The Intellectual Paralysis of the Educated Somali
Ismail Ali Ismail
Editors Note: This Piece was initially published at WardheerNews on November 2004. We revisit the issues again as the information is as current today as when the piece first appeared. Mr. Ismail Ali Ismail (Geeldoon) eloquently and clearly discusses and examines in an articulate manner the state of the Somali Intellectual. Other issues that augment the discussion such as the role of the Somali media and other issues that are pertinent to the Somali affairs of today are also touched upon. We hope our esteemed readers will enjoy this piece and surmise its bearing.
Somalia, it is generally agreed, is a very poor country. Its poverty, however, is not due to acute paucity of physical or natural resources; it is, as is the case in many Third World countries, due to a poverty of the mind. Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, once described his country as a rich country with poor people, and a former director of the UNDP Bureau for Africa once said with reference to Africa that it was outrageous that the World's richest continent should be the home of its poorest.
Somalia has more than 2.5 million acres of arable land, only a small fraction of which is cultivated. Its animal wealth was estimated years ago at 45 million heads of camels, cattle, sheep and goats. Petroleum, uranium and various other mineral deposits are also known to be lurking underground and offshore. It is even reported that the country - known to be arid territory - is blessed with underground lakes. At an estimated 10m., the population is very small and its density very low. Its coastline extends 3200 kms., the longest in Africa (South Africa's is 2,789 kms. long), parts of which are believed to have been exposed to irresponsible and callous dumping of chemical and nuclear wastes. Somalia's marine resources are continually depleted and deliberately destroyed by the application of prohibited fishing methods – with the full knowledge of the powerful members of the community of nations. The country's marine economic zone – always unprotected – is for others to exploit and even destroy. But what is worse is that the sons of the soil have themselves aggravated the plight of the country by destroying its fauna and flora: so many uncountable trees have been destroyed by people who cannot see beyond their stomachs and are so desperate that they try to eke out a living by exporting charcoal to countries in the Arabian Peninsula. By denuding the country, they helped such agents of erosion as the winds and floods to accelerate desertification. I understand also that vast areas of arable land in the South of the country were turned into battlefields during the civil war and destroyed as a result. What can we say – I ask – about a people who destroy their own means of livelihood and then beg others to feed them? It is truly a situation which boggles the mind.
What the country lacks and so desperately needs is a high degree of human ingenuity to exploit and transmute its natural resources in order to improve the general quality of life. One of our tragedies - and a great one at that - is our lack of ability (or even the inclination) to develop our capacities to identify, much less transmute, our inanimate resources. With so much poverty and hunger in the midst of abundance of resources we truly are “ Ka mathalil ximaari yaxmlu asfaaran ” (the Qur'an).
In writing this essay, I was impelled mainly by three reason: first, some of our educated men and women have, unfortunately, identified themselves with the war-lords of their respective clans – or even sub-clans; secondly, it is a singular reflection that educated Somalis have not so far filled an obvious intellectual void in the face of issues which are matters of life and death for our nation; thirdly, the dire need for awakening the educated Somali, himself or herself, to the intellectual and political leadership he/she abdicated and abandoned. The issues, some of which I discuss below, are complex and daunting but they must none the less be dealt with.
Somalia has been led since independence by persons, the vast majority of whom had either a modicum of formal education or none at all. The first few university graduates who just returned at Independence were young and too inexperienced for the high posts they were destined to encumber and were inevitably occupied with the day-to-day administration of the country, albeit with the help of expatriate experts. They hardly had any time for reflection or policy planning and they lacked the necessary institutional infrastructure and educated political leaders who knew where they were going. Economic planning was scarcely used as an effective instrument of policy. When the military took over they came with the preconceived notion that civilians could neither be trusted nor able to provide effective leadership, and the few civilian graduates (some of whom were pitchforked from relative obscurity to the helm of ministries as 'secretaries of state') were, in fact, nothing more than glorified clerks. Policy decisions were made then, as before, by muddling through and at times, even on the spur of the moment. The military vowed to free administration from nepotism and favouritism but found themselves drifting back to cronyism and clannism, despite the symbolic burials of the latter. And, as expected, the gun was mightier than the pen as it is still today. The military said they had to step in because the country was falling off a precipice; but twenty years of their bad and tragic governance did actually push it over the precipice and we are now clumsily trying to collect and put together the disjecta membra of our nation from the bottom of that precipice..
