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by MP Mariam Arif Qassim
Thursday, April 21, 2016

Somalia, the horn of Africa country with the longest shoreline, rivers, mountains, agricultural lands, livestock and other natural resources ,is the beautiful home of Somali pastoralists, farmers and fishermen with an enjoyable year long warm weather.

 That particularly blessed country was hit by a huge man-made disaster.  After a bloody civil war which caused the absence of the basic foundation of a nation, the country became a failed state, after thirty years of independence.  The stateless status persisted for almost a quarter of a century with incalculable loss of lives and capital.

During the past quarter of a century, the Somali people were in a particularly dejected mood. Their daily actions were showing different types of emotional behaviors and disturbing feelings that ranged from anger, suspicion, hatred, inferiority or superiority complex, war trauma, lack of confidence, blind clanism, adversity to statehood and an open war against the unity of Somalia.

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The long devastating civil war changed the proud, nationalist character of the Somali individual, causing him/her aching feelings of fear, grievance, hatred, uncertainty and bleak future. Such initial negative thoughts generated gradually, the sad result of the Somali people’s separation into clan lines and/or isolated regional entities. The consequent result of increasingly growing apart distanced the Somali citizens not only physically, but more dangerously emotionally.

It was unavoidable, considering the negative feelings created by the civil war, that grievance and mistrust were and are the main triggers of suspicion and lack of trust, which is keeping apart the Somali people’s hearts and minds.  The answer to such harmful feelings is not to erase and forget whatever happened, but rather to search the root cause of the problem and stimulate intelligently, gradual communication channels between the Somali citizens of all regions.

 Unfortunately, our different leaders didn’t work a viable strategy to create the necessary environment for a national dialogue, bringing together the Somali citizens of different regions to talk seriously and honestly about their personal, group or clan complaints and disagreements.  From the other side, while the elders of Somalia are experts in the implementation of their old customary laws regarding inter-clan conflict management, using centuries old system of recognized reconciliation arrangements, they have not a traditional mechanism to solve hazy political problems.

 A serious nation oriented conference organized by the government of Somalia would have opened dialogue and removed, at least, a part of our real or imagined road blocks.  Opening channels of communication and stimulating a mechanism of understanding each other’s complaint would have surely encouraged more dialogue, mutual understanding and the beginning of the much needed healing process of the Somali citizens of every region. Since “let us talk” is the first step to “let us reconcile” according to the Somali culture, talking and understanding each other is the first step towards a generalized, nationwide healing process. 

Since the international community is spending millions of dollars in the rehabilitation process of the Somali statehood, such a nationwide reconciliation plan would have had more than one source of economic assistance and international conflict management support, if seriously proposed.

The re-establishment of the failed state of Somalia took almost a quarter of a century.  Those long, difficult years caused incalculable destruction to the country and more perilously misery and desolation to the people of Somalia. Throughout the world, Somalia became infamous for its unusual, long years of anarchy and lawlessness which caused internal and external displacement, famine and hunger, unpredicted flood and storms, premeditated killings and merciless explosions.

After such a destructive civil war, the only thing that Somalis from North to South and from East to West fully agree is that there is no space for another unitary, centralized system of government for their homeland.  They are also unanimous that a decentralized administration could be a good option for the Somalia of the future. When they realized the negative feeling of the majority of the people of Somalia towards a centralized government, the friends and neighbors of Somalia suggested federalism as a viable option. Unfortunately, the majority of the Somali population has not a clue about federalism, its strengths and weaknesses.

 What does federalism mean?

Federalism is a Latin word (foedus) which is defined as follows: A system of government in which power is divided between a central authority and constituent political units. The two authorities have exclusive powers for some issues and common powers for others. If we look at the world states; more than sixty of them are today adopting the federal system of government, successfully.  The most important issue of federalism is how to balance the powers of the central government and its federal entities in order to safeguard the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country and, at the same time, protect the citizens from power abuse and eventual dictatorial attitude of the political elite.

The word federalism is not new in Somalia.  Although we never understood well what it exactly meant in terms of administration and power sharing, “federaale fadaane” was a pre-independence slogan of Xisbia Dastuur Mustaqil, an old political party created by the farmer majority, inter-riverine population of Somalia. Their political ambition was to adopt federal system from the beginning of the Somalia statehood, in order to safeguard their political interests and protect themselves from eventual power abuse of the pastoralist majority, coming from the greater part of the Somali regions.

When the Somali political elite realized that the nationalist feeling of the Somali people was gradually fading away and the Somali individual‘s first emotion was to be truly in love with his own clan of origin or was otherwise constrained by circumstances to be attached to his/her roots, the easiest solution towards a united Somalia was to adopt federalism without considering its eventual clan based regional implications.  Consequently, almost every semester clan based federal entities mushroomed regularly in terms of newly recognized federal states. The Somali people of different clans and regions welcomed, with festive mood, the newly established regional states, holding proudly their multicolored clan or regional flags.  Consequently, the uniting sky blue flag of Somalia with its five pointed white star in the middle, started to disappear gradually from the greater part of the Somali events as well as from the hearts of the majority of the Somali citizens.

 There are two huge schools of thought about federalism in Somalia that have competing ways of defending their views and ideas regarding the newly introduced system of government. One is supporting fervently the federalization of Somalia and the other is rejecting it ardently. I tried to interview both of them and summarize their views in order to give to the reader, a clear picture of their general mindset. I will modestly try to provide to the reader the main triggers and motivations of both the supporters and antagonists of federalism.


