The Heritage Institute convened in Djibouti between 14 – 18 December 2018 a conference themed debating the impact of the Ethiopian reforms on the Somalis. However, the question of the status of Somaliland came to occupy a central place in the conference. In this piece I want to share my reflections on a purported dialogue between a few free-floating individuals from Somaliland on the one side, and carefully selected delegates from Somalia’s federal institutions plus a host of disparate Somaliweyn scholars, activists and pundits, on the other. My discussion will be mainly limited to the conference in so far as it pertained to Somaliland and will be focused on (i) Heritage’s proclaimed independence and related to this, (ii) the flaws of its choreographed debate and (iii) will then touch on the role of the intellectuals, in general and Somaliland representatives, in particular, before (iv) I conclude the piece with reflection on the lessons from the conference.
(i) The institute
Heritage prides itself on being an independent policy studies think tank. Since it, riding under this flag, charted into the contentious Somaliland-Somalia political issue, I found it difficult to take their claimed independence unanswered or to leave their biased framing of the conference hidden away. I want to bring out the contradictions of its vision and mission statements by showing how its commitment to serving the political interest of its country is weighted above anything else. More than that, I suggest that just like the idea of Somaliweyn is Somalia’s driving political ideology, so does Heritage want to colonise Somali political discourses. Such ambition was obvious from the set up of the conference; it was smacking of the Somaliweyn ideals the institute propagates. Of course, nothing was wrong with that, for it is an ideal it stands for, but it is the pretension of being ‘non-partisan’ that smacks of hypocrisy. Indeed, it is difficult to think of this institute without thinking of Somalia’s political revival.
I have noted that Heritage has adopted two strategies to hammer home its political message: one was explicit. It has deployed the contested Somalian moralising discourses reminding us that Somalis have suffered, continue to suffer and risk further suffering at this time from the impending changes Ethiopia is pushing through, unless, and this is the implicit message, Somalis band together either to collectively benefit from the changes or at least collectively mitigate their possible negative consequences. Notwithstanding that, the economic behaviour of the Soujou has not much, if anything, to do with that of the Yaakhee, it is extending entrenched ethnicising of politics into economic domains, thereby willing to recreate Althusserian structural conditions for the revival of Somaliweyn sentiments, which attracted my attention. Knowing fully well that sentiments around the Somali crises quickly slide into sympathy for the suffering of the Somalis across the peninsula, the organisers of this conference have carefully selected the Ethiopian reforms and told us that the only way Somalis can survive their vicissitude is through ‘unity’. In using this emotive language, the institute intends to force affinity with the cause of unity. However, for Somalilanders these sentiments do not carry much weight; they believe that their small achievements in the areas of institution building have been made possible by the realisation of the impossibility of an ethnic based grand state.
I want to make two further observations on this moralising discourse: first, one cannot think that Ethiopia embarking on ambitious economic plans would want to undermine the political stability of its neighbours, let alone dominate them. I do not want to discuss the absurdity of ethnicising the impact of Ethiopia’s economic reforms for ethnic Somalis spread across five countries, but suffice it to say that every country’s economic policy is shaped by its comparative advantage. Further, it may be noted that by their very nature, economic opportunities expectedly create competition between ally countries (see the Djibouti- Berbera case). But disregarding these basic economic principles, the conference organisers instead wanted to shift our worries towards Ethiopia’s political influences by seeking to re-connect us with historic misfortunes Somalis suffered at the hands of the Ethiopians. The point I want to make here is that evoking Ethiopia as an existential threat to Somalis in the Horn has for a long time been a rallying point that Somaliweyn protagonists have amused themselves with. In my view, the very semantics of the statement is itself questionable, but it is not my wish to discuss it at this stage.
A second observation I intend to make regarding the conference’s moralising discourse is that it surely breaks one’s heart to see on television screens the images of starving children and of suffering women (two groups bearing the brunt of the Somali chauvinistic culture) and of mutilated bodies of breadwinners of the streets of Mogadishu. However, such fellow feeling is no apology for unnecessarily invoking the defunct Somaliweyn nationalism anymore than grievances around genocidal crimes in the eighties were sufficient for Somaliland to leave the union. That said, however, most Somalian leaders, it is true, lose the will to live at the invocation of the genocide; this disposes the nerve ends of the failed unification project. They instead seek comfort in their twisted logic that atrocities have been committed against the people of Somaliland in terms of internecine conflict, thus downplaying the role of the state in the genocide.
