Somaliland: Without our Knowledge (6): Opportunities Missed But Not Again


Prof Abdisalam Yasin

“It is a world, bought and sold, without our knowledge.”

“Waa duni la kala iibsadaan nala ogaysiine.” Farah Nur

Somalilandsun – This is the sixth part of series of articles by the author Prof Abdisalam Yasin Mohamed whose linkage of the history of Somaliland shall bring to the fore its present circumstances in various aspects and titled “Without our knowledge”

Without our Knowledge (6): Opportunities Missed But Not Again

Prof. Abdisalam Yassin

According to Wikipedia, “a government is the system by which a state is governed. In British English, a government more narrowly refers to the particular executive in control of a state at a given time – known in American English as an administration. In American English, a government refers to a larger system by which a state is organized. Furthermore, government is occasionally used in English as a synonym for governance. A form of government, or a form of state governance, refers to the set of political systems and institutions that make up the organization of a specific government.”

If we take Wikipedia’s definition of government as a standard reference, then Somaliland, and indeed all the Somali-populated regions in the Horn of Africa, has not developed this form of government. None of them have established an organized state with clearly integrated systems and institutions that could have been recognized as a government. That does not mean that they have not had political systems and institutions that have enabled them to run their affairs as communities. They have. However, the traditional political system of the people of Somaliland and their institutions are profoundly influenced and fashioned by their nomadic way of life.

While discussing this sociopolitical reality in Somaliland in his book, A Pastoral Democracy: A Study of Pastoralism and Politics among the Northern Somali of the Horn, I M Lewis wrote:

“Like many nomads who range far and wide with their herds of camels and flocks, the Somali have no indigenous centralized government. And this lack of formal government and centralized authority is strongly reflected in their extreme independence and individualism.

Few societies so conspicuously lack those judicial, administrative, and political procedures which lie at the heart of western conception of government. The traditional northern political system has no chiefs to run it and no formal judiciary to control it. Men are divided amongst political units without any administrative hierarchy of officials and with no instituted positions of leadership to direct their affairs. Yet, although they thus lack to a remarkable degree all the machinery of a centralized government they are not without government or political institutions.”

Indeed, they do have a form of government and political institutions, however, their form of government is unstructured and their political institutions are impermanent and subject to continual change. The two major principles that the traditional political system in Somaliland is based on are kinship (tol) and contractual agreement (xeer). Political associations are, for the most part, determined by descent from the same male ancestor while the social contract or “xeer” augments social relationships whether there are blood ties or not. The kinship associations, therefore, take their name and establish their political unity on a common ancestor.

The Somaliland traditional political units consist of clans (the largest political unit), sub-clans, lineages, and sub-lineages that are susceptible to unity and division which are still based on a common ancestor as the founder of the unit. Even after the exposure to and influence of Western conception of government, clan affiliations still play a pivotal role in Somali modern politics. It is often the case to form modern political parties whose mass support predominantly comes from one or two major clans.

It is not unusual, however, to have conditions in which the modern national identity (created after European colonial administrations), or religious identity transcends clan loyalties. Examples of these kinds of circumstances become prevalent when charismatic political leaders appear and mobilize their supporters on national or religious agendas that directly and universally touch the masses and cut across clan interests and loyalties. These circumstances happened in the past and do happen today, even though clan-based mass support for modern political parties still outweighs support based on nationalism or religious ideology.

As its title shows, I would like to discuss in this article the opportunities that the people of Somaliland had, but unfortunately missed, to establish a nation-state with a modern government. Being so close to the centers of civilizations, both old and modern, they have often come into contact with organized and centralized forms of government. However, except after the European influence in late nineteenth century and up to mid twentieth century, they did not manage to adopt a centralized government.

In my opinion, their strong adherence to their indigenous political tradition and their suspicion to alien and assertive European colonial powers had become powerful impediments that halted them from making attempts to form a centralized form of state governance. In addition, lack of awareness of the enormous benefits of an organized state and the strong individual or group interests of those who could have developed such a state hindered its development.

Some of the clans of Somaliland, both on the coast and in the hinterland, and some enterprising individuals, had developed and employed some of the basic tools of organized government, such as levying and collecting tax, rudimentary security forces, and basic city administrations. I will show examples of these, using Walsh’s story, on the one hand, and Somaliland oral history, on the other.

At this juncture, I would like to point that giving the names of certain individuals or clans in a historical context in no way means being in favor of or critical to positions of these individuals or clans. For the sake of observing objectivity and historical accuracy and for the sake of knowing our weakness and strengths at different historical periods as a “nation”, we need not shirk from naming clans or individuals who played an important role at a certain time in our history and who could have changed it positively had they had the vision and the essential political foresight and sophistication.

I will now embark on presenting some illustrations relevant to the topic of the article. Walsh wrote:

“…there were several others who prepared shooting expeditions for sportsmen, prospecting parties, and pioneers visiting Somaliland. The best known and most capable organizer of such private enterprises was Duali Idris, of the Habr Gerhajis tribe.

