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Fictions of African Dictatorship

Cultural Representations of Postcolonial Power


Edited By Charlotte Baker and Hannah Grayson

Fictions of African Dictatorship examines the fictional representation of the African dictator and the performance of dictatorship across genres. The volume includes contributions focusing on literature, theatre and film, all of which examine the relationship between the fictional and the political. Among the questions the contributors ask: what are the implications of reading a novel for its historical content or accuracy? How does the dictator novel interrogate ideas of veracity? How is power performed and ridiculed? How do different writers reflect on questions of authority in the postcolony, and what are the effects on their stories and modes of narration? This volume untangles some of the intricate workings of dictatorial power in the postcolony, through twelve close readings of works of fiction. It interrogates the intersections between real and literary space, exploring censorship, political critique and creative resistance. Insights into a wide range of lesser known texts and contexts make this volume an original and insightful contribution to scholarship on representations of dictatorship.

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10. Figuring the Dictator in the Horn of Africa: Nuruddin Farah’s Dictatorship Trilogy and Ahmed Omar Askar’s Short Stories (F. Fiona Moolla)

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10  Figuring the Dictator in the Horn of Africa: Nuruddin Farah’s Dictatorship Trilogy and Ahmed Omar Askar’s Short Stories

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, Francis Fukuyama’s 1990s declaration of the culmination of universal socio-political evolution in the precepts and institutions of western liberal democracy, seems premature. Although parliamentary democracy is the normative default political system, even in cultures without an established liberal individualist tradition, recent trends towards the right and increased authoritarianism and surveillance, especially in established western democracies, suggest the model of a continuum of political domination and control rather than an evolution towards individual freedom within a purely regulatory, transparent liberal democracy. Forms of authoritarian power within the normalized landscape of the modern nation-state today occur in all of the ‘three worlds’. It occurs more than symbolically in the first nation of the first world when presidential candidate Donald Trump unironically states on a national television series: ‘This is a dictatorship and I’m the dictator.’ It occurs in the second world of Turkey with Recep Erdoğan’s far-reaching clampdown on an attempted coup and the elimination of all political opposition. And authoritarian control is the hallmark of numerous third world dictators who seem organically to develop out of the social and political conditions of many postcolonial nation-states. Dictatorship, resistance to dictatorship and the outcome of destabilization of dictatorships are transnational concerns that have transnational impacts, as the failed revolutions of the Arab Spring and Syria attest. Dismissing cultural engagements with dictatorship to the shelves of the twentieth-century archive seems precipitate, and understanding dictatorship today remains as urgent as it has been in the past. ← 199 | 200 →

Nuruddin Farah’s ‘Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship’ trilogy, which includes the novels Sweet and Sour Milk (1980), Sardines (1981) and Close Sesame (1983), is probably the most extensive and sustained single-authored exploration of the politics of dictatorship in an African literary context. The trilogy was written with its author in exile from his native Somalia, an exile that has continued from 1976 till this day. (Fearing that he had fallen foul of the Somali political regime after the publication of his novel A Naked Needle, Farah did not return home after his studies in London.) While the scholarship of the African ‘dictatorship novel’ is not as developed as the study of this sub-genre of Latin-American novels, including, most notably, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, the number of African writers who have fictionalized the origins, effects and decline of dictatorships is striking. The list includes the troika of African literary ‘fathers’, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in Anthills of the Savannah, Kongi’s Harvest and The Wizard of the Crow, respectively. But the list of African dictator fictions is much longer and includes many other works.1 A complete overview of literary works that address dictatorship in the African context suggests the dominance of the genre of the novel, with a few exceptions, for example, Soyinka’s drama, Kongi’s Harvest, mentioned above. There are also numerous fictional engagements of the totalitarianism of the apartheid state, where social control was located in a structure and an ideology without a single figurehead leader. The dictator novel may, furthermore, be very productively read in conjunction with the African war novel; in particular, the many child-soldier narratives that have emerged in recent years. Very often in these novels, the dictatorship itself or resistance to dictatorship creates the spiral of violence into which child-soldiers are enlisted; and, ironically, the paramilitary leaders of the platoons of child-soldiers become mini-dictators of ‘nations’ on the move. ← 200 | 201 →

