Don’t force statehood on Somalia? – A response to Richard Dowden – By Mohamed Haji Ingiriis
Reading Richard Dowden’s piece for African Arguments “˜Don’t Force Statehood on Somalia’, stimulates me to reflect on an insight, largely drawn from my examination and understanding of Somali society as a direct and participant observer. In his analysis, Dowden states that the nomadic tradition renders Somalis “˜a very self-sufficient, individualistic society bound by complicated codes of loyalty and rivalry’. He comprehends the Somali state, not as a type of concerted concord inspired by a shared version of Somaliness, but a permanently fragmented pattern that he recommends to the international community to “˜leave it that way’ since “˜it suits Somali society’. He contends that “˜any attempt to create a powerful Somali state will ensure’ the continuation of the previously aggravated Somali clan wars. By constructing his argument as such, Dowden visualises the Somali state in a Eurocentric form of which he suggests that “˜the model for Somalia is Switzerland’.
Contra Dowden, Saadia Touval, writing in 1963, prophesied in his book Somali Nationalism: International Politics and the Drive for Unity in the Horn of Africa, that Somali clan-based statehood would be a “˜potential threat to the peace of the Horn of Africa and with international involvement, even to world peace’. Touval was prophetic in his prognostication. Today, Somalia, epitomised as the most failed state in the Westphalian world system, constitutes an enormous challenge to global security. Given the literature on failed states, Somalia contrasts penetratingly to other failed states of recent years, i.e., Afghanistan, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Liberia, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe. This is so mainly because since time immemorial, conflict over economic resources, pursued on the sole greedy basis of living a good life, has been inherent within Somali society; hence, state as a concept has become an ambivalent practice.
The Somali Republic as a state is often seen as a myth, for it was the product of European colonialism. Even the term “˜Somalia’ is an Italian invention. Before Italy named its colonised territory of eastern Horn of Africa as Somalia Italiana, the territory had been considered as a country of clans or, in the words of the British adventurer Richard Burton, as a “˜fierce and turbulent race of republicans’, with each sub-clan having its own chief, not to mention its own territory and what Professor Quentin Skinner would consider as a “˜mytho-historical tales’. As such, there existed no central authority that coalesced Somalis, as contrasted with the case of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Uganda and several other pre-colonial states in Africa. In the case of Somalia, no concerted harmony amongst rival clans had existed before colonial experience.
Even though colonialism created and paved the way for consequences that led to armed conflicts and power contestations, one would hardly have surmised that there was anticipation that Somalis could come together to establish a nation-state without colonial encounter. It is because the concept of nation-state was not merely novel, but an alien to Somalis. One could, however, associate Somalis with the Adal Sultanate which, consisting of the Afar, Orromo and Somali, had existed under the umbrella of Islam with the leadership of Imam Ahmed Gurey before Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) appealed to the Portuguese for military support in resisting what seemed to be a militant, expansionist powerful Muslim state emerging in the Horn of Africa that strove to wipe out Abyssinian Empire.
Yet the nation-state idea has been a value-laden one in the Somali pastoralist theory, which viewed the state as a given, not as a process which required nurturing. Songs composed during the height of Somali nationalism offer a unique reinterpretation of the average Somali perception of state at the time. One of those songs was chanted loud and clear as “˜maantey curatoo / mataaneysee / aan maalno hasheenna Maandeeq‘ (Maandeek, which is the she-camel that served as metaphor for the Somali state, has today given birth to wonderful twins, so let’s milk our she-camel; the twins metaphorically meaning British Somaliland in the north and Somalia Italiana in the south).
Conceptually speaking, Somali society has been in search for two closely linked and inextricably interlinked elements – something yet to be achieved – nationhood and statehood. Attempts to achieved both through clan empowerment fell with the autocratic and oppressive militaristic rule of Major General Mohamed Siad Barre. During Barre’s hegemony, the Somali state was sadistically clanised, implementing a radical policy known to scholars on Somalia as “˜MODH’. Such traumatic legacy of the Barre regime not only created anarchy and disintegration to Somalia, but diminished the Somalis’ trust of each other as well as loyalty towards the state itself, as evidenced by the prolonged proviso of the failed state debacle in which Somalis are anathematised in the search of a state based on the pre-colonial culture and political ideology of clan entity and hegemony. As argued by Alice Bettis Hashim in her book, The Fallen State: Dissonance, Dictatorship and Death in Somalia, “˜State and society have been debilitated by the former’s lack of legitimacy and by cumulative onslaughts on the economy and societal integrity’.
