Somali Regional State of Ethiopia: The Corrosive Impact of Internalized Oppression
Fri 29-05-2015 15:38:56



By Muktar M. Omer

A tale of two pasts and presents

THERE have always been two histories about the Somali people in Ethiopia. The history of the center and that of the periphery. The history of the conqueror and that of the conquered. The history of the oppressor and that of the oppressed.

Somali region

The existence of these conflicting histories is hardly surprising for anyone familiar with Keith Jenkins’s distinction between the past and history. According to Jenkins, history is not the past; it is about the past. History is thus nothing but a mere version or reconstruction of the past. It is never innocent or impartial. It is always ideological. It is about power. Every past has more than one history. There are histories; there is no one history.

Just like the two aforesaid histories, we also have two conflicting present narratives about the political situation in Somali region. The ‘dhaanto’ (dance) narrative and the ‘death’ narrative; the ‘development’ narrative and ‘atrocity’ narrative’.

I take the liberty of extending Jenkin’s distinction of history and the past to the present. The present is different from the narratives about the present. The present is about current time, space, and events. Narratives about the present are opinions informed by political and ideological positions. Like history, narratives always belong to someone. They are not detached interpretations. There is no objective history or social narrative. This is not to imply that every narrator always has overt political bias. This is to recognize that every narrator has social, cultural, epistemological, ideological, and moral biases. Sometimes consciously. Sometimes unconsciously.

The divergent historical and contemporary storylines in the Somali Region fit into this frame of analysis. This trite conclusion is not the focus of this article. The attempt is to understand why the narrative of the oppressor has flourished in the last decade or so while the narrative of the oppressed has faded. A number of explanations come to mind.

Flourishing and fading narratives

One argument could be that the region has seen considerable socio-economic development and political autonomy in the last two decades which gradually undercut the narratives of marginalization. Against this argument stands a massive enigma.

The sheer size of the security expenditure in the Somali region and the pervasiveness of human rights abuses against civilians negate the narrative of happy people showing their gratitude through silence!  As for political autonomy, yes, the region is ruled by native surrogates of the oppressor. But these surrogates are handpicked by the military commanders in the region. They are not elected or endorsed by the local people. So, this argument isn’t strong.

Another explanation might be that since history and narratives are written by the powerful and the winners, the ascendancy of the oppressor’s narrative is to be expected; especially in a situation where the resistance of the oppressed is crushed. But this too appears to be an anomalous explanation in the context of Somali-Ethiopians.

With the exception of 1960-1977 – a period in which the birth of Somalia and its “Greater Somalia” dream gave rise to an unprecedented level of unity among Somalis, including those in Ethiopia – the balance of power in this contest has always gravitated towards the oppressor. Why then have the narrative of the oppressed survived for decades before and after 1977 when the Somalis in Ethiopia were underdogs in this duel? What explains this past resilience of the Somali version? Why has it waned in the last ten years? What expounds its rapid decline in the last decade?

Some may dispute the assertion that the narrative of the oppressed is declining on the evidence that an armed resistance by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) is ongoing albeit at a low intensity. I argue that the ONLF has failed politically, militarily and diplomatically. While its leaders are still chasing an illusory ‘peace deal”, one doesn’t have to be a political scientist or a malcontent to understand that the curtains have long fallen on this latest chapter of the successive resistance projects in the region.

The ONLF project is not the only one to fail. There were many previous rebellions that failed. From Nasrullah to Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), the people of the region are not strangers to fiasco. Nonetheless, they have always confronted defeat with defiance. Why do they now appear to have given up?

The answer is simple.

Attacking the spirit and ethos of resistance

Past oppressors defeated the rebellions they faced by attacking the armed groups that led these struggles. Theirs was an attack on the symptoms of the resistance. It was never an assault on the emotion and ethos that inspired the resistance.

Haile S

Emperor Haile Selassie ( photo courtesy NYTIMES)

For example, Emperor Haile Selassie largely chose a strategy of appeasement when confronted by the Somali-Ethiopians for more rights, including the right for self-determination. The Emperor was guilty of neglecting the region development-wise, but he did not order pogroms against the civilian population.

Mengistu Hailemariam may have killed millions of Ethiopians in the highlands, but the Somali population in Ethiopia was spared his carnages. There were no mass killings. There was no systematic burning of villages or rape. This could have been because resistance to his rule mainly came from the center and north of the country. But it doesn’t change the fact that atrocities were relatively few in the east. The burden of proof is on those who disagree with this conclusion. This is a prickly narrative that has been deliberately buried to satisfy present political needs.

The story is different when it comes to the present oppressor, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the regime it leads. TPLF did not primarily focus on attacking the armed groups. The heart of their counter-insurgency strategy was aimed at destroying the very spirit and identity that continued to nurture armed struggles in the region.


Social and religious institutions were attacked. Mosques and elders were no longer the source of leadership and guidance for the community as they were taken over by TPLF and filled with social rejects. The value systems of the people were violated. Rogue youngsters were armed and encouraged to slap, spit, and insult respected elders. Girls and mothers were raped or assaulted in the presence of family members. Family members who resisted this violation were executed.