Farah’s dictatorship trilogy that provides an archaeology of the power of autocrat, Mohamed Siad Barre, remains to date, however, the most extended detailed meditation on African dictatorship by a writer of fiction. Farah’s oeuvre, beginning in 1970 with the novel From a Crooked Rib, narrativizes the history of Somalia from the colonial period to contemporary times where Somalia today, as failed state, makes the headlines for piracy and terrorism. In terms of the bigger picture of Somalia, the dictatorship trilogy is one part of a larger oeuvre that completes a Somali historical timeline. The dictatorship trilogy is flanked by A Naked Needle (1976), set in the period where Siad Barre has just come into power. Here, in incidental allusions, Farah, without a crystal ball in which Siad Barre’s future authoritarianism is foreshadowed, appears to endorse the socialist coup that claimed it would bring stability and prosperity to Somalia, whose experiment in postcolonial democracy hitherto was anarchic in the extreme. The dictatorship trilogy is followed by the ‘Blood in the Sun’ trilogy, where Siad Barre assumes a background role, hanging onto a precipitously waning power which in Secrets, the final novel of the second trilogy, gives way to the power of the warlords.

In its representation of the figure of the dictator, Farah’s trilogy will be compared with a collection of short stories titled Sharks and Soldiers, little known in Anglo-American literary circuits but widely read and easily available in Somaliliand, by medical doctor, Ahmed Omar Askar. Askar sought asylum in Finland after the destruction of his home in Hargeisa in Somaliland in the north of the country in Siad Barre’s aerial bombardment of the city in 1988. Like Farah, Askar’s stories attempt to encompass a wide historical sweep but which, in this case, covers only the period of Siad Barre’s accession to power, till his destruction of Hargeisa, a major city in northern Somalia, and seat of the greatest resistance to the dictatorship based in the south. These two representations of political oppression, both written by Somali intellectuals who were driven out of their country by the megalomaniac supremacy and cruelty of a military dictator, represent the dictator in intriguingly different ways.

General Mohamed Siad Barre came into power in a military coup in the early hours of the morning of 21 October 1969, declaring a ‘socialist revolution’ in Somalia. Within a few hours of consolidation of his power, he ← 201 | 202 → arrested the prime minister and his cabinet, and other significant political figures. His takeover was, in the first instance, facilitated by the assassination six days earlier of president Abdirashid Ali Shermarke in an apparently unrelated clan-linked revenge attack.2 The coup was more generally encouraged by the chaotic and tension-ridden state of parliamentary democracy in the preceding nine years since independence and by the failing state of the economy.3 The Westphalian nation-state model and British-style parliamentary democracy were alien to indigenous forms of social and political organization, that in many ways were more fundamentally democratic and anti-hierarchical than colonial models. In the days and weeks after the coup, Barre declared himself head of the newly constituted Supreme Revolutionary Council, suspended the supreme court, barred all political activity and presented a charter outlining the forms that social and economic engineering would take under his regime.4 Challenging the complex clan-based structure of Somali society, the new regime excoriated ‘tribalism’ as contradictory to the principles of nationalism and scientific socialism. Recognizing the importance of literacy in an internationally connected and modernizing Somalia, the ‘socialist’ regime introduced a script and orthography for Somali, which hitherto had been a wholly oral language. It also drove a literacy campaign which saw young people from the towns and cities deployed to nomadic pastoralist communities in the countryside to teach reading and writing. The new regime also declared itself the champion of women’s rights under the Somali Women’s Democratic Organization, under the leadership of Barre’s wife. Putatively socialist, the regime nevertheless needed to find support for its policies in politically slanted interpretations of Islam, the deeply culturally ingrained faith of 99 per cent of Somalis. Unwilling to provide scriptural endorsement of Barre’s dictats and policies, ten sheikhs were summarily executed in January 1975, shocking Somalia into final acknowledgement of the authoritarian nature ← 202 | 203 → of their polity. Whatever its declared ideals, Barre’s socialist revolution degenerated into a cruel and unpredictable personal leadership that ruled by fear, manipulated clan loyalties and promoted his own clan and the clans of his immediate family members.

