Wherefore Art Thou History?
Those Somali Anglophiles who must have read Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet will find a familiar ring about this subtitle. I feel much the same way about our history as Juliet did about Romeo when she cried, “Wherefore art thou Romeo”, and I am always bothered whenever I recall the belligerent harangue of a certain Debela Dinsa who, as a member of the Dergue, had been put in charge of mobilizing the Ethiopian masses against our country in the 1977/78 war. In war one can understand the incendiary role of the propaganda machine, but what bothered me most was his well-publicized and so frequently repeated assertion that the war was “between people who have history and people who have no history”. On reflection, however, I find his assertion plausible and I ask myself: ‘Where is our history?'
The Ethiopians claim a history of three thousand years even though we know that Abyssinia , the previous name of Ethiopia, was established by Menelik only in the 19 th century. Menelik claimed that Ethiopia extended from Khartoum in the North to Lake Victoria in the South and many Ethiopians believe that to be true. Similarly, Haile Sellassie claimed at one time that Somalia was part of Ethiopia prior to the advent of European colonialism which, as he said, carved up Somalia out of Ethiopian territory. This claim, fictitious though it was, was supported by Sylvia Pankhurst, not only in her book, Somalia, but also in a number of her campaigns in promoting that claim.
We would have probably become Ethiopians had it not been for the SYL which at that crucial time awakened Somali nationalism in all Somali-inhabited areas – including what is now the Somali Regional State of Ethiopia. The British Labor Government had also a different idea – a plan for the formation of a Greater Somalia. That plan was killed at infancy by the Soviet Union. But, the Governor of Somaliland, Sir Gerald Reece (known to the Somalis as Kama Kame) was also fiercely opposed to Ms. Pankhurst and served as her antidote. Prior to his appointment as Governor of Somaliland Sir Gerald was the Provincial Commissioner of the NFD where his pro-Somali leanings were very well-known; for he was an admirer of Lord Delamere, the founder of Kenya, who owed his life to a Somali, called Abdalla Ashour, who saved him from the grip of the lion that was mauling him. Lord Delamere was so grateful that he used to say (and this is documented, by the way) that any colonial officer who disliked Somalis was one who hated him.
Sadly, all that happened in that era is recorded in scattered bits and pieces and in books which have long been out of print. But, we Somalis have been independent and sovereign for nearly half a century. We may dismiss the last fifteen years as sheer wastes, but they are none the less part of our unrecorded historical record. We have been making history all along; for the wheel of history can neither be stopped nor slowed down. But no one can tell the likes of Debela Dinsa when our history began or where they can read about it.
The Makers of Somali History.
Our history is made by us but recorded by others piecemeal with all their prejudices, distortions, misconceptions and misunderstanding. World historians showed no interest because in their eyes Somalia, unlike Egypt for example, was never fertile or rich in history. To my knowledge there are no Somali historians, excepting Professor Sa'id Samatar, though there are quite a few Somalis who specialized in history as a subject. It is my view that to read history is quite different from becoming a historian, but I do appreciate the enormous difficulties that discourage our history specialists from rising to the challenge of writing our history. The dearth of historical material comes readily to mind. Even whatever little we had of colonial records have been permanently locked away and allowed to be devoured and reduced to dust by the termites. Those records were, of course, of no value to our policymakers who were largely uneducated and some of whom were even barely literate. And those very few administrators who were literate enough to make use of those files, surveys, studies and other documents merely succumbed to the oral tradition which made them averse to reading and researching.
It has been alleged that Bille Rafle incinerated, when military governor of Hargeisa, the “entire collection of the library” which the British bequeathed to the new State because, being, as charged, an “ignorant” person ( jaahil ) he could not understand that he was setting a national treasure – something of a heritage – on fire. The truth is that the British did not leave anything of value for us. First, they burnt, with some justification, all the important, sensitive and therefore secret files which would have given us some valuable insights into their designs and policies. Secondly, they left some open and confidential files which gave no inkling as to their secrets. Thirdly, they also left behind few journals and books of a general nature and stocked them in a very small room which they called “Secretariat Library”. Scarcely anyone made use of that room since the British left. I even doubt that it was ever opened, except on rare occasions when somebody would venture inside to see what was available. I first saw this library in 1960 when I started my service with the Somali government in Hargeisa upon graduation from secondary school in Aden . It was then in a very good shape. I also saw the ‘library' on a number of occasions when I was District Commissioner of Hargeisa in the mid 60s and found it to be in a sorry state. But when I approached Bille in 1975 to let me borrow some of the reports or documents he told me “that place is a stinking garbage; what can you get from it?” I insisted and managed to get two reports on salary surveys and a dilapidated and torn copy each of the Local Authority Ordinance of 1952 and the Indian Law of Evidence which I have kept since then. Bille and I have been on the best of terms since the days we served together in Burao – he as the military governor and I (a civilian) as his deputy. Those were the days when the top positions in the field administration were the exclusive preserve of military officers.
