By Osman Hassan

The Ethiopian Empire, for centuries the most backward and down-trodden country in Africa, is on the march. Not only has it been making spectacular strides on the economic front for over a decade but is now doubling it with a cleanup in the political domain. Since it’s young, dynamic new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, took the reins of power he has been propelling political reforms directed mainly at his proper part of the empire. When it comes to the Somali region under their rule, better known internationally as the Ogaden, all he did was to get rid of its nominal leader, Abdi Mohamoud Omar (aka Abdi Ilay). He paid that price not for the sake of the suffering oppressed people in the region but as a handy sacrificial lamp necessitated by the new positive image of Ethiopia that Abiy wants to project to the outside world.

Abiy seems to have taken for granted that the pliant members of the region’s party will as always take their cue from Addis Ababa and choose another puppet to replace Abdi Ilay to do their bidding. That too was the premise underpinning an article of mine recently posted in Wardheernews on the region’s right to self-determination in which I dismissed the leadership reshuffle as a mere game of musical chairs orchestrated by Ethiopia for its benefit. Abiy could not have been more wrong about the outcome this time (and me too). For once, the Somali party members acted independently, guided by their own good judgment. It is an irony that Abdi Ilay’s sacking (unconstitutionally as it was) far from being a mere game for Abiy may turn out to be a game-changer, a catalyst that could transform the Somali region and impact wider Somali aspirations, with unintended, unforeseen and undesirable consequences for Ethiopia.

Their choice, Mustafa Omar, has a track record (political dissident in exile, UN service and proven integrity) which outshines that of Abiy (military service and party henchman). His past matters as a guide to his performance in office to which he brings manifest integrity, patriotism and propriety. Participatory democracy and consent underpin his on-going good governance, in which all the clans can see themselves for a change as stakeholders and on equal footing. Such qualities are the ultimate antithesis of what Abdi Ilay stood for, or the other archetypal stooges for Addis embedded in Mogadishu, Kismayo, Baidoa, Garawe and Hargeisa (check with Ali Xarare’s list of revealed traitors in the service of Ethiopia).

Onward Ethiopia is Abiy’s marching orders as “Somali First and Somalis without Borders” are Mustafa Omar’s unspoken but unmistakable vision. Are their missions on collision course or can they co-exist for the good of all? There is no reason why not, if Ethiopia is realistic and accepts the inevitability of colonial demise.

Somali First

For too long, the Somali region has been nothing more than an Ethiopian backyard serving the interest of non-Somali Ethiopia. This mentality is one deeply ingrained in the Ethiopian psyche among all social groups and transcends generations. This was the case with Emperor Haile Selassie (and his predecessors) who claimed all Somali territories in the Horn of Africa under other colonial powers as belonging to Ethiopia and demanded their return to the motherland. Having failed in this aspiration, they hold on to the Ogaden region as their property and see its people as unwelcome second-class residents, at times subjected to merciless collective punishment for ONLF’s resistance activities.

Abiy Ahmed, though more refined and cosmopolitan, basically shares this nativist imperialist Ethiopian mentality. Rarely ever does he show awareness or appreciation for the Somali region and its people as fellow countrymen, all the more when they are the third most populous ethnic group in the country and their region the largest. His recent statement that the Somali Region will only get 5% of the proceeds from its own oil and the rest pocketed by Addis Ababa speaks volumes about this imperialistic paternalistic mentality as if they are giving the region pocket money.

The only way for Mustafa Omar and his region to prevail over that mentality and own their own heritage is to forge a government, with its people united behind it, that is, as Abraham Lincoln would say, “of the people, by the people, for the people”’ and that is accountable to its own people and not Addis Ababa. All this change is within Ethiopia’s federal constitution and accepted international norms of governance. Ethiopia would be for once powerless against this new reality in the region other than revert to its old game of setting clans against their government as they do in Somalia, or resort in desperation to outright military intervention which would be self-defeating. It would alienate the international community and render outright secession legitimate when other constitutional rights are foreclosed.

