[Dehai-WN] Opendemocracy.net: Somalia: livelihood and politics

[Dehai-WN] Opendemocracy.net: Somalia: livelihood and politics

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Thu, 6 Oct 2011 20:25:38 +0200

Somalia: livelihood and politics

 <http://www.opendemocracy.net/author/ioan-m-lewis> Ioan M Lewis,

6 October 2011


Somalia's long civil war and political fragmentation define the country to
the world. Yet the society also contains potent resources of allegiance and
solidarity, says the doyen of Somali studies, Ioan M Lewis.

A majority of Somalis are traditionally semi-nomadic herders in a frequently
arid environment, depending for survival essentially on the dairy produce of
their camels, cattle, sheep and goats. As such, they are no strangers to
drought and famine. These severe conditions occur regularly - the last major
drought was in April 2006 - and quickly lead to starvation and death among
the livestock and the pastoralists themselves. Sheep, goats and cattle,
which require the most regular watering, are the first to succumb; camels
survive longest and range furthest in the quest for grazing.

The basic herding-groups are organised along similar lines. With a flock of
sheep and goats, some cattle, and a few "burden camels" to carry tents and
other effects, the women and children move through areas where water and
grass are available, setting up camp for weeks or months according to local
conditions. Usually, these families camp with other families related to
their husbands - the encampment is surrounded by a protecting fence made of
brushwood - in a social unit known as a relateder (the generic term for
group). In their new location, they unload their possessions from the often
surly burden camels, and erect a family tent made out of woven mats, plastic
bags and sheets, and other material, which is draped over a springy
framework of branches.

Men are closely identified with the grazing camels, which they herd in
pastures, frequently several days' march from where their families are
tending the flocks of smaller animals. In modern tribal warfare the iconic
power of camels can sometimes be seen when automatic weapons are awkwardly
mounted on their backs; it must be difficult to control this haughty beast
while making effective use of this new style of weaponry. Camels, however,
are not normally ridden. Their watering is a major task requiring extended
teamwork at the deep "home wells", which are owned communally by a clan or
sub-clan and often located several days away from the pastures where they
are grazing. The laborious task of camel-watering is made more difficult and
taxing by the need to routinely dig out and clean the well and maintain its
flow of water.

In this dry environment, water is key. But, unlike the famous "oriental
civilisations" in the middle east based on control of water, this does not
give rise to a pattern of water-management associated with political
hierarchy. When they are not out herding the camels, especially nowadays,
men tend to gather in nearby trading settlements, which form another focus
of their shifting activities and include local politics as well as commerce
and socialisation.

A system under pressure

This is a profoundly decentralised society. Traditionally, there are no
stable, hierarchical political units and no chiefs wielding centralised
power in the familiar European pattern. In fact, the contrast between Somali
society and the pattern of authority in more typically centralised African
tribes struck colonial administrators forcibly, and this Somali peculiarity
was quickly seen as a defining feature. In an often-quoted ethnocentric
comment, an African sergeant-major in the British colonial forces is
reported to have proclaimed that Somalis were "no good" because "they don't
have chiefs!"

The colonisers gradually appreciated, however, that patrilineal descent
functions as the basic principle of Somali socio-political organisation.
Long genealogies trace the individual's descent, and represent his or her
collective identity; common ancestors represent points of unity and
cohesion. Typically, the genealogical principle determines degrees of
collaboration between individuals and groups. Closeness in blood presumes
common alliance: so Somalis speak of the "number of generations they count
apart" as determining their solidarity or lack of it. Marriage, which
usually takes place outside close-knit descent, provides an ancillary tie of
significance both in its own right and as the source of the maternal links
that are considered next in importance.

Government is bottom-up in the essentially democratic Somali world.
Authority radiates upwards from decisions taken collectively by the "elders"
of the smallest Somali social units and their delegations to larger
meetings. With social solidarity (or political cohesion) built up by the
coalition of smaller constituent units in this "segmentary" system, the
larger groups - up to the clan level - are mobilised according to the
closeness of their kinship ties and the mutual hostility which is assumed to
divide those who are distantly related or unrelated.

The result is a very flexible political system, well adapted to Somali
nomadic life. But the flexibility comes at the price of stability and
durability, and undermines the capacity to confront well-armed centralised
power. This is tragically illustrated in the current conflict between the
weakly organised Somali herdsmen and the tightly controlled Islamic
fundamentalists of al-Shabaab, who, with their superior fire-power and
ruthless brutality, especially towards women, have invaded much of the
former state of Somalia to impose their despotic rule.

Somalis have been outraged by the Islamists' brutal reaction to traditional
Somali Sufism (Islamic mysticism), including their desecration of the graves
of local ancestors venerated as saints. Somalis are primarily Sunnis of the
Shafi'i legal school, and belong either to the Qadariya or Ahmadiya tariqas,
whose founders they similarly regard as saints.

The anti-Sufi fundamentalist al-Shabaab, which includes a mixture of Somalis
and non-Somali Arab mujahideen, treats the resident Somalis virtually as its
property, seeking to impose its strict, primitive beliefs and making full
use of the financial and military power provided by its Saudi patrons. In
the context of the present famine, al-Shabaab has gone so far as to prevent
foreign aid agencies from entering Somalia or even negotiating with Somali
elders, thus seeking to control the aid resources available to the stricken
local population. This exacerbates the uneasy relationship between Somalis
and their increasingly unwelcome "guests".

