Editor's Note: WardheerNews had a rare and yet an in-depth interview with Ismail Ali Ismail "Geeldoon" the author of, governance, The Scourge and Hope of Somalia. Mr. Ismail, a former Somali civil servant and UN staff discusses about the book and his views on the current situation in Somalia.
WardheerNews ( WDN): What inspired you to write the book, ‘Governance: The Scourge and Hope of Somalia' ?Ismail: So far as I know no one had written about the historical genesis of Somalia’s governance problems, which need to be explained to posterity so that they will understand the present in order to plan for the future.
WDN: What books and authors have influenced your writing?
Ismail: I suppose you mean my writing in general. After having read so many books it is difficult to say which book or books had the greatest influence on my writing. But, I can tell you that I do not read novels. I am a discriminating reader and I am fascinated by biographies and autobiographies of great people and others who may not be so great but have nevertheless made their imprints in the field of politics – the mother of governance. The style and mechanics of language interest me too and I find in this regard Sir Ernest Gowers’ much acclaimed little book, “Plain Words”, both instructive and entertaining. It was written, you may wish to know, for the officials of the British civil service. I have also found the plays and anecdotes of Bernard Shaw very entertaining, particularly his clever jabs at the British.
WDN: In defining the term ‘Governance’, you differed with some of the widely used definitions of governance, could you shed light on your reasoning?
Ismail: There is a tendency to explain what ‘good governance’ is and offer it as a definition of ‘Governance’. This implicitly says that bad governance is no governance. That is what the UNDP, UNECA, IMF, the World Bank and the European Union have all done. They could not be more wrong. There is an equally wrong tendency to emphasize the attributes of good governance, such as the existence of a ‘system’, ‘effectiveness’, ‘beneficence’, ‘democracy’ and ‘rights and freedoms’ as the essential elements that define ‘Governance’ per se. I find all this to be wrong, for I say in my book that the manner in which governance is shaped and exercised does not define ‘Governance’ itself; in other words, the manner does not define the thing itself. I therefore came up with my own definition, which reads as follows: “Governance is the exercise of sovereign direction and control in the conduct of public affairs”.
WDN: What was the challenging part of writing the book?
Ismail: It is really difficult to write a book, unaided by proficient others such as proofreaders and a competent editor. Fatigue is also another discouraging factor. There are health hazards too – what maybe rightfully termed as ‘occupational hazards’. Sitting immobile behind a desk for long hours while staring at the glare of the computer screen can be harmful to one’s eyes and health in general. Writing a book is taxing, and the great challenge is to persevere even after the book has been published and enters the promotion stage.
WDN: How did you gather the plethora of history in the book?
Ismail: Gathering the material for the book was time consuming, but I received invaluable help in this regard from Sa’id Mohammed Mahamoud better known as ‘Sa’id Sugaan’ who eased my burden tremendously. Much of the book is based on my personal experience - the events I lived through, and personal knowledge of many of the leaders. But, I have also made some research on many historical aspects – the many events and encounters and notable persons that shaped the destiny of the Somali country which obviously is much greater in size than Somalia. History is the key to understanding the present.
WDN: You have about 40 years of experience in public administration (including 26 years with the UN). Do Somalia’s problems stem from bad governance?
Ismail: Without doubt. That is why in the subtitle of the book (bad) governance is portrayed as a scourge, which it was in the case of Somalia and (good) governance as an instrument of hope for the future. When bad governance is the malady, good governance is the remedy. The book explains in considerable detail how the country was left entirely unprepared (by the British and the Italians) for the monumental challenges that lay ahead, and how the leaders were hamstrung by the lack of proper institutional machinery. The political leaders, unaided by such machinery and woefully unprepared for the challenges, were also lost in the wilderness of statecraft and could not manage to put the administration of the country on a firm footing.
WDN: To what extent can a country, any country, achieve good governance in its totality? Isn’t the concept “good governance” an ideal-type situation?
Ismail: No one is looking for perfection. Only God is perfect. The word ‘good’ is not even a superlative and we therefore settle for ‘good governance’, for there is no such a thing as ‘ideal governance’ except in political theory. In any case there should be conscious and constant efforts to improve standards. Ultimately, however, it will require a vigilant and sophisticated electorate to ensure that those who govern do not step out of the line and mess up everything.
