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Clans and crisis in Somalia

Gitau Muthuma

Clan loyalty is key to the conflict in Somalia - and any peace settlement that does not tackle this issue is doomed to failure.


Fire power: a federal government soldier in Mogadishu, which has seen fierce fighting recently.
Photograph: Ibrahim Elmi/EPA.

Apart from Rwanda and Burundi, Somalia is the only other culturally homogeneous nation in Africa; yet it has been bedeviled by the curse of clannism.

Somalia's problem lies in the complicated nature of its clan-based politics. The current fighting in southern Somalia is between President Abdullahi Yusuf's Darood clan and the Habargidir sub-clan of the Hawiye clan, though it is suspected that the defeated Islamic Courts regime is simply hiding under the banner of the Hawiye clan to continue its struggle against the government.

Mogadishu, the capital, has all these clans mixed up but it is mainly dominated by the Hawiye clan. When the former president, Siad Barre, overthrew the civilian regime of President Shermake, he espoused a socialist ideology and discouraged clannism. But as his dictatorial regime was increasingly challenged, he relied more and more on his Darood clan, and specifically on his Marehan sub-clan, to remain in power.

In 1991, Siad Barre escaped to the Kenyan border in a tank after his forces were finally defeated by forces of the Hawiye clan. With this defeat, his Marehan sub-clan and members of the larger Darood clan fled Mogadishu. But the Hawiye clan could not agree on how to share power. This meant a continuation of the civil war, this time between the Abgal sub-clan, under Ali Mahdi Mohammed, and the Habargidir, under the late General Mohammed Farah Aideed. (Both are sub-clans of the larger Hawiye clan.)

So brutal was the fighting that the warring factions agreed to divide Mogadishu into northern and southern zones with an exchange of populations taking place. The Habargidir occupied south Mogadishu and the Abgal north Mogadishu. Thus, unlike in most cities in Africa, Mogadishu estates are occupied along clan lines.

There have been no less than 14 attempts at forming a national government for Somalia; the latest one being the Nairobi meeting, which elected a Transitional Federal Government and Parliament. Unfortunately, the participants were mainly warlords and their sidekicks, rather than the genuine clan leaders. This is partly what has led to the legitimacy problems of the Abdullahi Yusuf government. The other problem is that the President comes from the Darood clan and the Hawiye, especially the Habargidir sub-clan are afraid that he might facilitate the return of properties belonging to the Darood that they expropriated when the Siad Barre regime collapsed. Thus, the struggle is not only for power, but also for the control of resources.

His invitation of Ethiopian forces to assist him in fighting his opponents is a politically unpopular move, and majority of the Somali people are bitterly opposed to their presence, or to that of any other peace-keeping troops.

To be sure, the Ethiopians have their own agenda. They do not wish to see a strong government in Somalia, which might revive demands for the return of the Ogaden province, as the Islamists had started to do. So, although the Ethiopians are unpopular, the president dare not have them withdraw, since that would mean the collapse of his government. The new national army is still under training and his militia is weak.

American interests also happen to coincide with Ethiopian interests because they suspect that the Islamic Courts would provide a new theatre of operations for terrorist organisations, given that some of their leaders have suspected links to al-Qaida.

On their part, the insurgents have the support of Eritrea, which would no doubt like to see their enemy, Ethiopia, routed in Somalia. They also have the covert support of some Arab regimes, which view the struggle as being primarily between Islam and Christianity, given that Ethiopia is largely Christian.

Except for Uganda, all the other members of the African Union who promised to provide peacekeeping forces seem reluctant to do so. Nor are the insurgents keen on having them either since they view them as coming to bolster Abdullahi's government which they are intent on overthrowing. To most African countries, the mission looks like a peace imposition mission rather than a peacekeeping one. The Ethiopian and Somali government forces seem to have gained the upper hand in the conflict, but, without a negotiated settlement, peace will continue to be elusive.

Gitau Muthuma

Gitau Muthuma is a lecturer in communication at the Somali Institute of Management and Administration.