Clanship Politics: a critical analysis

Clanship Politics: a critical analysis


So much has been said about Kulmiye being the saviour of Somaliland. So much has also been said about Udub being defunct of sound political, economic and social development plans. Whilst the latter is perhaps true to some extent, less has, however, been said of the deep seated structural constrains to our nation building i.e. the political impasse and the ineffectual political machinery. This paper argues that some of the most fundamental issues facing our emerging nation pre-date President Riyale’s government and will, in all likelihood, continue to exist long after he is gone. I maintain that the fundamental causes of what befell us are much more complex than they appear on the surface, and surely than opposition parties would have us believe. In fairness nothing dulls the mind more than accepting on face value that Udub is the culprit of current impasse. I use the term ‘impasse’ because in the present context of the turmoil in the troubled Horn of Africa, some might not agree that Somaliland has a problem to start with. I partly agree to this. There is peace and stability (rare commodities in the Horn) and the private sector business is booming. But whilst these are necessary conditions, they are however not sufficient for the building of a viable nation state. The focus of this paper is the dead-end clanship politics which has turned our nation building on its head.

But before embarking on the vicious impact of clanship politics, let me first point out that it would be naive to suggest that social organisation based on genealogical arrangements has no role to play in Somaliland political system. Both in good and bad times Somalis have had to live with the dictates of a social system that is arranged along genealogical lines. Wars were fought and peace deals struck in which clan thinking played instrumental role. It is not only an integral part of the Somali social fabric, cultural heritage and (semi)-political life, but also in the defining days of Somaliland in early 90s, clan elders played and still continue to play an ingenious role in the reconciliation process, peace building and peace maintenance. This seemingly positive aspect of clan politics is undisputable; ‘seemingly’ because (as will appear later) solutions brought about by clan based thinking are not self evident. They merely resolve problems they create. Nonetheless those well-versed in the traditional social structure were formally recognized and provisions were made for them in the form of Guurti or House of Elders. But true as it may be, the role of Guurti is often used to over explain peace and stability Somalilanders are so proud of.

Also I am not suggesting a wholesale or an outright rejection of clanship politics, because that is unrealistic and because also we may feel lost and bewildered, as it gives us a sense of belongingness, sense of security. At least for now. But my concern is that with the use of clanship approach over and above ideological views we are unintentionally conspiring against our emerging nation. The point I am trying to make is that the use of the Guurti model as a blueprint for all political associations is ill-advised. Modern state-building, clearly calls for a more sophisticated approach, where personal dispositions are much more important than clan attributes. It involves in norms and values. It also involves in competencies, knowledge and skills that do not inhere in the lineage structures. My argument, though I am not pretending it is a novice one, is that our tendency to use clan based approach as a ‘master key’ to all problems (from land demarcation to institutions building as will be discussed below) is, though not the only one, at the core of our self-imposed political impasse.

In my view clan loyalty and political thought formation are two distinct aspects, which are incompatible with modern nation state building. The negative impacts of clanship politics are too numerous to contain in this brief paper. I will, however, discuss few aspects which I think deserve immediate attention. First clanship approach potentially creates ethical and moral dilemmas particularly when perceived clan interest and the real national interest do not coincide as is often the case. It creates dilemmas for those who have the interest of the nation at heart. Whilst central tenets of kinship relations are to support each other in times of need, and in terms of ‘your (blood) nearest is your dearest’, it nevertheless is evident that it has disastrous impact on the formation of national identity. Clanship politics, as many would agree, is inherently destructive. It is a subtle agent that undermines all processes of nation building, much the same way termites eat away wood and gradually cause it to disintegrate. Worst yet, it is counter-productive and frustrates the emergence of common citizenry that unites people. It is surely devoid of altruism, but rife with rivalry sentiments and fragmentations.

Whilst it is understandable that clanship mentality is stubborn, difficult to eradicate social ailment which now sadly permeated political institution building at all levels, it is however not undoable to neutralise its undermining impact. My concern is that kinship card is now being played openly in the political arenas – areas where ideally speaking clan doctrine has no business to do. What troubles me is that on the one hand we want some sort of an effective national political system to emerge, but on the other hand we nonchalantly tolerate political thought formation which is construed within the confines of one’s clan. The dysfunctional clan politics and the absence of collective national identity which transcend clanship behaviour, I maintain, is a dangerous stalemate. Indeed if we do not de-tribalise our political ideas formation and develop a culture of independence of thought, we might as well forget the nation state we dream to build. For our recent history is rich with evidence showing that when clanship doctrine enters the political arena through the front door, nationhood escapes through the back window.

