Volume 14 Number 4
Rebuilding Somalia
01 August 2001

Exiled and in despair, Osman Jama Ali had no idea of the impact an unexpected letter would have on his life. The Deputy Prime Minister of Somalia’s first government for a decade talks to Mary Lean.

Osman Jama Ali has an unusual CV for a deputy head of government. It includes a nomadic childhood in the interior of what was then British Somalia, seven years in the USSR studying electronic engineering, 16 years in the government of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre and 10 years in exile in Britain. Now he is back in Somalia as Deputy Prime Minister in the Transitional National Government (TNG) charged with re-establishing democracy and the rule of law in a country which has suffered decades of oppression, anarchy and civil war. The TNG, established last year, is Somalia’s first central government since the collapse of Siad Barre’s regime in 1991.

During the final years of that regime and its devastating aftermath, half a million Somalis sought refuge in foreign countries. ‘Nearly every family was affected,’ says Osman Jama Ali. ‘The chaos was total.’ One third of the present cabinet have second passports from the countries where they sought asylum.

He was serving as chief engineer of the country’s broadcasting stations in 1973, when a coup brought Mohammed Siad Barre’s military regime to power. ‘They nominated civilian graduates to the ministries and I was appointed Minister of Fisheries and Marine Transport.’ He held the post until 1984, then headed a department of the Party for five years, before becoming Minister for Public Works and Housing in 1989.

The coup of 1973 was stimulated by the corruption and nepotism of the preceding civilian governments, and its mood was idealistic. ‘The military had been educated in academies overseas and they hadn’t had the chance to be corrupted,’ says Osman Jama Ali. ‘They rectified a lot of injustices and did a lot of reconstruction, and they promised they would go back to their barracks and give political parties the chance to compete for power.’

This promise was not kept. ‘Instead they themselves became corrupt and oppressive. Some regions were marginalized and some tribes were overlooked for promotion in the army. Everyone who tried to criticise was either put in jail or disappeared: an Idi Amin type of leadership took hold. It became nearly impossible to check them by words or argument, so the opposition groups had to take up arms.’

As Siad Barre steered more and more power towards his own tribe, many of his cabinet began to establish secret links with opposition groups and to look for ways to defect. Between 1984 and 1989, Osman Jama Ali’s job trapped him in Somalia—‘Party conferences were not held in the outside world’. As soon as he was reappointed Minister he seized his chance to travel to a conference in Tunisia and defected. ‘I came to Britain, asked for asylum and condemned the regime over the BBC and in the newspapers. Then I went back to Ethiopia, from where the opposition groups were fighting.’

When Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, the opposition shattered into warring factions, some of which wanted to secede. Osman Jama Ali opposed this, and was distressed by the narrow vision of the different groups. ‘Every tribe wanted to secure its share of power.’ He returned to Britain, bitterly disillusioned, ‘in confusion and despair’.

There, in 1993, a ‘packet of literature’ dropped through his letter box. With it came an invitation to join members of other Somali factions at a meeting outside Stockholm in Sweden, organized by some Somalis and MRA, prior to another organized by the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala. The literature—which included several copies of For A Change—echoed the approach of forgiveness and reconciliation towards which Osman Jama Ali was already moving. He has no idea how the senders found his address, but regards it as ‘miraculous’.

The meeting outside Stockholm was to be a turning point not just for Osman Jama Ali but also, potentially, for his country. ‘The people I met there were in different political factions from me, but they were not those I considered criminals. After long discussions we became friends and we understood each other. Since then we have been working together, promoting the element of forgiveness and of reconciling people of different opinions. Some of these principles were utilized in the Djibouti conference last August which led to the establishment of the Transitional National Government to reform and re-establish the Somali state over the next three years.’

This development faced Osman Jama Ali with a difficult decision. ‘I had told my friends that I would not seek any position, unless there were political parties and competition. But although I did not put my name forward, many people asked me to participate in the government.’ In the end, he decided to accept.

And how will he and his colleagues avoid the mistakes of their predecessors? Osman Jama Ali believes that the abuses of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties were exacerbated by the Cold War: ‘Dictators in the Third World got away with injustices, nepotism and corruption, because of the rivalry of the superpowers. Now the international community will not help any country which does not adhere to democratic principles. And the press, parliament and judiciary within countries are alert to the signs of dictatorship. It is not as easy as it was for politicians to become dictators, because people know their rights.’

When I met Osman Jama Ali in Britain in May, he had just been in Canada to see his six children, who have grown up in the 10 years since he last saw them. One of the many challenges facing the new government, he believes, is to persuade ‘volunteers’ from the Somali diaspora to return home to rebuild. The fact that many of these people now have an inalienable right of abode abroad may make it easier for them to take this risk. Osman Jama Ali is realistic about the huge problems ahead, but determined that his country, which has suffered so much, will at last know peace and stabililty.
Mary Lean

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