This tense situation further highlights the complex political status of
Somalia as a state. Although it is treated as an independent, self-governing
entity whose "transitional federal government" (TFG) is recognised (with
varying degrees of conviction) by the European Union, the United Nations,
Britain and the United States, it is not able to protect its own people or
even negotiate effectively on their behalf. Over the years since recognition
was rashly granted, it has become increasingly obvious that the TFG is not a
functional government (except insofar as it acts as a channel for aid to its
own members), controls neither its country nor its people and, indeed,
provides no functional services. In short, it is not and never has been a
government in any meaningful sense of the term.

This is worse than colonial rule. International recognition for the TFG,
which has no genuine popular electoral mandate, or indeed any means of
reflecting public opinion, has given all sorts of dubious characters access
to foreign aid. It has also confused outside observers about the real status
of this essentially ineffective and unelected body. The truth is that since
the overthrow in 1990 of the regime led by the dictator General Mohamed Siad
Barre, Somalia has been without a functioning government. In the intervening
period there has been intense international and local Somali "peacemaking"
activity, at immense expense; but no effective national government enjoying
actual public support has yet been established.

As a result, and without help from their purely nominal government,
Somalia's inhabitants are desperately seeking famine relief wherever they
can find it, often by trekking for hundreds of miles to the nearest refugee
camps in neighbouring Kenya (where tens of thousands more have recently fled
as refugees) or to the Somaliland republic. These and other displacements
seem to have reduced Somalia's population to well under an estimated 9
million (a figure that takes no account of famine deaths).

Somaliland and Puntland

Somaliland, originally a British protectorate, joined with the formerly
Italian-controlled Somalia after independence in 1960 but reasserted its own
sovereignty after the collapse of Barre's government in 1990. Although it
has lacked international recognition, Somaliland has become a lively de
facto independent state playing an increasingly significant role in the Horn
of Africa. (It has just been invited to send a ministerial delegation to
China, for example.) Perhaps its main local significance lies in its
geographical position, enabling it to control Ethiopia's major exports
through its port of Berbera. The country covers an area of over 176,000
square kilometres and has an estimated population of some 3.5 million. It
has a bicameral parliament that enables it to incorporate elected members as
well as traditional leaders.

This hybrid voting system gives its political structure greater flexibility
and endurance than Somalia's Eurocentric organisation, which makes no such
concessions to local political realities (and in any case no longer
functions). It was established by the inter-clan peacemaking process that
established the contemporary Somaliland state. To develop a similar
constitutional structure in Somalia would, I think, be very difficult, if
not impossible, now: it would require a too-radical revision. Moreover, the
Somalian elite tends to look down at the Somalilanders and would not readily
take up examples from that quarter.

Since its formation, the Somaliland state has successfully held two national
elections, with the participation of three national parties and supervised
by international observers. The current president, a seasoned Somali
politician, was elected in June 2011. Among the members of the previous
government was foreign minister Edna Adan, the internationally renowned
founder of the women's hospital that bears her name in the capital Hargeisa.
The present government includes other female politicians, notably the
education minister. Somaliland, having successfully liberated a
pirate-seized ship, has also demonstrated that it is the only state on the
Red Sea coast with the resources to respond to the pressing problem posed by
piracy along its shores.

Somaliland is not the only new Somali state in the Horn region. Somalia has
also spawned the new state of Puntland, based on Somalia's northeastern
provinces, to the east of Somaliland.

Although it had its own government which did not defer to Mogadishu - still
nominally capital of Somalia - Puntland did not initially claim independence
from Somalia. The name Puntland comes from the ancient Egyptian "Land of
Punt", an important source of myrrh and frankincense and other rare fragrant
spices prized from ancient times. But the precise location of Punt is
disputed and it is not certain that it was indeed based in contemporary
Puntland. Significantly, Puntland's main clan groups (which belong to the
Darod confederation) have direct kinship links with clans in southern
Somalia around the important port of Kismayu.

A handful of other regions in central and southern Somalia have also set up
organisations claiming separate identity. Of these, the earliest and most
promising was probably that based in the Bay and Bakool regions in the
southern province of Baidoa (where a local university was reported to be
under construction), reflecting the political aspirations of the local
Rahanweyn people who speak a language known as Maymay, which is distinct
from standard Somali. This, in fact, is the biggest cultural division within
the Somali region and includes ethnic groups of Bantu origin who cultivate
irrigated farms along the Shabelle and Juba rivers. Other related marginal
groups traditionally live by sea fishing.

The modern prospect

The centre of the famine of 2011 is mainly in south-central Somalia, where
there are terrible scenes of starvation and death. Somaliland and Puntland
do not appear to have been directly affected on any significant scale,
although southern Somali refugees have sought and found relief in Somaliland
without necessarily having traditional kinship ties there. The international
response to the famine has been seriously undermined by the hostility of
al-Shabaab to western aid agencies and the ineffectiveness of the TFG. Thus
today, outside Somaliland, there is not much to celebrate. But at least,
wherever they live, Somalis cherish their impressive oral poetry, which
since the universal adoption of their alphabet is now a national literature
accessible to international appreciation.

It is worth recording that radio and telephonic communication have also
greatly facilitated credit operations that enable the very large Somali
refugee population dispersed around the world to sustain their kinsmen at
home through a very efficient system of remittances. In the absence of
banking and government (except in Somaliland), the hawala (trust) credit
system can be used to dispatch funds rapidly anywhere in the world without
banks, making money available by telephone using all sorts of receivers,
including mobile-phones.

It is not at all unusual to see a nomad standing in the desert negotiating
his finances. In 2006, the flow of money by this channel was estimated at
between $750 million and $1 billion annually. Very appropriately, the main
company involved is Somali-owned: an example of the potential of Somalis'
creative and entrepreneurial energy amid the hardest of circumstances.


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