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Ethiopia's challenge in Somali region: overcoming 'mafia'-style violence

Sunday October 7, 2018


 Roving militias killing civilians. Prisoners stripped naked and rolled in hot ashes. "Mafia"-style murders and violence that forced more than a million people from their homes.

That's the legacy that Mustafa Omer, the new president of Ethiopia's gas-rich Somali region in the east, will have to overcome following the ouster after 11 years of the previous administration.

His success could prove a crucial bellwether for efforts to usher in political freedom and reform the powerful security services across the entire Horn of Africa nation.

"The top leadership of the Somali region acted like hooligans for a long period of time: you had mafia-style leaders who were killing their own people," Mustafa said in an interview.

Now, after his predecessor Abdi Mohamoud Omar's arrest, "the federal government wants to take reform into all regions, politically and security-wise."

Upheaval in the Somali region is closely linked to the seismic shift Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is overseeing in Africa's second-most populous country as it loosens control of the economy, frees thousands of detainees and welcomes once-banned opponents into mainstream politics.

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Recent violence and thousands of arrests after two rival opposition groups returned to the capital, Addis Ababa, shows the hazards of such fast-moving change.

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Abdi has been in an Addis Ababa prison since August, awaiting trial on suspicion of direct involvement in human-rights abuses.

Bloomberg wasn't able to make contact with his legal representatives. Abdi's mother, Diib Mahad Olow, appeared on Somali-language Universal TV on Sept. 6, asking that prosecutors and Abiy free her son who she said was arbitrarily detained.

"If my son has committed crimes against you, the Somali people, I request you to forgive him and help him to get out of prison," she said.

The Somali region, bigger than France and home to sizable natural gas reserves, is landlocked Ethiopia's gateway to neighboring Somalia, where Abiy's government has pledged to co-develop four seaports, as well as a trade corridor to Djibouti and Kenya.

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