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.

Class in Pastoral Areas

A class analysis of traditional pastoralism is notoriously difficult. But in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Somali pastoralism was completely transformed by the advent of large-scale commercial exports. In the early 1980’s, livestock exports through Berbera provided over 75% of Somalia’s recorded foreign currency income.

This involved the establishment of a very complex trading and financial system based at Berbera port, with a network of agents and brokers stretching throughout Somalia (and, after 1991, into Ethiopian territory). The export-orientation of the trade entailed very careful management of herds as they moved north towards Berbera. An important result of this was the creation of pastoral enclosures to provide feed for these herds. In many areas, most of the best pastureland is now privately owned. Another result is the extension of credit relationships throughout the Somali peninsula. The operation of finance in the pastoral sector is unusual in that the herder extends credit to the dealer, who repays when the animals are sold in Aden or Jeddah.

Overall, Somali pastoralism has been characterized by a unique but highly developed capitalist system, dominated by a handful of export traders based in Berbera and to a lesser extent Bosaso and Kismayo. In the 1980’s, these traders—especially those in Berbera—came into conflict with the Siad Barre government. But the government never succeeded in capturing the livestock trade: its commercial agents were never sufficiently well-capitalized nor efficient enough to displace the existing traders. This proved fortunate as it enabled the Berbera-based market and finance systems to re-establish themselves relatively quickly and uncontroversially after 1991.

However, the state did penetrate pastoralism. Siad Barre used state resources (drilling water wells, establishing grazing enclosures, sending in the army to impound herds) in support of his favored groups. The Hawiye of the central rangelands were particularly hard-hit because their neighbors belonged to the President’s Marehan clan. The losers in the dual processes of capitalist development and unequal state intrusion were forced to become urban laborers or rural bandits. In 1989, when General Aidid arrived in the central rangelands to begin the armed struggle of the USC, he found a de facto insurrection already in place. He had only to organize clan-based banditry into a militia to find himself in command of an insurgent army. Since the collapse of the state in 1991, following a period of conflict, many of the former inter-clan conflicts over pastoral land were stabilized relatively quickly. With no state power to intrude, a relative equilibrium returned. The herders re-established workable boundaries between their grazing lands and collaborative arrangements for access to water and markets. Conflicts have recurred but never to the devastating extent of the late 1980’s up to 1991. The chief areas of contention have been the contested borderlands in the central rangelands and the middle Jubba valley.

In the 1990’s, the leading export traders of Berbera played a key role in establishing and stabilising the Somaliland state, while those in Bosaso played a similar role in Puntland. Those in Kismayo met with only limited success, their failure related to the unresolved conflict over riverine farmland in the Jubba valley. It is likely that, in the absence of stabilized control over Kismayo port by a faction with reliable trading links up the Jubba valley, that the livestock economy of this area will remain integrated with Kenya.

Most Somali livestock is now owned or controlled by these trading networks. An increasing number of former pastoralists have found that their way of life is no longer economically viable. Some become paid herders, others are active in the urban informal sector, others are militiamen. Many of their dependents live in refugee camps.

Those in the middle have turned to the fast-growing agro-pastoral sector. The spread of cultivation across many formerly pastoral areas, especially in Somaliland and the central rangelands, is a far-reaching socio-economic development whose implications will be seen in the coming decades. Alongside the farming regions of Bay and Bakool, this may see the emergence of a demographically dominant agrarian class in rural Somalia, characterized by poverty and poor political representation. If unhindered and unregulated capitalist pastoralism continues to develop, then it is inevitable that major problems will arise in the agro-pastoral areas. The spark for these conflicts will probably be land, as land tenure systems in these areas are poorly-developed. They are prone to land-grabbing by the mercantile class and disputes between herders and agro-pastoralists. Meanwhile, the growth of agro-pastoralism also has environmental implications that need to be studied, as many areas are unsuitable for cultivation or year-round grazing. In these marginal areas, agro-pastoralism is a step towards deepening poverty.