Barre’s dictatorship lasted more than twenty years in which time Somalia experienced drought and famine, war with Ethiopia in the Ogaden and the bombing in 1988 of Hargeisa by South African mercenaries so devastating that Hargeisa came to be known as the Dresden of Africa, recalling the indiscriminate bombing by allied forces of Dresden in Germany in the Second World War. While Siad Barre exerted tight control over the city of Mogadishu, he ruled largely by coercion and could not manufacture the consent one associates with European totalitarian states. He was, for the most part, kept in power by Cold War rivalries in Africa, that saw him armed and supported first by the Soviets and then by the US. The collapse of his regime and his eventual flight in 1991 were owing partially to internal resistance, but also to the waning power and collapse of the Soviet Union, also in 1991. The end of Cold War antagonisms saw a dwindling of American support in Siad Barre’s final years on the pretext of a breaking of ties because of his regime’s human rights violations. In these respects, Siad Barre’s dictatorship has followed the pattern of most modern dictatorships marked by the collusion of the imagined community of nation with the cult of individual leadership, an ideology that provides justification for otherwise unconscionable acts of terror and violence, and an insatiable acquisitiveness that allows the accumulation of personal wealth amidst personal tyranny. Both Farah and Askar, the two writers of dictatorship studied here, draw on the major trends and events of Siad Barre’s leadership described above, but approach the figure of the dictator himself in rather different ways. Farah’s dictatorship novels have been studied by many scholars as individual works, as a trilogy and as part of general overviews of Farah’s development across his career. Of the analyses of the dictatorship novels, surprisingly, very few focus specifically on the question of dictatorship.5 What none of the commentators on dictatorship in Farah’s novels do, however, is focus ← 203 | 204 → on the figure of the dictator that lies at the centre of each of the novels and of the trilogy. Max Lerner in the classic volume, Dictatorship in the Modern World, proposes that the ‘most important symbol and emotionally the most evocative figure’ in an authoritarian state ‘is the leader himself’.6 Lerner has in mind Fascist and Nazi cults of leadership, but his powerful portrait is apt also for the postcolonial dictator, as this figure emerges in Farah’s dictatorship trilogy:

The dictator, like the movie star, has been excessively romanticized. A glamour-starved populace, … create the myth of a superman who focuses all of the energies of his time and dares put an end to inaction. By enlarging his stature they succeed in compensating for their own dwarfed and stunted stature in an industrial age. … He sways tens of thousands by his daemonic oratory; he moves about in a continuous hysterical parade; wherever he goes heels are clicked, hands raise to salute, hoarse and eager throats do him homage. In due course this begins to tell on him, for he is generally a person capable of persuading and hypnotizing not only others but even himself. If, to start with, he was only a man who wanted to be dictator, he ends by becoming a combination of Caesar and Messiah. And naturally so, for he comes at the end of a long romantic sequence. All the centuries of romanticism, by emphasizing genius and leadership and a Promethean defiance of fate, have contributed to his construction. He stands there, mystic, adventurer, orator, fanatic; the man of action who moves by his words, the man of words who incites to action; the hero of our time, which had begun to fear that it had lost its capacity for hero worship.7

The society that produces Lerner’s dictator is early twentieth-century, modernized, industrialized Europe; but if one substitutes postcolonial for industrial, the picture that emerges is of Farah’s dictator, especially in the Romantic and Promethean mirror the dictator holds up to the individuals of the elite who challenge his power in the three novels.

