When government Ministers in most of the world call press conferences they are usually trying to publicise a new policy; spin undesirable news or just deny an alleged fumble behind the desk with their secretaries.
Not so in Somaliland. When Mr. Abdillahi Irro, Somaliland’s Minister of Internal Affairs invited the media to his office last week he had one purpose in mind: to insult back a man who insulted him earlier.
The whole farcical episode was part of general rise in temperature in an election year that already saw postponements, delays, accusations and even some acts of terrorism in normally peaceful Hargeisa town.
It started when the Guurti, Somaliland’s respected Upper House decided to extend the current regime’s term in office in what some see as a classic case of `scratch my back and I will scratch yours’ since the government extended the Guurti’s tenure a little while ago.
The opposition parties with implicit support from National Elections Commission cried foul. They did so just a tad too loudly and some might say rather disingenuously since they fully well know the Guurti has based their decision on the self evident fact that country is not yet ready for elections. There is a debilitating drought going on; the voter registration process has not even started and local elections commissions have not been properly set up. Most important of all the extension is entirely within the bounds of the constitution.
While all the accusations and counter accusations were going on a bomb was planted in the Guurti’s main building in Hargeisa. The government was quick to blame the main opposition party KULMIYE in a bizarre almost sinister attempt to besmirch its main foe before the elections. The Police arrested a number of senior KULMIYE apparatchiks including the Party’s Hargeisa boss.
It then threatened to apprehend Colonel Mohammed Kahin, a veteran SNM officer and one of the opposition party’s most powerful men. Big mistake. The fiery ex guerilla let loose with a salvo of typically no holds barred venom. “I am being threatened with arrest by former Faqash men…and effeminate Isaqs….who used to crush in torture… the testicles of arrested Isaq men”
The attack was as vicious as it was targeted. The men he was talking knew exactly who they were and the people knew them too.
Kahin was pressing on sore point in Somaliland’s modern history. Many Somalilanders of all clans including many from the major Isaq clan worked with the last government of Somalia which tried and failed to annihilate the region’s Isaq population. Some of Somaliland’s non-Isaq clans were whole hearted and enthusiastic supporters and often participants of that genocidal war. The SNM, the mainly Isaq resistance movement is accused of carrying out retaliatory attacks against some of those clans during the war.
When the war ended Somalilanders faced a dilemma: Should they seek justice (or settle scores depending on point of view) for crimes committed or should they bury the past and move on? They wisely chose the latter option and have lived in relative peace ever since.
But it does not mean the past is wholly forgiven by everybody and it occasionally flares up which is exactly what happened on this occasion. When Mr. Kahin said `faqash’ he was talking about the President and by “effeminate Isaqs..crushing testicles..” he was addressing Mr. Irro Minister of Interior who was a Colonel in the feared National Security Services(NSS) under the last Siyad Barre regime.
Mr. Kahin was being irresponsible to say the least. There is no evidence whatsoever that Mr Irro ever tortured anyone during his time in the NSS. The fact that he was an Isaq meant that the government would have never fully trusted him to conduct proper `interrogations’ of arrested Isaq civilians. The task would have been entrusted with those from clans more friendly to the regime. He may have been a Colonel but he would not have had much power or clout. No Isaq in the regime did.
But it is not only wild accusations that made Mr. Kahin’s outburst unacceptable to most people. By harking back to the past he was potentially undermining the peace and stability achieved by Somalilanders through their determination to let go of the dark past and look to the future.
If Mr Irro kept his dignity and ignored the insult he would have gained not only widespread sympathy from most ordinary Somalilanders but Mr. Kahin would have been wide open to ridicule and maybe even chastisement from his boss, the wily KULMIYE leader Ahmed Silanyo who likes to portray himself as a peacemaker and father figure to the nation.
Unfortunately Mr Irro decided to hit back didn’t and in the process made himself not a criminal but a fool. Often using what can only be described as street language (“We had Red shoulders”….meaning we were high ranking) he rounded on Kahin accusing him, amongst other things, of being a hit man for the Siyad Barre regime! Most people will find this rather implausible given that Mr. Kahin was one of the SNM guerilla’s most daring officers and a thorn on the side of the regime.
Even more inexplicably the Minister then made an attempt to portray himself as a `good’ and `helpful’ NSS Commander whose main focus was helping arrested Isaqs!
“It was like an ex-Gestapo member trying to convince French Resistance that he was really on their side during the war” said one journalist who attended the conference.
And if that was not embarrassing enough he went into some veritably bizarre details about how he escaped internal NSS plots to eliminate him by surreptitiously taping his colleagues’ conversations and releasing them to his boss as incriminating evidence.
He clearly does not grasp that taping your colleagues’ conversations behind their backs and using it against them is neither wholesome nor very reassuring activity for a government Minister. It is most certainly not something to boast about.
But all this hot air and intemperate talk by all sides is dangerous in a country where people have traditionally very little control over their emotions. A silly insult followed by buttock-cringingly embarrassing response could easily give the wrong signal to the wrong group of hotheads who could start something truly nasty.
One group of youth claiming to be from Togdher region, a KULMIYE stronghold issued a veiled threat in which they said they interpreted the extension of the governments’ term as tantamount to a declaration of war. This is dangerous talk and must be stamped upon by KULMIYE’s leadership. The government on its part needs to stop harassing KULMIYE and issue an apology for its sinister accusation it made about KULMIYE being behind the Guurti House bomb.
Lastly Ministers must learn that dignified silence is sometimes far more powerful than ill-judged response. And they don’t come more ill-judged than claiming to be a former good Gestapo.