From tin milk cans to ‘free education’: primitive accumulation of symbolic power in the education sector

In 1988 two of the main cities in today’s Somaliland, Burao and Hargeisa were bombarded by the Somali National Army led by the then President Mohamed Siyad Barre. Grievances against the Barre regime had grown in the 1980s due to increasing marginalization of political opponents and limited economic development in many parts of the country. This, in turn, led to the mobilization of different militant movements resisting the regime.40 The aim of the 1988 bombardments was to force out the Somali National Movement (SNM) operating in present-day Somaliland, and which had attacked the government army in the two cities. The civil war had devastating consequences: at least 50,000 people were killed in Northern Somalia between 1988 and 1990 and nearly half a million sought refuge in neighboring Ethiopia.41 When Siyad Barre fled Mogadishu in January 1991 and the central government officially collapsed, the main cities had already been destroyed completely. The same can be said about the education sector.

Most of the few schools that still had roofs were either occupied by displaced families or had been looted.42 Re-establishing schools was, however, not the most urgent task for the newly established administration in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland. The proclamation of an independent Somaliland came after several peace negotiations by a group of elders, politicians, and representatives of the SNM. During the conference in Burao in 1991, which resulted in the reclaiming of independence, Abdirahman Aw Ali, a leading member of the SNM, was appointed as the first official minister of education.43 Yet, in Aw Ali’s own words: ‘I was a minister by name only, there was not much to be a minister of […] it was difficult times.’44 Most urgent were processes of negotiating peace between different clan elders and representatives, providing security and demobilizing militias. As the former minister explains:


when you talk about health, education and these things, you need law and order first. It was a prerogative of the government to establish law and order, demobilize the militias and disarm the people. First reconcile, then disarm, then demobilize, then educate.45

A few members of the SNM had already been organizing basic education in refugee camps in Berbera port in the breakaway northern region of Somaliland and pledged up to 0 million to develop it. In March, Ethiopia. One of these was Hussein Elmi Warsame, who had acted as ‘head of education’ in a refugee camp near Hartishek in Berbera port in the breakaway northern region of Somaliland and pledged up to 0 million to develop it. In March, Ethiopia. When Somaliland announced independence, Hussein Elmi became the equivalent of a Director-General of Education. He remembers how a ministry took shape during the early days of independence:

We made an announcement to all teachers, educationists and others who were related to education that we wanted to open schools. We found 50 people who could help, like teachers and administrators […] Then we held a workshop for those people for seven consecutive days, but we didn’t have much assistance, at that time: ‘it was help yourself’,46 but some food was brought to us from Djibouti. We then started the education department.47

The workshop resulted in a plan to (re)open ten schools in Hargeisa, which had been used as schools in the Somalia era. Likewise, the newly formed education ministry moved into the building that had formerly been used as Regional Education Office during the Somali administration. In other words, an education sector slowly took shape as the contours of a new Somaliland state emerged.

The new administration had limited resources, however. As a result, most schools were organized by community members. In the absence of government-led education provision, local community members, parents, and teachers who had returned from refugee camps led the re-opening of public schools with financial support from the diaspora.48 A headteacher in Hargeisa who has worked in the same school since it reopened in 1991 explains that it was the community, meaning ‘parents, elders, and other peoples in the neighborhood’, who re-opened the school.49 He continues:

At that time students sat on tin milk cans. The community was mobilizing the children. They went from door to door asking them to come to school. […] The school was completely collapsed: no windows and no roof. The parents collected some money to repair it, and found wood to blind the windows. There were no NGOs at that time and the government had no funding.50

Education and schools, therefore, had to be built from scratch by the communities voluntarily. A later Director-General explained that: ‘this sense of voluntarism was based on the idea that the government would take over one day. In the end: ‘“we will get [a]salary”, they thought’.51 Eventually, this also happened. As the administration began collecting taxes in 1993 after the inauguration of the first President of Somaliland, Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal, some teachers and other educational staff started receiving salaries. The state administration did not, however, pay all school staff. Far from it. Practices of collecting fees therefore continued. Remittances from the diaspora continued playing an important role in supporting schools in this regard.

Although the state administration did not provide significant resources for reconstructing school buildings or for teachers’ salaries, they did play an important role in facilitating contacts with NGOs and external donors. A former SNM fighter who has been working in the education sector since the early years of Somaliland recalls how officials of the new state called for international support:

The first thing we did was to write an education appeal letter and circulated it through a fax. At that time, we only had one fax in Hargeisa. You could go there and send letters outside. We sat there every day and we sent the letter to governments, NGOs, everyone we could think of to support us. Save the Children UK was the first and only to respond, they sent a mission to see how it was here. They bought sorghum for teachers, so they had something to eat.52

Slowly the ministry managed to pay more and more teachers and also build more schools. This was only possible with the help and support from international organizations and especially the Norwegian Refugee Council, UNICEF,53 and Save the Children International.