Paradoxically, Farah’s dictator is both at the centre of the dictatorship trilogy, but is also striking for his total absence. In ‘Why I Write’, a well-known essay describing the author’s origins and evolution as a writer ← 204 | 205 → in a society that was largely oral, Farah outlines the impact of Siad Barre’s dictatorship on his literary creativity. In response to pressure from both camps – those for and against the ‘socialist’ revolution – Farah admits in his youthful naivete to have written works that were ‘as apolitical as I could make them’ (8). But, after trips to various other dictatorships like the Soviet Union, Hungary, Greece and Egypt, Farah recognized that the essence of dictatorship consisted in the dictator’s construction of fictive truths. For this reason, he adopted as the driving force for his own fiction the theme ‘Truth versus Untruth’ (13). Given that postmodernism is the implicit paradigm for the greater number of Farah’s novels, the ‘Truth’ that the novels uncover is the truth of nontruth. In some ways this insight is carried over to the representation of the dictator in the four books written from 1971 to 1980 about Siad Barre’s Somalia – the dictator is represented through nonrepresentation. At no point in any of the novels that constitute the trilogy is the dictator presented in person as a character. There are no physical descriptions of the general, no intimations of his character, drives or ambitions, and the reader is never told about the dictator’s origins and personal history. At no point is any of the action focalized through the dictator. The ‘aesthetics of vulgarity’ that Achille Mbembe in On the Postcolony links with the African dictator, and the fetish objects and ritualization that are tropes in many of the other African dictator fictions, are not elements of Farah’s representation.8 Throughout the novels, the dictator is referred to only in the third person ‘he’, or by his military designation, the General, he is never named and certainly is not presented as a fleshed-out character. But the novels do, however, construct in detail the architecture of a postcolonial, largely nomadic-pastoral and agricultural country, unusually, as a totalitarian state with explicit parallels in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy and Stalinist Russia, both of which were socially and economically quite different from Somalia. (Somalia has historical links with both Italy and Russia. The south of Somalia was an Italian colony and Somalia received Soviet support after its proclaimed socialist revolution.) Across the three novels, despite the fact that the leader is presented in absentia, his authority, ← 205 | 206 → certainly in the city of Mogadishu, is shown to be virtually absolute through very concrete methods of control described below.

In Sweet and Sour Milk, the first novel of the trilogy, the dominant analogy is of Somalia, or more correctly, Mogadishu as prison with the General as Grand Warder, supported by his personal police, the Green Guards: ‘There are thirteen cells. This city is broken into thirteen cells, of which all but one is of manageable size. The Security deems it necessary to break this sandy city into these, have each house numbered, the residents counted – and everybody screwed! The General has the master-key to all cells, whether numbered or unnumbered. He is the Grand Warder, remember’ (87). This novel also introduces the allusion of Dionysius’s ear (136), that is referred to in the other novels also. Here the cave built, according to legend, by the Syracusan tyrant to hear the whispered conspiracies of his prisoners is compared with Siad Barre’s manipulation of clan loyalties and the ‘technology’ of orality to spy on the populace with the efficacy of electronic surveillance, given the exceptional memories of people in largely oral cultures. In Sardines, the second novel of the trilogy, the image of the oral informer is given visceral impact through being transformed into the figure of the pederast, cruising the streets for potential innocent victims, whose persecution generates the fear that keeps the populace in thrall. As in the USSR under Stalin where all information was filtered and reconfigured into news that supported state policies and promoted its leader, the General is shown in Sweet and Sour Milk to be a wily spin doctor who takes the state-sponsored murder of Soyaan, a resistance figure, and transmutes it in newspaper reports into the death of a loyal party hero. Loyaan, the twin brother of Soyaan who investigates his death, is appalled to read an article in the Mogadiscio daily that reports his brother’s dying words as, ‘LABOUR IS HONOUR AND THERE IS NO GENERAL BUT OUR GENERAL’ (99). In Sardines, the subsequent novel, when the heroine, Medina, exploits her position as editor of the city daily to edit the speeches of the General undermining his control of the media, she is summarily fired. The General also is presented as controlling through the fear inspired by the notorious pre-dawn raids in which critics of the regime were rounded up and detained or executed without trial, or were simply made to disappear. Thus, the importance and impact of control through various means in the ← 206 | 207 → Somali socialist state are clearly shown in Farah’s novels, even though the dictator himself is not shown.

