A Return to Clan-Politics (or Worse) in Southern Somalia?
Published on: Mar 27, 2007

The first months of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) ‘residence’ in Mogadishu has seen a severe deterioration in security in Mogadishu. By all accounts the TFG and its Ethiopian allies are generally restricted to key strategic points in the city. Much of the sprawling suburbs of west and northwest Mogadishu—Hodan, Hawlwadaag, Wardhigley, Yaqshid, Huruwa that also happen to be Hawiye strongholds—are no-go areas for TFG and Ethiopian troops. These are the areas where ‘insurgent’ attacks are launched, to which the TFG/Ethiopian forces usually respond with heavy artillery. Significant numbers of civilians have left Mogadishu, and most of the casualties are civilians.1 The TFG has said that it is dealing with an ‘insurgency’.2 However, it would not be an exaggeration to characterize Mogadishu as facing an imminent civil war of sorts.

It is generally assumed that resurgent Islamists are behind the insurgency, and the TFG has encouraged this view. Indeed, it is rumored that key individuals from the Islamic courts have returned to the capital, including the Sheikh Adan Ayrow, Sheikh Muktar Robbow ‘Abu Mansour’, and Sheikh Indha’adde. However there is also a suspicion that disgruntled warlords—no allies of the Islamic courts—may be behind some of the attacks.3

The Deputy Defense Minister Salad Ali Jelle recently accused Sheikh Abdilkadir Ali Omar, religious leader of the Habr Gedir, Saleban sub-clan (and deputy to the Chair of the Islamic courts executive council Sheikh Sharif), of leading the insurgency.4 However the TFG’s attempts to divide and rule are contributing to an air of mutual distrust. Clan ‘vigilante’ groups have been established in the capital to protect neighborhoods.5A series of assassinations of policemen, middle ranking officials and high profile individuals including the Prime Minister’s brother-in-law, while directed at TFG ‘collaborators’, will also be interpreted through a clan lens.6

Though Islamist-inspired resistance is certainly part of the equation, there is now a real threat of Mogadishu descending into clan-based violence on a scale not seen since 1991-1993. Tension in the capital is running high with the TFG bringing thousands of newly-trained militias (mostly Majerteen and Rahanweyn) into the capital. Ethiopian troops who vacated their positions in the southern city of Kismayo are still camped just outside the city, and the Ugandan vanguard of the AU peacekeeping forces has clearly identified with the TFG. The indications are that the government intends to disarm the Hawiye militias by force, an act that will finally force the ‘clans’ to show their hand. There are reports that Habr Gedir militias are reconditioning their ‘technicals’ to be ready for urban warfare; other non-Hawiye warlords are also suspected of rearming.7

The clan factor in Somali politics

It is true that clan analysis of Somali politics neglects other important dynamics in the Somali crisis;8 nevertheless clan political discourse still animates the politics of Somalia. Clan rivalry—even if it is a result of a false consciousness—is part of ‘tradition’ in Somalia, particularly oral tradition. The discourse of clan is well-preserved in oral poetry and genealogical memory, and is readily activated when need be. As one recent author has put it, clans or genealogical descent groups, are ‘not only good to fight with (or play politics or do business with), but good to think with’.9

Whether ‘clan’—like ‘tribe’ in Africa—is an invented tradition in Somalia is still a moot point.10 Certainly clan politics strengthened with the arrival of the colonial powers. Moreover, when the nationalist Somali politicians took over power from the colonial masters, clan politics were given full vent. Somalia’s early post-independence administration was marked not only by a period of competitive democracy but also by pervasive corruption and nepotism based on clans. Cleaning the Augean stables of Somali clannish politics became the public preoccupation of Siyad Barre’s military ‘revolutionary’ regime that overthrew the civilian administration in October 1969.

However, it is also widely recognized that in spite of his public pronouncements against ‘clan’, Siyad Barre also manipulated clan politics through his famous ‘MOD’ alliance in the Darod triumvirate of Marehan, Ogaden and Dolbahante. Moreover, the main clan protagonists that ousted Siyad Barre were also clearly identified by their Hawiye, Isaq and Ogaden (Darod) clan bases. In August 1990, their political leaders reached an agreement to form the next government, but none of the three rebel leaders—namely General Mohamed Farah Aideed (the Hawiye), Abdurahman Ali Tuur (the Isaq), and Colonel Ahmed Omar Jees (the Ogaden)—was able to prevent the reification of national Somali politics along clan lines.

