By Abukar Arman
As in old caravans ‘Where the lead camel goes, so shall others’. Such goes the Somali proverb, notwithstanding its regional variations and dialectical flavors. The Lead Camel Effect (LCE) describes a syndrome or a common human tendency to blindly follow leaders, role-models, and all those whom authority is attributed to even if such individuals were leading them astray.
LCE is not unique to one particular culture or society. Think of how the American Generation X who, though born decades later in a different social and political environment, emulated their Baby Boomer parents’ counter-culture ideals; the hallmark carefree lifestyles flavored with cynicism, cultish mentality, defiance of authority, drug abuse, and sexual promiscuity.
In that context one could say where post-independence Somali political, professional and intellectual elite went, so did the second. Of course there are exceptions, though few and far between.
As Somalia was approaching independence (July 1, 1960) clan and personal political agenda was already eclipsing the vision of building robust institutions to sustain the young democracy. By independence, Machiavellian individuals exploiting the newly founded state’s lack of sophisticated capacity in good governance as well as the gullibility and the groupthink mentality of the clan-loyalists have had the groundwork set for the loot-frenzy (bililiqo) of the following decades. The impetus that set that frenzy in motion was the self-serving affirmative answer giving to the ethical question of ‘who had the legitimate right to inherit the residential properties left behind by the Italian colonial power?’
Adan Abdulle Osman, the first President, was adamantly against the proposition to distribute the mansions and villas to a few privileged individuals within the circle of power as personal properties. He forewarned such behavior would not help the nation and would motivate the new power-brokers to “think like the colonial masters”. Despite his objection, the properties were distributed. This behavior of treating national assets as spoils has set a precedent that legitimized corruption and ensured almost all high government officials up until the civil war at least a mansion or a villa of one’s own, or the equivalent in cash since then. This corrupt sub-culture has systematically corroded trust and became the fuel that kept clan conflict burning.
Contrary to the common perception of the past two decades, corrupt officials are not only those who employ Kleptocracy as a system of governance who habitually steal the revenues and resources entrusted on them, but also those who practice nepotism or give themselves extraordinary privileges, those who employ selective justice, reject policies and prevent building institutions of checks and balances.
As the painful history of the past two decades indicates, the great majority of these generations of trend-setters and imitators have allocated great deal of their intellectual energy and ingenuity to myopically advance one personal/clan-interest or another at the expense of the national interest or the common good.
The Lost Generations
Especially those among them who were considered intellectuals in various facets of life including the spiritual, who, instead of claiming their ordained role as the young nation’s critical conscience; instead of putting matters in their historical perspective, connecting the dots, devising coherent strategy and offering viable alternatives to save the fragile state, most assumed the enabler or the intellectual commissar role for one despot, political overlord, sectarian group or another. To most whose moral justification was “Everyone is doing it” all that mattered was high posts and loots.
Perhaps due to the colonial inferiority complex of their mentors in the first generation, the second generation of intellectuals valued symbolism much more profoundly than substance. One had to look the part or play the part however dysfunctional to gain external approval. That desperate dependency, needless to say, blurs, if not subjugates, their objectivity. In that context it is not surprising that there are intellectual and professional chameleons that, on one hand, match well against their peers in terms of scholarship, academic discipline as well as knowhow and production; on the other, persistently clinch on their clannish mentality and resort to uncompromising zero-sum games when it comes to advancing matters of national interest.
Sadly, it is this duality, or rather intellectual schizophrenia that defines the average Somali intellectual. Because clanism provides surrogate claim to superiority, in the past two decades, most of our intellectuals have been on a relentless pursuit to get ample boost of self-esteem within their respective clan apparatus. In order to climb high within the clan stature or be revered as a hero one must become the flag-bearer of certain primitive norms. In the past two decades it became too difficult to distinguish between most of these intellectuals and the A’rabi (chronically uncivilized nomads) in his crudeness, xenophobia, and hyper-protection of territorial (clan) identity.
Nature of the Dysfunction
A hindsight scan of what went wrong in Somalia leads one to the pathological role that this group of professionals and intellectuals has played in perpetuating two decades of societal hemorrhage. More than the warlords, political opportunists, economic parasites, neo-Islamists, this particular group of intellectual class has contributed to the Balkanization of Somalia, both physically and psychologically. No other group has consistently been sowing negativity for the past two decades more than the Somali intellectuals. If this particular group had any contribution at all it must be the fact that they changed the Somali national character from a “Nation of Poets” into a “Nation of Presidents”!
As an oral society that met many challenges in its transition into modern, citizen-based, statehood, Somalia’s indigenous historic figures of sometimes illiterate public intellectuals of poets, mullahs, bards, and lyricists are by and large replaced by intellectually destructive or do-nothings. For evidence all one has to do is randomly Google up a few of the hundreds of Somali “News” websites and see how many articles, editorial pieces, Op-Eds, or essays about reconciliation or reinvention of a better Somalia from ground up that you come across. The litmus test of the Somali “intellectual” is his/her record of publicly criticize admonishing his/her clan against their shortcomings or saying something that contradicts that of the party line.
The Intergenerational New Breed
Breaking this vicious cycle of negative emulation, a hope-inspiring new generation made of the few who survived the aforementioned syndrome and their visionary younger intellectual activists who refused to surrender to negativity and become handicapped by hate. This new generation has been actively initiating new ideas for Somalia’s revival and recovery through writings, lectures, poetry, and political cartoons.
Nothing describes the conscience of that new generation more eloquently than these verses composed by Ilhan Dahir, a young Somali-American poet, for the bitter sweet occasion of 50 years after independence:
“Men who wash their sins off with blood/will receive no absolution…/Let’s create vibrations that turn into waves/let’s flood the shores of the East with the words that we say/Let’s forge a path to unity; Let’s never sway/because our differences have held us captive far too long/And the one who was most right is still very wrong!”
Somalia has entered a new phase of introspection, reinvention, and rebuilding. This, needless to say, makes it incumbent upon all Somalis of good will and vision to participate in the on-going engineering of a viable, just, peaceful, and progressive State. Whether or not the old guards would finally redeem themselves by participating and contributing positively to this process remain to be seen.
Abukar Arman is Somalia’s Special Envoy to the United States.