Farah’s representation of the forms of surveillance, control and summary punishment of the dictatorship carries sufficient specific detail for it to read as a relatively accurate account of Somalia under Barre’s rule, and, through implicit and explicit links, this dictatorship is paralleled with other tyrannies, both in Africa and internationally. Thus, although the effects of authoritarian rule are explicitly described, Farah’s depiction of dictatorship moves into a more abstract realm through using the Somali dictator as a symbol of all forms of authoritarianism, rather than presenting him as a wily opportunist who takes advantage of political and social weaknesses in his society to consolidate power and wealth. The abstraction of the historical dictator is presented mainly in the first two novels of the trilogy through the control and oppression of the male hero as son in Sweet and Sour Milk, and the female hero as daughter in Sardines. Patriarchy in the double sense of oppression by fathers of sons and oppression of women by men is implicitly condemned through the absent-presence of the ruthless dictator figure. The twins, Soyaan and Loyaan, are victims not only of the control and cruelty of the head of state, they are the victims also of their father who is a security officer for the state. The father, Keynaan, is presented as a conservative ‘flat-earther’ persuaded both of his own political and religious subservience, and, his subordination fuels his cruel power over his wives and children: ‘My father grew up with the idea that the universe is flat; we, that it is round … My father sees himself as a miniature creature in a flat world dominated by a God-figure high and huge … Suddenly, however, he behaves as if he were the most powerful of men … the Grand Patriarch … in front of his children and his wives’ (83). For Medina in Sardines, the dictator similarly embodies the patriarchal brutality of her slave-owning grandfather, who exploits what, in the novels, is the inherent oppression of tradition and religion, especially of women. The conflation of dictatorial political power with patriarchy is underlined by a quote from Wilhelm Reich that is used as epigraph to part two of Sweet and Sour Milk: ‘In the figure of the father the authoritarian state has its representative in every family, so that the family becomes its most important instrument of power.’ The historical figure of the dictator is abstracted also to encompass ← 207 | 208 → a critique of the authority of religion, through its foundation in a single Godhead in the monotheisms. This critique emerges most strongly in the middle novel, Sardines, where the honorific titles frequently linked with leadership cults, and a significant feature of Siad Barre’s historical inflation of self, are associated with the 99 beautiful names or qualities of the God of Islam. The critique of tyranny thus, through the highly abstract absent-presence of the dictator figure who represents all hierarchical systems, is a simultaneous critique of traditional and religious forms of authority construed only as relations of power.

The idea of the dictator’s ‘absent-presence’ is captured also in Sardines, where, in the same way that the novel itself educates the reader about authoritarianism generally, the heroine Medina writes a Somali translation of the folk tale of the tortoise and the birds told by a mother to her daughter in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Medina writes the translation for her own daughter, Ubax, whom she has taken out of school to avoid exposure to the General’s propaganda. The story about the selfishness and greed of tortoise who tricks the birds out of a feast in the sky is left vague and is repeatedly referred to only by the title given to it by Medina – ‘He’. The tale is intended as an allegory of Siad Barre’s deception and avarice, but the moral does not clearly emerge; instead it is overshadowed by the looming, abstract figure known only as ‘He’. Lerner in the excerpt above alludes to the Romantic and Promethean sources that feed into the construction of the totalitarian dictator. Sardines quite explicitly presents Siad Barre in a similar way. Sardines pivots the challenge between Siad Barre and those who resist him on the knife-edge of the battle of ‘opposites’ who are mirror images of each other. Medina is the rebellious, Romantic-Promethean who believes herself to be the General’s nemesis, inspiring her to make ‘daredevil’ decisions like altering the General’s speeches. The image used to describe this pas de deux is the ‘dance of death’: ‘The General’s power and I are like two lizards engaged in a varanian dance of death; we are two duellists dancing a tarantella in which they challenge their own destiny. He is as aggressive towards me as I am towards him. He uses violent language and so do I. He calls me “a dilettante bourgeois”, “a reactionary”; I call him “fascist” and “dictator”’ (45). Even in this ‘manifesto’ by Medina, she specifies that she opposes not the General, who is not represented even in this individually ← 208 | 209 → directed challenge, but the General’s ‘power’. The effect of the above forms of inflation of the representation of the dictator as a larger than life, but also abstract, character is to make the Somali dictator a philosophical principle of authoritarianism writ unaccountably large, rather than a fairly pusillanimous military man and politician who, through manipulation of local contexts and through foreign support that bolstered geopolitical interests at the time, was able violently to terrorize Somalis for about two decades.

