Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Understanding Ethiopia’s Culture War in the occupied Ogaden: a Meditation with Ngugi wa Thiong'o

By Nuradin Jilani In March 2009 the former bureau head of Information, Culture & Tourism of the Somali Regional State of Ethiopia (SRS) Mr. Guled Casowe, who is now in jail charged with ‘crimes against culture and religion,’ told the VOA Somali Service in an interview that his ministry was planning to exhume the body of the Somali Dervish hero Sayid Mohamed Abdille Hassan from a graveyard in a place called Reegiito in Bali and rebury him in his old Fortress on the Sarmaan mountain of Iimey in the Somali Region (Ogaden). Mr. Casowe said two reasons motivated his mission: 1) To restore and preserve the cultural and historical legacy of the Sayid to Somali Region; 2) The tourism potential and development this would bring to the region in general and in the Iimey area in particular. He further emphasized that his ministry was interested in the cultural aspect of the Sayid and not in the armed liberation struggle history of which he was famous. To this end, the Somali Regional State had named a Conference Hall in Jigjiga, which service as the most important meeting place in town, after the Sayid: Hoolka Shirarka ee Sayid Maxamed Cabdille Xassan. It is now two years since that interview and the Sayid’s remains have not yet been found. The Somali Regional State seems to have given up its search as far as we know. To this day, the great man remains buried in mystery as he lived. The question is: why is the Ethiopian regime searching for the grave of the Sayid? Why do they want to rewrite his history? The answer is cultural control and manipulation. What is culture? The Kenyan born prolific writer and professor of literature, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, who is a man regarded as this century’s most eminent African cultural fighter, supplies the following apt meaning: “Culture is a society’s identity, consciousness, psychological survival and sense of belonging” (Moving the Center, The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, p.77). Culture is also ‘collective self image’. “Culture carries the values, ethnical, moral, and aesthetic by which people conceptualize or see themselves and their place in history and the universe.” (Italics mine). Ngugi further writes in another essay: “To make economic and political control effective, the colonizing power tries to control the cultural environment: education, religion, language, literature, songs, and every expression. In this way they try to control people’s values, their world outlook, and self-definition.” (Writers in Politics, p. 36). Dr. Ngugi stands out from his peers for the way he tactically connects neo-colonialism’s economic and political control to its cultural manipulation in modern African and Third World countries. He argues whereas in the past colonialism used the school education system when they were in control of the territories to mould and control young colonized minds and inculcate in them their values and world outlook – a process he describes in the title of Bob Dixon’s book Catching them Young - it’s done today through the media, the arts and television. The end point is always the same now as in the past: to make the colonized – and the exploited - identify with the values, self-conception and world outlook of the colonizer. Once that is done and the colonized are made to identify with the values of those who’re plundering them, the rest of colonial dozes are easy to administer. Yesterday’s colonized children who are now adults with colonial minds and presumably running their ‘independent’ countries as grown-ups become eventually, since they have no distinct values of their own and have not crafted one, The Mimic Men V. S. Naipaul's so powerfully wrote about in his novel by that title. (Decolonizing the Mind, p.17). The murdered anti-Apartheid South African writer Steve Biko wrote about this phenomenon in his book, I Write What I Like, when he said: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”. These mimic men are then left to police their restive and hungry population while their resources are looted, absolving responsibility of wrongdoing for the ones who are actually doing the looting behind scenes. Not only that. The robbers can then cynically shout from the sidelines, “Have we not given you the independence you so desperately wanted? Don’t blame us for your failures.” Meanwhile, the raw materials still go to the same destination of the colonial era days, often returning in military hardware placed in the hands of the mimic men. As a result Africa’s development and prosperity has been arrested. And the result has been disastrous: it has produced a leadership whose conception of power and its exercise is modeled on colonialist practices (during colonialism uprising were put down and crashed), a