The dominant Isaq clan interests in the SNM pushed through Somaliland’s secession from the rest of the country, which occured in May 1991. The Ogaden factional leadership, overwhelmed by the new hostility between the Hawiye and Darod were forced to fight alongside their Darod kinsmen. The Hawiye rushed to stake their claim on Mogadishu. Further divisions fractured the Hawiye, as warlord-entrepreneurs activated the full range of lineage loyalties to pursue their own personal ambitions in Mogadishu and throughout south-central Somalia.

Since then, whenever there has been an attempt—either from Somalis or from an outside hand—to reconcile the rival sides, it has foundered on the inherent dynamism of the Somali clan system that provides alternative leaderships and oppositional factions.  For example the TNG partially failed after some warlords with the backing of their clans opposed its legitimacy; yet another case of an infinite number of alternatives to one set of clan alliances. The clan alliances underpinning the TNG were opposed and replaced by a rival set of alliances—aided and abetted by Ethiopia—that became the TFG.

The TFG through a clan lens

Though the TFG claims to be a national government, its founding charter explicitly recognizes the clan factor in Somali politics, and thus must strive for the ever elusive, perfect ‘clan-balance’. The TFG institutions are based on the so-called ‘4.5 formula’, designed to balance and share representation and power in Somalia between the four main clan families (Dir, Darod, Hawiye and Rahanweyn), as well as five minority constituencies. The 4.5 formula originally emerged from a previous reconciliation conference held in Djibouti in 2000 which resulted in the creation of the ineffectual Transitional National Government (TNG) that lasted from 2000-2004.

At first glance, the TFG’s composition reflects the 4.5 clan ‘formula’. The President of the TFG, Colonel Abudullahi Yusuf, is a Majerteen from the (Harti) Darod clan family that dominates the Northeastern semi-autonomous Puntland region.  The Prime Minister, Ali Mohamed Gedi, is a Hawiye, from the Abgal branch that claims to be the one of autochthonous clans of Mogadishu. The third important figure in the TFG is the Speaker of the TFG Parliament, currently Sheikh Aden Muhammad Nur ‘Madobe’. The present and previous speakers are from the Rahanweyn (Digil and Mirifle), a large confederation of mixed ‘agro-pastoral’ clans, that inhabit the inter-riverine regions of southern Somalia and speak a distinct dialect (Af Maay-Maay).

Superficially, it seems that the constituent parts of the TFG reflect the ‘4.5 formula’ of clan balance and inclusiveness. However the popular perception in southern Somalia—at least among some of the Hawiye opinion formers—is that the TFG is an ‘alien’ Darod institution. Indeed, there is some evidence that beyond the ministerial appointees, Abdullahi Yusuf is gathering a Darod dominated security apparatus that will become the real backbone of the administration (rather like his predecessor Siyad Barre). Some sources have gone to great lengths to detail the Majerteen (Darod) dominance of the ‘inner circle’ of the Presidential staff and key military and security positions.11

Moreover, it is also argued that the high-profile Hawiye appointments in the TFG are not particularly supported by the clans they are supposed to represent. Though the Prime Minister’s role is partly as the ‘Hawiye’ representative at the heart of government, it is argued that he does not represent the real representatives of Hawiye political and economic power in southern Somalia, the Habr Gedir clans. Indeed, even his own Abgal-Warsengeli sub-clan constituencies are not perceived to support the Prime Minister. Some wealthy and powerful Warsengeli individuals were key supporters of the Islamic Courts.

Furthermore, internal Warsengeli politics have some bearing on the ‘insurgent’ mortar attacks against Mogadishu port and the recent assassination attempt on the ports director, Abdii Jinnow (also from the Warsengeli, Abgal branch of the Hawiye). Though the port is a key strategic foothold for the TFG and thus a target for insurgents, another explanation may be that rival Warsengeli interests that previously controlled the alternative port at El-Ma’an want to disrupt the main port’s operations.

Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi had also angered the wider Hawiye business class by his removal of (the previous) Speaker of the TFG parliament, Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden. Though Rahaweyn, Sharif Hassan was seen to be the key representative of the Hawiye business class in the TFG, and a constant thorn in the side of the executive, especially the Prime Minister. Sharif Hassan’s politicking, first with dissident TFG (Hawiye) ministers and later with the Islamic courts, led to his removal after the Ethiopian-backed TFG ‘victory’ over the Islamic courts. This was perceived as a significant tipping of the clan-balance of the TFG away from the Hawiye.

The new speaker Aden ‘Madobe’ has some Islamic credentials and like his predecessor is a businessman turned politician/warlord, though unlike his predecessor he does not have strong business links with Mogadishu. He was one of the founders of the Rahanweyn Resistance Army (RRA) in 1995, formed in response to the occupation by General Aideed’s Hawiye forces of the Rahanweyn regions Bay/Bakool and Hoddur. The Rahanweyn are second only to the Majerteen in the clan make-up of the TFG militias/army.

The political head of the TFG military apparatus and another piece of the TFG’s clan mosaic is the former Kismayo warlord and Juba Valley Alliance chairman, Colonel Barre Adan Shire ‘Hirale’. A Marehan from the (non-Harti) Darod clans, Barre ‘Hirale’ was a colonel in the Somali army, and close to the former dictator Siyad Barre. After Siyad’s fall, Barre Hirale fought intermittently over the key strategic port of Kismayo with another former ally, General ‘Morgan’, another Darod (but Ogaden) national army officer turned warlord. To counter-act Morgan’s influence Barre established an alliance with Yusuf Mire Seeraar from the Habr Gedir-Ayr, in a sometimes uneasy political and military front, the Juba Valley Alliance (‘JVA’). However the JVA split with the rise of the Islamic courts, whose Habr Gedir credentials were enough to convince Yusuf Seeraar to switch allegiance. Barre Hirale lost Kismayo and failed to take it back militarily until the Ethiopian intervention, which he had originally opposed until the rise of the Islamic courts. He will be keen to safeguard his continuing interests in Kismayo that—ironically enough—are threatened by a TFG-imposed, and locally unpopular, administration.

Barre Hirale’s appointment as Minister of Defence is an example of both the ideal power-sharing formula of the TFG, but also the reality of clan ‘horse-trading’ that is the basis for the TFG. The inclusion of the Marehan to a key government portfolio will be interpreted by others as a loss to their clan interests, in this case for example, the other large Darod group, the Ogaden. Nevertheless, the defense portfolio is also balanced by the appointment of a deputy Defence Minister, Salad Ali Jelle. Salad Ali Jelle is Abgal—and in the past allied to the military adversaries of Barre Hirale’s former allies—now associated with the Abgal faction of Mohamed Dheere, Governor of Jowhar, and Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi.

There are various other important players in the TFG from the non-Darod Hawiye clans that dominate Mogadishu and much of south-central Somalia. For example the new Interior Minister Mahomed Sheikh Mohamoud Ga’ma Dheere is Habr Gedir—Salaban. Mahomed Sheikh replaced Hussein Aideed, who is Habr Gedir-Sa’ad, and though Hussein Aideed retained a ministerial post, his demotion will be interpreted by him and his Sa’ad clansmen as a snub. The inclusion of a Habr Gedir Saleban is designed to appease the Saleban sub-clan whom Salad Ali Jelle effectively accused of being behind the ‘insurgency’. But Hussein Aideed’s demotion may also bring a temporary closing of ranks of the Habr Gedir against the TFG. ‘Colonel’ Abdi Qeybdiid, another Habr Gedir Sa’ad warlord, has also been left out in the cold.

The Habr Gedir elders recently met in Mogadishu and effectively declared their public opposition to the TFG and their policies.12 There is particular unease concerning the influx of hundreds of militias from the President’s Puntland region into the Hawiye territory. One politician has warned of the return of clan-based armed conflict similar to the one in 1991-2. In some quarters the TFG is a nightmare scenario of a Darod revenge for the ‘cleansing’ of Darod clans from Mogadishu in 1991.