This story, however, does not only exonerate Bille but it also demonstrates, like so many other stories, which are without any foundation whatsoever, how events are misconstrued or distorted by people who neither witnessed them nor heard them from authentic sources. I sometimes wonder in total amazements how young people write distorted versions of our history in the websites, and I have seen contradictory accounts being portrayed as authentic historical rendering.
I do not blame those people, for the fault lies , first and foremost with those who themselves made history but left nothing in terms of written memoirs or even oral recordings for posterity. I have in mind people like Abdullahi Isse, Mohammed Haji Hussein, Adan Abdulle Osman, Mohammed Ibrahim Egal, Abdurazak Haji Hussein, Abdurasheed Ali Sharmarke, Ahmed Haji Du'ale, Michael Mariano, Jama Abdullahi Ghalib and others who made history and have not left anything for us. Some of them are still with us in fact and can be and should be persuaded to leave something of a heritage for the country. I remember having a post-prandial conversation with the late Michael Mariano in my home in Addis Ababa some decades ago in the course of which I earnestly asked him to pass on his rich historical experience to the younger generations but he complained about the government putting obstacles in his way. I had a similar discussion with Jama Abdullahi Ghalib (first Speaker of our National Assembly) who now lives in Lusaka ( Zambia ). Jama and I became good friends (although we belong to two different generations) when I took up residence in Zambia upon transfer from Addis Ababa in 1998. He has a lot of history to tell, but he was not also in the mood of leaving anything behind. I understand that the late Mr. Egal left behind so many historical documents which are now in the possession of his widow. Someone, perhaps his children, should weave the various parts together and give us a coherent historical record from the perspective of the late Mr. Egal. Luckily we also have living historical repositories in Abdurazak Haji Hussein and Ahmed Haji Du'ale. Both live in the United States and have the facilities to enable them give us their versions of history. But I think it is safe to assume that because of his advanced age former President Adan Abdulle Osman is not in a position to write or even dictate his contribution. Maybe his sons are in a position to write about their father just the same way Margaret Truman wrote about her father- President Harry S. Truman.
But twenty-one years of military rule must have their place of history. The primary source for this period is, without question, those members of the Supreme Revolutionary Council who are still alive. We need someone who can tell us objectively how the revolution was planned and executed and the role, if any, of the Soviet Union in it. A key figure is, of course, Gen. Mohammed Ali Samatar who was as instrumental in changing the direction of the country as he was in the military buildup. He also directed the war with Ethiopia and entered into negotiations to reassure and neutralize the Soviet Union. That was a time when the West was also keen to extricate Somalia from the Soviet block and was believed by to have made some overtures to the Somali regime which the latter was not quick enough to grasp. Ali Samatar was privy to and a key player in all that happened behind the curtains in that crucial period when huge and more powerful forces were arrayed against us comprising Soviet generals and materiel as well as South Yemeni and Cuban forces beside the Ethiopians. After our defeat – we prefer to call it withdrawal – an Ethiopian colleague said to me jokingly, “ Ismail, we taught you Somalis a lesson” and I replied to him, also jokingly, “Yes, but the lesson was in Russian, not in Amharic”. He looked at me and simply walked away.
Today, all I read about that war was that the Ethiopians routed the Somalis. Ethiopian academics spread that lie every day. We never see a Somali version of that bit of our history anywhere; even Somali writers echo the same lies. Ali Samatar can put the record straight by providing a written and authoritative account of what actually happened. We also need to know – and posterity will need to know – his answer to the serious accusations that have been laid to his account, particularly in so far as the strafing from the air of women and children fleeing from the fighting in Hargeisa was concerned. The public have heard from the accusing side and it is only fair to hear also from Ali Samatar. He is gifted with cogent reasoning and lucidity of presentation, and he can surely make a great contribution in filling the yawning gap in our history. It cannot be gainsaid that our leaders – military and civilians alike – have put a lid on our history and by so doing have kept us in the dark. We badly need explanations and clarifications; otherwise, rumors will establish themselves as history.