The Remittance Sector

Somalia has been a major exporter of labour since the 1970’s. By the 1980’s, analyses of the survival of the Somali economy, and its perplexing prosperity in certain sectors, concluded that a huge unrecorded inflow of remittances was a key, if unrecognized, economic factor. Foreign exchange was in fact plentiful in urban Somalia, and those with access to it were able to survive lean times and even invest in housing and consumer goods. The breakdown of the formal financial service sector, already well under way in the 1980’s, was completed by 1991. Thereafter, private sector international brokers established an extremely effective and efficient money transfer system so that Somalis working in East Africa, the Gulf, Europe, America and elsewhere can wire money back home. By 2001, the leading Somali finance houses were multi-million dollar operations, diversified into telecommunications, trade and light industry. The hasty U.S. decision to freeze the operations of the largest of them, Al-Barakaat, on unproven accusations of being a conduit for al Qa’ida funds, damaged but did not destroy this thriving business.

In the absence of state regulations for financial institutions, the remittance system relies on reputation and trust. The clan system is the foundation for this, because it means that every individual can be located and guaranteed. A second mechanism for trust is Islam, specifically membership of Islamist organisations, which has the advantages of crossing clan lines and being readily understood and widely utilised in the Arab world. An Islamist affiliation unlocks access to considerable Islamist financial resources, which are typically dispensed through private philanthropic channels with modest accountability.

The finance mobilized through the remittance sector has become the basis for investment in other sectors including telecommunications, media, transport, building and sundry other activities. Because of its vibrancy and centrality to the urban economy, and also because of its links to Islamist resources, the financial services sector has also helped to support a range of social services including schools and health centres, many of them with an Islamist color.

The flow of remittances has not been controlled by any major political or clan affiliation. The minority clans have been, as usual, disadvantaged, while the Bantu have received nothing. More significant has been the way in which remittances have established thriving urban enclave economies and brought political power to the major businessmen operating in these sectors.

In the absence of a state that can both regulate and provide protection to the financial sector, the leaders of the remittance/financial services sector have needed to position themselves carefully with respect to the political alignments and realignments that characterize Somali politics and its relationship with the Arab world. This positioning was successful until the abrupt sanctioning of Al Barakaat by the U.S. Administration in the wake of September 11. Thereafter, financiers have been anxious to demonstrate their probity and transparency, setting up the Somali Financial Services Association. To date, the owners of finance houses, though extremely wealthy and influential, have not been in a position to make (or unmake) political power in Somalia and Somaliland.

While most remittance money is sent for private use, the diaspora is also an important source of financing for political factions. In many instances, clan politics is often more heightened and divisive among the Somali diaspora than at home. For example, this has been the case in London, where aspiring factional leaders find it easy to raise money on the basis of dubious claims about clan politics at home. There are cases in which diaspora money helps to fuel conflicts that might otherwise be settled. Many of Somalia’s radical Islamists have also been politicized in the diaspora, in mosques in London or the Middle East, and have imported various strands of salafism and jihadism to Somalia from these global centers of political Islam.

Class and the State

In the 1980’s, one fraction of the emergent mercantile class had access to state power. It tried to break the hold of its major competitor (the Isaak livestock merchants) but failed. Nonetheless, its control over the instruments of state power enabled it to acquire enormous wealth and control over large areas of agricultural and pastoral land. This strategy of seizure was economic madness that directly attacked the productive sectors of the economy. The state’s dependence on foreign aid and military coercion proved unsustainable and it collapsed.
This experience is of more than historical importance, for several reasons:
  • Many of today’s conflicts are a legacy of the land-grabbing and asset acquisition of the former period. Resolving these will require much legal archeology into the provenance and status of land titles.
  • Urban real estate, especially in Mogadishu, was dispensed under the Siad Barre regime. Even more than riverine land, disputes over urban land ownership will be a central bone of contention and potential source of violent conflict under a future government. The “landowner” class, most of which was driven from the city in 1991 and absent ever since, still possesses title to large parts of the city where their residences and businesses are occupied by others.
  • Financial capabilities acquired under the state regime remain important in the viability of the present contending factions.
  • The contesting political elites anticipate that they will be able to use state power in the way that their predecessors in the 1980’s did. Hence the struggle for state power is sharpened: there is more to gain and more to lose than merely office holding.
  • The hinterland for the Berbera- and Bosaso-based livestock export trade stretches throughout the Somali peninsular. Any Mogadishu-based government is going to support its own mercantile class to compete, commercially and perhaps militarily, for control of this trade.
This analysis has clear implications for the type of state structures that should be established in a future Somali government.

Across Africa, governing elites are commonly neo-patrimonial, that is, they combine reliance on a rational-legal bureaucracy with utilisation of patrimonial systems for exercising power. Usually, there must be a semblance of balance between the two, or the state will collapse into primary accumulation by violence, namely warlordism, which is unsustainable. Patrimonialism does not generate resources but only consumes them, and hence the system is parasitic on either the productive sectors of the economy, or rents extracted from the international community.

