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In the past, the conventional wisdom has been that Somalia’s population would not face serious inter-communal problems because it has one of the most homogeneous peoples in the world, in general, and in Africa, in particular. This is so, because they belong to the same ethnicity, share the same faith (Islam), speak the same language and share the same culture and history.  (I heard the arrogant Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, talking about this topic in a very sarcastic manner some time ago). However, these assumptions have been dealt very serious blows by the outbreak of the devastating, cut-throat civil war that has, for all intents and purposes, been going on for the past 15 years. This senseless civil strife, together with the widespread famine that accompanied it in the early 1990s, is estimated to have killed at least 500,000 Somalis, the overwhelming majority of them being innocent civilians; and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more were displaced bother internally and externally.

The question that imposes itself immediately is: What is the root cause of this terrible tragedy? In my view and in the view of many observers of Somalia’s recent history, both nationals and foreigners, tribalism and the relapse of the Somali nation into the old, primitive ways of the distant past is what brought about this catastrophe.  It is what has destroyed our State, caused us all kinds of misery in the last 15 years, and made us a laughing stock in front of the other nations of the world.  Whenever a foreign friend puts to me a question as simple as: “Why are you killing each other?” or  “Why did you destroy your country?” I fail to give a coherent, plausible answer.  But deep down, I know that the root of cause of our present crisis – and that of  other critical stages in our history – could be summarized in one word: tribalism; and unless we eradicate or find a proper remedy to this cancer in our midst, our people will be immensely suffering for many years to come.

Lineage Segmentation

This is the very bleak situation of today. But almost 80 years ago, a British colonial officer by the name of H. B. Kittermaster, who worked in our country, wrote the following about the Somalis: “Why do the Somalis occupy today their present position in the scale of civilization and development? This is a question which perhaps demands a passing thought. They are undoubtedly still primitive, having reached only a system of loose tribal organization in which even the tribal elders and herdsmen exercise but small control.”

Eighty years later, the situation seems to be equally dismal, if not even worse, despite the fact that we had first hand contacts with the civilized world; thousands of our nationals have gone to universities, at home and abroad; and we have experienced more than 45 years of independence and self-rule.  Still, Somalia now passes through one of the most painful chapters of its history which has culminated with the onslaught of a very deleterious civil war that seems to be quite intractable and never ending. Consequently, at present it seems that, as a US Library of Congress publication put it  “… Somali society has retrogressed to a collection of warring clans reminiscent of  pre-industrial times.”

As I indicated earlier, the root cause of this utterly ruinous upheaval that destroyed the country’s national government, and all the essential state institutions as well as services, could be attributed to the fact that we have gone back to the pernicious system of tribalism. That is why we had to go through 14 conferences of peace and national reconciliation conferences, none of them has so far borne out real fruits. The fact that everything has now to be allocated or shared on tribal basis is the most glaring mistake that our so-called leaders, and their well-intentioned foreign supporters, have been committing. This is clearly exemplified by the notorious 4.5 formula, whereby Somalis are divided into four major clans, plus all the minor ones lumped together into half a clan, also referred to at times as: Others. As a result, in the last reconciliation attempt in Nairobi (Kenya), for instance, a cabinet of over 90 positions had to be set up in order to satisfy every clan and sub-clan. (Here, no rational criteria like education, adequate experience in government work and other relevant qualifications were ever given due consideration). Compare this with the situation in USA where the most powerful country on the planet, economically speaking, currently has a federal cabinet of 15 ministers only!

What  the current so-called Somali politicians and warlords don’t understand is that tribalism is the most divisive and destructive element in the our nation’s social fabric. Its resurgence creates unnecessary hatred, hostility and the flouting of the rule of law. It encourages you to take a certain position, whether positive or negative, towards another Somali simply on the basis of his clan affiliation and without even knowing that person and without, at times, being acquainted with his/her opinion or political stand. When a Somali asks you: “Yuu yahay?”  (Who is he?), he expects you to tell him the third person’s clan; and on the basis of your answer, the enquirer will immediately regard this other person as a friend or an enemy.  As such, a person will blindly support, say, a corrupt and murderous politician/warlord simply because the latter belongs to his tribe as if he is saying: “My tribe, right or wrong.”  At the state level, it is this irrational tribal identification and allegiance, and lack of personal accountability, that has led to all kinds of nepotism, favoritism and corruption – and ultimately to the destruction of the state itself. Another negative aspect of tribalism is that it is susceptible to external manipulation because of the constantly shifting, opportunistic clannish alliances. Look how our quintessential enemy, Ethiopia, was able to meddle in our internal politics, because we allowed them to play Somali clans against each other.

