Somali Tribalism is not the Problem: The Politics of Poverty is – Mohamed Ibrahim


by Mohamed Ibrahim

Our nation has seen the ugly side of tribalism and to this day progress is hampered by trust deficit between clans leading to political Fragmentations which have reversed our unitary purpose as a society and a nation. In the context of our historical political journey many of our citizens has put blame on the issue of tribalism as being the architecture of our misery socially, political and economically across Somalia. Our historical and contemporary powering sharing political settlements/arrangements has for many years been anchored by 4.5 formula power sharing between clans in the political structure

I do not doubt the impact or consequences caused by tribalism as a mechanism or tool for injustice and abuse in our society. We are still reeling from the dislocation caused by our civil war. However, we have failed to ask ourselves fundamental searching questions about tribalism: what makes this issue relevant? Why is it a constant force of political discussion or competing trends in our society?  Firstly, as evidenced by the study of anthropology, group loyalty has existed everywhere in the world since ancient times. Such group loyalty comes in different forms and structures depending on the given society. Our experience is no different to other societies in the world who have relatively succeeded as nations. However, we must ask our self what makes our tribalism a poisonous issue that has destroyed and continues to cause havoc within the fabric of our political and social set up? By reaching beyond the conventional (accepted) wisdom of blaming tribalism for our political problems, I will attempt to introduce a new narrative to the discussion.

One key issue to underline is that the content of tribe as an entity of our identity is actually a positive factor in all societies and this is consistent with our faith and traditions. No tribe or individual was born to naturally hate another tribe. To think this is the case is a false bogus prospectus that needs urgent correction. Our history has shown us the extent of inter-marriage and positive alliances forged between different clans based on their geography and common heritage as a homogenous society. This is still the case today. However, we cannot ignore our social conditioning which has influenced our society for better or worse.

As you search for answers, one cannot ignore the role of poverty in our societies across Somalia. As you read economic history you will find Economy and Society is intrinsically linked, providing a pillar of stability and continuity of purpose within societies. Dependent upon how big the economic cake is within a given society, the less conflict and fragmentation you will see structurally, politically and socially.

In our context, when you have a combined Government budget of less than $700 million public expenditure budget (please see sources provided below) across all regions in Somalia, which is being used to manage the prospects and basic needs of at least twelve million people across Somalia, you begin to sense and see in material terms, Somalia is a poor country that’s has yet to fully utilise its wealth and untapped natural resources as a nation due to our political climate. To put it in context, we are managing our country and prospects with roughly the same working budget of Manchester United Football Club, which stands at just over 500 million UK sterling pound (please see sources below.

Once you assess this, you begin to understand why the issue of tribalism is such force in our politics and society.  In total, it is my humble view tribalism issue is a direct consequence of politics of poverty. As economic outputs dwindle and the economic cake becomes small, leading to less opportunities for progress, societies compete for finite resources through the use of their group loyalty (tribalism) to escape poverty and attain influence politically and economically. In real terms, when there are limited resources, tribalism becomes the means to an end – in other words, the shirt one wears to escape from poverty or sense of vulnerability/insecurities as a form of social , security and economic protection within society.

For us to forge forward as a society and a nation, we must introduce social and economic reforms, which expand our horizon. International History has shown us when society is consumed by poverty, they tend to turn on each other disproportionally, leading to trust deficit and social and economic injustice within society. This has been our struggle for a long time and still continues to hamper our ongoing progress. This has also allowed people to make incorrect assessment and judgements which have perpetuated a bogus conventional wisdom that states ‘Tribalism is our enemy and is a cause of our social and economic ills’. While I do not deny the potency of Tribalism as a structure of destabilisation – my view ultimately is that our economic conditioning and political leaders has failed to provide a safety net to our society leading to unwarranted negative competition for resources and power

In conclusion, there are a number of recommendations and reforms I would like to propose to rekindle our common bond as a society:

1)  Aggressive expansion of cross border trade within our regional administrations – coordinated economic policy framework built around infrastructure building and macro-economics.

2)  Expansion of academic/ knowledge sharing among universities across Somalia, Which will involve exchange of students/ course prospectus- this will create an environment where students from Mogadishu, Hargeysa, Garowe, B/weyne, Kismaayo and other cities/regions will share experiences that will revive our sense of Somaalimo and common purpose and responsibilities to each other.

3) Shift of narrative/culture of governance: Government cannot and will never be a route to employment for all Somali people. This is the role of the private sector and enterprise. Government’s central role is to enable a progress through many policies and initiative to protect the economic, social, security of its citizens. Under the 4.5 power sharing political structure there is historical fixation with certain ministries/ ministerial post being assigned to some clans – this historical political culture needs to change and we must continue to build a high calibre ethical civil servants and leaders that can serve and meet the needs of our children and society across Somalia in equal measure with pride and mutual compassion. It must be seen to be done beyond the nice sweet words. This will in the long run dismantle insecurities/pursuit of power at all cost between clans, and it will pave the way for a new chapter of renewed political settlement based on results and justice for all.

4) Sports is a positive tool for galvanising communal togetherness and peace- building within societies – it has the potential to re-energise a sense of mutual togetherness – As such, we should reintroduce regional joint sport events or competitions across Somalia – we may succeed in shifting the clan based energy towards sport competition, away from politics.

In a harsh competitive world, we are a nation with vast resources and small population in comparison to our neighbours. If 90 million of people with different culture/ religions can manage their affairs and live together with a Central purpose as a nation, it is not beyond our imagination for our society of approximately 12 million people to live together and find political settlements that works for us all – the potential is even more compelling when you consider the natural resources at our disposal within our country. To do otherwise is an admission of failure of huge proportion as a society of people who bear the intellectual property name /sinjiyada Somali, living in the Horn of Africa. I believe our politics is too important entity. It makes and breaks society’s dignity, prospects and security, exposing them to external threats. History is testament to societies that fail together – we will be open to political and economic colonisation by other nations without us even knowing.

With the untapped resources in our country, I am confident this regrettable and unfortunate episode of our history will pass quickly and we will build a strong plural and economically vibrant society that will compete beyond our borders. As our economy expands providing safety net for our societies, the issue of tribalism will no longer has the force it has today, because society will be too busy seeking the rewards of their economy and wealth of the nation. Once this progress takes hold, you will be lucky to receive a visit from your immediate family, let alone your clan. In a globalised environment characterised by competition for resources, space and influence, we will find our enemies or battles remain beyond our borders – and the greater the economic expansion for society, the more we will begin to realise or notice the monumental task ahead.

The common thread or rope that keeps society’s bond together is a strong government and visionary leadership that can understand and navigate the fundamental challenges our country is facing today. I was in the vicinity of the recent London Somali Conference in May 2017 and it was striking to hear the opening remarks of HE President Mohamed Abdillahi Farmaajo (video provided below). In summary, HE noted the enemy of Somalia is Poverty, Terrorism and Corruption not necessarily tribalism.

It’s revealing and most telling the issue of tribalism was not in the list of enemies of Somalia. Today I take confidence and we have a leadership and governance that understands our common priorities, social, economic and security challenges. This time round, we might be onto something far reaching – because to cure something, one needs to understand the cause, and follow through.


Mohamed Ibrahim is a London, UK, Social Activist/ keen Author – he can be reached via:
@Mi_shiine (Twitter)