The Istanbul Gathering of the Somali Civil Society

June 06, 2012 – In late 1986, I invited my graduate advisor at the University of California/San Diego, Dr. David Laitin, and his family to dinner in my home. Professor Laitin was no stranger to Somalia and its culture. He had written one book, Politics, Language, and Thought: The Somali Experience(1977) and co-written another with Professor Said Samatar of Rutgers University, Somalia: Nation in Search of a State.  He was surprised that my wife at the time was an American Muslim. “I didn’t know that your wife was Muslim,” he said. “Oh yes, she is,” I replied. “But she is still an American.” My last statement, innocuous as it seemed, apparently grabbed his full attention. Professor Laitin, now at Stanford University, had spent a great deal of time studying, teaching, and writing about culture, in general, and political culture, in particular; he saw my remark as revealing.  It was only a year earlier that Professor Laitin had spent several months in Nigeria as a fellow, and then that same year, he had published his book, Hegemony and Culture: Politics and Religious Change among the Yoruba.  After several minutes of rumination, Professor Laitin said that people may change their religion but they are unlikely to forsake their culture. Although this statement seemed pessimistic, it also rang true. However, quite recently, we have seen that while people may not forsake their culture, they may be willing to adapt that culture to accommodate emerging social trends.

In the last week of May, about 300 Somalis convened in Istanbul to discuss conditions in Somalia. The participants were traditional Elders, religious figures, women, intellectuals, youth, and members of the Somali diaspora. After 21 years of civil war, it was obvious that significant issues remained: justice versus injustice, wealth versus poverty, land delineation versus land-grabbing, power sharing based on a 4.5 formula versus equality in the political landscape. The participants asked themselves whether Somalia was ready to determine its future, and, hence, construct a viable government. Was Dr. Said Sh. Samatar right when he told Radio Wardheer, that Somalis would not be able to manage a modern and sustained government because they are, culturally, camel herders? “Ma geel-jira ayaa dawlad dhisi kara?” he exclaimed. (Can a camel-herder form a government?)

Somali Elders

An image of the Elders (Photo Credit: Garaad S. Hersi)

I had the opportunity to attend the Istanbul Somali Civil Society meeting. It was the first Somali conference I have ever attended. I was skeptical that something positive would come out of the gathering because of the futility of the past 18 conferences on reconciliation.  However, my reservations about the Istanbul gathering were quelled when I read a partial list of the participants, which contained an array of Somali intellectuals (both men and women), community activists, and religious scholars. As the conference started, I was even more impressed with the attendees. I will not discuss the decisions of the Somali Civil Society meeting, but instead mention three of my personal observations of the gathering.

Are these our traditional leaders?

As with any Somali gathering, the conference started with a bang!

After Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu opened the conference with welcoming remarks, a traditional Somali leader stood and profusely thanked the Turkish government for its aid to Somalia, and for sponsoring the Istanbul II Conference. Then came the shocking request, the one only Jerry McGuire could deliver with gusto: “Show me the money.” The man asked the Turkish government to provide material support to the Elder chieftains because they were undertaking a major task in selecting the National Constituent Assembly and the country’s parliament. “The traditional leaders want salaries,” requested the speaker. The audience was shocked by the crude way the traditional leader made his request. They thought the Elder had taken leave of his senses. What amazed me was how the majority of the Elders reacted. After the Turkish Foreign Minister left, the man who spoke was reprimanded and told that he had embarrassed all Somalis by his uncouth behavior.

Adding more spice to the gathering, on the third day of the conference, an Elder felt offended when Asha-Kin Duale, a member of the Committee of the Experts of the Constitution, made a Freudian slip. Asha was listing the six stakeholders of the Somali Roadmap, like Shaikh Sharif (the president) and Abdiweli Ali (prime minister), but in naming Sharif Hassan (speaker of the parliament), she said “Sharif ‘Sakiin’ (Sharif the blade),  a common derogatory nickname for the speaker. It all happened at lightning speed, and immediately, all hell broke loose. Asha-Kin, who seemed flustered by the situation, apologized, but one Elder rejected her sincere apology. The sensitivity level, of course, among some traditional Elders was acute. What intrigued me was how many participants of the conference went out of their way to peacefully and collectively diffuse the situation. They implored the Elder and his colleagues, who had walked out of the gathering in protest, to return to the session which had come to a screeching halt in a single moment.  It was mainly other traditional Elders, from different clans, who initiated the peace-making. Not too long ago, some of these clan Elders might have been willing to use a daggers with each other.

(Photo Credit: Garaad S. Hersi, 5/29/12)

I must admit that the traditional leaders who attended the conference left a lot to be desired. Many were handpicked by politicians. At times, it seemed, the whole place was crawling with imposters. One traditional Elder told an academic from his clan that he was asked to select both men and women for the Constituent Assembly. “Son, I can choose men,” said the Elder, as though he was making a therapeutic confession, “but I do not know how to select women.” It was a travesty that such a homogenous group, with limited education and experience, would have the authority to select the very people who would ratify the country’s draft Constitution and, on the top of that, handpick the members of the country’s next parliament. This is too much authority for such a group to wield. Even former Prime Minister Abdirizak Haji Hussein, in a speech, chastised the Elders for being a tool of sinister politicians.

