Sign in to follow this  

Africa’s First Democrats

Recommended Posts



Book Review: Africa’s First Democrats


Africa’s First Democrats: Somalia’s Aden A. Osman and Abdirazak H. Hussen

by Abdi Ismail Samatar, 308 PP. Indiana University Press, 2016


by Bashir Goth



Why I review this book

As a firm believer in democratic principles and an adamant observer of African development, I read this book with great anticipation after attending it’s launch by the author in Washington D.C. in early December 2016. I read it diligently and carefully including the 39-pages of notes at the end of the book which add deep insight into some of the issues not developed by the author in the body of the book. I found the book captivating on three fronts.


First, its a fresh departure from the existing literature about Somalia that dwells on segmenting the Somalis on tribal lineage systems, hence characterizing Somali people as individualistic and almost anarchic. This is a euphemistic way of saying that Somalis are primitive people that lack the capacity for state building.


Already aware of the Samatar brothers’, Abdi I., Professor and Chair of the Department of Geography, Environment and Society, University of Minnesota, and his older brother Ahmed I., Professor and former dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College, challenging of the tired, too often repeated clanism postulate which according to Ahmed Samatar, has “become axiomatic.”; they continued to shift the debate paradigm by redirecting the focus of African scholarship from looking at Africans through the tainted prism of tribalism to studying them through the context of the people’s complex history that includes the socio-cultural erosion and politico-economic degeneration caused by foreign domination on Africa through the centuries.


The reader can see this shift clearly in Africa’s First Democrats, as the author focuses his analysis on leadership and domestic socio-cultural dynamics and how the Somali political leaders adhered to the standards of responsible leadership in the first decade of the country’s post-independence period and how they were shaped by the conditions in which they grew up and the clash of cultures they experienced during the early years of their life.


Second, the book presents a case study on how the Somali people, despite the historical, cultural and geo-political disadvantages they inherited from colonial powers and the existential challenges posed by the cold war era, made successful efforts in state-building and laying down the foundation of democracy contrary to the pervasive foreign promoted image of Somalis being anarchical individualists who lack the capacity for state building.

Third, the author presents the background of the two leaders who are the focus of his book, Aden A. Osman, the first Somali President, and Abdirazak H. Hussen, Prime Minister, 2nd post-independence Prime Minister, highlighting that the Africanist Literature on African leadership in the post independence period mostly neglects the stories of the formative years of African leaders. He underscores that it was “those early experiences that throws much light on the political courses individuals pursued, how they conducted themselves as head of liberation movements, and their times as presidents after independence.” He points out that “without knowing their background one is left to guess the circumstances that shaped the character of the leader.”

Leadership and accountability


The author addresses the question of leadership and accountability as the two main themes of the book, attributing Africa’s problems and Somalis among them to “these intertwined specters,” saying that it is “the debilitating absence of leadership fit to meet the complex imperatives of citizenship and national development and the dearth of accountable and effective state institutions that can sustain civic life where leadership is lacking.”


He argues that “inspiring and capable leadership and functioning state institutions are the two critical instruments necessary for development.”

It is against these factors and others he listed in his definition of leadership that he measures the performance of the Somali leaders in the first decade after independence.


He notes that as most African countries suffered from the rule of autocrats and dictators, African literature on African leadership was dominated by the “diagnosis of authoritarian leaders” while paying “scant attention to democratic alternatives whose experiences could provide positive guides for those dreaming and struggling for a fully democratic Africa."


He argues that the democratic alternatives were led by “statespersons” rather than politicians, describing the stateperson as one characterized by self-confidence, a strong moral code, vision and one under whose leadership “a thousand flowers bloom.”


Contrary to the consensus and state building qualities of the statesperson stands the autocrat who rules the regime according to his whims and eventually causes the “evaporation of legitimacy for all the frames."


He concludes that President Aden Abdulle Osman and Prime Minister Abdirazak H. Hussen stand out when presented next to the rest of African leaders due to their “aspiration to institutionalize state operations, their willingness to respect the will of people and accept political defeat through a democratic process.”


