Thursday, April 18, 2024
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PM Abiy: A Cultural Eraser and A Single-Story Proponent

By Faisal A. Roble

Prime Minister Abiy’s insensitive, if not offensive, praise of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s fascist soldiers and his proposal to erect for them a commemorative monument in Jigjiga’s Karamardha hills dealt a major blow to the federal constitution established in 1995.  Presiding over the fate of 110 million people, the Prime Minister needs to listen to the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and her critique on the dangers of a single-story narrative.  

With a simple notable reactionary twitter message, Dr. Abiy tried to erase Somali history and exalted entrenched supremacist values. In his aggressive pursuit of a “single-story,” he is determined to erase a valuable Somali story, and that angered millions of Somalis. (Nabad TV, March 7, 2020. Nabad TV is an independent TV show in the Somali Region). 

On the eve of the 42nd anniversary of the Ethio-Somali war over the Ogaden region, Dr. Abiy used the occasion to unilaterally (my emphasis added) resuscitate the most extreme and exclusive version of Ethiopian history, one that is devoid of diversity, and purposely tried to erase Somali story. By doing so, he even angered the often conflict-averse Somali regional leaders that had recently joined Dr. Abiy’s own Pprosperity Party (PP). 

In a message posted on his Facebook page, President Mustafa Omar issued a different narrative to what Dr. Abiy sermonized. President Mustafa said that the war of 1977 was a war for liberation, therefore is “non-negotiable.” Although vague in his subsequent interview he gave to the Somali Regional TV, still President Mustafa said he will not compromise on Somali identity. 

President Mustafa’s message comes on the heels of the Arab league member states unanimously siding with Egypt on the Nile controversy. It also comes at a time when Somaliland refused the bully politics of Dr. Abiy. Add to that the stalled relationship between Addis Ababa and Asmara and you find a bleak picture of Dr. Abiy’s effectiveness as a leader. His honeymoon quickly evaporated, and his credibility is fast sliding to the abyss. For President Mustafa, this is a watershed moment and worthy close monitoring.

President Mustafa Omar, of the Somali State, Ethiopia

In writing this essay, I went back and listened to the speech Dr. Abiy delivered in Jigjiga only days After he took office. He invoked “Cushitic” brotherhood between Somalis and his Oromo ethnic in the same breath as he praised the fascist soldiers of the Derge. In other words, he was attempting to erase one history while extoling another one. In effect, he was advancing a “one-story,” that of the fascist Derge and Abyssinian supremacy. He even distorted history by saying that Somalis died while protecting Ethiopian borders so that his “one-story” theory for all Ethiopia gets credence. That is not simply true! 

Except for Sultan Omar Samatar, who created a temporary Faustian pact with emperor Haile Selassie against Italy, there is no shred of historical evidence of Somalis dying for Ethiopian the oppressed them. Entirely all the adult age men who participated in the second World War were on the Italian side. Dr. Abiy has simply regurgitated the Ethiopia colonial history as did his predecessors.

The issue of erecting a monument for fascist soldiers is not new. Dr. Abiy has been pursuing it since he came to the premiership. A well-placed Oromo activist told me that this issue was raised in the Bahirdhar gathering that hosted a large Somali delegation in May of 2019. 

This Oromo activist confronted Demake Mekonen, Deputy Prime Minister, and told him that glorifying the Derge and building a commemorative monument in Karamardh was an offense to “our Somali brothers.” Mr. Demake Mekonen, known for his soft spot for Somalis, acquiesced with the offensive nature of the idea of erecting a monument for fascist soldiers on Karamardha. 

Demeke Mekonen, an Amhara liberal, is more circumspect on the question of nationality than Dr. Abiy who barraged about Cushitic unity when he visited Jigjiga in 2018. As a matter of fact most Amhara liberals and left-lining intellectuals are apt to understand the Somali feeling better than Dr. Abiy, because of two reasons: 1) Dr. Abiy’s knowledge of the peoples of Ethiopia and their long struggle is at best limited and superficial; and 2) Dr. Abiy came to power through the ranks of the two most reactionary institutions in Ethiopia – through the army and through EPRDF. Both institutions are or have been by nature anti-democratic.

Were Somalis in the dark about the matter? Absolutely no since the issue has been on the front burner for Dr. Abiy. However, Somalis, as impressionable and easily swayable as they are, have been euphoric about getting rid of TPLF but failed to evaluate Abiy with a critical eye. And they are reaping the fruits of their misjudgment.

