In Africa’s First Democrats: Somalia’s Aden A. Osman and Abdirazak H. Hussen, Abdi Ismail Samatar refocuses attention on leadership, the key question that has dominated African political discourses in the past six decades. The extant studies, in their diachronic terms, have ridiculed, insulted, and dismissed the African postcolonial leaders as colossal failures. Similarly to Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble with Nigeria (1983), which squarely blames poor leadership as the cause of development crisis in Nigeria, Samatar’s book laments that the leadership curse has wreaked havoc in his native country Somalia. This problem, Samatar argues, erodes national consciousness and functionality of state institutions in nurturing a robust civic life. This study is important because it draws attention to the gamut of stereotypes and wisdoms espoused by critics of African leaders. Samatar has stood up for a couple of the African nationalists and immediate inheritors of the postcolonial state by describing them as genuine democrats. The storyline is that at a time when their peers in most of Africa were subjugating their countrymen to despotic controls, President Aden A. Osman and Premier Abdirazak H. Hussen of Somalia focused attention on building democratic structures and institutions in Somalia. This admission is a new divergence because a study of this nature that is laudatory of this generation of postcolonial African politicians runs the risk of a backlash from the self-appointed gurus of African politics. In terms of methodology, organization, substance, sourcing, and theoretical musing, the book achieves both brevity and a rich and vigorous academic analysis of subjects and texts. In the introductory chapter, Samatar provides a lucid and foundational history of Somalia leading to independence in 1960 when Africa’s so-called “first democrats” took office. In chapters 2 and 3, Osman and Hussen’s life histories are used to address the framing of democracy in the new nation. One of the benefits of the biographical approach in leadership studies is that it sensitizes the reader to how the family backgrounds of the elite figures we study shaped their careers and values as nationalists, political actors, presidents, and premiers. With this hindsight, Samatar concludes that Osman and Hussen are “Africa’s pioneering democratic statespeople” (9) who left behind “an African political praxis and a model for others to emulate” on the continent (222). Careful examination of this book reveals that the author intends to accomplish a couple of goals. By revisiting the dynamics in which the ship of the Somali state began to run adrift in the late 1960s, the author aims to conjure some sense of patriotism among his compatriots that could perhaps salvage the shattered dreams of a nation that has since crossed the point of no return on the perilous road to disunity. Additionally, the book forcefully sells us the view of Osman and Hussen as unsung exemplars of democracy while absolving them from any guilt resulting to the paralysis Somalia ended up with after 1967. How far these ideas will travel among the Somalis will depend on the responses to this book from the enemies and critics of Osman and Hussen. Also, Samatar rejects the popular impression that the “clan” is responsible for the perennial divisive politics in the country. Rather, he blames the urban elite’s bad habits and adversarial approach to politics as the toxic agents poisoning political and communal relations (215–216). In light of Almond Gabriel and Sidney Verba’s Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations (1963), Samatar’s view is a tough call. The political culture in a given nation is the sum of its civic culture and social structures. Chapter 4 highlights the original Somali nationalist ideals and values that were disrupted by the Cold War politics. Samatar attacks the United Nation’s decision to return Somalia to Italy’s trusteeship in 1945 as ill-advised because of Italy’s sins of fascist ideology. In chapter 5, Samatar recaptures the euphoria and optimism that heralded Somalia’s independence in 1960. Despite being “exceptionally vulnerable to the machinations of superpower rivalry” at independence, the Somali nationalists had set their eyes on building an inclusive country where equal rights for all citizens would nurture national institutions (115). And within a short period of four years, 1960–1964, as shown in chapter 6, some meaningful political landmarks were attained in Somalia even as several other countries in Africa were drifting to bloody dictatorships, military coups, and single-party systems (126–127). It did not take Somalia long to join those trends evolving in Africa. Chapter 7 shows that the period of those trends in Somalia came when President Osman transferred power to his successors. In the concluding chapter, Samatar reiterates the primary thesis of his book, which is that Osman and Hussen deserve recognition as true democrats and that Somalia faltered not because of their actions and inactions but because their successors in office abandoned the nation-building project for personal aggrandizement, human rights abuses, and enthronement of a violent culture that altogether shattered Somalia’s unity into a thousand autonomy-seeking enclaves today. Overall, in Africa’s First Democrats, I see a handover note prepared by an eminent African scholar for posterity. The book should be praised for its intellectual boldness and resourcefulness. But it is not without some shortcomings. Among other things, it could have benefited immensely from a broader African comparative insight. For example, Osman and Hussen were not Africa’s only “first democrats.” There were hundreds of unsung African “democratic statespeople” and leaders, including Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, whose visions for Africa were truncated by unbridled outside interferences. Indeed, while the author recognizes the destabilizing impact of Cold War politics in African political and leadership trajectories, Samatar seems to grossly underestimate the almost insurmountable neocolonialist circumstances in which the postcolonial African leaders found themselves. If the recent alleged Russian interference in the November 2016 United States presidential election can serve as an eye-opener, Africa’s democratic development suffered the crudest forms of meddling from the Russians, Americans, British, French, Portuguese, Belgians, and other former colonial powers. Presented with fewer choices, African leaders lost the original plans they had for their countries. We all must salute Samatar for his courage to exonerate a couple of African leaders from the court of academic vilification. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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