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“Dugsi ma leh qabyaaladi waxay dumiso mooyaane”

(Tribalism has no benefit except destruction)

                                                – Abdillahi Suldan “Tima Adde”

  1. Introduction

A few months ago, I wrote an article, titled “Tribalism: the Cancer in Our Midst (1)”, in which I tried to show, with strong evidence from our nation’s history, how tribalism has  always been the root cause of our problems; how it led to the total destruction of our state; and how it has thus far prevented the real success of all peace and national reconciliation efforts. I also pointed out that as many scholars have shown in the past, the main problem lies with the “segmentary lineage” system of our clan affiliations which often leads to disunity, strife, constantly shifting alliances and perpetual instability. The feedback that I have received from the Somali readers, both at home and in the Diaspora, has been in its totality very positive and the overwhelming majority of them agreed with my analysis. However, there was the usual dissenting voice. For instance, a man who wrote to me from Alberta, Canada, said: “Let us not kid ourselves, and let us put  the blame where it belongs.  I, Mohamud, am proud Somali who isn’t afraid to say who is my clan”. Another one e-mailed me to oppose the thrust of my argument – perhaps just for the sake of opposition,  as is now common in highly polarized Somali society – and he wrote: “Tribe is an asset not a liability for Somalia. But unfortunately some people have failed [to] see it as such.”  He then continued claiming without providing sufficient evidence: “Tribe is what feeds, protects and allows the locals on the ground level to communicate at amicable and frank level.”

  1. Some Positive Tribal Aspects

The arguments of these two gentlemen reminds me of a recent essay written by Mr. I. M. Lewis, the renowned Somali scholar and emeritus professor of anthropology at London School of Economics, titled “Visible and Invisible Differences: the Somali Paradox“ in which he attempted to show several positive aspects of tribal affiliations in the Somali nation. One of the examples that he gives to support his thesis is the fact that, after the  collapse of the state in Somalia and the disappearance of most sources for decent  jobs in a modern society, many Somalis  inside the country survive through the generous remittances of their tribesmen in the Diaspora; and one of the easiest  ways to reach them – in a country that lacks such basic services as post office or banking – to deliver these cash remittances is to use the names of their clan and sub-clan affiliations.

But with all due respect to the views of Prof. Lewis and the two other gentlemen, the negative aspects of tribalism and its destructive nature outweigh its benefits. (Mind you, like nepotism, favoritism, chauvinism, imperialism,  etc., tribalism or any other thing that ends with –ismnormally indicates something negative). In this regard, when we had a functioning Somali state, we did not need a tribe to protect us or to offer us the numerous social services that we used to take for granted. Furthermore, in the Islamic faith, tribe affiliations are not supposed to be a source of discord, animosity and oppression. The holy Qura’n says: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of  a male and a female, and we made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the  most righteous of you.” (The noble Qur’an: 49:13). In other words, Allah almighty made us different tribes or clans to know each other and not to kill each other like animals, as we Somalis have been doing in the past 15 years. In one of his hadiths (sayings) Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) also declared that it is totally forbidden for a Muslim to shed the blood of another Muslim, to take over his property or to damage his family-honor.

In the Somali nomadic setting, there was a clear delineation of leadership by traditional elders, like Suldaan, Garaad, Islaan, Malaakh, Boqor, Isin, etc., whose decisions were obeyed without questioning. The clans also had a traditional law of governance in the form of “xeer”  that regulated the relations between neighboring tribes, often competing over very limited resources (i.e., water and pasture). That is how they were able to coexist in harmony for centuries, despite the eruption of the occasional deadly fights. However, when urbanization was introduced to our social life, the positive aspects of tribal affiliations disappeared and only the negative elements seem to have been preserved. Add to this the fact that an ordinary Somali normally has greater allegiance to his clan rather than his Islamic faith. Moreover, our understanding of modern Western culture of democracy, human rights and the rule of law are very tenuous. As such, it is evident that we,  Somalis, have abandoned the good aspects of our nomadic culture and have not been able to absorb either the lofty tenets of Islamic religion  or the rational principles of modern Western culture.

