride came across a series of leaked emails exposing Abdi Illey as having intervened to see a nationwide SMS campaign initiated by the Oromia state government to help displaced Oromos be halted by government telecommunications provider Ethio Telecom. It was discovered that Abdi Illey and yet another TPLF affiliated member of the armed forces, General Gebre Adhane had succeeded in pressuring Ethio Telecom to put a stop to the nationwide SMS support campaign. Besides the role as advisors, TPLF officials are said to be involved in the region’s thriving contraband business. Many have decided to invest their dubiously gained wealth in the city itself.
For the old guard of former EPRDF administrations, these have been turbulent times. They’ve been more or less pushed out of Addis Ababa by the country’s reform starved populations of restive regions and a new Prime Minister all too eager to cater to these wishes. No longer the omnipotent circle of chiefs wielding unwavering authority in the country, they’ve been on the back foot in recent months. Among the last places in the country where a consortium of brooding, vengeful Tigrayan ex elites could find safe haven and make use of wealth and influence they are on the verge of losing, was Abdi Illey’s Somali region. The powers vested in Jijiga and Addis Ababa, hold highly contradictory visions for Ethiopia. One vision calls for engineering a spectacular rebound and returning the country to what it had been for much of the past 27 years. The other, political overhaul and inclusivity. For each blueprint to gain traction and thrive, the other conflicting vision and its architects would have to be cast aside. Abiy’s Ethiopia and Abdi’s Ethiopia are completely incompatible.
Increasingly brazen Abdi hastened confrontation
And yet Abdi and Abiy were all smiles back in April when the newly elected Prime Minister paid Jijiga a visit. It was an excellent show of diplomacy after communal violence led to a year of bickering between Somali and OPDO run Oromia government officials. Having decided to put last year’s spats behind them, it’s likely that during their sessions together, the federal government in its series of reconciliatory measures sought to reach an amicable settlement with the Somali state government. Any such backdoor haggling by Addis Ababa has clearly gotten nowhere, as in recent months the Liyu Police appear to have become even more emboldened than ever before. In May, the much maligned Liyu Police, razed hundreds of homes to the ground in Oromia’s Eastern Haraghe region. Daylight attacks kilometers deep into Oromia have become commonplace, as scores of Oromo villagers were killed by Liyu Police raids into Chinaksen and Babile districts in mid July. This came weeks after a Human Rights Watch report into the Liyu Police run “Jail Ogaden” prison in Jijiga made headlines. The horrific conditions, killings and rapes of detainees at the facility drew worldwide condemnation. The Ethiopian government, attempting to discard the image of the brutal authoritarian run state, suffered a setback in this regard with the report’s findings going public.
The backlash from the Jail Ogaden report appears to have been the last straw. A furious Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, at the time in Asmara taking part in the historical state visit that officially restored ties with Eritrea, reportedly requested the less than pragmatic commander in chief of the Liyu Police step down as Somali state President. In response, an increasingly erratic Abdi, perhaps fearing that the room was closing in on him, gave a bizarre interview to a regional media outlet in which he absolved himself of any wrongdoing and lavished praise on the new Prime Minister.
Nevertheless, the fact that the Somali region had become the gathering ground of purged EPRDF powerbrokers of yesteryear meant that an eleventh hour charm offensive would do little to win Abiy over. The stiffest resistance to all reforms and advances made since April 2018 was based in Jijiga. In Jijiga, potential conspirators and coup plotters ruled Ethiopia’s easternmost region. For the outsider, not much had changed geographically, but it was quite evident that prior to last weekend’s military operation, the Somali region had gone rogue and had become a fortress for a host of sulking former elitist bigwigs. If left unchecked, this presence could develop into something with sinister intentions, which could obstruct the federal system.
The operation to dethrone Abdi and take control of Jijiga was bold but reckless. A swift and far more clinical operation would have resulted in Abdi’s quick removal. With this, the federal government could have wrestled control of the region away from the host of Tigrayan military affiliates. For the anti Abiy faction, the loss of the Somali region would also mean a considerable loss in resources and wealth. The successful blow would finally give the federal government a chance to implement the sort of democratic reforms seen elsewhere across the country in the Somali region.
With failure, the Somali regional government and its TPLF allies would be able to claim a degree of legitimacy and perhaps demand joint rule or total autonomy from Abiy Ahmed’s drafted leaders. A successful reversal of the federal military would have probably proven catastrophic for those who live within striking distance of Liyu Police raids. The feeling of invincibility after successfully resisting a federal army onslaught would have without a doubt see them expand the circumference of their macabre activities. Wanton death and destruction would increase in its frequency.
Despite the horrors that ensued last weekend’s decision to deploy the federal army to the city, it appears that the Prime Minister may have gained the impetus. It’s obviously too soon to tell. But federal forces patrol Jijiga and Liyu Police units are currently refraining from engaging the army. Abdi Illey has been forced out for someone who is arguably a younger version of himself. But it is unlikely that Ahmed Abdi, a 33 year old former Minister of Finances in the Somali state government will be able to command the same level of respect or strike fear into his foes the way Abdi did. The TPLF contingent in the region may have several or more trump cards left to play. But it’s clear that the end result of what has transpired over the past weekend in Jijiga leaves them with an even steeper hill to climb. As has been repeated in social media circles by their critics, it is increasingly looking like game over for the TPLF.
Last weekend, all the chips were put on the table by the two feuding factions of the same government. Indications are pointing to one side being the victor. Two conflicting visions for how Ethiopia was to be governed met at an inevitable impasse in Jijiga, which tragically led to deaths and destruction of infrastructure. The battle for Ethiopia took a toll on the city as the locals shouldered the burden of the government’s inability to reconcile its own feuding entities. Now a couple of crucial questions remain unanswered: how much longer will the wounded beast persevere and will its desperate thrashing about cause more bloodshed?