Somalia’s clans and its power vacuum

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Dec 8th, 2012

Clashes on 1 December in Somalia’s central region of Galgaduud have cost the lives of 26 people. Two rival clans, disputing over the distribution of land and water, are responsible for the casualties.

The clan system is Somalia’s form of social organisation, and plays an important role in the country’s culture and politics. Every Somali is a member of the clan his or her father belongs to. Those clans are part of larger ones, and in the end there are about five main clan families which unite all the sub-clans. Almost every Somali citizen belongs to one of those groups, which all speak the Somali language and practice Sunni Islam. Traditionally, the country’s clans do not have particular leaders or hierarchical structures. Instead, the members call for assemblies of elders if there is an important topic which needs to be discussed. Those elders are responsible for decisions regarding the payment of blood compensations and declarations of war against other clans.

Conflicts about water and grazing rights represent common conflicts between Somali clans. Apparently, it is irrelevant if two disputing subclans belong to the same larger grouping. This was the case in the latest massacres in Somalia; the two fighting groups were the Saleban and the Duduble clans, which are both part of the Hawiye tribe.

Somalia suffers from a critical shortage of potable water. In the wake of the Civil War, which has been persisting since the ousting of the autocratic Siad Barre-regime in 1991, large parts of the water supply have been destroyed and never rebuilt. In particular, the rural population has little access to clean drinking water, leading to a spread of hygiene-related diseases.

In view of the chaotic conditions in Somalia, the central government remains powerless. Recently, clan elders chose a new Parliament, which in return appointed a new government, to replace the ruling transitional government, which had not been acknowledged by several factions. Somalia was unable to elect the Parliament in a democratic process, because the security situation made it impossible. One of the country’s main problems is that there is a lack of national cohesion. Instead, different interest groups make use of the power vacuum to enrich themselves. Many parts are under the control of local clans, warlords, radical Islamic groups and pirates, and there is more than one region which wants to break away from the crisis-ridden country. Somalia has constantly been leading the Failed State Index and currently it is not foreseeable how the country might reach stabilization.

Perhaps the country’s biggest problem is the lack of trust in the central government’s authority. Foreign military interventions and public dissatisfaction have shown that the government is unable to earn the confidence of the Somali people or the international community. However, it seems to be necessary to push back the influence of the many divergent interest groups that try to make use of a power vacuum. As soon as the government is able to control its territories, even roughly, it will have to do a great deal to ensure that Somalis start to trust their administration. Only then will the country ever be able to achieve its well-earned peace.

Fabian Scherer

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