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Ethiopia: The “Big Man” And the Broken People of Jigjiga

The “Big Man” of Jigjiga: President Abdi Mohamoud Omer

By Muktar M. Omer

There can be no better visualization of life under the archetypal “Big Man” in post-colonial Africa than the portrayal of the fictional African tyrant in Achille Mbembe’s “The Aesthetics of Vulgarity”. In this moving theory of power, oppression, tyranny and a sickening social situation the Cameroonian theorist refers to as the “mutual Zombification of both the dominant and the dominated”, Mbembe draws the autocrat’s body: the stomach, like the satisfied rumen of a cow, collapses and stretches, the face is puffed up, the chest hairy and fleshy – all signifying massive eating. Besides the grotesque body shape, the tyrant’s exercise of power is expressed through libido, debauchery, buffoonery, fetish, death, and violence.

Mbembe writes “to exercise authority is, furthermore, for the male ruler, to demonstrate publicly a certain delight in eating and drinking well, and in Labou Tansi’s words, to pass most of his time in “pumping grease and rust into the backsides of young girls”. Labou Tansi, is a Congolese writer who, in ‘The Antipeople’, narrated the social upheaval in an African village ravaged by murderous government soldiers fighting rebels where “women sell their sexual favors to official “bigshots” in exchange for safety”.

Now, if you are from the Somali Region of Ethiopia, leave the world of imagination and return to the reality of life in our own Jigjiga and tell me if, contextual and spatial differences aside, you don’t find striking similarity between Mbembe’s postcolonial Africa and your home region – itself wrongly named the Somali Regional State of Ethiopia, when it is neither “regional” nor a “state”. The whole place is an underworld Mafia hangout where crime is the natural pastime.

Mbembe provides a glimpse into a situation where tyranny, pretense, pain, obscenity, filth, and vulgarity all become a normal condition of state power and social rule. Familiar? Does this not bring into mind the tyranny of our own “Big Man” who prefers to be called “Aabo” (The Father), the buffoonery of his largely uneducated surrogates, the Dhaanto dance fetish, the Diaspora farce, the development pretense, the death and violence against innocent civilians? Has vulgarity and violence not become the normal condition of life in the Somali Region? What does the following few selected occurrences tell you about the societal breakdown in the region?

A month or so ago, the “Big Man” of the region, not uncharacteristically, insulted a female member of his cabinet calling her a whore, a drunkard and an addict. The incensed girl, for whatever reasons, found enough courage to return the insults in-kind by reminding the President of his own sexual escapades with young girls. The communal shock was about how and why she gambled with her life, not why the President of 8 million people would choose to insult a woman in public.

Three months ago, a young woman from the Diaspora decried, on social media, the arrest of her father in Jigjiga and the dispossession of a family house. As expected, the “Big Man”, through his henchmen, responded by playing an X-rated drama on TV and Youtube where two foul-mouthed actors unloaded all manners of lewd gossip on the woman.  Again, the fixation was on the poor woman’s plight and history of “connivance” with her current tormentors. There were no condemnations from elders or religious leaders – moral custodians of yesterday’s society.

Some years back, a group of defected rebels narrated on the regional TV, the sexual orgies, including bestiality, they allegedly committed while in the bush. The reaction was mute. Dead silence.

Every day, week or month, young girls and mothers are raped in prisons by official “big shots”. Those who escape the misfortune of detention are sexually exploited and abused in “Qat” chewing saloons (Mafrishes). The few who excel in providing sexual favours to the officials – through their quick acclimatization to drugs and alcohol- are recruited into the bureaucracy at the expense of a ruined future. This phenomenon is said to explain why there are so many young, attractive and flirty girls in top positions of the government. Which, by the way, should have been good news, except that it is an enhanced gender inclusivity attained through abusing rather empowering women.

Last year, a young man met a horrific death in the hands of the agents of the “Big Man” because the brother of the deceased upset the “Big Man”. This death, by no means, is an isolated incident. Death, violence, corruption and nepotism are the tragic daily experiences of the helpless people in Jigjiga and across the region. Yet, the overwhelming opinion is that the brother of the killed young man was to blame for the killing since he dared to challenge the “Big Man”. Not the vicarious injustice of killing a man for the alleged crimes of another, reminiscent of 10th century world!

These incidents and the appalling reactions of the victimized people illustrate the sudden reversals and upturnings of socially accepted norms. They are the products of the violence perpetrated against the individual and communal consciousness of the people. The real has become the unusual and the unreal is the accepted norm. We are undergoing a social and cultural transformation and are on the verge of embracing new mores where vulgarity and cruelty are aesthetically acceptable; even appealing.

Why are we here? How can we get out of it? Who can rescue us? Will we – both the rulers and the ruled – remain eternal Zombies? Why are we not fighting back? Where is the resistance? Where are the intellectuals and religious leaders?

The questions on the causes and remedies of our misery need broader examination and discussion. But, one thing is certain. Underneath the seeming paralysis, the oppressed people are engaged in disorganized but creative ways of resisting oppression at the level of everyday practice. The overcrowded prisons in the region are evidence of the inexplicit resistance ordinary citizens are engaged in to overcome despotic tyranny.

The absence of bourgeois intellectuals – who fled the region and the country and have become political and economic refugees elsewhere – from the struggle should neither be surprising nor lead to dejection. It is an African phenomenon, and probably a global one too. The void they left is somehow filled by artists, social media activists, grassroots intellectuals, religious leaders, entrepreneurs subverting the destructive TPLF-sponsored social re-engineering project in their unique and different ways.

In such a dangerous historical and political time as the one we are going through, every act of decency becomes defiance and resistance. Every parent raising kids with good manners, every student and civil servant embracing discipline, every business person engaged in honest livelihood, every man or woman of religion promoting a message of harmony and kindness among people, every elder solving local grievances thereby lessening the possibility of future conflicts, every young man and woman rejecting the temptations of depravity, and every artist decrying oppression through poetry, music, and humour is a hero of this inexplicit struggle. And of course every activist and freedom fighter.

Which at times makes me question the accuracy of my depiction of this incredibly resilient people as broken society. What is unquestionable, however, is that today people in the Ethiopian Somali Region are living in Mbembe’s proverbial baroque, violent, and vulgar village.

Muktar M. Omer is a social and political commentator from the Somali Region of Ethiopia. He can be reached at muktaromer2017@yahoo.com.

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