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May 14, 2021


The Somali people are witty, hard-working and family orientated.  So why is Somalia so divided?

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Understanding Somalia, Kenya’s Neighbour

Understanding Somalia, Kenya’s Neighbour

Kenya’s restive northern neighbour has more than its fair share of challenges – but this should not be the case. It has the longest coastline on mainland Africa, it sits at a strategic point on global shipping lanes and it seems to have abundant natural resources (if it is ever stable enough for prospectors to go and confirm this).

The Somali people are witty, hard-working and family orientated. They all follow the Sunni form of Islam and speak Somali, along with a few localised dialects. So why is Somalia so divided?

‘The C Word’

The primary reason is what is known as ‘the C word’: Clan.

While Somalis are unified by language and the form of Islam they practise, clan identity is the main element of a Somali’s identity – unless there are non-Somalis present, in which case the Somalis unite under a strong nationalist sentiment. In other circumstances, clan provides both the glue that held the country together through a quarter century of chaos, but also many of Somalia’s current fracture points.

There are four major clans. Size ranked, they are: the Hawiye, who predominate in Mogadishu and the central area; the Darod, who are split between northerly Puntland and southerly Jubbaland; the Issaq or Dir, who predominate in Somaliland; and the Rahanweyn or Digil Mirifle,who predominate in Southwest State, which stretches from Baidoa on the Ethiopian border to the coastal area between Mogadishu and Kismayo.

There are also a myriad minor clans as well as pockets of some clans in the heartlands of others. From a low level dispute over access to water or gazing rights between two rural farmers to a national election, everything in Somalia rapidly takes on a clan aspect since the clan elders offer a parallel government, a traditional justice system and an identity. Clans fight regularly: sub-clans of the major clans fight other sub-clans; and sub-sub-clans fight sub-sub-clans, forming an endless cycle of violent feuding.

‘The 4.5 System’

Unhelpfully, the clan is enshrined in ‘the 4.5 system’ which enforces the distribution of government and security forces posts along clan lines: what this means in practice is that if the President is a Hawiye, then the Prime Minister must be Darod and so on. All the way down through the layers of government.

Many Somalis, especially the educated urban elite and the Diaspora returners, see clan and the 4.5 system as being at the heart of Somalia’s problems. Rural populations and, more broadly, those who stayed behind through the years of chaos, see clan as being the one thing that kept Somalia together, albeit at a non-state level.

Somalia’s Neighbours

Another suggested reason for Somalia’s problems is its relationship with its regional neighbours and the wider international community.

The five points of the star on the Somali flag represent the dispersal of the population: Djibouti, Somaliland (former British protectorate), the Ogaden region in Ethiopia, the North Eastern Province in Kenya, and Southern Somalia.

Some Somalis say there should be a sixth point to represent the broader dispersal of the Somali, basically to everywhere around the world. There are Somali enclaves scattered across Africa, the Gulf, Europe, North America, Pakistan and even in China.

However, relations with neighbours and host countries further afield can be difficult. Somalis are a warlike people: Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya all have troops serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia, as much for their own protection as for the sake of Somalia.

In the 1990s many Somalis abroad did not initially integrate because they thought the civil war was short term, so there was no reason to learn local languages and so on.

‘A Natural Disrespect for Authority’

Somalis also have a natural and disrespect for authority (somewhat understandable given their recent history) which can manifest itself tax avoidance and criminal activities.

The macho culture of the Somali male often draws them towards gang culture. These inevitably attract the attention of the police in those host countries and often spark resentment amongst the host communities.

But there is another side to the Somali abroad.

Most reject criminality and pursue higher education, especially young Somali women. Many make a significant effort to integrate and find themselves government posts or set up thriving businesses. At the same time, Somalis abroad remain avowedly Somali: they live in close familial and clan blocks; they remain fully aware of their language and culture; and they maintain active links with the homeland, both through social media (some say they have dual nationality, Somalia and Facebook) and through funds transfers to relatives back in Somalia. Somalis in Kenya typify these complexities.


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