Childhood and youth

Reading the two leaders’ early life stories, one can see that both of them grew up in almost similar circumstances. Both went through difficult life, worked as children in their early childhoods, experienced the cruelty of colonialism by being victims themselves or watching how the European administrators punished and degraded their Somali subjects.

However, while Osman comes into political awareness during his services to the Italian administration, Hussen’s awareness came at a very tender age through his Quranic teacher who he often heard saying to the students: “Limaada takhara Al Muslimuun wa taqadama qayruhum” which is obviously the title of a book written by Shakib Arslan, an Arab nationalist from Lebanon, in the 19thc which had a great impact on the thinking of the Islamic world during the struggle for independence. With this question ringing in his mind, Hussen not only witnessed the brutality of colonialism against his people but he himself fell victim to it as he was imprisoned and tortured for refusing to yield to his Italian master’s humiliating order of taking his shoes off when entering his office.

Finally, both leaders cut their teeth in politics and leadership through their involvement with the Somali Youth League (SYL), the first pan Somali liberation movement, and the long struggle for the unification of the Somali people and for independence.


State building


The author divides the first decade after independence into the First Republic with Osman as President and Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke as Prime Minister, and the Second Republic with Osman as President and Abdirazak H. Hussen as Prime Minister.

He notes that the main tasks of the first republic was the consolidation of the union of British and Italian colonized Somali territories, the ratification of the national constitution and holding the first parliamentary elections.


Osman in his speech to the first cabinet laid a lofty vision for the Somali state; a vision that called upon the state and the citizens to live by the values of democracy and respect for the rule of law:

“The Somali Nation, by making itself democratic and particularly Republic, has given itself one of the best and most liberal constitutions, a fact to which high personalities of the United Nations and the world have testified. But it is my modest opinion that only you, citizens, can strengthen democracy; in fact democracy doesn’t mean anarchy but the power invested in the people in accordance with order and based on the laws. Therefore, to strengthen the democracy of our country means that all of us must respect order and the laws that we have for our ourselves, and love one another, and resolve our controversies in a peaceful and fraternal manner.”


The first test that faced the First Republic was the attempt by some Northern junior officers to stage a coup in Hargeisa in December 1961. In strict adherence to the spirit of the constitution and respect for the rule of aw, and due to his sense of statesmanship, Osman rejected calls for a military tribunal to be established for the trial of the rebellious officers. Osman also persuaded the government to allow foreign lawyers to represent the officers as per their request, while the government also paid part of the defense lawyers’ fees. The government also allowed a British judge to preside over the case. When the court dismissed the case, the government allowed the officers to walk free despite the protest of some MPs and cabinet members including some from the north.


“This was the first time in Africa’s postindependence history that a government released coup makers without any retribution,” says the author. The defense lawyers also commended the government during a meeting with the President: “they were greatly comforted by the full liberty given them and the unimpeded independence of the judiciary in Somalia,” according to Osman’s diary.


The First Republic also succeeded in holding free and fair parliamentary elections at a difficult time when the country was in a situation of war with Ethiopia. The best testimony comes from the US Embassy report to the State Department cited by the author: “By general consensus this election was the fairest ever held in Somalia. The government press understandably hailed the event as spotless proof of Somali democracy in action. More accurately, high government officials including General Abscir, Police Commander, are generally satisfied that it was well run and fraud held down.”


Underlining the significance of this, the author characterized the election as marking: “ a historic benchmark in the country’s democracy march towards democracy,” noting that “the absence of election-related violence meant that Somalis were at ease with the democratic process.” And despite this historical achievement, Osman did not hide his unease about unlimited voter inflations that took place in a few places.


The Second Republic


After passing the first test of establishing government institutions and entrenching the values of democracy, the responsibility fell on the shoulders of the Second Republic led by Abdirazak H Hussen to usher in an era of good governance, accountability, and establishing a meritorious hiring culture of government staff. These tasks included weeding out corruption and challenging those politicians and public servants who “took advantage of their position to raid the public purse, construct coastal mansions, and lease them to expatriates for a handsome return.”