Many Somalis thought the wind of change that came with the fall of TPLF was the consolidation and deliverance of a long awaited social and political justice.

Looking back at April 2018, when Abiy seized the premiership, millions of Somalis prematurely gave their unbridled endorsement to him. Some even blindly argued that he was the first Muslim ruler of Ethiopia. Without first scrutinizing his background and his political orientation, even Farmajo’s Villa Somalia opened its inner sanctum to PM Abiy. 

Two years later, Somalis are angrily repeating the mantra of “mar iddage Alle ha daggo, mar labaad iddagase anigaa is dagey,” or a loose translation to this would be: “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me!” However, this adage in may not work in today’s Somali society due to clan competition for power.

In a sense there is always a bundle of clan elites on the corner waiting to be utilized by outside interests. Let us wait if it is different this time.

I take a small solace in my stand to have early doubted that Dr. Abiy is a politics fluke. In July 2018, I gave an interview to BBC Somali Service and argued that Dr. Abiy would not bode well for Somalis. African Americans say, “One knows racism when one sees it.” Likewise, I know when I see or hear an African autocrat. I saw Dr. Abiy’s dangerous values from the get-go. 

By simply listening to Dr. Abiy talk, I get the chill and I could easily see through him nothing but a reincarnation of Ethiopia Tikdem and an anti-federalist ruler. 

Dr. Abiy’s soothing words from the bible are simply part of his oratory and his superb artistry skills to play with the Amharic word with no substantive solution to the complex issues Ethiopia is facing.  And that is why he earned the nickname of “painkiller,” to suggest that he only soothes but does not heal.  As a matter of fact, not only did he fail to heal but he made Somalis sicker to their guts. He did so with his zeal to impose a “single-story” on all Ethiopians – a mission his predecessors failed to achieve.  

Dr. Abiy’s irresponsible and insensitive proposal of erecting a commemorative monument for fascist soldiers intentionally undermined any prospect for his PP to succeed in the Somali region unless votes are stolen. Confidence is eroded and promises are broken. Where the Somali marriage to PP ends up remains to be seen. 

Now that both Dr. Abiy and President Mustafa threw red meat to their respective constituents surrounding the saga of Karamardha and Somali identity, it would be only a matter of time before either Dr. Abiy walks back on his proposal, or Mr. Mustafa muzzles his constituents to swallow Somali pride and accept a commemorative monument for the fascist soldiers which is tantamount to accepting an inferior position for the Somali region.  And that is unlikely.

Dr. Abiy’s pedigree of soldiering both for EPRDF and for the Ethiopian army patches his affinity with the concept of “Ethiopia-first” or “Ethiopia Tikdam,” in the same way the Bolshevik ideology formed Stalin’s attraction to greater Soviet Union culture. In both cases, they seem to have found identity in erasing the histories of oppressed groups. 

Moreover, both Stalin and Dr. Abiy have shown signs of inherent attraction towards the history of the ruling ethnic group and strived for recognition not from their own, or even from the broader society, but from the elite of the dominant cultures.” Such attributes of Dr. Abiy will not bode well for Somalis or for other ethnic groups, including Oromo culture.

In moving forward, Dr. Abiy must try to:

1.Shed off his soldier story and become more of a democratic statesman that requires to respect the constitution, accept different historical narratives, and stop pushing a single story in a country of 110 million with over 80 major nationalities.  Ethiopia cannot be governed with the psychology of a soldier that still believes in the adage of “once a marine, always a marine.” The ethos and values of military training that Dr. Abiy had blinds to the complexity of social phenomenon and their solutions requires a vision beyond the myopic goals of military rule.

2. Govern the country with history in mind. Ethiopia has experienced for the last 60 years a transition from a feudal state to a more multinational polity where regional rights are sacrosanct. The domination of Abyssinia center with its Christian history over the rest is archaic and unsustainable.

3. Respect the federal system which over 80 nationalities and nations agreed on to be the framework by which Ethiopia can stay together at least in the short term.  If Dr. Abiy pushes his “single-story” narrative, one can be sure his administration will clash not only with federalists groups but will saw a raw within his fledgling Prosperity Party that does not stand on strong legs, at least more so in the Somali region. 

Dr. Abiy has failed to institute a meaningful change beyond corrupting an already corrupt system left behind by EPRDF.  To the chagrin of many, Dr. Abiy sounds a lot like Mengistu Haile Mariam and less like a “liberation theology” preacher, as aptly captured by Hafsa Mohamed, an astute Somali-American female blogger.

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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