In the case of Somalia, the accumulation strategy of the elite in power in the 1980’s was rent-seeking taken to an extreme. Somalia was Africa’s largest per capita recipient of international aid in Africa (with the exception of micro-states such as Gambia). These huge inflows of aid money, especially from the U.S., made it possible for the Siad Barre government to establish a patrimonial system wholly disproportionate to the productive economy. Indeed, it was the aid flows that made possible the strategy of assaulting the productive sectors such as agriculture and livestock.

The immediate consequence of the collapse of the state in the late 1980’s was that the locus of primary accumulation shifted from the exploitation of sovereign rents (aid, debt, printing banknotes and taxes) to violent asset stripping (looting). There was a brief frenzy in which anything moveable of monetary value was seized and exported. Thereafter, some provincial authorities came to an accommodation with the productive sector (Somaliland, Puntland), while others failed to do so, or did so only intermittently or incompletely (Mogadishu).
Each attempt to create a new government since 1991 has been a repeat exercise in trying to set up a new neo-patrimonial structure. Rent-seeking, chasing diminishing rents, has proved a more powerful political force than the longer-term prospect of building up a political economy based predominantly on productive activities.

There are three theoretical solutions to this conundrum: 
  • One is consensus among all groups. This has never been achieved, because conflict over the imaginary resources of a restored state has been sufficient to disable the establishment of an effective state. The consistent pattern has been that any force or coalition of forces that came close to assuming state power conjured up an equal and opposite array of forces that succeeded in preventing this from happening. The motivation of the opposing forces was not that they opposed the re-establishment of a patrimonial, rent-seeking state, but that they feared not being fully part of it. In a winner-takes-all system, there are no benefits at all to being in opposition.
  • The second solution is the political dominance of a commercial class with its economic base in the productive sector and no expectation of foreign patronage. This occurred in Somaliland in 1992-3, when the Berbera livestock traders feared the complete collapse of their business because of militia conflict, and were sufficiently cohesive to work together with the clan elders of the Isaak to put a stop to the fighting. The Republic of Somaliland began as a commercial agreement and later established a functioning government.

    In the same vein, the Union of Islamic Courts was, in part, a mode of governance imposed on militia leaders by the Mogadishu business class. Clan identity and opposition to the TFG, which had excluded the most significant Hawiye leaders, facilitated this coalition. The UIC and its business backers did not anticipate obtaining foreign aid: theirs was a true political compact based on local interest. The UIC did not exist for long enough for the relationship between the mercantile class and the Islamic courts’ militia to become fully stabilized. But this was the first effective exercise in southern Somalia of organizing the business sector into a political force capable of gaining control over state structures. The entry of the TFG into Mogadishu spells an end to this experiment.

  • The third option is a Leviathan: a political leader that commands sufficient military force to be able to impose a solution. This is now being attempted by the Transitional Federal Government with the Ethiopian army as its guarantor.
The Transitional Federal Government, set up after protracted negotiations in Nairobi, began as the latest of fourteen attempts at the same formula of achieving consensus among the different factions. It differed from its predecessor in that it has the backing of Ethiopia and, for the first time since 1990, has a Darood as head of state. But its economic basis is exactly the same as before: another exercise in rent-seeking patrimonialism. The viability of the TFG is premised on international assistance (it is funded by the European Union and will doubtless get aid from the U.S. as well) and coercion (notably the Ethiopian army), rather than a mutually-beneficial relationship between the state and the productive sectors. Businessmen from the livestock, farming and financial services sectors were influential in the process of forming the government. But they were unable to envision a model of government that would serve these sectors rather than be parasitic upon them—anticipating major inflows of aid and sovereign rents.

While Somali leaders such as the TFG President, General Abdullahi Yousif had long dreamed of being able to rule the country through a monopoly on the use of force, none had been able to do so. The opportunity to move beyond an agreement among the factions, to a government imposed by force of arms, was provided by the confrontation between the UIC and Ethiopia, leading to the military intervention of Ethiopia with the backing of the U.S. It is unlikely to succeed.

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.

