Overcoming distrust is hard – Ask the people of Somalia


Ali Mazrui looked at Somalia as a conundrum, a mystery and a peculiar but understandable phenomenon.

In Africa, the failure of states has been usually attributed to their composition. Colonial powers drew maps during  the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference that brought together people of various cultures, histories, traditions and beliefs.

They were merged to form a state, a fictional nation.

Mazrui was direct, accurate, unforgiving and sometimes scandalous in his observations. He claimed that African states were not nations. Somalia, however, unhindered as it was by the identity-conflict that plagued other countries, was a collapsed state.

Somalia was not always a failure. In fact, between 1960, when British and Italian Somaliland became the independent Republic of Somalia, and October 1969, when Siad Barre took power through a military coup, the country went through three successful, peaceful elections.

The first President, Aden Abdullah Osman Daar, lost his re-election to his former Prime Minister, Abdurashid Ali Shermarke, in 1967. Power was handed over in such a civilised, exemplary manner that Somalia was branded the Switzerland of Africa.

What changed in Somalia?

On October 15, 1969, Abdurashid Ali Shermarke was assassinated in Las Anod (Laascaanood), the administrative capital of the northern Sool region of Somaliland.

A few days later, Siad Barre took control in a military coup.

Barre made three colossal mistakes: First, he was power-hungry, he stayed in power for too long and concentrated power around himself.

Second, he fostered hatred by pitting clans against each other. In his initial years, Barre vowed to end clan rivalry, but he preached water and drunk wine. He fostered clan jealousy by declaring his clan dominant. He used, and abused, the maxim ‘divide and rule’.

Third, he lied. He invaded Eastern Ethiopia and claimed he was merely supporting the plea of the Somali people in Eastern Ethiopia, but everybody knew the truth. It was a shameful move that made him lose face before his people, his army and his trusted allies.

Distrust and suspicion of any clan but my own?

Abdulmalik Sugow is an impressive and pleasant young Kenyan law student of Somali descent. He and his brothers-in-law, Abdi Latif and Abdulhalim, told me that Somalia’s problem is not unique to Somalia but plagues nations around the world.

A cold chill went through my veins when he said that this same challenge is plaguing Kenya as we speak; the typical tripartite problem of power, truth and hatred.

As Abdul explained, in Somalia, things got even worse with people’s blind allegiance to the Qabil(clan), which disintegrated the social fabric. As soon as Siad Barre was gone, each clan took justice, life and death in its own hands.

At the heart of Somalia’s woes is the unbridled distrust its proud people have towards each other and the world. There are too many self-imposed splinterings in Somali society to allow for the development of nationhood and consequently, the development of a nation that is functional in our increasingly globalised world.

The Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, between Somali militiamen, supporting the self-proclaimed president then, Mohammed Farah Aidid and United States forces saw the death of 18 US soldiers and the downing of two US helicopters. It marked an end to the involvement of many countries in Somalia, which was thereafter left to its own devices.

In addition to the country’s lack of institutional capacity, the international community’s non-involvement only aggravated the situation.

As Kasyoka Mutunga, a young upcoming law scholar told me, from these ashes there arose the mushrooming of egregious corruption, terrorism, kidnapping, illegal toxic chemical waste dumping, arms trafficking and horrible human rights abuses.

Essentially, as Chinua Achebe would say, the trouble with Somalia, was and has been purely and squarely a problem of leadership. What had taken many years to build, was destroyed in a few minutes, by a regrettable choice.

Aftermath of the bomb attack

Somali people have been trying to put their house back in order for more than a decade. Efforts were moving on the right direction, when on October 14,  2017, the largest terrorist attack in Somalia’s history happened.

The Mogadishu blast took the lives of more than 350 people and left many hundreds injured. This regrettable incident has given rise to a sense of indignation among Somali youth.

It has elicited a sense of unity unrecorded before. Thousands in Mogadishu marched in solidarity with those murdered in a show of defiance against the Al-Shabaab terrorist group. As they condemned Al Shabaab, they also praised Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey and the only foreign leader who has visited Mogadishu since the attack.

Turkey has helped to rebuild Somalia’s infrastructure and gradual but steady institutional growth has been recorded.

Perhaps, as we mourn for the victims of the Mogadishu attack, we should also be alive to the possibility that this gruesome tragedy marks the end of a bitter history for this proud nation, and the beginning of its upward trajectory.

Bad leadership destroyed Somalia. Only good leadership can restore its lost glory. Somalia today is a lesson and a prayer for Kenya. May unchecked thirst for power, ethnic hatred and lies not turn Kenya into another Somalia.

The Somali national anthem is perhaps one of the most beautiful tunes. It says,

“Wake up and lean on each other

Support your country

Support them forever.

Stop fighting each other

Come back with strength and joy and be friends again

It’s time to look forward and take command

Defeat your enemies and unite once again.”

As Kenya enters a new era today, President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga should seek all possible avenues to put the country back together. It is not just a matter of preaching unity, but operationalising it, living it.

I pray that they may have the courage, magnanimity and vision to do so.


Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. Lfranceschi@strathmore.edu; Twitter: @lgfranceschi


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here