The political crisis produced by the stalled elections in 2009 led to some soul-searching about Somaliland’s political culture. In this paper, Haroon Ahmed Yusuf reflects on the historic and contemporary relationship between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ politics. His analysis suggests that the distinction is a somewhat false one, that clan politics inevitably infuse modern politics. He suggests that there is a need for a collective response by politicians, the private sector, and civil society to resolve Somaliland’s governance challenges and that the progressive thinkers pushing for a democratization of the political system need to do so in a way that involves the public.

By Haroon Ahmed Yusuf

Social Research and Development Institute – SORADI


One of the core reasons for the disintegration of the Somali state in the 1980s and the calamity that followed is a failure of leadership. For nearly three decades after independence, the Somali people had a governance framework that was characterized by the systematic abuse of state power, a lack of transparency and accountability, the mismanagement of public resources, the exclusion of people from participation in the governance process, and a lack of public services.

The political culture crafted by the first ‘modern’ Somali politicians was largely based on networks of patronage and the creation of clandestine economic channels for personal gain, divide and rule along clan lines – which was elevated to an art form by Siyad Barre – and a lack of accountability. The political and economic structures and processes of the state were perverted and transformed to serve the private interests of competing governing elite and their associates.[1]


This experience led to a complete loss of public trust in the government. It undermined any sense of public responsibility and ownership and produced a population ignorant of their rights and obligations as citizens. It eventually led to the collapse of the national political-economic system and the state.

Since its foundation in 1991 Somaliland has achieved political stability and in the past decade has embarked on a process of democratization. The foundations for further progress remain fragile, however, due to a high prevalence of poverty, high rates of unemployment, weak production and a depleted natural resource base, a social structure immersed in a clan system and, above all, weak governance systems and deficient political leadership.

The country is still in a difficult reconstruction stage. Successive governments have lacked the institutional capacity and financial resources needed to address the complex physical, social, and economic needs of its citizens. Many of the weaknesses of past governments have been perpetuated. Arguably, the current combination of the clan system and multi-party democracy weakens government authority, making it dependent on its management of clan relations and patronage networks.

Although widely understood to be a problem, there has been no serious national attempt to address and come to terms with the realities of clan loyalties, which have been sharpened rather than diminished by their encapsulation in government through the Upper House of Elders (Guurti). The government provides an enlarged arena for clan competition and potential conflict, if not properly managed.

As demonstrated by the fiasco of voter registration in 2009 and repeated Election Day irregularities,[2] the clan-based political culture can limit national political cohesion and progress. The real challenge for Somaliland lies in the need to create a state, which can transcend and at the same time accommodate clan loyalties.

In the past few years, an increasing disconnect between public and national institutions has seen the space for civil society reduced and leadership become more autocratic and unaccountable. This has hampered national development in Somaliland. Hence, there is a need to reverse this trend by creating opportunities that will enhance people’s participation in public affairs; build credible national institutions; and sanction the behavior of those with political or administrative authority so that they recognize that they are answerable to citizens.

The results of a nationwide governance assessment conducted by Action Aid International Somaliland (AAIS) in March 2007, concluded that poor quality of governance is the main reason for the country’s lack of development and the continued poverty and dissatisfaction of the majority of its people. [3]

Can Somaliland society and its political leadership change the negative aspects of its political culture and learn to ‘play by the rules’ laid down in its constitution? How much does Somaliland have to change to come to terms with its own democratization process? Who should lead the change? Can a patriarchal clan system, with all its strengths and weaknesses, listen and respond to the voice of change coming from the young generation and women in particular? This paper seeks to respond to these critical questions.

Traditional Society and Leadership

Prior to European colonialism Somali society was ‘stateless’. Somalis were (and still are) divided into an intricate series of clans and sub-clans, without centralized political institutions or a dynastic system of rule.

Anthropologists suggest that the distinctive genealogically-based kinship system is a function of the environment from which Somalis pastoralists have extracted a subsistence living, and which requires cooperation between groups and individuals for survival.[4] In the patrilineal kinship, system descent is traced through the male line and political identity and loyalty are determined by genealogical closeness and remoteness.[5]

Traditionally Somali clans have competed and cooperated over access to water and other pastoral resources. The segmentary nature of the lineage system allows for constant change and flexibility in relations with others, depending on the interests at hand, whether it is competition over grazing grounds for the herds, conflict over water-holes or a struggle for political office or resources.

