Reflections on Somalia and Modern Statehood

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the history of Somalia today, in preparation for a presentation on it next week. It’s been really interesting, so expect a few posts on it soon. For now just a few throwaway ideas.

It’s a truism that statist political systems rely on a mix of force and consent (whereas anarchic ones rely purely on consent). But you get a much stronger sense of the meaning of that truism when you look at how African societies, and to a lesser extent other non-european societies, have tried to establish working political systems.

The traditional systems (tribal affiliations, customary law, religious courts, etc.) may not be great, but they did for a long time have widespread legitimacy, and as a result they worked. But, to various extents, colonialism destroyed or suppressed them.

Even societies that escaped direct colonialism were able to do so only because they rapidly shifted to mimic European models – such as in Japan and Ethiopia, both of whom were able to defeat European armies on the basis of their rapidly-acheived centralised, modern states. But the stress of trying to manage this transition was very great – Ethiopia is a good example of how it ultimately failed, leading to all sorts of horrible things.

Societies that were directly colonised had it even worse because they had to create the new social system so rapidly in the years after independence.

What strikes me is how much this cuts across both democracy/dictatorship sorts of analyses, and how much it also cuts across left-wing/right-wing ones. The Siad Barre regime in Somalia, like Saddam Hussein’s one in Iraq and Mengistu’s one in Ethiopia, were all supposedly ‘Marxist’ and ‘socialist’. But what seems to me more useful in understanding how they acted was that they were aggressively modernising regimes – the ‘conscious planning’ of socialism was appropriated as a slogan to describe something very different, the attempt to just make a society not be what it is. Somalia, for example, under Siad Barre, was a collection of tribal groupings, north-south divided, an ethnic group spread across multiple countries, with no single common language suitable for official use. I.e. it was not a modern nation-state. But Siad Barre said: yes you are! My government is so powerful, we will make you into one.

Another thing that jumped out at me was the role of aggression in this sort of thing. Think about it: you want to appeal to millions of people, and tell them ‘abandon your previous affiliations and senses of identity! Embrace your identity as a member of’ what comes next? “The Glorious Somali Nation”? or “The Comparatively Weak Somali Nation”? If the national identity you’re being asked to embrace doesn’t offer you any ego-satisfaction, you’re not going to embrace it.

This is why when Italy became unified it was insistent that it wanted an empire – it would conquer the world like the Romans did! Same for Germany. And, same for Somalia. In the case of Somalia, the ego-satisfaction was promised in particular through victory over the old enemy (well, a century or so old at least) Ethiopia, through the (re?)conquest of the Ogaden region, a Somali-populated area ruled by Ethiopia (ever since the British gave them it as a thank-you present for their help in various things).

And when that victory didn’t materialise, just like when the French victory over the Prussians didn’t materialise, and when the Russian victory over the Germans didn’t materialise, etc. – people withdrew their consent. They no longer had any particular reason to buy into the national identity, so they were more willing to look for other forms of political expression.

This suggests to me that nation-building is kind of like a pyramid scheme. To get in, you have to pass down a problem to those people who haven’t yet got into it, by invading or otherwise dominating them. And we know how efficient and just pyramid schemes are.

Anyway, that’s some of what I thought.

8 Responses to “Reflections on Somalia and Modern Statehood”

  1. beritadarigunung Says:

    good luck to somalia.

  2. Duncan Says:

    The traditional systems (tribal affiliations, customary law, religious courts, etc.) may not be great, but they did for a long time have widespread legitimacy, and as a result they worked.

    What makes you think that tribal affiliations, customary law and religious courts are traditional in Africa?

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I didn’t say in Africa, just in Somalia, from what my research suggested. That research was hardly exhaustive, involving quite a lot of wikipedia, but it seemed quite clear that Somalia prior to European colonialism had been organised much more along tribe/clan lines than along ‘national’ lines, notwithstanding the rise and fall of various sultanates with their various extents. Customary law is, surely, traditional by definition, and as for religious courts, I confess I may have been mistaken there. I believe the Ottomans certainly put some Islam into the legal system.

