Early political history and social structure

For centuries nomadic pastoralism provided a livelihood to the Somali people in the Horn of Africa. Before the colonial partition of the Somali `territories’ in the middle of the 19th century, the history of the region had been dominated by massive migration of Somalis into areas originally inhabited by other populations. By successfully capturing large parts of Abyssinia under the guidance of Ahmed Gran (1506±43), Somali clans joined to realize a common cause for the first time. But the subsequent evaporation of the newly expanded state and its highland conquests which reached within 50 miles of present-day Addis Ababa foreshadowed the implausibility of a strong state enduring within the realities of Somali national identity. There is evidence that the earliest city-states scattered along the Eastern Somali shores emerged with distinct Swahili Arab influences.

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The Somali social and political structure consists, loosely, of clan families and clans which subdivide into sub-clans, primary lineages, and `dia-paying’ groups. The dia-paying group (Jilib/Bah) is the most stable unit with a membership of groups of families ranging from a few hundred to more than a thousand. The members of each dia-paying group have an informal contractual agreement to support one another and to share payments. The term `dia-paying’ implies that families within the group have a collective responsibility for settling acts committed by, or against, their members. Membership in a clan does not automatically give one certain rights and obligations, rather they are negotiated and agreed in unwritten contracts. The groups rarely have single `traditional leaders’, opting instead for a council of elders who have collective responsibilities. Throughout the colonial administration, elders were appointed and paid to act as the legitimate representatives of their respective groups.

The dia-paying groups also function as mutual aid groups during periods of emergency. Members have an obligation both to help those who are undergoing severe hardship during crises and to observe traditional wealth-sharing mechanisms. In times of crisis, each member is expected to observe an appropriate code of conduct. This manifests itself in activities such as mixed herding, loan sharing, Xoola Goyn (giving animals), and almsgiving. Such coping strategies can, up to a point, effectively limit individual risks and facilitate rehabilitation after periods of crises.

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