By Hassan M. Abukar
“You have to know the past to understand the present.” Carl Sagan.
It was either in 1984 or 1985 that Siad Barre’s regime was weakening. It was a period not far removed from Somalia’s war with Ethiopia in 1977/1978, a tragic miscalculation by President Barre. Perhaps the aftermath of that costly war is what led to the beginning of the disintegration of the Somali state. A BBC Somali service reporter interviewed Said S. Samatar, then an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University (USA) about the current Somali politics. Samatar, a blunt-spoken man with an air of cynicism, criticized the authoritarian tendencies of Barre and went even further when he mentioned that he had recently met a relative of his in London who was a Somali government official. According to Professor Samatar, the official was less than optimistic about Barre’s regime, but when another Somali official approached the two his relative was suddenly effusive in his praise of the government. Samatar was mystified by his relative’s change of course. In the BBC interview, Samatar did not mention the name of his relative but, through the process of elimination, it could have been no one but Khalif Muse Samatar, a Leelkase deputy minister. At the time, Khalif was the only Leelkase cabinet member in Barre’s government. He later denied being the source of Professor’s Samatar’s story.
Barre was furious with both the BBC and Samatar. The next day, he went to the Academy of Arts and Science in Mogadishu and told the scholars there that they were basically useless and worth nothing. “A young scholar in the U.S. by the name of Said S. Samatar is reigning in the mass media and is being interviewed by the international media while you sit around here,” Barre admonished, according to a member of the Academy who was present in that meeting. Then, Barre went on Radio Mogadishu and blasted Professor Samatar again. This time the dictator’s attack was vicious and personal. “He comes from a small group and a religious family, but this is the same man who had changed his religion [from Islam to Christianity],” Barre said.
Samatar’s kinsmen, the Leelkase, are known to be religious. His father was an Islamic magistrate in Ethiopia even though Samatar did not grow up with him. Samatar was raised in the rural area in what is now the Somali region in Ethiopia. At age 12 or 14, Samatar decided to look for his father and asked a man to help him locate the old man. The two traveled from town to town until they reached Qalafo. They came upon a group of elderly men playing shax (Somali chess) and the guide told the young Samatar, “There is your father.” It was a bizarre spectacle: a lad meeting his unassuming father for the first time. However, young Samatar recognized his father instantly because he was a carbon copy of his brother Ismail.
“Father,” the young Samatar called. The elderly man addressed the young man in a generic way without knowing his identity: “Son, if you have a legal problem, why don’t you come to the office tomorrow.” Obviously, Samatar realized that his father did not recognize him.
“You are my father,” said Samatar.
“Ah, what wife?” asked Sheikh Samatar.
“[So and so].”
“And what is your name?”
“Ah, there was such a child.”
Then, Samatar, for the first time, started going to Qur’an school. His father also encouraged him to attend a learning center run by the Sudan Interior Mission (SIM) in Qalafo in Ethiopia. Many years later, Professor Samatar would call his father “a bit of a coward” because the elder Samatar was an Islamic judge and supposedly a pious man but he nevertheless worked for what Professor Samatar called the “Ethiopian Christian system.” Samatar’s father also had the habit of defending Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and his government. Moreover, his father encouraged young Samatar to seek knowledge from the missionaries and use “Taqiya”—a Shi’ite doctrine in which the believer practices something and conceals his true intention. In other words, Samatar’s father was asking his son to associate himself with the missionaries out of educational pragmatism. Young Samatar did exactly that and joined the missionaries. Incidentally, another young man, a contemporary of Samatar in Qalafo, by the name of Nuraddin Farah (who later became a renowned international writer) studied at the missionary school but did not dabble in the religion his teachers proselytized. Samatar studied at the missionary schools, met his future wife, an American, and married; he worked with the missionaries and finally won scholarship to the U.S. The winners of such scholarship were interestingly dubbed “The Believers Group.” In an interview in 2005 with Professor Ahmed I. Samatar (no relation) for Bildhaan (Vol. 6, 2006), Professor Samatar remarked that he had gone “from one kitab (book) to another. And now I am returning to the original kitab.”
After the BBC interview with Samatar, Barre went into battle mode. The dictator indirectly pointed out the size of Samatar’s clan and his family’s religious background, but he dropped a blitzkrieg bombshell when he mentioned Samatar’s embrace of Christianity. It was a staggering revelation for many of the Somalis who regularly listened to the BBC. There was no doubt that Samatar came from an Islamic religious background as was manifested by his father’s profession as an Islamic judge, not to mention that the young Samatar studied and memorized the Qur’an. Barre’s indirect mention of the size of the Leelkase clan also was not accidental. It was obvious that Barre was not happy with the conduct of Khalif Muse Samatar, the only high-ranking Leelkase official in his cabinet. Professor Samatar, in an article in Wardheernews (“A Leelkase Captain Ahab, April 7, 2005), wrote that, in fact, his Leelkase clan was “largely a clan of mullahs with no material or numerical significance.” Whether these remarks were written in jest or resignation, Samatar added, “I daresay my kinsmen are likely to disown me for saying this.”
Barre’s aim was to discredit Samatar by letting Somalis know that the young scholar had ‘betrayed’ his own religion, and hence turned his back on his family and his clan’s stellar religious credentials. In essence, to Barre, Samatar had no credibility. The BBC called Samatar again and asked him about Barre’s remarks. Samatar did not dignify them with a response. Then, he was asked about Barre’s potential successors. Professor Samatar argued that the bigger tribes (the Hawiye and the Darod) were obviously vying for Barre’s position but that Vice-President General Mohamed Ali Samantar, who came from a smaller tribe, was more likely to replace the dictator as a transitional figure. However, the professor interestingly pointed out that General Samantar might out-maneuver and out-fox the other contenders from bigger families. Then, the professor astutely mentioned that in Kenya, when the strongman Jomo Kenyatta died, the Kikuyu and the Luo politicians jostled for power but, in a compromise, settled on Vice-President Daniel arap Moi of the smaller Kalenjin tribe: Moi outmaneuvered all of them and would stay in power for 24 years.
In 1977, while collecting research materials for his dissertation about Sayid Mohamed Abdille Hassan’s poetry, Said Samatar briefly spent time in Barre’s jails and the censors confiscated his research materials because they contained poems full of clan references. In the 1970s, Barre’s regime had waged war on tribalism and, hence, clan references were frowned upon. It was Dr. Mohamed Adan Shaikh, a Somali cabinet member, who ordered Samatar’s release and the return of his research materials.
Siad Barre is long gone; he passed away in the 1990s in Nigeria. Samatar is still teaching history and sees the dictator leaving a legacy of destruction. In the interview with Bildhaan, Samatar depicted Barre as a dictator who could have built a nation in the 21 years he was at the helm, but instead “he went out to undermine, to destroy.” Samatar grudgingly depicted Barre as “an evil genius who knew our weaknesses as a people…our greed, our excitability, and our vanity.” Furthermore, according to Samatar, Barre “inflamed group against group, kin against kin, until we just went ballistic, crazy.” Somewhere in Gedo, Somalia, Siad Barre is turning in his grave and probably saying his trademark remark about his political opponents of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front: “Waxaan ilaahay ka baryayaa inuu soo hanuuniyo kuwa gidaarrada ku qufaca,” (I ask God to guide those who linger around street corners pontificating).
Hassan M. Abukar
Hassan M. Abukar is a freelance writer and political analyst.
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