Somaliland: Clannish Nationalism in Somali Politics


In the past you fell out with a person when you had personal differences. These days you fall out with a person if your clans are not on good terms — Saeed Osman Kenadid

Somalilandsun – In 1 July every year, Somalis jubilantly celebrate the union of Ex-British Somaliland and ex-Italian Somaliland to form the Republic of Somalia in 1960. Five days before the union, Somalis in ex-British Somaliland celebrate 26 June: the day the British subjects in the former Protectorate gained independence and opted for a union with their southern brethren.
The Somali political map has not changed but the way Somalis make sense of and celebrate those two days differs widely. In Northern Somalia where a large number of people favour secession over union, 18 May is celebrated as an epoch-making day— the day Somaliland “reasserted” or “reclaimed” its independence, and ended the union between the southern and northern regions. In some parts of the north, roughly 1/3 of the Ex-British Somaliland territory, and the in the southern regions, 1 July symbolises both a day of independence and union.
What those approaches to celebrating independence days indicate is that ” the destruction of the national state” does not represent ” technically a triumph for the segmentary lineage system and the political power of kinship,” as the late I.M. Lewis argued, but it is an evidence that former, clan-based armed opposition groups wanted a change of the regime they fought but a continuity in the nation-state. The armed opposition leaders were not alive to the exclusionary politics inherent to political action based on mobilising clansmen and clanswomen.
Out of the mismatch between the desired political change and the means to effect that change emerged a new type of Somali nationalism I will call clannish nationalism. It is loyalty to a clan’s idealised view of a Somali polity. Clannish nationalism is different from ethnonationalism for Somali clans’ shared language and faith disqualifies them from being called ethnic groups.
As an analytical concept, clannish nationalism manifests itself in various ways. The retired diplomat from a marginalised clan who has argued that 6 out of the 13 founders of Somali Youth League hailed from his clan, the political scientist who said the Somali presidency “alternates between two clans ( “duopoly”)”, the former leader of an autonomous administration who argued the region he was born in had recovered from a three decades of neglect from a central government that made it to be called Gaari-waa’ ( inaccessible by vehicle”), an historian who calls the Baidoa Initiative ” a panacea for Somali tragedy,” the presidential advisor who is of the opinion that “the political elites of Darod and Rahanweyn clans are the strongest advocates of federalism for fear of Hawiye dominance of the capital city of Somalia”, and a political leader from breakaway regions who views human rights violations during the reign of military dictatorship and the 2001 Somaliland-organised referendum as a basis for secession, have one thing in common: each is articulating his clan’s political aspirations in a national context, and views other clans’ political aspirations as impractical and exclusionary.

Clannish nationalism contrasts with Somali nationalism; the latter was a collective response to end a colonial rule. By contrast, clannish nationalism is exclusionary, victimhood-based response to challenges to revive the Somali nation-state.

It enables us to understand why Somali clans are divided on the form of government suitable for Somalia, and alerts us to the perils of combining clans’ exclusionary political goals and the nation-building imperatives for a war-torn society. 54 years ago, Somalia’s founding fathers relied less on clannish sentiments but more on civic solidarity to create institutions that would buckle under the weight of clannish nationalism nearly a quarter century ago.

Liban Ahmad