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close this bookThe Somali Conflict (Oxfam)
close this folderPart II: Background to the Somali war
View the document1. Introduction to Somalia
View the document2. The Somali civil war
View the document3. Understanding the conflict

3. Understanding the conflict

Since the beginning of this century, there has hardly been a period when the Somali nation has not been in conflict with itself or with its neighbours. This was graphically expressed in the diagram below, produced at workshop on conflict and peace in Hargeisa in September 1993 (see Appendix D).

Diagram 2: Periods of Conflict and Peace in Recent Somali History

The cumulative effects of continual cycles of conflict on the development of Somalia and the lives of the Somali people must themselves be a cause of the recent conflict While the May 1988 offensive by the SNM on government garrisons in northern Somalia stands out as the overt starting point for this conflict, the roots go much deeper.

It used to be commented that Somalia was unique in Africa, being a state founded upon a single ethnic group-the Somali-who occupy a contiguous territory and share a common ancestry, a single language, an Islamic heritage, and a way of Life that is overwhelmingly pastoral. It is therefore difficult to understand why an apparently homogeneous society should be wrecked by such internal conflict. Conflict between people of different cultures seems more understandable. Until the colonial period, however, the Somali people did not form a unitary state.

One of the main legacies of European colonialism was to graft a system of centralised governance on to the highly decentralised and egalitarian political system of a pastoral people. Subsequent civilian and military governments attempted to create a unitary Somali State, by turning corporate responsibility away from sectional kinship loyalties towards the State. The development of centralised government structures reached its peak in the repressive regime of Siad Barre.

It is important to understand that the political constitution of Somali society lies not in the centralised political institutions of a Western model, but in a particular social system of a pastoral people, where the notion of a 'social contract' has more to do with regulating political and economic relationships between pastoral kinship groups than with delegating responsibility to a central polity.

Somali society is structured on a segmentary clan lineage system, in which membership is determined by descent through the male line. The recognisable levels of segmentation among northern pastoralists are set out below. Within this kinship system, the smallest recognisable political and 'jural' units are the diya-paying groups, to which all Somali belong, and whose members are pledged to support each other, to pay and receive 'blood compensation' (diya) (Lewis, 1961).

Diagram 3: The Somali Segmentary Lineage System

The segmentary nature of this system reflects the need for pastoral groups, extracting a living from a harsh environment, to be in constant motion, expanding and contracting, in response to both internal (e.g. demographic) and external (e.g. ecological) forces of change.

It is a feature of this system that at any time one group may stand in opposition to another. The balance of opposing groups provides the 'fundamental source of order and security' (Cassanelli 1982) in Somali society. The effort to achieve this balance leads to the shifting political alliances that are a common feature of Somali politics. The system is dynamic and inherently unstable. When one group gains greater access to power or resources, or outside forces intervene, the balance breaks down and conflict emerges.

Since the creation of the Somali state and the introduction of centralised government, Somalia's politics has always been a balancing act involving the major clan families. It is true that the civil war in Somalia is the direct legacy of the concentration of power, the corruption, and the human rights violations of the Barre regime. But it has been fought along clan lines, and the 'anarchy' today must partly be understood in terms of the segmentary nature of clans and their shifting alliances. The strength of Siad Barre lay in his ability to manipulate the delicately balanced clan system, supported by the means of state control. Individual access to such power goes against the grain of the Somali system of balanced groups; the imbalance needed redressing.

The civil war in Somalia has occurred at a time when the Horn in general is undergoing major social, political and economic transformations, which are directly related to global political changes, with the ending of the Cold War and the winding down of US and USSR interests in the region. The end of centralised government control, based on a single ideology, is challenging definitions of nationality, sovereignty, and the state throughout the Horn.

The most telling characteristic of the Somali conflict has been a process involving the reaffirmation of lineage identity and territoriality over national concerns. In this sense the war has been an 'ideological' struggle to overthrow a centralised government and to win greater participation, self-determination, and democracy after years of dictatorship and corrupt centralised government. The most dramatic example of this reassertion of selfdetermination was the declaration by the SNM, in May 1991, of the independence of the northern regions to form the 'Republic of Somaliland'.

People have also argued that an analysis of war based on clanism fails to address the external, economic, political and environmental forces that have played their part in this war. Such an analysis also, it is suggested, misrepresents the clan system as being wholly negative, and negates the more positive values of kinship.2 Terms like 'anarchy' and 'madness' have been widely used to describe the state of disintegration that Somalia has arrived at today. They imply that there has been a complete breakdown of law and order and an absence of any sense of the 'social contract' that is required for civil order to exist. But this suggests a lack of understanding of Somali society.