It is obvious that to tackle this enormous challenges needed a leader with vision, boldness, self-confidence , and honesty. And the author presents enough evidence that Hussen was the man destined to lead the age of “karti iyo hufnaan – Competent and Ethical Government”.


The author cites four issues that were central to Hussen’s agenda including professionalizing the public service, considering corruption as an obstacle to democratic governance and national unity, adopting nonalignment as the central pillar of country’s foreign policy and the systematic reproduction of Somalia’s democratic form of government through free and fair elections. Hussen’s mantra was “the right man for the right job”. He embarked on this mission at the time of the creation of Somali Airlines when he was minister of public works. There were 28 openings for young men to be trained as pilots and engineers in Germany. Only two of those selected after the exams conducted by German officials were from the south the rest were from the north. While the majority of the first cabinet ministers he formed as Prime Minister were again from the north.


And despite the resentment he earned from those who lost their privileges, his policies have definitely satisfied the general public and the President nicknamed him as “dahirie” (cleanser).

Taking note of the enormous reforms undertaken by Hussen, the US Embassy summed up the Prime Minister’s leadership as following: “The reform does not appear to have favored or spared any tribal segment of the population. The North may have gained a few positions owing to the better qualifications of its men. The army and other state organs may be next in line for reform. Abdirazak [Hussen] has demonstrated a high order of leadership in his efforts to create a strong administrative framework for Somalia.”


Even the only local English newspaper Dalka which was always critical of the government lauded the reforms by rejoicing that: “No longer will the appointment of ministerial post mean a license to rob.”

The author argues that Hussen’s “radical civil service reform and the transparent way it was done predated widespread reform in Africa by at least three decades.” He notes that while most postcolonial African leaders used the national treasury as their own private reserve, Osman and Hussen treated public resources as “sacrosanct.”


He cites that Hussen declined to go to hajj at government expense and he did not own a house while he was working for the government. He once astounded the U.S Ambassador who offered to build an Embassy complex on a land owned by Hussen and then transfer the whole structure to Hussen after five years. Hussen rejected the offer, a rare behavior by an Africa leader. Osman also disappointed several Somali businessmen who offered him money to use in his election, while he donated savings he made from the presidential discretionary fund to build the country first state house for the accommodation of foreign dignitaries.


Africa’s First Leader to give up power


The crowning moment of Somalia’s democracy came on June 10, 1967 when Osman who was defeated in presidential elections by Abdirashid with a small margin, conceded defeat and gave up power, marking it “the first time in modern African political history in which a democratically elected president was defeated in an election, gave up power with dignity, and walked away freely as an adored citizen.” This was not lost on visiting Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda who in a state dinner in Mogadishu commented that Somalia was different than other African countries because he was flanked on both sides by the former President and the incumbent President.


Another testimony came from Yusuf Duhul, described by the author as “Somalia’s most critical journalist” who admitted in 1966 and later reiterated in 1996 that Osman-Hussen team led the best government the country ever had.


It is through that capable leadership of Osman during his tenure and Hussen’s short but vigorous three years (1964-67) as Prime Minister that Somalia managed to set itself apart from other African countries. The author quotes the following testament by the US Ambassador in Mogadishu at the time as supporting evidence:

“Elections of the presidency and the parliament have demonstrated the system’s ability to transfer power democratically. The country’s ex-president and two former prime ministers are today all in parliament – not imprisoned, exiled, or dead.”


Even at one time, the U.S. Ambassador praises Osman as a rare breed in his report to his government saying: “… Aden may not consider himself indispensible, but he is a rare breed, here or anywhere”.

It is through this legacy which one can see in detail after reading the book, that the author concluded that Osman and Hussen were Africa’s First Democrats. In fact, he mentions that the next African president to leave office after he was defeated in an election was Kaunda of Zambia in 1991, almost a quarter of a century after Somalia’s precedent.