Thus in the trilogy the figure of the dictator, through the detail of the forms of brutality and control of his regime, is sufficiently specific to be historically linked with the Somali dictator. However, the real dictator, in crucial ways, is absented in order to exist as a stand-in for all other forms of authoritarianism. Specific references to the General are even fewer in Close Sesame, the final novel of the trilogy, but the General’s animus looms large and threatening. In the final novel of the trilogy, the focus falls on the possibility of a non-authoritarian patriarchy in the ageing apparently traditionally and religiously conformist hero, Deeriye. However, in the final analysis, Deeriye is shown not to be shaped by Somali cultural and religious precepts, but as I have argued elsewhere, is revealed to be constituted out of an individual, rather than collective, spirituality.9 What remains thus is the idea of the oppressiveness of all sovereignty, including good authority, figured in the totalitarian absent-presence of the General. In this way, Farah’s dictator comes in some ways to resemble the leader of the true totalitarian state, which for Hannah Arendt, is represented only by Nazism and Stalinism. Totalitarianism for Arendt is a destructive mass movement, with the leader as the absent-presence at its centre – like the eye of the storm. She uses the image of the onion for the totalitarian state, buffered by layers of self-justifying subterfuge, with the leader as the hollow in the centre. Totalitarianism, unlike dictatorship, ‘means permanent revolution which does not exhaust its momentum in conquest of a particular state, but goes on attacking all institutional structures, and all ← 209 | 210 → territorial boundaries’.10 In some ways, perhaps, through exorbitation of the Somali general, Mohamed Siad Barre, into a figure that encompasses the world-dominating ambitions of a Fuhrer or a Stalin, and tyranny as a broadly philosophical concept, Farah may have created an abstraction that none of his heroes and heroines would be able to overcome, as indeed they do not. Neither the passive resistance of the elect group of ten in the first two novels, nor the violent individual resistance of Deeriye in the final novel of the trilogy appears to put a dent in the fictional dictator’s armour.

By contrast, a very much more real and manageable, albeit disturbed and disturbing, dictator emerges in the narratives of Ahmed Omar Askar who lived in Somalia until his home was destroyed in the 1988 Hargeisa bombing. The author suggests in the foreword to Sharks and Soldiers, that this is a collection of ‘fictionalized short stories’, but the pieces in many ways are written as narrative nonfiction, coming close to the approach of auto/biography or the style of American New Journalism, where reportage is combined with the use of literary techniques. In the foreword, Askar states furthermore that he seeks through his ‘few lines’ only to preserve a memory of Somalia under tyranny for younger generations of Somalis who have been dispersed throughout the world: ‘This book preserves a few lines for the younger generations, who seek answers for many questions concerning their situation during this period in which hundreds of thousands of Somalis live as refugees in foreign countries and millions suffer from hunger, diseases and war in their homeland’ (Foreword). Thus, the ambition of the collection is modest. It does not seek to reveal ultimate truths, and the choice of English as international language over Somali by a political refugee in Finland is probably motivated by the likelihood that future generations of Somalis in the diaspora would be English – rather than Somali-speaking. Askar emphasizes, however, that his writing should not be considered as historical evidence, but that his 8 short stories represent a fictionalized account of major events from the proclamation of the ← 210 | 211 → socialist revolution to the heavy-handed clampdown on the insurrection in Somaliland in the north. The titles of the 8 stories provide a timeline of key moments in the development of the Somali dictatorship: ‘Paint the Revolution Bloody Red’, ‘The Devil is a Mullah’, ‘Feeding the Sharks’, ‘Laughter is a Crime’, Operation Water Reservoir’, ‘The Isaak Extermination’, ‘Hand Over Your Money’, and ‘The Appeasement Committee’. The stories are not markedly literary in their techniques and are simply written, given that English is not the author’s first language. However, the stories provide one of very few narrative glimpses, certainly available in English, into a dark but interesting period of Somali history; and what is especially fascinating is the quite dismissive representation of the dictator by a writer who himself lived subject to his rule and had his home and family life destroyed by Siad Barre’s bombing of Hargeisa where he lived. Siad Barre is personally represented in 5 of the 8 stories, and where he is figured, the portrait is truncated and cartoonish, and quite calculatedly so. Although Askar is not an experienced creative writer with a literary background, there is nevertheless an artfulness in the use of juxtaposition of elements, irony, paradox and bathos in the representation of Siad Barre in the stories. For example, in the first story, ‘Paint the Revolution Bloody Red’, where Siad Barre liquidates members of the Supreme Revolutionary Council, beginning a consolidation of personal power, the narrative dramatically creates a climactic scene with a tense head of state testing the waters to see how far the Somali people will allow him to go:

