Said Sheikh Samatar, a Somali-American historian who passed away in New Jersey last week, was a Professor of African history at Rutgers University for more than three decades. Professor Samatar’s name came to my attention through his paper on Sayyid Mohamed Abdulle Hassan in the Proceedings of the first Somali Studies International Conference held in Mogadishu in 1980. The paper was a summary of his PhD dissertation, which was published as a book entitled Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayyid Mahammad ‘Abdille Hasan. This piece is not an assessment of Professor Said Samatar’s academic output. It is a reflection on his engagement with the public through essays and interviews with the BBC Somali service during the late 1980s, when Somalia was edging towards total civil war, and during the 1990s, when the state collapsed.
Prof. Samatar’s opposition to the former Somali military dictatorship culminated in his boycotting of the International Conference of Somali Studies held in Mogadishu in 1989, a decision on which he elaborated in an open letter to academic colleagues in Somali studies, published in Horn Africa Journal, of which he was the managing editor. His hope for the toppling of the military dictatorship was undermined by the armed opposition groups, which did not have a pan-clan agenda for post-dictatorship Somalia. He was aware of the incompetence and political unpreparedness of clan-based opposition groups when he told a BBC Somali Service interviewer in 1990 “armed Somali opposition groups are swirling around each other like smoke… If the overthrow of the dictatorship means replacing the regime but keeping the state intact, it cannot be successful.” Professor Samatar’s prognosis of the failure of the opposition hit the bull’s eye: Mohamed Siyad Barre’s regime was ousted but it was not replaced by any government. Anomy and vicious warlord infighting filled the void.
When Somalia’s neighbours (Djibouti and Ethiopia) took an interest in reconciling the opposition groups in 1991 and 1993, Professor Samatar described the reconciliation conferences as a waste of time (shimbirayahow heesa! “O birds, sing!”). General Mohamed Farah Aideed, the now late United Somali Congress Chairman who appointed himself as Somali president in 1995, opposed the interim government formed after the Djibouti reconciliation conference in 1991. His decision split the by then defunct USC into two factions and caused a three month-long war between militias loyal to General Aideed and those supporting President Ali Mahdi Mohamed. In a BBC Somali Service discussion on the USC infighting in 1991, Prof. Samatar commented on the difficulty of reconciling USC factions in the following words (translated from Somali): “If you go to Mogadishu and, like the poet Salaan Arabey, say to the warring factions in Mogadishu “O clansmen stop hostilities! (Tolow colka jooja!)”, you will have your ears and nose cut by gun-toting young men high on khat and alcohol.”
What Professor Samatar was referring to was a new situation in which Somalis found themselves, that of pre-modernity and post-tradition. Neither the “˜modern’ methods of organising people and resources under a centralised state nor “˜traditional’ society’ s ability to manage small-scale inter-clan conflict in a rural setting by resorting to customary law works in such a situation. To Professor Samatar there was nothing new about “modern cut-throat [and] clan conflict”; it was Somali culture through and through.
In 1991 the United Somali Congress appointed a committee headed by Haji Abdullahi Haayow to investigate the causes of the USC rift and publish a report. The verdict of the Haayow Commission has been immortalised in the sentence “Caydiid gadh buu leeyahay, Cali Mahdina gadh buu leeyahay” (Caydiid is right, so is Ali Mahdi). Haji Haayow had no illusions about the political situation in 1991. He refrained from pinning the blame on one party in the absence of an authority to enforce the verdict of the inquiry. A clear verdict would have compelled one USC faction to disarm.
Modernity has undermined Somali tradition in subtle ways. Before his role had been subordinated to that of post-colonial Somali politician, a traditional leader asked four questions: What happened? What did one say about or for our clan? What does the other clan owe us in terms of blood money? What do we owe the other clan? The Somali politician has appropriated some of those questions but added a fifth one: In which clan’s hands is state power (perceived to be)?
Unlike the traditional Somali clan, the modern clan is dependent on the largesse of the post-colonial Somali politician who makes political decisions about attacking a given hamlet or district in the hope of gaining political power at district or national level. The Somali politician who acquires state or militia power benefits from the trappings of modernity but abuses it to achieve exclusive political goals. To reductively interpret such a situation as the outcome of a traditional Somali clan conflict is to ignore the plight of Somalis who suffer at the hands of powerful political actors who justified and justify human rights violations in the name of the state (in the case of the former military dictatorship) or in the name of the search for state power (in the case of warlords, regional administrations and extremist groups).
Professor Samatar was alive to the self-perpetuating trend of powerful politicians who form clan armies, armed extremist groups, and clannish intelligence services to have a better chance at acquiring or consolidating state power in the hands of clansmen. The emergence of religious extremism in Somalia owes a lot to the valorising of tradition-based conceptions of the Somali political conflict. “Somalia will never be a territory for Islamic terrorists. The clan structure trumps devotion to Islam in Somalia,” Professor Samatar told a reporter from PolicyMic. Is it because Somalis of the past were sceptical of absolute justice or were they aware that the traditional Somali Sheikh had no coercive power to bank on and preferred to side with his clansmen? The Somali saying fiqi tolkiis kama janna-tago (a Sheikh will not put paradise over supporting his clansmen) speaks as much to bias in religious judgement as awareness about the limits of the Sheikh’s power in a nomadic context.
Professor Samatar plumbed Somali oral tradition for insights to understand and explain political and social trends in Somalia. A society whose language remained unwritten until 1972 and that relied on oral tradition for far too long has literature that, from time to time, illuminates aspects of the Somali predicament. But acknowledging that the same oral tradition is riddled with conflicting accounts on events by poets or by anonymous story makers and gossip-mongers does not mean that political history in Somalia is simply a matter of either contesting narratives of equal validity or reducing the Somali turmoil to one phenomenon. This insight, I think, is one of Professor Said Sheikh Samatar’s great contributions to Somali historiography.
Liban Ahmad is the editor of warsoomaali.com.