London,3rd April 2004
By Mr. Abdi Ismail Samatar
Professor of Geography,University of Minnesota
The debate pertaining to the integrity of the Somali nation has entered a critical phase as the northern secessionists push their agenda to convince the international community, particularly the British Government, about the merits of their claim. There has been a great deal of misinformation about the recent trip of Hargeisa political leaders to the United Kingdom.
The rumor mill and related sources have widely misrepresented what has transpired during their visit in London. I was passing through London during the group's visit and attended the meeting, March 17, 2004, where the secessionist leaders presented their case to a few members of the British Parliament. It is vital to report to the public of exactly what occurred at that meeting and to briefly tease out its essence for our national integrity. This essay provides an alternative, and I dare say more accurate, recount of events.
First, the meeting took place in the Parliamentary office-building and not in Parliament's chamber as others have claimed. Second, Mr. Tony Worthington MP, of Clydebank & Milngavie, organized and convened the council, and some members of Parliament's All Party Group on International Development attended. Third, nearly three-fourth of those who attended were supporters of the Hargeisa authority, peppered with a few British consultants. Finally, the timing coincided with UK government budget day, an event that monopolized media and national attention and, consequently, obscured the aforementioned meeting.
Mr. Worthington initiated the discussion by recounting his two visits to Southern and Northern Somalia since 1991. Although he cited Baidoa as the most tragic place in recent Somali history, his attention and sympathy focused on Somalia's former military regime's destruction of Hargeisa in 1988. His opening statement revealed an uninformed and biased reading of Somali political history. For example, he bluntly remarked "you have regretted your unification with Somalia since the beginning." These words set the tone for the rest of the discussion.
The head of the Hargeisa authority, Mr. Dahir Riyale Kahin, read a prepared statement that lasted for almost thirty minutes. He reiterated a fiction that many advocates of the secession agenda have come to believe, one which celebrates British colonialism and depicts northern Somalis as people who did not struggle for independence. In this interpretation, Sh. Bashir's, Abdillahi Suldaan Tima Cade's, and Barkhad Cas' efforts, Sayyid Mohamed Abdulla Hassan's movement and other less visible northern heroes of Somali nationalism are erased from the annals of modern Somali history.
Mr. Riyalle and his cohorts identified two former British Prime Ministers, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, as their heroes. Labor Prime Ministers, including Tony Blair, did not fit into this political map. Once Mr. Riyale finished reading the speech, Mr. Worthington took questions from the floor. As a chairman he indicated to those present that non-Somalilanders would have the first opportunity to ask questions, assuming that all black people present in the meeting were "Somalilanders."
During this period, some of the northerners with Mr. Riyale further embellished the same contrived history. They made several incongruous statements. First, the audience were told that northern Somalis were British Orphans and that the British Queen was their mother.
None of the speakers appreciated the irony that the Queen was alive despite their claim to orphanhood. Second, the advocates of sovereignty accused the British of implanting the idea of united Somalia in northern minds after the Second World War. Further, they claimed that the British forced northerners to unite with Southern Somalia, a place these speakers referred to as "another African country." Third, speakers alleged that the Somali Youth League (SYL) lobbied to restore Italian power over southern Somalia and campaigned against the unification of all Somalilands under the British rule when the Four Powers Commission considered the matter in 1948.
These assertions are, however, contradicted by historical facts. British and United Nations archives contain clear evidence that demonstrates SYL's relentless opposition to Italian colonialism, and old SYL stalwarts are alive in Somalia, Belgium, and the United States to testify on the matter. Fourth, this reinvention and falsification of history did not stop here. For they proclaimed that the North unwillingly joined a South trained in the art of deception by the Italians. They stressed that Southerners used trickery inherited from Italian colonialism to hoodwink Northerners into accepting secondary status!
Such clumsy distortions of the record were designed to gain the sympathy of British MPs and then prod the British Government to recognize a sovereign state in northern Somalia in contradiction to the set policy of the African Union and the United Nations. The Hargeisa contingent flattered the British and members of the House of Commons, who were present, as their long lost brothers, imploring them to revive their "old friendship." In fact, one of the speakers declared that "Great Britain will always be our best friend." Finally, another delegate indicated that the Hargeisa authority would negotiate with the South without pre-conditions but only after the North becomes a sovereign state.
The chair gave me an opportunity to ask my question after nearly all others had spoken. I introduced myself as required by the Chair. As I rose, I stated that I was a native of Gabileh, a town fifty Km west of Hargeisa. I added that I did not define myself as a Somalilander but as a Somali citizen. Not willing to wait for me to ask my question, the advocates of the secessionist agenda jumped to their feet to thwart me from speaking. It was a chaotic scene.
They hurled insults at me and one of them even threatened me with physical violence. The Chair, Mr Worthington, was embarrassed and had to forcefully intervene. He ordered the crowd to let me speak. I only had a brief statement to make. I told the Chair that I had prepared a briefing for the Committee pertaining to all of Somalia which I had sent to their offices earlier. I urged the Chairman and the rest of the All Party Group present to consider the contents of the briefing.
Subsequently, I asked the Chairman if he would agree that what people of Somalia needed the most is peace and development before there can be serious and legitimate discussions of future political dispensation(s). I encouraged him and his colleagues to urge the UK Government to give increased development aid to all the people of Somalia, particularly the northern regions that are most peaceful. I then thanked him for giving me the opportunity to speak.
Only one other MP, the Honorable Piara S. Khabra of Ealing and Southhall briefly spoke and urged Somalis in the UK to take responsibility for their children in Britain. He expressed his serious concern about the many Somali children who were unable to appropriately adjust to Britain, and underscored the responsibility of parents.
Before the question time had lapsed, a fistfight broke out between two members of the secessionist group, one from the opposition Kulmiye Party and another from governing Udub. The police had to be called in to restore order before the meeting adjourned.
Final thoughts:-The deliberation underscored two key issues for anyone who cares about Somali interest. First, the falsification of colonial and post-colonial Somali history is most poisonous. These distortions signal the incredible length the Hargeisa authorities and their supporters are willing to go to impose their political agenda on the country.
Here, one wonders why the group is reluctant to honestly present their case and try to convince Somalis and others through the logic of their argument and the clarity of their evidence. By vilifying and abnegating our true history, they humiliate all of us including the very Northerners who gave up so much to help gain our independence as well as those who dislodged the brutal Siyaad Barre military regime.
Further, the erroneous accusation that SYL actively sought a re-imposition of Italian rule on Southern Somalia and fought against the unification of all Somalis under the British is tragic. This deliberate falsification of our past seems like a continuation of the earlier SNM strategy that deceived the Somali public about its intention to break up the country into two parts. The few British MPs who witnessed this affair, mainly belonged to the Labor Party, know British colonial history better than our brothers and sisters. They must have been flabbergasted to hear this Uncle Tomish rendition.
Second, the attempt by senior members of the Hargeisa authority and supporters to silence me in that meeting bodes ill for the future of the region and the entire country. They claim to be democrats but could not wait to suppress, through intimidation and violence, opposing opinions, even in the shadow of the British Parliament. Such intolerance to hear dissent is symptomatic of what transpired during the so-called declaration of independence in 1991 and the recent referendum. Those who had the gun did not allow any debate in either of these formative occasions.
One wonders, then, why they are so afraid to engage in open debate. After all, the opportunity for a citizen to freely express her/his perspective was the fundamental reason why Somalis hated and resisted the old regime. This is the essence of democracy and the terrain of engagement for all Somalis.