WDN: In your book, ‘Governance’, you state that Somalia had always had a system of governance from pre-colonial period to today’s anarchic rule. Why does the myth that Somalis are “ungovernable” and “undisciplined” still persist?
Ismail: This is also explained in the book. I can only think of two reasons for the origin of the myth. First, it is often true that the first impression is a lasting impression. The lack of a central authority gave the impression that Somalis were ungoverned, and inter-clan feuds, which erupted from time to time led to the belief that they were ungoverned because they were ungovernable. Secondly, Somalis are highly individualistic and fiercely protective of their rights and freedoms and were, as such, rebellious against colonial authority. Now, 21 years of anarchy have given wide currency to the idea that they cannot govern themselves because they are averse even to their own native authority.
WDN: Given the two different colonial systems in the north and the south, why does the former have a semblance of stability and functioning regional government and the latter is chaotic and, hence, unstable?
Ismail: The Italians did not prepare their part of the country for proper self-governance even though they were given by the UN ten years within which to do so. I explained in my book why the choice of Italy was a mistake – and not an honest one at that. For the first six years of its mandate Italy spent money, time and effort to divide Somalis and turn them against each other as it tried to move heaven and earth to convince the General Assembly of the UN that it should stay for at least 30 years, if not permanently, ‘because Somalis were slow learners’. In the remaining four years (1956-60) things had to be hurried up to meet the deadline of July1. That was the time when clan politics surfaced up, encouraged by Italian intrigues. That was also the time when the Italians managed to infiltrate and disentangle the SYL, which had thitherto remained a solid rock of nationalist fervor. But the bloody instability that followed the fall of the Barre regime should be laid to the account of the United Somali Congress (USC), which imploded and threw the deep South of the country into conflagration. A former USC sympathizer once told me jokingly that ‘USC’ stood for ‘Ururka Soomaali Ceebeeyey’ (The Party that Caused the Shame of Somalia). By contrast, the north was spared all this because the SNM and the SSDF, unlike the USC, behaved much more responsibly. One can even argue that the secession the SNM declared was triggered by the flight of reason from the South. The SNM had been an ally of USC, but the implosion of the latter made the SNM go its own separate way. Mind you, I am not justifying secession.
WDN: Does the clan system in Somalia help or hinder governance?
Ismail: The clan system is here to stay with us for a long time. It will not go away by being condemned, particularly when we condemn it publicly and embrace it privately. It is my considered view that until such time it will be replaced by modern assurance of physical and social security we should manage it in such a manner as to minimize its nefarious effects and maximize its utility. I believe in this matter time is the great physician. It is a system, and like all systems it has to be managed properly and with care, being all too conscious that no system is so easily inflammable as the clan or tribal system.
WDN: How the traditional ways of governing, or the Somali xeer work with creating a stable governance?
Ismail:The Xeer system has been damaged to a large extent by a number of factors that I mentioned in the book. But I think it is still relevant, for we still remain a society of clans or, if you like, a tribal society. I do not believe that tradition and modernity are mutually exclusive. It is the case that tradition will evolve as modernity creeps in. I do not believe a governance system that runs counter to tradition can be stable. However, tradition is more than the Xeer, for we should also be guided by our religious precepts, which prohibit all facets of corruption. As a matter of fact, I believe that the greatest threat to our modern polity does not come from the Xeer or the clan system but the state of anomie into which we plunged ourselves. Regrettably, we have become a society that celebrates illegitimate pecuniary gains and scoffs at purity and probity in administration. Elections are bought by people who are morally bankrupt and our parliamentarians are unscrupulous. These things denote a decadent society and have nothing to do with the clan system or the Xeer. Surely, that is not the road to good governance and recovery.
WDN: How do you reconcile the need for an educated cadre of administrators and the necessity of having able, nationalistic and charismatic political leadership?
Ismail:There is nothing to reconcile. The two should be mutually reinforcing. We desperately need, not only educated but also cultured people to enter politics and compete for power. Charisma and patriotism are attributes of leadership, and leadership is a complicated and complex concept, which I cannot discuss here for lack of time and space. But, one thing I am sure of is that societies raise their children to become leaders.