A political barometer was set where only those that kill or spy on their brethren can qualify to access government resources. An economic system which impoverishes those who show signs of dissent and rewards those who collaborate was imposed. Vicarious liability was introduced in this 21st century where one is killed or arrested for the assumed political wrongdoings of his brother, uncle, sister or even a distant relative.

Internalized oppression

Against a backdrop of extreme poverty and low level of education in the region, the attack on fundamental social and value systems gradually eroded the self-respect and identity of the people. This loss of self-respect and concurrent identity is the key reason for the disillusionment of the people and the decline of the narrative of the oppressed. With loss of self-respect came the internalization of oppression.

And it seems this fate is commonplace among victims of oppression. In “The Obligation to Resist Oppression” American philosophy professor and feminist Carol Hoy details how systemic harms of oppression can incrementally and invisibly damage people’s rational natures and how this ultimately leads the oppressed to lose self-respect.

Her work is anchored on Immanuel Kant’s “Metaphysics of Morals” in which the 18th century German Philosopher argues that since every human being is rational, this rational nature confers on all of us a value that restricts the way we may be treated. This Kantian formulation is often called the obligation of self-respect. According to Hoy, internalized oppression can damage rational nature in three ways:

Firstly, oppression can cause self-deceptive behavior. Oppressed people may believe certain falsehoods about themselves contrary to evidence. A good example of this, in the Somali Region, is the interminable dhaanto dances that are broadcasted from Jigjiga and the images they project about the life of the people in the region. Obviously people understand the propaganda angle of this cultural dance. Yet, a good number of the people – both inside and outside the region – also see it as a symbol of the cultural autonomy people enjoy.

There may be some truth in this belief. But dhaanto is not a priority for the terrified people of the region. Safety is their priority. Justice is their need. Freedom is what they yearn for. To elevate dhaanto as a marker of communal welfare over and above the safety and security of own people is an epitome of self-deception. Our welfare index as Somali-Ethiopians cannot be dhaanto. Or roads and schools built. Or water wells dug. We must not rally around little platforms that oppressors create for us to divert attention from real issues.

Secondly, internalized oppression damages people’s self-worth. Oppressed people are unable to set certain worthwhile ends for themselves because they do not think they deserve them. You know what this means when you hear an intellectual from the region say that it doesn’t matter who the Tigre generals in the region impose on us, we have to find ways of ensuring they or their stooges do not kill us. Or that since we cannot get autonomy, we have to settle for what is given to us. Or that because we have no power, we can’t demand justice. It seems asking for your basic right is too onerous a task for people who internalized oppression.

Thirdly, internalized oppression makes victims to succumb to weakness of will. The widespread despondency among the people in the region, including those in the diaspora, is a good example. Even those who agree that there is an unbearable oppression have started to say there is no solution in sight. Or that there is nothing they can do or can be done.

I add a fourth impact of internalized oppression. People who internalized oppression willfully swallow narratives that are so obviously flawed. Like the scholar from the region who debated with me that since the current fight in the region is between Liyu Police and ONLF, it is an intra-Ogaden conflict. Of course, it is pointless to go into examples of all the well-documented colonial practices of using locals against locals. That both Liyu Police and ONLF predominantly come from the same clan is a fact. But that fact needs interpretation. And it is at this interpretation level that the scholar failed to reflect on precedents elsewhere in the world. Or chose to ignore them. Will the Liyu Police fight the ONLF without salary? Who pays the salary? It should have been a simple reasoning.

Or the other scholar who is wasting talent narrating how Ogaden culture is stolen by Somalia in Ethiopian newspapers and calls it a ‘fact’ of history as if these historical ‘facts’ aren’t narrations shaped by pressing present political needs. I don’t object to anyone telling his versions or having his ideological lines. I take issue with the subterfuges used to conceal politically-motivated revisionism. Speaking of biases, I for one have never claimed to be objective or unbiased. I have long recognized that objectivity and unbiasedness, while theoretically sexy, are fire-breathing chimeras, i.e. a myth.

To summarize, a story of an elderly father in the Somali region whose daughter was raped best reflects how internalized oppression impairs the rational nature of victims. The father reportedly cried for a whole day lamenting why he did not send his girl away from the region earlier. We may never know what he feels inside. But from his wailings, the poor man seems to be blaming himself, not the rapists.

What next?

It is a stretch to say people in the region have all given in to repression. There is a chaotic form of external resistance. Some people are demonstrating in foreign capitals. Many others have fled the region. A small group continues to stage a last stand in the rural parts of the region in a kamikaze style, without proper political leadership. There is a lot of internal resistance since the continued arrests and killings of civilians indicate that there are many who are still refusing to compromise their rational nature and dignity.

But more needs to be done to restore the destroyed social values and institutions which are critical for our existence as a people. More needs to be done to spread our narrative. The focus has to be on these areas. There can be no meaningful political struggle without restoring the rational nature of the people and raising the consciousness of the oppressed masses. The onus is on the dormant intellectuals of the region to develop appropriate strategies and tools to achieve this. This will ensure that the next phase of the struggle has solid foundations and better inclusivity. As long as there is oppression, the end of one chapter of struggle is simply the start of another one.

Failure cannot and should not be a reason for abandoning our core communal aspiration – dignity. But we must learn from the failures and setbacks of the past!

Muktar M. Omer


Source: Wardheernews


Qoraaga: Muktar M. Omer