However, given the nature of the Elders’ backgrounds, I prefer them to a bunch of warlords wielding AK-47s and selling the country to the highest bidder. The benefit of the Istanbul conference was subtle; it is hoped that the effort will be effective in the future. For example, the Elders were exposed to informal training that involved political speeches, and they had the chance to participate in discussions about the best ways for Somalia to raise itself from the ashes and slither out of its mess.  They heard former politicians, such as Prime Minister Hussein, hectoring them about their role as agents of change. They heard Somali intellectuals debating various issues such as governance, reconciliation, and fairness in representation. They participated in smaller discussion groups that were overseen by intellectuals and activists. In other words, the Elders’ attendance at the Istanbul gathering represented an enduring opportunity for awareness and re-education. I do not believe that traditional leaders have previously had an opportunity to rub shoulders with former Somali politicians, generals, intellectuals, women, journalists, and youth like they did in Turkey. If there is one thing that the Istanbul gathering did for the Elders, it was that it succeeded in creating some awareness in them of the gravity of the tasks ahead. The result is similar to what defense lawyers’ call planting doubt in jurors’ minds.  In this case, the Elders came to Turkey with rigid views that the Somali diaspora was there to grab power. However, by the end of the conference, a meeting of all members had agreed that Somalia needed all its sectors to rebuild. The Elders realized, hopefully, that doing business as usual would not be effective.

At one point, a top Somali politician came to the hotel where members of the Civil Society were meeting and staying only to be turned back by Turkish officials. He kept inquiring about what the Elders were up to. He complained to the Turks that some of his ‘political opponents’ were attending the conference to masquerade their true intentions. “How can these figures be members of the Somali Civil Society?” he asked. What was irking this politician was the gnawing fear–real or perceived– that he might lose his grip on his support among the Elders. Another top leader of the Somali government frankly told one of the organizers that the gathering was nothing but an act of war against the government.

It was odd that both the al-Shabab terrorists and some high-level members of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) were opposed to the Civil Society gathering in Istanbul. The former publicly condemned the conference whereas the latter publicly supported the meeting but, secretly tried to undermine the proceedings. Members of the TFG were upset with the way the Civil Society was selected, which in fairness was questionable. However,  the government officials also had axes to grind, not to mention their fear that the Roadmap would be trampled . It did not happen.

(Photo Credit: Garaad S. Hersi, 5/29/12)

Women as Leaders

The marginalization of women in Somalia has been the black spot on our culture. Somali women, as a group, have suffered more than any other group in the civil war.  Somali men have always been the leaders and fomenters of warfare.  What was unique about the Istanbul gathering was the prominent role played by women. They were integral in decision-making and lecturing, and were on the forefront in group discussions. Not only were women heard and seen, they were all over the conference.  The Elders, especially, were mystified when they saw women like Dr. Cawo Abdi, Dr. Maryan Qassin, Dr. Ladan Affi,  and Dr. Sadia Ali Aden, just to  mention a few, being actively involved in the conference. In the discussion group that I attended, which addressed security and justice, several women, including  Professor Affi and Fadumo Awow, were not only vocal but in fact led the discussion. In essence, the women took the measure of the Somali men.

(Photo Credit: Garaad S. Hersi, 5/29/12)

A Gaggle of Intellectuals

As mentioned earlier, the assembly of such a diverse and talented pool of intellectuals in the Somali Civil Society meeting in Istanbul was staggering. I have never witnessed such a unique gathering. There were Somali professors who teach in Kuwait, Qatar, Somalia, Kenya, Canada, Finland, and the US. Moreover, there were former cabinet ministers, generals, ambassadors, bureaucrats, engineers, journalists, imams with advanced degrees, and lawyers, among other professionals.  The conference gave me hope that Somalia will have a deep reservoir of talent pool in almost in every imaginable field when the country becomes peaceful and stable. The challenge, of course, is how the future Somali government will tap into this talent pool. Somalis, as Dr. Said Samatar has said may have known blundering camels and lived a life bereft of government, but this time around, they will have advanced degrees in information technology, or engineering, or nursing, or management.

In a telling anecdote, a group of us that included General Ahmed Jama (former head of the Somali police), Professor Yusuf Ahmed Nur, and several traditional Elders were sitting in the hotel lobby early in the morning while we discussed the situation in our country. Suddenly, a white man, somewhat Turkish-looking, came and sat with us. The man listened to our conversation and nodded his head in approval. I was wondering what “this Turk” was doing among us. Then, to our amazement, the man started talking in flawless Somali!  General Jama told the man that until he spoke, Jama had thought that the man was a Turk.  It turned out that the man had been born in Martini Hospital in Mogadishu to a Somali father from the north and a Russian mother who taught at the Polytechnic Institute in the Somali capital. Alexander, that is his name, is an architect who lives in London. He had come to the conference on his own, looking for job opportunities in the reconstruction of Mogadishu.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the Turkish government for its generosity and commitment in bringing peace to Somalia. I also acknowledge the organizing committee of the Somali Civil Society gathering in Istanbul, led by Dr. Afyare Abdi Elmi, for making sure that the conference ran smoothly. The committee listened to new ideas, accepted criticism especially in the process of selecting the Civil Society, and effectively managed to control participants’ periodic outbursts of anger. I think this says that eventually we camel herders can identify and achieve our common goals.


Posted on June 13, 2012, in Moment Research & Consultancy. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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