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Framing Somalia: Beyond Africa’s Merchants of Misery- Book Review

Reviewed Abdi Issa and Gaaruun Yalax
Author: Abdi Ismail Samatar
Published: Red Sea Press
Pages: 212
Publication date ‏: ‎ 2022

Abdi Samatar’s new book Framing Somalia Beyond Africa’s Merchants of Misery is another well-reasoned and researched take down on the status quo of his country, Somalia. Professor Samatar displayed through the pages of this well-timed book, his age long abhorrence towards the rent-seeking ruling elites whose only aim and competence seems to be and was to fleece the country. According to him, the elites be it political elites, business people or the clergy are capable of only one thing: to rich themselves at the expenses of the ordinary masses. Once again, Professor Samatar was not shy from deploying another unsparing salvo of searing criticism at the foot of those corrupt elites who are the primary sponsors of the mess that the country is in right now and speaking truth to power. It’s a continuation of his relentless critique of bad state of affairs of his country, the lords of development and corrupt political elite who partnered with them to perpetuate permanent misery of their helpless people. Professor Samatar is one of the few intellectuals who have been speaking and amplifying the voice for the voiceless. You can disagree with his cynicism but he speaks the feeling of millions of Somalis who have no voice .

At the preamble, he briefly touches on his intellectual journey that begets his radical dissent. As a young undergraduate student, he read Alex Haley’s book on Malcolm X. The book was not as he said on Somalia but offered a critical analysis of racialized US society. He claimed that Haley’s book “prompted him” to think differently about the materials published by non-Somalis on Somalia. He then read radical development theories and discovered the Dependency Theory.

At the University of California, Berkeley, where he was doing his PhD, he took course on recent development in African’s political economy and read the works of the likes of Mamdani, Walter, Samir Amin. The course gave him the tools to understand how the Somali studies is detached from the African Studies debates and dynamics of colonial and postcolonial power relationship. Abdi Samatar thereafter started to challenge the dominant framing of Somalis by the orientalist.

He narrates several encounters he had with westerners who set the Somali agenda and saw first-hand of asymmetrical power relationship between them and Somalis. The NGO trade the misery of Somalis while getting hefty salaries and hardship allowance at their comfort zone in Nairobi . Their business depends of the status quo and permanent statelessness. They don’t hire critical Somalis; they only hire those who toe their line. The corrupt political elite support their agenda without questioning while they get their share at the expense of humiliation and suffering of their people.

The framing of Somalis is based on early anthropological works in the north by the British Social anthropologist I.M Lewis.  Samatar engaged head to head with Lewis, who contend the identify of Somalis is determined by birth and only way you can understand them is through their clan, while Samatar disputed and argued that there is no single variable. Lewis who was an indisputable authority and guru of Somali Studies for many years surprised his audacity and label him as “westernized elite”.

Chapter 1, He provides thorough analysis of the dominant school of Somali Studies led

by Lewis who offer clan as the single variable analysis of Somali problem, an alternative framework that demonstrates politicized clan as responsible for Somali tragedy. Lewis fails to take stock, professor argues, the impact of colonial rule, commercialization of the livestock, urbanization and emerging of political and economic class in his analysis. He analysis and rebutted some of the works by the Lewis disciples (Mainly Caddaan) who framed social , political and cultural problems along his perspective. Postcolonial leaders failed, professor underscores, to reform colonial institutions and to make identity that transcend tribe and make the state work for all the people.

Somalia somehow became a sort of career for the white men development and state building theoreticians and analysts while there is a visible absence of Somali voices in the debate. The reason of the absence of forceful Somali voiced for the future of their country in development debates were many but one notable reason was and still is that Somali Students primarily focus on technical skills for gainful employment and don’t learn the critical courses in Social Science that create the possibility of social transformations. He points out the scarcity of libraries and seasonal scholars who can act as role models is hampering and impending knowledge production that challenge the dominant orthodox. He calls the Somalis youth to set up scholarly and political platforms and own their narrative and destiny.

