By Ahmed Garane

The real victim

In his scapegoat mechanism theory, French historian and philosopher Rene Girard asserts that in conflict resolution tools, the contending groups collaborate and find an arbitrary party to condemn for their problems. In a reminiscent situation, the Somali elites – politicians, government institutions, and clan leaders (Ugaas, Sultan, Boqor, etc.) – embroil innocent Somali people, who have carried the brunt of their political malpractices and depravity, as being the culprits of the nation’s endless quagmire. They have coined a new phrase for this purported evildoer: The Qabiil (clan) or Qabyaalad (the act of bonding with one’s clan). In a faraway place across the Atlantic Ocean, other innocent persons are accused of being the grotesque boogeyman for a nation’s persistent ethnic and racial problems. They call it racism.

One of the most debated social and racial issues in American academia and political discourses is a theory called Critical Race Theory (CRT). This new theory debunks everything we have learned thus far about American racism and racial prejudices, whether from the civil rights movement’s histography or formal education. One of CRT’s main conjectures states that discrimination is the cause of a social construct engineered by governmental institutions, not by the actions and behaviors of racist individuals. According to CRT, it is normal for a typical individual to harbor preconceptions and biases against someone or other ethnic groups, explicitly or implicitly.

While Somalia’s politicized clan contretemps shaped by trivial disputes and extraneous bravado cannot be likened to the centuries-old enslavement, subjugation, and bigotry the African Americans have experienced, similarities exist in their construction. In both cases, government institutions sanctioned by the special-interest groups are exclusively responsible for the divisions, race-based discriminations, and clan supremacies to assert power over people.

Against all odds

Despite the relentless assault, the Somali qabiil (using qabiil and clan interchangeably) system has never been the genesis of the nation’s conflicts. In fact, the opposite is true. Being a part of a clan represents kinship, belonging, pride, and being part of an extended family. Pivoting on that clan identity and aegis is one of the main reasons Somalis thrive in business and commerce wherever they are.

Employers and businesses pay big money to substantiate employee or business partners’ references, backgrounds, and educational credentials in the West. In Somalia, where all clan broods are interrelated like a spider web, finding pertinent information about any Somali doesn’t require a database. Somali people rely on their clans in crucial life matters, including security; for instance, in the absence of local and federal agencies to assist in the current droughts in Somali-populated areas in the Horn, the clans, and sub-clans coordinate and help those affected. A little over a decade ago, before smart cellphones and internet accessibility became widely available, money remittance agencies verified funds recipients through the clan. As an oral society, Somalis depend on verbal agreements in business dealings, and the clan serves as an insurance policy if a party in the contract doesn’t meet contract provisions.

Due to their failed policies and flawed governance, the Somali elites have resorted to accusing the clan of being the culprit of the insecurity and lack of stability in the country, often disingenuously advocating for policies of eliminating the clan system. A theory called victim-blaming illuminates how victims of crimes are often blamed for being responsible for the crimes committed against them. The exploited victims feel guilty and powerless. Reprobate Somali elites and powerful interest groups have hijacked the clan structure for political gains.

The first blunders

In its first manifesto or Governing Constitution of 1943, the Somali Youth League’s statutes included a clause that mandated the termination of membership for any member who cites or discusses clans to ensure the organization stays clear of any clan politics. For the young and courageous fellows who founded SYL, under challenging circumstances in the colonial era, pursuing a policy that separates the clan system and the state government was not only admirable but vital.

When the freedom-loving, passionate, and patriot Somali people assembled at the historic flag-raising event of July 1st, 1960, in Muqdisho, they envisioned a modern Somali state that would safeguard the nation and embark on a mission to unite all Somalis. Unfortunately, a policy paradigm shift took effect when Somalia gained its independence, and the first legislative elections were held in the early1960s. The candidates, dominated by SYL, immediately undertook campaign tactics not driven by party blueprints but rather under the auspices of clan allegiance.

The campaign rhetoric created a detrimental ‘us against them’ clan psyche in which campaign talking points were not based on shared ideals but divisive eloquences. And it was for that reason most of the new members were elected from their clan strongholds, even in cases where the elected legislator’s acknowledged political beliefs on issues differed from their clan injunctions.

That dichotomy of SYL governing decrees and their candidates’ deceitful campaign rhetoric also became more evident when the SYL-dominated first ministerial portfolios were announced. The appointee’s education, experience, character, or personal skills did not matter as all the ministerial positions were distributed along clan lines. The renowned ‘looma dhama (not inclusive enough)’ clan inclusivity groaning has its roots in the first Somali governments in the civilian administrations of the 1960s.

In October 1969, when a group of senior military and police officers assumed power through a coup d’état, millions cheered the military-led government, hoping that things would change. In the first decade of the military regime, the government undertook many critical infrastructures, including highways, sports stadiums, universities, hospitals, etc. However, the use of the clan as a political instrument persisted.

The military government exploited the clan system by engaging in divide and rule stratagems, often granting ministerial appointments and business contracts to people from friendly clans. The regime took advantage of the Somali clan structure, where a single qabiil can have multiple subclans by installing bogus sub-clan chieftains within the main clan. Additionally, the military government castigated clans whose allegiances to the government were in doubt, eventually leading to the regime’s demise when clan militias took arms and ousted the government in 1991. Following the collapse of the military regime, succeeding governments have been created in the clan-based power-sharing formula called 4.5, where the newly empowered clan leaders led the way. If a qualified candidate does not have the backing of the clan leader, the prospects of getting appointed to an executive position or winning a parliamentary seat have been very slim.