(ii) Its message
That runaway Somaliland has been driven into a dead end and has no running left was the kernel of the conference’s message. I found it misleading for Heritage to pedal this defeatist message. Setting a scene for this, the moderator, in one of the sessions, was heard arguing that the international community, the African union and the rest of the world are not interested in entertaining what Somaliweyn participants implicitly alluded to as ‘the wild wishes of a renegade region in Somalia’ [sic]. In my view it is only up to a point true that, for Somaliland, recognition has become like targeting a moving object, but it is not up to the so-called international community to convince Somalilanders drop their struggle for joining the community of nations; it certainly is only a minor setback in comparison to Somalia’s wild goose chase. Somalians have changed their power sharing formula to the infamous four point five; they have adopted a neo-tribal federal system, which now hangs like an albatross around their constitution’s neck and; behind the scenes are willing to relocate the capital to lure runaway Somaliland back into the fold and yet, are nowhere near to realising their project. Indeed they forfeited the possibility of re-establishing a sustainable state for their externally imposed federal system which only the more serious Somalians regard as a new spectre that haunts their country.
Conveniently neglecting the South Sudan and Eritrean case, yet willing to evoke the remote Western Sahara case, the moderator wanted to compare apples with pears and sat back in his seat thinking that he had convinced us of the hopelessness of Somaliland’s case. He was joined in spelling out this defeatist strategy by a colleague by the name of Farah Abdulqadir, whose patronising attitude was visible in his carefully choreographed claim that Somaliland’s politicians’ public rhetoric is different to their all yielding position in private. Farah wanted to convince us of the misguided assertion that democratically elected Somaliland leaders were pedalling a different mandate in the talks, but fell short of following his assertion to its logical conclusion. That is, if elected leaders could not deviate from the popular mandate, how could what self-styled individuals had to say make any significance. How much more patronising can it get?
What the conference has again highlighted is that Somalians miss no opportunity to debate every problem, but choose not to face the very one that keeps them in the abyss: Somaliweyn nationalism, an ideal propped up with the status of a dogma and worshiped. The overwhelming majority of Somalilanders would have this false consciousness disappear from Somali discourses; it is an empty signifier, probably even a dangerous one that has dogged political stability in the region and with that, economic progress.
In my view, feeding its chagrin and remaining true to its political agenda, the institute lured a few self-appointed individuals from Somaliland and lavishly allocated them plentiful of platform time. It did this to blur the political boundaries between Somaliland and Somalia and to mock the more serious political talks. It was how Somaliland in its geographical sense was discursively presented as a provincial entity that reveals the institute’s inherent political commitment. Indeed the institute’s director could not hide his political allegiance when he shared his private thoughts of his misconstrued pre-colonial Somali history. I think all this points out that the institute’s clever inclusion of ‘Somaliland’ as a theme, not as a serious political entity, does not square with the non-partisan image it presents of itself. But it did this cheaply, and so the throwing together of academics, political careerists, activists and pundits, and the way the debate was choreographed earned the whole exercise what Somalis aptly call a ‘fadhi-ku-dirir’ past-time.
(iii) Its messengers
Heritage draws support from a large pool of scholars, polemicists, activists, pundits and politicians, who all share one fundamental principle: the restoration of Somali unity. It this particular conference it has brought together about 150 intellectuals from around the globe, who sadly failed to question Somalia’s state ideology and were happy with the status quo of pursuing the illusive unity. However, a few of them gave the impression they wanted to question the message; they rightly wanted to bring back some sense of justice, suggesting that the failure is on all sides. But these individuals too struggled to break free from the script, from their frustration with the impracticality of the great Somalia ideals and suggested the lost pride is hiding in re-unification.
Is the institute now trying to win the admiration of potential messengers from the other side of the fence? The sighting on the scene of a few influential but ‘self-styled’ individuals bearing the badge of Somaliland, or claiming to represent its case, raised some eyebrows. I say self-styled because their presence was unthoughtful to say the least, for, the conference was far more political than scholarly and since talking to Somalia is the business of mandated officials, engaging in the talks outside of the state institutions was only a way of devaluing the talks. Academics can surely contribute to policy agendas or help formulate a framework for formal talks but such has no meaning unless certain minimum requirements are met, especially academic honesty.
That said, one point I want to make clear here is that the Somaliland-Somalia question, which eventually will boil down to a question of a two-state-solution, can only be settled through meaningful dialogue. But the mistake, at least as far as Somaliland is concerned was to trust the talks to Turkey, a newcomer on the international scene. One may also suggest the talks came way too early; they came at a time when Somalia was and still remains entangled in its internal affairs and Somaliland struggling with consolidating its state apparatus. As things stand, we know both sides are too weak to impose their will on the other, but strong enough to frustrate the political gains of the other. So why all these polemics?
