Quoting George Santayana, an American poet and Novelist, wrote: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it’.
The Somali Regional state in Ethiopia is undergoing a turbulent yet the most hopeful time of its history. However, since history is a teacher I have decided to glance few years back the road. Insurgencies and counter insurgency measures by the revolting Somalis and the central government respectively have been part of the daily lives of millions of the Ethiopian Somali public. The latest struggle has been led by the ONLF (the Ogaden National Liberation Front) and the rebel group undertook continuous guerilla style attacks against the Ethiopian military and the region’s security forces and public officials, but one event led to a change both in the tactics and intensity of the counter insurgency measures adopted by the government. The Obole attack, an ambush by the ONLF on a Chinese company exploring oil and Gas in parts of the Ogaden in which 9 Chinese nationals along with over 67 Ethiopians have been killed.
Immediately after the attack security officials of both the regional and federal government have been called for an urgent meeting, and a clear plan and instruction was handed over: ‘’take a final and decisive action against the ONLF”. Combination of cruel methods and tactics were devised to curtail the ONLF movement. This and the following events led to the change in the life and career of Abdi Iley and that of the Somali Region.
The largest known counter insurgency commenced, announced by Meles Zenawi in April, 2007. This is what I call‘’Operation starve all’’ or the “Convoy” campaignas it is called by many in the region, inheriting its name from the convoy transport model where trucks and other public transport cars were only allowed to travel in groups escorted by the federal military. It was a horrific campaign, many people were killed and others tortured. God knows how many drivers, passengers and business men and women died, some of the women have also been raped in the process as the trips took weeks or even months as opposed to the 3 days’ trip of the normal times (there was a rough road from Jigjiga to Gode then, since the Asphalt road was not yet constructed).
This, according to the government was intended to starve the ONLF by blocking them from collecting money since the government believed the road from Jigjiga to Godey has been a source of sizable sum of money and other resources including food, medicine and arms. This costed the lives of the ordinary citizens leading to one of the biggest man made humanitarian crises of the Somali Region, thousands died of hunger, malnutrition and diseases. Entire villages were burned, women raped, and men killed and imprisoned indiscriminately.
The Humanitarian organizations have been blocked from assisting the people affected in the peak of this crisis. As a result, the UN undersecretary General for Humanitarian Relief and Emergency Coordinator Sir. John Holmes visited the region. He was allowed to visit sites and towns on the main road from Jigjiga to Gode only. The humanitarian organizations capitalized on this to get funding but their aid did very little compared to the magnitude of the tragedy since they didn’t have the access required to deliver the much needed assistance to where most needed. Thousands if not hundreds of thousands died, and large number of the region’s population were displaced finding safety in neighboring countries’ large refugee camps, Kakuma and Hagarder, Somalia and Djibouti, to name a few.
At the same time, the most inhumane and merciless individual, Abdi Mohamoud Omer (AKA Abdi Iley), was appointed as head of Somali regional administration to finish the dirty job. There was hardly a person close to him or who even personally knew him who thought that Abdi Iley could handle the responsibility the federal government had given him. People say neither did he even expect this. But he was given the opportunity of a life time. Desperate to prove himself Mr.Iley started to implement whatever assignment and instruction given to him without even a single question. Working three years as the regions chief of security, he proved himself and was once again promoted to the regions Administrator. During the early days of the ONLF, Abdi iIley is said to have joined their supporters in an effort to spy them to the Military, Abdi was then a junior self-taught electrician working with the Degahbur branch of Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation, the government owned electricity giant.
It is through Abdi Iley that the government undertook the mass killings, torture, rape and collective punishment and starvation of the region. The government brought the fragile pastoralist community to their knees, especially in places deemed to be the breeding ground of the insurgency – the socalled “Triangel of death” which was Wardheer, Jarar and Nogob Zones.
Abdi was a maniac, a mentally unstable man whose drug abuse and narcissistic behavior added fuel to the fire. The people of the region where left with three choices: submit themselves to his degrading treatment, face imprisonment and/or death or flee and live in exile. this is what happened to region’s educated elite and most of those who had a sense of decency.
Having eliminated any one opposing him or even challenging his ideas from both the government and the ESPDP party (Ethiopian Somali Peoples Democratic Party), the region’s sole ruling party, which was a satellite organization of the EPRDF, Abdi enjoyed a complete independence of operation so long he kept the ONLF and the greater public under control. He was trusted by the TPLF, the leading front in the EPRDF coalition and the highest military officials, he earned this due to an unquestioning loyalty to his bosses and bribing those in both the military and civil administration.
Mass killing has also been one of the tools employed by Abdi Iley and his godfathers. Qooriile, Jaamac Dubbad, Gunagado, Afduub (Kelafo), Garbo, Xamaro… all of these have been areas which have witnessed the horrors of massacres – people being killed in their thousands, some buried in mass graves, others left to perish in the fields, villagers told not to bury them and had to live with the stinging smell, degrading and horrific scenes. Call them “The killing fields of the Somali Region”. The Liyu police (The Regional Paramilitary Forces) were the tools used to pave the road to hell!
Abdi Iley has grown strong to the level of controlling business through the LC arrangement, a tax exemption scheme the federal government said is intended to help the drought hit pastoral communities to get access to food in an affordable price and legal way. Abdi took this to his control and it provided him a source of easy cash. Soon people in the region started to compare him with the Columbian drug cartels. Abdi Iley appeared immortal and omnipresent until his regime collapsed like house of cards few months ago, himself arrested and humiliatingly dragged through the courts.
END OF PART ONE
PART II: What went wrong? What is going on now? The opportunities and threats.