The escalating war for control of what is left of Somalia, between the al-Shabab extremists and the African Union puppet “transitional federal government”, offers little hope of peaceful resolution. Al-Shabab is now deeply entrenched and, with the help of foreign jihadists, virtually controls all southern Somalia.
However contentious, their viciously anti-feminist interpretation of fundamentalist Islam brooks no opposition and is consequently far from popular, even outlawing watching sports contests and football on television. More significantly, it also strikes at the roots of traditional Sufi Somali Islam with its cults of local and international, saints whose graves are now regularly desecrated. This is very much in the uncompromising spirit of Salafi Saudi Arabia which serves as al-Shabab’s model of correct Muslim behaviour and, more importantly, provides the money that feeds its Somali enthusiasts. It thus has a very strong grip on the impoverished young Somali males who constitute the principal foot soldiers carrying al-Shabab’s banner and are, in effect, mercenaries.
Somali society is extremely fragmented along kinship lines and, to a degree most foreign observers fail to appreciate, lacking in political centralisation. The familiar African chiefs are largely absent in this highly individualistic world where the individual’s loyalties are a matter of competing blood-ties. Such bonds cut across membership of al-Shabab whose leaders, however, tend to belong to the Hawiye clan-family, based in central southern Somalia. The Somali historian Said Samatar aptly described their predecessors, the Union of Islamic courts, as a “fragile coalition of clans wrapped in an Islamic flag to look respectable”; al-Shabab similarly relies heavily on kinship ties to maintain solidarity and confront its enemies.
The underlying loyalties here are, as is usual in the Somali world, fluid and readily subject to fission. External pressures, especially from non-Islamic sources, normally provoke internal solidarity. This, of course, is a major reason why external force, intended to replace al-Shabab by less extreme forms of Islam, will almost certainly fail. Indeed, radical change in the al-Shabab regime is only likely to be achieved by subtle internal initiatives and the problem would be how to design and implement these. The perceived oppressive character of al-Shabab provides abundant opportunities for currents of Somali disaffection to grow and multiply.
A very important local factor will be the positive demonstration effect provided by the existence of the adjacent Somaliland Republic. Although largely officially ignored by the UN and OAU, this state based on the former British Somaliland Protectorate had initially joined Somalia, but in 1990, at the climax of the collapse of dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre’s brutal regime, broke away to reassert its independence. Despite being regarded in Somalia as a sort of phantom limb, with virtually no external help, this state has built itself up by a remarkable series of internal peace agreements and democratic consolidation to its current situation as a functioning democracy. This has been achieved by local self-help and without the massive international effort devoted, with such striking lack of success, to restoring governance in Somalia.
Somaliland has just had its second successful presidential election (and changed president in a peaceful process validated by international observers). Its people are Somalis like their kinsfolk in Somalia, but by a judicious combination of traditional and modern politics, have successfully established a viable modern government and associated institutions. Despite internal and external pressures and with fewer economic resources than Somalia, these have demonstrated remarkable viability and have, so far, been blessed by an impressive degree of political stability. Its time now to learn from Somaliland’s success and see how to emulate it.
Ioan Lewis, emeritus professor of anthropology, London School of Economics.