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Clan Politics Dictate The Future Of Somalia
By Jeffrey Gettleman
MOGADISHU, Somalia, January 22, 2007 – Fifteen men and one woman sat on the floor of a sunlit room. It was hot. Many people were sweating. The elders of the Ayr clan had called a political meeting, and very quickly it was clear that their attitudes toward the nation's newly empowered transitional government were unanimous — and bitter.
"The government is weak," said Mohammed Abdi, an Ayr elder. "We can't support it."
Somalia , which has been an archetype of Africa's ills for so long, has waited 16 years for this government. The United Nations has invested millions of dollars into propping it up. American officials are so intent on its succeeding that, in the interests of regional stability and counterterrorism, American forces have ventured onto Somali soil for the first time in more than a decade to hunt down the last of the Islamist leaders who held a firm grip on much of the country until just a few weeks ago.
But whether Somalia pulls itself together now or explodes into bloodshed again depends not on American troops, foreign peacekeepers, investment or aid. It depends on clans. "Clannism," said Ali Mahdi Mohammed, an influential clan leader and once a contender for president, "is our national cancer."
It was clan animosities that tore down Somalia's last government in 1991, clan militias that humiliated American troops in 1993, bringing a troubled aid mission to a hasty end, and clan warfare that has consumed countless lives and reduced Mogadishu, Somalia's once- beautiful capital by the sea, to a pile of bullet-pocked bricks.
The government, which took the capital for the first time last month, is trying to address the clan problem head- on. It is using a mathematical formula based on rough estimates of the population (the last census was in 1975) to allocate parliamentary seats and ministerial posts on a clan basis, and plans to govern like that until the next elections, which are proposed for 2009.
But this approach is hardly original — and it does not have an encouraging history. It is the 14th attempt since 1991 to form a clan-based government; all the others have disappeared into a vortex of suspicion and violence.
The Green Line in Mogadishu, a blasted-out boulevard with blackened buildings on each side, is a monument to fratricide. It is the dividing line between two clans, the Haber Gedir and the Abgal, which are actually part of the same family.
The main Somali clans are divided into a dizzying number of subclans, sub-subclans and even sub-sub-subclans, and the term clan is loosely used for large family networks, like the Hawiye, and smaller ones, like the Ayr.
There is no definitive clan chart, with different clans disputing how they are interrelated, and Somalis argue over whether they have physical differences. But all clans are based on ancient genealogies. You cannot join a clan. You are born into one.
The Islamists, who seized power six months ago, had their own solution for this. They tried to submerge clan identities under the blanket of Islam, the one thing, besides language, that all Somalis share. They delivered more stability to Mogadishu in their short reign than the city had seen for a decade and a half.
But then they made an enormous mistake. In December, the Islamists tried to seize all of south-central Somalia, including Baidoa, the seat of the transitional government. Their attacks provoked a crushing response from neighboring Ethiopia, which commands one of the most powerful militaries in Africa and viewed the Islamists as a regional threat. Within a week, the Ethiopian forces, with approval from American officials, annihilated the Islamist army.
Now many Somalis wonder what would have happened to the Islamist ideology if the Ethiopians had never stormed in.
"Islam was probably the best answer for us," said Hassan Gedi Roble, a chief of the Dir clan. "A government of clans is only going to create clan competition." The Islamists have gone underground, vowing to wage a guerrilla war.
The resistance in the capital is beginning to work along clan lines, with attacks against government troops concentrated in neighborhoods that were Islamist strongholds. Government soldiers are so frightened of driving through Tawfik, dominated by the Ayr, that they change out of their uniforms into street clothes before they enter. In other areas not far away, like Sinai, inhabited by many Abgal, shopkeepers pump their fists in the air and cheer when they see the government troops.
Clans have been the bedrock of Somali identity since the first bands of nomads fought over water holes.
"Out there, you needed to belong to someone," said Yusuf Mohammed Ali, a shipping magnate and respected figure among the Suleiman clan.
The same is true today on Mogadishu's chaotic streets. In a place that has teetered so long with no government, no police forces, few institutions and great uncertainty, clans function as a safety net, a social network — most people marry within their clan — a justice system and, most importantly, protection.
The factionalism makes government a tricky affair. Somalia's infamous warlords, like Muhammad Qanyare Afrah, are essentially clan leaders with their own clan armies.
Everybody in Mogadishu calls Qanyare a warlord, but he prefers "MP."
"We are members of Parliament," he said, referring to a group of fellow militia leaders who were given positions in the government in an attempt to bring peace. "We are not street boys."
Qanyare, who is from the Mursade clan, laid out the long history of conflict between the Haber Gedir (which includes the Ayr) and the Darod, the clan of the transitional president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed.
Relations with the Ayr seem especially combustible: It is one of the largest clans in Mogadishu; many of the Islamist leaders were Ayr; and government officials have accused Ayr elders of backing the insurgency. Ayr elders say they have been cut out of the new administration.
American officials are urging the government to reconcile with all clans, and they are becoming increasingly alarmed about the authoritarian streak of the government, which has already declared martial law and briefly shut down radio stations.
Source: the International Herald Tribune