One of the oft-repeated cliches about Somalia is the role of the clan [qabiil/qolo] in the Somali conflict. The clan-based identity was not as pronounced in precolonial Somali settings as it is in the postcolonial Somali polity. Somalis use qabiil and qabyaalad [clannism] interchangeably. The noun qabiil is linked with the verb haybso (to ask someone his/her clan identity). Despite its salience and presence in the Somali collective consciousness, clannism remains an ill-defined scourge. Professor David Easton defined politics as “authoritative allocation of values for the whole society”.

Why has clannism permeated the Somali body politic? To answer this question I will propose a definition of clannism: It is an illegal and amoral process to use political power to help close or distant relatives to gain an unwarranted economic benefit, evade justice or marginalise a segment of the citizenry.

Somalia’s founding fathers were alive to the perils of failing to dissuade members of the new political community from attachment to pre-colonial group identities once independence had been achieved. They knew that nepotism and marginalisation are not values on which the postcolonial state could rest. This political awareness was a part and parcel of the independence movement. The Somali Youth League, which became the longest reigning political party in Somalia between 1960 and 1969, spearheaded an anti-clannism campaign from the mid-1940s.

The late doyen of Somali Studies, I. M. Lewis, argued “the collapse of the post-colonial state represents “technically a triumph for the segmentary lineage system and the political power of kinship”. It is the political class who have reneged on their promise to replace colonialism with parliamentary democracy. Without shedding the modern political identity of Somalia proffered by the nation-state, Somali politicians found it expedient to rely on and try to privilege their clans in the struggle over meagre public resources. This is what makes clannism in Somalia a modern phenomenon at variance with modernity.

Some analysts and leaders have faulted nomadism for being the source of destructive politics. Nomads have been the most exploited and neglected group of the Somali society. Nomads’ socioeconomic base boosts Somalia’s economy through livestock exports in addition to supplying meat and milk urbanites consume. There is no link between clannism and Somalis’ precolonial group identities. Clan consciousness is less a product of belonging to a clan than the result of a response to inequalities inflicted on some social groups.

Political violence was largely confined to electioneering during the Somalia’s nine-year experiment with parliamentary democracy. Proliferation of political parties to challenge the ruling SYL was a missed opportunity to check the deteriorating health of Somalia’s nascent public and political institutions. The failure to become aware of the danger lurking in attitudes of politicians, who took citizens for granted, had resulted in the military coup in October 1969. The main justification offered by the coup leaders was to prevent Somalia from imploding. The military leaders usurped the coercive power of state then based respect for the rule of law. The military leaders demonised a democratically elected predecessor government to be able to use state power unaccountably.

The military regime burned effigies personifying clannism early 1970s. Threat of punishment was a key factor in ensuring compliance with the new government policy. Anti-clannism measures gradually came to a halt after military leaders targeted members of some clans not because of their opposition to the regime but because of the government’s perception about clans regarded as counter-revolutionaries. It was the beginning of state power misuse that forced victims to form clanbased opposition groups based abroad. As a tool for instrumentalising clan identities, clannism has further complicated the Somali political imbroglio. Before 1991 the state was the major perpetrator of political violence. Now non-state actors claiming to have clan-based political legitimacy commit almost all forms of political violence. It was easier for Somalia’s founding fathers to persuade their constituencies to have more confidence in the ability of the country’s political institutions. Upon the birth of the republic Somalis did not associate the state with nepotism and marginalisation. The current crop of Somali political class does not have a similar advantage.

From 1991 clannism has acquired peculiar features. The state collapse initially divided Somali clans into two groups: a group of clans with clan militias, and a group of clans with no militias to bank on. The first group’s claim to political prominence lay within their role in toppling the military dictatorship. This role, they reasoned, entitled them to participation in reconciliation conferences held in 1991 and 1993 in Djibouti and Ethiopia respectively. The second group of clans’ political rights were subsumed under the first group of clans’ political representation by dint of geography. Participants of the Djibouti-sponsored reconciliation conference phased out this trend in 2000.

The 4.5 power-sharing system unveiled in Djibouti divided Somalis into four major clan and a group of minority clans lumped into the 0.50 appellation (aka others). This political identity categorisation designated Somali minorities as having fewer political rights than other four “major” clans. Their minority status did not make less conspicuous the centuries-old discrimination of clans who have been victims of ostracism based on oral traditions.

Clans that pride themselves on numerical superiority attach importance to clannism. In the current power-sharing structure many Somali clans have been reduced to status of second-class citizens. Since major clans parcelled out regions into federal member states, minority clans lack genuine representation privileges at the local level. This mismatch between political progress made so far and political marginalisation of some clans had had severe impact on life chances of people from minority clans.

Not all Somali politicians use clannism to advance personal or political interests. How politicians used clannism in postcolonial Somalia indicates obliviousness to nepotism, rent-seeking and other anomie-inducing habits eroding public and political institutions. Clannism has served interests of warlords who, through dispossession, uprooted thousands of families even in some areas under the control of the federal government. What spared Somaliland the prolonged civil war that had befallen southern Somalia is a locally conceived reconciliation conference, and respect for the life and property of citizens as a cardinal pillar in reconciliation efforts organised by the second president of Somaliland, the late Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal.

Where a semblance of order has prevailed over the vacuum created by state collapse, clannism remains the means politicians use to misappropriate public funds. Although clannism facilitates the acquisition of ill-gotten gains for the political class, Somalis have not been able to form a united front against politicians exploiting politics of identity. The educated class, whose role in postcolonial Somali politics has been reduced to that of passive spectators, have yet to establish a civil society. A remarkable exception to this trend is Professor Ahmed Samatar who, in Socialist Somalia: Rhetoric and Reality, argued against the futility of putting too much confidence in clan-based opposition groups and that the ouster of the military regime would usher Somalia in a new era of democratisation.

The perception that clannism will not pose threat to political institutions once clans’ political representatives agree on power-sharing has hardly become a reality. The discernible political progress made so far reflects the commitment of the International Community to address what the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres, described in London as a threat to global security.

Clannism is a form of political extremism. It is more destructive than religious extremism in Somalia. It is devoid of moral precepts that emphasise equality and impartiality. Mobilising people for independence or against dictatorship was easier for the first generation of Somalia’s postcolonial political class. The current crop of Somali political leaders does not have a similar advantage to devise policies with which all Somalis can identity. To make clannism into an abhorrent political practice, admissions of politicians’ role in poisoning inter- and intra-clan relations is long overdue. This attitude could help politicians and their constituencies to lay foundation stone for a polity based on clearly defined governance modalities to make the Somali citizen less susceptible to the whims of politicians.

The most important lesson to learn from Somalia’s fifty-seven years of independence is that Somalis lived through parliamentary democracy, military dictatorship and are now living under political arrangements of differing qualities. The least discussed fact among Somalis is that clannism undermines political obligation and upends politics. It is time Somalis had a national conversation on the predatory brand of politics politicians practise to keep the nation in perpetual limbo.

Liban Ahmad is a freelance journalist and translator based in England. He writes widely on Somali politics, culture and language.