    That’s not to deny the fact that here as elsewhere, colonial forces repeatedly exacerbated tribal divisions – the British to divide resistance between 1900 and 1920, the Italians for the same purpose between 1920 and 1936, both of them to undermine the other during WWII, and Siad Barre especially towards the end of his regime when his support was crumbling.

  4. Duncan Says:

    Fair enough, though I’m highly sceptical of claims about what’s ‘traditional’ anywhere in Africa.

    News coverage, including more indepth features style article, and even some more academic material doesn’t seem to acknowledge any progress in the understanding or historiography of ethnicity in Africa since the early 1960’s. I would guess Wikipedia generally commit these errors as well.

    I don’t think that colonial forces ‘exacerbated’ tribal divisions either. I would argue that what occured during the colonial period was the creation of the idea of ethnicity as a joint project between colonial authorities and many Africans. John Iliffe sums it up brilliantly in his remarks on Tanganyika (Tanzania), “the British wrongly believed that Tanganyikans belonged to tribes; Tanganyikans created tribes to function within the colonial framework.” This particular example can be generalised to most of colonial Africa.

    Apologies if this seems like nit-picking but it’s a particular interest of mine!

  5. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    No, that’s a fair issue to raise. Hopefully my main point, that whatever there was was not a modern centralised bureaucratic nation-state, still stands. What I mainly find myself asking though is, what model of description is appropriate to pre-colonial Somalia (or Tanganyika)? Would it be fair to say that, just like in medieval Europe, blood relationships were important and relatively little power was centralised under a violence-monopolising sovereign?

  6. Duncan Says:

    If I could answer that satisfactorily I’d probably be offered some sort of academic post very swiftly!

    The simple answer is that there were a whole multitude of different social organisations that varied enormously across the continent, after all we’re talking about a landmass that encompasses dense rainforest, savannah, desert, etc. Theorists tend to emphasise the coexistence of various levels of identity, such as family ties, village identity, religious identity, plus many more depending on which theorist you read, none of which were predominant.

    The other problem is a lack of evidence about what societies were like in the pre-colonial period. Written records are largely absent and oral traditions, which can stretch back four centuries, are unreliable. You’d be amazed at how many ethnic groups claim authentic origin myths that sound suspiciously like the Jewish people in the Old Testament. It’s not just something exclusive to non-whites either, the Afrikaner did exactly the same thing in the 19th century.

    Societies in Africa only appear similar in modern times because of the common transformative experience of European colonialism.

    It’s also important to remember that modern-day boundaries don’t correspond to anything at all really except the outcome of decisions made in the boundary commissions in the 1920’s, with the exception of Ethiopia. This means it doesn’t make sense to talk of pre-colonial Somalia or Tanganyika, such places were invented in the late 19th century.

  7. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “it doesn’t make sense to talk of pre-colonial Somalia or Tanganyika, such places were invented in the late 19th century.”

    Well quite – this is part of the reason for the Ogaden war and the civil war, the idea of “Somalia” as a coherent entity was in conflict with the reality that many somalis lived elsewhere and that north and south areas had gone through completely different colonial experiences before being stuck together.

    The boundaries of Ethiopia thought aren’t that different, part of its attempt to modernise was to grab as much territory as it could, resulting in later problems and insurgencies in the Tigrayan, Oromi, Ogaden, and Eritrean areas, among others. Indeed, the inclusion of Ogaden and Eritrea was directly the result of colonial line-drawing, they were basically presents from the British.

  8. A R Raabbi Roobdon Says:

    Hi Guys,

    Let me share this with you. Somali people are of one tribe but of many clans “segmentary social order of clans” unique to Somalis and Yemenis.

    Their traditional authority precedes the colonial era and must not be confused wit the rest of Africa’s tribalist traditions.


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