Shortly after January 1991 when Siad Barre and his cronies fled Mogadishu following a fortnight of fierce battles over the fortified presidential palace, violent armed rivalry for government power and resources, triggered by sub-sub-clannish selfishness, surfaced. The current perception of the concept of “˜state’ held by many Somalis could be characterised as a schizophrenic syndrome or, to put it meekly, state anxiety in “˜fear and greed’ phenomenon, in part due to the long despotic rule of the military regime, combined with natural societal avarice. In his study entitled Governance without Government in Somalia: Spoils, State Building, and the Politics of Coping, Kenneth Menkhaus astutely stresses that “˜the predator character of the Somali state under Siad Barre has left a legacy of deep distrust among Somalis about the state as an institution’.
Not just did Siad Barre manage to successfully demolish the Somali state in an economic, political and social aspect, he sought to destroy the traditional clan rule hierarchy in order to retain his grip on power. While he managed to succeed in the southern part of Somalia, he failed in the north, which has a stronger sense of clan creed than the south. Most of the well-respected southern clan leaders were replaced with handpicked afmiinshaarro (newsmongers), appointed by presidential decrees on the basis of their loyalty to Siad Barre.
One would seldom disagree that for a Somali state to be reinstated, just one prerequisite is to be considered; that Somalis might only owe their allegiance to a comeback central state if it is led by a fellow clansman who prefers his clan over others and manages to make sure that his sub-clan dominates the machinery of the government politically, socially, economically and diplomatically. The fellow clansman “˜president’ is awaited to allocate prominent state seats to the sub-sub-clan coterie and clique. This was what all post-Barre warlords sought veraciously, but failed glumly to achieve. This is also the unconcealed determination that the current sub-clan sub-states’ presidents are attempting to achieve. The painful lesson inherited from Barre’s clannish rule is still evident in the sub-clan sub-state entities in the former Somalia Italiana, but astonishingly not in the former British Somaliland, which transcended the sub-clan competition, moving to viable democratic institutions (for a detailed observation on the case of Somaliland, see Mark Bradbury’s Becoming Somaliland: Reconstructing a Failed State). In this context, southern Somalia remains a distinctive category.
The Somali state is still conceived by some Somalis as a clan property equal to one’s herd of animals which in turn are counted as an ethnic estate. They tend to exploit it as a tool to control the national resources with the objective of spoon-feeding kin groups and clansmen so as to gain their support in the event of war. It is at this juncture that the Siadist bequest has come to be seen through Somali lenses as Ayax-tag, eelna reeb (although locusts had migrated, they left their larvae behind). Menkhaus maintains in his book, Somalia: State Collapse and the Threat of Terrorism, that Somalis perceive the state as “˜an instrument of accumulation and domination, enriching and empowering those who can control it and exploiting and harassing the rest.’ The catastrophe facing Somalia today has its roots in the psychological effect of the legacy left behind not by colonialism, but considerably by the ideology of Siadist statehood, exacerbated by an extreme Darwinian culture whose basis is so perfectly laden on Somali nomadic pastoralist mentality.
In view of the fact that Somalis identify themselves with clans and sub-clans, it has become a norm and fashion at present for the most greedy perpetrators to organise themselves through sub-clan lines, first by forming factions and subsequently establishing a quasi-clan-based autonomous sub-state entities in the southern portion of the country, viz. Azania State, Bartamaha State, Galhiiraan State, Galmudug State, Hiiraan State, Hiiraanland State, Jubba Jasiira State, Jubba Rass State, Maakhir State, Mareeg State, Midland State, Puntland State, Raas Caseyr State, Shabelleland State, SSC State, Southwest State, Waax iyo Waadi State, Webiga Jiinkiisa State, Ximan and Xeeb State, the list goes on and on with the state at everyone’s disposal. The more one looks closely at the structural arrangement of these sub-clan states, the more one infers that they attest to be a replica built on the design of the Siadist statehood, thus barely learning any lessons from its afflictions to the Somali masses over the past few decades.
In sum, to mediate state and society in Somalia and bridge the gap between the two in observing the state through the Somali state lenses, one should first understand the thought of the Somalis themselves. In so doing, one has to grasp the relationship between state and society through between society and clanism, between state and clanism, retrospectively. Indeed, the clan discourse has become the custom in Somali Studies to the extent that clan citizenship has been empirically found as stronger than the state citizenship – even Islamic religion is shown as subordinate to Somali clanism. In some parts of Somalia, particularly from the central regions up to the eastern Horn, patrilineal clanism was developed into a mystically spiritual enterprise, incorporating along the way with myths and concoctions of lineages of various sorts. Allahayow sidii roon.
Mohamed Haji Ingiriis is a Somali researcher currently working on a Master’s degree (MSc) at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities of London Met University in London. He could be reached through [email protected] or [email protected]