As the renowned Somali anthropologist, I. M. Lewis in his book A Pastoral Democracy suggested the major fallacy of clan logic is it is inherently indeterminate in the sense that it has no permanency in the formation of for instance a coalition at even sub-clan levels. If we extend that logic we might partly understand why we are where we are in relation to nation building. It is disheartening to see how the destructive working of clanship politics escapes our attention. Whilst we probably might all agree that the clan logic is incompatible with modern day state machinery, for some obscure reasons we continue utilising it with much indifference. We may blame our leaders for the political mess we are in, but equally important is to note that there is a collective failure on our part to conceptualise our problems in their proper historical context. To accept the inept explanation that the sitting government is responsible for the current political impasse is to me unpalatable and even absurd. Because if this were true we would not only have been fault-finding with our leaders but we would too have nostalgically been talking in terms of the ‘good old times’. In fact we have been moaning all along since the new history of Somaliland begun in 1991 or since 1960 for that matter. Somaliland’s current problems are thus, I think, not only historical as just suggested, but also structural; because they are deeply engrained in the social organisation of our segmented society. It is true that we are trapped in a tribal prison in which our behaviour is sadly sanctioned, as Lewis put it, by an ever shifting clan loyalty.

Against this backdrop, one can paradoxically suggest that the much referred reconciliation conferences in Burao and Borama in the early 90s in which traditional elders convened to broker peace deals was perhaps no more than a tribal solution to a tribal problem. What I am getting at is to suggest that despite its significance in peace making, clanship politics was never looked at critically. Indeed its destructive working on nation building was glossed over with the simplistic explanation that our traditional or indigenous approach to nation building is fit for purpose. To some extent this may be the case, but only in so far as the issue at hand is of genealogical nature; in other words ensuring that social contracts between different clan and sub-clan families function at their very basic level. But beyond this point it has no value anymore than traditional medicine can be used to cure fatal diseases. Needless to say then that clan based approach to nation and institution building is the prime suspect in our nation’s malfunctioning political system.

Much of our political stalemates thus, have clannish causes, which not only prevent nationalism and patriotism, but also the emergence of new generation of politicians (I will take up this in an upcoming paper). It follows from here that the same social forces which impede current government and which also impeded previous governments, will most likely continue to constrain future governments unless Somalilanders address fundamental structural (not tribal) questions. For now much of what we see are manifestations of the impact of the divisive force of tribalism which is further aggravated by a serious lack of quality leaders. Our impasse is in this respect self inflicted, which has less to do neither with the incumbent government nor with the international community’s reluctance to recognize Somaliland as an independent state.

To illuminate the above discussion let us consider the issue of the new regions as an example. Whilst clearly there was no pressing need, Udub recently shredded this small emerging nation literally into smaller sub-clan entities. No one protested. In fact there were jubilations and celebrations at the announcement of the new regions. Udub, I think, took a potentially disastrous step into the unknown. Will such move help Somalilanders gel together as a nation or will it further reinforce clan identity at the expense of the national identity? Given the nation’s segmented social structure I am afraid that such move is likelier to reinforce social disintegration. Udub’s creation of the additional regions is a prime example of what colonial rulers saw in us – that we are socially a deeply divided society. It is also what allows hegemony seeking Ethiopians invade neighbouring Somalia, commit atrocities and get away with it (hopefully at least for now). Further with these irresponsible moves we run the risk of lapsing unwittingly into a sort of feudal political system.

Opposition parties are no strangers to such clan based policy. For instance Kulmiye has recently moved to consolidate its power structure by appointing central committee members along kinship lines. With this Kulmiye is guilty of exclusive policy. It might have won few clan-minded people, but it surely had lost the trust or alienated many potential electorates. But more importantly Kulmiye lost any moral high grounds to hold the government to account for the irresponsible move of ‘divide to rule’ and thus unfortunately in this respect Kulmiye is not a serious contender or alternative to Udub. So long as this is the case I doubt that we are heading for an immediate political settlement in the country any time soon. The annoying problem is that we cannot simply take care of some ill-defined clan interest and continue to naively belief that such strategy would in turn take care of our shared national interest. To believe so is to violate the essence of the bottom-up approach, which we are now using as a panacea for issues of a fundamentally different nature: nation and institution building. Running a nation and building its institutions is as much complicated, if not more so, as running a medical or educational institution. It would be absurd and unintelligible to suggest that it is Habr X’s time to nominate the Dean of Hargeisa University.

One could be tempted (and justifiably so) to blame both parties for showing despicable clan behaviour, but any outcry would most probably be met with resistance because such moves are merely responses to the directives of the clanship doctrine. Important question to be asked here is: can Somaliland transcend the dangerous clan based politics? Perhaps yes. If we are morally serious (and probably we are), we should be addressing our propensity to form alliances along genealogical lines.



Mohamed Obsiye, London,


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