It is a feature of this system that at any time one group may stand in opposition to another and the balance of opposing groups provides the essential source of order and security (Cassanelli, 1982) in Somali society.[6] When one group gains greater access to power or resources, or outside forces intervene, the imbalances of power can generate conflict. The constantly shifting political alliances and coalitions are a common feature of contemporary Somali political struggles (Bradbury, 1997).

Traditionally, in this clan-based pastoral society, in which there is no hierarchy of political units or political and administrative offices, two key institutions help to maintain order: diya-groups, whose members are collectively obliged to pay and receive blood compensation (diya); and xeer, contracts, and covenants between kin groups, which form the basis of customary Somali law.[7]

In this egalitarian (at least for men) political system governance is traditionally decentralized and consensus-based. All adult males are, in theory, entitled to participate and be heard in a council (shir) where matters affecting the clan are deliberated. But, this role is usually delegated to elders, who are appointed to their position for a variety of attributes, which may include age, wealth, wisdom, religious knowledge, powers of oratory and poetry (Farah, 1993).[8]

Post-Colonial Politicians and Leadership Style

One of the main legacies of the colonial administration of the Somali region was to introduce a system of centralized governance among pastoral people who had a highly decentralized and egalitarian political system. The impact, according to some analysts, was the erosion of their traditional system of values. Mamdani, for example, has argued that one impact of colonial policy in African societies was to elevate particular individuals above the stations they occupied in the host society’s institutional arrangements.[9]

In Somali society, under the colonial administration, a new small urban elite composed of merchants, bureaucrats, and petty officers were elevated above their station and given a stake in the colonial state. With powers gained through the colonial administration, they challenged the traditional leadership of clan and religious elders, and as ‘modern politicians’ went on to inherit the state which had trained them.

The ‘National’ governments and political leaders that followed the colonial administrations continued to emulate their predecessors, producing first a parliamentary democracy (1960-1969), followed by a socialist state, based on alternative ‘ideology’, namely Scientific Socialism (1969-1991), neither of which had much relevance to the daily challenges facing the Somali population. In the context of the cold war the leadership was not encouraged to critically examine the model of government they had inherited. In the early 1970s, Siyad Barre’s regime went as far as outlawing the clan system in a drive to modernize the nation.

The post-independence economic policies were largely disastrous. The little national surplus that was produced was captured by the merchants and the state officials through corruption and rent-seeking, rather than being invested in the construction of new public institutions required for building the nation.[10] In absence of a productive domestic economy, the post-colonial State relied heavily on external sources to generate almost all its resources for development, leaving it vulnerable to the dictates of aid donors and a mounting debt.

The inability of the leadership to address the tension between the internal demands of a decentralized political culture, on the one hand, and the artificial, alien state and externally oriented world market system, on the other, led to disastrous consequences. In the end, the competition between governing urban elites for state offices and for access to state and aid resources became the central focus of national politics. These self-styled leaders basically hijacked clan identity to perpetuate their own personal power, in the process undermining national institutions that could have reduced the risk of fragmentation and state collapse.

The Impact of the Clan System on ‘Modern’ Democratic Politics

Since the creation of the Somali state and the introduction of centralized government, Somalia’s politics has always been a balancing act involving the major clan-families. For many Somalis, clan allegiance is more important than national interest. Many modern-thinking Somalis, however, view the clan system as the root cause of backwardness. Placing clan interests above the state, they argue hampers national economic, social and political development, prompts individuals to behave irrationally, and it prevents the public from holding politicians accountable.

The Somaliland politician mobilizes support from his sub-clan or clan, which is less costly than campaigning for support from the public at large. It is safe to say that each elected member of the Somaliland House of Representatives can rely on receiving 70% of voters from his or her own clan and sub-clan. Politicians, therefore, need no political program or progressive political ideas to inspire and carry people with them because they can rely on their clan to support them.

Every clan also has an exaggerated perception of their numbers and strength. In the pastoral environment, it is quite common for Somali herdsmen to inflate the size of their sub-clan and livestock in order to signal their power and /or to scare off potential adversaries. Similarly in politics clan leaders exaggerate their numbers to justify their claim to a bigger share of the national pie. The Somaliland voter registration fiasco in Oct 2008 is a good example of this.

