Somalia's Silent Sufferers

3 January 1993
Africa News Service (Durham)

The Digil and the Rahanwayn Somali clans comprise roughly 30% to 35% of the Somali population and are two of the six major clan families. These two groups are socio-culturally and linguistically different from the other four groups. Their mode of production revolves around agro-pastoralism, a mixture of nomadism and dry-land farming. Geographically, they occupy the land south of the Shabeelle River. They speak the May language, a version of Somali that is as different from the Maxatire spoken in the rest of the country as Portuguese is from Spanish. Economically, their area represents the breadbasket of Somalia and once had the highest rural per capita income in the country.

Despite these strengths, the Digil and the Rahanwayn have been politically and culturally subordinated over the past 30 to 40 years, and their language has been suppressed. Although the international community has been given the impression that Somalia is virtually homogeneous, the truth of the matter is that the Rahanwayn and the Digil are socio-culturally as well as linguistically distinct.

Because the majority of the Rahanwayn speakers live in rural areas, they cannot speak the so-called standard language of Somalia. In fact, when a government official from the north goes to the south for an official visit, he or she must acquire a translator. This difficulty was demonstrated in 1992, at a Somali conference in Ottawa, when a Rahanwayn speaker posed a question to a leading Somali historian in the Rahanwayn dialect. The scholar had no choice but to seek a translator. Unfortunately, this historian and other students of Somali studies still insist in their writings on the existence of one language intelligible throughout the country.

Furthermore, the United States government has recently recruited several hundred native Somali speakers as translators to go to Somalia mainly in the land between the Jubba and Shabeelle rivers. The irony is that these translators will need translators themselves, since the majority of them do not speak the May language, spoken in that region. The danger is that they will give their own interpretation of the Rahanwayn tragedy, which will further impose the control of other clans in the region.

Politically, the Digil and the Rahanwayn have suffered discrimination for two primary reasons. First, they occupy the richest and the most fertile areas of the country and have been the most productive sections of the population. Second, along with the most southerly Hawiye clans, they have been the fastest growing group of the Somali population. These two realities have made other Somalis, especially northerners, leery of the Rahanwayn since the 1930s.

During Somalia's first municipal elections in 1954, prior to independence, there were 20 parties competing for 281 seats. The party now known as the Somali Democratic Movement (SDM), which represents the Rahanwayn clan, won 57 seats, coming in second to the Somali Youth League (SYL), a Darod-based party. But the first SYL-led cabinet completely ignored the Digil and Rahanwayn population. The prime minister formed a cabinet consisting of three Hawiye, two Darod and one Dir minister. Until the 1969 military coup, the predecessor of the SDM was the most significant opposition party in the country, leading to political reprisals against the Rahanwayn clan family.

From 1969 to 1990, the Siad Barre regime further subordinated the groups living in the river valleys. In 1990, Barre's troops fleeing from Mogadishu destroyed all the southern cities including the regional capital, Baidoa. They also indiscriminately wiped out rural villages, confiscating property and killing young men between the ages of 15 and 30.

Later, the Aidid militia completed the destruction to a point where the people could no longer sustain themselves. As late as September 1992, an average of 200 persons were dying per day in Baidoa alone.

That Somalia's human tragedy has been concentrated in Baidoa (the regional capital of the Rahanwayn clan family) should not be seen as a coincidence or accident, but as the result of long-standing social and cultural subordination and widespread discrimination. The Digil and Rahanwayn clan families are experiencing one of the world's largest unreported "ethnic cleansings." More than 70% of the famine victims are from the Rahanwayn clan.

Due to the recent U.S. military intervention, the number of famine victims is starting to slow down. But that is not enough.

The gangs and the looters who have held the people in the region hostage over the last two years are still around. Those in the land between the rivers do not have any guns to defend themselves. If the mission of the U.S. troops is to help the starving, then they must remove the gangs and the warring factions from the area. Moreover, if the United States wants to understand the situation of the Digil and the Rahanwayn, it must acquire translators from that region who can speak the May language and can understand the people.

Finally, unless the United States and the United Nations provide special protection for the farming population, they will again be subjected to deliberate annihilation once the U.S. military leaves and the gangs return with their guns.

Abdi Mohamed Kusow, who comes from the area between the Shabeelle and Jubba rivers in Somalia, teaches social science at Lansing Community College, Lansing, MI.

From AFRICA NEWS, December 21, 1992-January 3, 1993

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