It was disappointing that the conference made no tangible alternatives. In every sense of the word it was simply a pass-time, an expensive one for many. It confirmed that Somalian ‘intellectuals’ love spending their time kicking the can down the road. They know that the prospect of their country finding lasting peace has been sourced out to the ‘international community’; a body which Wedgwood (2002) tellingly called ‘a dangerous reference point for the naive’. And, they still have the ingrained expectation that it is for this international community to help their country to emerge out of the political misery. The conference also confirmed that for Somalians, the state failure is considered as a test of their resilience and probably responding to this call, their favourite slogan of Somali ‘unity’ was again paraded as the only way of bridging the Somaliland/Somalia divide. But such a stance is to Somalilanders a way of obscuring what is at stake: building a viable nation state.
If they were serious they would, in my view, have carefully considered the more substantive reasons for the failure of the talks. It is no secret that Somaliland’s main contention is to engage in the talks as a parallel entity, while Somalia insists in doing this from a vertical position. We all know that Somalia does not want to compromise an inch on this bottom line, but expects Somaliland to give up all conditions, and has for close to three decades been pursuing the illusive ideal of Somaliweyn. Regrettably these central questions were not raised. Instead the conference has just confirmed what we knew all along; that Somalians read too much into the de jure status they enjoy and assume this status will compel Somaliland into the fold of the calamitous union. It revealed that the Somalian elite is not ready, not even willing, to revisit its all too familiar script that the illusive unity is the remedy of all ills. And the fact that Somalia has failed to earn a de facto legitimacy over the territory it purports to govern is misleadingly reformulated in terms of the absence of the mediating role of Somaliland.
The few Somalilanders in the mix, on their part, put forth three ill-advised suggestions. The first was a call for the resumption of the talks. Oddly enough at least four of the attendees from both sides had intimate knowledge of the stalled talks, with two of them being the very individuals ipso facto advocating the return to the negotiation table without asking why the talks stalled in the first place. A second outcome was a call for reconciliation, without much qualification, between the two sides, whilst the third one, was the tabling of a half-baked ‘associational state’ model being presented as a stepping stone for gradual re-unification. The model was so ill-conceived that it did not survive the first strike from a critic: ‘it was not meant to be a magic bullet’. What was nonetheless clear from the presentation of the Somalilanders in the simulated debate was that they sold short what Somaliland has painstakingly been building over 27 years, and inadvertently suggested its position has shifted to discussing vacuous constructs of any shape other than a two-state solution. In doing so, they nonchalantly underestimated Somaliland’s emphatic resolution not to compromise on its rightful struggle to gain a de jure status; they forgot that Somalilanders are wary of a demonic repetition of the 1960 blunder. Ironically, they also forgot that Djibouti, the host country, survived because it refused the Somaliweyn dogma they were giving a second thought to.
(iv) Its legacy
In conclusion, I submit that contrary to the misrepresentations, no amount of moralising about the Somali crises, or of conflating current regional economic reforms with historic state building failures of the Somalis and no amount of ethnicising the economic behaviour of Somalis, will wipe out the Somali state crises. The fault line dividing Somaliland and Somalia is one of statehood; it is not necessarily about whether a grand state comprising their two distinct Somali territories isolated from the three other Somali territories (one may wonder on what grounds?) could a be viable option, but rather whether a stable state in either of the entities can uberhaupt be a possibility. Both are dogged by petty tribal politics, whilst Somalia struggles with the additional problem of ethnic nationalism. Bringing them back together will not resolve their crises. I would suggest that any institution daring to convene a scholarly debate on a subject pertaining to Somali politics, loaded and toxic as it is, should meet the minimum standard of scholarly independence. In its conference, Heritage showed how it is far removed from such standards. Avoiding the relevant historical dimensions of Somali state building and failing to highlight critical questioning of the axiomatic oddity of the failed union, the institute has entertained us with Somaliland’s shortcomings and with constructed risk emanating from Ethiopia, to make a case for its favourite prospective script of re-unification. I have to say that in the absence of authenticity, such manipulative polemical forums will only remain a favourite pass-time for the non-serious pundits. However, to this I should add that I congratulate Somaliweyn representatives in the conference for not giving up on their hegemonic ambitions and Heritage on expediting a new hunting ground in Somaliland, whilst daring to assimilate unsuspecting aspiring scholars from a place they call the northern regions of their ‘country’ [sic]. Bravo! Somalilanders, should emulate such tenacity!
About the Author Mohamed Obsiye, Ph.D. is a freelance researcher with keen interest in the nexus of ethnicity, nationalism and nation-state building. He can be reached mobsiye78[at]hotmail.com
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints of Somaliland Chronicle and it’s staff.
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I think you’re on to something here: getting Somalis from Somalia and elsewhere discussing and perhaps advocating for Somaliland’s sovereignty case in a conference held in Djibouti. Aside from the irony you pointed out where Djibouti itself shunned the rest of the Somaliweyne back when, it should be fun to watch the reaction of Somalis outside Somaliland.