Class and Power in a Stateless Somalia
Published on: Feb 20, 2007


This essay develops an analysis of the Somali conflict that stands apart from the generally accepted wisdom that the country has fractured along clan lines, because of the inherent incapacity of the clan system of politics to provide the basis for a modern state. There is a contrary argument to be made that, even in a country without a functioning government and formal economy, control over productive resources and the means of trade are the core to the political economy.

The argument rests upon an analysis of the resource base of the Somali political economy. As such, it is specifically concerned with riverine agricultural land, pastureland, remittances from overseas workers and the resources that can be captured and dispensed by a sovereign state, including foreign aid and currency (“sovereign rents”). It argues that the description of the Somali civil war as a war between clans obscures the very important ways in which control of resources lies at the heart of the conflict. We must develop a class analysis of the origins and development of the crisis, locating it in the growth of state-mediated capitalist relations in both agriculture and pastoralism, and the key role that control of the state apparatus played in allowing capital accumulation among certain sections of the mercantile class in the 1980’s.

The legacy of disputed ownership of real estate and agricultural land is one key element in the enduring crisis. The expectation that a future government will be able to bestow the same benefits on its favored businessmen is a key element in sharpening the ongoing struggle in southern Somalia. Meanwhile the stabilization in Somaliland and the north-east (Puntland) reflects the success of certain fractions of the merchant class in gaining control of state or state-like institutions in those areas. This is related to the fact that the dominant mode of production in these regions is pastoralism and the livestock export trade, rather than agriculture and state-focused rent-seeking. The remittance sector has become vibrant and vital across the whole country, and has become the backbone of a growing financial services sector. The social requirements of sustaining this sector also have significant political implications.

The importance of clan lies primarily in the fact that clan identity is the locus for physical security and military mobilization. Based on long-standing realities of Somali social structure, this was sharpened by the political strategies adopted by Siad Barre and his opponents, and is an enduring reality. However, the clan system in contemporary Somalia should be seen primarily as a means of organizing political and economic life that is driven by other interests, rather than the determining factor for Somalia’s political economy.

During the 1990’s, the strength of political Islam in the country lay in its ability to address the needs of certain groups that have been marginalized by both resource conflicts and clan militarism, and to deliver practical solutions to social needs. Political Islam also performed two important functions for the merchant class. First, it connected them to Gulf-based sources of finance and philanthropy. Second, it provided them with a ready-made basis for administrative and commercial law which could assist in enforcing contracts and stabilizing the mercantile environment. When Islamists could latch onto a clan agenda, as they did during 2006 in Mogadishu, they demonstrated the potential to emerge as a powerful political force.

For the last sixteen years, mediators have tried to achieve a power-sharing agreement in Somalia, as a prelude to setting up a national government, which would in turn address the basic economic and social questions facing the country. All these attempts had failed. The current exercise in giving the Transitional Federal Government sufficient military force to impose its will (through the offices of an external Leviathan, Ethiopia) is not intrinsically different. It is putting clan-based politics first, and economics second. It is unlikely to succeed. The implication of this analysis is that it is necessary to attend to the economics of conflict and state viability in designing a structure for governance.

Class in Somalia

Somalia has a very complicated class structure. This essay will summarize some of the main elements.1  A key point underpinning the analysis is that we must go back to the 1970’s and, especially, the 1980’s to understand how certain groups came to acquire control over most of the country’s productive resources, how that process of asset transfer and market control was driven by the state, and how these processes generated conflicts. Not only are the conflicts that arose from the state-linked capitalist transformations of the productive sector still unresolved, but most Somali leaders anticipate that a future government will continue those processes of state-directed accumulation that were interrupted in 1991.

Class in Agrarian Areas

The class structure in the riverine areas of southern Somalia (the irrigable lands along the banks of the Jubba and Shebelle rivers) can be described in the following simplified terms:

  • The “farmers.” These are the members of minority groups (Digil and Rahanweyn, Shebelle, Gabwing/Gabaweyn and various Bantu groups, the latter now much depleted) who inhabited these areas a century ago and used simple cultivation techniques. In many rainfed areas and some riverine locations, these farmers still own land and have set up good irrigation systems. Along the rivers, most of them are now reduced to an agricultural proletariat owning little or no land themselves.
  • The “landowners.” During the later colonial period, the 1960’s, and above all the 1980’s, there was systematic land-grabbing to create banana plantations and other irrigated farms. The biggest land-grab was in the 1980’s when those closely associated with the Siad Barre regime were able to acquire vast areas of irrigable land. Sometimes the land was not even farmed but the land title was just used as collateral for obtaining loans from aid donors, which was then used for trade or consumption. Many of the “farmers” were forced off their land at gunpoint and ended up as an agricultural proletariat. Since 1991, the “landowners” have been represented by Darood factions and the north Mogadishu Hawiye.
  • The “liberators.” The United Somali Congress (USC) of General Mohamed Farah Aidid overran most of the riverine areas in 1991-2 presenting themselves as “liberators.” But their aim was simply to replace the “landowners” and not to return the land to the original farmers. They and their successor factions stayed in possession of the Shebelle valley but were pushed out of the Jubba valley by the combined forces of factions representing the “landowners” and newly-emerged Darood militia. Because the “farmers” had initially and mistakenly welcomed the USC as genuine liberators, these factions revenged themselves with a new round of brutality and land-grabbing at the expense of the minority groups.
Much of the recurrent conflict in the Jubba and Shebelle valleys over the last sixteen years has been between the “landowners” and the “liberators”. The “landowners” anticipate that the restoration of a government will allow them to return to “their” land when they produce their land titles. The “liberators” fear this. Neither of these fractions of the bourgeois class has any intention of returning the land to the dispossessed “farmers.” Each area has its particular complications and cross-class and cross-clan alliances, arising precisely because of the resource-based nature of the conflict. But the general pattern of dispute is remarkably constant, driven by class interest, compounded by tactical and geographical considerations because of the location of much of the riverine area between Mogadishu, Baidoa and Kismayo, and the fact that the Darood clans’ natural route of advance on the capital lies through the country’s richest farmland.

Processes of class formation are much less well advanced in the rainfed agricultural areas of Bay and Bakool, where a more familiar peasant-type political economy prevails. Bay Region suffered severe famine in 1992 because it happened to lie on the frontline between contending factions, and because the Rahanweyn people were marginalised under the former regime, and thus less well-armed than their neighbours. Intermittently, Bay Region has been once again the frontline in strategic military struggles for power, especially after the formation of the Rahanweyn Resistance Army (RRA). This is simply because of its location, not its resources: it is on the road from the Ethiopian border to Mogadishu, and thus became the most secure location for the TFG to set up its headquarters. Within these regions, there have been relatively few internal conflicts. This can be attributed to the relative absence of land disputes, which in turn is related to the absence of a state-mediated capitalist landowning class. The Rahanweyn distrust both the “landowner” and “liberator” factions, but fear the latter more.