There was good reason in days gone by that the Horn of Africa’s tip was known as ‘Aromata Promontorium’, the Spice Cape. These days the same headland is marked on maps as Cape Guardafui, which usefully translates as the warning ‘take heed’
It was in November, 1971, during the unrelentingly humid Tangambili period that occupies the gap between monsoon seasons, that Mohamed Siad Barre, the junta ruler and self-styled “Victorious Leader” of the Somali Democratic Republic, conjured up an official act of sympathetic magic unrivalled in African political history. A national holiday was proclaimed for its occasion, with schools recessed and storefronts shuttered. Hundreds of people were funnelled into the narrow streets of Old Town Mogadishu, forming a grand funeral procession wending its way towards the Stadium Banaadir, coffins in tow. It was Maalintii Qabyaalada la’aasay, or Somali National Clanism Funeral Day, and effigies of the country’s various clans were being ritually cremated and interred before the approving gaze of Comrade Siad and his cabinet. There was a certain amount of confusion on the part of the Mogadishu hoi polloi as to the contents of those symbolic sarcophagi—rumours abounded that they contained canine or even human remains—but the message was clear. Somalia was modernising, albeit in a typically idiosyncratic fashion. Clanism (qabilism) was dead and buried. Scientific socialism would henceforth be the order of the day, and a Greater Somalia was ascendant. The sins of the clan-ensorcelled past had been duly expiated.
Not unlike the Republic of Guinea’s infamous post-colonial Demystification Program, which involved the mass destruction of sacred objects deemed inappropriately fetishistic, Barre’s civic ritual was a form of cultural engineering via imitative magic. The resulting contagion heuristic, coupled with a strict legal prohibition of clanism, would put an end to the allegiances and feuds that fomented strife at every level of Somali civil society. Such was Siad Barre’s goal, at least, as he presided over the bizarre rite from his vantage point in the Italian-built stadio. The despot looked on as the effigies were reduced to crumbling ash and the ocean breeze wafted the smoke from the smouldering caskets towards the country’s barren interior, the unconventional public spectacle betokening a “New Era” devoid of parochialism and archaism. Was Barre misguided to pursue such an outcome? The poet Mustafa Sheekh Cilmi would later sing:
For people who were born together, of the same stock,
Tracing their descent to the same origin,
With no differences in skin colour, culture, religion, or language,
To be divided by war and animosity is foolishness.
Scrape the rust off your hearts and cleanse your inside.
Hold on to your togetherness and strengthen your unity.
Abolish qabilism, the thinking went, and perhaps such a vision could become reality.
What the soi-disant Victorious Leader had ignored, however, was that in Somalia a funeral is more apertura than clausura. Death is merely a transformation, as the anthropologist Ioan Myrddin Lewis ably demonstrated, and tradition dictates that the deceased be continuously honoured by “sweeping the tomb” ceremonies, by periodic feasts, and by posthumous gifts of raiments and foodstuffs. “Ilaahay samir iyo iimaan ha inaga siiyo.” So goes the formulaic condolence under such circumstances: “May Allah, by this incident, fortify our faith and patience.” Fortitude, fidelity, perseverance—these are the true hallmarks of Somali obsequies. The sort of post-mortem historical oblivion pursued by Barre through exercises in ersatz funerary symbolism was thus fundamentally unrecognisable to the populace. Plus, as Fernand Braudel showed:
certain structures live on for so long that they become stable elements for an indefinite number of generations … they act as limitations (“envelopes” in the mathematical sense) from which man and his experience can never escape.
This has certainly proven to be the case with Somali qabilism. It was little wonder, then, that in the aftermath of Clanism Funeral Day it was wryly suggested that Barre had disinterred the clan effigies in the dead of night, spirited them away to the palatial Villa Somalia, and stashed them in his closet.