Missed opportunities

Right after Somalia gained its independence, opportunities were there for Somali politicians, elders, and intellectuals to lay the groundwork for a functioning and practical governance system, where the government objectives were based on the needs of the locals regardless of clan compositions. At this juncture in Somali history, many communities from different clans lived together and shared resources, and when a new Somali state emerged, people wished for effective leadership that would have them organize themselves in ways that would improve the means of their livelihood.

Anyplace where Somali people establish business ventures, their business acuity would stand out in how they coordinate, set ordinances, and help each other, often with no assistance from government institutions. They can take these business innovations to the next level by establishing trade associations that advocate for their industry causes; for instance, an association that caters to jewelry dealers, supports restaurant owners, etc. The engine of the biggest economy in the world is driven by small businesses, which often are members of some trade association.

Fed up with the powerful monarchies and the dependence of the French people on the central government, the French historian and political philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, traveled to America in 1831 to study its prison systems but instead was fascinated by the resolve of its people. Unlike Europe, at the time, and even now in some cases, Tocqueville was stunned by how the American people organized themselves locally through associations, “They establish hospitals, prisons, schools by the same method. Finally, they form an association if they wish to highlight a truth or develop an opinion by encouraging a great example.” Two centuries after Tocqueville wrote the “Democracy in America” book, professional and nonprofit associations are some of the most crucial economic sectors in the US economy. Suppose you have completed your studies in medicine, engineering, computer science, law degree, or any other advanced specialty that require a professional license; nonprofit and professional associations will grant you the certifications to practice. Not the government.

Through local communities, envision if our first governmental institutions and leaders advocated for programs that would have catered to the needs of the locals based on their chosen livelihoods: farmers of various produce, camel husbandry, fishers, to name a few. Arranging people with similar injunctions and livelihoods into groups and associations would have deterred them from depending on the clan.

The newly minted éminence grises

In the time-honored Somali tradition, a chieftain would take on many duties: leader, judge, problem solver, and peacemaker, among other crucial responsibilities. Working on the betterment of the community, and maintaining peace, while being gracious and obsequious used to be some of the principal characteristics of a good clan chieftain, as often depicted in Somali literature and poetry. The leader lived with his community, and any changes in the clan’s affairs would directly affect the chieftain. In confrontations with neighboring clans, clan leaders used to be the first at the scene to labor for peace. The clan leaders often had a council of advisors (guurti) who would openly debate issues before making any decisions.

In the absence of strong state institutions, clan leaders have lately become part of the political machine using the clan as a political apparatus starting from the first Somali governments. The authors of the book “Why Nations Fail,” Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, elaborate on this when they have compared the two Sub-Saharan countries of Botswana and the Democratic Republic of Congo in terms of progress or lack of it following their independence. They assert that, despite the collapse of the Kingdom of Kongo in the seventh century, DRC has been ruled by dictators supported by influential tribal leaders. Mobuto Sese Seko and his powerful “Les Grosses Legumes,” including the tribal elites, embezzled the nation’s wealth, and today, the country remains one of the poorest countries in Africa.

 In contrast, when Botswana got its independence in 1966, it had only 22 university graduates and minimal infrastructure and was one of the poorest countries in Africa. Today, Botswana’s economy is bigger and more prosperous than many European countries. The authors contribute Botswana’s “inclusive economic and political institutions” to the policies that have capped the influence of tribal leaders in governance. Another compelling argument for curtailing the roles of the chieftains in government involves the two neighboring countries of Somalia – Ethiopia and Kenya – where tribal/clan leaders retain minimal political influence despite the two nations’ distinct governance systems.

The politically empowered Somali chieftains do not want to see a powerful democratic government, as that could affect their political leverage. When most Somali people are still pastoral and live in harsh conditions, their clan chieftains live in the metropolitan cities, enjoying luxurious accommodations with so many amenities at their disposal. The current Somali election stalemate is a prime example of the corrupted nature of the clan leaders. It is common knowledge that clan chieftains give parliamentary seats to the highest bidders, leading to more infighting within the same clan.

Historically, the ascendance of a chieftain position was based on an agnatic succession tradition; however, it has lately become the norm to see the role of the chieftain being contested by many people outside of the official succession tradition, including educated young men from the diaspora. For some, being a clan chieftain is more influential than any administrative post in the government since the chieftain role has the added benefit of being a lifetime appointment with no accountability or oversight.

Now what?

It is nothing short of hypocrisy at the highest level for Somali political elites to come to power through clan fidelity, govern via the lens of clan dynamics, and accuse the Somali clan system of the nation’s problems when their misguided policies fail. The elites should understand that their corruption-ridden policies create cognitive dissonance since their children will likely suffer from the consequences of their policies. In the grand scheme of things, the Somali clan has played no role in what has transpired in Somalia’s persistent conflicts. Entrusting the national interest and election processes to clan elders have become a conduit for corruption, embezzlement of public funds, and the decades-long lack of effective central government. Curtailing the power of clan chieftains and empowering civil society groups to manage the election of MPs should be mandated. The current 4.5 selection/election system only serves the interests of the aristocracies.

The ultimate solution will be to get to a one-person-one-vote democratic election process, but since getting there can take decades to be implemented in Somalia, based on how the current selection process is shaping up, the existing system should be overhauled. Developing solutions that synthesize the clan structure and the governance system through inclusive frameworks in which civil societies play a role will be another step in the right direction.


Ahmed Garane is an Adjunct Professor, writer, and political analyst based in the United States. Contact him at: