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Is Tribalism still to be blamed?

By A. M. Abdullahi

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In reading the article of Dr. Mohamud Yahye published on Hiiraan titled  Tribalism: the Cancer in Our Midst”, I was inspired to participate in this important debate. Simply because I felt that Dr. Yahye has limited his arguments in repeating the old rhetoric of blaming tribalism for all Somali illness. He also failed to look beyond clan blaming to propose a way forward for Somalia.  This is not a critique of Dr. Yahye, but a contribution to the debate.


Looking back into Somali Reconciliation Conference in Djibouti in 2000, delegates could not find any power sharing modality except clan system. Thus, they formulated a clan based power sharing model of 4.5 that means to divide political power into four equal clans and alliance of all other clans that should receive a half of clan quota.  Nonetheless, none of the participants were satisfied with the system; they just considered the model as a pragmatic necessity to bring about some representation in the interim legislative assembly. It was “quasi-clan based democracy” that was derived from the Somali culture of Diya sharing formula and clan representation used in establishing administrations in Somaliland and Puntland.

Clan divides are neither evil nor good, but neutral and natural social setting, prevalent in all societies and particularly among Muslims where family values are very strong.  A true genealogy through one’s paternity is an indication of family sanctity and compliance with desired Islamic values. This neutral entity could be utilized either positively or destructively. The policy of ridiculing clanism was utilized by the earlier Somali nationalists and the successive Somali policy makers to  promote nationalism and foster national unity.  As a result, clanism was singled out as the “Cancer of Somali State” and gradually was positioned at the top of the national agenda.  It was portrayed as incurable, pervasive and inescapable wrath that divide amicable and neighbourly Somali communities. The implications of such perception are very severe:  it essentially leads to one of the two deterministic extremes. The nation-state has either to develop a policy of “eliminating tribalism” (dabar-goynta”) entirely or to surrender to it, leaving the nation to die from that incurable disease. This means that the state can no longer live with the spreading cancer. It is a situation of “wait for death” that looms on the horizon.

This article argues that political clanism was socially constructed by colonial scholars and administrators during the formation of the Somali state by adopting Italian multi-party electoral system. Gradually, it became an inescapable nest praying every Somali politician and putting him into a cage of clannish realm. Moreover, it was used by politicians as a scapegoat that gradually ingrained in the physic of the people since 1950s. In the academia, scholars like I. M. Lewis and Said Samatar advocated to consider primordialism as the contagious virus to be blamed for most Somalis illness. This view point is lucidly expressed by Prof. Said Samatar who wrote ““Somali polity is shaped by a single, central principle that overrides all others, namely the phenomenon that social anthropologists call “the segmentary lineage system” . Though national politicians were overtly advocating against clannism, nonetheless, in the seasons of political elections, political clanism was the only means to actively participate in the political leadership of the country. It was and remains so because Somali political culture is based n imperativeness of clan affiliation, its commercialization and nepotism.

In the period of the military coup and “revolution” of 1969, tough nationalist programs designed to curb clanism were undertaken with revolutionary fervour, enthusiasm and high commitment. Nevertheless, these programs did not produce much change to the chronic clannish political culture. Instead, they provoked radicalization of clanism and produced clan- based armed factions and clan-based state institutions by 1980s. The armed showdown finally brought about the total collapse of the state in 1991. Since then, Somalis has failed to glean pieces of the scattered and embattled nation and to reconstitute their national state. Moreover, during prolonged civil war, the country was divided into clannish ghettos under the control of the notorious warlords besides clan based administrations in Puntland and Somaliland.

This short historical analysis of the effects of Somali clanism shows that criminalization of the clan factor does help us at all. We need to move beyond and find out how we can challenge the awkward situation that we are in. Pragmatically, without political clanism (politics based on clans) there are no criteria for acceptable power sharing criteria for Somalia. And, without that there is no apparent solution to current political impasse. Concluding my contribution, I think that relevant questions to be discussed are what is the best approach to deal with this situation? Let us think objectively and find out the best option for Somalia to survive and thrive with these clans and their clan sentiment remaining and roaming.


A. M. Abdullahi
E-mail: [email protected]


The opinions contained in this article are solely those of the writer, and in no way, form or shape represent the editorial opinions of "Hiiraan Online"

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