Perhaps he had. Comrade Siad was, after all, something a hypocrite when it came to the clans. The very month Barre announced the proscription of qabilism, a Somali student pursuing a degree in Rome unexpectedly passed away, prompting the Somali Student Association in Italy to petition for funds to repatriate the body. The ambassador, a Barre clansman by the name of Mohamed Said Ga’aliye, callously denied the request on the basis that the deceased had not belonged to a “major clan”. After Somali students marched on their own embassy in indignation, the regime dispatched a delegate from Mogadishu who, upon careful consideration, deemed Italian soil an entirely suitable burial place.
This essay appeared in a recent issue of Quadrant.
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Patterns of clan favouritism and nepotism became increasingly hard to ignore. As Mohamed Haji Ingiriis recognised in his aptly-titled The Suicide State in Somalia: The Rise and Fall of the Siad Barre Regime, 1969–1991, “throughout Siad Barre’s rule, there was no single cabinet, committee or council that the Daarood [clan] in general—and the Mareehaan [sub-clan] in particular—did not obtain a lion’s share”. It is true that some members of obscure clans or sub-clans rose to prominence, often if they were willing to oppose fellow clansmen of a higher status on behalf of the junta, but the acronym “MOD” came into common parlance for a reason. It stood for the three clans that propped up Barre’s junta: the Marehan (Barre’s own clan), the Ogaden (representing Barre’s maternal lineage) and the Dhulbahante (to which Barre’s son-in-law and chief intelligence officer, Ahmad Sulaymaan Abdullah, belonged). The qabilist legerdemain was apparent enough.
The poet Ibrahim Sheikh Saleebaan, for one, took it upon himself to address the regime directly: “You are undressed.” Barre had, according to the renowned versifier, in point of fact taken a “state equitable to everyone” and made “made it clanistic”. As the Somali politburo’s popularity faded and its military adventures abroad proved catastrophic, Barre lashed out at refractory clans like the Majerteen, Hawiye, and particularly the Isaaq, employing a paramilitary force known as the Guulwadayaal, or “Victory Pioneers”, to carry out a campaign of state-sponsored rapine and butchery.
Ultimately, the Victorious Leader’s attempts at co-opting clanism for his own nefarious purposes became mired in failure. Rebellions flared up all over the country, and in January 1991 Barre was obliged to flee Mogadishu in a tank, heading towards the Kenyan border and a hapless Nigerian exile. Left behind was a vacuum of power that in all this time has yet to be filled. Political nature abhors such a vacuum, and what rushed into the Somali void was almost invariably ghastly—civil wars, foreign interventions, refugee crises, famines, widespread corruption, and the depredations of the Islamic Courts Union and Al-Shabaab.
No qabilist fetishes were to be found in the ransacked wardrobes of the Villa Somalia upon Barre’s ignominious departure, but they may as well have been. Instead of being inhumed in the dusty white Somali soil, the clans those curious talismans represented were alive and well and running rampant. At the start of his reign Barre had set out—symbolically and through brute force—to destroy an impossibly complex clan structure composed of various qabil, qolo, jilib and reer lineage tiers. His historical moment was, in his own telling, the “crossroads of progress and backwardness”. Yet his failure was so complete that those allegedly superannuated socio-political structures he worked to abolish or absorb are now comprehensively enshrined in Somali constitutional law. Representation in the Somali Parliament’s Lower House, the “House of the People”, is currently based on a notorious “4.5 Formula” that apportions sixty-one seats to each of the four major Somali clans, and thirty-one more to a coalition of “minority clans”. Fadumo Dayib, an anti-corruption campaigner and quondam presidential candidate, has among others maintained that “the 4.5 apartheid clan-based system is unconstitutional”, but the arbitrary and capricious power-sharing formula remains in place. Barre buried the clans; the Somali people have been assiduously sweeping their tombs ever since.
