Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Somali Houses of Cards

Gamal Nkrumah interviews author Mohamed Rashid Sheikh Hassan who hypothesises that Somalia provides the perfect example of a double challenge

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Mohamed Rashid Sheikh Hassan is a man who has projected himself as a a writer of genius, and with a Marsters in Social Anthropology and a PhD in Political Science at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, he . During his academic studies he worked as a journalist at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Somali Service. This was the time that I came to know him as a dear friend. His humility, his conscientious and considerate nature were endearing qualities that cemented our friendship over the years.  

Crunch time came with our participation in the Seventh Pan-African Congress in the Ugandan capital Kampala. It was a memorable experience and we met many mutual Pan-Africanists. The author is currently the State Minister for Foreign Affairs in Somaliland, and a presidential adviser.  

Each chapter covers Somalia in sequence. The author is an academic, but not in the sense of a bookish pedantic didactic. He is after all, a diplomat and a politician. “The central concern of sociological and anthropological theory is the Hobbisian conceptualisation of the theme of social order. This addresses the social foundations pertaining to social stability and social cohesion, as well as the problematic issues of between consensus and constraints in social life. The “Founding Fathers of Sociology”. Durkheim and Weber, have established theories about the existence of the common moral order or a system of values which binds people together in a community. Religion is regarded as an essential component of this narrative,” the author extrapolates.

“Islam crossed the Red Sea with traders and holy men rather than with arms, and eventually established itself and united people in the area under the banner of Islam and headed by Ahmed Gurey,” the author spells out. Ahmed Gurey soon clashed with Christian Ethiopia for hegemony of the Horn of Africa. In the Sixteenth Century, under exacting military pressure from Ahmed Gurey, Ethiopia’s Emperor Lebna Dengel escaped to the remote mountain peaks of the Abyssinian Highlands.

“During the Somali-Ethiopia Wars (1964 and 1977/1978). the memory of Ahmed Gurey was revived and revitalised by Somalis. Many songs referring to Ahmed Gurey’s glorious battles were written and disseminated. His memory is still a major component of Somali collective consciousness of nationalism and statehood,” the author expounds.

Somalis are prone to blending geopolitical conspiracies with somewhat outlandish theories. Not so with Sheikh Hassan. True, Somalia is a territory of confusion. A land of mayhem and chaos. Its very boundaries are ill-defined. There is an autonomous ethnic Somali region in Ethiopia, and there are ethnic Somalis in Djibouti, where they constitute more than 50 per cent of the population, and in Kenya.  Somalis were among the first populations on the African continent to embrace Islam. Somalis converted en masse to Islam around 1550 AD.

Islam and Al-Shabab. These were the topics on my lips a couple of weeks ago when I had the privilege of meeting the author and his wife, incidentally a schoolmate of my sister Samia, for they both studied at the University of Ghana, Legon.

Tucked into a corner table in a luxurious Cairo hotel on the River Nile, cozy and unprepossessing perhaps, but a hugely attractive setting, we discussed everything, from the ancient Land of Punt, the land of gold, aromatic resins, myrrh and frankincense, ebony and ivory, in short the “Land of God”, Ta Netjer, in the ancient Egyptian tongue, to contemporary Somalia, Somaliland and the Somali Diaspora.  

“The Somali family networks, clans and tribes are symbolically represented as ‘Cards’ with the ‘Chairman’ or tribal leader or clan elder as the chief player, and hence the various Somali ‘House of Cards’ Anyone who wants to do research on Somalia has to spend time with the big guns,” the author told Al-Ahram Weekly.

With these caveats,

“In 1984 the Maheteen formed the first political organisation to oppose Siad Barre’s regime, the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF). With support from Ethiopia and Libya, the SSDF waged a guerrila war to topple the military regime,” the author noted, directing my attention to some more venerable tribal traditions in Somalia. The Somali tribes, clans and sub-clans are Legion, and I cannot possibly explain the complexities of the tribal map of Somalia and its political implications. The reader would have to read the book. What is critical, however, is to understand how various clans were associated with certain political movements and militias.

The Hawiye, southern Somalia’s largest tribe, has numerous clans and sub-clans. The first president of Somalia Aden Abdulle Osman belonged to the Hawiye tribe. The constitute the bulk of the population of Mogadishu, the Somali capital. General Mohamed Farah Aidid was also Hawiye.

