Clan Politics in Somalia: Consequences of Culture or Colonial Legacy?

Posted by on Sep 13, 2015 | Leave a Comment


Ethnicity as a political identity dominated the political land scape of many post-colonial African countries. The nature of this ethnic politics in Africa is not static, but rather fluid, which is characterized by constant change and evolution (Courtney, 2000). Politics of identity can be defined as “politics of belonging” where ethnic groups form political affiliations that represent their political interests (Joireman, 2003, p.2). As was the case in many other African countries, “clannism” emerged in Somalia after independence;  “clanism is the Somali version of ethnic politics” because Somalis belong to one ethnic group which consists of distinct clans (Adam, 1992, p. 12).  Leroy (1989), illustrates the intellectual interpretation of ethnic politics in Africa “has been wide” and is based on the historical context of each country (p. 3). Thus, the explanation of “clanism” in Somalia as political identity needs an analysis of the historical context of Somalia.  This paper argues that “clanism” in Somalia is the inheritance of both the socio economic context of pre colonial era, and the policies of colonial state, which shaped and influenced the trajectory of politics in Somalia after independence. I will argue that “clanism” is the main factor responsible for the collapse of post-colonial state institutions in Somalia and the ongoing civil war for twenty years.  The essay will examine the evolution and the constant change of “clanism” in Somalia since the civil war started and how it is the main obstacle for reconciliation and rebuilding state institutions based on democracy and the rule of law.

Somali people as a nation share one language, one religion and common history, which makes them a unique ethnic group who inhabit a large area in the horn of Africa (Lewis, 1998). Although Somali people belong to one ethnic group, they belong to major clans such as: Darod, Hawiye, Dir and Digil-Mirifle, and each clan “can act as a corporate political unit, and do tend to have some territorial exclusiveness” (as quoted in Gundel, 2009, p 4).  The majority of Somalis belong to clans that are pastoralists and move constantly throughout the year in search of pasture and water. Accordingly, “clan-members derive their identity from their common agnatic descent rather than the sense of territorial belonging” (as quoted in Gundel, 2009, p 4). I therefore argue that a clan as a political unit existed in the cultural context of pre colonial Somalis, while “clanism” is the new form of political identity in contemporary Somali politics. To read more Click here.


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