For an emblematically failed state clinging to the shores of the Horn of Africa like a forlorn hope, Somalia regularly finds itself in the front and centre of global affairs. Its endemic instability has drawn in thousands of African Union peacekeepers, while its natural resources attract risk-taking corporations like Soma Oil & Gas, eager to jump-start the process of hydrocarbon exploration, the better to get in on the ground (and sea) floor. In the aftermath of the Westgate shopping mall attack and other acts of Al-Shabaab-sponsored savagery, neighboring Kenya has taken drastic action, including the proposed—and legally problematic—closure of the Dadaab refugee camp, in tandem with the construction of a 700-kilometre border wall from coastal Kiunga to the Dawa River in Ethiopia. In Washington, the outgoing Obama administration felt obliged to expand the 2001 AUMF to include operations against Al-Shabaab, after having included Somalia in the “Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015”, leading the incoming Trump administration to include it in its executive order on “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”.
All of these developments, together with the pall cast by a looming famine, continuing mass migration movements, and near-daily bombings, serve to put Somalia in prime of geopolitical place, while confounding most attempts at redressing any number of terrible ills. Somalia’s overall predicament presents challenges analogous to those faced daily by its own pastoralist inhabitants, challenges which range from the blinding blasts of dusty kharïf winds to the subtler difficulties posed by impenetrable stretches of thorn-scrub. A successful journey under such conditions, through obstacles great and small, requires something more than the magical consciousness exhibited by the Barre regime. It requires careful scrutiny and comprehensive analysis, and, as we know from an astute observation by the Australian anthropologist Michael Taussig, many times “the shortest way between two points, between violence and its analysis, is the long way round, tracing the edge sideways like the crab scuttling”.
Such a historical crab-walk along the Indian Ocean littoral ought to go back so far as to include mention of the Greco-Roman Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, with its evocative descriptions of the market-towns of Opone and Malao, where frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, tortoiseshell and copal resin could be traded for textiles and sheets of pliable copper. Similar mention should be made of the Chinese accounts provided by Tuan Ch’eng-shih and Chou Ju-kua, of the Tang and Song dynasties respectively, who described Somaliland generally and “Pi-pa-lo”, or Berbera, specifically as a principal source of much sought-after ambergris (lung-hién, or “dragon spittle”). Evidence of Sino-African trade along these lines turned up in archaeological surveys carried out in the mid-twentieth century by Gervase Mathew, in the form of Chinese celadon in the Somali port of Zeila, and Tang and Song era wares and coins in the Mogadishu substrate. All down the coast of East Africa, at sites like the ruined palace on Songo Mnara Island or the ruined mosque on Juani Island, Mathew found walls and vaulted ceilings with Chinese porcelain bowls prominently set into recesses. “Al-Inkishafi,” a Swahili poem dating to 1815, wistfully recalled those glory days of trans-oceanic trade:
Where once the porcelain stood in wall niches,
Now wild birds nestle their fledglings.
There was a reason that the tip of the Horn was once known as the Aromata Promontorium, the Spice Cape, just as, one must admit, there is a reason that the same headland is now called Cape Guardafui, from the lingua franca for “take heed”.”
While the heyday of the Incense Route—a trade network just as profitable, though nowhere near as celebrated, as the Silk Road—has long since passed, the Horn of Africa held on to its importance all the same. As Berouk Mesfin has pointed out:
the region has always been allotted a relatively important strategic value owing to its proximity to the Red Sea, which is an important and expeditious route of international trade and communications between Europe, the Middle East and the Far East, as well as the navigation route through which oil is transported from the Persian Gulf (in which the largest oil deposits of the world are located) to consumers in North America and Europe.
Colonial powers vied for control of the Horn, mis-drawing borders and cynically pitting social and ethnic groups against one another. Occasionally foreign interlopers would attempt positive economic or social improvements—the Italians outlawed slavery in 1904, and Luigi di Savoia, Duke of the Abruzzi, bravely pursued agricultural reform in his experimental estate on the Webi Shebeli—but the primary interests were more geopolitical than developmental. Hence the decision by the Reagan administration to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into Barre’s regime in the form of military and economic aid, to the point where Somalia was receiving fully one-fifth of all American disbursements to Africa. In the aftermath of a seemingly endless litany of violence and famine emanating from post-Barre Somalia, as perceived in the West through the lens of, say, Black Hawk Down, Captain Phillips and South Park’s “Fatbeard” episode, it is all too easy to lose sight of the key role the Horn and its inhabitants have played in the global economic and security landscape. The kind of perambulant analytical journey recommended by Michael Taussig helps us keep at least one eye fixed on the all-important context provided by the Somali longue durée.
