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Prof. Lewis and the Scrap Merchants of Mogadishu

Professor Lewis’s lecture of Friday 25 October 2002 in London attracted more criticism than it deserved. He was indeed harsh on the various warlords in southern Somalia particularly those in Mogadishu, whom he called scrap merchants, but he was not overly exaggerating the gloomy picture he painted. He was also critical of the Transitional National Government, the UN involvement in Somalia, the Somali section of the BBC, which was lately a mouthpiece of the TNG and the Arab League. All of these players have contributed one way or another to the exacerbation of the dismal political situation in Somalia. On the other hand, he heaped praise on Somaliland and Puntland for the political development in these regions of Somalia. I was pleased with the rosy picture he painted for Somaliland and Puntland, but dismayed by the gloomy picture in Mogadishu. But the Somali people are responsible for their predicament. We shouldn’t blame others for our failure.

I don't think the professor said in his lecture anything that he did not say before in one form or another. Anyone who read his articles on Somalia or read the recent edition of his book A Modern History of the Somali (from which came the title of the Friday lecture: The Scrap Merchants of Mogadishu), would be familiar with his sentiments towards the Mogadishu warlords, the TNG, the UN and Somaliland. One may not agree with the style of his presentation, but one would find it difficult to disagree with most of what he said. May be it hurts to hear the truth from a non-Somali, even though this particular non-Somali has spent nearly half a century studying and writing about the Somali people and their culture.

For those who felt strongly aggrieved by his harsh criticism, the most effective way to respond to his allegations would be to engage him in a public debate or deliver lectures to correct any misconception he might have generated in the minds of many people, particularly those who are not very familiar with the Somali societies. But it is not appropriate to shout from the sidelines or be abusive to the professor. At any rate, they should have responded strongly to his writings, which reach far more audience than the lecture he delivered for a handful of people. This may be a living proof that the Somali people still remain an “oral society” even if they attend some of the best centres of learning.

Prof. Lewis’s lectures and writings deal with two very important issues that deserve serious consideration and debate. The first is the clan basis of the Somali society and politics. Clan politics is a sad reality that cannot be swept under the carpet. It is a disease that has destroyed the nation. Unfortunately, some people think it might be a remedy for the political crisis in Somalia so much so that the next government of Somalia will be based on “power sharing” between the clans (or some of them at least). In my opinion, it is a tragedy that would perpetuate the political instability in the country. The nation’s destiny cannot be run on petty clan considerations..

The second issue that he often deals with is the alleged secession of Somaliland from the rest of Somalia. For most Somalilanders, the secession is a legitimate course of action. They argue that they are only taking back was rightfully theirs. Some people (including Prof. Lewis) agree with their claim, but most Somalis do not agree with that claim. The British and Italian colonial outposts in Somalia ceased to exist in 1960. Since that time neither of them had any legal existence; they existed only as historical footnotes. They were replaced by the Republic of Somalia. The latter in turn disintegrated in 1991 into clan-based mini territories which further reduced the colonial legacy into distant memory. The socio-political spectrum of Somalia has changed beyond recognition in the past forty years, that any claim of political independence by any group is worthless.

I strongly believe that Somalia is one united state that cannot be partitioned by the whim of individual or a group. If Somalia adopts a federal system of government to replace the old unitary system in Somalia, so be it. If, at a later stage, one or more regions decide to secede from the union with the consent of the Somali people, so be it. What should not be allowed is Somalia to become a victim of circumstance where one clan declares unilaterally the political independence of the territory grazed by their camels by exploiting the non-existence of a central government. Worse still, one-third of the territory Somaliland claims now lies within Puntland State of Somalia. Whatever my sentiment or the sentiments of those in the opposite camp, this issue deserves serious debate. It is too important to be left to the whim of clan chiefs.

Finally, it is important that we learn to deal with issues through dialogue and the respect of other people’s opinions.

Mohamoud Abdi
London, UK
30 October 2002

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