Duali Idris, was H. M. Stanley’s head-man on his search for Livingstone; he also successfully conducted the James party to the Leopard River, and later the Hungarian magnate, Graf Samuel Teleke, and Lieutenant Von Honel to Harar, via Zeila.

Mahomed Shermarki (the chief Akil of the Habr Gerhajis tribe, and formerly Governor of Berbera for his father, the ruler of Zeila, in 1854) reported to Major Hunter several instances of Duali Idris’ intrigues with the Dulbanta and Sultan Nur; and Hunter in a note to me attributed the opposition and difficulties which we had with those chiefs to the machinations of Duali Idris. I dare say there was a substantial foundation of truth in those accusations, but, personally, I had no direct or positive evidence of them.

I was, however, aware that the Ayal Ahmed, Habr Awal, the legally authorized and recognized Abbans of Berbera, were greatly incensed at Duali Idris engaging camels for the James party without their intervention.

Mahomed Shermarki was certainly not a friend of Ayal Ahmed, who had assisted in depriving him of his Governorship of Berbera; nevertheless, in the general interest of peace and trade, Mahomed urged that this tactless interference with the Abban rights and privileges of the Ayal Ahmed should be publicly prohibited, and predicted that although the James party would not be stopped or molested Inland, yet there would be a feud between the Ayal Ahmed and the clans to which the hirers of the camels belonged.

This proved to be true, and the result operated greatly to our detriment. We were charged with having broken the agreement and promises we had made to maintain the time-honoured Abbanship fees and customs of the Ayal Ahmed and Ayal Yunis clans. Nor could this breach of our solemn covenant be denied. The British Officer at Berbera did not interfere with Duali Idris, and this neutrality on that officer’s part, amounting to complete failure to enforce the “hereditary rights”, was the breach of faith complained of.

No doubt the payment of Abban fees was unpopular with traders from the interior; but, as Berbera was practically the only market, and had the only safe and commodious harbour on the coast, traders were compelled to use that port.”

In the above paragraphs, Walsh mentioned two important tools of modern governance, namely the governorships of Sharmarke and his son Mohamed in Zeila and Berbera respectively, and the “Abbaanship” institution, a tax levying and tax collecting institution that was developed by Ahmed Nuh and Yunis Nuh lineages.

A former owner and captain of the dhow that saved the famous British traveler and scholar, Sir Richard Burton, Sharmarke became an astute and enterprising politician that ruled Zeila and, in conjunction with his son, Mohamed, made unsuccessful attempts to expand his rule to Harar and Berbera. He belonged to Musa Arre lineage, an influential lineage of the Habar Yunis sub-clan and the Garhajis clan.

Ahmed Nuh and Yonis Nuh, on the other hand, are two fraternal lineages that belong to the Saad Musa sub-clan and the Habar Awal clan. These two related lineages were decidedly inventive when they came up with the tax collection system which was known as “Abbaanship”. The Abbaanship entails the payment of taxes in return for property and physical protection and for other town services in Berbera and Bulhar, and it was collected both from foreign and Somali traders. Here we see that there were two basic tools of government: tax collection and maintenance of security. Nonetheless, they remained at that basic and not evolved until those who were using it were overrun by rulers with fully developed and advanced systems of governance.

In addition to these clans and individuals who were mentioned by Walsh in his story, there were other clans and famous personalities who established certain government institutions but who neither evolved these institutions on their own nor had the political foresight and appreciation to unite forces with others who showed similar organizational skills and political insight. In eastern Sanaag, for example, there was the brilliant and bold Garaad (Sultan), Garaad Mohamoud Ali Shire, and eastern Awdal, there was the gallant and thoughtful Ugaas (Sultan) Nur, who was also an illustrious poet. Both men had tumultuous experience with the British expansion to Somaliland. Garaad Mohamoud was deceitfully captured in 1920 in Yemen by the British and was exiled to Seychelles where he spent seven years in exile.

In Togdheer and Maroodijeex, there were such enterprising and influential personalities as Sultan Nur, mentioned in Walsh’s story, Farah Omaar, Sultan Deria, Farah Nur, and Ina Hagaa Dheere. These men and many others that I may not have mentioned in this short article had outstanding leadership skills and left memorable hallmarks on our history. However, due to the limitations of their culture and their time, they were unable to go the extra mile to join hands with their contemporary fellow country and lay down the grounds for the institutions of modern government.

Had some of the individuals and clans, mentioned above, come to some sort of political understanding to rule Somaliland together and evolve a state government, our history would have been different today. But unfortunately, as I said earlier, lack of political vision, political sophistication, individual interests, and clan interests militated against the development of this essential and effective political system. Sadly, even today, this harmful political influence is still impacting negatively on our serious and concerted attempts to build a modern Somaliland state. We missed opportunities several times in the past; I strongly urge that we should not miss it today.

In the next article, I will discuss how Walsh managed to expand his rule to the interior of Somaliland with a small security force.

Past series of Withoutnour Knowledge