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Why Federalism is the Best System for Clan-based Somalis?

by Abdul-Aziz Mohammed
Friday, May 16, 2014

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There is much apprehension in the minds of many Somalis, who could imagine a Somalia beyond its current troubles, about federalism. Partly, it is the fear of the unknown or change which is not easy. But it is also what federalism requires: that Somali clans must participate in governing themselves in regions and also having full representation in a national government. The fact is there are multiple clans, some big and some small in numbers, in any given region. To put the ball of regional governing in the court of these clans in their regions is a new test for cooperation and forging a new type of a gradual, harmonious community, post traditional individual clan setup. Inversely, it is a gamble on whether these clans will further be polarized into new inter-clan conflicts.

Whatever the governance system for any people, if such system is to endure generation after generation, they must buy into it; people must feel ownership of it, for it works for them; and for it to be embraced and cherished, it must be fair and uniformly and equally applied. If not, obviously it will not last.

Human communities, throughout mankind history, had to develop their own rules--usually and necessarily very much tailored to their life situations dictated in part by their habitat. Somalis’ ancestors were no exception in this regard.  As a nomadic people, divided along clan differences, our forefathers and mothers invented clan rules, which gradually culminated into Xeer Qabbiil (Clan Constitution).   

To date, for the Somalis, the clan system endures. Why? Because it is an ingenious system. It works. It is fair. I might even shock you with this:  that without such a system, the Somali people would have perished eons ago. You see, the clan system was designed by our fore bearers for the clans to survive each other. With meager resources in a harsh environment, one had to depend on oneself, family and clan. If you closely examine the Somali Clan System, you will observe that it was for survival. It was for deterrence and as an insurance for life’s contingencies. Basically, “cooperate, coexist and live and let live" about sum up the spirit of Somali Clan System. In reality, the Somali clan constitution dealt with every conceivable situation, good or bad, in the life of the clan and its members. From conflict resolution, compensation and forgiveness for damages and transgressions to all-out war, the Somali clan constitution dealt with all of that and much more! Amazingly, there was or is or ever will be no sitting clan government. Everything is assembled, like a portable tent, on need basis as a situation calls for it. 

For Somalis, the belief in clan and its rules is simply natural. It is a big part of who they are. It runs in their blood, so to speak. Yes, Somalis may have achieved their place among others as a nation, but nationhood itself has not been to the Somalis anything more than a mental or a feeling concept. Clan-based Somalis supposedly gave birth to a nation, Somalia, which bears their ethnic name. The flag and other symbols of a nation all have been there. But this nationhood thing has not taken root in the hearts of Somalis, although they are very fond of it. Why not? Because Somalis have never been weaned off of clan identity.

The danger of running a country on clan mentality yields terrible end-results, like clans eventually and completely dismantling their own country. The ripping of Somalia to pieces had begun the day Somalia was born because Somalis had not a clue on how to run a nation. They ran nationhood to the ground by running it the clan way—the only way they knew how. Thus the rampant corruption in Somalia from independence to this day. For instance, the heads of ministries or other important posts would see and treat their departments as their respective clans’ departments. That was not because of a personal corruption, but because it is one of the pillars of clan system that one should take care of his own clan. This is generalizing of course, as there were I believe honest ministers of government or other posts. But they will be in the exception—not the rule! The point is that Somalis have never graduated from the clan institution.

Very sad but true that the name Somali or Somalia has become the stink of the world for a long time now. To me that is the ultimate smoking gun on Somalis’ complete lack, if not negligible, of national sentiment. Nationalists do not destroy their nation—meaning themselves. The point in being a nationalist is that one believes in nationhood and is for his nation. The next door Ethiopia, there, there are nationalists. Ethiopians, though our historic enemy, have been about empire, monarchs and a nation for thousands of years. There are more than 80 different groups and languages in Ethiopia today. Yet, there, there will never be an uncontrolled chaos. They will always rule in one form or another!

So the question is how do you transform Somalis from being loyal to clans to becoming loyal to a multi-clan region and or nation? The answer is simple and deeply rooted in the “laws of common sense:” that for Somali clans to shed clan identities for regional and national citizenships, they must themselves be the agents of change by governing regionally and nationally together as citizens. This is the game of real life, and for Somalis to be good at it, they must practice it daily—until it takes root so deep that a regional and national identity overtakes clan identity.  Then, in due time, clan identity will wither away in obsolescence.  

Somalis do not worship the clan system, mind you. Nor are Somalis bunch of unruly people. They are not. On the contrary, they are a very law-abiding people, if they believe in the law. A Somali may be an Oxford, Harvard University or a MIT graduate with a brilliant mind, but he or she still caries clan membership Id at heart. This does not mean such a person is a bad person. For a Somali, nothing has so far replaced the clan system.

That was why Somalia’s experiment in nationhood of more than 5 decades ended up in shambles, as Somalia is now hopefully out of the crisis and coma it has been in for over 2 decades. 

True nationalism has not even been effectively seeded in Somali minds as of yet. So we have a long way to go. However, in my opinion, there is a glimmer of hope in a long Somali time of something that might lead Somalis to an authentic and rooting believe in a national identity at the expense of clan identity.  I am referring to Federalism.

Federalism, to me, puts ownership responsibility on the shoulders of clans in their regional habitat. Clans will, for the first time, have a clear mandate to govern themselves locally, and also to fully participate in the national decision-making. There is something of this federalism in Somalia that is similar to the clan system--only in a bigger scale of a regional polity of multiple clans. With good federal laws, which will supersede in some areas of state laws, any excesses of any region could be decisively corrected by federal courts. For instance, discrimination federal laws must trump any regional laws. No one should be above or under the law. A clan speech could be considered as hate speech which should be, although perhaps protected by a freedom of speech law, condemned by all. Any clan motivated killing or injuring should be a hate crime also punishable by federal laws.  

Clear and fair laws are very appealing to all human beings--Somalis are no exception. Their clan system is case in point. Everyone is treated equally under the clan system. Reward and sacrifice are equally and fairly applied. In a simpler terms, the foremost issue for Somali leaders should be about how to transform numerous Somali clans into a one new big clan called "Somali Nation." Therefore, there has to be concise and unambiguous laws fit for a nation of many clans.

One thing is very clear to me, that a system by few elites in Mogadishu as in a central government will never produce an authentic nationalism. This thing has to come from every village, valley and hill.  Yes, it has to be of, by and for the clans in their regions. I bet you, they are already ahead of us as they are busy, learning on the fly how to build coalitions. There is no other choice but to trust people with power, with some redundant safeguards of course--meaning checks and balances. It is the only way for them to forge and accept a new reality of local, regional and national identity beyond clan reality.

Somalia’s Federalism looks very messy at the moment. It could get even messier as more and more regions come online on federalism. There is even a potential, if things are not handled correctly, for violence among would be contesting clans in any given region. But these are perhaps unavoidable and necessary growing pains. Do not be afraid of Federalism. Let the clans begin learning the alphabet of coexistence, collaboration, local, regional and national citizenship. Let them be students of elections and the campaigns for them. Let them taste sweet victories and the agony of defeats at the ballot boxes. Give clans in their regions and localities the new rules to replace the old clan rules. This time, let the clan-based Somali people fully participate in shaping their destinies beyond clan and its system. We might all be surprised on how quick they learn!  Then, logic clearly dictates that “real owners” of anything valuable would not even dare think of destroying it! Clan ownership of both regional and national governance is the only way of transforming Somalis from clans to a true nation! 


Abdul-Aziz Mohammed
[email protected]



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