The Ballot or the Bullet: The Case of the Somali region 

Ethiopia is notorious with authoritarian rulers who isomorphically mimic their predecessors with iron fist rule. Ethiopia as a hegemonic state in the region has never been experienced a peaceful transfer of power until April 2018 where the former prime minister HaileMariam Desalegn resigned after his government has encountered a whirlwind of the demonstrations, mainly Oromia region, and later Amhara.

Except this, Ethiopia tended political dynasty where Amhara and Tigray used to rule the country, while the rest including the largest ethnic Oromo, Somalis, Sidama and others are marginalized and despised. The worst rule that, the people of Ethiopia have experienced historically and contemporary is Amhara’s misrule. 


During the second scramble for Africa, Menelik 2 had signed an agreement with the Britain’s Queen Victoria special envoy in 1897 which gave him an extra-judicial power to suppress other ethnicities in the country, especially Somalis, Oromo and Tigrayans. Since then, Amhara became viceroy for Britain, dominated the country, and used to marginalize the rest with the support of the British administration. When Menelik has died, a young Oromo and Muslim who is called “Liji Yasu” replaced him, but notoriously Amhara had revolted him, and ultimately has passed away mysteriously in jail in Harar city. Ras Tafarri, who also known as HaileSalassie who belongs also Amhara ethnic superseded and claimed later as an Emperor. 


Hailesalassie continued the oppression against all except his ethnic. During that time, Amhara used to invade other ethnicities’ territories, especially Somalis and Oromos under the guise of “Tax Collectors”. As a result, enormous people have been displaced their land including Somalis, Oromos and others. On 1948, the British administration has ceded and handed over the Somali region to Abyssinia. Since then, Somalis had confronted the sweltering heat on injustice, dispossession of their own land, killings and other brutal actions. Moreover, Hailesalassie used to intimidate and order the traditional elders of the largest clan in the Somali region (Ogaden) to write a letter expressing their rejoice on the system and send it to the British administration.

In 1974, when Hailesalassie was ousted by Mengistu who his origin is contentious, but I believe that, he belongs to Amhara, has expedited the heinous actions of his predecessors, and targeted exclusively Oromo, Somalis and Tigray. 


Mengistu’s nickname was “Red Terror” and Butcher of Addis because of his relentless and ruthless actions against his opponents and the dissenting voices. Mengistu and his Marxist Derg system has killed thousands of people.  In 1991, Mengistu was overthrown by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The Tigray rule under the late prime minister Meles Zenawi has committed several mistakes including the war with Eritrea, oppressing some communities in Ethiopia including Oromo and Somalis, and meddling Somalia’s internal affairs. But, Meles Zenawi has pioneered and delivered the federal architecture which conglomerated all the ethnicities in Ethiopia, and gave a leeway to have local administrations. 


On April 2018, Abiy Ahmed was appointed as the new Prime Minister of Ethiopia. Many people believed that, he will deliver democracy, privatize the state-dominated economy, permit freedom of expression and etc. At the beginning, he unleashed political prisoners, terminated 20 years of feud between Ethiopia and Eritrea, unbanned the oppositions Oromo Liberation Front and Ogaden National Liberation Front. These commendable steps have enabled him to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.  

Afterwards, the Nobel laureate engaged and declared publicly a military confrontation against the restive Tigray region in November last year. This war triggered a civil war in the country which metastasized other regions including Amhara, Afar, Oromo and others. The main impetus for this on-going vicious civil war was, when Abiy’s government postponed several times the national election which was supposed to take place in September last year, and as a result, the Tigray region has orchestrated their local election.

In hindsight, the Trojan horse agenda of Abiy for confronting militarily the Tigray was to rig the election and extend the mandate. And this proved by the sham election which has taken place in June this year where plenty of briefcase political parties have participated. The major political parties including Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) boycotted, and their leaders were behind bars for bum rap. 

The most influential political organization in the Somali region, Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) has declared unilateral ceasefire in August 2018 with Ethiopia. ONLF had been fighting against Ethiopia’s regimes since its creation in 1984. When ONLF has won the first election in the Somali region in early 1990s, the late prime minister Meles has nullified the result of the election. As a result, ONLF’s members ran helter-skelter and embarked all-or-nothing war against the Meles’s administration. Somalis have suffered drastically under Tigray’s oppressive misrule.

Meles has initiated puppet rulers from the Somali region in order to mesmerize the gullible community in the Somali region. More or less Somalis are bemoaning under Abiy’s hypocrite system. Because, Abiy pledges unity and flies solely. He invited ONLF in the system and marginalized in a subterranean manner. The handpicked deputy and acting president in the Somali region, Atto Mustafa, aka Cagjar is suppressing and character assassinating ONLF, while his pseudo administration tended lip service, all bark and no bite. 


This systemic disparity that, Somalis are confronting historically and contemporary reminds me the historical speech made by the late Malcolm X in 1964 in Detroit, U.S which is titled “The Ballot or the Bullet” expressing how the black community (Negro) was suffering under the American injustice system that marginalized and demeaned the Negro Americans. This can be a glib comparison, but if we evaluate how these two-communities are suffering under the system, we can associate each other. 

The flip side, Somalis didn’t participate the initiation, ratification and endorsement of the Ethiopia’s constitution in 1994. Article 39, paragraph 1 of the Ethiopia’s current constitution says “Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession”.

Reflecting this constitutional right, the Addis-Ababa administration MUST and SHOULD allow the Somali region to have a “Plebiscite” to decide whether they split from Ethiopia or remain while they suffer. If Ethiopia rejects to offer Somalis this democratic and constitutional right, then Somalis wouldn’t remain pussyfooting, but MUST react forcefully to demand their right, and here comes my mantra “The Ballot or The Bullet”.


Anwar Abdifatah Bashir. Lecturer @Somali National University and Horn of Africa Affairs Analyst.

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