Nonetheless these historical vignettes can come across, at this critical juncture, merely as fragmented tesserae of a shattered mosaic, or shards of smashed celadon buried in coastal plains. Indeed the phrase “shatter-zone” often arises in discussions of the Somali crisis. “Human rights workers,” the anthropologist Catherine Besteman noted, often “described the Jubba Valley as a ‘shatter-zone’”, while the UN’s refugee agency found that during bouts of inter-clan violence “the area between Mogadishu and the Kenyan border became a ‘shatter zone’”. James C. Scott has defined the term “shatter zone” as refugia “where the human shards of state formation and rivalry accumulated willy nilly, creating regions of bewildering ethnic and linguistic complexity”. Scott was specifically referring to “Zomia”, that “world of peripheries” in the mountainous regions of South-East Asia where communities formed “escape social structures … designed to aid dispersal and autonomy and to ward off political subordination”; subsequent researchers have made the case for shatter zones in the highland Pashtun region, the Sudanese-Ethiopian borderland, and elsewhere. Somalia is by all appearances such a place, and what it lacks in ethno-linguistic diversity it makes up for with its dizzying array of clan identities.
The Somalis, with their nomadic, pastoralist roots, are traditionally an ungoverned—which is not necessarily to say ungovernable—people, not unlike the Berbers of the High Atlas of Morocco described by Ernst Gellner in Saints of the Atlas (1969), whose “institutionalised dissidence” entails a self-maintaining system of order and disorder. “Divide that ye need not be ruled,” as Gellner summarised it. We see the need to avoid the modern state cropping up in the Barre era. To again cite Besteman, Barre’s Somalia was:
a place of opulent decadence and quiet terror, [where] upper-echelon government officials lived in lavish villas, drove expensive cars, and dined in fancy restaurants. Lower-level government employees scrambled to access as many funds of money as they could find. Rural people—farmers, pastoralists—tried to evade state control and to keep from being arrested, while working to meet their subsistence needs from a dwindling productive base.
In a society characterised by decentralisation, kritarchy, family governance, temporary and shifting alliances, and a reliance on customary as opposed to statutory law, such top-down oppression has no place at all. It should come as no surprise that institutionalised dissidence became the order of the day. As another anthropologist, Michael van Notten, recounted, “many Somali clans have stories about how, once upon a time, the elders gave their dignitaries legislative and executive powers, but how those powers were abused and shortly thereafter abolished”. One such story is this:
Once upon a time, the clan convened an assembly and decided to appoint a king. The king’s first royal decree was to inform the clan that for breakfast, lunch, and supper he wanted only to eat the marrow of the bones of young goats. For each meal, he decreed that ten goats should be slaughtered for him. He believed this would secure his eternal youth and felt sure the clan would recognise that to be in its best interest. After feeding their king in this way for several days, the clansmen began to worry. It was not that they feared their king would suffer indigestion. No—they feared because their herds were rapidly dwindling in size. So they convened another assembly and decided to collectively murder their king. And so they did, with the resolve never to appoint another.
An acephalous society is, however, rarely a peaceful one, and the Somali proverb “ama buur ahaw ama buur ku tirso” (“either be a mountain or join one”) came about for a reason. We therefore encounter the phenomenon of the gaashaanbuur, or “pile of shields”, a kind of alliance outside kinship—an artificial, ad hoc qabil—designed to protect weaker groups from more dominant ones. Ideology hardly enters into the discussion, only inter-clan dynamics. Salaan Carrabey’s civil-war-era poem “Ingratitude” expresses this well, starting as it does with the appeal, “Oh, clansmen, stop the war”, before taking an interesting turn:
And now if you start to devour each other
I will not stand aloof
But adding my strength to one side
I shall join in the attack on the other.