The Role of Political Islam

The main surprise about political Islam in Somalia is not that it has emerged as a force, but that it took so long to do so, and has been hostage to other political formations—specifically the interests of certain urban groups and, after the formation of the TFG, the Hawiye clans. Despite the concerted efforts of local, diaspora and foreign Islamists, no significant Islamist constituency has developed in the country.2

In the 1990’s, political Islamic groups such Al Ittihad were unable to challenge the dominant clan factions for control of Somali political affairs. But they carved out a significant niche, using a combination of international connections and finance, and appeal to certain local constituencies. International connectedness has been key to political Islam in Somalia. It has facilitated the operation of financial services and has enabled access to Islamic philanthropic resources. This has meant that Islamists have some influence within all major factions.

In contemporary southern Somalia, organizing a party requires organizing a militia. This was the Islamists’ major challenge. Meeting it required either obtaining a clan base, co-opting a breakaway faction of an existing clan militia, or setting up an entirely new militia. In the early and mid-1990’s, Al Ittihad tried the third variant: setting up its own forces. It enjoyed financial strength and external technical assistance. However, it was never able to compete with the principal clan factions for control of a major town. After failures in Bosaso and Merca, it was left in the marginal area of Gedo (upper Jubba valley). Here, Al Ittihad was able to gain a following among the indigenous minorities of the area, especially the Gabwing, who were dispossessed of their land by the Marehan in the 1980’s and not protected by the USC in the 1990’s. Building on the tradition of city-states ruled by Islamic law (Bardhere was one in the 19th century), Al Ittihad set up a non-clan based administration in Luuq that treated the Gabwing and other minorities fairly. In particular, it allowed them access to land; however, the Gabwing were not incorporated into Al Ittihad leadership structures for their coalition to be anything other than an opportunistic alliance. From the Islamists’ point of view, a small minority group like the Gabwing did not form a sufficiently powerful or cohesive constituency to provide a foundation for a wider political strategy.

Al Ittihad depended on external supply for its forces, including links to al Qa’ida. This made it hostage to a wider agenda of confronting Ethiopia. In 1996, this strategy backfired when the Ethiopian army decisively intervened and overran its headquarters at Luuq, killing 23 foreign militants. Thereafter, the jihadist presence was reduced to one rumored training camp at Ras Komboni in the southern tip of Somalia and less than a handful of individual militants with no significant support. The Islamists instead focused on non-military strategies. The 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrean war provided an opportunity for reviving external military linkages, as Eritrea provided weaponry to those ready to support guerrilla activities in Ethiopia. However, the Ethiopians again showed themselves ready to intervene militarily in Somalia against any group that represented a potential threat.

The political logic of southern Somalia was sharpened but not fundamentally changed since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent U.S. “war on terror.” The U.S.’s first action was its most effective: it published a list of names of individuals supposed to be linked to al Qa’ida. Because Somali politics depends so heavily on business, and all Somali businesses are engaged in import-export activities and international financial transactions, blacklisting individuals is an extremely effective way of rendering them business risks and reducing their political capabilities. This also demonstrates the fallacy of comparing Somalia—globalized and transparent—with Afghanistan under the Taleban, isolated and totally opaque.

Subsequently, the Islamists emerged as a powerful force in Mogadishu for the following reasons:
  • Islamic organizations targeted the unmet needs of urban society, notably in providing schools. 
  • Islamists were able to organise significant support among the political marginal urban class of Merca and Brava. This group, the historic core of the coastal trading centres, was relatively wealthy though not a major beneficiary of the state largesse of the 1980s. Not militarily mobilized, they suffered heavily during the war.
  • The business class of Mogadishu found the Islamists a useful mechanism for providing law and order, through Islamic courts, which in turn provided an opportunity for the Islamists’ re-entry into military politics, through court militia.
  • The exclusion of most reputable Hawiye leaders from the TFG drove Mogadishu leaders towards the Union of Islamic Courts as a credible alternative. The violence unleashed by rival militia leaders backed as “anti-terrorist” groups by the U.S. further drove urban residents to support the UIC. This then provided the UIC with a clan base and hence a militia.
  • Eritrea, following its policy of opportunistically supporting any non-state actor ready to confront or undermine Ethiopia, supported the UIC with arms.
Thus, while the UIC began to forge the first political contract in southern Somalia that was not premised on aid resources and sovereign rents, it did not address, let alone resolve, the fundamental problems at the root of the conflict. Excluding the Darood and hence the entire class of real estate and business interests that had dominated the state in the 1980’s, and thus most of Mogadishu, it was setting itself up for inevitable conflict with that fraction of the business class and its clan militia. Caught up in the regional Ethio-Eritrean conflict as well as playing host to a small number of jihadists, it was certain to attract military attention from outside Somalia. Facing Ethiopian forces, the UIC played the nationalist card and gained some sympathy as a result, but it did not command sufficient inter-clan consensus for this to translate into national mobilization.

