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

Clan, Conflict and Class

It is the interaction of clan, class and the nature of state power that has made the Somali conflict so intractable in the south, while making it possible to reach solutions in Somaliland and Puntland.

Clan Ideology

Somalia is normally described as a “clan society” and the classic anthropological texts (echoed in state propaganda from Independence to 1991) have ascribed an almost fatalistic clan identification to Somalis. The Samaale clans (Darood, Dir, Hawiye and Isaak) are seen as the “pure” or “ideal” Somalis, the Sab (Rahanweyn and Digil) along with the Cushitic peoples (Shebele and Gabwing) are a deviation. This is nothing more than the ideological construct of a ruling group, supported by colonial social engineering, and reinforced by successive post-colonial governments. Historical research reveals a much more complex picture, in which the Samaale are in fact one branch of a common Cushitic tree, that came through historical circumstance to exercise military domination over the others.

The Militarization of Clan

In colonial and post-colonial times, clan had a primarily social significance. It is only with the creation of a police state in the 1980’s that it clan militarism became important. This was because of three factors:

  • The “divide and rule” strategy adopted by former President Siad Barre, which intensified during the decade and reached its peak in 1990-1;
  • The destruction of civic organisations such as trade unions, which left clan as the only indelible marker for social organisation and inter-personal confidence;
  • The clan-based mobilisation strategy adopted by the Somali National Movement following the loss of nearly half its forces in the 1988 battles. Until 1988, the SNM was a multi-clan army; thereafter it was a federation of clan militias, and its non-Isaak members and recruits were mostly encouraged to create or join other movements (notably the USC).
Because of the clan-based system of patronage and reward established by Siad Barre, clan identity had certain class characteristics in the late 1980’s and early ‘90’s. For example, the USC of Aidid included many marginalized herders from the central rangelands, while the USC faction led by Ali Mahdi was more urban. The Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM) sprang from Ogaden clan members of the officer class in the armed forces. However, the large clan-based coalitions that existed in 1991 were inherently unstable. They existed primarily to try to seize state power. They fought each other in the months after the collapse of the Siad Barre government. When this failed, the locus of conflict shifted to major strategic resources such as cities and ports. With the shift in locus of conflict came a fragmentation of the clan alliances. Thus the major battles of late 1991 and early 1992 were intra-USC and intra-SPM. As these conflicts too remained unresolved, further fragmentation set in. Alongside the fragmentation came realignment, with fractions of each clan alliance allying with fractions of the other, and two main parallel inter-clan forces emerging.

This process was interrupted by the U.S.-UN military intervention, which sharpened the political conflict (and later the military one) by introducing high expectations of statehood once again. The imaginary resources to be unlocked by possessing state power, which had been diminishing during the two years of statelessness, suddenly became inflated, and thus worth fighting over. The UN also tried to freeze the political process whereby the clan-based factions had been fragmenting, by awarding representation to these existing factions. The rationale was to stabilize the political process, but the effect was to preserve inherently unstable fractions. With a seat at the UN conference table came resources. Political organisations have therefore formed around very weak socio-economic bases, as vehicles to compete for external recognition and the resources that accompany it.

Fragmentation and a New Order in Somaliland

In the case of Somaliland, this impasse was broken because of a combination of circumstances, including:

  • Near-total fragmentation of the clan fractions;
  • The ability to resolve resource disputes;
  • Dominant position of a single class (livestock traders) within a single clan family (Isaak);
  • Creation of a new state based on a single region;
  • Lowered expectations of the resources that statehood would bring (because the state knew it would not be recognised immediately and could not thereby extract sovereign rents from the international community).
In Somaliland, the process of fragmentation was more rapid and more complete than in southern Somalia. By late 1992, conflict was over local resources between very local fragments of clans. These conflicts could be resolved and a regional order re-established, culminating in the Boroma Conference and the establishment of a national Somaliland government. Key to the establishment of a functional order was cooperation between the Berbera-based livestock traders, who were terrified by the commercially disastrous implications of the fighting in Berbera in mid-1992.

But as that governmental order gained power, legitimacy and resources, it re-ignited conflict. The spark for renewed civil war in 1994 was the issuance of the new Somaliland currency, which promised to give the Somaliland government, for the first time, real resources to dispense. This conflict was ultimately resolved in favor of stability. The imaginary rents on offer from the anti-Somaliland forces could not compete with the real incomes deriving from the livestock and remittance economies.

