Social Change

Somalia Table of Contents

Colonial domination had various effects, such as the formal abolition of slavery in the years preceding World War II, particularly in the interriverine area. The effects of Western rule had a greater impact on the social and economic orders in urban than in rural areas. After World War II, the institution of the trusteeship in the Italian-administered south and greater attention to education in the British-run north gradually led to further change.

The late colonial period and the first decade of independence saw the decline, in part legally enforced, of caste-like restrictions and impediments to the equality of habash and traditional occupational groups. In the south, although nobles were more likely to take advantage of educational opportunities, habash increasingly did so.

The growing importance of manual skills in the modern economy gave some occupational groups an economic, if not an immediate social, advantage. For example, many Tumaal blacksmiths became mechanics and settled in towns. In southern port towns, carpenters, weavers, and other artisans formed guilds to protect their common interests. As skilled manual work became more available and socially acceptable, tolerance of members of the traditional groups increased to the point where some intermarriage occurred in the towns. In the rural areas, members of these groups formed their own diya-paying units and in a few cases began to take part in the councils of the Somali lineages to which they remained attached.

Somali leaders tried to eliminate the traditional disabilities of low-status groups. In early 1960, just before independence, the legislative assembly of the Italian trust territory abolished the status of client, that is, of habash dependent on Somalis for land and water rights. The law stated that Somali citizens could live and farm where they chose, independent of hereditary affiliation. Patron lineages in the riverine area resisted the change and retaliated against habash assertions of independence. They withheld customary farming and watering rights, excluded habash from diya-paying arrangements, and, in some cases, sought to oust them from the land they had farmed for generations as clients. Some habash brought cases in court, seeking to affirm their new rights, but initially many continued to live under the old arrangements. Clientship appeared by the early 1990s to have diminished in fact as it had been abrogated in law.

Whereas some features of traditional stratification were eroded, new strata based on education and command of a foreign language--English or Italian--were forming in the late colonial period. With independence, a new elite arose as Somalis assumed the highest political and bureaucratic positions in national government. A subelite also emerged, consisting of persons with more modest educational qualifications who filled posts in local and regional government. In many cases, however, these government workers were the sons of men who had acquired a degree of wealth in nonprofessional activities such as landholding, trading, and herding, in part because the costs of secondary education in the colonial period could be met only by relatively affluent families.

Two somewhat contradictory forces affected educated urban Somalis in the 1950s and 1960s. On the one hand their income, education, and, above all, their literacy in a foreign language distanced them from most other Somalis. On the other hand, lineage and clan remained important to most of this new elite. Thus descent groups acquired a new importance in national politics.

Locally, particularly in the larger towns, a combination of outsiders and area residents provided middle-level administration. One administrative component would consist of members of the national subelite brought in by the Somali government. Typically, this group would include the district commissioner, the judge, the secretary to the municipality, the staff of some of these officials, teachers, and the national police. Locally elected councillors would constitute the other administrative component. Some councillors were lineage heads; others were businessmen or had some other basis for their local status. Some of the local notables had sons serving as district officials but, by regulation, not in their home communities. In Afgooye, a town in which the Geledi, the Wadaan (a group of the Hawiye clan-family), and others were represented, the local people and the subelite meshed well in the mid- and late 1960s, but Afgooye was not necessarily representative of local communities in the riverine areas or elsewhere.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, there was a growing distinction between the bulk of nomadic Somalis and their kinsmen in the towns acting as middlemen in the livestock trade with Aden. Some of these townsmen became relatively wealthy and appeared to have more influence in council than their pastoralist relatives.

By the 1960s, the demand for livestock in the Middle East had led to a great expansion of the livestock trade through the port of Berbera. Hargeysa and Burao became the points from which 150 to 200 major livestock dealers and their agents--all but a few of them Somalis--operated. The nomadic producers directed their activity toward the commercial market, but the traders controlled the terms of trade, the feedlots, and some of the better grazing land. The government did not interfere because the livestock trade was too important as a source of foreign exchange, and because the traders marketed the animals efficiently.

