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Genenew Assefa

As it should be, public media coverage is at present largely focused on the background and current developments in the easternmost part of Ethiopia, in anticipation of the 8th Anniversary of the Nations & Nationalities Day. A much awaited colorful celebratory event which the Somali Regional State of the Ethiopian Federation has volunteered to stage in its capital, Jigjiga.  It is noteworthy that this once mere frontier outpost is now a thriving city capable of hosting an annual national anniversary: where as ever, invited guests and thousands of delegates from every single region converge to celebrate the constitutional principle of “unity in diversity’’ that bounds the Ethiopian peoples, nations and nationalities.  It is even more notable, if not far-reaching, that Jigjiga is selected for the occasion as it stands in marked contrast to this country’s troubled legacy where disfranchised nationalities,  not least the Somali people, were treated like second-class citizens. Thus, the three-day public congregation at multi-ethnic Jigjiga in which  the multitudes of designated attendees customarily pay tribute to Ethiopia’s grassroots national unity is sure to send an even more powerful message that multinational federalism is here to stay.



To the extent that the abiding purpose of the gathering is to mark the Ethiopian peoples’ voluntary unity, no other venue is arguably more fitting than the Somali Region. If, for no other reason, than the fact that for too long the Somali people were deemed un-Ethiopian-like in the eyes of those who in pre-federal times determined the fate of this country. In fact, now that the Somali Regional government is in charge of this year’s anniversary which has become a virtual platform for celebration of Ethiopia’s plurality, speaks volumes. Including how, against all odds, Ethiopia has come a long way in its efforts to redefine itself as an inclusive nation of equal nationalities where, unlike the past, none are considered more or less worth than others.  So does the presence of state officials, public personalities and foreign dignitaries at the Jigjiga festival , which perhaps relative to previous sites,  carries greater symbolic  weight in terms the message it coveys. For one thing it speaks to the level of peace and security in the Region which had seen more than its fare share of insecurity and written off by many as an unsafe environment fraught with uncertainty, even danger. For another, the passage of ownership of the 8th Anniversary to the Somali Regional government may go down as yet another millstone in the country’s democratic harmonization of state and ethnicity that elided every one of the non-federal systems of governance in the long history of multiethnic Ethiopia. Particularly so when considered against the historically prevailing  sentiment of the Somali people who, for justifiable reason, had scarcely identified themselves with the unitary state of Ethiopia:  Much less with the state-backed dominant culture of the political hegemon against which the Somali people silently and actively resisted to preserve their cultural traditions, belief system and way of life. 



In any event it, the upcoming annual gathering at Jigjiga is bound   to amplify the deepening inter-ethnic harmony up and down the    Federal union amid Ethiopia’s impressive upward development trajectory. But also signals the progress it is making in creating possibility  for a one unified national political space where each of its constituent nationalities  bear equal rights in all matters.  Including in the country’s increasing integration into a single social and economic community of nationalities and how it aught and should be governed. Needless to say, the Somali people are at present masters of their own destiny and co-equal with their counterparts in the exercise of national sovereignty. A watershed development, by any measure, which in many ways compensates for the iniquities suffered by the people in consequence of the Region’s forceful incorporation into the expanding late 19th century Salomonic kingdom.



Thus,  partly due to the Somali people’s manifest disaffection and  expressed discontent with the new armed potentates who in turn held them under a watchful eye, the Region was kept at bay with no social and economic integration to match  the  high-flown official  rhetoric  of  “national oneness” that masked  the reality of  annexation. Justified, no less, first on grounds of “reclamation of lost territory’’, and later in the name of “nation-building” under the banner of one and indivisible Ethiopia. In reality, however, during successive unrepresentative regimes, the Somali Region was little more than a securitized zone where legitimate complaint or even mild expression of protest against harsh arbitrary rule was dealt with a stern punishment regime that few other regions had had to endure. In the same vein, prior to the founding of the Ethiopian federation, the Somali people were not only denied even the semblance of ceremonial representation in the administrative structure that the center had imposed on the Region against the will of the people. But this vast Region of unexplored natural resources and edifying cultural asset was also deprived of rudimentary life-supporting amenities, relative to other administrative precincts which had a slight advantage by virtue of their proximity to the center of power and concentration of opportunities. The Somali Region’s utter marginalization can equally be gauged from the abysmal statistics of social services and lack of basic infrastructure even by pre-1991 Ethiopian standards.  Call it benign neglect, but the sad reality that this Region of several million people --- far in excess of the population of Addis Ababa --- was up until recently serviced by only one high school tells the whole tragic story. Not to mention the arduous challenges that  the people of the Region were compelled to cope  with in the face of state-failure in the areas of public utilities  as essential as running water,  healthcare, veterinary service, education,  not to mention, road construction, power supply, telecom network,  etc.