In the view of many experts of Somali affairs, tribalism and clan-based rivalry is what led to the collapse of the state in Somalia in January 1991 and to the inability of Somalis to end their ruinous civil war. This is so despite the fact that 14 peace and national reconciliation conferences have so far been held for that purpose  with the help of the international community, and particularly Somalia’s neighboring countries, both morally and materially. All reconciliation efforts have failed because certain individuals – most of them semi-illiterate ex-truck drivers, messengers or ex-police sergeants  who have not even run a small governmental office or unit in their entire life – have been playing the tribal card to become presidents/prime ministers in Somalia by any means in order to monopolize power and privilege  and, thus, marginalize other clans. In this connection, these covetous and misguided warlords – who were comprehensively defeated recently but are still there – used tribalism as a tool to gain both political and economic power, and not to serve their nation. But even when they gained power, they have never attempted to help their own tribesmen in return. None of them has set up a one classroom elementary school or a small dispensary or a single borehole in their own villages to serve the needy inhabitants of their clan areas who have no state to serve or protect them. This is despite the fact that some of these unscrupulous warlords used to earn hundreds of thousands of US dollars per month from the air and sea-ports that they illegally took over and the sale of qat and other illegal drugs that they were engaged in.

Even the new religious forces called Islamic Courts Union (ICU), who have lately been expanding their military conquest, would, according to some experts on Somali affairs, only prolong the conflict in Somalia, because they are  self-appointed, clan-based militias, some of whose extremist leaders are included in the US list of international terrorists. [See Prof. Lewis,  Prof.  Said Samatar, Abdalla Hirad and Ismail Ali Ismail as listed below in the references]. For sure,  the ICU deserves enormous credit for liberating the hapless people of Mogadishu and southern regions of Somalia from the tyranny of the notorious warlords.  However, nobody knows what is the real political programme of this amalgam of religious courts, some of whom seem to aim for establishing a Taliban-type regime in Somalia? How are they going to deal with the myriad of hot button issues that face Somalia today, such as securing real peace and stability in the whole country? And how would they carry out and finance the revival of the country’s ruined economy, and the rebuilding of its destroyed infrastructure in terms of education, health, water and power services, roads, etc.? Besides, none of ICU’s top leaders has, as reported, any relevant experience in running a government.

III.       Lessons from Recent Somali  History

In my previous article,  I have indicated that the old leaders of our previous generations and the  founders of  the Somali state, i.e., men and women who started the national struggle for freedom in the early 1940s or assumed political leadership after independence in 1960, knew the destructive nature of tribalism. That is why they shunned it and endeavored, as much as possible, not to use it as a guide and a principle for running the new Somali state. Consequently, they did their level best to select for leadership the most suitable, experienced and capable among them, irrespective of their tribal or regional origins. That is why a man like H.E. Aden Abdulle Osman – arguably the best head of state that Somalia has ever had – who hails from one of the smallest and least influential Somali clans, was elected as the first President of the new Somali Republic that united both the ex-British Somaliland and ex-Italian Somalia in 1960. (Isn’t it ironical, as well as a reflection of our current lop-sided  political culture, that in the last two transitional governments, set up  in Djibouti and Kenya in 2000 and  2004, respectively, his son, Abdulqadir,  could not get a ministerial position or even that of a simple member of parliament, just because he doesn’t come from a big clan, according to the infamous 4.5 formula of tribal power sharing currently in force. Mind you, Abdulqadir Aden Abdulle, is a highly qualified engineer who graduated from a fine Italian  university and who had assumed an important ministerial position in Somalia’s previous governments). In these previous Somali administrations, though they were  far from being perfect, at least such universally accepted standards as education and work experience were the main qualifications for selecting officials for high positions in  government – and not his tribal background or the strength of his armed militia. I still remember with great admiration  that, during the tenure of one our previous Prime Ministers of the mid 1960s, i.e., that of Mr. Abdirizak Haji Huseen, two words, i.e., karti iyo hufnaan (competence and cleanliness) identified the basic philosophy of his government, as well as the prerequisites for appointing civil servants in the high echelons of his administration. But this is now, unfortunately, replaced by the blatant tribal system of power sharing which has taken hold of Somalia’s political  life and which became the main impediment against peace, stability and a functioning central government in the past 16 years.

Due to our unfortunate return to the out-dated,  irrational and disastrous system of tribalism, every Dick and Harry wants to be a minister or MP, and no educational and relevant work experience are necessary for assuming high ministerial portfolios. That is why until its recent reshuffle, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government had a cabinet of over 90 ministers and deputy ministers (America has only 15 federal ministers). This was so, not because a penniless and economically ruined country like Somalia needs this excessively bloated cabinet, but because every clan and sub-clan had to be rewarded – I dare say bribed – by allocating at least one ministerial position to them. And, as I alluded to earlier, it is really Somalia’s great misfortune that some semi-literate men, none of whom had ever run even a small district or government department, have the audacity to insist nowadays on leading a whole nation, simply because they belong to a certain clan or they possess a few guns.

