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Spearheading a difficult transition

Mustafa Mohammed Omar is the President of the Somali Regional State. He was born in Degahabur, some 765 kilometers away from the capital of the region Jigjiga in 1973. He joined Addis Ababa University in 1991 and graduated in economics in 1995. Mustafa worked in different regional offices mainly in education as an expert before he was appointed as deputy head of the Bureau. Moreover, he worked for international organizations such as Save the Children and different United Nations (UN) agencies in Addis Ababa before he fled the country in 2007. He earned his master’s degree from the Imperial College of London in agricultural economics while in exile. Mustafa has a combined work of elven years in various international organizations and UN agencies in different countries such as Zimbabwe, Kenya, Somalia, and United Arab Emirates. Following his recent appointment to lead the Somali Regional State, Neamin Ashenafi of The Reporter sat down with Mustafa to discuss range of issues including the security situation in the region and the overall political process in the country. Excerpts:

The Reporter: You assumed the leadership role in the region following a security and political crisis in the Somali Regional State in generally and the capital city Jigjiga in particular. So, what can you say about the current situation of the region?

Mustafa Mohammed Omar: Contrary to expectation, the situation in the region is stable now. I think the expectation was that it would be difficult to manage the region; however, I can now completely say the region, the political and the situation in our schools is generally stable. Clan dynamics is working to our favor and they are managed to establish governance structures extending from the regional level to down to the Woreda units. We have accomplished all these in a two-month time and in a very participatory manner. Of course when you set out to consult the people rather than deciding by yourself it is known to an arduous task. Since we were aware of the feeling among the people, which was one of neglect, and not having a voice for a very long time, we started our political action by having very wide consultations forums with the clan elders, religious leaders and political elites in our region. That consumed quite a bit of time, but the outcome was rewarding as we have very stable region, now.

The conflict in August resulted in the killings of many innocent civilians and the destruction and vandalism of property; reportedly it was a very threatening moment for the non-Somali residents of the regional capital. Therefore given the scale of the conflict and the effects felt in the aftermath how stable is the region today?

Well the immediate task was to stop the violence that was happening, and to ensure that there was no continuation of the violence; that has been achieved. With regards to achieving harmony between the different clans on the one side and the Somalis and non-Somali speaking nationalities on the other, it is a task that cannot be completed overnight. We have started the journey and the journey involves looking at the root causes of the violence that had happened. Fortunately, the root cause of the inter-communal violence was not that deep; to a larger extent it was politically motivated. However, once you have violence there are ill feelings that come as an after effect of the violence, and that is what we have been managing. We are accomplishing this in three ways. One is by sensitizing the population; in this regard, we have held wide ranging consultative meetings between Somalis and non-Somalis, and also among different clans. The violence between Somalis and non-Somalis was tiny part of the overall conflict but there was also a possibility of ignited clan conflict in different parts of the region because of the insidious politics that was promoted by the previous administration. We heard about twenty areas on the verge of clan conflict. For us, that was a big worry; the Jigjiga situation was a matter of restoring law and order which we have achieved in few days time. Now, in order to go beyond the immediate lacing activities and restoring law and order, we need to provide assistance for the victims, and also assure them that they were attacked not because the Somalis in the region hate them but it was the leadership that was killing the Somalis which has extended the carnage to non-Somalis in August. In fact, one of the big complaints from the Somali side was that under the former president, in the last eleven years, almost 10,000 Somalis were killed, so many women were rapped and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee to the neighboring countries.

Many commentators and politicians who followed the political dynamics of the Somali region argue that the violence in the region was politically motivated. Similarly, you have also said that the problem in the region was inherently political. If that’s the case, what have you done by way of addressing these political problems?

Of course when you say politically motivated, it is different from a political problem. There are a lot of political questions everywhere in Ethiopia, some are resolved and some are yet to be resolved, and all these political problems need political solutions. Regarding the issue of self-rule, for example, people in the Somali region are actually asking for genuine self-rule, which they were deprived off for many years due to a lot of interference and outside control mechanisms. The issue of resource sharing, the issue of representation at the national level and the issue of the share of Somalis from the national cake are all genuine and legitimate political questions that our people have; but these are not grounds for unleashing violence. So, there should be no justification for violence whatever the political questions are both at the regional or national levels. As far as the demands of the Somalis go, the questions of our people are questions about freedom, human right, democratic development and citizenship right. As long as we address those questions, the political issues in the region would be resolved. So, we don’t have to overly complicate the questions of the people, its really a simple question of respecting peoples’ democratic and human rights and ensuring that they are getting the services that they want from the government.

Since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) assumed the leadership of the country, ethnic conflicts are igniting in different parts of the country; citizens are forced to leave their homes due to their ethnic identity. Given these realities on the ground, can we really say the question of self-rule is a simple question? Don’t you think it is a complicated question?

So, are you advocating for repression, or curtailing the peoples’ right to self-rule and self-government.

No. I am not advocating for that and I won’t advocate for repression.

What I am saying is that it is a natural process when a society moves from a political tyranny to democracy; you would have turbulence. So, this is an upheaval that comes before the final settlement. What you are seeing in different parts of Ethiopia is a natural product of the transition from tyranny to democracy. Now, is it well managed? May be no; may be its managed differently in different regions; however, as a political strategy the only way forward is to ensure that the people feel their individual as well as group rights are respected. I think self-rule is enshrined in the constitution of Ethiopia, it is not up for negotiation for the time being; if there is a feeling that there is a mistake in how the ethnic federalisms is implemented, the solution is not to curtail self-rule or to undercut the powers of the regions, it is to have a discussion on the constitution and on the whole political project. Let’s look at it holistically without nitpicking one aspect that concerns the power of the regions.   

