Can Somalia Get Beyond Clan and Identity Politics?

By Mohamed Salad Ahmed

The clan factor had indeed been in Somalia before a colonial invasion took place in the late 18th century. Elders exerted massive influence over the region’s leadership.

Historians and scholars disagree about the sort of administration and governance systems Somalis had before Western powers took control. Some argue that legitimate bureaucrats and the rule of law existed before the colonizers invaded. Others disagree, claiming the rule of law and institutional structure came with colonization. What both camps agree on, however, is that clans and their conventional methods played a critical role in whatever administrations and governance structures existed during that period.

A clan’s main task was to bind kinsman together as unified family members and as a social mechanism to defend their common agricultural and land interests.

Divide and rule

The colonial powers, however, employed the clan factor as a divide-and-rule tactic, which persevered its role in social and political spectrums.

Nonetheless, its influence on modern structures was strengthened when Somalia became independent in 1960 as political offices and state resources became the driving force of clan conflicts.

When disputes related to those matters occur, their way of resolving them returns to conventional methods, which has allowed traditional conflict resolution mechanisms to endure to become the only solution upon which Somalis can rely, even if it is a present-day problem, like the distribution of government resources and so on. In a way, the clan system and its conventional methods have contributed to the resolution of conflicts, creating peace and stability.

On the other way, its over-reliance continues to undermine the legitimacy and capability of modern institutions.

The military’s attempts to restrain the impact of clan identity on socioeconomic and political spheres did not succeed because it lacked comprehensiveness and a clear strategy in tackling this prolonged problem.

Instead, the public perceived clan denunciation projects as techniques of subjugation and oppression rather than modernization and transformation. Nevertheless, after encountering consecutive setbacks that include the 1977 war against Ethiopia, the ousting of the Soviet Union and the uprising of clan rebels, the military regime eventually ended its rule.

Soon after, Somalia entered an era of lawless anarchy, chaos and clan conflicts. Warlordism and clannism replaced state and government institutions. In this period and onwards, the impact of clans on identity, politics and other social aspects has even further strengthened.

Belonging to a specific lineage or clan has substituted the need for government and the rule of law. In fact, clans began to fulfill the roles of government by building schools, health centers and other necessities.

This somehow became the solution to the power vacuum created by the absence of a central government.

On the other hand, it was an emblem that Somali communities lost trust and confidence in each other and are unwilling to be under one administration again, concomitantly marking the end of the state’s unitary system.

The establishment of a transitional federal government in 2004 in Nairobi with a clan-based 4.5 political powersharing formula indicated that Somalia is moving toward clan institutionalization.

The adaptation to federalism, based on clan identity, has caused political hazards in Somalia and has created an endless political rivalry within the federal government and federal member states, most of which represent clans.

As Mohamed Haji Ingriis, a research associate at the African Leadership Centre, King’s College London, detailed in his article “From pre-colonialism past to post-colonialism present,” the ongoing federation in Somalia is simply the reoccurrence of pre-colonial administrations.

In other words, it is a clan territorialization, but this time with more influence and power over identity and politics. Even ordinary citizens are attached to it more than ever.

The pivotal question for the current educated generation and the future generation to answer is: Can Somalia go beyond the political peril of clan and identity politics? If yes, who would lead this cultural and political revolution?

Beyond the two factors

As Afyare Elmi, an associate professor of security studies at Qatar University, stated in his book, “Understanding Somalia conflagration: Identity, political Islam, and peacebuilding,” citizens’ identity consists of a combination of three significant aspects – clan, Islam and being Somali (Somalino).

Of those three, the clan factor has always overpowered other elements and became a vital determiner of social, political and economic spheres for all Somalis.

In fact, it has been the only mobilization technique Somalis have ever known in times of conflict, during political campaigns and when collectivity is a need. When natural disasters like drought, famine and floods occur, clans are still an essential element of Somali identity because it fills the role of strong government institutions.

Therefore, if Somalia is keen to end and go beyond clan and identity politics, it is imperative to build strong government institutions with a merit-based bureaucratic system that will allow people to limit their reliance on clans.

Strong bureaucratic institutions should be the end of the beginning of winding up clan influence and domination in politics and other social arenas. Somalia will not be the first country that gets rid of this rudimentary system.

Centuries ago, China succeeded in ending its patrimonial state by adopting meritocracy. In Africa, the ideal example is Rwanda, which rebuilt its state by establishing strong government institutions after there was a genocide.

There is nothing exceptional to Somalia. A clan has been a clan throughout human history. Therefore, building merit-based government institutions is vital to ending the patrimonial culture and governance systems in the state.

But first, Somalia must witness a change in leadership. The current elite is dysfunctional and has failed to institutionalize the country for the last 30 years.

Someone might even argue that institutionalization is not something that can be achieved quickly. If that is the case, forget about it because they have been unable to establish the basis and foundation of the reconstruction of the Somali state.

Therefore, it’s crystal clear that the current elite will not deliver the social and political changes Somalia needs.

Meanwhile, replacing the role clans play as a mobilization instrument with different and modern tools that can be used without aggravating the ancestry and lineage topic is essential too.

Moving toward a multiparty system could fill that void and become a mobilization instrument that Somalis could use instead of clans. The critical question here if the founding fathers and the engineers of the so-called modern nation failed to differentiate clan from statehood is: Would dysfunctional and divaricated Somalia with irrational, reckless and self-interested elites be able to form such a multiparty system?

Previous experiences do not promise great results. Somaliland, a breakaway state that formed its multiparty system about two decades ago, has so far failed to separate political and multiparty systems from the clans.

The fact of the matter is, this is not only a Somali problem as tribalism and identity politics is a continental phenomenon. What is unique to Somalia, however, is that it stands above the state. In other words, the state and its institutions belong to the clan, which brought down Somali statehood.

Of course, it will take time to dissolve the role of lineage, ancestry and the clans in the socioeconomic and political life of Somalis, but what we need to do now is to begin our path out of this peripheral system.

The young and educated generation who have been abroad and witnessed the role modernization played in cultural reformation must lead massive social awareness and education campaigns about the disadvantages and backwardness of this patrimonial system.

Above all, creating a national identity that is different from the current one is important too. The military regime of Siad Barre attempted this but did not succeed because he personalized it.

The military government designed nationalization projects to prevent the revolution (Kacaanka) from collapsing, which did not go well. Therefore, replacing clan identification with a more comprehensive and modernized identity is consequential.

This could be achieved through civic education and social mobilization, which requires strong institutions. This sheds light on what needs to be done to get rid of the clan identity. Indeed, Somalia has a steep hill to climb and it will require endless effort, sacrifice and hard work.

* Ph.D. candidate in political science and public administration at Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt University

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