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Issue 437 -- June 12- 18, 2010
1969 Military Coup In Somalia Part XXIX
By Dr. Mohamed-Rashiid Sh. Hassan
This is the twenty-ninth article of a series of articles that Dr. Mohamed-Rashid analyses the military coup and its legacy
By definition, ethnicity is a sense of group identity deriving from real or perceived common bonds such as language, race or religion. Put succinctly by another scholar, Ethnicity has been taken to refer to a group of people holding something in common, such as language, religion, geographical origin, common history, some physical characteristic, genetic similarity or some other attribute. If we apply this definition to Somali society, Somalis must be seen as one ethnic group divided into clans and sub-clans, because they speak the same language and have the same culture. Using clan category should be more appropriate than ethnicity, when analyzing the Somali kinship system.
Ethnicity can be also recapitulated as ‘a collective representation’, to borrow Durkheim's terminology, or what Ibn Khaldun called ‘al-Assabia’, meaning partisanship, when a group identifies itself and is identified by others as a different social group.
The concept of ethnicity was seen as a useful instrument of analysis and was described in different forms involving ancestral origins, historical narratives, and cultural and ideological postulates, for both heuristic and theoretical reasons. In order to understand the traditional structure of the Somali society or, for that matter, any African society, it is useful to turn to the work of social anthropologists who devised various terminologies for this matter: kinship, tribalism, clannishness or, in its modern version, ethnicity.
These analyses were all designed to describe traditional or pre-industrial societies mainly to provide information about these societies. They were not only about understanding the tribal systems of these societies but also to comprehend better their economic, cultural and social activities.
In the wider African historical context, tribalism is explained as the expression of common loyalties of people who share the same culture. It was a positive force for solidarity helping to create a civil society dependent on laws and the rule of law. Given this definition, it could be difficult to distinguish it from nationalism, but recent manifestations of ethnicity are a quite different matter. Rather, they are examples, which breed disorder and destructiveness.
Somali society is believed to make up of six major clans-families: Hawiye, Isaaq, Dir, Digil/Mirifle, Rahanweyn and Darood and numerous other smaller clans. Each clan is sub-divided into sub-clans and the sub-clan is divided again into more sub-clans down to extended families until the household.
The segmented clan system has been presented as the foundation of Somali society, and to understand Somali politics, history and even culture, you merely have to look at their kinship and clan system. On the question of genealogy, and clan segmentation and its relationship with politics, the two most significant facts concerning Somali society are the Somalis’ belief in common ancestry and their segmentation. Their belief in common ancestry is at the root of Somali national solidarity. Their segmentation into lineage groups provides the key to the understanding of their politics.
Imperialist intrusion and Somali’s integration into the global economy would make any argument for the static structure of Somali society unsustainable. Previously, the traditional kinship structure was built upon the communal mode of production, but changes in recent years, particularly in the area of production must be taken into account. These changes gave rise to the phenomenal growth of the livestock and urbanization, as well as the development of non-traditional modes of power.
The argument, which depicts the Somali social structure as stagnant and timeless, has met challenges in recent years. It can also be stated that the clan system is neither democratic nor without tensions and conflicts, but these conflicts and tensions were not biologically nor genetically transmitted and sustained, but had a direct relationship with the material base of society and its power relations.
Somali society has been an integral part of human civilization and has been subjected to the same social changes and upheavals of the modern world. It cannot be seen as an isolated timeless village hanging somewhere in space. The belief in the protection of the family, extended family and neighbors and their support at times of crisis are not necessarily something to do with ones ancestral origins. It is more to do with a belief of higher universal human shared norms. The same belief is also present in the Abrahamic faiths, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, as well as other religions.
Furthermore, a clan-based approach gives little attention to the following factors:
(a) The impact of colonization and the post-colonial state and the various social, economic and political changes that these brought to the Somali social landscape.
(b) It overlooks the collective consciousness emanating from other factors, such as belonging to a nation, a national party, a religious group. For example, there must be a collective national consciousness as opposed to a specific clan consciousness. It was this collective consciousness upon which the liberation struggle thrived and the Somali nation-state was built and sustained. The individual may have a stronger loyalty to these organizations than he or she has with clan.
(c) The flexibility and the internal dynamism of culture in accommodating other relationships, particularly in the area of power and authority is another important point.
(d) Neighborhood, which is very important in Islam.
(e) Identification with towns and cities is symbolized by the term reer (people of Mogadishu), (reer Mogadishu), Baidoa people (reer Baidoa), Borama people (reer Borama), Hargeysa people (reer Hargeysa) or northern (Somaliland now) visa-a-visa Southern. These identifications have been used to avoid the divisive negativity of clannishness and used for alliance and support.