Beginning of downfall


In his final analysis, the author explains how the country descended to an era of corruption, political opportunism, single party government, and oppression of the opposition during the last civilian government of Abdirashid-Egal. The changing lot of Somali democracy was captured by I.M. Lewis, writing that Somalia’s parliament, once a symbol of free speech and fairplay “had turned into sordid marketplace where deputies traded their votes for personal rewards with scant regard for the interests of their constituents.”


This culminated in the assassination of the President and military takeover, heralding Somalia’s descent into the abyss.


The author ends the book with a positive note of optimism in line with the objective of his mission which was to educate the young Somali generation and the world at large that the difficult circumstances that Somalia experienced over the last 40 years do not define the character and spirit of the Somali people. But on the contrary, there was a time when Somalis were leadership trailblazers for the whole of Africa. It is with this concept in mind that the author calls the people not to despair but rather take inspiration from their brilliant past:

“The grim times needs not block the imagining of a drastically different future than the humiliating present. In this admittedly hard quest, the personal lives of Osman and Hussen and their devotion to high political ideals are available to inspire a new generation,” he writes, echoing Ahmed Samatar’s call for the Somalis “to reinvent themselves as well as the nation.”



The author said researching and writing the book took him a long time during which he traced people over three continents, went through tons of personal diaries, governmental archives, and other research resources.


And as biased as it may look, I cannot find a better conclusion in my review than to agree with the author that “the two most critical lessons” that the reader can take away from Africa’s First Democrats are: “…that the political rump that has dominated the landscape over the last 40 years does not embody the history of the Somali people and their aspirations and that without deeply grounded ethical principles the management of public affairs is a soulless venture that leads to a sterile future.”


All I can add is that this book is not above reproof. In fact of all the material I read about this period, I found only one book, “Khawadir A’n Taarikh Al Somal”( Thoughts about the history of Somalia), a memoire, by Abdullah Mohamed Ahmed Qablan who was Under-Secretary for Finance in Hussen’s government from 1964-66, which presented an opposing view lambasting Osman and Hussen and accusing them of corruption, massive misuse of government money, and nepotism. Qablan says that every thing bad that could have happened during the first years happened during the Osman-Hussen period. What must be underlined here, however, is that Qablan’s book is personal memories about a period in which he himself had a stake. It is not a scholarly work that has been peer reviewed.


The truth is, any ardent and observant researcher can challenge Professor Abdi Samatar’s arguments and conclusions in Africa’s First Democrats, but one thing should be clear, a research that has taken more than a decade, dozens of interviews, and sifting through tons of personal diaries, governmental archives, and other research resources, cannot be simply dismissed by sly innuendos, tribal biases, personal dislikes, an undocumented oral stories.


Africa’s First Democrats is indeed a well argued, well documented, well written, and a brilliant scholarship that can only be challenged by an equally weighty argument. And as Voltaire said: “To hold a pen is to be at war” and I am sure Abdi Samatar is ready for such a war.

As Africa is often viewed through a patronizing foreign scholarship and distorted media, this book will be highly recommended to world leaders new to the democratic process if they have the inclination to see true Africa through African eyes

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Waxba yaan la inoo buun buunin, bahashu, xaga hore bay ka qaloocatey, yeelkeeda ha iska soo gurguuratee sida wada ma badan, meel fiican bay iman lahayd hadaan inqilaabkii dhicin, iyo jabhadii ku kacay oo khaayimul wadan wada ahaa!

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Looks like an interesting book. However, I don't like the book cover design. It looks amateurish and done by a 2nd grade student.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Given the era the two guys ruled, and the level of the political experience, these leaders were excellent.


The ignorant populace were led to beleive, there was a greener posture with a magic touch from dictatorship rule.


Half a century after that naive word, caleemo qoyan baan kusoo dhaweynay, none have been learned from the past mistakes.


Casharada ugu wanaagsan ee siyaasada in laga barto u baahan waa:


- Dulqaad iyo sal adeyg

- Shaqo badan iyo hadal kooban

- Inta lahayo ilaasho, inta kaamaqan waad gaari.