The origins of the mistrust between northern and southern Somalia dates to the colonial era. The conflict between northern and southern Somalia was exacerbated by the military regime of Siad Barre. “More than 70 years of British and Italian ruleleft behind some distinctive characteristics, attitudes, opportunities and a unique way of life in each territory, although the bulk of the pastoral population largely remained unaffected by foreign influence. The Union of the North and South was too rapid and prematurely planned so mistrust and misunderstanding soon started to prevail,” the author expounds.

Hargeisa serves as the capital of the self-declared Somaliland in the northwestern region of the country. There are direct flights from Hargeisa to Addis Ababa and Dubai. Hargeisa sits at an elevation of 1,334 m above sea level. Thirty years on, Somali expatriates sending remittance funds to relatives reconstructed Somaliland.  Most of the destroyed residential and commercial buildings were restored to their former charm, they were mostly colonial and medieval single storey buildings, and new modern buildings with multi-storey edifices constructed. Hargeisa has a population of around 1.2 million residents as of 2015.

The author, after his London sojourn, has spent the rest of his life moving between the solitude of researching and writing and the the pursuit of professional broadcasting. Some readers will find the passage of time too much of a skim. After the collapse of the Somali central government and the start of the Somali civil war in 1991, the SNM secessionists in the northwestern part of Somalia unilaterally declared independence. The author soon realised where his loyalties lay.

Somalia is a nation still haunted by tribalism and clan affiliations. Yet, there is a new generation of cosmopolitan Somalis. “Many young people returned to the country after they completed their higher studiesin various countries such as the United States, Europe and Arab countries, the Soviet Union and China. They brought with them modern ideas, knowledge and experience and this rejuvenated local culture and knowledge. In Mogadishu cafes one could meet these young people who were well informed about great social thinkers  such as Plato, Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Niccolo Machiavelli, Hegel, Karl Marx, Lenin, Ibn Khaldoun, and Paul Sartre, as well as their African counterparts such as Kwame Nkrumah, Frantz Fanon and Julius Nyerere,” the author elucidates.

Mohamed Rashid Sheikh Hassan’s book fulfills almost every expectation of war-torn Somalia. Yet, it is peppered with surprises. The author adds some colour. The Somali first appeared as a unique ethnic group in the Horn of Africa around 1200 AD. And, even if they converted to Islam soon thereafter, they held on tenaciously to their ancient tribal pre-Islamic traditions. “The Somalis adhere to a customary law or ‘social contract’ known as Heer. The Heer consists of a set of memorised rules and regulations. Its applications take place in community leaders’ meetings known as Shir where important matters are discussed and resolutions are made,” the author notes.

“But the largely incorporates Islamic law and its concomitant values, as Islam played a vital role in the construction and sustainability of Somali society since Islamisation in the early Seventh Century. The Heer and Islamic law are interdependent variables,” the author told the Weekly.

He stressed the moral order of Somalis, based on what is halal, permitted and what is haram, forbidden/ “For instance it is very important that council members of the community Heer committee must be people who are known to follow the basic tenets of Islam., such as conducting the required five times daily prayers, fasting during Ramadan and above all, they must be trustworthy and truthful and this is measured with an Islamic yardstick”.

His images depict a fairy tale vision, according to his detractors, but he is unperturbed. He spent many years in London where he interacted with fellow Africans/There he learned that elements of Somali culture are distinctively African as well as Islamic, and that the two cultural perspectives do not necessarily collide.

In the wake of the Somali Civil War and the ensuing social crisis in Somalia, the country’s social life has changed dramatically. The shadow of the the conflict in Somalia still lingers over the country. So started what the author describes as a subtle shift towards the Arab World and away from Somalia’s African roots.

“Joining the Arab League largely came about as a result of two considerations: First, to ease the pressure coming from conservative Arab countries particularly Saudi Arabia which was not comfortable with the deepening Soviet influence in Somalia. Second, to pacify the growing concern of the religious leaders in the country who from the beginning did not like the introduction of Marxist ideology into Somali society,” the author told the Weekly.

Somalia, like many Arab and predominantly Muslim nations was dichotomized into adherents of secularist and Islamist ideologies pitted against each other. The Islamists had the upper hand.

Militant Islamist ideology was catchy and dorky. “Somalia had few industries and hence no working class, or even strong socialist parties, but this did not inhibit Soviet strategists from imposing their Marxist ideology and system of government on the country. Soviet strategists believed the military could be a vehicle for social engineering and a force for transformation and hopefully produce a socialist society along Soviet lines,” the author muses.