It is probably true to say that the TFG is not universally reviled across Somalia, but the majority of the Hawiye who dominate the rump of the economically and strategically important southern areas of Somalia do not recognize it—at the moment, at least—as their government. Even the partial Abgal support for the TFG is falling away. The Abgal warlord Mohamed Dheere—who gave up his Parliamentary seat for the Prime Minister—has been disenchanted by the TFG imposition of a centrally appointed administration on his Jowhar ‘fiefdom’.13

A recent visitor to Mogadishu has characterized the TFG as ‘in residence, but not in power’.14 The problem is that the TFG was never a bottom up institution, whereas what preceded them, the Islamic courts—for all their faults15—were at least formed in the seething cauldron of Mogadishu politics. Indeed the lack of Hawiye ownership of the TFG was acute before the rise of the Islamic courts. Moreover, the fact that the Islamic courts had public leadership from the two main ‘Mogadishu’ Hawiye clans, the Abgal and Habr Gedir, goes some way in explaining their widespread support among the Hawiye.

The current stalemate in Mogadishu between the TFG and Hawiye clans warns of another imminent political failure, one that risks a bloody denouement. The disenchantment of the Hawiye is growing while the TFG—beyond a little window dressing—has done little to reach out to them. For the moment the TFG is still playing the zero-sum game, attempting to turn the clock back and ignoring the reality of politics in southern Somalia, especially the hugely symbolic capital city, Mogadishu.


1 ‘Somalia: ICRC counts the cost to civilians’, IRIN, 27 February 2007; ‘Somalia: IDP camp hit in attack on presidential palace’, IRIN, 14 March 2007.

2 ‘Somalia: Premier says government facing insurgency’. Source: KBC Online text website, Nairobi, in English 13 February 07 [BBC Monitoring, AF1 AFEau 130207/is]

3 ‘Somali ex-warlords reportedly behind attacks on government troops’. Source: Somaaljecel website in Somali 22 February 07 [BBC Monitoring AF1 AFE ausaf 220207/nan]

4 ‘Somalia subclan slams deputy defence minister over Mogadishu attack claims’ Source: Somali Union of Islamic Courts website Qaadisiya.com, in Somali 13 February 07 [BBC Monitoring AF1 AFEau 13207/aa-sm]. The Defence Minister has become known in some quarters as ‘Comical Ali’, an allusion to Saddam Hussein’s spokesperson in the last days of that regime.

5 ‘Somalia: Mogadishu residents set up vigilante groups to counter insurgents’. Source: Radio HornAfrik, Mogadishu, in Somali 1600 gmt 21 February 07  [BBC Monitoring AF1 AFEau 210207/ai]

6 ‘Somali PM’s brother-in-law shot dead in Mogadishu’. Source: AFP, Garowe Online, 27 February 2007; ‘Somalia: Militia commander executed in Mogadishu’, Garowe Online, 28 February 2007.

7 ‘Somali warlords rearm amid high tension in the capital’, Source: Shabeelle Media Network website, Mogadishu, in English 22 February  07 [BBC Monitoring AF1 AFEau 220207/om]

8 See Alex de Waal’s contribution to this web-forum.

9 Virginia Luling, ‘Genealogy as Theory, Genealogy as Tool: Aspects of Somali ‘Clanship’, Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture, Vol. 12, No. 4, July 2006.

10 See the heated exchanges between I. M. Lewis and Catherine Besteman in the pages of Cultural Anthropology, especially Volume 13 (1998).

11 http://www.aayaha.com/viewpage.php?articleid=4087

12 ‘Somalia: Dominant Mogadishu Area Clan Opposes Planned Reconciliation Meeting’, Source: Somaaljecel website in Somali 5 March 07 [BBC Monitoring AF1 AFEauwaf 050307/job].

13 ‘Somali faction leader rejects new Shabeelle region administration’, Source: Radio HornAfrik, Mogadishu, in Somali 0500 gmt 25 February 07 [BBC Monitoring AF1 AFEau 250207/da/sg]

14 Personal contacts.

15 See Roland Marchal’s contribution to this web-forum.