Somalia’s Taboo Breaker First Woman Foreign Minister
By Bashir Goth
No matter what one thinks, or in what color one tries to see the appointment of Fawzia Yusuf Haji Adam as the first woman Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Somalia and indeed in the Horn of Africa and the Arab World, it is the historical significance of a woman reaching this far in tribal-based Muslim society, where women are seen only as an appendage if not indeed a property to their menfolk, that should not escape any conscientious person’s attention.
Given to the plight, suffering and humiliation that Somali women went through over the last 20 years despite being the pillars that sustain the existence of the Somali people both inside the country and the Diaspora, what better image is there to see than an educated and refined woman being the face of Somalia to the outside world, what a better answer to Al- Shabab who couldn’t see women anything more than a bra and an obscene body to be shrouded and hidden away in dark houses. What better answer to the Arab world where women despite spearheading the Arab Spring are being pushed to live in the 7th century by religious fanatic who themselves aren’t shy to indulge in the 21st century luxuries including smart phones and who spread their reactionary ideologies through modern social media. What better PR to the Islah-led government of President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud; what a better bridge to use to bring Somaliland to the fold than a woman who does not only hail from Somaliland but also contributed more than anyone else to making a better future for the youth there and whose own children hail from Mogadishu, a symbol of unity through her own life like numerous other Somali women.
I congratulate Fawzia Yusuf Haji Adam for winning such a historic achievement for Somali women. I say winning, because Fawzia has indeed waged a long and persistent struggle to prove that Somali women can take a leadership position by their own merit and not through charity quotas.
I don’t know Fawzia, never met her and never even spoken to hear, but I was following her mammoth efforts and initiatives for community development and her political ambition over a number of years. Fawzia first attracted my attention when she initiated the founding of the University of Hargeisa in the late 1990s. I remember how she strove relentlessly to make the university a reality which she did. She again came to my radar in 2008 with the launching of RAADTV, another great project through which she tried to give a different perspective to the Somali issue other than the hackneyed failed state, war-ridden, bowl-holding, refugee camp squatters stereotype image pushed by the international media.
In her vigorous and persistent endeavor not to leave only men to the leadership landscape, Fawzia again made a comeback in late 2011 when she created the Nabad, Dimoqraadiyad iyo Barwaaqo (NDB) (Peace, Democracy and Prosperity Party) in Somaliland with the long term objective of competing for Somaliland’s presidency. It was the first time in the history of the Somali people that a woman had shown the audacity to create and lead a political party in a society that frowns on women in terms of leadership.
Although Fawzia’s NDB party did well in the primaries and the communities had come out in full support to the rallies she held in the various regions of the country and she fulfilled all the required conditions, the Silanyo government of Somaliland has declared Fawzia’s party unqualified to be registered as an official party. Knowing that she was targeted for being a woman, Fawzia refused to go down without a fight. She organized a peaceful protest in Hargeisa where hundreds of people came out to back her cause. However, the Silanyo government did not hesitate to arrest her and keep her in detention until her supporters were disbanded. Earlier, the government also aborted Fawzia’s attempt to become the chairperson of the Board of Hargeisa University, an institution that she was instrumental in establishing it.
It is against this taboo breaking tradition that Fawzia again surprised the Somali people when she was recently appointed as Somalia’s first woman foreign minister. Here I recall Neil Armstrong’s words when he first set foot on the moon, in 1969, and he said: “That is a small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind.” And the appointment of Fawzia as Somalia’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister is indeed a small step for Fawzia, a giant leap for Somali women, Horn of African and Arab women. It was in the middle of the 1980s when the eminent Kenyan-American scholar Dr. Ali Mazrui predicted on a BBC documentary on Africa that if ever a woman becomes a president in an African country it would be in Somalia. Mazrui made that statement in reflection of his visit to Somalia in the early eighties and how he saw Somali women actively contributing to the country’s development in all sectors. The Somali women have missed that opportunity due to the disasters caused by their menfolk but they played a crucial role in holding the Somali community together and keeping their children’s dream alive for a better tomorrow.
No matter how much I try I cannot emphasize enough the historical importance of this achievement for Somali women. But at the same time, I have no illusions about the enormity of suffering that Somali women endure and I am fully aware that getting a leadership position will not be a magic bullet to wipe out all their hardships.
