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Somali Nationalism: Not Dead, Just Different

  • Written by Axmed

I write with reference to Peter Lockwood’s piece entitled “Somali Nationalism: A Dead Concept

?” published on 9th January. I don’t usually respond to articles, however this one demanded a response for several reasons:
• Firstly, Mr. Lockwood is a Junior Consultant at UNESCO in Nairobi and has written other pieces on Somali politics that have been published. Thus, he is part of the international bureaucracy that is responsible for administering Somalia and, notwithstanding his current, if somewhat bizarre, designation of “Junior Consultant”, is likely to become a member of the international nomenclature recognised as ‘Somalia experts’. Thus, his views and perspectives on Somali politics are likely to have an impact upon international policy on Somalia and need to be addressed as such.
• Secondly, while the title of the piece raises the question of Somali Nationalism, the piece is actually concerned with the disintegration of the Somali Republic and argues that Puntland (the autonomous and relatively peaceful part of the erstwhile Republic) and Somaliland should help in ensuring that south and central Somalia do not become “…pawn(s) of other regional and international powers.”. This argument echoes those put forward at the roundtable meeting held by Chatham House in July last year, and the policies of the current Silanyo administration in Hargeisa, that Somaliland should get involved in the search for the establishment of a viable state in Somalia.
• Thirdly, the piece seems to argue for the re-establishment of the erstwhile Republic of Somalia, while not explicitly coming out for this position. In the concluding paragraph, Mr. Lockwood seems to posit the idea that Islam can provide the basis of a new Somali Nationalism that supersedes the divisive clan identity that he believes continues to bedevil the search for peace and viable governance in Somalia.

 

From the outset, let me extend my appreciation to Mr. Lockwood for championing Somali self determination and independent statehood. This critique of his piece is not meant to impugn his motives, nor question the morality of his intentions. However, his perspectives, and therefore his prescriptions, suffer from a limited knowledge of Somali history and nationalism. Firstly, he does not seem to understand fully that the clan identity of the Somali people has both a fusion as well as a fission tendency. Indeed it is the sense of Somali-ness (evidencing their common language, religion and culture) which distinguishes the Somali people of the Horn of Africa from their neighbours, be these neighbours Oromos, Amharas, Danakil (Afars), Masai or Kikuyu. It is this fusion tendency which gave rise to modern Somali nationalism during the 20th century and underpinned the dream of Greater Somalia and the creation of the erstwhile Republic. Thus, automatically equating clan identity with divisiveness, i.e. the fission tendency, is a major flaw in Mr. Lockwood’s understanding of Somali nationalism and, therefore, of the analysis presented.

Another glaring weakness in the analysis is equating Puntland and Somaliland in the context of their respective positions regarding the efforts to establish a functioning government and state structure in Somalia during the last two decades. Puntland has not declared independence from Somalia and has been intimately involved from the beginning in the establishment of successive so-called governments in Mogadishu. Indeed, the late Abdillahi Yusuf, the first President of Puntland, mounted a successful campaign to accede to the Presidency of Somalia in 2004. Further, Puntland has been very vociferous in demanding and securing its share of, and from, every government that has been established for Somalia since the collapse of the Siyad Barre dictatorship, whether such ‘share’ be cabinet positions or allocations of aid. The latest conference (which concluded earlier this month) to determine the government of Somalia after the term of the current TFG ends in August 2012, was held in Garowe, the capital of Puntland. Thus, it is only Somaliland which has remained aloof from the search for a government for Somalia and this is because the successive ‘governments’ established for Somalia have myopically insisted upon their dominion over what is in effect a separate country.

Yet another weakness in the analysis is the misreading of the brief period of relative peace and unity under the rule of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) during 2006/7. Mr. Lockwood suffers under the impression that it was the Islamist doctrine of the ICU that won over the support of the people, when it was their perceived personal honesty, civic morality, patriotism and judicial impartiality compared with the venality, brutality and foreign loyalties of the warlords they sought to transplant that generated widespread public support and loyalty. The irony is that it was precisely the alien and medieval nature of the ICU’s brand of Islamism, with its banning of innocent pursuits such as watching sports on TV (indeed watching TV at all), wearing of bras by women and the shaving of beards by men, that brought them into conflict with the general public. Indeed, one could argue that the ICU was able to secure widespread public support by espousing and practising many of the virtues of Somali nationalism, i.e. clean, accountable government, the rule of law and equality before it that characterised the independence era.

The statement by Hassan Aweys that Mr. Lockwood quotes approvingly in his penultimate paragraph laying claim to Ethiopia’s Fifth (Somali) Province and the Northern Frontier District (NFD) of Kenya actually represents the very worst of the ICU, and marks the takeover of the group by the extremist wing that would lead to its downfall. This extremist wing, of course, came out of the closet as Al-Shabaab after the success of its plan to takeover the ICU and engineer a confrontation with Ethiopia and its Western backers. The simple fact is that the political calculus underlying the collapse of the state in Somalia cannot be reduced to the seductive simplicity of clan identity = divisive anarchy; Islamic identity = inclusive peace. Indeed, the reality of Somali political culture demands that this much sought, and seemingly elusive, inclusive peace must be charted through the very clan identity that facile analysis posits as the problem. The primacy of clan identity within Somali culture and politics is a given that can be neither wished away nor ignored, nor relegated to the periphery of political discussion and organisation, and any prescription or proposed solution that does not recognise this primacy is but a pipedream.

Somaliland’s recovery of its independence in 1991 and its establishment of a functioning state with a representative, indigenous system of government across clan lines is a clear demonstration that the fusion tendency of Somali nationalism is alive and well. The fact that this unrecognised country of limited means is host to hundreds of thousands of refugees from the anarchy south of the border is testament to the potency of the fraternity that underpins this pan-Somali identity or nationalism. The pan-Somali nature of much Somali business, much of which has its base in Somaliland where it can thrive in peace and under the protection of law, also attests to this fraternal and unifying trend in Somali social organisation.

In conclusion, Mr. Lockwood, Somali nationalism is far from dead. Indeed, I would posit the opposite, that it getting its second wind (much like a long distance runner) and we are witnessing its re-emergence in a different and stronger, if less emotive, form. However, recognising its new formulation and articulation by a generation of Somalis that have different imperatives and that are characterised as much by their experiences of war and exile as by the new era of technology and the primacy of information acquisition and exchange in which they have grown up, will require a more in-depth and nuanced analysis. As for Somaliland getting involved in the search for peace and governance in Somalia, this is not a new idea. Indeed, since 1995 Somaliland has repeatedly offered its services in this endeavour with the clear understanding that this will not impact the legitimacy of its independence.

It has been the myopic and misplaced intransigence of southern politicians and the unquestioning, passive support of this inflexibility by the donor powers that have conspired to ensure Somaliland’s distance. Far from ignoring the plight of their brothers to the south, Somaliland has sought to broker peace among them in the only credible way open to it, i.e. by protecting the hard-won peace and stability its own people have achieved. These efforts have been consistently sabotaged by the very same self-seeking politicians that squabble over apportionment of cabinet positions and aid monies, even as foreign terrorists and their local franchisees fight over their people and territory with invading armies and US drone attacks. The irony is that among the ordinary people of Somalia, the independence of Somaliland is widely supported and admired.

by Ahmed M.I. Egal