January 21, 2020
In late December, the Somali regional government asked the House of Federation to revise the region’s representation in the federal parliament.
In a letter addressed to the upper chamber, Somali president Mustafa Omer, on behalf of the State Council, requested an adjustment of the number of House of Peoples Representatives (HoPR) allocated to the region in time for this year’s election and in order to correct past mistakes. The regional government contends that neither the official demographic data nor the correct formula for calculating electoral districts was followed the last time government allocated electoral seats among regions, which was in 1994, a year before the federation was even constituted.
In the last census in 2007, Somali region’s population stood at 4.45 million while those of Tigray and Addis Ababa were, respectively, 4.32 million and 2.75 million. Yet, in clear disregard for fairness and constitutional procedure, Somalis were again given 23 HoPR seats, on a par with Addis Ababa and 15 less than Tigray—even though Somali had a larger population than Tigray and almost twice that of the federal capital.
In the critical Second General Population and Housing Census of 1994, which is still the basis for constituency boundaries even after six elections, 26 years and countless demographic shifts, the Somali region head count was 3.2 million out of a national population of 55.4 million. This should have guaranteed a minimum of 32 HoPR seats based on the proportional representation set out in the constitution. Indeed, using 2017 population estimates, Oromia, Southern Nations and Afar regions would probably also gain seats if redistricting occurred—although with the official 2017 census still not scheduled, let alone conducted and its data utilised, nobody can be sure of the numbers.
Regardless of these broader failings, the political injustice of the parliamentary under-representation is just the tip of the iceberg of the systemic discrimination that Somali people have endured over the last century.
For example, how many people know that Somalis are also significantly under-represented among the more than 150 ministerial, commissioners, agencies, authorities, and public enterprises that are filled by political nominees? Or the fact that beyond the finance ministry and other cabinet positions, Somalis have never held a top post such as head of state or government, speaker of the two houses, or an important foreign policy or security portfolio, not only in the almost three-decade EPRDF era, but since the formation of the current Ethiopian state?
Moreover, how many are aware that only one-third of the federal budget is distributed using the—admittedly flawed—federal revenue-sharing formula? Instead, unelected EPRDF bureaucrats carve up more than 90 percent of the remaining two-thirds for development programs and infrastructure schemes in the four regions they represent.
To make sense of President Mustafa’s administration’s constitutional request, which is designed to partially remedy past injustice, some context is necessary. A crucial piece of the historical inequity is that not only were Somali people treated as second-class citizens in their homeland, but also as a dangerous ‘enemy-within’ that may at any moment rise up and ally with irredentists trying to create a Greater Somalia. And to compound the ignominy, they did not even have a say on whether to be part of the Ethiopian state to begin with.
In response to these oppressive circumstances, the Somali people marshalled a series of gallant resistance struggles against successive Ethiopian regimes. They fought and pushed back against the incursions of Emperor Menelik II’s army, then the British in 1954 when they ceded Ogaden, Hawd and the Reserved Area—but to imperial Ethiopia instead of Somalis. They fought Haile Selassie’s regime in the 1960s, the Derg in the next decades, and to some extent the EPRDF regime since 1991. The price was huge: thousands of indiscriminate killings and disappearances, and the uprooting of millions.
Yet the Somali people nevertheless accepted, at least in principle, the state and nationhood ideals promised after 1991 by EPRDF. Some of the principles that Somalis so profoundly became attached to include the recognition of their fundamental rights, such as the right to self-administer and to learn in their own language. Somalis accepted being part of Ethiopia on the understanding that multinational federalism with genuine self-rule is non-negotiable.
Unfortunately, that did not alter the clientelistic nature of successive administrations in Jigjiga. On the contrary, EPRDF, in disregard for the spirit of its own constitution, imposed its puppets and unleashed more violence on our people up until Abdi Iley regime’s bloody demise in August 2018.
The abuses that fell upon the Somali people, generation after generation, from successive Ethiopian regimes, in different forms and proportions, have led to various types of injustice: political under-representation, lopsided revenue and resource-sharing, and other discriminatory economic, employment and poverty-reduction policies.
As a result, Somali Region today is at the bottom of the pack in metrics that measure human progress, whether it’s infrastructure, income levels, or productivity. The same is true for social indicators such as health, education, or gender equality. Now, the ongoing democratic reforms offer an opportunity to meet our basic demands for the respect of human and constitutional rights, including that of equitable representation.
Hopefully, this would also help address to some extent the acute under-representation of Somalis across the federal bureaucracy, as much as it will help foster peace and achieve equality among Ethiopia’s nations and nationalities. Because justice must be the core foundation of any sustainable moves toward harmony, unity, and prosperity.