The challenges posed by clans and tribalism

politics and culture — By on January 26, 2007 at 7:50 am

I’ve previously written about clans and tribalism as it relates to Iraq and the Middle East.  But this cultural topic is of course also an issue in other regions of the world, as shown by this recent article about Somalia.

… whether Somalia pulls itself together now or explodes into bloodshed again depends not on American troops, foreign peacekeepers, investment or aid. It depends on clans. …

The government … is using a mathematical formula based on rough estimates of the population to allocate parliamentary seats and ministerial posts on a clan basis … It is the 14th attempt since 1991 to form a clan-based government; all the others have disappeared into a vortex of suspicion and violence.

The story provides a brief history of clans in Somalia and a description of the some of the challenges they pose:

Somalia’s main clans are divided into a dizzying number of subclans, sub-subclans and even sub-sub-subclans, and the term clan is loosely used for large family networks, like the Hawiye, and smaller ones, like the Ayr.

There is no definitive clan chart, with different clans disputing how they are interrelated, and Somalis argue over whether they have physical differences. But all clans are based on ancient genealogies. You cannot join a clan. You are born into one. …

Clans have been the bedrock of Somali identity since the first bands of nomads fought over water holes. “Out there, you needed to belong to someone,” said Yusuf Mohammed Ali, a shipping magnate and respected figure among the Suleiman clan.

The same is true today on Mogadishu’s chaotic streets. In a place that has teetered so long with no government, no police forces, few institutions and great uncertainty, clans function as a safety net, a social network – most people marry within their clan – a justice system and, most importantly, as protection.

The factionalism makes government a tricky affair. Somalia’s infamous warlords, like Muhammad Qanyare Afrah, are essentially clan leaders with their own clan armies.

For more information, you can read this wikipedia article on tribalism, or use Google News to see a variety of media stories from around the world that address the topic.

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