Divided loyalties

Somalia’s political landscape is increasingly fragmented due to regional and clan differences. Is this the end of the centralized state and a unified, national identity?

Beletweyne, Somalia. Public domain image via the UN Mission in Somalia CC0 1.0.

In early September a video went viral on TikTok showing a woman with a stall full of colorful beaded plastic bracelets. A customer slowly walked toward her, camera in hand, querying which bracelets the vendor had and what they represented. The bracelets bore the standards of Somalia’s crowded political landscape.

If you have a friend of Somali background you’ve almost certainly seen one tightly cuffed around their wrist. They identify one’s region or clan origin but also connote something about one’s political allegiance in an era where the weakness of Somalia’s central state has allowed multiple new entities to fill the political vacuum. These regional political units have different and at times competing stories to legitimize their existence.

On X, where the clip re-circulated, it solicited a mixed response among Somalis, some of whom lamented the fact that their country had fragmented into a complex tapestry of political entities, and others who took pride in their new identities. It also provided a sharp insight into how Somali politics and political identities have evolved over the decades.

When Somalia became independent in 1960 it was governed by the Somali Youth League (SYL), which led the independence charge during the Italian and British colonial era in the early 20th century. Like other independence movements, it was nationalist. The colonies that the SYL aspired to create a nation out of were then ruled by France (modern Djibouti), Britain (Northern Frontier District and British Somaliland), Italy (Italian Somaliland), and Ethiopia (Ogaden region). Somalis referred to this as Somaliweyn (Greater Somalia) and appeals to its unification would remain a poignant political message throughout the subsequent years. To achieve this goal the party developed a civic ethos that attempted to transcend clan backgrounds while relying on diplomacy to make the case for unification. In a colonial context, the party needed to draw on the talents and resources of Somalis across the country, but its leaders also appreciated the fact that creating a new country would require that its foundational principles were inclusive of Somalis of all backgrounds. The party’s oath of membership read: “I swear by Almighty God that I will not take any action against any Somali. In trouble I promise to help the Somali. I will become the brother of all other members. I will not reveal the name of my tribe.”In a speech made in 1960, founding President Aden Abdulle Osman articulated his vision for the nascent republic: “To strengthen the democracy of our country means that all of us must respect order and the laws that we have made for ourselves, and love one another.”Despite the promise of this rhetoric, the SYL period quickly came apart as corruption mired the party. By the end of the decade, more than 60 parties emerged with over 1000 candidates, each representing Somalia’s plethora of clans. Then the military, led by Siad Barre, overthrew the government in 1969.

In the Barre era there would only have been one bracelet on sale, or you were risking the Somali equivalent of the gulags. His government professed “scientific socialism” as state ideology but despite that injected a powerful dose of militarized nationalism into the public. Diplomacy had failed to reunite the neighboring Somali-inhabited territories that joined Kenya and Ethiopia, so Barre resorted to force. The state in that era and its ideal citizen was expected to be anti-imperial, socialist, and an irredentist nationalist. This nationalist fervor reached its zenith with the Ogaden War with Ethiopia in 1977-1978, leading to Mogadishu’s military defeat and weakening the regime. The state’s authoritarian militarism eventually turned on its own population with major cities like Hargeisa bombarded by Barre’s regime. Clan-based rebel groups rose up challenging the Somali Revolutionary Socialist party’s grip on power and what it stood for. This created a vacuum that spawned various competing localized visions of Somali statehood.

As Somalis grappled with the aftermath of civil war and state collapse, new identities and political aspirations surfaced, intensifying Somalia’s ongoing fragmentation. Today, Somalia is marked by a multitude of political ideologies and imaginaries, with some confined to diasporic circles and others conjured up in the minds of Western policymakers and reified by opportunistic Somali political elites.

In 2012, the adoption of a new constitution introduced the 4.5 system, divvying up power between clans, and incentivizing specific populations to form federal member states based on clan affiliations. The move killed the possibility of a national identity independent from the clan. Although power is theoretically shared between the federal government and regional states, clan rivalries and power struggles often take precedence over national interests, creating conditions of chronic instability.

Puntland was the first semi-official polity to emerge in Somalia’s post-war landscape, setting a precedent for clan-based federalized governance which others would loosely follow. We can think of this as the “Puntlandification” of Somalia. Puntland’s former president Abdiweli Gaas summarized the decentralizing zeitgeist in a speech in Dubai where he said “Somalia is not Mogadishu and Mogadishu is not Somalia.”

Whereas the founding of Puntland represented a rejection of the centralization of power in Somalia, Somaliland’s secession earlier in the 1990s was a rejection of the post-colonial Somali state’s other tendency—the aspiration to reunite Somaliweyn. Somaliland has faced its own challenges in making its vision of a new Somali state stick. Its secession has not been accepted by the rest of Somalia or clans in the self-declared republic’s eastern regions who have rejected Hargeisa’s attempt to secede. This region, which calls itself SSC-Khaatumo, aspires to join Somalia’s federal system by announcing its own counter-secessionist administration.

The subsequent political crisis currently unfolding in Somaliland can be understood as part of a much deeper central contradiction between clan and state in the Somali territories. One of the challenges with centering the clan as a semi-official entity is that each clan has sub-units and more sub-units within those, each demanding representation, which remains an irresistible centrifugal force in Somali politics.

Another significant player in Somalia’s ideological landscape is Al-Shabaab, which is conspicuously absent from the TikTok video’s array of bracelets (we aren’t sure they’d even endorse such a thing). Al-Shabaab is an Al-Qaeda affiliate that adheres to a jihadi ideology characterized by a puritanical and militant interpretation of Islam.

Al-Shabaab has established a practical system of governance and taxation. While its ideological stance jettisons clan-based political imaginaries, it exploits the grievances of marginalized minority clans within the federal system, to recruit fighters and gain support. The current offensive against Al-Shabaab is both military and ideological, with incumbent President Hassan Sheikh Mohamod striving to recast Somali nationalism through an overtly religious tone.

In one sense the present-day political landscape echoes the precolonial era when decentralized clan polities coexisted without a centralized state. Yet, despite the fragmentation represented by the various bracelets in the TikTok video, many Somalis within the country and among the diaspora continue to dream of a united and prosperous Somalia, notwithstanding their aspirations often clash with the entrenched divisions and political rivalries that define the nation’s complex political landscape.

Further Reading