Renowned activist, writer and outspoken human rights activist Mustafa Omer has been appointed President of the Somali regional government. Internal discussion and some self-scrutinizing by members of the regional government leading Ethiopian Somali People’s Democratic Party (ESPDP) have been going on for about a week now at venues in Addis Ababa. There have been concessions ESPDP members agreed to make, among them the decision to open the party’s doors to the newly elected President.
President Mustafa, 45, an economist and humanitarian aid worker boasts over two decades of experience working with the likes of the United Nations and Save the Children. An expert in pastoral and agro-pastoral livelihoods, he has coordinated humanitarian projects across Africa and the Middle East. He has coalesced his professional life with strenuous efforts to voice the plight of the Somali region’s victims of human rights violations. It will be his first foray into politics.
After the dramatic events that led to the ousting of former Somali regional President Abdi Mohamoud Omar, there had been a lack of clarity around who would be grabbing the political reins in the region. Former leader Abdi “Iley” as he is widely known as, was forced to resign after federal army troops were deployed to Jigjiga, arrested him and put an and to his decade-long tenure in power. Increasing reports of violence and instability instigated by forces loyal to him hastened his demise. The subsequent days in the city of Jigjiga were marked by a breakdown in order, looting of properties and killings. Scores of people were forced to flee into neighboring Somaliland. When the dust had settled, federal troops had dislodged the minimal resistance put up by the region’s forces and were patrolling the city’s streets. Abdi Iley was put under house arrest and remains confined to a residence in Jigjiga.
Political exiles returning home
As a sense of normalcy was restored, a host of affluent personalities from the Somali region’s expat communities around the world started converging on the region. Many had been critics of the ousted governor’s unbridled brutality and were forced to flee to avoid detention or death. Seeking to play a role in the restructuring of the new government, formerly exiled businessmen, critical thinkers and intellectuals made long-awaited returns from exile. A delegation of the recently decriminalized Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) landing in Addis Ababa before making their way to the region made headlines. Others followed suit, including members affiliated with the Somali social justice “Dulmidiid” movement are also returning home and seek participation in the political process. Representatives of the Barbaarta, which in 2018 spearheaded a local uprising against Abdi Iley are said to be keen on playing a role as well. Among the countless returnees eager to play a part in smoothening the transition process, Mustafa Omer, who ended 11 years of exile in Britain.
In terms of President Mustafa’s eligibility, he was first appointed as a Vice President by the executive committee. The eleven-member Executive Committee of the ESPDP itself unanimously decided to nominate new officials from outside the party due to a lack of confidence in their own ruling ability. In an interview with Opride back in June, Mohammed Ismail, Chairman of the opposition Somali Regional Alliance for Justice (SRAJ) party, explained that most of the party’s officials were unqualified young subordinates personally selected by Abdi.
“Many are youths, most of whom have no idea how to govern or rule,” Mohammed explained. “They are selected by how fiercely loyal they are to Abdi Iley. Without him, they are nothing.”
This appears to have been proven true in recent days. In the negotiating process, which is described as having been smooth, there appears to have been no real resistance by remnants of the Abdi Iley regime. The man has chosen to be interim President in the immediate aftermath of the ousting, 33-year-old former regional treasurer Ahmed Abdi, reportedly offered no rebuttals and accepted that he wasn’t fit to vie as a candidate. Ahmed, known as a staunch Abdi loyalist who took to Facebook to call on locals to fight back against the federal government’s takeover of Jigjiga, hasn’t exhibited any of that spunk in recent days. With the consent of the interim President and other officials, Mustafa was officially admitted to the party via constitutional guidelines and thus as a member, was more than eligible to challenge for the Presidency. Despite the recent appointment of a federal government minister in Ahmed Shide as ESPDP party chairman, there is no evidence that the federal government was behind the decision to open up the party to nonmembers.
A family’s nightmare
A holder of a Masters of Science degree in Agricultural Economics and an expert on food security and resource mobilization, President Mustafa remains employed as an advisor to the United Nations’ Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia. Married and father of three young children, among Ethiopians, he is better known for his vibrant social media presence, his articles and posts criticizing totalitarianism in the region and beyond. The Degahbour born President Mustafa’s refusal to refrain from slamming the regional government’s lack of accountability, the track record of human rights violations and mass corruption came at a very steep personal price. In October of 2016, Mustafa’s father and brother were kidnapped by elements of the Abdi regime. His father was badly beaten, while his brother Faysal was shot dead and thrown from a speeding car. The killing came on the heels of Mustafa’s mother and sisters being evicted from the family home in Jigjiga. Weeks before his family’s ordeal, Mustafa received threats on Facebook. He was warned that if he were to continue with his activism, his brother would be killed and his sisters raped.
Under Abdi Iley’s rule, the sort of dissent or outspokenness Mustafa was known for was dealt with ruthlessly, as political opponents were often murdered. If they lived abroad, reprisals would be carried out against their relatives. Abdi Iley’s regional paramilitary force, the Liyu Police enforced his will, carrying out atrocities against families suspected of harboring grievances against his leadership. Over the past decade, this domestic policy has led to a mass exodus of government critics and critical thinkers. Exile is the only option because detention is unbearable. The horrific conditions that the state’s detained inmates live in was documented by a recent Human Rights Watch report on a Liyu Police run prison in Jigjiga, Jail Ogaden. Until the appointment of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister, successive Ethiopian federal leaderships rarely batted an eye in his direction. Abdi’s Liyu Police ran rampant in the region and in neighboring Oromia, while independent media outlets and rights organizations were prohibited access to the region.
In two years, the tables have turned as a long-suffering victim of the region’s oppressive policies now stands to take over the office of President at least until regional elections scheduled for 2020 are held. In a region known for its being an information black hole of sorts where rampant human rights violations and institutional killings are common, the rise of a human rights advocate to the Presidency is clearly welcomed.
Zecharias Zelalem is a writer and journalist tackling sports and politics. He’s also a contributor for Addis Standard and Ethiosports.
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