An example of this is a story which was circulated in the sixties within the informed circles of our society to the effect that when the late Abdullahi Isse was in Rome in late 1962 or early 63 negotiating, as foreign minister, the transfer of the NFD with his British interlocutor the British offered us three instead of the six districts. It is said that Abdullahi was inclined to accept the proposed compromise except that the late Abdurasheed Ali Sharmarke who was Prime Minister then flew all the way from China where he was visiting to Rome where he joined the talks and took the position of ‘all or nothing'. The talks broke down as a result and we ended up with nothing. I have also been told that Kenneth Kaunda in his later efforts to mediate between Somalia and Kenya managed to convince Mr. Kenyatta to give away the three purely Somali districts in Northern Kenya to Somalia . But, I am told, when the two sides (the Somali side and the Kenyan) met in Arusha Mr. Egal forestalled the process of negotiation by making a hasty declaration that Somalia had no claim against Kenya. I am told Kenyatta was so ecstatic that he jumped to his feet and embraced Mr. Egal calling him “My Brother”, that and one could see Kenyatta shedding tears of joy. The Arusha Memorandum of Understanding of 1967 actually states that the dispute between the two countries would be solved amicably. The text of the Memorandum contradicts this story. However, I am not sure if the two leaders met again, but if the storey is true (and the person who told me says he heard it from Kaunda himself) it would mean that the same opportunity presented itself once more and was bungled by a Prime Minister. I cannot say whether any of these two stories is authentic or apocryphal but they underscore the fact that we have no factual accounts to go by.
Another group that can shed some light on the happenings of those two decades of military rule are those civilians who served as ministers in that era. None of them – with the sole and single exception of Jama Mohammed Ghalib – wrote anything about that period. It has been said that “History is nothing more than the defamation of the dead” and this more true where dictators are concerned. It is safe now to write anything about that period but if a writer elicits some bitterness the intelligent reader will still be able to see the wood for the trees. Bitterness, like lavish praise, will, without doubt, detract from the quality of the work and should be avoided. In any case, we need this group to give us and the future generations the benefit of their experience.
The Collaborators of the History Makers
This group comprises the higher civil servants such as permanent secretaries, ambassadors, legal experts, advisers and in some instances party functionaries. Here is a class of old fogies who can help us narrow our historical gap. They did not only help the politicians to make history but they also have what many of the politicians lacked: the ability to write and analyze. They are better educated and many have coupled solid experience with their university education and/or professional qualifications. Nor were they constrained by an official secrets act as are British civil servants. Sadly, again, none of them gave us the benefit of his or her experience. Here in the United States we all know that officials give their own versions of history; examples abound: Harry Hopkins, Sorenson, Schlesinger, Kissinger, Brezezinski and so many others all wrote about the historical events they were party witnesses to. In our case, I think Ambassador Ahmed Mohammed Adan (Qaybe) was privy to many negotiations with the Soviet Union and he was our ambassador to Washington, ambassador to the U.N. and U.K. , permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and last Foreign Minister of the Said Bare regime. I feel sure that he has a lot to tell us. I know he can write and he writes beautifully. He is now making history in Hargeisa and I think he should consider it a national duty to write his memoirs before his pen and his memory run dry. I can also think of Ambassador Abdullahi Sa'id Osman who was privy to many occurrences and has that lawyerly ability to write lucidly and put things into their proper perspective. Ambassador Abdullahi Addo (twice a presidential candidate) was our man in Washington at the crucial time we needed the United States to be on our side – a time when the Carter Administration was divided between helping us and throwing us to the wolves. He too can illuminate many of the dark crevices for us.
What Can We Do?
I think we should take our history seriously. It is important. I know we have destroyed whatever records we had, but at least we have the people who know much about methods and means of historical research and how to get the necessary funding for it. Such people can start the nucleus of a Somali Historical Society. I am thinking about Prof. Sa'id Samatar and Dr. Ali Abdurahman Hersi who can no doubt go into some research and chronicle our history. But there must be many other qualified compatriots who will also consider it a national duty to retrieve and save our history. However, I do not know whether there are any Somali archeologists, but I will be surprised if there are any. Archeology is not a field, I suppose, which can attract Somalis. But if there is sufficient funding and a government that will invite and encourage archeological surveys and excavations we should be able to find new discoveries which can put our country on the maps showing the loci of old human civilizations. Alas, it is not likely for many years or decades to have a Somali government which will take due interest in such matters.
Our oral tradition has cost us a great deal, and the writing of the Somali language in 1972 did not transform us after thirty-three years into a truly literate society. We are just beginning to have newspapers and even books in Somali. But still we are oralists to the bone. I remember visiting a friend in the Presidential Quadrangle in Mogadishu in 1987 and I was petrified by the fact that no typewriters were clicking, no papers were shuffled , no one was drafting anything and no files were visible – things which we usually associate with bureaucrats. The desks were clean and clear of pens, pencils, ink etc. and the “bureaucrats” sitting immobile behind them were sipping tea or coffee or else talking on the telephone. They were the most unbureaucratic bureaucrats I have seen in my long public service. The oral tradition has relegated the mechanics of administration to the past and I knew that that was yet another sign that our State was taking a downward spiral.
The other factor which has a fatal effect on writing our history objectively is clanism. Clan sensibilities are avoided at the cost of the facts or else a clear clan bias is exhibited. And there is always the danger of dismissing objective accounts as expressions of clan prejudice. Our educated men and women are, unfortunately, blindly loyal to their respective clans. It seems that their education was not strong enough to liberate them from the shackles of the clan system and to open their minds to the unlimited opportunities we could all have if we widen our horizons and work in unison. It is not possible to write our history without the mention of clans and even when we write a critical essay about a national figure his clansmen and clanswomen will be offended. Clanism continues to cloud our judgment. Those who praise Sayid Mohammed Abdalle Hassan to the sky are blind to his faults; conversely, those who see him as a villain are blind to his virtues. What is interesting is that the division is along clan lines – and so it is with other persons of stature as well. Can we then objectively write our history? My answer is ‘yes'. The History Society can play a role in this by vetting submissions, by seeing to it that claims and counterclaims are fully substantiated and by arranging scholarly debates. I think this is one way of getting around the clan bias. But the Historical Society itself must enjoy a reputation for fairness and scholarly search for the truth.
The warlords are a new and hopefully transient phenomenon. But I think the less said about them the better. Warlords will themselves pass into history soon but it will not be easy for the present generation of Somalis to write objectively about them because objective writing requires some degree of detachment. Similarly, we are unable to write dispassionately about Siad Barre and his regime even though we have welcomed to our midst and accommodated those closest collaborators of his who belong to our respective clans. Time will see to it that passions dissipate and cool heads prevail and future historians will give their generations and the generations that follow them unsanitised accounts of our history.
Finally, one of the main reasons that impelled me to write this article is the failure to respect our time-honored tradition of passing our experience from generation to generation. Nowhere is this failure more apparent than in the contributions some of our young people send to the websites. It is as if these young people have not been told anything at all about how and why things happened. For instance, there are those who contend that the North in its entirety rejected the constitution in the referendum of 1961. I served as the chairman of one of two polling stations in Las Anod (now Sool) at that time and the vote for the constitution was truly overwhelmingly. The constitution was similarly approved by Borama/Zeila (now the Awdal Region) and by what is now Eastern Sanaag . Only the rest of the North overwhelmingly rejected the constitution. The voting laid bare the clan divisions in the North and was revealing of the political alliances that existed then. But the constitutional referendum itself had nothing to do with the union between the North and the South. Furthermore, it was contended by one of the contributors that the late Ian MacLeod, the then Secretary of State for the Colonies wisely advised the Somaliland delegation not to enter into a hasty union with Somalia . I have no doubt that this is true, but the Italians too were giving the same advice to their friends in Somalia.
These machinations were known to the public as a concerted ploy to forestall the union and if Egal and his ministers had heeded the advice of the British Colonial Secretary they would have been stoned at the airport in Hargeisa upon arrival; for such was the mood of the public. The British, perhaps feeling guilty about having neglected the Cinderella of the British Empire (as Somaliland was nicknamed then), had asked earlier to stay on for eight more years in order to build the country and prepare it for the challenges of independence. This was turned down because the British had been perfidious as evidenced by their transfer of the ‘Haud and Reserved Area' to Ethiopia . It is interesting to know that British had asked the Indians about a decade earlier for an extension in India on the same grounds to which Nehru replied, ‘I have never heard of a vegetarian tiger'. I am not talking here about the merits or demerits of secession; that is a different issue altogether, but we have a responsibility to set the record straight for our younger generations.
But, if the generation that led us to independence and those who came after them did not leave any records behind, they did not proffer their experience and wisdom to the rest of us orally either. I therefore sense that there is a gap in the communication between the generations, which I think is wrong and dangerous. I think further that the websites can play a significant role in facilitating the dialogue between generations. The break in communication is partly due to the older generations' feeling that the articles published on the websites are merely idle talk which some of them, incidentally, are. Others may think that it is below their dignity to argue with the age cohorts of their children or their grand children. They could not be more wrong. I recommend that the websites should rise to the challenge and promote a dialogue between the generations.
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