This article was posted to BlogATU by ATU President Dr. Ahmed H. Esa. It is a heartfelt article written about the late Ibrahim Megag Samatar for the Yale 50th Anniversary 1965 Class Book by Carl Gershman, President of the US National Endowment for Democracy
Ibrahim Samatar (1942-2011)
One of the most vivid memories I have from my senior year at Yale was the friendship I developed with Ibrahim Samatar, a Somali national who was studying economics. We were both at Jonathan Edwards College and had dinner together regularly. On the surface, we had very little in common. He was a Muslim from Somalia and I a Jew from New York. What brought us together, I think, was that each of was something of an outsider at Yale, and we were both deeply concerned with the social and political problems of our respective countries, which we would talk about endlessly. I was focused on the civil-rights movement, which had led me to drive to Mississippi and then to Selma, Alabama, during our senior year to promote black voting rights. Ibrahim’s focus, of course, was the future of his own country, which had become independent five years earlier.
Ibrahim was from the northwestern part of Somalia that had been the British protectorate of Somaliland during colonialism. At the time of independence in 1960, Somaliland merged with the former Italian Somali protectorate to form the Somali Republic. Ibrahim had been an adherent of “the Dream of Greater Somalia,” the nationalist vision that rallied the Somali people against colonialism and looked toward the unification in a single sovereign state of all the Somali-speaking people – those living in the British and Italian protectorates that became Somalia, French Somaliland that became Djibouti, and Somalis living in Ethiopia and Kenya. It was not to be, and even Somalia was a deeply divided country, with the central government in Mogadishu treating Somaliland as “a backyard province,” as Ibrahim described it, and not a country that had sacrificed its sovereignty for the sake of national unity.
Still, Ibrahim was a patriot, and he returned to Somalia after graduation to become the country’s Director of the Budget in 1968, after which he held a number of cabinet posts, including Minister of Finance and Advisor to the President on Economic and Political Affairs. In 1980 he was appointed Somalia’s Ambassador to Germany, but by then relations between the two parts of Somalia had badly deteriorated, with President Siad Barre becoming increasingly dictatorial and repressive. Ibrahim defected in 1981 and sought asylum in the United States. He also joined the Somali National Movement (SNM), a rebel group formed by dissidents tied to the Isaq clans of the North that sought the overthrow of Siad Barre and evolved into a movement for an independent Somaliland.
Ibrahim became the North American representative of the SNM and the Chairman of the organization’s Central Committee. It was that capacity that he re-connected with me in 1991. The Siad Barre regime had just fallen, and the SNM had established the sovereign Republic of Somaliland, extricating itself from the civil war that was destroying the rest of Somalia. (The abortive U.S. intervention in the civil war was the subject of the film “Black Hawk Down.”) Ibrahim had discovered that I had become the President of the National Endowment for Democracy, and he thought that I could get NED involved in assisting the development of a democratic system in Somaliland, and also help him connect with the policy community in Washington so that he could make the case for the U.S. recognizing Somaliland as an independent country. This was a step the U.S. was loathe to take (as was the U.N. and the O.A.U.) for fear of encouraging the break-up of other African countries.
I arranged a meeting with Capitol Hill staff and others, and I remember that Ibrahim gave an eloquent presentation, laying out the history of Somaliland, its struggle against a brutal dictatorship in Mogadishu which behaved like an alien colonial power toward the people of the North, and its pragmatic decision to separate itself from the chaos engulfing the rest of Somalia. He also emphasized Somaliland’s democratic aspirations and character, saying that the NSM “was authoritative but not authoritarian” and intended to build a multi-party democracy with a free press. Also, as he had hoped, NED did provide assistance in Somaliland, supporting more than a dozen NGOs working on civic education, human rights, free media, training youth and women activists, and strengthening Somaliland’s parliament and electoral processes.
Ibrahim was proud of what was being accomplished in Somaliland, and in a letter he sent to President Clinton in 1996, he declared that “One can hardly recall another example of a liberation movement which won power through the barrel of the gun and which was simultaneously so uninterested in ruling with its gun! With stability assured through decentralization and consensus-reaching procedures, the formation of formal cross-sectional political organizations can, and will evolve, during the transitional stage.”
Ibrahim contemplated returning to Somaliland to participate in politics, and told me soon after the death of President Egal in 2002 that he might try to run for president. But that didn’t happen. He continued to teach at Josai International University in Japan, which is where he died in 2011.
A few years before his death, when he had retired from politics, Ibrahim issued a statement of fundamental principles called “Where I Stand” (http://arc.somaliland.org/2008/08/30/where-i-stand-by-mujaahid-ibrahim-meygaag-samatar/) that he hoped would help guide and inform the younger generation. It’s a broad and comprehensive statement of his views on democracy, Somali unity, Islam and Islamic radicalism, and the economy. It shows Ibrahim to have been a genuine democrat, searching for ways to integrate and reconcile modern political ideas with traditional culture and religion. His vision continues to have profound relevance in today’s very violent and divided world. These are his concluding words:
“We know we are a poor nation. But, poverty need not be a curse. There are nations with meagre resources like us who overcame poverty. Human development and its mobilization can compensate for the lack of resources and perform miracles. In addition to investing in health and education human development also means instilling solidarity and a sense of belonging to one another, having a common future and destiny, among the citizenry and their various communities and clans. Competition in business, politics and among the communities can be both healthy and unhealthy. If the unhealthy aspect is not fought fiercely it can turn into ugly fratricide [look at the situation in Somalia]. One of the reasons motivating me to write this simple piece is that I noticed from afar that this competition is beginning to turn ugly. Simple matters that can be resolved through amicable discussion and dialogue between the concerned personalities and organs are sometimes turned into unnecessarily highly contested national controversies wasting, when they are finally resolved, a lot of energy and good will.
“Let us check that tendency in time. We still have not lost that capacity for good will and democratic dialogue, inherited from the struggle of SNM, which is the basis for the success of Somaliland so far. We need to revive moral values of integrity, cooperation, forgiveness and brotherhood in our people. And while this task is the duty of all of us, the primary burden falls on the leadership: political (whether in power or aspiring to it), religious, community elders, and the intelligentsia. We need to rise above minor squabbles and take the high moral ground. Some of you may say that I am too idealistic and out of touch. I do not think so. I believe what is written here is simple and practical. I am an optimist and have always been so even at dark moments when my life was in danger. Even if these words are idealistic, so be it. After all it is the image of the future that moves people and it is vision that enables a society to organize itself for the better. It has been said long ago that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. It is my hope and belief that we have learned enough and will continue to move forward.”
Ibrahim’s body was returned to Somaliland where he received a national burial. It was said that Somaliland had lost “one of its illustrious sons.” I feel honored to have known him and hope that he will be remembered by our class as one of its illustrious sons as well. That he certainly was.