The Society and Its Environment

Somalia Table of Contents

THE SOMALIS ARE A CULTURALLY, linguistically, and religiously homogeneous people, who are divided along clan lines and sparsely scattered over a harsh, dry land. There are significant distinctions among sectors of the population, related in part to variations in means of livelihood. In the early 1990s, roughly 60 percent of an estimated population of more than 8.4 million were still nomadic pastoralists or seminomadic herders, subject to the vicissitudes of an arid climate. Twenty to 25 percent of the people were cultivators, most living in the southern half of the country, on or between Somalia's two major rivers, the Jubba and the Shabeelle. The remainder were town dwellers, the vast majority of whom resided in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu.

With the fall of General Mahammad Siad Barre's regime on January 27, 1991, and the ensuing internal warfare that resulted in the disintegration of the Somali state, patterns of residency changed dramatically. For instance, the population of Mogadishu, estimated at 500,000 in the mid-1980s, witnessed the influx of thousands of refugees. As a result, Mogadishu reportedly had about 2 million inhabitants in early 1992. Throughout the country the civil war, along with the lawlessness as Siad Barre's regime collapsed and the absence of functioning governmental and social institutions, produced a chaotic situation.

Although 95 percent of the population are ethnic Somalis, sharing a common culture, in traditional society they segmented themselves into a hierarchical system of patrilineal descent groups, each said to originate with a single male ancestor. The most comprehensive of these groups were the six clan-families. Their constituent units were the clans, which in turn were made up of lineages, which themselves were further segmented. Among the sedentary interriverine Somalis, however, descent gave way in part to territoriality as a framework for social, political, and economic organization.

Membership in clans and lineages shaped the allocation of individual rights and obligations. The principle of descent, however, was modified (although rarely overridden) by Somali heer, or traditional jurisprudence. Contracts or treaties bound specified descent groups and their individual members together for the making of war and peace and, above all, for the provision of compensation in cases of homicide and injury.

The Somali social order has been marked by competition and often by armed conflict between clans and lineages, even between units of the same clan-family or clan. Within each unit, Somali males considered better warriors, wiser arbiters, or abler speakers commanded greater respect in council. However, pastoral Somalis looked down on sedentary ones, and both looked down on non-Somali clients of the sedentary Somalis and members of despised occupational groups such as hunters and smiths, who made up, however, only a very small proportion of the population.

The segmented social order, with relatively minor modifications, was carried into the independence period. In a very poor country, many Somalis were disaffected by the competition for power and wealth that often took the form of shifting alliances and conflicts between greater and lesser clans and lineage segments. Simultaneously, new cleavages emerged between educated urban dwellers who had mastered a foreign language and the less-sophisticated rural Somalis.

Soon after the October 1969 military coup, Siad Barre's socialist government aimed an attack at the traditional system. In principle at least, his regime reduced the significance of clans and lineages, encouraged women to participate in government and attend school, and sanctioned the social equality of lowstatus groups. The gap that had opened between educated Englishor Italian-speaking Somalis and the rest of the population was reduced somewhat by the institution of a Somali script and the designation of Somali as the official language.

Siad Barre's government insisted that socialism was compatible with Islam, the religion of the overwhelming majority of Somalis. Although Somalis had not always conformed to the rigors of orthodox Islam, their identity was bound up with being Muslim. With few, if any, exceptions leaders of the socialist regime were Muslims and did not attack religion. However, they also did not hesitate to institute reforms that displeased conservative Muslim leaders.

Despite government encouragement of change, clan and lineage remained important throughout Siad Barre's rule, and Siad Barre remained in power by manipulating clans and clan leaders. In fact, soon after the revolution, kinship considerations and nepotism were evident at the highest levels of the regime.

The workings of the lineage system were predicated on the solidarity of the segments of the same order with one another and the relative equality of the members of each segment. The growth of the state and the development of different degrees of wealth and access to other private-sector resources caused an incipient stratification that had the potential to override lineage solidarity as it diminished equality.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress