Editor’s note: Ali Mumin Ahad is a Somali scholar with multifaceted interests and a personal life story that brought him from Somalia to Italy, and now to Australia. Ali obtained his undergraduate degree in Economics at the Somali National University, and then moved to Italy where he earned his master’s degree in agribusiness at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, in Milan. His doctorate was awarded by La Trobe University in Australia, while he now holds a position as Honorary Research Fellow at Melbourne University, Faculty of Arts. In his works, Ali focuses on Somali history, including colonialism, on literature, and on questions of migration and integration. He is the author of the book “Somali Oral Poetry and the Failed She-Camel Nation State: A Critical Discourse Analysis of the Deelley Poetry Debate (1979-1980)”, published in 2015. Ali is also an eminent voice of Italian post-colonial studies: his “I peccati storici del colonialismo” is a must-read for those interested in understanding the legacy of Italian colonialism in Somalia. Marco Zoppi has conducted this interview for WardheerNews.com, and wishes to thank Ali M. Ahad for his kind availability.
Marco Zoppi: Thanks for accepting our invitation, Ali M. Ahad. To kick off this interview, I would like to ask you a comment about the political situation in Somalia: the establishment of the Federal Government; the election of President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed; the attempt to rebuild a national army. What is your impression over the current developments in the Somali political context?
Ali M. Ahad: First of all it must be said that post-colonial State in Somalia was born with major flaws and in circumstances which have constrained its functioning. Some of these flaws are the inconsistency between the institutional model (derived from the modern nation State) and a society with an archaic social structure; the inadequacy and lack of preparation of a bureaucracy capable not only to administer the State, but also, and above all, loyal only to the State; the unpreparedness of a political class able to transform the tribal political culture into a culture of citizenship of the modern State; the low level of schooling of Somalis who have been practically denied education during the Italian colonial period, with all the imaginable consequences that ensued it; last but not least, the economic, financial and political circumstances in which the new Italy (admittedly anti-fascist) assumed the Trusteeship Administration in the former Italian colony and without providing a real change of the administrative staff of the previous colonial period. Therefore, the post-colonial State is born with these defects that, taken together, have scuppered the first post-colonial Republic. Not only had that, but they then justified the rise to power of the military with the coup of 1969, since the tribal politics had prevailed over the State, transforming the multiparty system in sheer farce.
The next two decades saw the Somali military taking control of the State. Sometimes with laudable goals like transforming the Somali tribal society into a more civil society, according to the dictates of the modern State. The increase in schooling was one of the major achievements during the military regime. This and other accomplishments in the social and health sectors have elevated the image of Somalia in the world. However, the economic policy approach of nationalization of the economy and the pro-Soviet ideological address, drove the military regime toward dictatorship and a single party system. The dissatisfaction of the population towards the military regime began to manifest itself through a return to tribalism. Tribal politics, the same main factor that was one of the cause of the fall of the first parliamentary system, would also be the first cause of the fall of the military regime in 1991 and the civil war in Somalia.
Having made this long circumstantial preamble over the birth and the collapse of the post-colonial State institutions, I now turn to federalism and the present state of affairs in Somalia. After the civil war, the main political ideology in Somalia is that of the tribal system for which the subject clan assumes overt political agency. In fact, Somali society, in the absence of a political culture based on nationality and citizenship, has self-managed its affairs according to rules and institutions of its colonial past (institutionalization of the tribal system) and pre-colonial past (traditional tribal norms and agreements, xeer). This absence of a political culture of citizenship, produced an understanding of federalism as that of tribal entities in which clans function as political parties. Despite this, the institutional framework must be reconstituted on new basis, albeit the current constitutive base of the Federal Parliament Assembly, in which the tribal system works as the main institutional component. The problem, however, remains that of reconciliation between, on the one hand, an institutional model based on nationality and on political party and, on the other hand, a social-institutional model founded on membership of blood (fictional or not). Just think of the power-sharing 4.5 criterion, which embodies the ideology of the tribal system, and for which social justice becomes mere aspiration (the civil and political consequences of that power-sharing criterion, I had already made it clear in 2000).
Although MPs were appointed each by members of their clan, the President of the Republic was elected by this tribal-national Assembly and gave people hope to establish a functioning government, because of his non-involvement in the civil war as well as his education and experience out of the country. However, he and his Federal Government (led by a prime minister with a new style of governance respect to his predecessors) have to face many difficulties such as providing basic public services, starting with public schools, justice in the court system, not only in the capital city, but extending to the regional states. That would develop people’s trust and confidence in the State. At the same time, guaranteeing general security against an ideologically opposed movement that is difficult to uproot. Another important challenge his government has to overcome is the rebuilding of the national army which is not yet ready to completely replace the African contingents that have guaranteed the defence of the Government until now. From the point of view of training, the national army is not unified since different external States contribute to its training. In addition, units are often formed by former militiamen from different clans, making it difficult to remove the clan tutelage, on the one hand and, the clan loyalty, on the other hand.
You have recently published a book titled Somali Oral Poetry and the Failed She-Camel Nation State, where you engage in the analysis of the Deelley poetry debate in 1979-80: what was most surprising for you to find out about Somali poetry and its socio-political function?
Ali M. Ahad: Poetry is all about feelings. Human feelings that are usually expressed and conveyed through words. Every human being is capable of creating poetry as it is capable of feeling emotions. The difference between a person and the other lies in more or less the ability to communicate with others through adequate words. Said in another way, the ability to forge the words that better contain the feelings that they should convey. Human feelings are linked to the most various circumstances, conditions and moods. Usually these are beyond our control, apart from the circumstances that we can help to create.
In the case of Somalis, the historical and environmental conditions have created provisions and moods that make it easier to modulate their feelings through words, creating poetry. Adverse conditions and harsh environments create, in their interaction, a variety of feelings like distress, wonder, scarcity, abundance, pride, challenge, conflict, grievance, rivalry, vengeance, argumentation, peace, reflection and love, etc. The topoi of Somali poetry are always these. Now, in the specific case of the poems of Deelley, they are arguments among poets in a form similar to debate, an exchange of ideas among poets on problems concerning tribalism (the ideology of the tribal system), the Government of the country, leadership, national politics and whether or not a replacement of the leadership of the country has to be enacted.
The most astounding thing, for he who deeply analyses the interaction between participants through the poetic language, is not just the actual controversy among poets, but the link between the current poetic debate and disputes between the respective groups to which the poets would belong. This fact implies, peculiarly, the formation of a discourse that covertly circumscribes being Somali only to those who practice nomadic herding. This is a hegemonic articulation of identity (which also is not apparent to the individual participants of the poetic debate) at the expense of other important components of the Somali national society that the book unveils. Moreover, that in the Deelley poems, “through discursive practice, both tribal and national identities are ideologically created, stimulated and recreated.”
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