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Africa’s model of despair is Somalia, and Sudan is headed down the same disastrous road 


Abdi Ismail Samatar is a senator in the Federal Parliament of Somalia, an extraordinary professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pretoria and professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota.

Thirty-two years after the collapse of Somalia’s national government, tribal-based provinces dominate the political landscape and each community is further segmented into exclusive political sects.

The senseless fighting factions in Sudan are a replica of the unnecessary madness that turned Somalia into a purgatory for three generations — with no end in sight. To see the future of Sudan if the absurdity continues, here is the roadmap for its future.  

Somalia is culturally and socially the most homogeneous country in Africa. Nearly 100% of the population is Muslim and speaks the same language. It was this cultural homogeneity that inspired the struggle against colonial rule and gave impetus to the most democratic republic in the 1960s.

The founding fathers’ conviction was that over time, the population would develop a more robust civic political identity that could deepen the nation’s wonderful cultural foundation. But opportunistic segments of the political class had a contrary agenda and saw the post-colonial state as a tool for sectarian exploitation of the country’s meagre resources.

The cherished democratic order was overthrown by the military in 1969. After 21 years of the cruellest dictatorship, the country’s various sectarian political factions induced an awful civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced a million others, created a hellish environment for the young, and eroded whatever was left of common national civic identity

Thirty-two years after the collapse of the national government, tribal-based provinces dominate the political landscape and each community is further segmented into exclusive political sects.

The nominal Somali Federal Government is hopelessly corrupt and inept. Ministerial appointments are based on one’s genealogical pedigree, while employment and promotion in the civil service and security forces are anchored on ethnic identity rather than on qualifications, merit, or character.

Transparency International has consistently ranked Somalia among the most corrupt countries in the world for the past decade, and one might add that it is possibly one of the most sectarian political orders on earth.

A hellish environment

This political mess has spawned the horrific humanitarian and social crisis of the last three decades. Dire living conditions continue to haunt the population. More than three million Somalis have been internally displaced and live in horrendous camps. Life expectancy plummeted to the 30s at the beginning of the civil war but has slowly recovered, although it is still one of the lowest in the world. Social cohesion and trust in the community have faded.

Women have paid a heavy price for the chaos of the last 33 years. They must fend for the economic survival of the family in addition to their traditional role of minding the home and other associated responsibilities.

Second, crimes against women rose dramatically in ways unknown in the history of the Somali people. Third, improved education levels garnered in the two decades before the civil war vanished for Somali girls. Educational attainment of boys declined significantly as well but to a lesser degree than that of girls. 

Regardless of distinctions between females and males, it is the youth whose future has been most compromised as physical and social insecurity have become endemic. Poor or limited education, corruption and political tribalism, inordinately high levels of unemployment, crime, and terrorism have created appalling conditions that breed despair.

Profiles of despair and hope

The chaotic political, economic, and security environment has created unbearable living conditions for most Somalis. Such dire circumstances have wrecked lives and livelihoods as the following heart-breaking profiles of some of the capital’s residents amply illustrate.

Profile 1: Surviving in the slum                               

A family of seven lives in one of the many slums in Mogadishu. The father is 70 years old while the mother is 20 years younger. They have five children, none of whom had any schooling as the Somali government cannot provide even free rudimentary education or other basic public assistance for the population in the capital.

Father Jama has been a labourer all his life and his income barely sustains the family. Exhausted by years of drudgery, the father began to use hashish and then deadly locally brewed alcohol. This intensified the strains on the family and as a result, the son joined the father in substance abuse. The addiction of the two men has devastated the family and the mother is terrified by what will happen to her family after she dies.

Profile 2: Even the successful cannot escape

Abdow grew up in a relatively well-off family in Mogadishu and was trained as a medical doctor at one of Mogadishu’s universities. He successfully interned in one of the local hospitals and quickly rose through the ranks of the medical profession. He married after several years in practice and supported his young family.

In the absence of healthy social and recreational spaces in the war-torn city, the doctor began socialising on the seedy beachfront of the city consuming hashish, narcotics, and alcohol with equally successful professional friends.  His family and work life suffered as he failed to work and take care of himself. His parents took him to a drug rehabilitation centre for treatment but, unfortunately, that effort came too late for his heartbroken family.

Profile 3: Diaspora returnee corrupts an innocent young woman

Aisha is 25 years old and has several brothers and sisters. Her mother is a businesswoman and her father is a teacher. Aisha was educated in local schools but stayed at home. She met a young woman of her age who had lived in UAE and who appeared friendly, sophisticated, and nice. Her new friend invited her for outings to coffee shops and later to clubs in the Lido area where addictive drugs are in wide use. Aisha and her new friends became regulars in the area and indulged in narcotics and other mind-altering substances.

Her parents were unaware of their daughter’s engagement until Aisha felt sick and had to be rushed to one of the local hospitals. She was treated for high fever but the doctor also ordered blood tests later which revealed that Aisha was HIV positive. A promising young life got lost in Mogadishu’s drug jungle and the hard work of good parents was in vain.

Profile 4: The great escape  

Born during the year of the great famine of 1992 and in the epicentre of the city of Baidoa, Mohamed’s family fled to Mogadishu to seek refuge from the man-made calamity. Tragedy hit the family when the father was struck by a stray bullet after which he could not do his labourer job. At age eight, Mohamed took on his father’s responsibility by doing odd jobs.

Then fortune struck one day when staff from a local NGO, Youth Link, provided a small loan for the mother to start her business so the boy could go to school. Youth Link’s generous support sustained Mohamed and his family, and enabled him to successfully finish secondary school and earn a college degree in Public Affairs. Youth Link offered Mohamed an internship that led him to secure full-time employment at the NGO. Mohamed is now married, has several children, and hopes to get an advanced degree in the same field.

A grim future

Thirty-two years after the start of the Somali civil war and the collapse of the state, the majority of the Somali people continue to suffer immeasurably. Some NGOs and humanitarian agencies have made exemplary efforts to shore up life in the country, but that has been insufficient given the magnitude of the problem.  The re-establishment of a national and provincial government has not reduced the magnitude of the suffering as both levels of government are disabled by corruption, tribalism, and incompetence.  

The good work of some of the NGOs, like Youth Link and Irish Concern, are admirable and has changed the fortunes of many Somali families. However, such NGOs cannot take on the responsibilities of national or local governments, like providing education, generating economic development, and controlling drugs and substance abuse.

Until Somalia gets its political house in order, mass misery and destitution are certain to continue.  This might be Sudan’s future unless the factions urgently step back from the humanitarian precipice. DM


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  • Robert Pegg says:

    What is happening in Sudan is a power struggle for control of gold reserves. Gold is the only commodity that is worth anything since South Sudan gained independence and controls oil output. It’s another story of greed that is common in a lot of African countries, including South Africa. Politicians are only interested in self-enrichment and the rest can fend for themselves.

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