WHY do Somalis define their ongoing civil war, and the warring parties, in terms of clans? Why was the Lebanese civil war waged primarily by groups which identified themselves as religious sects, while Yugoslavia has been pulled apart by groups that have mobilized around an ethnic and religious identity?
In the European context, one easily accepts that communal identities are not innate but the results of historical processes, such as the two world wars and the divide-and-rule policies of the Soviet state.
However, when it comes to Africa and the issue of identity, there is the immediate temptation to consider Africans genetically predisposed toward tribalism. One tends to ignore that Africans also make a political choice when they mobilize their group as a tribe or clan, and that they do this in response to specific historical circumstances.
If clannism means, among other things, allegiance to the kin group called clan over allegiance to religion, country, or a set of principles, then the adoption and construction of a communal identity that emphasizes clan is no more innate than the decision of an Irishman to resist British domination.
Rather than the result of innate allegiance to clan, Somalia's civil war has roots firstly in the specific nature of, and international context surrounding, the regime whose demise in January 1991 paved the way for civil anarchy.
From at least 1978 onward, the regime of Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre (in power from 1969 to 1991) deliberately bestowed privilege or abuse upon individuals and groups on the basis of clan identity. Individuals who were considered critical of the regime were either bought off or censored, imprisoned, killed, or exiled. Groups were taken on clan by clan, their wells were poisoned, their livestock and villages were destroyed, and their women were raped. The regime destroyed all resistance, until there were
no groups left that might have defined their resistance in terms other than the clan distinctions identified by the government.
A second cause of the civil war was government corruption. Since gainful and legal economic activity had become impossible except through the regime's political patronage, Mr. Siad Barre forced most Somalis to live outside of the law, extracting payment or favors for every service rendered.
Thus, two main features of the current situation - the breakdown of law and order and human rights abuses against individuals or groups on the basis of clan identity - existed before January 1991.
The end of the cold war is a third cause. With Soviet influence dominant in Ethiopia, the United States and the European Community supported Siad Barre with massive military and other aid. But as superpower rivalries ebbed, the international community stepped aside and watched Somalia slide into clannist aggression and anarchy. Humanitarian relief and efforts to break the rule of clannist warlords were slow in coming. The US-led intervention remains reluctant to disarm warring factions.
But to fully understand why Somalis are waging their civil war in terms of clans, one must look beyond the Siad Barre regime to Somalia's precolonial and colonial experience.
Prior to colonization, most Somalis were herders and farmers, living in communities of largely self-subsistent producers who regulated their resources in the framework of stateless societies. They had developed a communal identity and a social constitution phrased in terms of kinship. Membership in a patrilineal kin group called clan was an important element of this constitution, particularly in regard to one's access to water, land, and livestock.
Gender and age group also determined rights and duties, including the kind of work an individual was assigned, whether one could own and establish a household and accumulate wealth, and access to positions of political and religious leadership.
In the colonial period, when the Europeans threw their weight behind commerce and the urban economy, clans began to produce for export and became dependent on the market and the state that regulated access to that market. Dependence on the clan for access to resources, power, court justice, or even marriage diminished. Many clan leaders now began to derive power from providing access to the resources of the colonial state rather than the clan.
The colonizers, meanwhile, were committed to containing the social changes that resulted from their economic policies. In their efforts to maintain law and order and the social status quo, they insisted that Somalis maintain a clan identity, regardless of their social aspirations and involvement in the market economy. Thus a new clan was born, which came to assert political and legal authority over individuals whose work, wealth, power, and prestige depended largely on a world outside of the physical dom ain and control of the clan. Somalis were clan members now only as a result of the accident of birth.
The old life was gone, but communal identity based on kinship was, with the aid of the colonial state, artificially kept alive.
Why is it important to establish that clannism today is a far cry from precolonial social arrangements? Because many analysts wrongly infuse the new clan order with cultural authenticity. By projecting clannism back into the past, they prescribe it for the future. But the groups that now carry the old names represent new entities, fulfilling different functions in a different political and economic context.
The new clannism is an ideology of parasites situated at the periphery of the world economy. It is a communal identity that unscrupulous leaders have pushed on individuals of humble means, an arbitrary system of patronage and slaughter based on clan membership. These leaders seek to establish enough power locally to be recognized internationally and included in the world trade-aid nexus that proved so profitable in the Siad Barre years.
Irrespective of the success of the international military intervention, Somalia needs a political solution. Somalis of different regions, classes, and genders must be represented in any process of national reconciliation, but a solution that does not break sharply with the principles of clannism will only carry within it the seeds for further destruction.