At the time politicians and elders mobilized as many of their clan members as possible for the registration in order to demonstrate their numerical supremacy and to enhance clan prestige. The rivalry between the clans led to multiple underage registrations. This not only wasted national resources but raised political tensions between the opposition and government, which eventually took Somaliland to the brink of collapse in September 2009.

The public attitude toward politicians reveals more irrational behavior. By and large, most of people in Somaliland condemn most politicians for being self-serving crooks, but at the same time give them a hero’s welcome when they visit their home constituencies. The same is true in the case in the diaspora, where aspiring or fading politicians find it easy to raise funds on the basis of dubious claims about clan politics at home.

Criticism is intended to change his behavior that is to fulfill his pledge to serve the community and bring about positive change. When parties are thrown in their honor, they are congratulated for doing a good job and are encouraged to continue what they have been doing all along; that is, misappropriating national resources, creating discord and disturbing community harmony for political expediency. Everyone is reluctant to hold a politician or government official to account, due to unease about offending his clan, who are expected to support him right or wrong.

Craftiness is another highly-valued cultural attribute among Somalis and their politicians. It is regarded as highly cunning to break a contractual agreement at an opportune moment, whether it is based on xeer or modern agreements. This practice has been exacerbated by the experience gained during the SNM struggle, when political scheming, deviousness and Machiavellian practices were commonplace.

Some SNM veterans assert that the spoiler strategy (ku-jiqsi) that bedeviled Somaliland’s political atmosphere in the early years was learned in Ethiopia during the years of exile. It persists in the elections which continue to be marred by fraud and irregularities.

‘Modern’ Politicians and the Character of their Politics

Somaliland’s democratization process has faced a number of challenges since 2005 which slowed the pace of reform. These have included a lack of political resolve and technical competence in resolving key institutional and procedural matters, the most important of which was how elections should be organized and administered.

While acknowledging Somaliland’s democratic institutions are in their infancy, the political leadership have been accused of failing to move the democratic process forward and to consult with the citizens, build consensus and bring the people together around a common national cause. This resulted in a serious crisis of legitimacy and credibility with Somaliland’s political system in 2009.

The contemporary political class in Somaliland is made up of a mixture of remnants of the ‘old guard’ politicians (1960-1991), members of the business class, those who emerged through the SNM struggle, particularly the military class, and various political opportunists and romantics, particularly from the diaspora.

However, they all have one thing in common, and that is to be serious contenders they must secure the support and endorsement of their sub-clans and clans. This is perhaps the easiest and least expensive way for any politician anywhere in the modern world to build his political constituency, aside from being born to be king. It does not require much knowledge, experience, skills or resources.

Very few of these politicians have received training or formal education in political science. This raises the question of whether the Somalis are born politicians, and the family home a nursery for political training, or they have a uniquely different concept and practice of politics which allows anyone to become a politician. That is perhaps rooted in Somalis egalitarian culture.

Fifteen years of stability, political consensus and relative democracy is not matched by progress in Somaliland’s development indicators. The majority of people are dissatisfied with the performance of their elected officials in both the government and the opposition parties. The results of a nationwide governance assessment conducted by AAIS in March, 2007, revealed a public demand for transparency, better representation, and improvement in the quality of governance and leadership.[11]

The majority of professionals and experts taking part in the assessment argued that a gap between citizens and representatives perpetuates a situation, where the public’s views very rarely become part of the administration’s agenda. They also believe there is a crisis of representation due to the lack of capacity and accountability of elected public officials. This survey conveys the disappointment of the Somaliland public after the first democratic elections had raised the hope of an improvement in governance.

Nationally, the political leadership have assumed an ineffectual and personalized management style. There is continued dependence on and influence of clan- based system of governance, a lack of transparency and accountability in the party political system, a deficit of qualified human resources, a disregard for the equality and rights of women, and a limited interest in civil society.

Almost nine years after they were created none of Somaliland’s three political parties have built a formal membership base. In the absence of subscription membership, the institutionalization of the party structure, procedures and realization of its mission shall always remain abstract and adhoc.[12] In local government, the limited participation of the public is compounded by the inadequate devolution of power, their own lack of knowledge about their rights and obligations, and the absence of effective auditing and mismanagement of resources.

