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Can the Somali region speak?

Ethiopia Insight | Tobias Hagmann | Ethiopian Somalis must reject politically motivated, shallow historical narratives and produce a new story that accurately captures their lived experiences.

The author dedicates this article to the memory of Ahmed Ali Gedi ‘Borte.’

Many years ago I conducted an interview with a leader of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). At the time, Ethiopia’s Somali regional state was often referred to as ‘region 5’ or kilil amist.

When I asked the ONLF leader about ‘region 5’, he became irritated and said: “My home is not a number!” I thought he was just being nationalistic as ONLF members often refer to the Somali inhabited parts of Ethiopia as ‘Ogadenia’ rather than the Somali regional state, its official name. Much later, I realised that he was right. Who wants his or her home to be a number? Who wants to live in a place whose name has been externally imposed?

Admittedly, geographical names are never neutral. Most Africans had their names and identities imposed on them by European colonialists. But what if a society or a community never gets to choose its name? This has been and continues to be the case for Somalis living in today’s Somali regional state of Ethiopia.

In the case of Ethiopia’s Somali population, this conundrum goes far beyond geographical or territorial designations. Rather, it reflects a crisis both of representation and self-representation. In spite of ethnic federalism and a constitutionally guaranteed right to political self-determination, Somalis in Ethiopia never had the chance to decide on their political fate. Equally important, they rarely had the opportunity to write or narrate their own lives, history, and experience.

This enduring crisis of self-representation is maybe best formulated as a question, namely: Can the Somali region speak? Here, I am referring to the famous essay by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak with the provocative title ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ published in 1983. Her text is a classic contribution to post-colonial theory, which criticizes the continued dominance of Western knowledge in the representation of non-Westerners.

What does Spivak mean when she asks: ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ By subaltern she refers to social groups – peasants, lower-caste individuals, women, and so on – who have continuously been subordinated. Their history and collective experience have mostly been represented by others – by colonizers, by national elites, by intellectuals.

They are often ‘spoken about’ but are rarely allowed to ‘speak for themselves.’ Their agency and subjectivity are denied because others constantly speak for and about them.

When I ask ‘Can the Somali region speak?’ what I mean is: can the people who live in this part of Ethiopia speak for themselves? Can they represent themselves? Can they define and shape their own narrative? So the question really is: has the Somali region ever spoken for itself? Or, has it mostly been others who have spoken for the Somali region and its inhabitants?

In their modern history, Somalis living in Ethiopia’s southeastern lowlands never had the opportunity to speak for themselves. Instead, it has been outsiders who have named, claimed, and defined the Somali region’s inhabitants. The outsiders speak about Somalis in such a way that goes in line with their political geopolitical interests.

Opposing historiographies

Why is it that Somalis in Ethiopia have struggled to speak for and represent themselves? One reason is that the Somali region has been the object of two opposing national historiographies since the late 19th century.

By historiography I mean both popular stories and academic writings that are told and written about a particular community, society, or nation. In its broadest sense, historiography includes the official history that is taught in schools, but also stories that are passed on from one generation to the next. In essence, I mean the historical interpretations that most members of a given society agree upon, often uncritically.

On the one hand, we have Somali historiography and the Somali studies tradition. Their accounts describe the Somali region – often referred to as Ogaden – as Somali territory colonised by Ethiopian highlanders, but also by British and Italian powers. In this narrative, the ‘Somali region’ is a territory that, in reality, is part of Somalia and the Somali people.

The region is memorised as a place of suffering and repression by successive Ethiopian regimes, from Haile Selassie to the TPLF and the former regional president Abdi Mohamed Omar ‘Iley’. The Somali region is seen as a place of displacement and the home of rich natural resources – from frankincense to oil and gas – which foreigners want to loot. From the viewpoint of Somali historiography, the Somali region of Ethiopia is a space of repeat victimisation.

On the other hand, we have Ethiopian historiography and Ethiopian studies, which for a long time promoted what historians call ‘the great tradition.’ The ‘great tradition’ offers an almost transcendental tale of the Ethiopian monarchy and nation-state, emphasising the country’s past and future glories. Writings by Ethiopian historians, soldiers, and administrators reveal a completely different view of the Ogaden and of today’s Somali region.