This stability in turn reflected the ability of a class of capitalists (primarily livestock traders) to exert influence over the state structures, largely capturing the emergent state, and creating hegemonic control over regional resources. The Republic of Somaliland may be described as a profit-sharing agreement among the dominant livestock traders, with a constitution appended. There are few major property disputes outstanding in Somaliland: Hargeisa was never the national capital and therefore did not attract businessmen from across the country to invest. A land-grab is however in process, as entrepreneurs enclose pastoral land for grass production. The deregulation of land tenure leaves poor herders and agro-pastoralists with little livelihood security. The land-grab is generating social tensions as it intensifies stratification but is unlikely to contribute to armed conflict. Market access to the Somali-inhabited regions of Ethiopia for the livestock trade has been important to this stabilization.

The Somaliland government has been able to provide physical security and an enabling environment for the return of relative prosperity. It has been able to hand over power seamlessly on the death of President Egal, and subsequently stage multi-party elections that have been acclaimed for their order and fairness, with the loser backing down gracefully despite the extraordinary closeness of the pill. This is a testament to the socio-political resilience of a political system based on a productive economy, rather than rent, and to the ability of the social fabric to recover in these circumstances. However there remain unresolved issues of access to resources, notably pastoral land tenure, and disputes with neighboring Puntland, that could be the basis for future problems.

The Impasse in Southern Somalia

Clan politics is inherently a zero-sum game. While all will gain if there is a stable and representative government in Somalia, all military factions fear that they will lose heavily if state control goes to a rival faction. Therefore, in a version of the prisoner’s dilemma, any one clan-faction always has an interest in opting out of any proposed agreement. Until there is a government built on civic principles and the productive base of the economy rather just than a clan-faction agreement, external pressure will be needed for the minimal consensus needed for a government.
Meanwhile, commerce progresses. Somali businessmen have proven themselves capable of continuing successful commerce without a state or regulatory authority.  Moreover, in commercial districts such as Mogadishu’s Bokara market, merchants of different clans are ready to collaborate in providing joint security.

In the wider context, however, this has not enabled the consolidation of a dominant class that can stabilize the state. Two reasons may be surmised, both of which are to do with the role played by the state in capital accumulation: 
  • The interests of the mercantile class remain divided. In particular, the issue of real estate ownership in Mogadishu is unresolved. Until 1991, as the national capital, Mogadishu attracted investment from all sections of the bourgeoisie, particularly those with state patronage. Many businessmen associated with the “liberators” are in possession of property claimed by others (mainly Darood bourgeoisie associated with the former regime). A second parallel issue is expropriated farmland. For those contesting ownership, this is a zero-sum game.

    This is the legacy of the patronage power of the former state. Up to now, the factions and mediators have assumed that the question of real estate will be resolved after the state is re-assembled. Arguably, the order should be reversed: this question should be settled first. Various options spring to mind including an independent commission to assess property rights and claims, compensation payments, etc. None will be easy. But at least the question of property rights should be depoliticised.

  • The dominance of a future state is contested by clan-based military factions. The faction that wins will—it is assumed—acquire enormous powers of patronage to enable its favored businessmen to prosper. As a result, the businessmen have to secure their future position by aligning themselves with a clan-faction.

    This problem is the expectation of the patronage powers of a future state. In reality, it is very unlikely that any future central government will have the same power to dispense resources as the Siad Barre government enjoyed. It is no longer the Cold War and far-reaching governmental intrusion into the national economy has gone out of fashion. But this needs to be made clear to the factions. Arguably, the future economic dispensation in Somalia—control of the monetary authority, mechanisms for contracting, land tenure system—should be established before any political settlement is agreed. This will take some of the heat out of the current political competition.

Resolving these two basic issues of political economy is fundamental to the possible re-stabilization of the state in southern Somalia. This has gained added urgency with the possibility of a new central authority controlling Mogadishu that includes powerful representation of Darood interest groups that have been out of power and out of the city since 1991.

In Kismayo and the Jubba valley, the situation is complex, combining some characteristics of the “northern” pastoral model of stability based on the livestock trade, with elements of the “southern” pattern of zero-sum calculations and political instability. We might expect that the regional hegemony of a particular fraction of the mercantile class, dominant in the livestock trade, would enable the situation in Kismayo to be stabilized. However, divisions between different groups of landowner capitalists exist, based on some of the most acrimonious land disputes in Somalia. Military politics in Kismayo is also linked to Mogadishu and the prospects (or lack thereof) for a settlement at the center. These divisions are likely to ensure that the conflict in Kismayo and its hinterland cannot be resolved for the foreseeable future. One likely result of this is that herders and livestock traders in the Jubba valley will continue to orient their trade towards Kenya, bypassing Kismayo.