Somali politics and call of the clan: Can the country pull itself together?

Friday August 10 2012

For outsiders, the main stumbling block to progress in Somalia is the clan system. To many people, clan-based politics is a relic of an anarchic past that is out of place in a modern state.

Politically, this is a crucial period for Somalia, as the end of the transition period beckons. Can the country pull itself together and become a functioning democracy?

For outsiders, the main stumbling block to progress in Somalia is the clan system. To many people, clan-based politics is a relic of an anarchic past that is out of place in a modern state.

But is the clan system really that retrogressive? A good starting point is a popular women’s song, one that can be adapted to different situations.

In the song, a woman is telling the news of a clan-based killing to her neighbour.

The neighbour chants:

“So and so?”
“Yes (hee),” replies the other.
“Did you hear?”
“Hee,” goes the response.
“That Omar has been killed. And Ali has been killed. And Osman has been killed. And their blood is flowing?”


The translation into English here erodes the nuances of the original Somali, but when the chanteuse delivers these lines, in a mocking yet mournful tone, it is a call for vengeance, an exhortation to murder members of the other clan.

This is the face of the Somali clan that its opponents see.

There are other caricatures of the Somali clan.

In Crossbones, Nuruddin Farah’s latest novel, Jeebleh, the main character, announces his intention to visit Mogadishu to his wife Judith, whereupon she wonders why her husband is going to “that unfortunate country, cursed with those dreadful clans-people, forever killing one another and everyone around them.”

Well, not forever, actually. Mohammed Siad Barre, the late president of Somalia, sowed the seeds of the anarchy that followed his rule.
Although it is generally agreed that there was fair progress in the first 10 years in power, with much accomplished in education and social development, he became increasingly autocratic in his last 10 years, when he resorted to ruling Somalia through what came to be referred to as the MOD sysytem.

MOD stands for Marehan, Siad’s clan; Ogaden, his mother’s clan; and Dhulbahanti, the clan of his son-in-law and the head of the repressive National Security Service.

In public, Siad encouraged the burning of effigies of the clan, citing the slogan “socialism unites, kinship divides”; in private, however, MOD was the reality.

In the traditional and even modern Somali setup, it is not unusual for someone to try and guess your clan through a process social scientists call “reading.”

Your interlocutor will look for hints, some key words, milestones, place of birth, follow your speech pattern and cadence, and so on — like reading a map — to place you.

And when this map is read wrongly, such is the embarrassment that good manners dictates you help the person save face by saying,

“No, actually, you are right to some extent because my mum is from such and such a clan and she insisted on living among her folks when she got married; that’s why I was born and raised in Borama and speak like them,” or some similar sweet nothing.

Meanwhile, back here in Kenya, the clans are meeting to agree on strategies for the county elections, with much jockeying for

positions, especially that of county governor.

There is intense horse-trading, where one clan promises to give up one position and garners the support of another clan or sub-clan so

the two can go into the elections united — a sort of pre-election pact.

A blogger in Voice of Nomads was particularly scathing of a planned July clan meeting of the Degodia in Wajir.

He even went so far as to claim — in a highly incendiary choice of words — that clan meetings constituted “hate speech.”

So, is clan really the bogeyman that is trotted out to explain everything and anything about the Somali?

Nuruddin Farah famously quipped that “a clan never built a bridge; show me one bridge a clan has built.”

And many contemporary Western writers, including the doyen of Somali studies, I M Lewis, have portrayed the clan in static terms,

writing about Somalis in the manner of discredited “national character” studies like The Arab Mind, that depict entire cultures or nations as having certain traits that were fixed and unchanging.

However, Salah Abdi Sheikh, a political observer in Nairobi, describes the clan as a “social insurance system, like Takaful insurance, where members pool their resources and their risks.”

Salah says the clan is getting a lot of bad press for all the wrong reasons.

“A clan has geographical existence and has political interests and so can be considered as a political party. You can’t wish it away. We know who lives where, the sub-clan, the sub-sub-clan, and so on right down to the smallest family,” he says.

Salah indeed claims that the clan system is better than competitive politics, since “clans know their numerical strength, which is used as a bargaining chip, simplifying politics.

It is cheaper to have pre-election agreements between clans and sub-clans rather than competitive politics, which might not bring the best person forward, while a clan is likely to put its best person forward.”

He explains that the meetings happening all over North Eastern Province, like the Degodia one in Wajir County, arouse resentment in some quarters because most clan meetings are held in secret.