Their stories portray the region as a place of hardship for habeshas. They describe Somalis as rebellious people who are “always fighting” and on whose loyalty the Ethiopian state cannot count on.

They saw and often still see the Somali region as a land of nomads who need to be civilised and modernised by the Ethiopian state bureaucracy through sedentarization, development, planning, and administration.

In this narrative, the Somali parts of Ethiopia have to be defended to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity – in particular against neighbouring Somalia. But its inhabitants can never be fully trusted.

Which one of these two opposing historiographies of Ethiopia’s Somali region should we listen to? Which one is more accurate? Which one captures the past and present of this part of the world better?

Many readers familiar with the region will have their opinions on this. I want to argue that both historiographies make some important points, but both are also seriously deficient, reductionist, and ideological. Neither one of them does justice to the real history of the people of the Somali region.

Both historical traditions treat the Somali region as a periphery, which is of interest only as long as it is relevant to the political centre. The Somali region has been and still is a double periphery – peripheral to both Ethiopia and Somalia. At the end of the day, both historiographies are the by-product of either the Somali or the Ethiopian nationalist project. Too often, they are not based on local people’s lived experiences or family histories. Rather, they tell the story of the Ogaden, now the Somali region, from the vantage point of male leaders with a particular political agenda.

Both historiographies of the Somali region silence the lives and struggles of normal people such as rural folk, women, minorities, and generally less powerful groups. As a result, both have prevented the emergence of a historiography of the Somali region that is thought, written, and told not from the viewpoint of Mogadishu or Addis Ababa, but from the viewpoint of Gode, Jigjiga, Degehabur and Shilabo, Afdheer and Qabridehar, Gora Babagsa, Kelafo, Wardheer, Fiq, Shinile, and so on.

Silencing the ‘Somali region’

Some might argue that history is always contested. Or that what matters most are not historical facts, but how history is used in present-day politics. In other words, what really matters is who can make his or her history count and whose history is being discounted or swept under the rug. My argument here is that both Somali studies and Ethiopian historiography have swept a large part of the lived experiences of Somalis in Ethiopia under the rug.

Like the rest of Ethiopia, the region underwent one regime change after the other – from Haile Selassie to the Derg and then the recent Abdi ‘Iley’ dictatorship under the EPRDF. All regimes created and popularized new political narratives based on a selective and clearly instrumentalist interpretation of the region’s past. These narratives further complicated the writing and telling of local histories that did not comply with these state-sanctioned historiographies. The absence of independent research and academic institution further compounded this problem.

Some examples may highlight how important aspects of the Somali region’s political history have been silenced and overlooked by these two historiographies.

First, both have offered stereotypical accounts of the position of Ethiopian-Somali elites vis-a-vis the Ethiopian state. Rather than simply being for or against the central government, Ethiopian-Somali elites have gone through repeat cycles of compromise, partial acceptance, growing distrust, and full rejection of the Ethiopian state. A good illustration of this is the armed struggle against the Imperial government, which started in 1963 and was led by Makthal Dahir.

The Ogaden leader and his colleagues were former district commissioners working for the Haile Selassie administration before they took up arms. The Somali government of Aden Abdullah Osman supported the rebels initially until it agreed to a truce with Haile Selassie, leaving the insurgents in a limbo. The ONLF underwent a similar pattern of cooperation with the new Ethiopian government in the early 1990s followed by armed opposition between 1994 and 2018 and, today, a reintegration into the political system as a registered regional political party.

Both Somali and Ethiopian historiography have failed to account for this uncomfortable in-betweenness that has been the hallmark of Ethiopian-Somali political elites. When insurgents of the Western Somali Liberation Front started to mobilize against the Derg, the Somali government of Siad Barre again intervened to assist them. But, its agenda did not always align with the priorities of the WSLF.

An eyewitness of the time whom I interviewed in 2012 about the 1977/1978 Ethiopian-Somali or Ogaden war told me: “When the liberation movement reached Degehabur, the Somali army planted the Somali flag. The WSLF lost its temper and told them: ‘Stop planting your flag there and don’t start collecting taxes!’”

Many in the WSLF were eventually frustrated by the Somali government. The latter had helped them, but also internationalised and instrumentalised their rebellion. Somali state media like Radio Mogadishu and Radio Hargeisa covered the Ogaden war with vivid interest. But locals from the region were rarely on the airwaves. Instead, Somali military generals spoke on their behalf. This demonstrates how, historically, both the Ethiopian and the Somali governments have sought to appropriate and speak on behalf of the Ogaden (today, the Somali region).

