By Ismail Ali Ismail


While surfing the Internet few days ago I came across two videos showing a debate on “Somali Identity” – an interesting topic, no doubt, though of no practical consequence (watch the two video on youtube Identify crisis and Somalis don’t wants to be identified as BLACK AFRICAN.)

Instead of concentrating on the topic the debaters strayed into other areas of Somali culture and society. A debate has usually two contrary views. In this ‘debate’, however, between two Somali professors, Prof. Hussein Bulhan and Prof. Omer Eno, which took place, apparently, more than a year ago, I saw neither the vigor of scholarship, nor opposing views, which I expected to shed new lights on the topic of the debate.

In my early readings Somalis were classified in terms of racial identity as: ‘Hamitic’; ‘Semito-Hamitic’; or (as one writer put it) ‘Hamitic with a strong Semitic injection’); ‘Arabized Oromos’; and finally, ‘Cushitic’. I was quite interested in this matter as a Somali schoolboy growing up with Arabs, Indians, Greeks, Jews and others in Aden, which, as a British colony, was then a very cosmopolitan city. Somalis had been living in Aden well before 1839 when Captain Haines secured it for the British. Being unaware of the diversity that has since transpired, as far as I am concerned, I had no doubt that Somalis were of the same racial stock – and homogenous in all respects (linguistically, culturally and religiously). My interest continued into the early sixties but waned thereafter as it branched off to other areas more beneficial to my future. Thanks to the generosity of the American Government, I had become a foreign student in the United States where racism and racial discrimination were a great deal worse than they are today. However, it was a racism that was not really based on race but on color. That was why it was known as ‘color bar’; talking about the fine distinctions between the black races (hair texture, facial features, etc.) became ludicrous.

Instead of being enlightened by this debate, I was disappointed by the lack of objectivity, balance and penetrating analyses – let alone suggestions as to needed societal reforms. Indeed, much of the discussion, especially by Prof. Bulhan, was no more than disparaging and ridiculing Somali culture and Society. The two professors have, in their ‘debate’, heaped loads of injustices upon their fellow Somalis, which I propose to correct and thereby set the record straight. What they did, I suppose, was out of ignorance, not out of spite, for they are Somalis themselves – unless they have forgotten. All the same, it reflects badly on them. There is, surely, much to criticize Somali society for and much to offer in terms of reform. I shall comment below on the salient points of their discussion.

The Nature and Tradition of Somali Clans

As a Somali with a long national experience in field administration, as District Commissioner of Hargeisa, Zeila, and Kismayo and as Deputy Governor of Togdheer and Lower Juba, I have, in my capacity as ‘Public Order Authority’, administered the ‘Xeer’ (Somali Customary Law) and managed inter-clan relations. But I have never seen the kind of lawless, mindless, marauding, pastoral clans described by Prof. Bulhan. The professor says that the clans ‘have been warring, conflicting over power and creating problems for themselves and the rest of society’. First, conflict is imbedded in human nature. Certainly, there were bloody feuds, raids, lootings, and the commission of other crimes such as murder and rape. But Somali clans were not without devices of their own to help them deal with such matters. For Somali clans have traditionally provided the institutional machinery for conflict prevention and resolution through mediation and arbitration in their practice of the ‘Xeer’ – a governing system that was described as a ‘kritarchy’ (which means government by judges). I found dealing with clan notables very instructive; they were very resourceful and wise and flexible, and imbued with a keen sense of responsibility. They were, indeed, masters of compromise.

Naturally, some clans are strong vis-à-vis others who are less numerous. But clans make alliances and share defenses and ‘dia-payment’, and so many of the lesser clans are thus protected. In fact, the Issa clan had chosen one of their smaller sub-clans as the premiere sub-clan (the Wardiiq which was originally Isaq, not Issa) from which successive Ugases would come and, unlike many other clans, accession to the position of Ugas is, not by heredity, but through a traditional process of selection from that sub-clan. Interestingly, the major sub-clans are ascribed specific roles in the service of the Ugas who invariably comes from this small sub-clan. They (the Issa) have their own judiciary with an appeal system. The Issa Xeer is fascinating, and we need someone from the field of public administration or sociology to spend time to study it and codify it. Otherwise, time will dumb it into the dustbin of history, never to be retrieved and remembered.

