Lineage Segmentation and Civil War

Somalia Table of Contents

From the early 1980s to the early 1990s, Somali society underwent a profound crisis--of identity, purpose, and direction- -that threatened its very existence. As a result of its humiliating 1977-78 defeat in the Ogaden War with Ethiopia, the revolutionary regime began to founder. Confronted by armed opposition at home and diplomatic isolation abroad, the regime turned inward. President Siad Barre, an expert in the art of dividing and ruling since his early days as an intelligence officer under the Italian fascists, skillfully harnessed the limited resources of the state. His aim was to pit clan against clan and to inflame clan passions in order to divert public attention from his increasingly vulnerable regime.

A civil war began in the early 1980s with an armed uprising against the regime by Majeerteen clans (Daarood) in southern Somalia under the banner of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF). Armed resistance spread to the Isaaq clans in the north. The regime's efforts to suppress Isaaq resistance resulted in May 1988 in the virtual destruction of the urban centers of the north, most notably Hargeysa, until then the second largest city in the country, and Burao, a provincial capital. This action was followed in mid-1989 by a massive uprising by the Hawiye clans in Mogadishu and adjacent regions under the leadership of the clanbased United Somali Congress (USC). In the escalating waves of government repression and resulting popular resistance that followed, Somali society exploded into violence and anarchy, and Siad Barre and his remaining supporters were forced to flee in early 1991.

Instead of peace, Somalia experienced a power struggle among various clan- and region-based organizations: the Somali National Movement (SNM, Isaaq-affiliated); the SSDF (Majeerteen); the Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM, Ogaden); Somali Democratic Alliance (SDA, Gadabursi); and the Somali Democratic Movement (SDM, Rahanwayn). Lineages and sublineages, fighting over the spoils of state, turned on one another in an orgy of internecine killings. The state collapsed and Somali society splintered into its component clans.

The collapse resulted from certain features of Somali lineage segmentation. Somali clan organization is an unstable, fragile system, characterized at all levels by shifting allegiances. This segmentation goes down to the household level with the children of a man's two wives sometimes turning on one another on the basis of maternal lines. Power is exercised through temporary coalitions and ephemeral alliances between lineages. A given alliance fragments into competitive units as soon as the situation that necessitated it ceases to exist. In urban settings, for example, where relatively large economic and political stakes are contested, the whole population may be polarized into two opposing camps of clan alliances. To varying degrees, the poles of power in the politics of independent Somalia generally have tended to form around the Daarood clanfamily and a confederacy of the Hawiye and the Isaaq clanfamilies .

Two features of lineage segmentation require further comment. First, the system lacks a concept of individual culpability. When a man commits a homicide, for example, the guilt does not remain with him solely as an individual murderer as in most Western societies; the crime is attributed to all of the murderer's kin, who become guilty in the eyes of the aggrieved party by reason of their blood connection with the perpetrator. Members of the aggrieved group then seek revenge, not just on the perpetrator, but on any member of his lineage they might chance upon. In the Somali lineage system, one literally may get away with murder because the actual killer may escape while an innocent kinsman of his may be killed. Second, the system is vulnerable to external manipulation by, for example, a head of state such as Siad Barre, who used the resources of the state to reward and punish entire clans collectively. This was the fate of the Isaaq and Majeerteen clans, which suffered grievous persecutions under Siad Barre's regime.

The meaning of segmentation is captured in an Arab beduin saying: My full brother and I against my half-brother, my brother and I against my father, my father's household against my uncle's household, our two households (my uncle's and mine) against the rest of the immediate kin, the immediate kin against nonimmediate members of my clan, my clan against other clans, and, finally, my nation and I against the world. In a system of lineage segmentation, one does not have a permanent enemy or a permanent friend--only a permanent context. Depending on the context, a man, a group of men, or even a state may be one's friends or foes. This fact partially explains why opposition Somalis did not hesitate to cross over to Ethiopia, the supposed quintessential foe of Somalis. Ethiopia was being treated by the Somali opposition as another clan for purposes of temporary alliance in the interminable shifting coalitions of Somali pastoral clan politics.

Lineage segmentation of the Somali variety thus inherently militates against the evolution and endurance of a stable, centralized state. Although exacerbated by Siad Barre's exploitation of interclan rivalries, institutional instability is actually woven into the fabric of Somali society. The collapse of the Siad Barre regime in early 1991 led to interclan civil war that was continuing in 1992.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress