Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Book Review by Bashir Goth

Africa’s First Democrats: Somalia’s Aden A. Osman and Abdirazak H. Hussen  by Abdi Ismail Samatar, 308 PP. Indiana University Press, 2016

“To hold a pen is to be at war.” --- Voltaire

Why I review this book

As a firm believer in democratic principles and an adamant observer of African development, I read this book with great anticipation after attending it’s launch by the author in Washington D.C. in early December 2016. I read it diligently and carefully including the 39-pages of notes at the end of the book which add deep insight into some of the issues not developed by the author in the body of the book. I found the book captivating on three fronts.

First, it is a fresh departure from the existing  literature about Somalia that dwells on segmenting the Somalis on tribal lineage systems, hence characterizing Somali people as individualistic and almost anarchic. This is a euphemistic way of saying that Somalis are primitive people that lack the capacity for state building.  

Already aware of the Samatar brothers’, Abdi I., Professor and Chair of the Department of Geography, Environment and Society, University of Minnesota, and his older brother Ahmed I., Professor and former dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College, challenging of the tired, too often repeated clanism postulate which according to Ahmed Samatar, has “become axiomatic.”; they continued to shift  the debate paradigm by redirecting the focus of African scholarship from looking at Africans through the tainted prism of tribalism to studying them through the context of the people’s complex history that includes the socio-cultural erosion and politico-economic degeneration caused by foreign domination on Africa through the centuries.

The reader can see this shift clearly in Africa’s First Democrats, as the author focuses his analysis on leadership and domestic socio-cultural dynamics and how the Somali political leaders adhered to the standards of responsible leadership in the first decade of the country’s post-independence period and how they were shaped by the conditions in which they grew up and the clash of cultures they experienced during the early years of their life.

Second, the book presents a case study on how the Somali people, despite the historical, cultural and geo-political disadvantages they inherited from colonial powers and the existential challenges posed by the cold war era, made successful efforts in state-building and laying down the foundation of democracy contrary to the pervasive foreign promoted image of Somalis being anarchical individualists who lack the capacity for state building. 

Third, the author presents the background of the two leaders who are the focus of his book, Aden A. Osman, the first Somali President, and Abdirazak H. Hussen, Prime Minister, 2nd post-independence Prime Minister, highlighting that the Africanist Literature on African leadership in the post independence period mostly neglects the stories of the formative years of African leaders. He underscores that it was “those early experiences that throws much light on the political courses individuals pursued, how they conducted themselves as head of liberation movements, and their times as presidents after independence.” He points out that “without knowing their background one is left to guess the circumstances that shaped the character of the leader.”

Leadership and accountability

The author addresses the question of leadership and accountability as the two main themes of the book, attributing Africa’s problems and Somalis among them to “these intertwined specters,” saying that it is “the debilitating absence of leadership fit to meet the complex imperatives of citizenship and national development and the dearth of accountable and effective state institutions that can sustain civic life where leadership is lacking.”

He argues that “inspiring and capable leadership and functioning state institutions are the two critical instruments necessary for development.”

It is against these factors and others he listed in his definition of leadership that he measures the performance of the Somali leaders in the first decade after independence.

He notes that as most African countries suffered from the rule of autocrats and dictators, African literature on African leadership was dominated by the “diagnosis of authoritarian leaders” while paying “scant attention to democratic alternatives whose experiences could provide positive guides for those dreaming and struggling for a fully democratic Africa." 

He argues that the democratic alternatives were led by “statespersons” rather than  politicians, describing the stateperson as one characterized by self-confidence, a strong moral code, vision and one under whose leadership “a thousand flowers bloom.”

Contrary to the consensus and state building qualities of the statesperson stands the autocrat who rules the regime according to his whims and eventually causes the “evaporation of legitimacy for all the frames."

He concludes that President Aden Abdulle Osman and Prime Minister Abdirazak H. Hussen stand out when presented next to the rest of African leaders due to their “aspiration to institutionalize state operations, their willingness to respect the will of people and accept political defeat through a democratic process.”
Childhood and youth 

Reading the two leaders’ early life stories, one can see that both of them grew up in almost similar circumstances. Both went through difficult life, worked as children in their early childhoods, experienced the cruelty of colonialism by being victims themselves or watching how the European administrators punished and degraded their Somali subjects.

However, while Osman comes into political awareness during his services to the Italian administration, Hussen’s awareness came at a very tender age through his Quranic teacher who he often heard saying to the students: “Limaada takhara Al Muslimuun wa taqadama qayruhum” which is obviously the title of a book written by Shakib Arslan, an Arab nationalist from Lebanon, in the 19thc which had a great impact on the thinking of the Islamic world during the struggle for independence. With this question ringing in his mind, Hussen not only witnessed the brutality of colonialism against his people but he himself fell victim to it as he was imprisoned and tortured for refusing to yield to his Italian master’s humiliating order of taking his shoes off when entering his office. 

Finally, both leaders cut their teeth in politics and leadership through their involvement with the Somali Youth League (SYL), the first pan Somali liberation movement, and the long struggle for the unification of the Somali people and for independence.

State building

The author divides the first decade after independence into the First Republic with Osman as President and Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke as Prime Minister, and the Second Republic with Osman as President and Abdirazak H. Hussen as Prime Minister.

He notes that the main tasks of the first republic was the consolidation of the union of British and Italian colonized Somali territories, the ratification of the national constitution and holding the first parliamentary elections.

Osman in his speech to the first cabinet laid a lofty vision for the Somali state; a vision that called upon the state and the citizens to live by the values of democracy and respect for the rule of law:

“The Somali Nation, by making itself democratic and particularly Republic, has given itself one of the best and most liberal constitutions, a fact to which high personalities of the United Nations and the world have testified. But it is my modest opinion that only you, citizens, can strengthen democracy; in fact democracy doesn’t mean anarchy but the power invested in the people in accordance with order and based on the laws. Therefore, to strengthen the democracy of our country  means that all of us must respect order and the laws that we have for our ourselves, and love one another, and resolve our controversies in a peaceful and fraternal manner.”

The first test that faced the First Republic was the attempt by some Northern junior officers to stage a coup in Hargeisa in December 1961. In strict adherence to the spirit of the constitution and respect for the rule of aw, and due to his sense of statesmanship, Osman rejected calls for a military tribunal to be established for the trial of the rebellious officers. Osman also persuaded the government to allow foreign lawyers to represent the officers as per their request, while the government also paid part of the defense lawyers’ fees. The government also allowed a British judge to preside over the case. When the court dismissed the case, the government allowed the officers to walk free despite the protest of some MPs and cabinet members including some from the north.

“This was the first time in Africa’s postindependence history that a government released coup makers without any retribution,” says the author. The defense lawyers also commended the government during a meeting with the President: “they were greatly comforted by the full liberty given them and the unimpeded independence of the judiciary in Somalia,” according to Osman’s diary.

The First Republic also succeeded in holding free and fair parliamentary elections at a difficult time when the country was in a situation of war with Ethiopia.  The best testimony comes from the US Embassy report to the State Department cited by the author: “By general consensus this election was the fairest ever held in Somalia. The government press understandably hailed the event as spotless proof of Somali democracy in action. More accurately,  high government officials including General Abscir, Police Commander, are generally satisfied that it was well run and fraud held down.”

Underlining the significance of this, the author characterized the election as marking: “ a historic benchmark in the country’s democracy march towards democracy,” noting that “the absence of election-related violence meant that Somalis were at ease with the democratic process.” And despite this historical achievement, Osman did not hide his unease about unlimited voter inflations that took place in a few places.

The Second Republic

After passing the first test of establishing government institutions and entrenching the values of democracy, the responsibility fell on the shoulders of the Second Republic led by Abdirazak H Hussen to usher in an era of good governance, accountability, and establishing a meritorious hiring culture of government staff. These tasks included weeding out corruption and challenging those politicians and public servants who “took advantage of their position to raid the public purse, construct coastal mansions, and lease them to expatriates for a handsome return.” 

It is obvious that to tackle this enormous challenges needed a leader with vision, boldness, self-confidence , and honesty. And the author presents enough evidence that  Hussen was the man destined to lead the age of “karti iyo hufnaan – Competent and Ethical Government”.

The author cites four issues that were central to Hussen’s agenda including professionalizing the public service, considering corruption as an obstacle to democratic governance and national unity, adopting nonalignment as the central pillar of country’s foreign policy and the systematic reproduction of Somalia’s democratic form of government through free and fair elections. Hussen’s mantra was “the right man for the right job”. He embarked on this mission at the time of the creation of Somali Airlines when he was minister of public works. There were 28 openings for young men to be trained as pilots and engineers in Germany. Only two of those selected after the exams conducted by German officials were from the south the rest were from the north. While the majority of the first cabinet ministers he formed as Prime Minister were again from the north.

And despite the resentment he earned from those who lost their privileges, his policies have definitely satisfied the general public and the President nicknamed him as “dahirie” (cleanser).

Taking note of the enormous reforms undertaken by Hussen, the US Embassy summed up the Prime Minister’s leadership as following: “The reform does not appear to have favored or spared any tribal segment of the population. The North may have gained a few positions owing to the better qualifications of its men. The army and other state organs may be next in line for reform. Abdirazak [Hussen] has demonstrated a high order of leadership in his efforts to create a strong administrative framework for Somalia.”

Even the only local English newspaper Dalka which was always critical of the government lauded the reforms by rejoicing that: “No longer will the appointment of ministerial post mean a license to rob.”

The author argues that Hussen’s “radical civil service reform and the transparent way it was done predated widespread reform in Africa by at least three decades.” He notes that while most postcolonial African leaders used the national treasury as their own private reserve, Osman and Hussen treated public resources as “sacrosanct.”