Today the Somali Region is an autonomous administrative state equal in every respect with the rest of the federated nationalities.  Not least in proportional representation in the House of Federation where sovereignty ultimately lies in Ethiopia by virtue of the power vested on its indirectly elected members to interpret the constitution.   Likewise, all the Region’s four administrative zones are self-governed units administered by elected Somali public officials who answer to no one else except to their own constituencies.  Indeed much has changed in the lives of the Somali people since the Region wrested self-determination that needs to be told. But space only permits to draw attention to the most important indicators of the Region’s turnaround that begun in the wake of its voluntary reintegration with Federal Ethiopia. In short, if one thing stands out, it is the Region’s encouraging progress, notably in the area of alleviating harsh living conditions through comprehensive development activity. For brevity’s sake, suffices to mention that with the advent of self-rule in 1991, coverage of primary education in the Region has jumped from 11.6 % in 1990 to 85% in 2013.  Though at staggered pace as in all other regions, in the same time period, secondary education has also witnessed a significant rise from a pitiful 0.25% to 11.5 %. This is in addition to the opening of the first ever full-fledged university in Jigjiga, along with 6 other higher technical-training institutes where none had existed before. Hence, if public education is a crucial weapon in the fight against poverty, the Somali Region is in the right track. Though much more remains to be done if it is to reach the desired level envisioned in the national development goal.



Perhaps, given the shortage of surface water in the Region, especial mention has to be made of the commendable increase in access to potable water which, after hovering at around 17% for the most part of its pre-1991 history, the curve has shot up to the present level of 73.4 %, well within the target range of the global Millennium Development Goal. Perhaps more impressive is the dramatic increase of the Region’s coverage of healthcare service that leaped from barely 22% to the 92% mark in the 20-year time space before and after self-rule in the Somali Region. Similarly, in the same time-span under consideration, the rate of road construction, linking the Region’s administrative zones, cross-border trading outlets as well out-state markets expanded from mere 250km. to 1,395km. No less remarkable is the coverage rate of electrification not to mention telecom which has proven indispensible for a massive Region of non-sedentary life pattern marked by transhumance. In sum, one can never  overstress the fact  that the Somali Region is a fast emerging state where life for the many could not have been any better at any point in the history of their unhappy encounter with largely Christian and Amharic-speaking state overseers and superintendents who exercised political  authority over their native land.

Perhaps in a sense, the lower pre-1991 tellingly dismal figures quoted above could provide a clue as to why the Somali people were at best reluctant to identify themselves with pre-federal Ethiopia. Whereas, conversely the higher post-1991 development indicators cited therewith explain why today the bulk of the people of the Region proudly call themselves Ethiopian-Somalis. If this is a large claim to make, one thing, however, is certain.  This is to say that if there was one Region where the acceptance of the Ethiopian federal arrangement could have been tested, it was in the Somali Region where none of the feudal monarchies, nor the successor, the toleration military state, made any inroads in terms of commanding the allegiance of the Somali people.

The federal experiment was indeed tested and tested severely; only to pass with flying colors. Since , the proof of the pudding is in the eating,  had the experiment failed, neither the solid peace that this country has had, nor the relatively recent tranquility in Somali Region, which its people have come to  savor and reap  the benefits that trailed in its wake,  could not have been possible. Alas, one need not look far for proof of the peacemaking and other salutary ramifications of Ethiopia’s ethnic federal design. One only has to   glance at the eagerness with which the Somali people respond whenever they are called to national duty both on the development and national-security front. Witness their current enthusiastic participation in the public bond-purchase-drive and the intensity with which they follow  the progression of the round-clock construction  of the Great Renaissances Dam, the flag project of the country’s transformation plan. Recall too, if you will, the unprecedented level of mobilization in the Region, first against the 1998-2000 Eritrean aggression in the north, and later in response to the 2004-5 threat posed by the extremist UIC/Al Shabab in the east. It is fair, then, to conclude that that the hosting of the 8th Anniversary of the Ethiopian Nations and Nationalities Day in Jijiga is a logical culmination of the 1946 historic conference held at Kali: where representative Somali elders, after careful deliberation, turned their back on several options, including the irredentist alternative of Greater Somalia. Yet, for understandable reason, the delegates deferred wholehearted integration with Ethiopia until, like their own Region, the former territorial provinces that, in the lead-up to 1991, had all but distanced themselves from the center, opted to come together in a federation. The culmination, no doubt, is the present Democratic Republic where each nationality has equal stake under the current organizing principle of shared and self-rule. If this rendition is true, as it is by any reading, it should serve notice to all doubters and opponents alike that ethnic-based federalism is the institutional expression of the struggle waged for self-determination and therefore, the choice- preference of this country’s nationalities. For, it is only under a federal system where recognition of diversity is the paramount governing principle that the multiethnic peoples are apt to feel a strong sense of belongingness in Ethiopia. And proudly call themselves Ethiopian citizens, as they do today, in the full sense of the term.

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