19 May 2007 04:13


  • Title: [SW Column](AAJ) Will Somalia Survive as a Nation ?
  • From:[]
  • Date :[]1998

Will Somalia Survive as a Nation ?

Ali A. Jama -  1998


In a note that appeared in one of the major newspapers in North America, the Toronto STAR (Toronto, Canada) on 23 Nov 1992, the Somalis were among the ethnic groups characterized by the aid group Medicines Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) as being in the " greatest danger " of extinction. Among others, the list also included Azerbaijans, Armenians, Muslims of Bosnia, Kurds and Mozambicans. At a time when almost half of the Somali population was displaced from their homes to become refugees, mostly, in any one of the neighboring countries and when the death rate in one town alone, Baidoa, was running at 400-500 people a day, that seemingly innocent note in the STAR had a ring of truth in it. Now more than 7 years later the danger signs of the extinction of ethnic Somalis, though still not completely cleared, may not be that great, but the real question now is whether Somalia will survive as a nation? There was no central government in the country since Jan 1991. 

If one takes the broad definition of what constitutes a nation to be common language and religion, certain geographical territory, common culture, history, tradition and racial origin, the Somali people would definitely qualify as a nation. But Somalia is also a living proof that these characteristics, however essential they may be for a state to qualify as a nation, are not in themselves enough to build a nation. These common characteristics facilitate the creation of a national dialogue and solidarity. To understand why nation building in Somalia has failed so far, we need to look at the Somali person.

The Somalis are invariably described by many authors as "independent in nature, temperamental and strikingly intelligent". The traits of independence and reluctance to submit to authority are attributed to the living conditions of the Somali society which are not conducive to the development of large social units with the hierarchy and interdependence that they entail. These living conditions tend rather, as one author put it " to reward individual initiative and resourcefulness"

The Somalis are largely nomadic, about 70%, and make their habitat all throughout the Horn of Africa. They are warlike and extremely skilled fighters, as the UN soldiers who served in the country in 1992-1994 will tell you. The Somali nomads live in small temporary hamlets that are dismantled and loaded on burden camels for quick and easy migration. Because of this nomadic way of life, the social units tend to be small and self-sufficient. As perpetual movement/migration is the norm in the Somali nomad's life, they do not recognize clearly defined territorial units and often families and clans of different tribes are interspersed in the same area. Different clans normally do have the so-called "home wells" and traditional grazing areas that they inhabit according to the season. Thus, wells and grazing areas might be associated with particular tribes, but not to the exclusion of other tribes or clans that might use the same wells or graze their livestock in the same territory.

Before 1990, the non-nomadic section of the Somali population, which was about 30%, lived in permanent settlements mostly in the agricultural areas between the two rivers and the coastal towns. Somali politics, however, had been dominated by the nomadic and semi-nomadic section since independence in 1960. 

Tribal rivalry has always been the norm in the Somali politics, and it was the relative weights of the divisive forces of the society compared to the unifying forces that always determined the course of events at any particular point in the history of Somalia. The corrupt military regime of Mohamed Siad Barre that was in power from 1969-1991 encouraged the breakdown of nationalist dialogue by creating and utilizing tribal rivalries and antagonisms as a way to prolong its stay in power.

The collapse of the Old Order

Many attempts were made in the last 8 years to find or impose solutions to the Somali conflict. As a result, a dozen peace agreements were signed. The United Nations had sponsored many deliberations and concluded many agreements. The United Nations, also through their peace keepers - the Americans, the Canadians, the Italians, the Belgians and the Pakistanis was involved in many other peace initiatives. There were unilateral peace initiatives from the neighboring countries - Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. All these efforts have failed not because peace is not desirable but because each case has ignored this or that important local element(s) that may not appear crucial to the inexperienced in the Somali political dynamics. Somali clan politics is treacherous and can be extremely frustrating for those who do not know the Somali clan structure and how the delicate balance of power is maintained among clans.

There are also several other reasons why the old style reconciliation processes did not work, and perhaps will never work.