Given the potential for dynamic and turbulent change inherent in the Somali kinship system, it not surprising that mechanisms should exist to mitigate tendencies to conflict. After all, mechanisms for resolving, managing, or mitigating conflict exist in all societies. In Somali society, one of the most important of these is xeer. This has been described as a 'contract' between lineage groups, combining both Islamic sharia and customary law. It defines the obligations, rights, and collective responsibilities of the group. Within the terms of this 'contract', members of a group are pledged to support each other. The xeer lays down the rules of corporate responsibility, and is a source of protection for both individual and group rights.

The xeer, however, is more than a contract. It defines the basic values, laws, and rules of behaviour. It is the closest equivalent to the notion of a 'social contract'. For those interested in peace-making and the reconstruction of Somali civil society, a fundamental question is the extent to which these values, as expressed in the xeer, have been lost during 21 years of military rule and four years of civil war.

Despite the assaults on the fabric of society, Barre's policies ultimately have not managed to eliminate the 'traditional' or historical value systems. In Somali society, history is extremely important. This is evident in the recitation of clan genealogies, the precedents that define customary law (xeer), religious knowledge and so on. Much of Somali political debate today is filled with historical references. This finds

expression in debates (and conflicts) over the ownership of resources in places like Kismayo, the reclamation of Somaliland sovereignty, the return to fundamental ('pure') Islam, the re-emergence of the authority of the elders, the formation of local councils such as the 'Khussusi' in Las Anod, and even the reappearance of historical figures on the political scene. There is a strong sense of people looking back to their culture, their religion and their politics, to explain why Somalia has reached the state it has today, and to find something to help them for the future. This is not regressive behaviour. It is a belief among many Somalis that future peace and stability cannot grow until people rebuild their relations of trust and cooperation from the grassroots upwards. It is to this end that people in Somaliland have looked to the reinvestiture of the traditional means of authority and leadership to rebuild society.

The Somali conflict is the result of a mixture of factors that include the legacies of European colonialism, a schismatic kinship system, the contradictions between a centralised state and a pastoral culture, east-west Cold War politics and militarisation, underdevelopment and uneven development, ecological degradation, and the lack of power-sharing, corruption, and human rights violations. Our understanding of the role that each of these have played in the war is limited and needs to be improved upon. What can be said, however, is that while climate has had its part to play, this is very much a man-made disaster, played out over four years of armed conflict. The phrase 'man-made' is used deliberately, because in this war women have been the innocent victims, if not targets, of the violence. 'Man-made' implies also that it should be resolvable.

Peace-making needs to be supported with an understanding of the causes of a conflict, and the causes of the Somali conflict are open to many different interpretations. An understanding, however, that the Somali conflict is 'created by people and can be eliminated by human action'3 must be the starting point for any discussion of peace-making.


Long term support: If agencies are to become involved in peace-making in Somalia or Somaliland, they will need to make a long-term commitment of people and resources. They need to think in terms of a ten-year perspective and probably not expect to see substantial results from their efforts in anything less than two years.

Research: An understanding of both the causes and impact of the Somali conflict and the responses and solutions to it is a pre-requisite for any involvement in peace-making Agencies should consider sponsoring research in a number of different areas that will provide a dynamic analysis of the current situation in Somalia and Somaliland. The emphasis should be on commissioning Somali researchers. Agencies might consider commissioning research for a series of short briefing papers for publication. Areas for research might include:

· History: a historical perspective on Somalia and the creation of the Somali state, and implications of developing new models of government.

· Anthropology/sociology: an anthropological/sociological understanding of Somali society, its use and limitations for understanding the present conflict.

· Politics: an understanding of international and internal political forces in Somalia, including Cold War and post-Cold War politics, the Somali political factions and actors in Somalia, the role of African, regional politics, and UN and US policy in Somalia.

· Economics: an understanding of Somalia's past and present economy, resources, trade, debt, aid' and under-development.

· Militarism: the effect of militarism, the arms trade, NGOs and arms, mines, and demobilisation.

· Environment: the role which environmental factors have played in the conflict (the 'green war' analysis), the effect of diminishing environmental resources on modes of production, the management, control and access to land, and the impact of the war on environmental resources.

· Social pact of the war: at both local and national levels, the social impact of the war-population movements, refugees, inter- and intra-group relationships, trauma, social dislocation. This: should incorporate a genderbased analysis.

· Peace-making/conflict-resolution: There is a need to identify and understand indigenous mechanisms for conflict resolution and ways in which these may be strengthened ibis should also include an understanding of indigenous coping and healing practices. An understanding of the role that women are playing in the peace processes in Somalia is needed.

· Relief end rehabilitation: An understanding of the role that international humanitarians assistance played in resolving or sustaining the conflict would be useful to determine the future roles and policies for international NGOs in Somalia, Somaliland and elsewhere. Areas to consider might be food and health policies, NGO working practices and organisational structures, security, recruitment, and Somali NGOs.