Cabinet ministers and senior civil servants are handpicked by the President (and his clique) and enjoy his protection and political patronage. Such impunity from a justice promotes rent-seeking behavior among government officials and civil servants, most of whom regard their offices as personal realms to be milked, with impunity, for their own or their sub-clan’s gain. Their behavior is supported by sub-clan members who hold the same outlook and expect him to set their needs as his main priority.

For the majority of Somaliland’s public this is one of life’s realities. In the absence of any different experience, the behavior of politicians seems normal. If a member of the public needs some legitimate service from one of these public servants, his instincts tell him to solicit the support of an acquaintance or friend who belongs to the same sub-clan of the civil servant in office, to plead his case.

Among the opposition parties, there are also many individuals who have never pursued a private career but have spent all their life seeking government positions. These individuals are infamously known to join the opposition if they are not offered positions in the government (and vice-versa). Unfortunately, the majority of this group are former cabinet members in previous administrations including those who served in Barre’s regime. The easy switch from one party to another indicates a fundamental lack of ideology or principle among politicians, as well as the political parties.

Since the parliamentary elections of 2005, there has been frequent political disagreement and confrontation between the key state institutions, particularly the legislature and the executive, which occasionally brought day-to-day governance to a stop. Most observers attribute this to the failures of the leadership to work together to resolve their differences through compromise and concession.[13]

Many studies have shown poor governance and leadership as one of the reasons why many developing countries, particularly in Africa, continue to fail in their efforts at poverty reduction and in their quest for economic and human development.[14] These studies argue that weak governance of public institutions, for example, imposes particular costs on the poor, while institutional dysfunction deters governments from undertaking actions that benefit the poor.[15] Backward politicians and leaders make for backward societies and corruption thrives where laws are weak. Somaliland’s politicians and political system, therefore, need reform in order to win the battle against under-development and consolidate democracy and socio-economic progress.

The Way Forward

The hallmark of Somaliland’s recent political culture has been an effective tradition of skilled negotiation, compromise, consensus and pragmatism. While this approach has served Somaliland well in solving some fundamental governance problems, it may also have contributed to the lack of progress in institution-building and application of constitutional law.

Most people in Somaliland recognize the need for a political class devoted to democracy and not simply to the accumulation of power. Some may feel that when structures of political representation become dysfunctional – as they did in the early nineties – strong but accountable leadership or even benign dictatorship may be desirable. But Somaliland’s political culture needs to evolve with the times and build on the accumulated experience of the last twenty years. A whole series of traits need to change if the country is to become a member of the 21st Century community of nations.

Good governance is the joint responsibility of players in the public sector, the private sector, and civil society at local, regional, and at national levels. As such, a collective effort is needed to create an environment conducive to building partnerships between civil society, the state, and the private sector. Democracy and good governance need constant vigilance and real checks and balances on the power of any individual or entity. Somaliland’s institutions need to develop and improve in order to perform their constitutional functions. This requires intensive capacity building of its human resources, including, massive public educational programs.

The role of the national elites in this social transformation is to understand the need and desire for change that is coming from the public and to commit themselves to organize a renewal of democratic politics. It is also crucial to this collective effort that progressive elements within Somaliland society who are committed to fundamental change, should show solidarity with the people and help crystallize their aspirations towards a positive nationalism.