Chapter 2 is an excerpt from his book Africa’s First Democrats. The author divided the Somali ruling elites before the coup into two camps. He argues that one group had a civic agenda and driven by the national interest and democratic values. This group led by the first Somali president, Aden Abdille and his second prime minster Abdirizak H. Hussein, have undertaken serious public sector reforms and organized a clean election that they lost and gracefully accepted its outcome. The other group he called sectarian who have been driven by personal interest and consolidation of power that finally led to the military takeover. Lewis interpreted contestation of democratic era as genealogical contest between the two dominant clans: Darood and Hawiye clans. Professor Samatar rebuked this argument forwarded by the renown British anthropoglot I. M. Lewis and argued, convincingly, that the contestation of the two groups had nothing to do with genealogy but rather competing visions of two groups for the country.

Chapter 3 provides a historical background of the role of Islam in precolonial, colonial and post-colonial eras of the country. Historically, the Somali ulama were guardians of the Islamic religion. They were the vanguards of the Somali people’s struggle to preserve their religion and sovereignty. They led the way started the jihad to resist the colonial aggressors. Notable among these ulema led armed resistance was Sayyid Mohammed Abdille Hassan and his well-known Darvish movement. After the country got its independence in 1960, SYL led civilian government leaders, professor Samatar claims, were cognizant of not using Islam as a political tool. The Military dictatorship has taken a hostile posture toward Islam by embracing Socialism and subsequent killing of religious leaders who criticized the family law introduced by the regime in 1975.

Somalis hitherto were known to practice tolerant Sufism-tinged Islam. But that peaceful and tolerant Islam that the country was known for ever since Islam came to the shores of Somalia more than a millennia ago, has been fundamentally altered at the advent of radical Wahhabi oriented Islam that was imported from Saudi Arabia after the central state collapsed in 1991. These radical militant Islamists who came to the scene after the collapse had cleverly exploited the governance vacuum and established themselves. The role of Islam in public life is overnight changed into something sinister by the emergency of these radical groups who exploited the religion for attaining power.

Professor Samatar touches the fall and rise of Political Islam in Somalia and US and western plunders by green lighting Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006 after the moderate Islamic Courts Union chased the notorious warlords from the capital city and much of the southern parts of the country. Ethiopia committed war crimes in Somalia after it invaded the country and got away with it because the West who encouraged her to invade Somalia in the first place looked the other way and didn’t want their culpability in the crime to be exposed. He misspells common perception held by the west towards Islam that is informed by their war on terror and strategic interests.

Chapter 4, Interestingly, he links the piracy problem to state failure debates. He states that the civic and sectarian groups contested in democratic era and sectarian group triumphed which led to a military coup that eventually facilitated the collapse of the state. The demise of the Somali central state and the ensuing civil war has paved the way for the emergency of many unsavory players such as the notorious war lords, Islamist/ terrorist groups that the country is dealing right now and the piracy. He argues that the only effective way to tackle these perennial issues is to rebuild strong, democratic national government.

Finally, professor Samatar calls to liberate the Somali Studies from the dominant school, which is a foreign driven with a little bit of colonial legacy perspective. His take on this is part of his overall criticism of the status quo whether it is the dismal political and social realities of the country as well as the studies of the pressing issues through the lens of the old and stale Somali Studies. He calls a new paradigm to bypass the conventional wisdom which has for so long constrained fresh thinking and new ideas in the Somali Studies arena.

The current studies of Somali Studies is no longer productive nor it is adding any meaningful contribution in to the debate of how to solve the stubborn and age old problems governance or otherwise that the country is facing right now. The old barren debate is no longer tenable or useful. According to him, the situation needs a fresh and localized perspective and new way of thinking and doing things. Professor Samatar emphasizes the importance of re-defining of our story in our own terms. It is a high time to own our story.

The book is a good read for anyone Interested in the debates of Somali Studies. It serves as Introductory book for Somali Students of social science. It also serves as repository of hard earned wisdom from someone who was in the trenches for long time– -for posterity.

Abdi Issa and Gaaruun Yalax

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