A new class of merchants thus emerged. They retained their connections with their lineages, but their interests differed from those of nomadic herders. If they were not educated, they tried to ensure that their children attended school.

After World War II and during the first decade of independence, the government stressed loyalty to the nation in place of loyalty to clan and lineage. The segmental system was seen as a divisive force, a source of nepotism and corruption; Somali politicians denounced it as "tribalism." A few Somalis rejected reference to clan and lineage. Nevertheless, persons meeting for the first time asked each other about their "ex- clans." Clan-families, once functionally unimportant, became increasingly significant as political rallying points, particularly as Somalia approached independence, and they continued to be so in the 1990s. Clans and lineages remained the basic unit of society, serving many social, political, and economic functions regionally and locally. Although the Somali government opposed clans and lineages, it continued to appoint and pay lineage heads; lineages and clans were in fact voting blocs. Supreme Court decisions in 1962 and 1964 effected a major change in the role of the diya-paying group. The court's judgments forbade collective payment for premeditated homicide. Payments for unpremeditated homicide and injury, however, were defined as compensation for a tort and were permitted. In this era, too, the diya-paying group's responsibilities were extended to cover traffic fatalities.

The military leadership that took power in October 1969 introduced elements that constituted a radical break with the past. The new regime soon declared socialism as its frame of reference, in part as a means of obtaining Soviet aid. The regime's basic ideas constituted a pragmatic version of Marxism adapted to local social and economic conditions. In this version, class struggle did not apply; the bourgeoisie was very small, composed of the new elite and subelite (chiefly employed in government), a few traders, and a few professionals. There was no significant proletariat, rural or urban, and no great Somali entrepreneurs or landholders.

In its initial zest for change, the new regime focused on the divisions in Somali society: the cleavages between clans and lineages, the settled and the nomadic, strong and weak pastoral lineages competing for grazing and water, patrons and clients in the cultivating regions, and urban and rural dwellers. Attention was also given to the continuing disdain shown to those of low status. Under the new regime, clan and lineage affiliations were irrelevant to social relations, and the use of pejorative labels to describe specific groups thought inferior to Somalis were forbidden. All Somalis were asked to call each other jaalle (comrade), regardless of hereditary affiliation.

Within limits the language of public discourse can be changed by fiat; much pejorative language was expurgated. Nevertheless, Somalis continued to learn each other's clan or lineage affiliation when it was useful to do so, and in private it was not uncommon for Somalis to refer to habash by the phrase "kinky hair." The term jaalle was widely used in the media and in a range of public situations, but its use cannot be said to have reflected a change of perspective.

The government also sought to change the function of the clans and lineages by abolishing the title of elder and replacing it with peacekeeper. Peacekeepers were the appointed spokesmen of what were officially regarded as local groups composed of either cultivators or pastoralists. In the early 1970s, collective responsibility (diya payment) in any guise was abolished.

Like most governments required to deal with a large nomadic population, the pre- and post-revolutionary regimes sought to find ways to settle the pastoralists, both to improve the pastoral economy and to facilitate control and services. Efforts to convert the nomads into ranchers made little progress, and in the early 1990s most herders were still nomadic or seminomadic. The 1974 drought, however, drove many nomads to seek government help; by 1975 about 105,000 had been resettled, 90,000 as cultivators and 15,000 as fishermen. Clans were deliberately mixed within the settlements, and the settlers were expected to deal as individuals with local councils, committees, and courts, whose membership was also heterogeneous. Three years later, nearly 45 percent of the adult males had left the cultivating settlements, perhaps to resume herding. Most of those living in fishing communities remained. Neither the farmers nor the fishermen had been economically successful.