- Wanaaga qofka masuulka ah u qir, sida aad khaladkisa u qirtid.

- Kan qeylinaya ee kursiga raba, suaalo adag waydii.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

I am neither academic like Adbi samatar nor a well known prolific writer like Bashir Goth( his poems are written in Somali, English and Arabic), but also , I am not a lay person who just read the first book on the civilian government of Somalia in the sixties. I never reviewed a book in my life , but there is always a first.


Mr. Bashir has really reviewed in depth the new and different paradigm the Samatar brothers have opened for the next generation of Somali and African studies scholars. Rather than follow the the typical colonial narrative based on on tribal loyalty above every thing else , Abdi Samatar has shown the complications of the Somali politics in that democratic era. He also provided a lot of history and information hidden in the archives of the world which would help those who are trying to dig the past.


The esteemed writer Bashir Goth warns that , "a research that has taken more than a decade, dozens of interviews, and sifting through tons of personal diaries, governmental archives, and other research resources, cannot be simply dismissed by sly innuendos, tribal biases, personal dislikes, an undocumented oral stories".


As I stated in the beginning , I did not made due diligent research, but that does not impede me or any other person to analyze or refute some of the conclusions reached by the author at the end . Also, I may use exactly some of the stories Mr. Bashir dismisses as " Oral stories", but also other accurate facts highlighted by the author and others.


Since Somali language was only written as early as seventies, and some of the stories were passes by the protagonists themselves though oral history, we can not discount them as just stories. For example, when late prime minister Egal called interior minister and SYL chairman Yasin Nur Hassan about the rumors of coup around 9:00 pm at the night of October 20,1969, Yassin told Egal that the chief of the army general Siyaad Barre is right here with him and dismissed the rumors". these kind of stories are not written by the author and others , but was authenticated by many reliable sources.


My review will mostly concentrate on the conclusions of the book at the end , or what Abdi Samatar called " how the country descended to an era of corruption, political opportunism, single party government, and oppression of the opposition during the last civilian government of Abdirashid-Egal". Which "culminated in the assassination of the President and military takeover, heralding Somalia’s descent into the abyss".


Former president Aadan A. Osman was a democrat and beacon of stability. As the founding father and president , he left his marks not only on Somalia but also on the continental Africa. Unlike many leaders of his time, he even prepared his life after politics and retired to his farm in Janaale.


This book highlights the integrity, organizational skill, and patriotism of former Prime minister Abdirisaq H. Huseen. He was the first and only Somali leader who persecuted his own ministers for corruption and theft. His honesty was unparalleled and when the October revolution came and investigated the old guard, they , "found only $500 in his Account" according to the author. He was not only able and competent leader, but he left his mark on the independent movement in the early years.


The critic or the theory I am presenting here does not diminish the work of prime minister C/risaaq(may Allah bless his soul) or delete his history as a freedom fighter.


The foundation of this theory is that Mr.C/risaaq never fully accepted the defeat of Aadan cadde in 1967 at hands of C/rashiid Sharmaarke and Mohamed I. Egal . In the Somali political folklore, we hear a lot about the corruption of the civilian government , especially during the premiership of Egal and president Sharmaarke. The 1964 election cited by the author, "by general consensus this election was the fairest ever held in Somalia". During the election day "on march 30 1964, despite the war Ethiopia there were no major trouble regrading the vote. Government mobilized the resources to ensure all went well". The prime minister that produced this result despite the war was Shrmaarke. Again, "there were 1130 precincts, and the government deployed 45 responsible officials in each district to manage the process. All major political parties had their representative". When Aadan Cadde was doing the consultations to name a prime minister after the election, everyone recommended the reappointment of Shrmaarke who won the war and managed the election brilliantly, but he went the other way and appointed C/risaaq. No one should be faulting the president to pick whom ever he wished which is his constitutional pejorative, but it must be noted that he went against the wishes of the majority of SYL and the opposition party.