  1. ActionAid International Somaliland (AAIS) (2007), Somaliland Governance Assessment: Unpublished study.
  2. Abokor, A, et al (2003) ‘Very much a Somaliland-run election’: A report of the Somaliland local elections of December 2002, CIIR, London.
  3. Bradbury, Abokor, and Yusuf, ‘Somaliland: Choosing Politics over Violence Review of African Political Economy No.97:455-478.
  4. Bradbury, Mark. Somaliland: Country Report. London: CIIR, 1997.
  5. Farah, Ahmed Y. 1996. “Conflict and Conflict Resolution in Somaliland: The Case of the Peace Committee for Somaliland.” Paper presented at the International Resource Group Conference. Mombasa, Kenya. November 6-9, 1996.
  6. Fadal, M.O (2009) Institutionalizing Democracy in Somaliland: Hargeisa, Somaliland. Social Research and Development Institute (SORADI)
  7. Farah, Ahmed Yusuf (1993) The Roots of Reconciliation: Peace-making endeavors of contemporary lineage leaders in North-west Somalia/Somaliland, London: ActionAid
  8. ICG, (28 July 2003) “Somaliland: Democratization and its Discontents”; Africa Report No 66 –
  9. Lewis, I.M. 1961. A Pastoral Democracy: A Study of Pastoralism and Politics among the Northern Somali of the Horn of Africa. London: Oxford University Press.
  10. Lewis, I.M. (1994) ”Blood and Bone: Somali Kinship”, (Lawrence, NJ: Red Sea Press)
  11. Lewis, IM (1961) “Force and Fission in Northern Somaliland”, American Anthropologist, v63:94-112.
  12. Lewis, I.M. 1980. A Modern History of Somalia: Nation and State in the Horn of Africa.
  13. Lewis, I.M. 1988. A Modern History of Somalia: Colorado: Westview Press.
  14. Lyons, T & Samatar, Ahmed I. (1995 October) Somalia: State Collapse, Multilateral Intervention and Strategies for Political Reconstruction (Brookings Occasional Papers) Washington: Brookings Institution
  15. Mahmoud Mamdani: Citizen and Subject, Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, 1996.
  16. Academy of Peace & Development 2008. POLITICAL IMPASSE IN SOMALILAND: An Assessment of the Relationship between the House of Representatives and the Executive, A study commissioned by ActionAid Hargeisa, Somaliland
  17. Samatar, Abdi I. (1989) The State and Rural Transformation in Northern Somalia, 1884-1986. Wisconsin/London: University of Wisconsin Press.
  18. Simons, Anna 1996. Networks of dissolution: Somalia undone. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.


[1] Simons, Anna 1996. Networks of dissolution: Somalia undone. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

[2] Abokor, A, et al (2003) ‘Very much a Somaliland-run election’: A report of the Somaliland local elections of December 2002, CIIR, London.

[3] ActionAid International Somaliland (2007) Somaliland Governance Assessment. Unpublished study.

[4] Lewis, I.M. 1988. A Modern History of Somalia: Colorado: Westview Press.

[5] Lewis, I.M. 1961. A Pastoral Democracy: A Study of Pastoralism and Politics among the Northern Somali of the Horn of Africa. London: Oxford University Press.

[6] Cassanelli, Lee V. (1982) The Shaping of Somali Society: Reconstructing the History of a Pastoral People 1600-1900. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[7] Lyons, T & Samatar, Ahmed I. (1995 October) Somalia: State Collapse, Multilateral Intervention and Strategies for Political Reconstruction (Brookings Occasional Papers) Washington: Brookings Institution

[8] Farah, Ahmed Yusuf (1993) The Roots of Reconciliation: Peacemaking endeavors of contemporary lineage leaders in North-west Somalia/Somaliland, London: ActionAid

[9] Mamdani, Mahmood (1996) Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[10] Samatar, Abdi I. (1989) The State and Rural Transformation in Northern Somalia, 1884-1986. Wisconsin/London: University of Wisconsin Press.

[11] ActionAid International Somaliland (2007) Somaliland Governance Assessment. Unpublished study.

[12] Fadal, M.O (2009) Institutionalizing Democracy in Somaliland. Hargeisa, Somaliland. Social Research and Development Institute (SORA DI)

[13] Academy of Peace & Development (2008) POLITICAL IMPASSE IN SOMALILAND: An Assessment of the Relationship between the House of Representatives and the Executive, A study commissioned by ActionAid Hargeysa, Somaliland.

[14] AFRICAN DEVELOPMENT BANK (2001), ECONOMIC RESEARCH PAPERS NO 68,: Governance and Poverty Reduction in Africa, by Professor P. Anyang’ Nyong’o The African Academy of Sciences Nairobi, Somali region, and found that around 40% of samples failed to meet either national or WHO drinking quality standards [9]. In Kenya

[15] (Overseas Development Institute (2009): Poverty and Poverty Reduction in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Overview of Key Issues (Working Paper 299): Geoff Handley, Kate Higgins and Bhavna Sharma with Kate Bird and Diana Cammack)

About the author

Haroon Ahmed Yusuf is an Associate Researcher with Social Research & Development Institute (SORADI), as well as, an independent Consultant. He has over twenty years of experience in designing and managing development programs in Somalia and Somaliland in pastoralist livelihoods, peacebuilding, governance, and institutional development. He holds a degree in Agricultural Sciences from Washington State University and held senior positions in international NGOs for many years, including ActionAid.

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