In the face of all this, educated Somalis continue to show both ambivalence and diffidence. It has been said that politics is a dirty game. I would add that in Africa it is also a dangerous game. I realise that educated Somalis do not want to ‘dirty' their hands by engaging in politics and are not willing to face the perils of African politics. But they have nevertheless been vociferous in their complaint about the quality of our political leaders, the absence of rational policymaking, the lack of development, corruption, clannism and a host of other serious shortcomings. In short, they have been critical of everything that has gone wrong but have shied away from coming forward to fill the apparent intellectual void. I am reminded here of a humorous anecdote from the Sudan. It was related to me long ago that in the early days of Nemeiry's regime university professors and PhD holders (and there were thousands of them) were so vociferous and harsh in their criticism of the regime's policies and performance that Nemeiry, realizing that they were making a lot of sense, decided to appoint them to cabinet and other leadership positions. After two years the economy was in such shambles under their management that people were so disenchanted with them that they used to say upon encountering a senior official who was so patently helpless and inefficient: "The poor fellow is incapable of doing anything at all; he must be either a professor or a doctor". But the Sudan, very unlike Somalia, has had some real intellectuals of international repute as political leaders and at no time was the Sudan led, even under military regimes, by leaders who were so uneducated and ignorant as ours.
I am not implying that our professors and/or PhD holders are of the genre referred to in this Sudanese anecdote, but I believe it is incumbent upon them to step in and demonstrate the practical utility of their education. Mere collection of academic degrees will at the end of the day prove to be an exercise in futility; for the real worth of the knowledge that such degrees are testimony to is shown in the form of practical achievements on the ground. Nowhere is the challenge more pressing and urgent than in the area of political reforms so that we can have in the near future a healthy polity that will transcend clannism and thereby free the nation from the shackles of this archaic and pernicious aspect of our tradition and culture. Writing articles and books, speaking in symposia and presenting papers to other relevant fora are only the first step that can lead to a series of structured but serious debates. Politics is the key to all else and that was why Kwame Nkrumah said “Give me the political kingdom and everything else will follow.” Educated Somalis must not limit themselves to advocacy only but must also enter politics and compete for office, go into opposition when their opponents form the government, and must of course continue to preach good governance to the public. But, I know from experience that the Somali people are tired of listening to speeches from people who do not have a proven record of credibility - people who preach but have hidden agendas. In consequence, the people have become cynical. The essence of leadership is encapsulated in the paradoxical Arabic phrase " Sayyidul Qowmi Khaadimuhom" which, literally translated, means, “The master of the people is their servant". So the essence of leadership is service, not profit as some of us might think, and the authority inherent in leadership should be used, not in the pursuit of illicit pecuniary interests but to ensure effectiveness in serving the people. And if our positive actions speak louder then our homilies, public cynicism will be shunted off to the sideways.
Political leaders are expected to provide intellectual leadership which they cannot monopolise (many renowned and successful political leaders have been intellectual giants). We also need other people who can provide intellectual leadership in such areas as policy analysis, policy forecasting, economic analysis and social development; we need “think tanks” which are independent of government so that they will carry out future studies and illuminate the field of policy options; and of course we need men and women in the technical professions who will demonstrate initiative and leadership in their own areas.
History - both distant and recent - shows that overthrowing a dictator is usually a very expensive undertaking and it leaves behind, even when successful, a long trail of destruction in terms of lives and property. Rancour, long suppressed, erupts into violence, vengeance becomes the order of the day and so many innocent people pay with their lives for the excesses of their merciless rulers. In the case of Somalia, clannism did not allow the forces seeking to overthrow the dictator to unite and to agree in advance on power-sharing and what they should do next. Today, we are saddled with a proliferation of war-lords who are neither intellectually nor even temperamentally equipped to rule the country; nor are they willing to part with the clan fiefdoms they have created - fiefdoms that are now difficult to dismantle. We see coming on the horizon a government of sorts which will, in all probability, be dominated by the war-lords who are the most visible members of the parliament constituted in Nairobi.
