‘We will revolutionize Somali politics’: Mustafa Omer heralds new era for Somali Regional State

Somali Regional State President Mustafa M. Omer, second from right, arrives Sunday in Jigjiga from Addis Ababa for his swearing in at the regional parliament. 


Mustafa M. Omer, a humanitarian worker and activist whose brother was ruthlessly killed in 2016 by agents of the ousted president Abdi Mohamud Omar, was sworn in on Sunday (Aug. 26) as the new president of Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State. Thousands marched through the capital Jigjiga to welcome him.

Mustafa, 45, who lived in exile for more than a decade, was appointed by the region’s party leaders in Addis Ababa on Aug. 22. He will complete the five-year term of the ousted president, widely known as Abdi Iley, which started in 2015. Iley was ousted by federal military troops early in August amid simmering political unrest in the eastern region with a population of about five million that borders both Somalia and Kenya.

In his speech to the region’s parliament on Sunday, Mustafa said he’ll work on restoring law and order, accountability, justice, fighting corruption and tribalism, creating jobs for the youth, empowering women and supporting the rights of minority groups. Mustafa also resigned from his job at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

A well-measured thinker, a prolific writer and a human rights activist, Mustafa’s remarkable rise to the office of the presidency was preceded by traumatic events. In October 2016, Iley’s agents shot and then threw Mustafa’s brother, Faysal, from a speeding car. Mustafa, a known critic of Iley, said his brother was killed by the ousted president because of his writings on the human rights violations committed by Iley’s administration. This resulted in Mustafa’s family to be evicted from their homes, tortured and forced to flee Ethiopia altogether.

“My brother was killed as part of a common guilty-by-association campaign of collective punishment practiced in the Somali Region of Ethiopia,” Mustafa wrote on Sahan Journal shortly after his brother’s killing. “[Faysal] was killed because of my alleged political views.”

A maverick who courageously challenged the status quo, Mustafa’s presidency is set to bring a breath of fresh air to millions of Somalis in the region. The reforms afoot in the region are also part of wider seismic changes that have taken over Ethiopia since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was elected into power in April. Abiy, an Oromo and party insider, was elected to lead the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front after former premier Hailemariam Desalegn suddenly resigned in February. Since then, he has mended relations with neighboring countries including Eritrea, appointed civilians to  key positions, promised to open up the country for investment, uphold the rule of law, and has released prominent journalists and government critics. However, his election as Africa’s youngest leader only came at a cost: years of protests, state killings, and repression that shocked the international community.

Marginalized for decades

For more than a half century, the Somali state has also been under strict Ethiopian military rule that stifled dissent, carried out arbitrary arrests, and committed systematic atrocities against innocent civilians. This wreaked unimaginable havoc on the ethnic Somali population and made the region one of the least developed in Ethiopia.

To resist this subjugation and marginalization, the Somali people waged resistance in the hopes of wrestling control of the region from Ethiopia’s military rule. Ethiopia’s heavy-handed response to the struggle caused massive displacement and widespread violence in the region and resulted in the exile of thousands of Somalis. Lasting peace also did not come when Somalis decided to participate in the ethnic-based federal system of Ethiopia, introduced in 1991. Instead, this caused further suffering and marginalization.

Somali leaders, for instance, who were given the opportunity to lead their people merely represented the interest of the Ethiopian military and the ruling party. No one had carried out those orders with more vigor than Iley, who ruled the region with an iron fist since 2010. He jailed dissents, and persecuted many for their writings and speeches. The region’s notorious Liyu police, loyal to him, carried out extrajudicial killings, burned property and raped women, according to human rights organizations.

Iley and other individuals suspected of being linked to him were arrested on Monday, government-affiliated media outlets reported.

Campaigning for change

Under the shadow of these heinous crimes emerged a group called Somali Region Alliance for Justice. Formed in Nairobi in late 2017, the group aimed to unite “the people of the region for the attainment of genuine self-rule,” enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution. “We believe the framing of our problem as a choice between either becoming a nominal administration within undemocratic Ethiopian state or a separate country on its own right is a false choice,” the alliance said in its political manifesto. “A middle ground where our people can enjoy full political, economic, civic, social and cultural rights is possible.”

No one exemplified this thinking more than Mustafa, one of the alliance’s founders. In his first speech as a president the day after he was appointed, Mustafa promised to safeguard the rights of individuals in the region and to give people the freedom to express their opinions and write what they please.

In an effort to slowly erase Iley’s dark legacy, one of Mustafa’s first orders was to replace the green-white-red flag with a yellow triangle at the hoist bearing a camel favored by the previous administration. In 2008, when he was the regional security chief, Iley and his associates introduced the symbol with the camel in a bid to distance themselves from Somalia. The original flag had a light blue triangle at the hoist bearing a white star, symbolizing the region’s historical ties to Somalia.

“Our historical, cultural, social, economical and political ties to the Somali race across the Horn of Africa region is a fait accompli. No one can change it or wish it away!” Mustafa wrote on Facebook on Aug. 25. “We will therefore embrace symbols of Somalinimo no matter what angry oppressors say.”

Mustafa has a hard work ahead of him. He’s inheriting a plethora of problems and dysfunctional system. The Somali state has also seen its share of internal upheavals, from clan animosity to political instability to lack of strong leadership that could unite people and push the region forward. With him as the leader, many now hope to see a Somali state where all citizens –– irrespective of their clan, tribe, allegiance to an organization or party –– could live without fear and get equal treatment.

“We will revolutionize Somali politics,” Mustafa wrote on Facebook. “We will not be intimidated by criticism or lament. We will defeat reactionary ideas with better ideas; we will not criminalize or harass them. And we are determined to face-off with forces of negativity and sectarianism. It is our duty!”

Rethinking the Somali State
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