Under this new Somali First paradigm, Mustafa Omar and his government would be masters of their resources. In the case of oil, Ethiopia should be grateful if they get 5% of the proceeds or whatever the region give it on their own free will. Otherwise, better the oil remain underground for the benefit of future generations.

Protecting the Somali region, both its land and its people, is as important if not more important as preserving their inalienable right to their resources. Presently, they continue to be subject to horrendous crimes of land grab, ethnic-cleansing and indiscriminate killings from their neighbours in which neither the federal government nor the regional governments seem to be doing much to stop them. In the end, peace, that respects the lives and territorial integrity of the Somali region, is in the best interest of all. Mustafa Omar’s success or failure as Somali regional leader will ultimately be judged on how far he has fulfilled his obligations to the region – the first test of Somali First.

Somalis without Borders

No people constituting a nation in Africa have been partitioned and arterial colonial borders forced on them as the Somalis have been. Of those erstwhile colonial borders, what now remain are the ones Somalia has with the territories under Ethiopia rule (Ogaden) and Kenya (NFD). But there is also in addition an imaginary border claimed by the secession enclave in Hargeisa albeit ignored by the rest of the world. Somalis are not the only peoples who came to be divided under whatever circumstances. With the Germans united after the Berlin wall fell, the two Koreans are the only other nation divided since the Korean War.

Now and then, leaders in divided nations draw attention to themselves for their different reactions when they come face to face with these borders often imposed by foreign powers. Comparisons are instructive. Starting with the Koreans, nothing compares with the heroic audacious action of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, who, in his meeting with his South Korean counterpart last September at the demoralized zone, suddenly stepped over the line and crossed into the South Korean side to hold hands with his its president. Through this eye-catching, politically laden action he sent a message worldwide that Korea is indivisible much to the delight of Koreans on both sides of the demilitarized barrier.

In the case of Somalia, no Somali leader since Siyad Barre’s toppling has crossed Somaliland’s imaginary border in the north by air, land or sea let alone challenge those of Kenya and Ethiopia. But when they come face to face to the imaginary border, how do they react? For a start, we had Farmaajo on a visit to Puntland and while a stone’s throw away from Somaliland’s imaginary border in Sool timidly balked at crossing it to meet welcoming crowds. For Somaliland, this was simply recognition of their border, an immense propaganda gift on a plate which may not have been lost on foreign governments.

Abdiweli Gaas, the Puntland leader, may rightly claim he did cross this imaginary line when he went to Badhan in Sanaag region with his cabinet. But it was not so much to uphold the unity of the country as for cynical publicity stunt for his reelection. If it was otherwise, he would have done so not at the dying days of his office but much earlier, starting with Sool which is next door to his seat, Garawe. All the same, give the devil credit for what Farmaajo wouldn’t dare do. If nothing else, he called Somaliland’s bluff and that is no mean achievement.

How ironic then that it has to be a leader from a Somali territory under foreign colonial rule (the Ogaden) to brush aside both the artificial Ethiopian colonial border and Somaliland’s imaginary one. That is what Mustafa Omar did when he responded to the dire humanitarian and security situation in Sool following bloody clashes between two related sub-clans in which hundreds were killed or injured and countless displaced. Not only that, but he hosted a peace conference at Jigjiga under his auspices which finally succeeded to establish peace between the warring sub-clans which Jigjiga will continue to backstop. His solidarity with his fellow Somalis that knows no borders is the essence of Somali unity

The people in Sool are bound to contrast Mustafa Omar’s actions with the leaders who claim them in Somalia. Take the federal government first: true to its past record, it took no notice of what is happening in Sool as if it was not part of Somalia. Farmaajo and his flamboyant egocentric Prime Minister spend millions of dollars waging futile vendettas against perceived adversaries but would not spare a dime for the humanitarian crisis in Sool. Then there is Somaliland, the main culprit which armed both clans and stokes their mutual animosities. From their perspectives, the more the clans under its occupation are preoccupied killing each other the less attention they will pay to liberating themselves.

