By Faisal A. Roble
On September 28, 2019, as many as 550 young adults, including underage kids, were rounded up in Jigjga by the security forces and were exiled to a camp located in Goday, about 500 miles from their home. This move by the security forces in Jigjiga did not consult the parents and family members of this fragile social group of the population. Although one can argue that this move constitutes a major violation of human rights, its urbanization dimension is equally important.
The Jigjiga administration through multiple media outlets announced that these young adults are members of what they said to be “China Group,” implying that they are an organized youth group that commits petty crimes. Not far from Jigijga, the Vice president of the region, Adan Farah, was speaking to another youth group in Qabribayax and was discussing the need for a “Master Plan” of this modest district center. Listening to him did not lead me to believe that he was willing to address the big picture that his region is facing – urbanization without real and well-thought-out public policy would lead to a sociopolitical crisis.
In addressing this recent development in Jigjiga, clearly several issues here must be unpacked: is rounding up such a large youth population and exiling them from their homes a “China Group” criminal issue, or a misplaced issue that has its roots in bad Urbanization in Jigjiga, where Youth culture (criminal activities or otherwise), Unemployment, and the need for a sustainable public policy to deal with real youth issues are neglected?
While I raise these issues, I caution the politicians of the Somali Regional State to not fall prey for what is apparently a culture of a deep state as one can easily feel how the Somali region is under the spell of a very robust former security apparatus. I say this after I listened to security officers who have been doing the same thing in the region for the last 10 years both under the previous and current nascent administration.
What is this China Group? China Group first emerged in Ethiopia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. During that period, Addis Ababa was going through a serious sociopolitical restructuring. Education was rapidly expanding while opportunities for getting a seat at then coveted Haile Selassie University was dim or next to impossible for most students. Rural to urban migration (from the villages to Addis) was unparalleled; political activism was high. Western culture was proliferating; class stratification was speedily growing where some rich kids were attending private schools such as the “American, British, Creek, Indian” schools. Scholarships to western countries were often available to rich kids.
On the other end, political consciousness was expanding like a fire. People like the late Dr. Abdulmajid Hussein and others returned from the West with heightened political activism; ethnic students who were attending General Wingate School were already raising Oromo and Tigrian National questions. The class disparity in Addis was acute.
It was then that some youth opted for bodybuilding at the YMCA (Ya Wadat Wadooch Kristian Kinanat mahbar – WWKM). Isak Hayse, Steve Wonder, hippie cultue and Alamayow Ishete were feeding the soul through the airwaves.
It was then that neighborhood turfs emerged. Kids in different neighborhoods, mainly those disenfranchised, felt good in bodybuilding, going to night clubs, and organizing themselves into localized gangs. Theater venues (sinima baytoch) became sights for gang fights.
The China Gang Group emerged as the most feared group. Bruce Lee’s moves intimately influenced the way the China Group conducted gang fighting. They used to tie long chains around their feast- one lash on one’s body could be devastating to an opposing side. Places like Jarqoos, Markato and some areas of Baiza were more dangerous.
The same neighborhood would in the late 1970s and early 1980s emerged as the hiding places for EPRP revolutionaries. Yesteryears gangs became recruiting grounds for leftist urban underground constituents.
In Deridhabe, Somali culture was more dominant. Although YMCA or WWKM was there, soccer and music were the two most favorite youth attractions. There was not yet any meaningful slums in DirDhabe. People were engaged in mainly three occupations – non-Somalis were government employees, Oromos were mainly engaged in the business of Qafiirka – agricultural products market and Somalis were traders. Ogsade and Xaji Ali Dalmer were the richest two traders in the city.
Members of different ethnic groups in Dirdhabe had access to jobs in the emergent factories such as the cement factory and the rail systems. Track driving and Hopekeeping were also thriving occupations.
Afranqala Music group, consisting of Somalis and Oromo, led by Saciid Shakhaash, was the most talked youth culture. That geoup had reached Jigjoga in the early 1970s. Competing with Afranqala was the band of Cabisiiye brothers (Ilmo Absiye) thst used to sing in Somali, Arabic and Indian songs. Their most famous Indian song was one from the classical Indian move of Singham – a well-liked Indian Muslim Movie.
In the case of Jigjiga, soccer, music and later political activism have filled the void. WWKM came to Jigjiga much later, but because of its religious name, it did not create any traction for Somalis until Mengistu era. In the area of Music, the Village Beatles (VB), consisting of both boys and girls, was very popular. VB members will gather at a house, bring Daf and guitar and sing subcis, Burcaawi, qarama and popular lyrics all day. They will also festure shows at weddings.
