By Abdirahman Hollywood
Jigjiga is a city located in the north of the Ethiopian occupied Ogaden, a territory roughly the size of Germany and with an estimated population of 8 million. During the colonial period the British illegally handed it over to then Abyssinian (now Ethiopia) rulers without the consent and knowledge of its people. Since then successive Ethiopian regimes have waged a systematic campaign of repression and have committed crimes against humanity when the Somali people of Ogaden tried to exercise their right to self-determination.
The emergence of TPLF and the city of Jigjiga
After the fall of the Mengistu Hailemariam regime, the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) with the help of other liberation fronts established itself as the government of Ethiopia. In order to rule the Ogaden with ease the TPLF leadership quickly identified Jigjiga as the perfect city to establish the regional administration. Due to its strategic location and close proximity to other cities such as Harar, Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa, Jigjiga became the hub that connected the nearby cities of Somalia such as Hargeisa and the Republic of Djibouti. The city was also far away from most of the other towns in Ogaden which were the scene of the liberation war waged by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). The TPLF leadership capitalized on this opportunity and established its new administration in Jigjiga as the new capital, moving it from Godey.
Most of the regional activities were then concentrated around Jigjiga – from regional government bureaus to international NGOs headquarters. Knowing that it will take time for the liberation front to reach the north, the Ethiopian government built heavy security around it and added some of the biggest jails and interrogation centers. Suddenly Jigjiga seemed to be at the center of everything in the Ogaden; it also became the place of opportunity for many including young people.
During the late 90’s as ONLF’s military capacity increased its support of the people also increased and it became evident the regime had underestimated them. Over the following six years the regime had suffered heavy causalities from ONLF, coupled with its domestic problems and a prolonging war with Eretria it was difficult for the regime to sustain the heat. The Obole incident showed the world the strength of the ONLF and the support the Front enjoys among its people. In response the Ethiopian regime imposed trade embargo and unleashed a scorched earth campaign of collective punishment against the civilian population in the Ogaden which caused the death of thousands and displacement of millions. Human Rights Watch documented the resulting catastrophe. The regime wanted to weaken the ONLF and its support base by starving the entire population in what can be described as strategy to “drain the bond to catch the fish” –an approach human rights groups criticized yet the international community remained silent.
Meanwhile, because more than 90% of the trade in Ogaden comes from Somalia this embargo affected millions of live as the flow of goods and services stopped. At the same time, Ethiopian army commanders in Ogaden together with their business syndicates begun importing goods into Ogaden through the Somali port of Berbera and distributing it in Ogaden at a very high cost without competition. The Tigrayan army commanders bypass the Jigjiga customs office, which is said to make about 60 million dollars annually, while the few Somali businessmen who’re given operating licenses are forced to pay hefty taxes. The goods of those who dare trespass this unfair business practices are impounded and the traders are sentenced to heavy prison terms.
In order to divert the attention from the aforementioned illegal activities, the top Tigray leaders using the local regional administration started showcasing Jigjiga making it the perfect bait to lure members of the Diaspora as well as the international community. (For more on this, check out Mohamed Adow’s recent PR stunt while reporting on the region’s so-called economic development, one wonder why he only reported from Jigjiga?)
In the Diaspora you might often hear the catch phrase “kaalay Jigjiga soo arag” (come and see JigJiga) from some individuals as if Jigjiga is the whole country or a paradise. The problem with most of these individuals is that they never go beyond Jigjiga, and if you ask them why? Their response is as simple: “Intaasaaaa aragti iigu filan” (I have seen enough).
As for those who go beyond Jigjiga they are always put on pre-arranged trips by the local administration. They are often told what to do, where to go and where to stay, away from places considered “unsafe” and are always kept on a close eye. I remember a story by an Ogaden citizen whose car stalled after falling into a deep pothole on one of the roads they were travelling in 1975. On his return after 35 years, he travelled on the same road and ironically their car fell into the same pothole again. In his own words: “intaasaa aragti iigu filan” (I have seen enough) he said about the so-called “development”.
What they got to hide?
Certainly the regime doesn’t want outsiders to witness such things as the above story. First, they don’t want you to see the realities on the ground, the atrocities and the gross human rights violations that are taking place. Secondly, they don’t want you to see the strength of the ONLF freedom fighters, which they often portray as non-existence.
In terms of development one can compare Jigjiga’s overall development to cities such as Mekele or Gondor, from infrastructure to high schools, colleges and universities and you will then see the glaring disparities. A colonizer whose sole purpose is to own your country and its resources will not develop you or educate you. As we often hear education is the key of life; education sets you free; it makes you independent; it gives you the capability or the ability to develop. But unfortunately, the one thing a colonizer will never give you is quality education that sets you free from his grip.
Finally, I would like to remind my readers that the struggle in the Ogaden is not about development or working within the Ethiopian constitution, but rather a colonial issue that needs to be addressed through a referendum and self-determination for the people of Ogaden. When that day comes, and the people of Ogaden decide their fate, they will have the opportunity and the resources to develop their country on their own.
By – Abdirahman Hollywood