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From Freedom Fighter to Fighting Freedom — Has Somaliland’s President Bihi Turned Into A Thin-Skinned Autocrat?

The Republic of Somaliland is a quintessential example of the phoenix that rose from the ashes, a country built back from the rubble created by the brutal Barre regime’s systemic genocide. After a prolonged struggle, it won its freedom, eventually regaining its independence on May 18th, 1991 through the ultimate sacrifice paid by its people.

In a rather unfortunate set of circumstances, and after three decades since regaining its independence, Somaliland is showing alarming signs of falling back to the anti-democratic governance of the Barre dictatorship-era under current President Bihi. Modern-day Somaliland is rife with injustices of its own, which include extra-judicial imprisonment of citizens for the slightest infractions. Some examples of these “infringements” (in the eyes of the Bihi administration) comprise of calling President Bihi “local” – a moniker he was presumably awarded for his uncanny ability to ignore the bigger picture in lieu of local issues – or producing political satire. A recent popular segment by up-and-coming comedian Sayidka Barakaysan (The Blessed Lord), depicting a scene of President Bihi discussing the state of the nation’s economy and education with his Ministers, was met with immediate arrest. 

What makes injustice in Somaliland unfathomable and particularly regretful, is that Somaliland has one of its most famous freedom fighters at its helm in President Muse Bihi Abdi. His story reads like a Stephen E. Ambrose novel, starting with his career as an officer in the Somali Airforce, to deserting his post to join the Somali National Movement as a member of an organized 3000-man resistance.  He and the SNM took the fight to Barre in the name of democracy, and in their struggle, President Bihi was even wounded multiple times.

Just as shocking and regretful, is the fact President Bihi is flanked by Mohamed Kahin as his Minister of Interior, and Brigadier General Dabagale as his Commander of Somaliland Police; both of who have an equally heroic pedigree in fighting at the front lines as members of the SNM.

The latest person to be arrested in Somaliland for mere speech is a young artist who has made a name for himself in skewering politicians satirically, and who speaks to the frustration of the youth and the wider population; but he is just another example of the countless people who have been arrested for expressing their views, and exercising their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech. His case is, however, eerily reminiscent of “kabtan kufay ku qosle,” a famous case quoted by Somalilanders when describing some offenses people were arrested under Siad Barre’s dictatorial regime.

There’s a tendency in Somaliland’s intelligentsia to downplay or outright dismiss the rash of arrests under President Bihi as benign when compared to neighboring Somalia’s complete lawlessness, rigged elections (dominated by NISA agents), and regular mass casualties at the hands of the Al-Shabab terror group, government-sanctioned assassinations, and tribal infighting. In fact, Somaliland’s intelligentsia somehow prefers to blame the International Community for holding Somaliland to a higher standard than its neighbor Somalia, and other despotic states in the Horn.

There is a simple counterargument to this mindset which is abundantly evident: Somaliland is not Somalia, and the fact of the matter is that this way of thinking is extremely problematic, and a hindrance to Somaliland’s quest for international recognition.  Somaliland should be held to a higher standard because it has proven itself as the little country that could, and succeeded in nation-building with minimal outside intervention, and has regularly held free and fair elections to the International Community’s measured glee.

Because of these injudicious – and frankly idiotic – arrests, Somaliland’s detractors have been given the green light to sarcastically question the motive for Somalilanders’ rebellion against Siad Barre’s dictatorship, which is an altogether disingenuous argument. While there is no equivalency or comparison – short of making a mockery of the memory of those who sacrificed their lives for Somaliland – President Bihi has done his best to invite the insinuations by treating social commentary as dissent. This is, afterall, where the Barre regime began on the slippery slope that led them to pursue mass extermination of the people of Somaliland. While no one can make an honest argument that this is Somaliland’s trajectory, President Bihi’s inability to remember yesteryear’s atrocities welcomes the comparison.

Arbitrary detention of citizens without due process seeds fear in society and makes them amenable to the status quo. Just like the fictional five monkey experiment, Somalilanders will in due course embrace a culture of collectively punishing anyone going against the grain, to instinctively protect themselves (and the status quo) to their detriment.

In Somaliland, under President Bihi, the arc of the moral universe does not bend towards justice, because those who fought and bled for justice are now perpetrating some of these major injustices against the very people they fought to free.  Arbitrary arrest of citizens for exercising their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech is against everything the Republic of Somaliland stands for, and President Bihi who is exhibiting despotic and hypersensitive traits bears sole responsibility for turning Somaliland into a police state causing irreparable harm to its case for recognition. President Bihi who was voted in democratically, in a process collectively owned by the people of Somaliland, is accountable to the citizens via speech at the very least. There are a wide range of issues that need President Bihi’s attention, such as the inconvenient truths highlighted in Sayidka Barkaysan’s recent – and popular for a reason – segment. Instead of arresting the messenger, perhaps it would be more prudent for President Bihi to pursue rectifying the truths that irked him. After all, Somaliland’s democratic credentials shouldn’t be held hostage to President Bihi’s personal shortcomings and insecurities.

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