leader who loses no sleep after annihilating thousands of his own people in crackdowns, and academic who thrives on writing learned treatises on the backwardness of his people. (Moving the Centre, P. 130). The colonial doses administered in childhood are reaped bitterly in adulthood in ways more subtle and unimaginable, and unless the mentally colonized child probes the process that went into making him ‘an animated puppet’ and a ‘mimic man’ and reconnect with his roots, in the process discovering that his history was not, as it was shoved down in his tender and unsuspecting mind, ‘one long dark night’ bereft of any redeeming qualities, and that, like all human-beings he had his highs and lows, unless he does that and get his self-confidence back, he will become that slave, which Ngugi so passionately wrote about, “who is happy that he is slave and fated to be slave forever”. As that great Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero summed up: “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child”. In case my reader thinks I am a bit overboard and exaggerating - as the argument has it, our people are immune to this kind of mental slavery; they stand on the shoulders of great men and history - I suggest that you take a closer look at the conduct of so-called Liyuu Police who take pride in slaying their own people. These young, mostly uneducated rural men are handsomely paid and indoctrinated in such a way as to make them believe that what they are doing is right and just. In their training manuals, more time is spent on brainwashing them than preparing them physically for combat. At the graduation ceremonies of the new recruits, selected pro-government religious personalities, who are part of the indoctrination machine, deliver lectures about the virtues of fighting for and defending their country against aggressors - one of these religious mercenaries was recently comparing the Liyuu Police to the Sahaaba of Prophet Mohamed (pbuh) and telling them ‘you’re Mujahedeen who will go to paradise if you fall in battle’! To grasp the severity of the situation further, one also needs to be acquainted with behavior of the Amharic speaking, beer drinking, Ethiopian Civil Service College trained cadres who are appointed by the TPLF to run the regional administration after they complete their political and cultural indoctrination. Men like the former “Culture Bureau Head”, Guled Casowe, who introduced to our region the now widespread act of videotaping the dead while dancing on top of them, the shameful practice of forcing innocents to admit crimes they did not commit on camera and circulating it on the internet, and the more sinister one which he was accused and charged with, that of luring young girls to perform sexual acts and recording them. Of course Mr. Casowe could not have done all these dirty things without the blessings – or rather actual participation - of his boss who later turned against him, the current president of Somali Region Mr. Abdi Iley, a man whose horrific actions words fail to describe. Men like Abdillahi Hassan “Lugbuur”, the former president Somali Region, whose job these days is to write low quality articles about how Ethiopia is a great ‘civilization’ and how Somalia was wrong to attack Ethiopian in the 1964 & 1977 war (clearly a case of brainwashed intellectual, if Lugbuur can be described as such, writing ‘learned treatises’ about the wrongness and backwardness of his people). Furthermore, listen to the arguments of the so-called learned ones amongst us who will tell you with no shame ‘we cannot govern ourselves’ in the event Ethiopia leaves our land – those that will say ‘there will be a civil war’ in a direct echo of our colonizers. Are they not subconsciously craving, in fact calling for, to be slaves forever? These men didn’t spring up on their own; they’re culturally corrupted system created men. The Sayid and his Dervishes fought against this kind of mental and physical slavery; they stood tall and proud in their land and did not accept any superiority over them except that of God. The sophisticated white European colonizers could not subjugate them. They fought bitterly to this end. A testament to their enduring legacy is how throughout the Somali inhabited lands of the Horn of Africa their rich struggle legacy remains scattered everyplace, in landscape and memory. Ethiopia’s attempt to “fossilize” the Sayid and reinvent him in a new form as a ‘Somali-Ethiopian’ cultural figure – which is an attempt at historical surgery to remove “those elements within him that constitute national consciousness” as Frantz Fanon put it in his discussion of Psychological Warfare – has two aims: 1) To kill the ‘idea of resistance’ which the Sayid and his Dervishes stood for in the consciousness of Somalis under Ethiopian colonialism and make them loose the inspiration the Dervish struggle instills on those fighting for freedom in Ogaden today and in the future; 2) To rob that beautiful history from the Somalis in general and make the Somali nation lose its historical anchor and the very idea that constituted its flag and national anthem, pan-Somalism. In a way trying to kill two birds with one stone. The Sayid and the legendary Imam Ahmed Gurey, who is now taught in Ethiopian history as one of theirs in a very negative way, stand for the ‘Idea of Somalism.’ More than any historical figures, these two heroes are identified as founding fathers of modern day Somalia. By Ethiopianizing these figures of Somali history, Ethiopia wants to remove the rug from the feet of present day Somalis and destroy their collective selfhood and image of the past together with their future. Whether they find the remnants of the Sayid and fossilize him into Somali-Ethiopian (an identity that doesn’t exist in reality) romantic cultural figure or not, he will remain forever buried deep in the psyche of Somalis, a genuine Somali hero with no Ethiopian appendix or prefix added to his name. (In case somebody interprets my argument as if I am saying the Dervish history does not belong to the Somalis under Ethiopian colonialism, I am not. I am saying it belongs to free Somalis or those who are struggling to free themselves. It is struggle and resistance history, one which cannot be claimed by slavish servants and spokesmen of colonialism.) If the Ethiopian regime is serious about giving the Somalis under its colonialism their history back, we may ask: why have they changed the old flag that had the Somali star on the side? Why have they made Friday a working day and Sunday a holiday in the predominantly Muslim Somali Region? Why have they changed the Sharia law into secular family law? Why temper with what constitutes Somali identity? And why, among the multitudes of ‘romantic’ cultural figures they can pick in Ogaden - such as Wiil-waal, Raage Ugaas, Qamaan Bulhan, and others - have they chosen the Sayid? And finally, why not teach in schools the struggle history of WSLF against the common Derg enemy of which the two parties, WSLF & TPLF, fought together? When all is said and done, one salient defiant attribute of the Sayid stands out and speaks for itself: he refused to surrender and submit to the British Empire even when he was defeated and his health was rapidly deteriorating. He knew that he lived for posterity and didn’t want to taint his legacy. He died holding the torch of freedom. And this is something that cannot be taken away him. Some Somalis are unwittingly helping in the distortion and destruction of their history. For example, the famous playwright and poet Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame (Hadraawi), could say with confidence that the Sayid was ‘a power maniac and dictator’, someone whose political side he did not like: "The poems [of the Sayid] I like are not political," Hadraawi said, adding it’s those "…about trees and stars, the rivers and rains and seasons…and camels" he prefers, to a reporter for Newsweek Magazine who came to Somalia to establish the link between Osama Bin Laden and Sayid Mohamed Abdille Hassan! (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World - Newsweek Sep 30, 2009). We can understand the attitude of Guled Casowe when he says he wants to do away with that part of the Sayid he doesn’t like, but how can we comprehend Hadraawi’s logic? Also, the education departments of regional administrations in Somalia deliberately undervalue the rich historic contribution of the Dervishes in the struggle for freedom in Somalia. Perhaps I am naïve to expect those who mourn the death of Richard Cornfield at the hands of the Dervishes to valorize those who killed him! Coupled with this is the new assault on the person of the Sayid by some of Somalia’s so-called ‘revisionist historians’ who copy and paste biased British propaganda characterizations of the man and pass it as learned historical treatises. To underscore the importance of historical figures, recently Greece and Macedonia were at loggerheads over a statue that had resemblance to Alexander the Great which the latter country had built in the center of its capital city Skopje, even though Alexander was both Greek and Macedon in ancestry. The long drawn-out battle between Ethiopia and Italy over the return of the Axum Obelisk is another example. The still on-going clashes between Thailand and Cambodia about the ownership of a Buddhist shrine in the un-demarcated border area that separates the two countries is another case in point. Poor Somalis! Geel ninkii lahaa dhacayo side looga dhiciyaa? Abdulahi Macalin Dhoodaan If the Sayid was deceased historical figure who cannot speak for himself now to set the record straight, though his legacy does that, the living Ogaden poet Abdillahi Macalin Dhoodaan is another figure who was made to repudiate his intellectual and poetic