WDN: In your book, you portray the SYL (Somali Youth League) founders as young, modestly educated and bereft of experience, yet they were goal-oriented (gaining independence) and none held any significant political leadership position after independence. The country would certainly benefit from this type of leadership mind set, and so where can we find such a rare breed of leaders today in an environment rife with warlordism and stooges serving foreign countries?
Ismail: First of all, let me draw your attention to the fact that some leaders of the SYL that was SYL did encumber political, administrative and diplomatic posts. Abdullahi Issa was foreign minister and he held other portfolios as well though he ended up as our Ambassador to Sweden; and of course Aden Abdulle Osman was our first president. Furthermore, I knew personally two of the thirteen founding fathers of the SYL who were in government service: one was Dahir Haji Osman who was my superior in the Ministry of Interior as Director-General, and the other was Ali Maslah (better known as Ali Varduure) who was a personal friend and served as Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Both lived long and passed away only few years ago. We need such selfless, patriotic, clanless leaders now more than ever. But it is difficult when the country is ripped apart from within, let alone from without. Secondly, the goal of independence was as clear as broad daylight and was therefore a uniting factor. But, once that goal was achieved inter-clan competition for nebulous economic and social goals characterized Somali politics and the leaders themselves lost the big picture they had fought for.
WDN: What do you see are the immediate and long-term solutions in rebuilding Somalia? Where do you see Somalia one year from today? Will there be another TFG?
Ismail: Those areas that are peaceful and have regional administrations are already engaged in rebuilding and cannot - should not - wait for things to settle down in the South. Where there is peace there is development, business is booming and life goes on. We are supposed to have an FG (Federal Government) instead of a TFG in mid next year. Even in the unlikely event that peace is achieved within the year it will take a long time for the South to heal.
WDN: What are your thoughts on the recent Kenyan and Ethiopian invasions of Somalia?
Ismail: Those who are against such incursions call them ‘invasions’ while those who are in favor call them ‘interventions’. We call the same action by different names. We do not - and are not supposed - to look at the matter through the same spectacles. What we all know, however, is that these things happen both with our invitation and/or our connivance. We cannot blame Ethiopians and Kenyans to look after their own interests; and if they believe that their interests lie in seeing Somalia in shambles (which I doubt because that does not stand to reason considering the spillover effect of our problems to them) it is incumbent upon us to look after our own as well. We Somalis cannot protect our own house from others if we are destroying it ourselves – and even calling others to come in and destroy it with us. There is much wisdom in the saying that ‘good fences make good neighbors’. I have explained in the book why our porous borders with the two countries (Kenya and Ethiopia) endanger their security as well as our own, for whatever happens on their side of the border will have repercussions on our side too. For example, if two Somali clans fight on the Ethiopian side of the border they will also fight on our side since the clans live on both sides.
WDN: What are some lessons learned and what has the process of writing taught you?
Ismail: One big lesson we should all learn from the experience of Somalia is that bad governance can destroy the national unity of a people who have a high degree of ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural homogeneity while good governance can consummate the unity of a very heterogeneous nation. That apart, the process of writing the book brought home to me what I knew before, namely that lack of funds for a book project imposes serious limitations impinging particularly on the satisfactory production and even marketing of the book. It also opened my eyes to the complexities of the huge publishing industry, which made it difficult for me to choose a publisher. Most of the better-known houses will not even look at your manuscript unless you are an established author or a leading personality in any sector of society or have a story that will sell like a hot cake.
WDN: In some circles Somalia is totally written off as a ‘has been country’; in your opinion what would it take to erase this widely held belief?
Ismail: After twenty-one years one is bound to despair, especially foreigners who cannot visualize or have no confidence in the resilience of the Somali people. Only time will prove them wrong, but we Somalis also have the duty to prove them wrong. I believe all nations have their moments of madness and we are witnessing Somalia’s moment of madness, which, alas, has been continuing for a period now measured in decades. Twenty-one years is a long time for those whose lives have been spared to wait and worry but a fleeting moment in the life of a nation. The human spirit always triumphs, and so it will in Somalia
WDN: Finally thanks for your time and please tell us where the book is available?
Ismail: You are more than well come and thank you so much for the opportunity, the book is available at Amazon