The Russians knew perfectly well that Siad Barre was neither revolutionary nor socialist but Somalia was very important for the Kremlin in the Cold War period and this overrode all other considerations,” he stresses.

Somalis welcomed the new emphasis the Islamists put on promoting their Muslim heritage which is intricately intertwined with Somali patriotism.

Yet, Italian colonized southern Somalia and British colonized Somaliland in the northwest of the country were fast drifting apart. The author covers topics other Somali intellectuals do not dare to touch. He harks back to history. In 1888, after signing successive treaties with the then ruling Somali sultans of what used to be the medieval Adel Sultanate, and declared Somaliland a British protectorate.

Party politics was invariably cast aside in a search of authentic Somali solutions. In 1960, the British protectorate gained independence and united as scheduled days later with the United Nations’ “trust territory” of Somalia that was once an Italian colony.

Somewhat incongruously, after fallout from the unsuccessful Oagaden campaign by Somalia to reclaim the ethnic Somali dominated sprawling eastern Ethiopian region, the country was heading for disintegration. The Somali National Movement (SNM) emerged in the northwest as a potent force to be reckoned with politically. By the late 1980s, the insurgent group had managed to capture Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland.

It is here in fast gentrifying Hargeisa, that the author has returned from overseas. His main source of aggravation was the extent to which the powers that be in Hargeisa running Somaliland seemed walled behind bureaucracy, red tape and protocol. Over the last couple of years, despite regular tussles with certain bureaucrats, he decided to focus on foreign policy issues.

The bucolic scene of a pastoral society was fast giving way to a vibrant urban society. Somaliland, after all, was far more politically stable than the rest of Somalia. “The military period of 1969-1991 was the most crucial in the life of the Somali state, mainly because it was a period in which the nation-state was put in the direction of gradual deterioration and final destruction,” the author explicates.

Mogadishu, known locally as Hamar, is the largest city in Somalia, and the capital of the nation. After being a haven for secularist intellectuals, Mogadishu metamorphosed into the stronghold of militant Islamists. Foreign interference and United States military intervention played a pivotal part.

It is against this dramatic backdrop that the name of General Mohamed Farah Aidid cropped in. “General Aidid’s name dominated the Somali political scene prior to and in the years that followed the downfall of the military regime. Aidid’s forces confronted the US forces in Somalia and his name entered world politics, as the man whose name was associated with the first test of the New World Order, as proclaimed by US President Bush senior,” the author clarifies. Aidid was instrumental in driving Barre out of Mogadishu. Ironically, Aidid was Barre’s presidential advisory of military matters. His was a classic case of treachery and double crossing.

The “White Pearl of the Indian Ocean” fell on hard times when after the demise of the Somali military ruler Barre in 1991 the country plunged into a most destructive civil war with rival warlords  battling each other for control of the country. After eventually forcing the “Blue Helmets”, the United Nations troops to abandon the country in 1995, Aidid daringly declared himself President of Somalia for a few months until his death the following year. He was the proverbial tribal warlord. Somalia’s strongman.

Next, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) captured the city in the mid-2000s. In short, Aidid paved the way for the militant Islamists to toy with the notion of power. Soon after Aidid’s demise, the ICU thereafter splintered into various militant Islamist terrorist groups, the largest was the Ḥarakat Ash-Shabab Al-Mujahidin, or “The Youngsters” better known as Al-Shabab or “The Youth”.

The author covers the stretch of time. Across town, the rival warlords wreaked havoc. Due to its Wahhabi and Takfiri ideological orientation, Al-Shabab was particularly hostile to the Sufi Orders of Somalia. Somali Sufi Orders were traditionally the most widespread expression of Islam in Somalia.

Al-Shabab clashed routinely with the  Sufi militia Ahlu Al-Sunna Wal-Jamara. Be that as it may, Sufi Islam in Somalia is well entrenched. In August 2014, the Somali government-led “Operation Indian Ocean” to flush out Al-Shabab insurgent-held pockets in the countryside, in the vicinity of Mogadishu and in particular in the south of the country.

It is certainly disconcerting that Al-Shabab have not been wiped out altogether.

The author gives chapter and verse for a disturbing portrait of Somalia, one of the most dangerous places on earth. Yet, he portrays Somaliland as a place apart, Here he points out questions of belief and questions of development and vigilance are mingled together in a most uncommon manner.


Somali History: 1960-1991, Islam, the Clan, and the State in the Somali Context

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