This group also would pioneer for the rest of the community what was then called dating (girl and boyfriend) culture. Soon, the relationship between VB in Jigjiga, VB sympathizers in Gorsum, and Afranqala blossomed.
In the early 1970s, people in Jigjiga heard about China Group in Addis. But that did not get traction. However, Amhara students coming from Addis Ababa during summertime brought some elements of the China Group culture. Somali Wedding venues became points of conflicts. The Amhara youth who were acting like China Group wanted to date Somali girls who will come to weddings to dance, and that created a perpetual war between the two sides. Somali and Amhara boys fought with battons and seriois group feast fights. I still recall one Tedy who is now a medical doctor in America who was seriously hurt in front of Sheikh Abdi-Slam Mosque (around 1973).
That war continued until Marxism and the EPRP culture came to us. With that, we all migrated from Western-oriented youth culture to political activism. From gang fights, we moved to political discussions.
China Group in Jigjga apparently took a new lease in life in the last 27 years. Why? Many theories can be advanced. But the most important explanation of why such a large youth group in Jigjiga get involved in drugs (if that is true) and other unsightly criminal activities is the urbanization of Jigjiga in the absence of any meaningful youth-centered public policy.
With speedy urbanization comes the emergence of class stratification, squatter settlements, unemployment, and ultimately crimes. Squatter settlements (unplanned and overcrowded neighborhoods where migrants from rural to urban areas often settle) do not get enough services and attention from the government. People who live here are largely outside the system. Crimes, drug use, and loitering all thrive – it becomes the home for the throw-away of the society.
According to UN data, about 80% of Addis Ababa can be classified as slum settlements. By the UN habitat criteria, almost entirely Jigjiga can be called a collection of slum quarters given the absence of planning and public services delivery system (so is true even with Hargaysa or Mogadishu). These urban centers will one day reach their tipping points unless sustainable public policies are applied. The worst scenario that could come out of this is some fashion of cult radicalism. If no alternative is not created for the youth, something akin to Al-Alshabab culture can emerge.
The kids and youth that are to be forcibly exiled are not born criminals but have been made to be so because of joblessness, lack of access to schools and the very harsh life they lead. Malcolm X’s history is filled with a similar history where he was back and forth between jail and his usual crime corner in his Boston Ghetto. That was the case until he got shelter with the Black Muslims who took him in.
Ethiopia has millions of youth suffering from a lack of opportunities to attend schools or get jobs. The same could be said in Hargeisa where as young as 9-year-old kids are inhaling deadly chemicals in the ghettos of the city. A recent video I watched featured a ten-year-old boy who was interviewed while intoxicated. He has expressed his wish: “I ask President Muse Bihi to take me to a boarding school,” a subdued boy told his interviewer.
The 530 plus youth group rounded up in Jigjijga and soon to be exiled to Goday is a draconian government move; it is a misplaced move on the part of the administration. Infraction of the youth has always existed in the city one way or another. In the era of Abdi Muhumed Omar, they were hidden in jails. With a modicum of freedom, they remerged. Under today’s administration, the government decided to exile them, so we don’t have to see them.
However, that cannot be a solution. Siyyad Barre used to collect all poor people from the ghettos and streets, used to board up poor neighborhoods with placards and posters so that delegates visiting Mogadishu will only see a well-choreographed city. They will conclude their short visit after they see only the shiny parts of the city.
Jigjiga can not wish away the problem of underclass youth. It can’t arrest its way out. It needs to come up with an urban agenda both with short-term and long-term goals to rebuild the capacity of our youth.
A short-term agenda should at least give a role to the parents of the youth who are supposed to be exiled. In the West, we have boot camps for tough youngsters. However, program administrators must first secure the consent of the parent so that in case some unforeseen circumstances take place, the government-parent partnership can explain the matter.
For a long-term solution, the Somali Regional State (SRS) needs a comprehensive urban agenda that puts our youth at the center of the policies and programs to be addressed in the agenda. Accessibility to housing, schools, parks, libraries, sports, and jobs must be prioritized. Issues of hard-core gang can always be a joint program between social planners and security forces.
The SRS should not thing as a solution to its urban youth problems by arresting its way out. Nor can it leave policy planning matters to its security sector which is part of the region’s deep state. Instead, serious comprehensive and sustainable public policy must be sketched out for the region.
Faisal A. Roble
Email: [email protected]
Faisal Roble, a writer, political analyst and a former Editor-in-Chief of WardheerNews, is mainly interested in the Horn of Africa region. He is currently the Principal Planner for the City of Los Angeles in charge of Master Planning, Economic Development and Project Implementation Division
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