  1. Tribalism is Destructive

In one of his famous poems, the well-known Somali poet, the late Mr. Abdillahi Suldan “Tima-adde”,  summarized the totally negative nature of tribalism in that poem’s refrain: “Dugsi ma leh qabyaaladi waxay dumiso mooyaane” (Tribalism has no benefit except destruction).  He then  elaborated upon his argument by chanting with his very beautiful and moving poetic voice:

Docda bari, dareeriga baddiyo, Seylac dariskeeda

Dusha koonfureed iyo ilaa wabiga daaciisa

Degmadeenna oo idil haddaan deyey abwaagteeda

Nimaan duubiyadu naafo noqon deelka laga waaye

Dulmi iyo dhac waa waxa kharibay dagalladeenniiye

Dul iyo hoosba waan ugu dhigay ee waa dix dhagaxeede

Anun baa damqanayee dhaguhu uma daloolaane

Dadkaan la hadlayaa baan  lahayn dix iyo iimaane

Bal inay dalfoof tahay, caqliga doonni laga saaray

Wixii horay u soo daashaday bay dagashanaysaaye

Dugsi ma leh qabyaaladi waxay dumso mooyaane

If I try to give the gist of these few lines of Tima-adde’s longer historic gabay (poem), not in a literary but rather a more literal translation, it could roughly be rendered as follows:

Towards the east, the sea channels and Seyla’ neighborhood

Beyond the southern parts and the river fountains

When I looked at the records of our region

A person not injured severely could not be found

Looting and injustice are what has corrupted our nation

I’ve told them plainly, but they’re as hard as rocks

I’m the one who is being agitated, but they are deaf  and dumb

Those I’m talking to, have no sense or faith

They have gone stray and their mind has been shipped away

And they are hankering after what has already  harmed them

Tribalism has no benefit except destruction

  1. Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, if we don’t find an appropriate and lasting remedy to the devastating disease of tribalism which has plagued our nation in the past 16 years,  destroyed  all its state institutions and kept our people in perpetual insecurity, abject poverty and misery, we will suffer even more. And our country may become prey for the disruptive interference – or even total takeover – of its hostile neighbors who have always sought to dismember and dominate the Somali nation. Finally, our present, and the more serious dangers looming on the horizon, could best be summarized in what the US magazine Newsweek has recently written about this unlucky country of ours when it said:  “ It might seem that Somalis were put on this earth to suffer. For the past 15 years, they’ve had civil war.  For most of the past decade, there’s been drought.  The few times the drought has eased, there have been floods. The state has collapsed so totally there are not public services whatever. Potholed roads have been replaced by tracks in the bush.  Water is sold by private entrepreneurs. Hospitals tell patients to bring their own mattresses, even their own beds, and enough money to fuel the generator if, for instance, they need the use of an X-ray machine.” (Add to this the fact that today Somalia has the lowest level of primary school enrollment in the whole world [around 20% only], according to the UN). What a  bleak picture for a nation essentially ruined by tribalism and its horrendous consequences!

May God almighty save Somalia, and  protect her from her own sons.


(1)    The Holy Qur’an, Chapter 49, Al-Hujurat (the Dwellings), Verse 13.

(2)    I. M. Lewis, “Visible and Invisible Differences: The Somali Paradox”, Africa; 2004; 74,4; ProQuest Religion, p. 489

(3)    I. M. Lewis, “Up In Arms in Somalia”  [To be accessed through Google under this title or the author’s name].

(4)    Abdillahi Suldan Tima-adde’s poem, known by its refrain of “Dugsi ma leh qabyaaladi…”. I bought a cassette comprising this historic poem, among other important ones, in Hargeisa in 2002, and whenever I listen to Tima-adde’s beautiful and unique rendition, I become deeply moved and about to cry. According to the well-known  scholar and researcher in Somali language and literature, Mr. Ahmed Farah Ali “Idaa-jaa”, Abdillahi Suldan composed this great and patriotic poem in 1967 after two closely related clans in the north-western regions of the Somali Republic (or the current self-declared Somaliland Republic) had engaged in a very bitter and ruinous tribal fight.

(5)    Said S. Samatar, “Why Somalia is No Territory for Islamic Terrorists”, www.wardheernews.com   [currently posted].

(6)    Abdalla A. Hirad, “Somalia: A Nation in Limbo: Between Islam and Tribalism”,


(7)    Ismail Ali Ismail, “The Enemy We Love to Live with [clannism], and the State

of Our Affairs. www. wardheernews.com [currently posted].

(8)    Rod  Norland, “Somalia: Africa’s Taliban”.  Newsweek, July 31, 2006,  p.38

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