The dismantling of the diya system; the institution of several political and administrative offices intended to eliminate power vested in lineages and clans; and the establishment of committees, councils, and cooperatives were all part of a policy to replace the descent group system as the primary means of organizing political, economic, and social life. Another manifestation of this policy was the banning in 1972 of weddings, burials, and religious rites organized on a lineage or clan basis. Wedding ceremonies were henceforth to be held at orientation centers or other public places. Money could not be collected from lineage members for the burial of a dead member, and the law forbade religious rites tied to local traditions.

Most published observations refer to the continuing role of clan affiliation in national politics. The clan-family, which rose to considerable importance in Somali politics in the 1950s and 1960s, seemed in later years to lose its force as a rallying point. With the exception of northern Somalia's Isaaq people, the groups that exerted influence either for or against the regime were mostly of a single clan-family, the Daarood; President Mohammed Siad Barre's clan, Mareehaan; his mother's clan, Ogaden; his son-in-law's clan, Dulbahante; and the opposition clan, Majeerteen.

Among the revolutionary regime's concerns was the status of women. After World War II, all political parties had established women's committees. In the Italian-administered south, women voted for the first time in the 1958 municipal elections; in the formerly British north, women voted in the 1961 national referendum on the constitution. Women's role in public affairs remained minimal, however, and little was done to change their legal situation in the first decade of independence.

Under Somali customary law, a woman was under the legal protection of a male--her father or husband, or one of their kinsmen in the event of their deaths. In blood compensation, her life was usually valued at half that of a man. Islamic law permitted daughters to inherit half of what was inherited by sons, but in Somali practice daughters ordinarily did not share in the inheritance of valued property (camels or land). Few girls attended school and even fewer continued beyond the elementary level.

The revolutionary government quickly changed women's legal and political status. In principle, the question of diya payment for injuries to women became moot following the formal termination of the traditional system. Soon after the revolution, the government established committees to deal with women's affairs. Women also began participating in government, committees, sports, and other social and cultural activities. In early 1975, Siad Barre announced a decision by the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC) and the Council of Ministers to give equal rights to women in several respects, including equal inheritance rights, a move that led to protests by some Islamic leaders. Perhaps more important was the government's insistence that girls attend school, particularly beyond the elementary level.

There were women in visible public posts in Somalia in 1990. Until the 1991 collapse of the state, 6 of the 171 elected members of the People's Assembly were women. Increasing numbers of females were attending secondary school and university. Further progress for women was interrupted by the civil war and would have to await reconstruction of the country.

The Siad Barre government also acted in the economic sphere, fostering various government agencies at the national, regional, and local levels. The regime initiated some enterprises and placed others under state control. Much productive and distributive enterprise remained in private hands, however.

In the rural areas, the government (beginning with colonial administrations) and large-scale private farmers had acquired much of the irrigated land. In the late 1970s, small-scale farmers had worked some of the irrigated land and much of the flood land, but by the mid-1980s much of the latter had been converted to controlled irrigation and had come under state control. For the most part, rain-fed land cultivation remained in the hands of traditional smallholders engaged in subsistence farming, some of whom earned the cash they needed by working on state farms. Most extensions of the irrigation system facilitated development of large state farms, rather than small farms. Some rural Somalis held no land and relied on wage labor on state farms and large private holdings (chiefly banana plantations) for their livelihood.

Under Siad Barre's regime, animal husbandry remained primarily in the hands of individual pastoral Somalis. The chief change lay in the readiness of these pastoralists to sell their livestock in response to overseas demand. Marketing was in the hands of private traders who had accumulated enough capital to construct water storage units and invest in a transport fleet. In addition, a number of traders had enclosed rangeland to produce hay, thereby excluding herders who formerly had used the land. These traders benefited not only from the government construction of roads and other facilities but also from arrangements whereby their overseas earnings might be used in part to buy imports for domestic sale.

