Dangerous history: Clan interpretation of Somali history must be challenged – Liban Obsiye

Photo: Villa Somalia Press Office

By Liban Obsiye

Almost everywhere you go, Somalis are fascinated with discussing the past. Listening to them, it is as if most of them still live in the past and for them to move forward each is waiting for the other to accept their narrative, confess to their tribal crimes and then pay reparations. The problem with this is that almost all who engage in the historical debates want the same thing all the time for the same poorly researched reasons built on clan bias.

There is no doubt that Somalia has experienced one of the most painful and devastating civil wars in modern history. The consequences of the political disagreement that led to the inter-tribal infighting which lasted for over a quarter of a century is still evident on Somali society: divided politics, people and a confused Diaspora who sometimes are torn between their tribal interests back in Somalia and contributing to the rebuilding of the entire nation. More worryingly then all these is that the very history upon which a more democratic and inclusive future is to be crafted is disputed and interpreted through narrow and inaccurate clan lens and narratives.

History is important to understand and plan for the future. But for the costly two world wars and a need for lasting peace in Europe, the European Union may not have existed today. Therefore, in the case of the European Union, a decision to avoid the destruction of the past has created the most successful regional block in the world today which is increasingly a blueprint for regional integration. In Somalia, it will inevitably be the past that defines the future and it is therefore crucial to pay great attention to it.

The world renown German philosopher Benjamin Walter said that history is written by the victors and in this regard blame and the absence of the others voices in historical narratives can fuel further conflict and societal unrest. However, in Somalia, as is the case in most civil wars across Africa, there are no winners and no single agreed dominant historical discourse which, with even the most basic facts, apportion blame as simply and accurately as many Somalis would like.

Remembering and living history is painful for most Somalis who have suffered immeasurably and in various ways as a result of the civil war. The sense of anger, disappointment and mistrust which was born out of it has created scapegoats which are conveniently blamed for collective crimes against entire tribal groupings. This collective victimhood mentality is claimed by all major Somali tribal families when in fact the entire population of Somalia was victimised by violence and the collapse of the State and its key institutions.

Historical inaccuracies and the selective interpretation of events in Somalia by differing tribal groups is so prevalent that it now appears as though it is forming the basis for state building under the current Federalism model. More importantly and painfully, the historical inaccuracies are being cemented as official tribal family positions and being taught to the next generation, who in cases like North Somalia, have never experienced conflict. This clearly is a genuine stumbling block to peace, stability and progress for all Somalis.

History is not a science. At its core are humans who live and create events which then are studied and interpreted for meaning. In Somalia, it is important that the tribe aligned histories be investigated and a process of truth and reconciliation initiated and undertaken by the central Government. The latter proposal is more pertinent than ever before as inaccurate tribe led historical narratives will inevitably be an enormous and crippling factor in the national State building exercise as they will influence the constitutional review process. A key challenge is, without genuine reconciliation and a strong central government as the lead and mediator, how fiscal federalism and resource sharing agreements in Somalia can progress in a hostile climate underpinned by defensive clan historical interpretations.

Sadly, it appears all tribal families in Somalia are seeking reparations from one another for past aggressions and each one is adamant that their view of history and events is more accurate than those they accuse. The best way to overcome this is through the documentation and meticulous investigation of all claims. However, this is not practically possible and where it may have even been, there is limited hope of overcoming the now entrenched tribal histories no matter how inaccurate.

A more realistic option for bringing Somalis together and creating a unifying and agreeable historical identity for them is to focus historical teaching on the destruction, pain and anger that tribal infighting and violence has left on Somali society and its people both at home and in the Diaspora. It is also fundamental to teach, and to entrench, the idea that until Somalis collectively agree on a vision and a way forward, they will also be shackled by the past as the world moves on to greater progress and prosperity.

The Greatest historical crimes in Somalia have been committed by its own people against one another. Brothers have killed each other for a few metres of land and in some case, no reason at all other than sheer hatred and aggression. To this day, aspirational but desperate young Somalis are drowning in the Mediterranean Sea to get away from the misery and destruction caused by the events of the past. Arguably, there is no one tribal family which can claim moral monopoly as easily as they seem to do today because even those that have not openly participated in the civil war in the South had not even attempted to intervene to stop the violence between their own Somali brothers and sisters. This is equally an unforgivable failing and crime against one’s brother.

Somalia is on the mend and in time it will stabilise and prosper. The Somali people are among the most courageous, resilient and entrepreneurial in the world. This coupled with a functioning government and improving State institutions makes progress possible. However, for lasting peace and sustainable development, Somalis must examine their history and agree to forgive and move forward together. Somalis can no longer get by with polite but suspicious smiles: they must open their hearts to one another. Only by using the events of the past as reminder of the pain of yesterday can Somalis really push themselves and their nation towards a better tomorrow.

The author can be reached through the below means:


@LibanObsiye  (Twitter).

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect whatsoever the official policy or position of Ummadda Media.