The clan system is anachronistic and has proved to be octopus-like with its many tentacles; whenever you go free of one tentacle there are seven others that will pull you down. It is, in short, fatal to any enterprise in modernization. The coincidence of political and clan cleavages has already proved to be pernicious, not only to our national unity but to our very existence. I still remember a statement issued at the outbreak of the civil war (well, there is nothing civil about a war) from the U.S. State Department which said, inter alia , that Somalia was committing a national suicide. clannism is, without doubt, the greatest challenge facing educated Somalis, and it is a problem area which still paralyses their intellectual faculties. Nowhere else have we failed so dismally as in this area. Far from rising to the challenge of rising above it we have, in actual fact, succumbed to clannism. Look at our websites! you can even tell which website belongs to which clan. And look at many of the contributions! you can almost glean from them the clan affiliation of individual writers without even reading too closely between the lines. I am at times driven to despair when I see blunt expressions of clan prejudice in writing and when I see the various websites (supposedly run by 'educated' people) pandering to the lower tastes of bigots. It is appalling to see the utter lack of standards. I have also been reading in the websites that the "intellectuals" of this clan or that clan have met and decided that their clan should do such and such. When I read some of the contributions that are sent to the websites by people who possess the ultimate of academic degrees I am reminded by what that French philosopher, Montaigne, said when he was asked why he fled urban life in favour of village life. The question actually put to him was: “Why do you detach yourself from the civilized world?” to which his answer was: “I prefer the company of peasants because they have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly .” (Emphasis mine) Education is supposed to throw light on the dark recesses of our Somali brains where clannism resides. Incidentally, any one who calls himself ' intellectual' is surely not an intellectual. It is also grotesque to call oneself ' aqoonyahan ' (which is not at all the correct translation of ‘intellectual') for no one is such, and the claim smacks of arrogance. Literally, " aqoonyahan " means "expert in knowledge" or "someone possessing wide-ranging knowledge” and anyone who claims to be " aqoonyahan " is truly ignorant. Education is supposed to teach modesty arising out of the awareness of our shortcomings. That is why it was said: "Education is Man's going from cock-sure ignorance to a thoughtful uncertainty". The great El Khaliil Ibn Ahmed El Frahiidi (the pioneer of Arabic Grammer) classified men into four categories in so far as possession of knowledge is concerned. He said: ‘Men are of four kinds: there is one who does not know and knows that he does not know; he is ignorant and needs to be instructed. There is another who knows and does not know that he knows; he is in a slumber and needs to be awakened. There is yet another who knows and knows that he knows; he is learned and needs to pass his knowledge. And yet there is another who does not know and does not know that he does not know; that one is a presumptuous ignoramus and should be rejected.' We need to search internally as to which of these categories we belong to. All that philosophizing aside, are we not perpetuating our nefarious clannism through repeatedly incendiary writings?
I have heard many of us blaming the existence of clannism on corrupt and divisive leaders. I agree that leaders have, in practicing a policy of divide and rule, exacerbated clan divisions. But our leaders were the product of our Society and they filled a gap unbridged by the “intellectuals”. Somalis generally but particularly those who have no shame to call themselves "intellectuals", should turn their mental faculties to this problem with a view to: (a) lessening clan tensions by desisting from inflaming passions either through their writings or orally; (b) ceasing to advocate clan solidarity; (c) reaching out to like-minded members of the other clans, and (d) engaging in informed and intellectual discussions on the eradication of clannism. When I was District Commissioner of Hargeisa in the mid-sixties the track record of British colonial administrators was still extant and I was amazed to discover from the files that British colonial officers in Somaliland had a very intellectually engaging and interesting discussion on how a Somali could 'detribalise' by opting out of the Xeer and I believe they passed a sort of legislation which allowed educated and urbanised Somalis to do so. I was under the impression, like everyone else, that ‘divide and rule' was an integral part of colonial policy and did not expect such enlightened and forward-looking policy discussions from colonial officers. By contrast, we Somalis, after so much education, economic advance, urbanization, experience in governance, and rubbing shoulders with more advanced societies have not tried in this day and age even to conceptualize the problem. It is a stark failure on the part of those of us who, by the mere possession of academic degrees, claim to be the intelligentsia of our society.
I agree that eradicating the system of clannism (note that "clan" and "clannism" are two different things) is not easy; nor can it be an effort of a short duration. I think Disraeli's observation that “Time is the great physician” is apt and relevant in this case. The rancour will subside, the wounds will heal in time and a community of interest will replace the clan in the long run. All is possible provided we work towards the goal of supplanting clannism with strong communities of interest.
