Quarter century ago writing about Somalia and Somalis was seemingly an easy task because Somalis were predictable beings known for homogeneity, colourful literature and respect for authority. All a researcher or a doctoral candidate could do was to conduct a field work or peruse books and articles published in newspapers and academic journals. Now that Somalia has become a perpetually news-generating and myth shattering entity in the Horn of Africa, is writing about Somali history politics and culture a more demanding pursuit? What are the challenges facing those who (intend to) write about the Somali people, culture and politics? Will the urge to stick to historical narrative play second fiddle to the need to think hard about conflict resolution? These are questions I asked myself after I finished reading the book under review.
Though small (60 pages) the scope and the focus of the book, A Map of Confusion,gave me the impression that, at last, some Somalis are engaged in a candid discussion about how to negotiate our ways through “our turbulent political history” without letting it guide our efforts to ‘ reconstitute the Somali’ state under unity or secession platform.
The books contains four chapters that give background about formation of the ‘Somali Republic’ when EX British Somaliland and ex- Italian Somaliland agreed to unite, the political and traditional leadership in Sool, formation of Puntland and Somaliland administrations after the state collapse in Somalia , and constructive contribution to solving the “ contrived” territorial dispute between Somaliland and Puntland.
Liban Ahmad, the author of A Map of Confusion, has not sought to retell Somalia’s past and recent history in detail. Rather, he opted for an appropriately selective approach to shedding light on past events and their relevance to some aspects of Somali politics today. He does not mince his words as to why Somali state collapsed:
“Somalis have been reluctant to give the state a vote of confidence. The absence of popular confidence in the state—manifested in the desire to mistake the wishes and dreams of an ethnic group for the nation and institution building—has subordinated Somali statehood to tribalism and… made the state to be a criminal in “oppressing’ its people.”
If few clans had the desire to subordinate the state to the tribe or the clan for that matter, now the reality is different. Every Somali clan wants to call the shots in way or another. To what extent does such thinking constitute a barrier to peaceful coexistence of clans living in ex- British Somaliland? Liban Ahmad does not pose or answer this question in the book. He lauds the conflict resolution methods and institution building in Somaliland but spotlights Somaliland politicians’ failure to articulate policies that take into the account the clan factor and popular susceptibility to manipulation based shared clan affiliation. Unionists in Sool region are not motivated by clan sentiments, Liban argues. Their rejection of Somaliland “is based on a line of reasoning that is logical as the secessionists’ anti-union sentiments.”
This is an original, undogmatic interpretation of political differences between unionists and secessionists in Somalia. It can be seminal for conflict resolution models that unionist and secessionist negotiators may utilise to enhance mutual understanding. The cover of the book shows a map for Somalis (not Somalia because Somalis have taken liberty with their map) that highlight the territorial dispute between Puntland and Somaliland. Sool is not only the highlighted part of the map from The Economist newspaper: parts of Nugaal, Sanaag and Togdheer regions are included in the disputed territory. It is a choice that underscores the trickiness of the territorial dispute, and the identity of people in Sool region for their region is perceived to be a part of Somalia, Somaliland and Puntland.
Liban shows appreciation for prominent Somaliland elders who shared their, traditional conflict resolution expertise with people in Puntland affected by 2002 war between forces that were loyal to Jama Ali Jama, one time president of Puntland and Colonel Abdullahi Yusuf, former president of Puntland (now president of Transitional Federal Government of Somalia).
The strength of Liban’s analysis is in his reference to history to illustrate how present day events in Ex British Somaliland can be understood by reading past history of the region. Shortly after Puntland and Somaliland forces clashed near Adhi Adeeye in 2004, Abdirahman Waberi, a thoughtful contributor to Somali websites, wrote a lengthy and well argued essay in which he challenged the Somaliland administration to rethink its policy of not requiring “from Somaliland/ Harti leadership the same standards of cohesiveness it requires from other… clan leaders from Isaq, Gadabuursi, Isse and others.” Such a ‘prescriptive’ policy will not see the light of the say if applied to Sool, Liban argues. It fails to consider the history of Sool people who share subclan affiliation but have always differed on political issues ever since Sayid Mohamed Abdulle Hassan (also known as Mad Mullah) restructured social relations among the Dhulbahante in Sool and led the 20 year anti colonial resistance by the Dervishes. “Ideological commitment of follower mattered more than numerical strength of the sub-clan to which… a Dervish belonged, “writes Liban.Liban’s assessment of past Somaliland administrations in relation to the question of Sool is noteworthy. Abdurahman Tuur’s “lack of leadership clarity” was an advantage for Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, second president of Somalia, who neglected Sool whereas Dahir Riyale comes across as a pragmatic leader who looks upon indecisiveness of Sool leaders as “looking for the best deal.” The Sool politicians who fell out with Somaliland administration and joined Puntland failed their people; only Sool politicians who stuck with Somaliland show consistency although the don’t have support base in their constituencies in Sool. This puts Somaliland administration on the horns of dilemma. “Will Somaliland uphold democratic principles and consider wishes of majority of people in Sool and come up with other realistic solutions to the Sool issue or will it continue to the strengthen the influence of Sool representatives in Somaliland administration despite the shortcoming in the policies Somaliland has been pursuing since 1996?”
A Map of Confusion is a book that will change the way Somalis debate unity and secession, two abstract concepts that need to be disentangled from tribal thinking because the statehood Somalis and Somalilanders are looking for cannot and will not draw ethnic legitimacy from clans. Unionist and Secessionist politicians ought to read this book if they are serious about what they tell their constituencies.
Feysal Dubbad Haji Jama
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