For Somali-Ethiopians, life under TPLF rule worse than DERG regime
The most damning aspect of our communal character as Somali-Ethiopians is our inability to engage in a dispassionate analysis of politics and power dynamics. Instead of trying to understand and predict the behaviors of our rulers through political economy analysis, we invent emotional stories and comparisons and seek an easy way out of our seemingly unending misery. We see everything through identity politics and build herd psychosis where rational conduct and behavior gives way to mass euphoria and hysteria. This is the bane of our politics and invariably puts us in a position of comparative disadvantage.
For instance, in 1991 when the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) toppled the military junta headed by Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam and took power, some of us invented tales of shared lineage with Tigrayans and Eritreans —through the Ismael Jabarti nonsense— as if the new rulers have been fighting for 17 years to liberate poor nomadic Somalis or will engage us from altruistic political standpoint on the basis of a fairy tale.
It took less than four years to realize that the TPLF did not come to give us genuine autonomy, let alone the right for self-determination. That we are called by our name —Somali Region— and that the nominal rulers of the region have our names —Jama, Abdi, Ahmed, or Mohamed— did not and will not change our fate. The center-periphery power asymmetry is not altered and we remain subjects. The TPLF decides for us. In so doing, it not only undermines its own constitution, it openly flaunts its contempt to us as people. This is a humiliation that we did not live through even under the regime of Mengistu Hailemariam.
I know victims of TPLF’s relentless 25 years of propaganda will raise eyebrows, but I will provide a brief comparison of the political situation of Somali Ethiopians under TPLF and the DERG – Mengistu’s military Junta. I will consider three factors: autonomy, development and human rights.
Under the DERG, decisions that affect our lives were made in Addis Ababa and Harar. It remains the same today. General Abraha Kuwarter from Harar is the main puppet master with TPLF veterans like Abay Tsehaye, Debretsion Gebremichael, Samora Younus and Sibhat Nega in Addis Ababa, pulling strings when they have to. The whims of Abay Tsehaye carry more weight and validity than the opinions of six million Somalis.
Under Mengistu, we did not have proper schools, health and water services. We shared this hardship with the rest of the country, a forsaken communist satellite at war with itself. But we were spared the mayhem and bloodletting that ravaged the rest of the country.
From 1977 to 1978, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian youth were killed over the course of a violent political campaign known as the “Red Terror,” or Qay Shibir in Amharic. The Somali region became a war zone during the Ethiopia-Somalia war of 1977. Somali-Ethiopians supported Somalia during the war. However, once the war ended, Mengistu tried to win hearts and minds, perhaps to avoid another front at a time he was fighting brutal wars with the TPLF and Eritrean rebels in the North. There were no large scale extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and destruction of villages in the Somali region between 1978 to 1991. Members of the military accused of harming civilians faced harsh punishment, including death by firing squad. There was a measure of accountability.
In 1987, the military junta transformed itself into the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) and adopted a new constitution declaring the Somali region as the “Ogaden autonomous region.” The PRDE constitution promised to ensure “the equality, development and respectability of the languages of nationalities.” Although this was a last ditch attempt by the Junta to accommodate the demands of the northern rebels for an ethnic based federal political arrangement, it shows that the regime was making an effort to address the concerns of the Somalis, too. It goes that while today under TPLF we have a regional parliament, we were about to have one if the DERG was not toppled. There is no much practical difference between the two arrangements; the parliament under the DERG would have been nominal by design, the one under the TPLF is so by default.
During the DERG, genuine community elders used to provide feedback on the quality of governance through periodic consultations with Mengistu, regional governors, and ruling party officials. The DERG authorities may or may not have been responsive to the demands of the elders but at least they used to meet and discuss with genuine and respected elders. Today, TPLF, through its native surrogates, determines who our elders are but does not consult even the fake elders it anoints. They are only used to rubber-stamp decisions made by the army and the ruling party and implemented through the nominal regional administration. That way the “ethnic federalism” system is rigged.
Development wise, the region is in a much better shape today. Schools, roads, hospitals, airports were built and employment is better in both public and private sectors. But development has become the sanitizing ideology that justifies gross violations of human rights. DERG used “Ethiopian unity” to kill its own people and the TPLF is using “development” to rationalize its oppression of other ethnic groups, including Somalis. Since TPLF took power, tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the Somali region of Ethiopia with most atrocities committed after 2007, the latest being the Gashamo massacre in June 2016. This period is our rendition of the “Red Terror.”
The DERG we knew is different to the DERG the TPLF knows. It is understandable if the TPLF considers DERG as the embodiment of evil. Mengistu was evil, but evil did not end with his demise. DERG committed atrocities in the North and during the “Red Terror.” Somali-Ethiopians live in the east and were largely spared Mengistu’s “Red Terror” since they were not involved in the power struggle at the center.
Against this heartrending backdrop, TPLF expects us to vicariously feel its past pain and bask in its present glory, a pain we did not experience and a glory we do not share. It wants us to forget the living torment it inflicted on us in the name of counter-insurgency. It tells us to hate DERG and to love TPLF.
And we oblige. That is where the rain always begins to beat us. We swallow sentimental narratives and uninformed comparisons. It is an Igbo wisdom that a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he will dry his body.
Ahmed Ugas Yusuf is a political commentator from the Somali region of Ethiopia.
Image courtesy of Gijs Van’t Klooster/FAO