The corroding 'lead camel' effect in Somalia

Somalia has entered a new phase of introspection, reinvention, and rebuilding.Whether or not the old guard will finally redeem itself by participating and contributing positively to this process remains to be seen

Will Somalia's new generation rescue its fate?
Abukar Arman
On 7 December 2012 10:13

As with old caravans, ‘Where the lead camel goes, so shall others’. So goes the Somali proverb, notwithstanding its regional variations and dialectical flavours. The Lead Camel Effect (LCE) describes a syndrome or a common human tendency to blindly follow leaders, role-models, and all those to whom authority is attributed, even if such individuals were leading them astray.

LCE is not unique to one particular culture or society. Think of how the American Generation X who, though born decades later in a different social and political environment, emulated their Baby Boomer parents’ counter-culture ideals; the hallmark carefree lifestyles flavored with cynicism, cultish mentality, defiance of authority, drug abuse, and sexual promiscuity.

In that context one could say where post-independence Somali political, professional and intellectual elite went, so did the next batch. Of course there are exceptions, though few and far between.

Biliqo Sub-culture

As Somalia was approaching independence (July 1st, 1960) clan and personal political agenda was already eclipsing the vision of building robust institutions to sustain the young democracy. By independence, Machiavellian individuals, exploiting the newly founded state’s lack of sophisticated capacity in good governance as well as the gullibility and the groupthink mentality of the clan-loyalists, have had the groundwork set for the loot-frenzy (bililiqo) of the following decades. The impetus that set that frenzy in motion was the self-serving affirmative answer given to the ethical question of ‘who had the legitimate right to inherit the residential properties left behind by the Italian colonial power?’ 

Adan Abdulle Osman, the first President, was adamantly against the proposition to distribute the mansions and villas to a few privileged individuals within the circle of power as personal properties. He forewarned such behavior would not help the nation and would motivate the new power-brokers to “think like the colonial masters”.

Despite his objection, the properties were distributed. This behavior of treating national assets as spoils has set a precedent that legitimized corruption and ensured almost all high government officials up until the civil war at least had a mansion or a villa of their own, or the equivalent in cash since then. This corrupt sub-culture has systematically corroded trust and became the fuel that kept clan conflict burning. 

Contrary to the common perception of the past two decades, corrupt officials are not only those who employ Kleptocracy as a system of governance, who habitually steal the revenues and resources entrusted on them, but also those who practice nepotism or give themselves extraordinary privileges, those who employ selective justice, reject policies, and prevent building institutions of checks and balances. 

As the painful history of the past two decades indicates, the great majority of these generations of trend-setters and imitators have allocated a great deal of their intellectual energy and ingenuity to myopically advance one personal/clan-interest or another at the expense of the national interest or the common good.

The Lost Generations

Especially those among them who were considered intellectuals in various facets of life including the spiritual, who, instead of claiming their ordained role as the young nation’s critical conscience; instead of putting matters in their historical perspective, connecting the dots, devising coherent strategy, and offering viable alternatives to save the fragile state, most assumed the enabler or the intellectual commissar role for one despot, political overlord, sectarian group or another. To most whose moral justification was “Everyone is doing it” all that mattered was high posts and loots. 

Perhaps due to the colonial inferiority complex of their mentors in the first generation, the second generation of intellectuals valued symbolism much more profoundly than substance. One had to look the part or play the part however dysfunctional to gain external approval. That desperate dependency, needless to say, blurs, if not subjugates, their objectivity. In that context it is not surprising that there are intellectual and professional chameleons that, on one hand, match well against their peers in terms of scholarship, academic discipline as well as knowhow and production; on the other, persistently clinch on their clannish mentality and resort to uncompromising zero-sum games when it comes to advancing matters of national interest. 

Sadly, it is this duality, or rather intellectual schizophrenia that defines the average Somali intellectual. Because clanism provides surrogate claim to superiority, in the past two decades, most of our intellectuals have been on a relentless pursuit to get ample boost of self-esteem within their respective clan apparatus.

In order to climb high within the clan stature or be revered as a hero one must become the flag-bearer of certain primitive norms. In the past two decades it became too difficult to distinguish between most of these intellectuals and the A’rabi (chronically uncivilized nomads) in their crudeness, xenophobia, and hyper-protection of territorial (clan) identity.

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