By Dr Cawo M Abdi
Rare are the occasions that we are inspired.
I can count on one hand the number of times that have I felt transformative forces at play in my surroundings. The recent Istanbul civil society conference of May 27-30 was one such experience. Having received the invitation to this gathering barely a fortnight before the date the proceedings were to start, I remained sceptical of the outcome and the utility of such a meeting. I, and many other participants I have spoken with, felt that this could be one more futile international meeting called under the premise of addressing Somali concerns. Our memory is filled with these, which have become almost cliche.
Nevertheless, I reluctantly accepted the invitation, compelled by the conviction that Turkey was new to Somalia and thus could be distinguished from other international organisations whose lavish lifestyle in Nairobi produced the "Development Mafia" moniker. By now, we all have seen or read about the billions squandered by this group, which unfortunately at times epitomises what development critic Ross Coggins detailed in his 1976 poem, The Development Set. The poem describes the disconnect between Western development practitioners and the misery and plight of alleged third world benefactors.
Unlike the generally vulture-like development practices Somalis have been exposed to over the past 20 years, most invitees knew that Turkey had already built hospitals, schools and roads in Mogadishu; and that was accomplished with only around half a billion dollar committment so far. Turkish airlines commenced twice-weekly flights to the capital - a place most international development practitioners and most Westerners deem impossible to base their operations.
Despite being physically absent, these Western organisations continuously dictate policies including the Somali constitution and determining the well-being of millions of Somalis. They do this safely and comfortably from their gated Nairobi offices by relying on secondary data transmitted by local NGO workers and contractors.
Appalled by this prevailing paradigm and the myopic policies of the international community towards the Somali conflict, many invitees from civil society, academia and diaspora organisations felt that the Turkey-Somalia miracle deserved our support. We felt that we wanted to be a part of the new attempt at resuscitating our beloved but bleeding nation.
I won't dwell on the proceedings, which have been widely covered. But it is worth mentioning that my initial scepticism disappeared as soon as I met the organisers of the conference.
Barely two hours after landing in Istanbul, I found myself in a room where the conference agenda was being refined after the first day's feedback from the elders, women's groups and other participants.
We debated how best to reformat the programme so that the conference would run smoothly and also serve its purpose of providing a platform for civil society and Somali clan elders to have a constructive dialogue. The highly inclusive and democratic engagement at the table further eroded any doubt of "ulterior motives" that anyone may have had regarding this meeting.
Former Somali Prime Minister (1964-1967) Abdirizaq Haji Hussein's speech was the highlight of the conference, a speech that is bound to go down in history. He gently chastised Somali clan elders for failing their traditional role of peacemakers and peacekeepers - instead becoming pawns to corrupt and merciless individuals whose sole interest lies in the pursuit of power and property. Hussein delivered the strongest lesson that Somali political actors are ever to witness.
Compared with Hussein, the complete silence on the part of Somali religious leaders in the type of inspirational engagement was quite disappointing. For a nation where formal education continues to be very limited, Islamic education should serve as a foundation to address social issues.
In the southern Somali regions that have remained chaotic for two decades, religious organisations have an added obligation to make their voices heard on major social, political and ethical issues, which are eroding our national and Islamic identity.
Religious leaders could have played a prominent role in educating the audience about the conference's focus, which was in essence the search for solutions, the challenges of poor leadership and the resulting devastation this creates in our society. The platform Turkey provided should have allowed Somali religious leaders to discuss the most pressing concerns of violence, displacement, starvation, ignorance; which are maladies with demoralising consequences for all.
Acknowledging and condemning the hundreds of women being raped in Mogadishu and elsewhere every year, the thousands of children dying of easily treatable diseases, the erosion of our Soomaalinimo and Muslinimo and the ongoing moral, material and political corruption within our leadership and our communities was what we expected of our religious leaders. Alas, we heard none of that.
This criticism does not mean that religious leaders are not committed to justice, but their silence on these issues in Istanbul was loud and clear. It represented another failure comparable with that of the clan elders that Hussein articulated.
Hope never dies
We left Turkey with a vigour that made us forget our initial foot-dragging in attending this meeting.
In Istanbul, Somalis of different backgrounds networked, exchanged ideas and many of us are today even more committed to the cause than before. We plan to use the Istanbul conference as a launching pad to fully engage in the Somali political process, not only from our academic or professional offices in the West, but in the streets of Bosaso, Hargaisa and Mogadishu.