And finally Puntland, masters of duplicity and double-talk. Far from responding to the humanitarian crisis or peacemaking, it went so far as to initially deny landing permission to a plane sent to evacuate the wounded on the ground that they were coming from an area controlled by Somaliland. This is not only contrary to Somalia’s laws but also international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention. Only after pressure from a federal minister hailing from Sool and outcry throughout the SSC community did they give in. And yet, when it suits them, they would cynically claim the region and its people as kith and kin and as part of Puntland. People in Sool now realize who cares about them and are increasingly gravitating towards the Somali region as the true brother Somali homeland.

The significance of dwelling on Mustafa Omar’s action in Sool is much wider than a one-off intervention to respond to the needs of his fellow Somali brethren on the other side of the colonial border much as this is truly appreciated. What it manifestly demonstrates are two things: first is the glaring dearth of leadership in Somalia to deal with or care about the problems that face the country. Given leadership, they could have easily dealt with the humanitarian problems in Sool and earn immense goodwill, not least for breathing life into the moribund union. And on the positive side, Mustafa’s actions in Sool portend his vision of borderless Somali integration in all feasible ways.

Somali Integration Prerequisite for Regional Integration

Following the recent summit of the three leaders of the Horn -Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea- in which they agreed in principle on integration, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed went further and unilaterally envisions the unity of the countries under one leader, presumably an Ethiopian as many in Somalia or Eritrea will interpret it (Greater Ethiopia by the back door?). This was ill-thought, unrealistic and insensitive given the painful history of the relations Ethiopia had with the other two, in particular Somalia which still has fundamental territorial dispute with it. All the same, he almost killed a basically good idea, integration, inadvertently. Perhaps, he got carried away after a successful summit and bound to come down to reality.

The silence of the other two leaders to add their voice to his statement implies that they don’t share his overzealousness but subscribe to the objective of integration among equal and sovereign countries a la EU. What the three leaders have in mind is the vision of economic integration among the countries and the process will take its natural course through the appropriate machineries at the inter-country level, adopting a bottom –up approach, not top-down diktat from anyone.

Eritrea and Ogaden, though both former and present Ethiopian colonies respectively, are unjustly having different status: the former a sovereign country after it won its war of liberation while the Ogaden, has not succeeded so far and hence remains a colony. This different treatment is untenable in the proposed integration and should be the first anomaly to be addressed. One possible option is for a joint Somalia-Ethiopia oversight of the Somali region, something akin to the Anglo- Egyptian condominium over Sudan before independence. This would be an interim arrangement until final agreement is reached. Another option, which should be the bottom line, is a borderless integrated Somali homeland on both sides of the present border. This would be in recognition of their inseparable bonds as people belonging to the same nation who were divided by Great Britain and Ethiopia.

That should be the minimum interim concession Ethiopia should agree to until a settlement is reached on the final status of the region. Otherwise, Somalia has little to gain from an economic union in which it will merely serve first as a market for an industrializing Ethiopia, secondly as a destination for its millions of surplus labour and thirdly provide Ethiopia access to its over 3000 km coastline. A wiser Ethiopia would realize that, just as in Eritrea, colonial rule in the Ogaden is bound to end sooner or later, and opt for this very beneficial deal.

In the meantime

Regional integration or not, Mustafa Omar has in the meantime ushered much change during the short period in office and aligned his region with its Somali heritage. Jigjiga is increasingly becoming the spring for Somali renaissance, all the more admirable when it is being spearheaded by a region still handicapped by colonial rule. There is no mistaking the wind of change blowing from the Somali Region and sweeping much of the north to which the young are particularly receptive. For years Somali unity was a dirty word in some quarters. Soon it will be secession which will take its place as it becomes out of place in the new evolving Somali renaissance and integration. Mustafa Omar is the new hero of the Horn who earns his place in history as the man who dared cast off bondage to Addis Ababa, and integrated his region with Somalia – all peacefully.

Osman Hassan