He cites that Hussen declined to go to hajj at government expense and he did not own a house while he was working for the government. He once astounded the U.S Ambassador who offered to build an Embassy complex on a land owned by Hussen and then transfer the whole structure to Hussen after five years. Hussen rejected the offer, a rare behavior by an Africa leader. Osman also disappointed several Somali businessmen who offered him money to use in his election, while he donated savings he made from the presidential discretionary fund to build the country first state house for the accommodation of foreign dignitaries.

Africa’s First Leader to give up power

The crowning moment of Somalia’s democracy came on June 10, 1967 when Osman who was defeated in presidential elections by Abdirashid with a small margin, conceded defeat and gave up power, marking it “the first time in modern African political history in which a democratically elected president was defeated in an election, gave up power with dignity, and walked away freely as an adored citizen.” This was not lost on visiting Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda who in a state dinner in Mogadishu commented that Somalia was different than other African countries because he was flanked on both sides by the former President and the incumbent President.

Another testimony came from Yusuf Duhul, described by the author as “Somalia’s most critical journalist” who admitted in 1966 and later reiterated in 1996 that Osman-Hussen team led the best government the country ever had.

It is through that capable leadership of Osman during his tenure and Hussen’s short but vigorous three years (1964-67) as Prime Minister that Somalia managed to set itself apart from other African countries. The author quotes the following testament by the US Ambassador in Mogadishu at the time as supporting evidence:

“Elections  of the presidency and the parliament have demonstrated the system’s ability to transfer power democratically. The country’s ex-president and two former prime ministers are today all in parliament – not imprisoned, exiled, or dead.”

Even at one time, the U.S. Ambassador praises Osman as a rare breed in his report to his government saying: “…  Aden may not consider himself indispensible, but he is a rare breed, here or anywhere”.

It is through this legacy which one can see in detail after reading the book, that the author concluded that Osman and Hussen were Africa’s First Democrats. In fact, he mentions that the next African president to leave office after he was defeated in an election was Kaunda of Zambia in 1991, almost a quarter of a century after Somalia’s precedent.

Beginning of downfall

In his final analysis, the author explains how the country descended to an era of corruption, political opportunism, single party government, and oppression of the opposition during the last civilian government of Abdirashid-Egal. The changing lot of Somali democracy was captured by I.M. Lewis, writing that Somalia’s parliament, once a symbol of free speech and fairplay “had turned into sordid marketplace where deputies traded their votes for personal rewards with scant regard for the interests of their constituents.”

This culminated in the assassination of the President and military takeover, heralding Somalia’s descent into the abyss.

The author ends the book with a positive note of optimism in line with the objective of his mission which was to educate the young Somali generation and the world at large that the difficult circumstances that Somalia experienced over the last 40 years do not define the character and spirit of the Somali people. But on the contrary, there was a time when Somalis were leadership trailblazers for the whole of Africa. It is with this concept in mind that the author calls the people not to despair but rather take inspiration from their brilliant past:

“The grim times needs not block the imagining of a drastically different future than the humiliating present. In this admittedly hard quest, the personal lives of Osman and Hussen and their devotion to high political ideals are available to inspire a new generation,” he writes, echoing  Ahmed Samatar’s call for the Somalis “to reinvent themselves as well as the nation.”


The author said researching and writing the book took him a long time during which he traced people over three continents, went through tons of personal diaries, governmental archives, and other  research resources.

And as biased as it may look, I cannot find a better conclusion in my review than to agree with the author that “the two most critical lessons” that the reader can take away from Africa’s First Democrats are: “…that the political rump that has dominated the landscape over the last 40 years does not embody the history of the Somali people and their aspirations and that without deeply grounded ethical principles the management of public affairs is a soulless venture that leads to a sterile future.”

All I can add is that this book is not above reproof. In fact of all the material I read about this period, I found only one book, “Khawadir A’n Taarikh Al Somal”( Thoughts about the history of Somalia), a memoire, by Abdullah Mohamed Ahmed Qablan who was Under-Secretary for Finance in Hussen’s government from 1964-66, which presented an opposing view lambasting  Osman and Hussen and accusing them of corruption, massive misuse of government money, and nepotism. Qablan says that every thing bad that could have happened during the first years happened during the Osman-Hussen period. What must be underlined here, however, is that Qablan’s book is personal memories about a period in which he himself had a stake. It is not a scholarly work that has been peer reviewed.

The truth is, any ardent and observant researcher can challenge Professor Abdi Samatar’s arguments and conclusions in Africa’s First Democrats, but one thing should be clear, a research that has taken more than a decade, dozens of interviews, and sifting through tons of personal diaries, governmental archives, and other research resources, cannot be simply dismissed by sly innuendos, tribal biases, personal dislikes, an undocumented oral stories. Africa’s First Democrats is indeed a well argued, well documented, well written, and a brilliant scholarship that can only be challenged by an equally weighty argument. And as Voltaire said: “To hold a pen is to be at war” and I am sure Abdi Samatar is ready for such a war.

As Africa is often viewed through a patronizing foreign scholarship and distorted media, this book will be highly recommended to world leaders new to the democratic process if they have the inclination to see true Africa through African eyes.