Internal conflicts and contradictions

A second shortcoming of the Somali and Ethiopian historiographies of Somalis in Ethiopia is their unwillingness to consider internal differences and tensions.

The Somali region does not have a single historical and socio-political narrative. Rather, there are multiple – at times competing –  narratives, which reflect divergent historical trajectories and experiences of its people. The region’s population is not just ‘Somali’. It consists of various social groups: from urbanites to agro-pastoralists, from livestock producers to traders, and from ancient inhabitants to newcomers.

Many of its inhabitants have multiple loyalties, family ties, and allegiances. Communities are thus not homogenous. The northern parts of Somali region, in particular Shinille and the Jigjiga lowlands, have a different political history to the Ogaden heartland. The southern and western parts of the region also have distinct historical features.

Ethno-national discourse always seeks to suppress internal contradictions. The longstanding conflict between the ONLF and the Ethiopian government was often portrayed as the latest edition of an age-old confrontation between Somalis and Ethiopians. This was true at the initial stages of the war when ethnic Somalis predominantly fought against non-Somali troops of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces.

However, for a decade – roughly between 2008 and 2018 – the conflict was between Somali special police members sponsored by the government and ethnic Somali that supported ONLF.

This conflict was in many ways a civil war among members of the Ogaden clan family, pitting supporters of the regional president and strongman Abdi ‘Iley’ against his enemies. These internal conflicts and tensions among the Ogaden, but also between many other clan lineages in the region, are an uncomfortable topic for Somali historiography. They are regularly glossed over given the perceived political imperative to present a unified front vis-à-vis the Ethiopian state and its representatives.

If Ethiopian historiography casually overlooks the repressive legacies of the Ethiopian state in its Somali periphery, Somali historiography ignores the ambiguous agendas of Ethiopian-Somali leaders past and present.

These examples demonstrate that there is a good chunk of Somali region history that contradicts, or at least complicates, both Somali and Ethiopian historiography. Admittedly, political instability, repression, and remoteness have for a long time made independent research very cumbersome. This has rendered the emergence of a more nuanced and more empirically founded historiography very difficult. Basic ethnographic and historical accounts of the Somali region have yet to be written. To this day, the rural histories of the region – the histories of pastoralists, in particular – remain undocumented and unwritten.

Letting the Somali region speak

It is tempting to think that Somalis in Ethiopia have simply been unlucky with regard to their geography, that their home will always be the double-periphery of Somalia and Ethiopia, or that the region will always be stuck in its unfortunate colonial history.

Others will argue that Ethiopian-Somalis’ difficulties in speaking for themselves are largely the product of an oral society with low levels of formal education. Some will point out that much of my critique and analysis is not specific to Somalis in Ethiopia, but that it applies in equal measure to many of Ethiopia’s historically marginalized groups, reflecting imperial legacies of the Ethiopian nation-state that remain unresolved today.

These reservations confirm that the history of Somali region and its people has not been told yet. They call for a paradigm shift in documenting and narrating the experiences of Somalis in Ethiopia. Their histories need to be told again, told anew, told on the basis of solid empirical data, and told from a different vantage point. The Somali region is not a periphery, it is a centre. It is at the heart of the Horn of Africa, connecting highlands and lowlands, sea ports and inland cities, Islam and Christianity, and various ethnic groups.

A new history of the Somali region of Ethiopia needs to be written from this vantage point of centrality. It needs to make the voices of its men, women, children, and elderly heard. It will have to tell the story not of one people, but the stories of many people – of camel herders, female traders, khat sellers, school girls, farmers, administrators, returnees, rebels, investors, daily laborers, poets, and many others. It will have to tell stories of the powerful and the powerless, of joy and grief, of hope and despair. It will have to break free from the tropes of the existing politicised narratives.

Importantly, this new historiography of the Somali region will have to be written by intellectuals from the region and its neighbouring territories. Rewriting the histories of Somalis in Ethiopia is not a purely academic exercise. It can help pave the way for a new political imagination that is liberating. A political imagination that allows Somalis in Ethiopia to finally speak up, to make themselves heard, and to be heard.

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