contribution to the struggle for freedom in Ogaden. Not long ago Dhoodan was made to take part in a self-degrading propaganda play against the ONLF which featured Somali women chewing Khat and performing immoral acts. Dhoodan’s vocation these days is to insfult ONLF leaders in public speeches and composes low quality poems against the struggle and is a regular guest in security related tours by regional politicians to the provinces. Prior to his coups de grace, Dhoodan was a firebrand poet who has contributed immensely to the freedom struggle in Ogaden and the molding of a distinct Ogaden national consciousness using the medium of oral poetry – which was at time the most potent means of communication - to motivate, stir up, and agitate our masses against colonialism. The intellectual manipulation method of making influential people in the struggle – past or present - repudiate their previous nationalist stances and turning them against it was recently best described in our case by a perceptive Kenyan analyst, Andrew Koriri, in article he wrote about the so-called ‘peace deal’ in Ogaden, entitled Yet another 'peace deal' in Ogaden. Koriri says this method is called “The Utility of Turns” and its one which has been used effectively throughout history to discredit opponents: “Throughout the history of mankind, converts have been used to show the superiority of one’s religion, idea or system. ‘Turns’ are a vital expression of triumphant power, proof that a cause is convincing and potent. So, by fronting ‘ex-ONLF’ men who have discarded their ‘wrong’ ideologies, the regime in Addis Ababa hopes to show that the ONLF is pursuing a lost cause. That is also another reason why it is imperative to import men from the Diaspora; men who may or may not have anything to do with ONLF, and parade them to the local and international media to prove the quandary in which the ONLF is in.” Currently this method is used more on the cultural front than on the political. Since 2009 famous Somali singers who espoused the idea of self-determination for Ogaden were lured into Ethiopia and made to sing songs in praise of the Ethiopian regime. Thus Mohamed Saleebaan Tubeec whose memorable song Geesiga dhulkiisa guusha u horseeda made thousands of Somali youth throw themselves into Ethiopian tank fire in 1977 war was paid to sing another tune in praise of the very enemy that was tormenting his people in different guise. Cadar Axmed Khaahin (April 2010); Nimco Dareen (June 2011); Waayahay Cusub (September, 2011) are some of the bought singers who were in the struggle or sympathized with it before they became ‘turns’. Waayaha Cusub were specifically known for their outspokenness against Ethiopia, more so since Ethiopia’s invasion and occupation of Somalia in 2006. Their memorable songs – titles such as Gumeeysiga Itoobiya, Soomaliyaay Diriroo Dagaalama, Dabadhilif - are hard to erase from conscience of the Somali youth. But I admit it had a demonizing effect on some. Trust in people who carry nationalist message is as result severely wounded. The profession of singing has been made to suffer as singers are portrayed today as conscienceless people who are only after money. One wonders why Ethiopia is singling out in its ‘turns’ policy the anti-colonial historical (either dead or living) cultural figures and singers, specifically those who are most vocal against them. If they were interested in romantic cultural figures, why not attract individuals who sang love songs instead of those in the struggle? By enlisting the service of these previously nationalist singers, the regime in Ethiopia hopes its brutal colonial practices in Ogaden would appear cool and acceptable to the people. In other words they’re formalizing ‘the culture of subservience’ as Ngugi put it in one of his arguments - something which is new to our centuries old conflict with Ethiopia. Ultimately it’s ‘the idea’ they are after, as that perceptive Kenyan writer Andrew Koriri said. And since ideas are espoused by people, their strategy is to kill the idea by rewriting the message of its carriers in the past in a new placatory form, and corrupting the image of its present carriers by using all-means-necessary approach to achieve it. But ideas outlive individuals. I can only say ‘it is too late’ to those who have discovered at this late stage that our people can only be made to accept their rule when they are culturally destroyed. Some Somalis may be brainwashed to lose their self-respect and identity temporarily, but the spirit of Somalism can never be annihilated. Finally, as there is in every colonized society a ‘culture of subservience’ formalized by the occupying power, there is also a counter ‘culture of resistance’. And for that we are thankful to those resisting damnation in our struggle for political, economic and cultural freedom in Ogaden. The Author, Nuradin Jilani can be reached at nuradinjilani@gmail.com