Tuesday August 28, 2018
By Christina Okello
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed addresses a news conference in his office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Kumera Gemechu
Somalis in Ethiopia's eastern region have welcomed
the arrest Monday of their former leader, Abdi Mohammed Omar. The
former strongman is accused of stoking deadly ethnic clashes in the
Somali region, Ethiopia's second largest. Somalis hope his removal will
usher in a new era of accountability and a new relationship with Addis
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy
Ahmed had warned on Saturday that former officials of the Somali region
would be dealt with.They're accused of triggering a wave of violence
that killed 29 people in Somali's provincial capital Jijiga earlier this
Yet, the swiftness of Abiy's approach has taken even ordinary Somalis like Juweria Ali, a PHD candidate in London, by surprise.
“He [Abdi Illey] was someone who commanded so much authority, had so
much power, there was a sense of permanent about his image and his
leadership," she told RFI.
Monday's arrest of Abdi Mohamed Omar, commonly known as Abdi Illey,
comes after weeks of clashes that saw government offices destroyed,
businesses looted and churches burned.
Blamed for the unrest, described by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as "a
scene from out of a movie," Abdi was forced to resign at the beginning
of August after 15 years in power.
"First his resignation then his arrest took Somali people by
surprise," continues Ali, "Its welcome by everybody. I think it’s a huge
win for all those who have suffered under his leadership. The next
question is: what about the rest?"
Somalis like Juweria Ali, don't want the arrests to stop just at
Abdi. They argue that the accountability included in Prime Minister
Abiy's new reformist agenda must be far reaching.
"He [Abdi] was provided with the resources to commit the very crimes
he’s being charged for, so how about those who were providing him with
the resources and logistics to fulfil those very crimes that he’s being
charged for now?" asks the PhD candidate.
Her criticism is levelled squarely at the Ethiopian authorities, whom
she says “fashioned and engineered Abdi Illey’s repressive campaign
against the Somali people."
Foremost of which was the 2007 counterinsurgency campaign, primarily
aimed at ousting the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).
Abdi didn't act alone
“The legacy of the 2007-8 counter-insurgency campaign is still felt today," she comments.
"I don’t think there’s a single Somali family that hasn’t been
impacted by that campaign. It’s considered to be a campaign that is much
wider than Abdi Illey alone."
That may be so, but critics like Rashid Abdi, Horn of Africa Project
Director at International Crisis Group, warns against waging a witch
hunt of senior leadership.
"I suspect that we will see senior figures implicated in human rights
abuses arrested," he says. "But I think that if this goes deeper and
extends to security structures then that could actually foment serious
instability as well,” he told RFI.
This is a region which in the past has faced political paralysis,
often referred to as a lawless land. Abdi's leadership guaranteed a
certain stability, but cracks had started to form in his relationship
The pace of reforms being spearheaded by Ethiopia's new young
minister appeared to be out of sync with Abdi's record of cruelty,
repression and alleged corruption, as growing protests for change in
In a July report, US-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused
Abdi of running a secret jail where suspected members of a separatist
group were tortured.
"It was all Somali people could talk about: Jail Ogaden, Jail Ogaden, the horrors of Jail Ogaden," says Juweria Ali.
Taming the Liyu police
Asked whether ethnic rivalry had played a part--Prime Minister Abiy
is an Oromo, while Abdi is Somali--Ali replied: "Although he is the
Prime Minister of a multi ethnic country, there is no doubt that wanting
to see Abdi Illey held accountable for the crimes against his own
people played a factor in his approach and swift arrest of Abdi Iley,"
"The primary motive is consolidation of power," reckons ICG's Rashid
Abdi, highlighting that the former Somali regional boss was a close ally
of Abiy's rival: the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which
had dominated Ethiopian politics, but which is now "the old order."
Still, Prime Minister Abiy will have to work hard to shore up his
authority in this restless region where "tensions have always been a
source of instability", says Rashid Abdi.
"Illey will probably go on trial, but we don’t know the extent of the loyalty of his Liyu police towards him," he comments.
The Liyu special police force has been blamed by rights groups of carrying out decades of abuses in the Somali region.
Abiy may have to work with the Somali region's new president Mustafa Omer to possibly revamp or dismantle the police force altogether.
Where does all this leave Ethiopia's Somali region best known as Ogaden? In search of a new identity.
"A lot will depend on the extent to which the new president will be
able to rebalance relations between Addis and Jijiga," reckons Rashid
"I think Abiy seems to have a lot of confidence in Mustafa, but I
think what needs to be focused upon is not simply the personal
relationship but the structural relationship," he said.