Let’s talk about human rights; one of the major challenges that the peoples of your region have faced in the past is related to human rights. There were reports of wide-ranging human rights violations in the region. In this regard, how committed are you in respecting human rights of the people of the region and how willing are you to collaborate with both local and international human rights organization?

One of the main reasons why I actually decide to come to this leadership position is because of my own history concerning human rights. So, it is a big motivation for me to ensure that human right becomes a major agenda in our region; since these people have never enjoyed human rights and were victims of gross violations. I think we have taken concrete steps in this regard to ensuring safe guards for human right and protection of civilians. We have also taken some political steps to ensure the factors that can lead to human right violations are not there anymore. For instance, we have just signed an agreement with the ONLF where they agreed to conduct their political programs in a peaceful manner and we have declared an end to hostilities in the region. That in itself is a big boost to the human right agenda in the region. Right now, we are doing different reforms in the justice system to make sure the justice system is functioning properly and that citizens have due process of law on their side. Politically, we are trying to solve the root causes and factors that led to the crackdowns and counterinsurgency measures. We are finding the solution to the ONLF issue. It is true that human right violation in our region is extreme; we are now working on bringing out the issues that have been covered because the region was a close door. So, I assure you that we are committed to deliver on the agendas of human right and we have already taken concrete steeps to collaborate with mandated agencies both governmental and non-governmental to ensure our people live freely.  

What are the major challenges that your administration has faced so far in its endeavor to ensure human rights?

Right now, the main challenge we are facing is the fight back from anti reformist forces both among the Somalis and non-Somalis. I think it is the main challenge and it manifests itself in two major ways: one it is manifested as a form of propaganda, and in creating the image that things are not working in the region. They use different networks to sell that story and try to slow down the reform agenda and also a number of violent groups trying to exploit the vacuum that was created after the system collapsed. Pretty much the system has collapsed, a lot of security forces and commanders have fled, a lot of bureaucrats of the region has also fled and many were arrested. For this reason, Al-Shebab, for instance, is one of the groups that try to exploit the vacuum created and try to infiltrate; a lot of contrabandists are also trying to use this opportunity to bring arms into the country. Therefore, these are the main challenges right now we are dealing with.

One of the issues raised in the recently concluded congress of the EPRDF was the issue of affiliate. Your party is one of the affiliates of the EPRDF and what do you think your role would be as a satellite or regional party?

The decision to become satellite was not ours; we did not choose to be a satellite state. We are the third largest in terms of population size in Ethiopia and we are the first in terms of geography; so there are no earthly or heavenly reasons why we should have been a satellite state from the very beginning. And now, am also saying we should take our place in the national politics and if that means joining the EPRDF we should; but again it is one thing to be part of the EPRDF and is another to take your share at the national level and it is not only a matter of us being denied its also a matter of us not fighting to take our place.

Recently, the discovery of oil was reported form the region that you are administering; however, in many African countries where there is a deficit in democracy and the rule of law, discovering such a resource is regarded as a curse than a blessing. So what can you say about the oil discovery? Would it be a curse or a blessing for Ethiopia?

I have never subscribed to the theory of resource curse; I have always believed that there is a leadership curse. Whether in Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Venezuela or any other country where resource is raised as a reason for the violence and underdevelopment or bad governance. I think resources are important for development, but it is the leadership who makes it either a curse or a blessing. So, if the right leadership both at national and regional level utilizes the resource that is found in Somali region it will definitely be a blessing for everybody. If the leadership, however, fails to use it properly then it becomes a curse; I have always believed that the resource curse narrative is a myth.

Do you think we have the right leadership that would change resource in to blessing?

I think the reformist wing of the EPRDF; the new leadership has the right ideas for the country. I think they have the right ideas, attitude and temperament to deliver. So, am very hopeful that the new leadership at the national level is the one that can turn the resources in to blessing. At the regional level, we are also committed to support that vision, so am not very worried about this. Of course as you said with the discovery of resource there are also a lot of interests both national and international, so managing or navigating all these diverse interest is a ke;, but I have a lot of trust in the national leadership.

Despite your efforts to establish institutions in the region, reforming the justice system and other mounted challenges on the region, what are your plans for the region and how do you imagined the region after some three or five years?

We want Somali region to be the place where Somali people do not live in fear. When I say this, I stressed fear because fear has been the major issue in the region in the past 27 years and beyond. Therefore, we want our people to feel that they don’t have been afraid of the system. We also want to our people to feel free, in terms of freedom of expression, association, and worship. We also want to our people to participate in the regional politics, so far majority of the people feel they have been alienated, especially the educated Somalis feel they have been sidelined. So, we want to bring the elites and the educated Somalis in to the front and ensure that we can compete with the rest of Ethiopia. For that, the first steps we have taken at this moment is that we have got a cabinet composed of 96 percent master’s and above degree holders; and we think with that caliber we can compete at the national level in the areas of politics, development and other aspects. We also want our region to attract investors; so far, it was regarded as a war zone, but there is a lot of potential in the region and we would like to invite investors.

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