Today and for many years to come, I know Somali women will still be victims to the cruel practise of Female Genital Mutilation, that millions of Somali mothers will still be sacrificing their careers and their lives to raise kids and to put food on the table while their men are beholden to their narcotic addition of Kat, that many mothers will die while giving birth due to the lack of medical facilities, that the majority of Somali women will be struggling against odds to give warmth and shelter to their kids let alone education due to a grinding poverty, that millions of them will be mending and repairing the ruptures caused in their homes and their neighbourhoods by men fighting on hollowed pride and primitive tribal egos, that Somali women in the countryside will still be cultivating the land, looking after livestock in harsh terrain and moving children and family belongings like a mule on their backs while their men are enjoying their shameless AWOL, that millions of them who are in refugee camps or in internally displaced camps are preoccupied in eking out a living and do not care if a woman leads the country or not.
All that is true and Fawia’s achievement will have no immediate impact on them, but I also know that like all human beings Somali mothers want to see their daughters have a dream. And at the top of this is a dream for freedom. Somali girls want to be free to have a choice in life and purse their dreams; they want to be educated to improve their living standards, they want be part of the country’s decision making, they want to have their voice heard, to take their destiny in their hands and to have the right to lead and be followed if they so wish. And Fawzia’s appointment just gives them that dream. Today, girls from the squalid Dhadhaab Refugee Camp can look up to Fawzia and dream of a better future for themselves as well.
On the political side, I know many people may accuse Fawzia of being a Machiavellian and question her political honesty and credibility given to her recent political ambitions in Somaliland. But on the contrary, I believe that Fawzia is the best person that can take us to a new direction due to her well deserved name in Somaliland and the huge personal sacrifices she made to fashion a better future for the youth of Somaliland through education. There is no better investment to raise people’s awareness and enlighten them about their life conditions other than education. Today, as thousands of graduates from Hargeisa University are loitering in the dusty streets of Hargeisa without any jobs and without any hope for the future and while many of them take the risk of crossing or dying in the high seas to escape from the hopeless situation at home, it was time for a visionary person like Fawzia to give them another alternative. She did not give them education to see them all die on the high seas. One can argue that the few months that Fawzia campaigned for her NDB party in Somaliland have given her a great insight into the real conditions of the people. She found out that Somaliland was committing suicide if it continued in its current course. In fact, not only Fawzia but we must all have learned a lesson or two over the last twenty years that no part of the country could survive alone without giving allegiance and becoming under the suzerainty of a neighbouring power. Neither Somaliland nor Puntland or any other of the mushrooming foreign created tribal enclaves will be able to stand independently alone without bending their destiny to the wishes and dictates of foreign countries whose desire is to kill the old dream of greater Somalia by carving Somalia itself into insignificant and feuding mini-states.
It is with this conviction and geopolitical realization as well as the abhorring and debilitated state of Somaliland’s economic and social underdevelopment, lack of institutional systems, political bankruptcy, and growing dependency on nepotism, tribalism and corruption due to diminishing resources and visible absence of vision and creative leadership that prompted Fawzia to change course. It is only wise leaders who can take their people to a different direction when they see the road leading to a dead end.
Fawzia is definitely not the first nor she would be the last Somaliland politician to go to Mogadishu, in fact one may argue with a degree of certainty that there is not a single Somaliland politician who is not willing to go to Mogadishu if and when the right opportunity arises. So why is the Hargeisa government making such a hypocritical uproar about Fawzia’s appointment? The truth is Silanyo government doesn’t object a Somalilander to have a leading position in the Mogadishu government, but what they do not want is to see a person with independent thinking and a vision like Fawzia to be their counterpart in Mogadishu. Fawzia has proven to be a wise Somaliland politician who wants to save her beloved Somaliland from its current political Guantanamo status and the Somaliland government has to welcome her and embrace her as their woman in Mogadishu who can superbly steer the Somalia-Somaliland dialogue with a politician’s shrewdness, the passion of a mother and a care of a daughter.
The new government of Mogadishu should also be reminded that they should not try to use Fawzia as window dressing and should give her full authority to be the country’s foreign policy steward. Any tampering with her authority will only backfire on them and erase the best action that they have done so far besides forming a lean cabinet, another praiseworthy first step.