He explains that in the digital age and with the advent of the new Constitution in Kenya, the clan has to modernise and accept certain tenets of transparency and accountability as a way of building confidence in processes and the outcomes of those processes.

“Meetings cause resentment because they are held in secret; people think you are hiding something or planning some mischief against your neighbours. So we need to invite other clans as observers as a confidence-building measure, and we did exactly that in the recent Degodia meeting,” he adds.

Many concede that clan is probably the most salient feature of politics in NEP, but there are exceptions.

Salah explains that individual force of character, family lineage, exposure, religious status, wealth and education are all factors that come into play.

He cites instances where a small family from a small sub-clan has been dominating the politics of a constituency for ages because of these factors.

“Clan membership is egalitarian; someone who is a watchman in his daily life might be more influential and end up determining who votes where in his locality than a rich businessman or a politician. In that context, it is hard to control what will come out of a clan meeting,” he says.

In Somalia itself, a robust clan identity has shaped the daily lives of the country’s citizens over the past two decades.

Despite Siad Barre’s famous line, “If all Somalis go to Hell, clannism will be the vehicle that takes them there,” the country’s politics and economics have been transformed — for better and for worse — by kinship and clan ties.

A positive contribution of the clan and kinship ties is the rise of the remittance or hawala system.

The informal money transfer system is run by middlemen who can be trusted because of family, clan or/and religious ties.

Hence, since the ouster of Siad’s government in 1991, hawalas have spread all over the world, enhancing Somali businesses and contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to the national economy.

Besides, tightly knit, clan-based co-operatives have over the years fuelled the rise of Somali capitalism from Mogadishu to Minnesota and beyond.

As the civil war intensified in the 1990s, clan politics and lineage solidarity took different shapes in the maze of Somalia’s politics.

For instance, in the Somaliland and Puntland regions, the clan system was used in peace building and in restoring a modicum of institutional governance.

In contrast, in south-central Somalia, incessant clan in-fighting reached grotesque proportions, earning the region the label, “One of the most dangerous places in the world.”

Even the insurgent group Al Shabaab, with its claim that its Sharia-based ideology “transcends” clan, is not above clan politics.

A 2008 report by the International Crisis Group found that the Shabaab held meetings in various towns “to canvass public support and win greater legitimacy and credibility,” with “clerics addressing public rallies and holding talks with local clan elders.”

Besides, with Al Shabaab being touted as an outfit consisting mainly of the Hawiye clan, analysts like Ken Menkhaus have suggested the use of the clan factor “to persuade parts of the Shabaab to abandon the movement and gradually outmanoeuvre, marginalise and defeat the core hardliners.”

However, no issue brings the issue of clan in Somalia into sharper focus than the forthcoming Somali presidential elections.

After two decades of fighting, famine and feeble transitional governments, a provisional draft constitution has been passed; a new parliament will be formed, which will in turn vote for a president, and hence establish a permanent administration — the first time in over two decades.

Nevertheless, the clan power-sharing model, which divides Somali clans into four and a half, the so-called 4.5 system, has again been legitimised as the most viable way to divide political power in a “consociational model of peace-building.”

The system, which was first introduced during the Sordere (Ethiopia) conference of 1996 and implemented subsequently, guarantees one share to every major clan (Dir, Darod, Digil-Mirifle and Hawiye); while a combination of the minority clans receive the remaining 0.5 share.

In the electioneering period, this quota system carves in stone the role of elders and clan leaders and their ability to influence Somalia’s next government.

The 825 members of the National Constituent Assembly, themselves selected by clan elders, ratified the constitution.

Clan elders will also select the 225 Members of Parliament.

Many bristle at the mention of the 4.5 system, terming it as arbitrary since there is really no up-to-date data on the relative population of the various clans to arrive at a fair proportional representation.

The system is also seen as grossly unfair to the minority clans such as the Benadiri, the Somali Bantu and many others who have been at the sharp end of the civil war.

Some scholars such as Dr Aweys Mohamud have even argued, for a system dubbed Gobannimo (honour, self-determination), wherein the divisive positions of president, prime minister and Speaker of the national assembly should go “to individuals from the minority groups who are elected to office on account of their achievement and personal quality,” during a five-year transition period to heal the wounds, calm political temperatures and make restitution to the much-wronged minority clans.

Whatever the case, as the end of the transition period approaches in Somalia, and the general election in Kenya draws nearer, the role of the clan in contemporary Somali politics both in Kenya and in Somalia will come into sharp focus.