International agencies not only provided support by building schools and paying teachers but also assisted in developing the first Somaliland curriculum in 1998. From Nairobi, UNICEF and UNESCO held workshops to create a new curriculum for all of Somalia including Somaliland. However, the administration in Somaliland rejected the proposal: as Somaliland had claimed independence, and as Somaliland had already created a syllabus outline three years earlier in 1995, they did not want to use textbooks from Somalia. Abdullahi Yashin, who is the current director of the curriculum department and who attended the workshops in Nairobi, explains: ‘If we couldn’t get our own [curriculum] we would leave the workshop […] [T]o build a nation-state, we needed our own curriculum with its own history and geography to show that we are different from Somalia.’54 The Somaliland curriculum became a reality with seven core subjects (Somali, English, Arabic, Islamic Studies, Social Science, Mathematics and Science) and two non-core subjects (art and geography, and physical training), but it was not until 2001 that the textbooks were printed in Nairobi, before being shipped to Berbera, then distributed throughout Somaliland. The curriculum was first revised in 2009 and, as we shall see in the second case, revised again in 2016.

Alongside government attempts at re-making a public education sector, a number of privately-run Koranic schools either survived the state collapse or re-emerged soon after.55 This to some extent helps explain why schooling never completely disappeared in the early 1990s, as shown in Figure 1. The Koranic schools took the shape of either organized madrasas connected to a mosque, or non-formal Koranic schools in which the Koran and some other subjects are taught in private houses. Some of the nonformal type of Koranic schools have today developed into formal private primary schools. Formal, in this context, means obtaining the necessary license from the authorities in Somaliland by paying a registration fee of US$150 and by following the Somaliland curriculum, which in turn allows ‘formalized’ private schools to take part in the national exams. Though private schools often do not follow the Somaliland curriculum, instead using curricula from other countries (as we shall see in the second case study), they are rarely denied or stripped of their licenses or forbidden from taking part in examinations.56 This is partly because private schools continue to play an important role in delivering education, especially in urban centers. The Somaliland administration has no interest in limiting access to education without being able to offer adequate alternatives in the public sector. Though no reliable data exists on the evolution of private schools compared to public ones, a 2015 report prepared for the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MoEHE) suggests that the enrolment rate in primary public schools has stagnated at 164,876 in the 2013–2014 academic year, compared to 165,017 the previous year. In comparison, the primary private schools experienced an increase in the same period from 43,576 to 47,846 enrolled students.57 This tendency is particularly visible in the cities. In the capital of Hargeisa, for instance, there were 75 private primary schools enrolled for the national exams in 2017, 22 more than the 53 public primary schools.58

Reproducing The State Organizing Primary Education Between State And Non-State Actors In Somaliland
Figure 1. Evolution of enrolment numbers in primary schools.
Source: Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, The education statistical yearbook, 6–10; Ministry of National Planning and Development Somaliland in figures, 7th edition, 41; Ministry of Education and Higher Education, Education statistics yearbook 2014/15, 8.

In sum, although the Somaliland state administration only played a limited role in re-establishing schools and the education sector, its role gradually increased. The new administration was successful in acting ‘like a state’, as exemplified by the Somaliland state officials sitting around a fax machine contacting international organizations for financial support. Due to its gatekeeper position, the ministry of education became an important intermediary for other actors to work through. Moreover, state actors were careful to re-appropriate former government buildings and schools of the collapsed Somali state, through which it (re)appropriated dominant images of the state. It also started paying some of the teachers and other staff at school level and managed to produce a curriculum in which the national story of Somaliland could be narrated. Moreover, despite struggling to govern the private actors that increasingly deliver education in urban Somaliland, the state administration successfully placed themselves as crucial to the formalization of schools.

What does all of this mean for the state’s symbolic power? Is the state able to structure and influence interactions within the education sector, or do non-state actors organize the education sector independently of the state? In the following section, we discuss three examples of the state exercising its accumulated symbolic power in contemporary Somaliland’s education sector. The three cases show, each in their own way, that non-state actors actively make use of the state framework and its policies in their practices of organizing education delivery. We will begin with the ways in which the state’s administrative reach is expanded in the education sector.

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