Although income distinctions existed among Somalis in the private sphere, until 1991 those who combined comparatively large incomes with reasonable security were government employees such as administrators, technical personnel, and managers of state- owned enterprises. As under the first independence regime, administrators did not serve in their home territories and were therefore not linked by kinship to the more affluent Somalis in the local private sector.

Despite the otherwise fluid character of the system, the apex of the local hierarchy in a rural settled area consisted of the high-level (and to some extent the middle-level) representatives of the state. These included regional and local administrators, managers of state farms and agro-industries such as the sugar refinery at Giohar, technicians, and highly skilled workers. Members of this group had relatively high incomes and could be reasonably sure of seeing that their children finished school, an important prerequisite to finding a good position. Because they often determined the flow of resources to the private sector, this elite group exercised economic power greater than that of wealthy merchants or large landholders whose income might be the same as, or larger than, theirs.

At the bottom of the economic hierarchy were most rural Somalis, whether sedentary or nomadic. Living primarily by subsistence cropping or herding, they sold what they could. They had little contact with government and had been relatively untouched by development projects because of their isolation or insufficient government efforts to reach them. The farmers among them cultivated the poorest land and barely earned survival incomes with wage work. The pastoralists were most affected by the demands of a difficult environment. Beginning in the late 1970s, limits on migration resulting from hostile relations between Somalia and Ethiopia caused them additional hardship.

As of the early 1990s, two other significant categories of rural residents were workers whose wages derived from state-owned or state-sponsored activities, and landholders or herders who operated on a smaller scale than the plantation owners. Neither of these categories was homogeneous. Wage workers ranged from landless and relatively unskilled agricultural workers whose income might be intermittent, to low-level workers in government agencies whose income was likely to be steadier and who might be heads of or members of families with subsistence farms or herds. Plots or herds owned by farmers or herders varied considerably in size and quality, as did the income derived from them. Nevertheless farmers and herders fared better than subsistence farmers. They joined cooperatives, took advantage of adult education, and participated in government programs that promised to enhance their incomes and the status of the next generation. Members of this category sent their children to school and arranged for some of them to seek more lucrative or prestigious employment in Mogadishu or other large towns.

Rural petty traders did not clearly belong to any one economic category. Their incomes were not large, but equaled those of many lower-level wage workers and small-scale market- oriented farmers.

Particularly in Mogadishu, the national capital and the largest town, another social pattern developed prior to the fall of the Siad Barre regime. Because of their incomes and the power they wielded, the highest party and government officials became the new apex of Somali society. In the early 1990s, the salaries and allowances of cabinet ministers were twice that of the next highest officials, the directors general of ministries, and nearly twenty-five times that of the lowest levels of the civil service. Below the ministers and directors general but well above the clerks of the bureaucracy were other high-level administrators, executives, and skilled personnel. For instance, the manager of a large state-owned factory earned somewhat less than a minister but more than a director general. An unskilled laborer in a state farm earned less than the poorest-paid civil servant, but an unskilled worker in a factory earned a little more. Unskilled farm and factory workers and bottom-level government employees earned only 5 to 10 percent of a manager's salary.

As in the rural areas, in the towns there were many people involved in the private sector. In some respects, merchants and traders had the deepest urban roots. Most of them were petty traders and shopkeepers whose income and status were closer to those of craftsmen than to those of the wealthier merchants.

In the mid-1970s, a manufacturing census indicated that about 6,000 enterprises in Somalia employed five or fewer persons, most of them probably family members. Unlike the larger, often foreign-owned industrial concerns, these had not been nationalized.

Most urban dwellers were wage workers, but they had various skills, sources of employment, and incomes. For example, low- and middle-level clerks in the government bureaucracy and in state enterprises earned no more (and sometimes less) than skilled artisans in state firms, and both earned perhaps twice as much as unskilled factory laborers.

The situation of the urban population had changed radically by early 1992. Following the fall of Siad Barre, urban areas consisted largely of refugees or war victims who had migrated from the countryside after the civil war began.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress