Heritage Idea Conference: The Good, The Bad, And the Ugly

Published on 11th January 2022

Moments of Great Feelings

The closing days of the tumultuous year of 2021 coincided with the festive occasion of the fifth round of Heritage’s Forum For Ideas (FFI), an annual event that brings Somalis into Djibouti. This year brought together about 250 Somali politicians, academics, public intellectuals, professionals, poets, and progressive activists. During the week of December 13-17, Djibouti beamed with a beautiful crowd of SOMALIWEYN.

Of course, the concept of Somaliweyn has its detractors. Adherents to pax-Ethiopiana are case in point. With its colonial legacy, Ethiopia and its supporters would like to paint such a magnificent organic yearning of Somalis for each other as a Somali “irredentism.”

Most Somalis categorically reject such a label and call their attraction to one another an “organic” indispensable unity that defies colonial boundaries. This is a powerful feeling that is difficult to cancel. Yet, erasures of Somali never cease to attack Somalis’ unity.

Convening annually about 250 individuals to the tip of what was once  called “French Somaliland” is an indication of the magnanimity of the people of Djibouti and several other donors. The credit also goes to Afar brothers who equally claim Djibouti as their home; Somalis and Afars peacefully share and cohabit in this strategic escarpment sitting on the vortex of the Red Sea.  

The five Somali regions represented at the conference besides Djibouti are the Somali Regional State which is officially a colonial region under the only surviving Empire in the world – Ethiopia – former British Somaliland, former Italian Somaliland, and Northern Frontier District (NFD) or Kenyan Somaliland. 

Not only are people from these regions of the same pedigree, they also enjoy strong familial bonds.  For example, I spent some time with Mohammed Bihi Yonis of Somaliland. It was our first encounter ever. After a short conversation, we both were surprised at the intricate familial relationships we enjoy. The same was true for my Djiboutian acquaintances. Finding familial bonds with a stranger is not limited to me. Rather, it is a common occurrence among Somalis. 

I was pleasantly touched when I received an invitation for a sit down conversation by the Minister of Justice, His Excellency Ali Hassan Bahdoun. Upon hearing about my stay at the Kamniske Hotel, he insisted that I pay a visit to him.

Here is our connection. In 1972, when I was in 7th grade in Jigjiga, one brilliant Mohamed Hassan Bahdoun, came to our school and became my English teacher. Mohamed was in Jigjiga to fulfill his Haile Selassie National Service commitment during his third year at the University. Spoken with a perfect American accent, Mohamed had his last year of high school education in the US as part of an AFGARAD Student exchange Scholarship. As one of his best students at the time, Mohamed’s influence in my formative years helped me focus on reading and writing in the English language.  He gave me two memorable books – a book on idioms and “Common Mistakes in English.” Mohamed is Minister Ali’s older brother.

President Mustafe’s Misplaced Visit

While I am at it, let me highlight President Mustafa Omar’s misplaced yet extravagant visit to the conference venue. His coming to the conference was misplaced both in form and in content. He brought with him a large entourage – about 40 people; they drove about 350 Miles and many land cruisers and consumed hundreds of badly needed gas. Even if his extravagant trip to such a small gathering was not surprising, his show of opulence in time of dire need was awkward. 

As it is obvious now, the Somali region is gripped by one of the worst famines in the region; Jigjiga, the capital of the region, has no reliable pot water. Worse, about $200 million earmarked for drought mitigation has been transferred and used by the office of the Ethiopian Election Commission. The regional government initially said the money was loaned to the election Commission per a meeting held in Goday in 2021. Nonetheless, that money’s gone and is utilized for political objectives. 

Food is scarce; fuel is out of reach of most citizens, and people are dying in the eastern districts of the Somali region as the famine reaches its zenith. The region is in bad shape!

With such reality in his home turf, he should have rather shown a level of humility and more frugal with public resources. 

Showing off opulence in time of dire need is not limited to him. His boss, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, made his signature by funding extravagant demonstration projects with only cosmetic values. The good Prime Minister shocked the world by wasting millions of dollars in times of famine, civil strife, and the largest scale of war raging in the north of the country. In this context, Jigjiga’s man is simply following the footsteps of his leader!

Such nonchalant exhibition and waste of public resources is only possible because there is no accountability either in Addis Ababa or in Jigjiga. Ernest Hemingway once wrote about economic mismanagement and war, two phenomena that are prevailing in Ethiopia and in the Somali region.  “The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the second is war. Both bring temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin. But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists,” quipped Hemingway.

In its political and economic opportunism, the Somali regional administration is particularly opaque. Several ministers in his administration are incestuously related to Mustafe through marriage. Others are his kin. A web of marriage relations layered by a kinship network that makes the circle of power narrow characterizes his administration.  As one insider said,”in terms of his family’s proximity to the center of power, Mustafa is much worse than the oft-despised Abdi Illay.”

Somalis at the conference welcomed Mustafe for the 2nd year, although this time he received a lukewarm attitude. One may ask why does someone who extol pax-Ethiopiana at the expense of SOMALIWEYN experience chose to come to such a gathering?  Perhaps vanity is irresistible to a politician like Mustafe.

Although many people felt discomforted by his words of pax-Ethiopiana, some argued in private that “as long as he is rhetorically saying he is a Somali and sometimes peppers his speeches with fake SOMALIWEYN, “‘it is more valuable to keep him engaged.” In that case, perhaps we can limit his damage to the Somali cause, added another observer of the proceedings.    

However, some voices at the conference showed visible discomfort at his presence. His outlandish and ahistorical narrative about the tenuous intersectionality between Ethiopian colonialism and the Somali experience turned off many attendees. One commentator, who was once Mustafe’s close advisor, likened his exoneration of Menilik, Haile Selassie, and Mengistu of their crimes against Somalis to a “Jew denying the Auschwitz experience.”  

Although the comparison of the Somali and Jewish experiences may be questionable, the widespread disapproval of his ugly portrayal of Somali experience and his tendency of being an erasure is indomitable. 

Whether he is doing all this for politics or personal belief is not certainly for lack of knowledge. Alas, he tells his lieutenants that he tactically appeals to the Amhara elites to have them protect him from Oromo! Yet, he seeks a good relationship with the Oromo chapter of the Prosperity Party. Such double dealing is tantamount to walking on a tightrope.

Will there comes a day when an angry Somali spectator will throw a shoe at him as did an angry Iraqi at Bush in Baghdad during the Iraqi invasion by America? In that event, an angry Iraqi who was fed up with the deceit and vanity of American leaders called former President Bush “kalib,:” meaning “dog”, an insult considered by Arabs to be the worst. I hope it does not come to the level where Mustafe earns such a scorn.

In Part II, I will deal with Somalia’s challenges and the prospect for a transition. My stay in Nairobi for two weeks was eye opening.

By Faisal A. Robl

Email: faisalroble19@gmail.com

Faisal Roble, a writer, political analyst and a former Editor-in-Chief of WardheerNews, is mainly interested in the Horn of Africa region. He is currently the Principal Planner for the City of Los Angeles in charge of Master Planning, Economic Development and Project Implementation Division. Courtesy: Wardheernews

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