In summary, the progress of political Islam in southern Somalia arises from two long-term unmet needs: social service provision and law and order (especially for the commercial sector). The Islamists have been able to move beyond these micro-level successes only by latching onto other economic and clan agendas. During 2006, the Islamists made rapid progress by making common cause with the collective clan interests of the Hawiye, but the clans can abandon the UIC just as easily as they embraced it.


The above analysis attempts to construct an analytical framework for understanding Somalia today. It puts into perspective some of the otherwise-puzzling elements of the Somali crisis and points to some potential measures for creating peace and reconstituting government.

Most diplomatic and political initiatives to establish a Somali government frame their concern with reference to the lack of central authority that has existed since January 1991. The problem is, however, at least a decade older than that. The nature of the Somali state in the 1980’s, and specifically the manner in which it controlled ownership of productive resources and markets, and used its power to selectively enrich certain fractions of the mercantile class, is both a historical reality of enduring significance, and also a major determinant of the nature of the ongoing conflict today. If the end result of the process of establishing the TFG and imposing its control on Mogadishu is simply to re-create that same kind of mis-government, Somalia will remain in conflict.
We can locate the stabilization of Somaliland and Puntland in the provincial dominance of certain fractions of the mercantile class, which have succeeded in establishing control over state-like institutions. This has been made possible by the absence of major property disputes rooted in earlier state patronage of specific fractions of the business class. In the Jubba and Shebelle valleys, and hence Kismayo, the resolution of land ownership questions is the prerequisite for stabilization. In Mogadishu, competition between fractions of the mercantile classes is sharpest of all, because of the level of investment in real estate during the former regime, and the anticipation of the rewards accruing to the future capture of state power. Imaginary resources, in the form of sovereign rents and aid flows, lie at the heart of the impasse. The UIC represented a step towards resolving this problem, but insofar as it had an almost exclusively Hawiye political base—excluding the Darood “landowner” class, its solution had inherent limitations. The TFG has precisely the complementary limitations: it must deal with economic realities that have emerged during the last sixteen years and not simply dismiss the assets acquired by the newly-emergent fractions of the mercantile class as illegal. Lasting legitimacy will come not from international recognition, donor funds and military power, but from radically restructuring the relations between the state and the productive and commercial sectors.

The policy implication of this analysis is that the current strategy to address the Somali problem—namely establishing a national government as a prelude to addressing the issues of resource ownership—will only lead to another round of conflict, over both real resources (farmland and real estate) and sovereign rents. International recognition, including financial and military assistance to the government, is part of the problem. The donor reflex of pouring in funds to support the TFG and its institutions runs a serious risk that it will sharpen the conflict and create a new round of instability. Only if the TFG addresses the economic basis of conflict and stabilization will it be able to overcome the structural problems that have prevented Somalia from achieving peace for thirty years. 


1 This discussion draws upon, inter alia, Catherine Besteman and Lee Cassanelli (eds.), The Struggle for Land in Southern Somalia: The war behind the war, Westview, 1996; Garth Massey, Subsistence and Change: Lessons of Agro-Pastoralism in Somalia, Boulder, Westview, 1987;
Alex de Waal, Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa, James Currey, 1997, chapter 8; Roy Behnke, “Range Enclosure in Central Somalia,” ODI Pastoral Development Network Paper 25b, March 1988; Ahmed Mohamed Abdullahi, “Pastoral Production Systems in Africa: A study of nomadic household economy and livestock marketing in central Somalia,” Wissenschaftsverlag Vauk Kiel, 1990; Peter Little, Somalia: Economy without a state, Oxford, James Currey, 2003; Vali Jamal, “Somalia: Understanding an Unconventional Economy,” Development and Change, 19, 1988, and the author’s field notes from Somalia, 1988, 1993 and 1994.

2 This discussions draws upon, inter alia, Roland Marchal, “Survey of Mogadishu’s Economy,” European Union, 2002; Tatiana Nenova, “Private Sector Response to the Absence of Government Institutions in Somalia,” World Bank, 2004; International Crisis Group reports 2004-06.