President Mohamed Siad Barre was chain smoking in his office at Avezione, the national army’s headquarters, which also served as the presidential palace. The military camp is not far from the Badka, the revolution’s death site. … Siad Barre started walking up and down his office as it was about the time at which the death squad was to carry out the death penalty of the SRC members. He can hear the firing in his office and he was waiting for this to happen at any minute. At last the sound of the firing reached him. He was seized by a wild sensation. Breathing rapidly and perspiring, he clutched the edge of his desk. When the firing stopped, he felt a deep pleasure through his whole body and relaxed his grasp. This was his first test of the Somalis, it was a success. They were all ready to offer their necks for hanging. … It is a great day. (4) ← 211 | 212 →

Askar goes on to write that a light ‘hagayo’ rain begins to fall shortly after the execution, shedding tears that no one else ‘dared’ to shed. The narrative thus creates a critical ambiguity regarding whether the populace is justifiably fearful, or, alternatively, too cowardly openly to condemn Siad Barre’s actions. The representation of Siad Barre is similarly ambiguous, presenting an image of a ruthless dictator, which is simultaneously a comic-book sequence of a depraved little man deriving orgasmic pleasure from seeing how far he can go. The narrative thus presents a picture of a cruel but certainly not superhuman man, subtly implying the potential but historically failed agency of the Somali people to put him out of power early in his career. A very similar scene is constructed in the story ‘The Devil is a Mullah’ when the religious leaders who critiqued Siad Barre’s interpretations of the Qur’an are executed.

The stories also record Siad Barre’s paltry attempts at distiguishing himself through various means – honorific titles, narcissistic valorization in print, portraiture and popular music, plush office furnishings, cars and presidential ‘palaces’. The second story, for example, presents Siad Barre staging himself as the father of the nation through very careful events management:

The Dervishs’ [sic] Park of Mogadishu lies in the low valley between the statue of Mohamed Abdulla Hassan and Hotel Bulsho. This is a favourite spot for Siad Barre to make his public speeches. While making a speech, he is usually standing at the highest point of the sand-hill near the statue, looking down at the crowds down in the valley. This gives him a real sense of power and greatness. (17)

In the final line of the extract, the narrative undercuts the attempts of the president to align himself with the leadership, charisma and oratory of Muhammad Abdille Hassan, ‘Sayyid’, often considered the father of Somali nationalism and the Somali Shakespeare for the unsurpassed power of his oral poetry. Even though Siad Barre positions himself in close proximity to the statue, he himself is the bathetic anti-climax of what the Sayyid represented.

On the one hand, the picture that emerges is of a fairly insecure man, not a postcolonial Somali Prometheus, or magnetic charismatic Führer. In fact, he is presented in the context of his family members, namely a drunken ← 212 | 213 → son and a wife who solicits butter as a bribe from a visiting regional official, further reducing his stature. On the other hand, the picture emerges of a cruel, vindictive, heartless man. The collection in part takes its title from the rumours associated with Siad Barre that he threw his political opponents into the shark-infested waters of the Indian ocean off the Mogadishu beaches. In the story ‘Feeding the Sharks’ Siad Barre is presented as having built a shark aquarium where he studies shark predation in an attempt to hone strategies of political and actual attack. The dictator who emerges in these accounts is an altogether more manageable, albeit cruel figure, than the dictator of the trilogy – he is a leader who rules by wiliness and strength of arms, but who may be overcome. The figure of the dictator is balanced by the representation of individuals and groups who challenge his policies and who sometimes suffer setbacks but are not written out of the political picture, or at least, the spirit they represent is not.

The study of the representation of dictatorship in the trilogy and the collection of short stories provokes questions about genre. Does the form of the dictator genre determine its content? How does the content shape our understanding of the problem of dictatorship and the response to the problem? More specifically, does the novel as genre, with its channelling of individual character and the attendant ironies and contradictions of philosophical individualism, reflected in the anti-hero as mirror, produce a dictator figure so abstract and complex that he cannot be resisted? Does the compressed narrative form of the short story, often located within a short story sequence or short story cycle, predispose the genre to a more focused, specific representation, minimizing inflation of the dictator figure? Do the claims to factuality of narrative nonfiction impact forms of representation of the dictator? Finally, how might other genres, for example the oral forms alluded to in both the novels and the short stories, figure dictators? These questions demand a more rigorous analysis of the impact of forms both on modes of representation of the dictator figure and effects on the audience of these forms – an enquiry which is opened up in this volume. ← 213 | 214 →


Askar, Ahmed Omar, Sharks and Soldiers (Järvenpää, Finland: Private Edition, 1992).

Canovan, Margaret, ‘The Leader and the Masses: Hannah Arendt on Totalitarianism and Dictatorship.’ Dictatorship in History and Theory: Bonapartism, Caesarism, and Totalitarianism. Eds Peter Baehr and Melvin Richter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). 241–62.

Farah, Nuruddin, Close Sesame (Allison and Busby: London, 1983).

——, From a Crooked Rib (London: Heinemann, 1970).

——, Gifts (London: Serif Publishers, 1992).

——, Maps (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986).

——, Sardines (Allison and Busby: London, 1981).

——, Secrets (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1998).

——, Sweet and Sour Milk (Allison and Busby: London, 1979).

——, ‘Why I Write.’ Emerging Perspectives on Nuruddin Farah. Ed. Derek Wright (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2002), 1–13.

Halloway, Nada, ‘Colonialism, the Modern African Dictator and the Postcolonial State.’ Unmasking the African Dictator: Essays on Postcolonial African Literature. Ed. Ndĩgĩrĩgĩ, Gĩchingiri (Knoxville, TN: Tennessee University Press, 2014). 29–46.

Harper, Mary, Getting Somalia Wrong: Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State (London: Zed Books, 2012).

Jama, Jama Musse, A Note on ‘My Teachers’ Group’: News report of an injustice (Hargeisa: Ponte Invisibile, 2003).

Lerner, Max, ‘The Pattern of Dictatorship.’ Dictatorship in the Modern World. Ed. Guy Stanton Ford (London: Minnesota University Press, 1935).

Mbembe, Achille, On the Postcolony (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001).

Moolla, F. Fiona, Reading Nuruddin Farah: The Individual, the Novel and the Idea of Home (Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey, 2014).

Samatar, Ahmed I., Socialist Somalia: Rhetoric and Reality (London: Zed Books, 1988).

Turfan, Barbara, ‘Opposing Dictatorship: A Comment on Nuruddin Farah’s Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship.’ Emerging Perspectives on Nuruddin Farah. Ed. Derek Wright (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press), 265–81.

Wright, Derek, ‘Orality and Power in Sweet and Sour Milk.Emerging Perspectives On Nuruddin Farah. Ed. Derek Wright (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press), 345–58.

1 Some recent African dictatorship fictions include Ahmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, Alaa al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, Moses Isegawa’s Snakepit, Yasmina Khadra’s (nom de plume) The Dictator’s Last Night, Maaza Mengiste’s Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, Henri Lopès’s The Laughing Cry: An African Cock and Bull Story, and the novels of Hisham Matar.

2 Mary Harper, Getting Somalia Wrong: Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State (London: Zed Books, 2012), 54.

3 Ahmed I. Samatar, Socialist Somalia: Rhetoric and Reality (London: Zed Books, 1988), 70–7.

4 Samatar, Socialist Somalia, 83–7.

5 Articles that specifically focus on Farah’s critique of the Somali dictatorship include, among others, the work of Patricia Alden and Louis Tremaine, Annie Gagiano, Josef Gugler, Dubravka Juraga, Armando Pajalich, John Masterson, Felix Mnthali, Gĩchingiri Ndĩgĩrĩgĩ and Derek Wright, as well as my own research.

6 Max Lerner, ‘The Pattern of Dictatorship’, Dictatorship in the Modern World. Ed. Guy Stanton Ford (London: Minnesota University Press, 1935), 9.

7 Lerner, ‘The Pattern of Dictatorship’, 9–10.

8 Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001), 102–41.

9 F. Fiona Moolla, Reading Nuruddin Farah: The Individual, the Novel and the Idea of Home (Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey, 2014), 122–41.

10 Margaret Canovan, ‘The Leader and the Masses: Hannah Arendt on Totalitarianism and Dictatorship’, Dictatorship in History and Theory: Bonapartism, Caesarism, and Totalitarianism. Ed. Peter Baehr and Melvin Richter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 241–62, 248.