An American Experience: Security and Development in the Somali Region of Ethiopia
Development and security, in the Global South, are trivial concepts that often challenge or eliminate justice from the equation of democracy. In the case of Ethiopia, particularly the Somali Region, security, development and justice are interdependent and active components of the existing regional progression. Only after working in Jijiga and traveling the Somali Region for about two years did I come to completely understand this: the peace, the public, governmental and private sector are being driven and dynamically transformed by the [local] people.
As many of you may know, Ethiopia is an ancient nation, frequently mentioned for its authentic and non-colonized history. And, as of contemporary day, Ethiopia is highly recognized and commended for its rigorous Post Derg Regime (after 1991) efforts to be a democratic federalism and socio-economically stable. For me, I knew Ethiopia in an ordinary yet personal sense – a place my father originates from. After graduating with a degree in Sociology and Women’s Studies, I made the drastic decision to temporarily move to Ethiopia, essentially to connect and learn; as well, to apply the knowledge I have obtained from an American university. The education I received in America did not necessarily apply, in terms of relevance, to Ethiopia but with a little bit of modification and collective agency, I became an educator at a local college and later at the main Public Management Institute in Jijiga. While teaching sociology and gender studies, I decided to note, observe and explore the [all-round] development and security in the country and Somali Region. Let’s say I took on the qualitative approach, in understanding the region’s past, present and future. In other words, all I ever (or mostly) did was actively listen to the stories and personal accounts of locals, family members, poor and wealthy folk, officers, pastoralists, officials, children and practically anyone you can possibly think of.
Before leaving the United States, I dealt with a variety of Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) sympathizers and general skeptics fear-monger me with remarks like, “You cannot speak your mind there,” “Your iPhone will be confiscated by the government,” “Rape occurs way too often there, be careful”, “It’s a conflicted region,” “Taking pictures will get you jailed,” and so on. I was scared; but I convinced myself that I would never know the realities on the ground without spending a substantial amount of time living and working in the region. I arrived in Jijiga in the fall of 2014, eager and ready to discover the land of my foreparents. After landing, the first thing I did was whip out my iPhone – briefly forgetting the silly warnings I received in comfy California — and snap a photo of Wilwal International Airport (Jijiga, Ethiopia). Onlookers, natives to be exact, smiled and welcomed me “home”. I felt – hmmm, so I did not get jailed for taking photos and using an iPhone, onto debunking more misconceptions. Security is a sensitive global, national and local issue; it is highly prioritized, misunderstood and often wrongly practiced. In the Horn of Africa, Al-Shabab (terrorist organization mainly operating in Somalia) is considerably the center of counter-terrorism activities. In Ethiopia, terrorism in a global and regional sense is a governmental and communal focus. To be precise, Al-Shabab and vanishing insurgencies or rebel groups (e.g ONLF) are combated, apprehended, etc. Amongst all that, you have the under-credited Ethiopian Somali Regional State Administration doing tremendous and necessary performances in keeping Ethiopia safe, as well as limiting or preventing the chances of terrorists infiltrating neighboring nations and regions. Fact: The Somali Region of Ethiopia borders Djibouti, Somaliland, Somalia and Kenya. Liyu (Special) Forces is a regional police entity made up of local men and women, many rehabilitated from the now-eradicated Ogaden National Liberation Front, who take ownership and act as a community-ran police force. From my friendly encounters with Liyu Forces and public narratives, they are behind the enjoyed and cultivated peace in the Somali Region. These uniformed men and women serve as civil servants, who protect and serve – while also enabling the incredible transformations occurring in health, gender, finance, etc. departments. Security in the Somali Region is something that I experienced every day and a topic I plan on academically researching soon.
When I think of “development”, as a notion, I envision buildings, roads, and attractive infrastructure. Then, I think deeper and include quality schools, hospitals, offices and community participation in all developmental processes. There is an international hype or spotlight on development; it is incorporated in nearly every sector or measure in both emerging and advanced countries. In the Somali Region of Ethiopia, development is evident and unique. Just six years ago — before the Presidency of Abdi Mohamoud Omar — public services, transparent governance, and even the community bravado to say, “We, too, are Ethiopian” were unarguably fictional. Without using words to explain development in the Somali Region, I will illustrate in a few pictures and a video.
Video of Public/Health Services Transforming: West Imey District — An elderly woman from suffering from semi-blinding cataracts is able to see again. In elation and gratefulness, she shouts, “It’s true!” over and over again, in Somali.
Do not get me wrong. Challenges exist. “Democracy”, freedom of speech, political inclusion, bureaucracy and land issues exist in the United States, imagine a developing country. What I am trying to say is, we should not totally discredit or dismiss the discernible strides towards tangible [social, economic, and political] improvement made by countries like Ethiopia simply because they face misinterpreted obstacles, in one aspect or another. Development, as exemplified in the above footage, will continue and shape the future of the Somali Region and country.
Overall, the security and developmental initiatives in the Somali Region (which manifests throughout the Horn of Africa) stem or are mobilized by the people and financed, sustained and administered by the [regional] government. Ethiopia plans on becoming a middle-income country by the year 2025 – this will be made achievable, primarily, by the people. The community is the key source behind regional integration, a successful economy, political and social mobility. That is what I have concluded during my time in the Somali Region. Each region in Ethiopia differs, in culture, challenges, etc; but the Somali Region – where the populace is directly represented in all institutions — is a role model in diplomacy, gender empowerment, good governance, horizontal interactions, economic justice and general development. Yes, there’s a long way ‘til objectives are reached, but, so long as President Abdi Mohamoud Omar is leading the Somali Region, Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa can expect affirmative, sustainable, uplifting development and security results. Well, that is, in my own empirically-based opinion.
By Hafsa Mohamed