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Understanding social divisions and state collapse

A majority of the more recent examinations of the Somali political crisis are based on fallacies and simplistic generalizations of the supposed uniqueness of the Somali people as a culturally homogenous entity.1 They often tend to fall into a reductionist trap, ignoring the intricacies of Somali political reality, while engaging in a one-dimensional exploration of `conflict based on clanship’ . The classical argument is that all Somali people belong to one ethnic group, speak the same language, follow the same religion and share the same culture and tradition. However, a closer examination of this assertion shows that it is inaccurate and misleading. According to Mukhtar, it is a myth invented by outsiders. Somali society has always been divided into nomadic pastoralists in the north and southern agro-pastoralists `which have distinctively different cultural, linguistic, and social structures’ .2 The importance of livestock in relation to subsistence agriculture is regionally variable; with rural households in the south depending on agriculture and northerners relying more on remittances and livestock. Indeed, people inhabiting the inter-riverine regions speak a different language, known as Mai, a combination of colloquial local dialects, Swahili and Somali. Throughout the colonial period, there also grew up distinct territorial, linguistic and administrative traditions in the original territories. Their official languages were French in Djibouti, Amharic in Ethiopia, English in Somaliland, Italian in Somalia and Swahili and English in the NFD (Northwest Frontier District). Moreover, some territorial boundaries also roughly corresponded to clan boundaries.

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Concentrating exclusively on clans and lineage structures, many observers have elevated clanship to the most dominant factor in the analysis of the current crisis.3 Understanding clan and lineage in contemporary Somali politics, while necessary, is not sufficient to unlock their social and political organization. Elaborate charts illustrating clan genealogy, superimposed over acronyms of the many factions, litter the literature on Somali society. These charts have become an operational lexicon for many agencies, imperiously displayed in virtually every regional NGO or UN office. Indeed, visitors often use them as `road maps’. Understanding state collapse in Somalia requires looking beyond clanism and ongoing factional intrigue, which is a symptom of state collapse rather than its cause.

The question of the compatibility of the Somali civil society structure with the postcolonial (centralized) state has recently featured in some analyses of the Somali state collapse.4 It is argued that institutional structures that incorporated concepts entirely alien to the existing Somali institutions were imposed under colonial rule. As a result, a discrepancy emerged between the highly decentralized pastoral structures and the highly central nature of the postcolonial state. It is not simply a coincidence that the strongest opposition to the centralized state has come from the north, where a pastoral mode of production is still predominant. This incompatibility was intensified by the transfer of power and authority from pastoral groups to centralized and urban-based political structures. As a result, pastoralism was `treated less as a distinct way of life and more as an economic resource to be tapped’ .5

Others disagree with this approach of analysis, describing it as `historical’ and not particularly relevant to current problems, as it assumes that the social structure of the Somali society remained intact following its integration into the world economy.6 They argue that the `contemporary’ commercialization of pastoralism transformed society as early as the 1920s and that traditional structures have changed even more dramatically since independence.

Serious economic mismanagement has also played a key role and has been one of the instrumental causes of state collapse.7 Since abandoning the experiment of Scientific Socialism in 1980, the government lacked a coherent development strategy. Its macroeconomic policy was described as `erratic, inconsistent, and often moved from one set of objectives to another, thereby confusing the domestic market’ .8 In 1990 the external debt was $US1.9 billion, which was equivalent to 360% of GDP, excluding `frozen debt’ to some eastern Europe countries.9 The public sector crisis originated from massive expenditure on defense and security services.

The regime was also highly successful in obtaining military support. Somalia was one of the most heavily militarized states in Africa and one of the top recipients of US and Soviet military aid during the Cold War.10 Moreover, more than 80% of refugee aid, which in 1986 together with other non-military aid accounted for 25% of GNP, was diverted to the army.11

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