To be fair, the clans did remarkably well in keeping the peace before, during and after colonialism. It is true that the first British impression of the Somalis was that they were unruly and undisciplined. That was why they called them, ‘The Irishmen of Africa’ – a phrase that was not, therefore, meant to be complimentary. But, for Prof. Bulhan to portray them in the mold of America’s lawless, cattle raiding, trigger-happy Wild West of yesteryear is both grossly unfair and far from the truth. However, it took time for the British to realize that, after all, the Somalis had their own traditional methods of governing themselves; hence the application of the concept and principles of Indirect Rule.

Modern Governance and The Clan System

I am dismayed by the flippant manner in which Prof. Bulhan discusses issues of governance. He says that the current governance problems of Somalia are simply a clan tradition of looting carried forward and applied to modern governance. He argues that since government is a common property and does not belong to any particular clan it is open by tradition for all and any clan to loot it. Nothing could be more preposterous and far from the truth. The Somalis who are the culprits in the destruction of Somalia and the propagators of its continuing problems are the educated, the urbanized, the avaricious ‘business’ and political leaders who think of nothing but power and wealth, illicitly gained. Do we see anyone of them sharing his loot with his clansmen? No, because the looting is carried out by individuals who share pecuniary interests and divide their loots among themselves than with their respective clans. There are three factors that restrain human behavior: fear of God; fear of Society; and fear of the Law. Without them there is impunity, and with impunity there is constant danger to life and property. That is what obtains today in Somalia, not under the clan system, but under a prostituted modern type of ‘governance’ led by, not clan chieftains, but the educated class.

According to the professor the Somali definition of ‘Good Governance’ is: “If a member of my clan is holding authority it is good governance”. Those who watch the video can surely see how the professor is trivializing subjects of crucial importance by the disdainful way in which he presents them. However, I have never heard this ‘definition’ before. But I did hear clans complaining that they were not represented in this or that government, and I do not see anything wrong with that. After all, not only the government but also the bureaucracy should mirror the shape and color of Society. It is imperative that every citizen should be given a sense of belonging. The principle underlying the complaint is ‘representation’ without which accessibility and recourse to public office would be difficult. That is why MPs have constituency service, and if the constituency is a clan, so be it. In a country, such as Somalia, where there are no national political parties, the bureaucracy is weak, and judicial review nonexistent, it helps to have somebody you know in decision-making circles. Even in the most advanced countries those who have the right connections get what they want.

Gender bias is a social malady with economic and political ramifications, and needs to be remedied. The professor says that there has been no census; yet he avers that women represent ‘more than half the population’. That may very well be so; but we do not know for sure. That aside, no one will argue that women should not perform as full partners of and on equal terms with men in the development of the country taking into account that Somalia is a patrilineal Moslem country which emphasizes complementarity rather than competition between the sexes. This should not be interpreted, however, that the sexes should not be equal in their pursuit of economic, social and political goals. The struggle for equality continues to this day even in the United States where there is still a pay differential between men and women doing the same work. We know that most societies are male dominated, so the struggle continues. But we also know that behind every great man there is a woman: they (the women) have a hidden, subtle power which is seldom noticed and mentioned.

I do not understand what the professor means by “women are not counted”. In the olden days the spear-side of the family was considered more important than the distaff-side because of the defense needs of the clan. Society has since changed considerably, and Somali women have made tremendous strides in education, in politics, in business, and have occupied some of the most visible positions in all public service sectors. They have now been allocated a minimum quota of 30% in the national parliament; and that is a constitutional requirement. The progress, however, continues.


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