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Somalia: Between the Clan and Nationhood

By Dewaine Farria

MOGADISHUSomalia's coastline is beautiful, with long stretches of unspoiled beach and sparkling waves. I mention to a friend that while the city was hot, there weren’t many mosquitoes. “You know a city has issues when even the mosquitoes have bailed,” he replies. When you hear the words “hopeful” and “Somalia” in the same sentence it’s usually a reference to Somalilandan autonomous region in Somalia’s northwest. The rest of the country is largely viewed as an ungovernable basket case that the international community attempts to keep an unsteady lid on.

This is not entirely fair. Things are starting to feel cautiously optimistic in Mogadishu. Still, one main obstacle lies in the way of turning Somalia into a modern nation-state, and it’s not what most people think. The militant Islamist group Shabab is on its heels. After many recent setbacks, the group announced its “formal” affiliation with al-Qaida last month. But the world should take this for what it is—an act of desperation. Since fall of last year, the capital has been (more or less) firmly in the hands of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The Ethiopians (and their Somaliallies) seized Beledweyne from the militant Islamists at the beginning of this year. Last month, they took the city of Baidoa, another longtime Shabab stronghold, without firing a single shot. Two weeks ago the world was bracing for a string of attacks to mark the London conference, but the attacks never came.

The simple fact that the London Conference was held at all was encouraging. It represents a commitment from the international community to not turn its back on the war-torn country. But listening to some of the delegates at the conference, one might have come away thinking that Shabaab was the main cause of Somalia’s 20-plus years of dysfunction.

Before Shabaab, however, there were the warlords and through it all there has been the clan system. Presently the TFG is structured according to the “4.5” scheme. There are 550 seats in the parliament. 120 seats are allocated to each of the the four major (so called “noble”) Somali clans (the Darod, Dir, Hawiye, and Rahanweyn). The remaining 70 seats are divided up among the minority clans (which includes both ethnic minorities like the Bantu and “livelihood” minorities like the Galgala and Tumal). The Prime Minister is Darod, the President is Hawiye, and the Speaker is Rahanweyn. Senior ministerial posts are often filled by members of the Dir clan. The TFG’s authority does not extend much beyond the capital; today it is best described as the “Mogadishu City Council.” But even if the TFG’s reach ever extends over the whole country, its ability to govern a unified Somalia under the 4.5 scheme is far from certain.

Tribal and ethnic tension has caused bloodshed all over the continent, not just in the Horn. The linguistic differences, ethnic variances, and cultural distinctions between tribes (even those in close proximity) can be stark. This doesn’t excuse tribal and ethnic tension, but it does help explain it. But not in Somalia. Even with its small, disadvantaged minority groups Somalia is one of the most homogenous places in Africa. To outsiders the differences between the four major clans are seemingly inconsequential; they share a common Samaal heritage and all speak various dialects of the same Cushitic language. It is not ethnic or tribal tension that is the crux in Somalia—it is the clan. This means blood, honor, and justice—encompassed in the Somali word heer.

In addition to precise rules of blood compensation (in the event of a man’s murder his clan is owed one hundred camels, while a woman’s life is only worth fifty camels), the clan system also accounts for a lot of old-fashioned nepotism—business, military, and government positions are all doled out via the clan. Many Somalis are thankful for the clan system. In the absence of a functioning government, heer is at least some kind of authority. And this is the paradox; while clan offers the society some sort of authority, it also stops Somalia from developing the sense of community needed to achieve true nationhood.

In the 1970s and 80s, General Siad Barre bent Somalia to his will, (partly) by trying his best to stamp out the clans. A common question Somalis ask when meeting one another is “What is your clan?” Comically, while Barre was in power this question became, “What is your ex-clan?” Barre should be denounced for his human rights violations, but you can’t say the man wasn’t canny. He understood that a clan system encourages in-fighting that is antithetical to forging a true nation-state. Ousted from power in 1991, one of Barre’s last public statements was:

When I came to Mogadishu there was one road, built by the Italians. If you try to force me to stand down, I will leave the city as I found it.

He left it worse. At first I found my Somali neighbor in Nairobi’s frequent lament of“We need another Barre.” odd. But now I understand. It’s the idea that it takes a despot to govern places with strong tribal and clan roots. Today, Somalia is the most dysfunctional “state” on the planet and, while al-Shabaab is grabbing all of the headlines, we shouldn’t forget that it was under the unreigned clan system that Somalia crumbled into chaos.

Somaliland’s success is often extoled; free and fair elections and peaceful transfers of power in the Horn of Africa are nothing to be scoffed at. Less cited is the fact that Somaliland is almost entirely made up of the Dir clan. It is telling that the one area of Somaliland with a large non-Dir presence (the so called “Northland State”) has declared itself autonomous – making it an autonomous region within an autonomous region. Somaliland’s government is essentially a power-sharing mechanism for the sub-clans of the Dir (the Isaak, Gadabursi, Isaa and Bimaal). The TFG in Mogadishu is structured similarly, but instead of sharing power within one clan it attempts to share it among them – a much more tricky proposition. Once its sovereignty is extended beyond the capital we’ll find out just how effective the TFG’s scheme really is.

Shabab will be gone one day, but that won’t magically transform Somalia into a functioning state. The pervasive influence of rival clans in all aspects of Somali life stands in the way. Once the TFG’s authority is expanded outside the capital the real test of whether it can balance and share power among the clans will begin. If it fails, Somalia will remain doomed to civil strife.



Dewaine Farria has worked in the former Soviet Union for over 11 years, for the last two, as the UN field security officer for the North Caucasus region. He blogs at

[Photo courtesy of Carl Montgomery]



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