Not many have heard of Jijiga, the capital of the Somali Regional State of Ethiopia, or even, perhaps, have learned much about Ethiopia and the cities therein it, but Jijiga: The History of a Strategic Town in the Horn of Africa can enlighten readers into this town’s fundamental contribution to Ethiopia and the surrounding states. Jijiga tells the story of growth from a once under-developed area in the Ogaden to, now, a thriving model city in the Horn of Africa that perfectly epitomizes Ethiopian culture of diversity and development. In February, Tsehai Publishers and Distributors released this book by Tibebe Eshete, Ph.D., recipient of the Compton Peace Fellowship Award.
In this short, but enlightening book that captures the journey of Jijiga, Dr. Tibebe Eshete has successfully shed light into a very limited field of urban studies in relation to Ethiopia, and in whole, the Horn of Africa. As Dr. Tibebe states in his book, “Jijiga provides an interesting venture into what might be called ‘frontier history.’” Because of Jijiga’s quintessential location on the Ethio-Somali borders and its predominately Somali population, Jijiga, as a model, “offers a distinct opportunity to further contribute to the study of center periphery relations in Ethiopian history.”
In this “highly informative and often insightful, monograph,” writes Dr. Gebru Tareke author of The Ethiopian Revolution: War in the Horn of Africa, “Tibebe has offered a vivid portrait of Jijiga’s evolution from a dusty garrison village to today’s modern capital city of the Somali State (Zone Five)…. This pioneering work in urbanization/urbanism sheds considerable light on the social and political history of Ethiopia.”
In an interview with Tsehai Publications, Dr. Tibebe Eshete elaborates on the back story of his book as well as the significance of Jijiga itself:
Q: Why is Jijiga important for Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa?
A: Jijiga is important for Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in many ways because it represents novelty and new experimentations in the area of administration. It was the first major administrative town established in the larger area of the Ogaden (the Southeastern region of Ethiopia). It was the first major urban center in the Ogaden with cosmopolitan character hosting different ethnic and expatriate groups such as Indians, Arabs, and Greeks. Jijiga represents the first attempt on the part of the Ethiopian government to let the region be ruled by a man of Muslim background, Abdella Taha, using native/traditional systems. It was one of the few towns in Ethiopia that had a town plan as early as the 1920’s. It was one of the few towns selected to be a model for the rest of Ethiopia during the regency of Tefari (later Emperor Haile Sellassie). It is a town that was graced with governors of progressive outlook including Girmachew Tekle Hawariat, Ras Imuru and the legendary political figure, Germame Neway. It played a crucial role as one of the strategic spots in organizing resistance against the Italian aggression on the Eastern Front during the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1936. It was also a major center for the contestation of different political forces of local, national and international significance (British, Italians, and in the recent past, Russians and Cubans). Jijiga has experienced both the blessings and curses of being a border town. A major political, religious, economic and cultural hub itself, Jijiga has also been influenced by its close connection with towns like Harggeissa, the capital city of the Republic of Northern Somaliland. Currently, Jijiga is the capital city of Somali Zone (one of the states created by the Federal government). It still plays a role as a major city hosting several modern institutions including universities bearing its own name.
Q: You mentioned Germame Neway in your book. Why is his particular influence important in the history Jijiga?
A: Germame Neway was a progressive radical who had his educational training in the United States. While in the United States, he was actively involved in creating an organization for Ethiopian students in the United States. The fledging black consciousness movement and the ideas of Marxist radicalism also, to a degree, influenced him. Because of the issues he had with Emperor Haile Sellassie, he was not able to pursue his graduate program. He left the United States with indignation. He was placed in remote places, like Welammo know Wolyta partly as a punishment and partly as a test. He was appointed to be the governor of Jijiga a model town. Germame initiated progressive ideas and practices while serving as a governor. He established local music bands consisting of the local Somali people in part to promote and honor the culture of the local people and in part to make the local Somalis feel at home with the government. He established a shop for the poor people by way of implementing his socialist ideas, a small scale version of it at least where poor people were assisted in purchasing items of necessity, such as textiles, at low cost. Above all, Jijiga served as a kind of incubator for the fermentation of the 1960 military coup. Though he did not escape scrutiny, the outlying nature of Jijiga gave Neway some kind of relative autonomy and, ironically, a space to plan and execute a coup together with his cohorts including his brother, General Mengistu Neway. The abortive coup of 1960 is a matter of seminal importance in modern political history of Ethiopia. Young people took his inspiration and started a kind of millenarian movement that eventually culminated into the 1974 Marxist revolution. I consider Jijiga to be the birthplace of the seed of Ethiopian revolution.
Q: 1891 is mentioned as the starting point for Jijiga. When else, would you say, is another important date for Jijiga that has helped it grow into this hub of possibilities?
A: I consider 1891 to be a landmark year because it was the year marking the setting up of a military fort, which was eventually converted to a garrison post attracting the settlement of soldiers. I take this date as a turning point because we have the evidence of the formation of the military post by travelers such as Swayne. The next major landmark, in the history of Jijiga, is the appointment of Abdella Taha (by 1898) who encouraged the settlement of Arab traders mainly from Yemen. This was a time when the town really assumed a semblance of urban culture with modern buildings and diversity of its inhabitants. The Italian occupation period (1936-41) is also a shaping moment for the growth of the town. Realizing its significance as a strategic town, in regards to commerce and trade, in the Horn of Africa, the government invested in building its infrastructures. The time between the 1950s and 1960s, the Ethiopian government turned Jijiga into a huge military station by expanding its military base. This is also true of the larger regions of the Ogaden. The timing has a lot to do with the coming of the independence of Somalia and the possible political tensions unfolding. Jijiga became a major transit for the military convoys—that was the context that gave rise for the proliferation of various categories of bars to Ogaden or coming from it—thus its importance as a resort center. The time between the early 1960s and the beginning of the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974 was the heyday of Jijiga. Jijiga and the surrounding area witnessed the development of modern commercial farms with the use of tractors. The wealth generated from the new project was invested into building affluent houses and modern hotels. Finally, though I am not an eye-witness, I hear that the town is experiencing fast growth as the capital of Somali region, though not comparable to similar capitals like Awasa and Bahr Dar.
Q: How can Jijiga be a model for social and political history for Ethiopia in the future?
A: I believe that Jijiga can serve as a model for the social and political history for Ethiopia in the future because its unique history has promoted co-existence of various sorts (ethnic, religious, cultural). What I have described as a megala culture is a mega culture, which emerged from the dynamics of cordial interactions between different groups, each contributing to a synergistic situation that can be characterized as an emerging property. It is a perfect example of heterogeneity melting into homogeneity—the name of Jijiga represents radiance and a cosmopolitan culture that transcends any kind of parochialism.
Q: Why is this book and knowing about Jijiga important for this particular time?
A: Jijiga is everything, our past and our present. Reading the history of Jijiga is like travel. It gives us a unique narrative of the challenges all border towns face, but it also allows us to see what a border town can give to Ethiopia. It is the story of resilience—it is the story of how people collectively create to surmount existential challenges. Jijiga typifies the undying saga of the forces of good always winning against the forces of “evil.”
The book can be purchased from Tsehai Publishers’ website: http://tsehaipublishers.com
Julia Blake is a writer based in Los Angeles and she can be reached by firstname.lastname@example.org.