The new Somalia that may come into existence out of the present rubble , will most likely be different from anything we knew in the past. We learned a lot from the hardships. The intensities and the level of suffering the Somali people experienced in the last 8 years are unprecedented in the history of our country. In fact, if anything good will ever come out of the present national catastrophe, it is the fact that we asked ourselves some soul-searching and hard questions. We saw how the institutions of our society were not good enough to prevent the whole country from going up in flames at once. We had over 90% of the national assets, the only functioning government departments, 50-60% of the nation’s population, dozens and perhaps hundreds of well-stocked army barracks with huge ammunition depots, concentrated in Mogadishu alone; a potential time bomb. Somalia was a nation with one vital organ, Mogadishu. As a result of the collapse of Mogadishu Somalia instantly, ceased to be a nation. About 500,000 of our people have died in the civil wars. All the nation's files are lost, most for ever. Right now, Somalia has no records, no modem history and only misery to show for 40 years of independence. Something was fundamentally wrong with Somalia as a nation. With the collapse of Mogadishu and the regime in 1991 came also the collapse of the Old Order.

Somalia will, and has to change. The regional structures, the development strategies, the relations between the center and the regions, the distribution of nation's wealth and the whole structure of the society will transform. Our national priorities will change. We will have a much closer relations with our land. So far, the pastoral background of the majority of the country's citizens made it quite difficult to appreciate the value of land. We still have, in our minds, that vast expanse of grazing territory, one usually has access to, in our pastoral setting. Many of the country’s citizens never cared whether they were in Mogadishu, Bossaso or Baidoa. This has changed. For the first time, we have people willing to die for their pieces of land. The concept of this is my land is becoming part of our daily lives. This attachment to a piece of land, that one identifies with has brought large demographic movements. We have seen massive movements of people in the last several years. This movement had essentially marked the re-making or rebirth of modern Somalia as a nation.

The New Order - Establishment of Puntland State

For the survival of Somalia as a viable nation, the country has to be de-centralized and divided, by design or otherwise, into smaller manageable units. These units are, essentially an historical necessity, and will ensure the continuity of Somalia as a nation into the future. Each unit will have to develop the economic base and modem institutions, including all levels of education, necessary to exist as viable entity. It should not be necessary, any longer, to travel hundreds of kilometers to have access to an international telephone call or have your passport renewed in Mogadishu. De-centralized Somalia will also have the possibility of tapping at the potential resources of the country more efficiently. The units will be an in-ward looking entities, that economically have to justify their existence. The sum of these units will make up a strong nation with many functioning organs. The loss of any one organ may hurt the nation but will not necessarily kill it. 

A study group commissioned by EU with the assistance of UN Development Office also concluded in its study - a study of Decentralized Political Structure for Somalia 1995 - that the country has to be de-centralized one way or the other into , perhaps a federal or confederate or even into decentralized unitary state. The study also concluded that The BOTTOM UP APPROACH, which essentially means the building of political structures in which full participation of the civil society is ensured, was the only viable option to reconstitute Somalia into a nationhood again. It also explicitly acknowledged the failure of the big centralized structures the TOP DOWN APPROACH, which revolves around individual personalities and failed to bring any peace. 

The establishment of the regional state of Puntland in 1998, consisting of five of the 18 regions that made the Somali Republic, was a major political development. Unlike Somaliland that had declared its intention to secede from the rest of the country, Puntland has the stated policy that it “does not believe in any form of secession or breakdown of the Somali Nation” and that “ unity, integrity and sovereignty of Somalia is inviolable”. This fundamental principle of unity of the Somali territories is a noble stand the majority of the Somali people support, and Puntland could well be laying the corner stone for the political rebuilding of Somalia. We may be looking at the dawn of a New Order. 

The Challenges Ahead 

  1. The breakaway of the northern regions - Somaliland - will undoubtedly have implications as it will raise the desire of some other tribal groups to do likewise and declare their own territories independent. One has only to look seriously at the tribal settlement map of Somalia to come to the conclusion that secession of Somaliland will be potentially devastating option to choose. To my mind, it is an open invitation to a tribal civil war. Because of the Somali nomadic way of life the tribal habitats are areas of land with constantly changing frontiers, in many cases dictated only and as unpredictable as the yearly rainfall. There are no tribal designated areas, and usually no clear tribal frontiers in the Somali territories. The notion of breaking up the country into tribal republics is a scary one, and may well prove unworkable.
  2. The seemingly insoluble situation in Mogadishu is creating a hostage-like situation where the rest of the country is helpless. The International Communities seem to have taken a de facto position that the political process will be stalled as long as the Mogadishu situation is unsettled. This approach is fraught with danger, as lack of support to good governance in the peaceful areas will only perpetuate the chaos and the disorder in the country. 
  3. The interference of some regional powers, notably the Egyptians in the internal civil conflicts in the country makes a bad situation very bad.
  4. Somalia has also had a terrible human and brain drain that will make rebuilding an extremely painful and slow process.

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