Despite the good will of the government of Somalia to preserve the unity of the country within a federal system of government, opponents of federalism label it as a harmful and extremely scary political strategy.  Many people argue that federalism is not suitable to Somalia because of its people’s homogeneity: same religion, same language and same culture. The advocates of this theory believe that federalism has been introduced not to keep the Somali people together, but to divide them.

They also claim that the ongoing clan based regional states are very much damaging and divisive. They argue that clanism is the opposite of nationalism and the anti-thesis of the Somali-ness itself. The more clan based entities are established, they argue, the more the Somali people will be physically divided emotionally distanced and their eventual voluntary reach-out demonized. Somalis are usually bonded by a very beautiful and very much respected affinal relationship. The more they are separated by clan based federal entities, the less mixed marriage will occur and consequently, the general Somali-ness will fade gradually. The anti federal group suggests, if there is no other alternative than federalism for Somalia, it would have been better to put together several regions belonging to different clans as one regional entity, in order to encourage the general Somaliness and weaken the clan connotation of the regional states.

The anti federal advocates underline that the Somali people have been already divided into five parts during the colonial administration era. This ongoing federalization process is another way of dividing the population of Somalia again. They believe that the objective of the newly introduced federal system to Somalia is to further weaken and undermine the unity of Somalia.  Federalism, in their view, is a political strategy whose final end is to cancel gradually whatever remained from the general sentiment of Somal-iness , until we see one day, when a drop of nationalism is not traceable in the Somali hearts.

Another setback spotted by the critics of federalism is the pastoralist need of free movement and free grazing.  The pastoralist occupation of the majority of the Somali people will not profit from the controlled borders of the federal entities. While farmers are permanently settled and emotionally attached to their land, the pastoralist movement from one place to another is an unavoidable reality in Somalia.  In search of better grazing prospect for their livestock, pastoralists move from one region to another and sometimes try to cross the borders of Somalia with Kenya and Ethiopia. Regional state borders will reduce their freedom of movement and consequently create not only clan level divergence, but a bigger picture regional conflict and military confrontations. This group concludes that there is no doubt that the pastoralists’ ideal grazing possibility is an open land and free movement of their livestock inside Somalia, without controlled regional and/ or clan borders.

Their last critics are about the minority rights.  Minorities are better protected in a national system, rather than clan based regional system. They underline that there is no proper right for the minority in the Somali clan system.  The less numerous, the more abuse are inflicted to them. It is well known in Somalia that the justice of the clan system is highly questionable.  The minority clans believe that they feel better protected in a Somali state environment, where their status as citizen is more important and beneficial than their minority sub-clan member status.


The pro federal group is convinced that there is no better solution than federalism to reshape successfully the failed state of Somalia. The long civil war divided the people of Somalia severely; the deeply rooted scars of the war, left after almost a quarter of century, emotional wounds and serious grievance. Deep rooted mistrust and negative suspicion are still highly perceived among Somali clans.

They underline that the clan based regional states are in reality, the first antidote against grievance and mistrust. It is the first step towards a positive healing process for the Somalis to regain their mutual trust and reciprocal respect, gradually.

The advocates of federalism are convinced that a central and regional power sharing plan is the only solution that could bring back the Somali people together again. Many of the federalism defenders are so adamant in their position, that they are very skeptical that other types of decentralized systems of government, could give the same result as federalism.

The supporters of federalism think that the regional states will be able to organize better education opportunity for their community, better policing system and less crime rates are another advantage because of the access to personal data base through clan relative’s accurate information gathering.  Local businesses have the opportunity to thrive because of lesser competition and more community development programs have also been underlined.

Pro federalists consider that another important benefit of the federal system is that there no space for dictators to thrive. The chance to tighten their deadly grip of sole rulers of the country and enjoy indisputable power will be minimal in a federal administration. The majority of the regional states will be able to enact special laws through the lower and upper house of the country, in order to contain eventual power abusers with despotic inclination, within the federal leadership of the country.

As a conclusion, the advocates of clan federalism argue that the clan division at regional level is a temporary situation. What motivates people to change residence is not the love of their ancestral clans of origin. The existing clan unity has a very short life span. History teaches that Somalis are in search of their clans only in times of war and poverty. Famine and war and are the major triggers of clan unity and cohesion.  Feeling of hostility and fear are the main cause of loyalty and dependency to the clan network.

What is happening today is a temporary situation caused by the civil war, once peace prevails throughout the country, Somalis will move from one region to another confidently; instead of clan relationship, pursuit of better life and happiness will be what will bring Somalis together again. The actual semi segregated clan based communities of different regions will integrate as soon as a reliable law and order institutions and federal justice system are established, nationwide.

Their conclusion is: Somalia needs a federal system of government to heal from its civil war wounds. Only federalism is able to render Somalia a stable, prosperous nation state and a proud and respected member of the international community.

Dear reader, you are invited to participate the history shaping debate of your homeland. Your intelligent ideas and interested citizen comments about federalism (blessing or curse) are vital for a healthier Somalia and a better future for our nation.

MP Mariam Arif Qassim
Chairperson of Constitutional Oversight and Review Committee
Federal Parliament of Somalia

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