I suspect that those who decided on a federal structure for our country did so without being fully aware of its complex ramifications. We are beginning a new epoch in our history without charting a proper course for our future and without knowing what lies ahead. The civil war has been as much cataclysmic as it was destructive. It has led us to a new era of federalism and clan balance and we have made our choices without debate as to advantages and disadvantages. We are stepping into a dark room without the means to illuminate it and without knowing therefore what we might encounter; we are taking a leap unnecessarily into the unknown. Myself, I have said enough about the implications of federalism for Somalia on many occasions both orally and in writing and I do not want to repeat myself here. Federalism has been up in the air for a very long time - even before the advent of the TNG. Yet, the vast majority of educated Somalis did not bother to have an in-depth discussion on it before the monumental decision of its adoption was taken both in Djibouti and Nairobi. Surely, much blame can be laid in this regard to the account of Somali "intellectuals". But, the challenge still remains, and it seems that our new policymakers will most likely seriously underestimate the amount of hard and gruelling work and time needed to erect federalism on its proper feet. There is still, fortunately, a role for educated Somalis to play, particularly those who live or have lived in countries where federalism is successful. There is the danger that federalism might fail if not properly established and it may take years, if not decades, before we realize that it is failing. After forty four years of experimenting with different forms of government can we afford expensive experiments any further? The agreement on federalism being irrevocable the challenge before us now is to see to it that it works and meets the expectations of the general populace.
Our hapless country has been poor in human rights for the last three decades and half. There have been too many transgressions and the war-lords have played havoc in the country; nor am I sure whether there will be any human rights under a government composed of war-lords, by war-lords, for war-lords. There is a promise that, once disarmed, the war-lords will be phased out, or will phase themselves , mirabile dictu , out once their security is guaranteed. The soi-disant “Islamists” have also become a force to be reckoned with and are not willing to abdicate the role they have played so far to a new government which may not heed their advice, much less yield to them.
Our great religion teaches us, not only human rights, but the right of all living things to life and liberty. Extremism has no place in Islam. When Europe was in its dark ages and the Americas were not even on the map Islam was a beacon of light, learning and liberty in the World. Today, we are learning from those who learnt from us – laga bareyba laga badi. To think and argue, therefore, that Islam and human rights are incongruent is to be ignorant of Islam. In this connection, I wish to encourage those who by reason of their exclusively Western education have come to think that good human values were invented in the West to familiarize themselves with the history of Islamic Civilization. They will then understand why we need not agree with some excessively latitudinarian interpretations of human rights. There is fertile ground in our country for those educated Somalis who want to play a much needed role in advancing the cause of human rights. This must surely include religious scholars, particularly those whose minds are open to modern thought and can understand it in the light of the teaching of the prophet.
An independent, credible and respected judiciary is a sin qua non to human rights, and so are legal societies (including the Bar) which set standards of performance as well as professional ethics. The legal profession is an intellectual profession which is needed very much in a new Somalia, not for human rights alone but also as one of the main pillars of successful federalism.
I have only touched on few of the salient issues that pose challenges to educated Somalis and they by no means constitute an exhaustive list. I know that there are haphazard and uncoordinated contributions posted on the various websites, but these have not led to structured and sustained discussions with credible approaches to the pressing problems confronting our country. Some of the postings do not seem to have been properly thought out. Furthermore, it is unfortunate that there is scarcely any liaison between educated Somalis and those others who aspire to the leadership of our country. Dr.Geedi is under pressure to appoint the war-lords to the most important ministerial positions. I personally see nothing wrong with the magic 4.5 formula to ensure clan balance which guarantees that no one is left out; it has the advantage of giving a sense of belonging to all sections of society. The present parliament has the advantage of being a cross-section of our society - an advantage which I hope will not be cancelled out by substituting excellence for mediocrity. It should be obvious that I am not opposed to clans: I am opposed to clannism. As I previously stated, most of the educated Somalis have viewed any discussion on clan representation and balance with a degree of ambivalence which shows a conflict between the intellectual faculty (the mind) and the emotional faculty (the heart). Their hearts tell them that their respective clans should be "properly" represented; but they know in their own minds that if a clan tries to reassert itself at the expense of the others there will be no reconciliation. In any case, those who abhor the idea of a parliament of clan representatives have yet to come up with a better one.
The government of today, unlike any before it, has to be knowledge-based. It faces a myriad of issues which are too complex and too complicated for our leaders. The country is emerging from a devastating war and a huge construction task is inevitably the priority of priorities. There is need to learn how we should exploit our vast marine resources by using the latest technology - but we have to have the technologies first. We are in a situation which calls for the different kinds of marine scientists so that we can exploit the resources of the sea; sadly, however, few, if any, of our professionals are in any of the different branches of marine science. We are in an age in which technology creates resources- an age in which global competitiveness means that the strong survives and the weak perishes, or, at best, depends on handouts.
The intellectual capital of a nation is sine qua non to its survival, its development and its march forward. Our country stagnated, deteriorated, collapsed and broke to pieces. Where then is our intellect – the brainchild of our education?
Ismail Ali Ismail
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