This pernicious social order in Somalia has been identified and amply analyzed by such luminous scholars as Enrico Cerulli, I. M. Lewis and Said Samatar. As these insightful men have pointed out, this primitive social system is based on what is known as “segmentary  lineage” whereby each tribe is further divided into innumerable clans, sub-clans, sections and families which only unite in order to face a common danger. The most negative symptom of this lineage segmentation is that it leads to constant instability and chaos, since it does not, literally, have a permanent friend – not even a Muslim one – or a permanent foe; there is only a permanent context and a permanent competition – or rather a constant fight over the very scare resource in Somalia harsh, semi-desert environment . This tribal system could aptly be  illustrated by the famous Arab Bedouin saying: “Anaa wa akhi calaa ibnu cammi, wa anaa wa ibnu cammi calaa algariib”.  [My brother and I against my cousin, and my cousin and I against the stranger]. As a perceptive foreign commentator succinctly put it, this segmentation goes down to the household level with the children of a man’s two wives [laba bahood] sometimes turning on one another on the basis of maternal line. In other words, it is extremely difficult to satisfy Somalis on a clan basis.

The system is very fluid and the ephemeral alliances between the clans are constantly changing for no apparent reason. This point is amply illustrated by the recent terrible fighting in Mogadishu between militias loyal to the local warlords/businessmen, on the one side, and the so-called Islamic courts, on the other. The members of the these two camps used to boast about belonging to the same clan-family that owns the Somali capital. A similar ruinous fratricide war has recently taken place, and still continues to do so, between four sub-clans of two closely related clan-families in Central Somalia, i.e., Mudug-Galgudud regions, as well as the Somali Region of Ethiopia.

Besides, as the British writer Douglas Jardine (author of the famous book “The Mad Mullah” about the Somali historical figure and freedom fighter, Sayyid Mohamed Abdille Hassan) pointed out, Somali clans are highly polarized  and are “…usually ready for a fight if they think that thereby they may increase their live-stock at the expense of their neighbors.” Or they engage in what Prof. Said Samatar calls “a permanent attention to the availability of self-improving opportunities.” In other words, human ethics, basic morality and religious precepts have no meaning, whatsoever, for them. In fact, in the traditional Somali pastoral environment, it seems to be quite natural and acceptable that a stronger clan could raid a weaker clan, slaughter its people, loot its property, particularly camels, and even boast about it in oral poetry!  We should not have gone back to this awful, discredited social order.

In the opinion of many observers of Somalia’s political scene, two generals were instrumental in the revival of tribalism in its most naked, highly destructive form: namely, ex-military dictator, President Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, who had kept manipulating Somali clans, rewarding handsomely some of them and severely punishing some others, in order to perpetuate his rule which lasted overt 21 years; and General Mohamed Farah Aideed who resorted to tribal warfare in the 1990s so as to assume absolute power in Somalia for his personal benefit and for the benefit of his own clan.

Lessons From Recent History

Somalia’s older generation of leaders knew the inherent, destructive nature of tribalism. They also knew that it can not be compatible with running a modern state. That is why when they started preparing for the struggle to rid the country of colonialism, they established in 1943 a national party that united all Somalis under the aegis of Somali Youth League (SYL). One of the basic tenets of that political movement was the renunciation of tribalism and clan affiliations all together.  In fact, unlike the situation in Somalia 60 years later, it was at that time very shameful, or  even punishable, to utter a clan name openly. That is how our people was to able to get united and constitute a formidable force to win their cherished independence, their dignity and their national pride; and that how they managed to get rid of the powerful colonial powers who had oppressing them for decades through the use of their infamous mechanism of divide and rule by penetrating though our soft spot: tribalism.

At the time of gaining independence in 1960, and despite the fact that Somalia had no many highly educated nationals, and had a very few university graduates, it was able to establish a functioning democratic state, though not a perfect one, for nearly the first decade of its existence. It was able to do so, because it had a more dedicated, honest and patriotic leadership who knew the history and culture of their people very well. That is how, arguably the best President that Somalia has so far had, Mr. Adan Abdulle Osman, who hails from one of the smallest clans in the country, could be anointed as the country’s first head of state (1960/1967). At that time, these visionary leaders did not say let us distribute ministerial positions on purely clan and sub-clan basis, but chose the best and fittest among their prominent men to lead the country and serve its people (though the country’s reality dictated that an all inclusive political system be normally observed). And it is this very good model that we should have followed today. But it was only after the arrival of the military/socialist dictatorial regime in 1969, that initially appeared to be fighting against tribalism, but used it later as an essential instrument for keeping power forever, that the country started unraveling. Naturally, it was with the arrival in 1991 of the notorious, unpatriotic and unscrupulous warlords, who openly promoted and relied on tribalism so heavily, that the country really went down the drain and experienced total collapse in every aspect. But one of the main lessons of the ensuing devastating civil war is that no single Somali clan is strong enough to wipe out or even subjugate the rest of the clans and, thus, rule the country alone. So, it is now in the best interest of all to try to live together in peace and harmony, if we wish to remain as a nation.

Conclusion & Remedy

In conclusion, the only way to address Somalia’s thorny problems is to tackle  this cancer called tribalism which has been wreaking havoc on our nation, especially its body politic, for the past 15 years and find an appropriate remedy for it.  The only way to accomplish this will be to minimize the role of tribalism and cleanse it, as much as possible, form our modern state apparatus, thus relegating it to its proper place, i.e., our countryside (or baadiye) where it belongs. Here, it may be worth quoting, once again, Mr. Kittermaster who said, when he was talking about the Somalis and their future almost 80 years ago: “But these people are by no means unintelligent or decadent. It is probable that they must be regarded as among the most virile and intelligent of any African peoples.”  He then concluded by affirming: “Their intelligence and their keen ability as traders mark them out as capable of development, but there appears to be little hope of a radical change in them unless it is possible to destroy the camel complex [emphasis added].” That is, tribalism has to be destroyed if the Somali people are to be saved from perpetual internecine war, misery, abject poverty and the possible take-over of their country by more powerful, hostile neighboring countries.

In the long run, tribalism could be fought against by making modern education available to as many Somalis as possible. Educating the Somali masses, especially the warring young men, will equip them with skills that would enable them to get decent, lawful jobs. This would, in turn, make them economically independent and would, thus, prevent them from being recruited for illegal and dangerous tribal warfare. On the political front, we could start right away by replacing the destructive tribal associations and their armed militias by forming a few political parties, based on ideology and political agendas, in which each Somali adult can be a member, irrespective of his or her clan affiliation.  Preferably, the first step in this regard could be the revival of the historic SLY party which has always united Somalis and mitigated against their anarchic, tribal tendencies.


  1. Casanelli, Lee V. The Shaping of Somali Society: Reconstructing the History of a Pastoral People, 1600-1900 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982)
  2. Cousin, Tracey. “Somalia: The fallen Country” in ICE Studies (Case No. 75), to be accessed in the internet through Google.
  3. Jardine, Douglas. “Somaliland: the Cinderella of the Empire.”  African Society Journal, Vol. XXV (1924/25), accessed through Somali Online Magazine, vol. 4, in the internet.
  4. Kittermaster, H. B. “British Somaliland.”  African Society Journal. Vol. 27 (1927), accessed through Somali Online Magazine, vol. 4, in the internet.
  5. Latin, David and Samatar, Said. Somalia: A Nation in Search of a State

(Boulder, Col., USA: Westview Press, 1987)

  1. Lewis, I. M. Blood and Bone: The Call of Kinship in Somali Society

(Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1997)

  1. Samatar, Ahmed.. Ed. The Somali Challenge From Catastrophe to    Renewal. (London: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 1994)
  2. Samatar, Said. “Unhappy Masses and the Challenge of Political Islam in the Horn of Africa”. Wardheernews Website,  9/3/2005 (to be accessed in the internet through Google)
  3. “Country Study: Somalia.”  US Congress Library. [To be accessed in the internet through Google].


Mahamud M. Yahye, Ph.D.
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
E-mail: mm2yahya@yahoo.com

By Dr. Mahamud M. Yahye

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and they do not reflect in any way those of the Anti-Tribalism Movement.