Of Titans and Trolls

By IndepthAfrica
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Dec 9th, 2013
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Of Titans and Trolls

During the last two weeks we have lost two titans of African politics: the first, and somewhat lesser giant, was Ambassador Axmed Maxamed Adan (Qaybe) of Somaliland, and the second, was the inestimable Madiba – Nelson Mandela of South Africa. Clearly, Mandela was a figure of global renown that is known and loved the world over as an icon of the struggle for the liberation of South Africa from the tyranny of colonialism and apartheid, while Qaybe is known, but loved no less, by the Somali-speaking people of the Horn of Africa. I have chosen to join these men in tribute because they were both stalwarts and leaders of their respective countries struggle for independence and self-government, as well as exemplary public servants that chose the path of principle and integrity over expedience and personal aggrandisement. Each of these men, in their own ways and in the context of their respective countries and struggles, presents an example of the highest standards of political integrity and public service to which one may aspire, and this places them in glaring contrast to the charlatans, arrivistes, tribal plutocrats and money-grubbing kleptocrats that masquerade as African political leaders, i.e. the trolls of the continent’s politics.

Some may object to the coupling of Mandela with Qaybe and we must not apologise for insisting that the true measure of a political leader is not the extent of his fame, but the record of his career and the legacy of his public life. Certainly, Qaybe is the lesser known of the two and it is certainly true that Qaybe is not the epochal figure in Somali political history that Mandela is in South African history. Nevertheless, to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King, with respect to the content of their characters these men were both giants of the independence and governance of their respective countries. At critical times in the history of their respective countries, both of these men refused to succumb to facile parochialism and chose the path of principle, peace and national reconciliation over personal aggrandisement through conflict. This is the true measure of character and personal integrity, and the cult of celebrity is irrelevant to its determination. It is worth remembering that many of those consecrating Mandela with the most lavish praise and tributes, particularly in the West, are the very same politicians that denounced him as a dangerous terrorist when he was imprisoned by the apartheid racists at Robbens Island, and also denounced him when, as the first democratically elected President of South Africa, he embraced liberation struggles of other peoples and clasped their leaders, like Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, to his breast.

If Qaybe and Mandela represent the titans of African politics, then it is a sad fact that their opposites, the crooks, kleptocrats and charlatans, are represented among African leaders in far greater number. Indeed, the defining struggle in African post-independence politics has been that of the ordinary people for assertion of their sovereignty against the autocracy and tyranny of their rulers, be they military dictatorships or ‘civilian’ strongmen. Unfortunately, in this category of autocratic charlatans we must include the current President of Somaliland – Ahmed Mohamoud (Silanyo). However, in fairness, we can only consider Silanyo an autocrat-aspirant since the firmness of his grip on absolute power in Somaliland is not yet proven, and he has yet to demonstrate the political acumen to ensure the perpetuation of his rule either in person, dynastically or through proxy. Developments over the coming year and a half leading to the next Presidential elections will determine whether Silanyo graduates as a bona fide civilian dictator or whether the people of Somaliland will subvert his mission and ensure the survival of their successful experiment in representative government and political freedom.

The Silanyo government’s bent towards autocratic rule unfettered by constitutional safeguards and the rule of law was first evidenced almost immediately after coming to power in 2010, by its savage repression of press freedoms and the expression of dissent from any quarter. This clear policy of repression of political dissent, imprisonment of journalists that do not tow the government line and heavy handed treatment of civil society activists has been augmented in recent months by a shadowy campaign of assassination attempts and targeted violence against prominent political opponents and critical journalists in which elements of the security services seem implicated. This campaign, and the seeming impotence of the security services to apprehend and prosecute the perpetrators, has generated an inevitable backlash with a senior ruling party official targeted in a tit-for-tat assassination attempt, which mercifully failed. This not to say that the government is behind this campaign of targeted violence against its political opponents, but it is certainly true that the cavalier attitude of the security services to the apprehension and prosecution of the perpetrators has engendered a climate of impunity which has contributed to its growth.

Targeted violence against specific individuals is foreign to the culture and history of Somaliland where politically inspired violence has traditionally taken the form of inter and intra-clan warfare. This wave of targeted assassinations whereby individual politicians or journalists are targeted for extermination is totally new to Somaliland political and social life and is very worrying indeed. Even more ominous is the attitude of the security services, in particular the Minister of Interior who is, after all, the highest law enforcement official in the country. It is absolutely incredible, not to mention criminal, that he would personally release the perpetrator of an assassination attempt upon an opposition MP (before he was brought before a court) on the basis, that ‘this matter is best resolved through traditional channels between the clans of the victim and the perpetrator’ – to use a French phrase “incroyable mais vrais!” (incredible but true!). Has the Minister not sworn to uphold the law? Is there no constitution which delineates his powers and which requires him to uphold the law of the land, or can he choose when to do so and when not to? It is also true that this perpetrator was not apprehended by the security services, but was forced to turn himself in after he was identified by the victim and by bystanders who witnessed the crime. Other perpetrators of targeted violence against journalists and civil society activists have been reported as wearing the uniforms of security service personnel and none of them have been apprehended, despite a wealth of witness and victim evidence.

This culture of lawlessness and executive autocracy has generated opposition from civil society as well as the opposition parties. In particular, a group of senior politicians, including many who were either allies of Silanyo during his years as an opposition party leader and others who were senior ministers in his first government in 2010, got together to form the grandiosely named Committee for National Consultations & Guidance (CNCG) in July 2013. Rather than ameliorate the government’s increasing autocracy and crackdown on all forms of what it perceived as dissent, including quite benign criticism in the press and from civil society activists, the establishment of the CNCG created panic within the government and various ministers took it upon themselves to declare the organisation illegal and even treasonous. The national conference planned by the CNCG to discuss government policies and its perceived failures and mistakes was declared by senior ministers as also illegal and treasonous and they swore to prevent it being held at all. These ludicrous statements are in direct contravention of Article 22.1 of the Somaliland Constitution which enshrines the right of citizens to participate in political, economic, social and cultural affairs in accordance with the law. The only constraint on this freedom of participation imposed by the law is with respect to political parties which are limited to the three national parties which emerged from the local and regional elections. However, the CNCG is not a political party, nor does it seek to be. Rather it is a non-partisan, political organisation established to initiate and conduct a national dialogue on policy and the direction the country is taking. As such, it is neither illegal nor treasonous, despite the panicked and intemperate bluster and threats of the government and its spokespeople.

The government’s strong-arm tactics reached the peak of illegality and autocratic over-reach recently when two leaders of the opposition parties (UCID and WADDANI) were prevented from visiting the town of Gabiley which is about 90km from Hargeisa. The purported reason for this incomprehensible restriction of these citizens’ right to free movement (enshrined in Article 23 of the Constitution) was that they had not advised the local authorities of their trip in advance. This is the most amazing example of official claptrap since it is not incumbent upon citizens, whether they are leaders of political parties, vegetable sellers or ordinary people proceeding about their business, to advise local authorities of their movements. Or is the government now requiring citizens to seek ‘visas’ to travel from one town to another, and if they are, by what authority or law do they presume to constrain the rights granted the people under the Constitution? It is nearly always a potent sign of the demise of a government when those that are elected to uphold and defend the freedoms and rights of the people presume to deny them these very same freedoms and rights.

In conclusion, it is incumbent upon the people of Somaliland, and particularly its youth, to defend the freedoms and rights that were won after a long decade of war that devastated the country, decimated the people and forced hundreds of thousands into exile. A generation of Somalilanders have grown up under this hard won freedom and representative government, while countless thousands perished in the genocide perpetrated by the Afweyne dictatorship in its futile attempt to maintain the enslavement of the people. It is inconceivable that the brave people of this unique little country that defeated one of the largest armies in black Africa, and fashioned itself into a beacon of hope, representative governance and gritty self-reliance in the Horn of Africa will yield to the autocracy, arrogance and denial of rights that the Silanyo government seeks to impose. The fatal shortcoming of all trolls, and political trolls are no exception, is that they cannot see beyond their stunted vision of aggrandisement and self-interest, just as the true greatness of giants is their ability to see and articulate a grand vision of justice and collective progress. Mr. Silanyo and his acolytes would do well to study the history and character of their people before their mendacity, subterfuge and misgovernment place them on the wrong side of history and condemn them to the dustbin. We shall see, but I am pessimistic that they will learn the lesson of history.

Ahmed M.I. Egal

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