Thereby does Somalia come to embody the two very different sorts of shatter zones, one a humanitarian disaster, the other a zone of refuge where the clans can resist centralisation and pile their shields to their hearts’ content.
Ernst Gellner described a nomadic society—in his case the Berbers—whose “philosophy of history holds out no promise of permanence and stability”, in which “a cyclical change of fortune awaits all”, and regarding which “tribal society made it turbulent, but the turbulence affected only the personnel, not the structure itself”. Yet the development specialist is trained to advance an agenda of economic and socio-political stability. Politicians think in terms of progress, not cyclical variability. The humanitarian worker is trained to concern himself specifically with the “personnel” affected by societal “turbulence”. What to do, then, with a society seemingly designed from the ground up to confound the expectations and fervent desires of the outside world?
The solution to this quandary hit upon by the international community was best encapsulated by Alex de Waal in 2013:
The African international coalition against al Shabaab and its dependent Federal Government has led to a rentier marketplace regime in Somalia. Governance in Somalia is now thoroughly internationalized. Security is provided by troops from African nations backed by the U.S. The state is mostly funded by European and Middle Eastern donors. Services are provided by international NGOs. The legitimacy of the government with its international sponsors is little more than its readiness to comply with foreign demands in these areas: it is a latter day form of indirect rule. Among some Somalis, similarly, state legitimacy is bound up with its role in facilitating international service provision. But the patrons do not hold all the cards: Somali leaders can dupe them, obstruct them and prevaricate, or play them off against one other. The idea that a state suspended in this way, perpetually bargaining at all levels, will create public goods including institutions, development and the rule of law, is fanciful.
Indeed the notion that such an arrangement will produce a stable, progressive society is about as fanciful as the notion that a funeral for clan effigies would magically transform Somali society from a pastoralist kritarchy to a bog-standard African kleptarchy. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now. The Somali people have proven altogether unwilling to give up sweeping their tombs.
There is a certain amount of hope to be had. Customary reconciliation mechanisms like the Guddida turxaanbi, or “committee which uproots weeds from a field”—designed to address violence, livestock theft, and bilateral contract disputes—demonstrate how conciliation and peacemaking can be achieved at the local level. The surprise election of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed in the February election demonstrated the ability of a reform-minded candidate to gain traction at the federal level, as well as the vital role of the far-flung Somali diaspora in aiding democracy-building efforts (the new president having studied history and political science in Buffalo, New York, while holding dual Somali-American citizenship). Still, experience has shown the danger of sanguine expectations. Somalia remains a shatter zone, in large part by misadventure, but at times also by choice. It seems that the most appropriate approach to such an imbroglio is not the direct one, but rather “the long way round, tracing the edge sideways”.
One of the most sensitive outside observers of Somalia, Ioan Myrddin Lewis, once warned the international community that “the slow, local, traditionally based Somali diplomacy is the most effective process of peace-making”, and that exotic external approaches are based on faulty “ethnocentric assumptions” which, at their worst, “are apt to stimulate conflict”. And Somalia suffers from a surfeit of conflict as it is. The combination of best intentions, wishful thinking and sympathetic magic simply does not suffice. Barre learned this half a century ago; we are re-learning the lesson now. Yet there are luminous fragments in the story of Somalia—the sand-scoured ruins of an ancient emporium courtyard, a glistening shard of Song greenware poking out of the alluvium, a well-turned phrase from a bard in a country famously teeming with poets, a recent series of modest but charming book-fairs held in Hargeysa, Garowe and Mogadishu—that each in its own way suggests an alternative vision for the beleaguered nation. Or at the very least, one must admit, a basis for that age-old incantation: Ilaahay samir iyo iimaan ha inaga siiyo—Faith and patience will have to suffice for the time being.
Matthew Omolesky is a United States-based human rights lawyer. In the November 2014 issue he wrote on the destruction of the cultural treasures of Syria and Iraq.