When Sharmaarke was named prime minister in 1961, rather appoint an SYL cabinet which was recomended by his own party, he formed a national unity governemt which had both the Egal led SNL, HDMs(hisbi digil mirif Somali) of C/qadir Zoppo and others. He never showed any partisanship or hate against the opposition. Here is the list:


C/eashiid sharmaarke prime minister

Mohamed I. Egal minister of defence

C/laahi Isaa mohamud foreign minister

C/risaaq H. Huseen interior minister

C/qadir M. aadan Zoppo finance minister

Ahmed Haji Duacaale agriculture

Ali Garaad Jama education

Ali Mohamed Hiraabe information

Sheikh Cali Jimcaale health and labor

C/nuur M. Huseen public works

Cismaan M. Ibraahim general affairs

Cabdi hassan buuni deputy prime minister.






Another conclusion the author made which is that the SYL made the country one single party state is debatable. After the SYL the UNC of Egal was the main opposition party. After Egal joined the SYL to increase his chances of winning, the power of opposition diminished. The Egal factor is really huge in the contemporary Somali politics of the sixties. M.I.Egal was a man of destiny. When he brought the Somaliland protectorate to the union in July first, he was the most prominent northern among the 33 members of parliament who joined the union. Many years before the union, Egal already defeated politically many who challenged including Ina Oomaar, C/raxman Tuur, and all others. By far he was the most educated in the new parliament, and he always believed that he should be in charge. He joined forces with C/laahi Issa Mohamuud whcih he thought would command a majority. According to Abdi Samatar Egal " should not be faulted by that assumption since A/laahi Issa was the prime minister during the Italian Administrative rule between 1956-60.


Egal was the lion feared by all , and the first act of the southern politicians did to sideline him was to elect the speaker of the parliament to a man from Berbera , the home town of Egal. He was the main opposition even when he was in the cabinet. He did join or create many different groupings to break the strong hold of SYL. Even the international media and outside observers looked Egal with different eye than the rest. Finally , Sharmaarke convinced him to join the SYL to have any chances of power, which he did. It was a matter of time before Egal took the hems. When Sharmaarke named him prime minister, C/risaaq and his group could not accept defeat in 1967. The antipathy and hate C/risaq Huseen had for premier Egal was almost illogical. Rather than give way to the new order , he campaigned to derail their work. He decided to control the SYL chairmanship after his defeat, but was forced to give up after long battle.


Just before the trasition of the presidency, Mr. C/risaaq met army chief Siyad Barrre and had a long talk. I really appreciate that Proff. Abdi Samatar did disclose this meeting although he did not elaborate enough. Samatar said that " the first person to visit after the election was national military commander general Siyaad Bare and invited him a short ride to Balcad , 30 km from the capital using the general's private car". After their conversation centered on the change of government , the general said ," speaking in the name of the army we would never forget what you have done for the defense force, and we will stand by you in the future". In my book, there is quid pr quo from the general regarding the future between him and C/risaaq. There was even a talk in town mentioned by the author that the army may even intervene before Sharmaarke took power from Aadan cadde.


I am reading the book as we speak and would finish my review in the coming days.


There are more intrigue encounters between Barre and C/risaaq.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks for bringing attention to this Yoniz. I'm tired of the narrative that we have always been anarchists, pirates and crazies.


It is quite amazing the difference between the current level of leadership and these pioneers. It's almost as if an alien species has landed in the 20+ years and taken over governance, clan and religious leadership.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

ElPunto, you are right about the current mob, the main thing I believe is complete loss of system, which will take ages, whereas people in 1960s, have not faced anything like that happen in last 30 years, it is like REAL Mad Max. Also, a lot of good and talented people are not tempted to join the dirty


It will happen but will take time to get where we were in 1960s, specially with young people coming, it is small changes, but there is a hope, and Insha Allah, the biggest hope and change, an enabler, maybe who comes to office next.


It is like one step forward, two step back ward..

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Restore formatting

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Sign in to follow this