Somalia: Dictators and Warlords Are a Modern Invention

3 January 1993
Africa News Service (Durham)

As the Marines and the Army of the United States move deeper into Somalia to carry out their first humanitarian campaign, we need to look forward and contemplate the restoration of civilization to Somalia.

The international community's effort must have a short and long objective. The immediate objective is to ensure that people who have been devastated by the twin horrors of war and famine have secure access to food. The second and more difficult goal is the reconstitution of civil administration so that Somalis can help themselves. How should the United Nations approach these tasks?

An erroneous assumption, which United Nations officials seem to have accepted, but which could derail the entire project, is the centrality of "clanism" in Somali tradition and politics. One Somali scholar has suggested, in a recent letter to the Washington Post, that the United Nations should develop clan-based police forces accountable to clan elders. Although this force would presumably be a stabilizing element, and if the proposal is adopted in any form, it would lead to a catastrophe which will dwarf the present calamity.

The clan-based explanation of the Somali predicament is wrong. Traditional Somali kinship patterns were different from what contemporary commentators called "tribalism". Two central features of kinship were the Heer, or a kind of social contract (or unwritten constitution) and the dictates of Islam. By contrast, blood-ties or lineage ties were of relatively small import. Old Somali society did not have a centralized authority such as what we recognize today as a government. In the absence of such a collective force, social sanctions were the chief means of enforcing the tenets of the social contract.

A third element of that tradition was the pastoral/peasant economy which was dominated by households. The overwhelming majority of households had access to the pastoral range and arable land.

The old household and Heer-based Somali systems were subverted by the colonial and post-colonial administrations of the last 100 years. This new world order was characteristically centralized and did not take into account the needs of nomadic and peasant households. Enforcement of the new policy depended largely on the use of force. This, rather than Somali society or traditions was the genesis of contemporary Somali dictatorship and war-lordism.

The economic system which evolved in this century emphasized political and economic competition among a new elite. The contest was over the resources of the state to guarantee the basic rights of the citizenry.

The state was used by the various elite groups who controlled it at different times to silence opposition and brutally repress those communities thought to support dissidents. Both the governing elite and the growing opposition manipulated the fears and vulnerabilities of the population by using blood ties as a way of creating and organizing a following. Thus, the collapse of public security facilitated the invention of "clan armies".

Despite the violence and chaos, the majority of the Somali people dreamed about the day when this madness would come to an end. Those hopes were dashed as the old regime finally collapsed and the "victorious" opposition groups fought over what was left of the carcass state. The destruction of over half a million Somali lives and the country's entire physical and social infrastructure spelled the death of whatever was left of Somali tradition.

This social history defies the fallacy that Somalia's present problem is caused by "tribalism" or clanism - and that simplistic exploration breeds hopelessness. If the problem is rooted in blood-ties, then there is not much one can do.

The cause of the present tragedy is not traditional kinship but the continuing competition over who will control the public purse and benefit from it - a struggle now dominated by the so-called warlords. Creating tribal militias, as some uniformed scholars have proposed, will add fuel to the fire.

A successful United Nations program for Somalia would include the following elements:

- secure roads, airports and harbors to speed delivery of humanitarian assistance;

- disarm the population in the whole country (north and south);

- rehabilitate the physical infrastructure;

- establish a national police force accountable to a United Nations commission, which should ensure that new arms don't filter back to the country either by sea or land;

- rehabilitate the economy and, in particular, rejuvenate education, health and social services.

In other words, the program for reconstruction, which could take years and cost billions, should concentrate on restoring normal life before there is any discussion of what political system will be adopted.

Abdi Samatar, who hails from eastern Somalia, is associate professor in the department of geography at the University of Minnesota.

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

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