The east African nation of Somalia is one of the most continuously violent nations in our world today. It has been the site of almost constant civil war, internecine strife, piracy, and terrorism since its independence in 1960. This has led to at least one major military incident with the United States, a war with Ethiopia, and, more recently, several incidents, dubbed "terrorism" by the U.S., of piracy, including the hijacking of a shipload of Ukrainian tanks and numerous attacks upon civilian sailing vessels. In order to understand the level of conflict and violence present within this nation, however, one must examine and gain an understanding of political and social structures far more basic, and on a smaller level, than the national government of the country.
One of the chief causes of Somali conflict is the division of the populace into hereditarily, culturally based clans. The six major Somali clans, named Darod, Dir, Hawiye, Issaq, Digil and Rahanweyn, are each further divided into dozens of smaller branches, mostly organized on the basis of real familial ties. People in each of the larger, major clans recognize themselves as having a common ancestor who, often, is legendary. The most important fact about these clans, however, is that loyalty is owed primarily to one's clan rather than to any higher political authority, such as a central government. Further, these clans are the main method of cultural or social identification amongst Somalis, who are relatively religiously homogenous and who find themselves in a rather ethnically diverse part of the world. It is these clans' conflicted relationship with one another, their support of Sunni Islam, and their existence as particularly Somali clans which provides the main cultural group to which Somali people adhere themselves. It is primarily due to these facts that Somalia has been able to maintain amazing ethnic homogeneity: almost 85 percent of citizens are ethnically Somali, sharing religion, culture, and language.
Yet, despite these factors, these positive benefits provided by the clan system, in 1986 the last strong central government of Somalia collapsed and, since then, the nation has been in a constant state of anarchy and civil war. How did this happen?
First, it is important to understand the structure of the Somali clan in more depth. These hierarchical descent groups, each said to originate with a single male ancestor, combine forces for protection, in the form of local militias, access to water and good land, and political power. The Somali clan organization is an unstable system, characterized by changing alliances and temporary coalitions. The society of the pastoral Somalis, who make up the large majority of the population, as compared to the sedentary agriculturalists or urbanites, is fundamentally democratic. Traditionally, decisions are made by councils of men. These councils are egalitarian, sometimes to the point of anarchy, although age, lineage, seniority, and wealth can have influence. In these councils, anthropologist I. M. Lewis points out, "all men are councilors and all men politicians". Somali egalitarianism permeates all aspects of society. Yet another fundamental aspect of traditional Somali political organization is the diya-paying group. Diya is compensation paid by a person who has injured or killed another person. A diya-paying group is made up of a few hundred to a few thousand men linked by lineage and a contractual agreement to support one another, especially in regard to compensation for injuries and death against fellow members. There is also a basic culture of revenge and retaliation upon which this diya is based. If a diya is not paid, revenge killings are justified. This has an impact upon national politics now, where an unpaid diya can lead to wars between clans.
Now, while Somalia's political culture is basically egalitarian, social and political change have created new patterns of social life. In recent years, a new urban group, educated in Western-type schools and working as merchants or in government, has emerged. These urbanites enjoy more wealth, better access to government services, and greater educational opportunities for their children than do other sectors of society. For Somalis who are settled or partly settled farmers, the village and its headman assume social and political importance. In rural areas, links to the cities remain strong, with rural relatives caring for livestock owned by the urbanites. Perhaps most importantly though, as it plays into clan politics extensively, for all Somalis, the family is the ultimate source of personal security and identity.
With this basic understanding of Somali society, we may better analyze the historical conditions which created the anarchic conditions within Somalia today. Somalia was ruled, from the late 1960's until 1986, by the military dictatorship of Mohammed Siad Barre. This regime was mainly, at its outset, supported by urban technocrats and intellectuals who wished to see an end to clan factionalism and the establishment of a modern, efficient Somali nation. Immediately after Somalia achieved its independence. Barre, however, did much to increase clan tensions. Political parties in the new Somali nation were primarily determined by clan loyalty. Each clan had one or several main political parties with which it identified and which was primarily composed of members of its respective clan. Men with high position in each clan, however, were not usually highly political, as the political power associated with the clan was far more valuable than that provided by official governmental posts. The clans, in short, considered themselves relatively politically independent and autonomous, and the central government's various attempts to disabuse them of that notion generally failed. This was the factionalism which urban intellectuals had hoped to end, as such factionalism was extremely contrary to national political, economic, and social development. Politics was still mainly practiced in a very tribal way, at a very local level. The country experienced no real economic development, with the northern half of the country being primarily pastoralist and the southern half being agriculturalist.
However, Barre failed horribly in uniting and integrating the clans into a modern nation-state. His policies actually resulted in a support of clan factionalism and propped up petty, traditional rivalries. His outlawing of all political parties except his own marginalized many of the clans, and his institution of several policies which aimed to attack the informal, yet very real, political power of the clans, and which began to "re-educate" the populace to think in terms of communal, national identification, rather than lineage, posed no real threat to the clan system but angered traditional clan leaders. Further, in order to secure his own power, Barre launched an internal civil war pitting clan against clan, and striking particularly against those clans which did not support his rule. Despite his promises and some of his actions, Barre also placed the state military apparatus primarily in the hands of prominent members of one of the clans. Finally, Barre's efforts actually further politicized the clans, which, having no political parties with which to influence the national government, became far more political entities themselves, garnering far more support from the base of the population than Barre's government, and operating with very real local political power, rather than informally or through the party structure which existed prior to Barre's regime.
Barre's human rights violations in his personally fomented civil war, and his handling of the Ethiopian war and its aftermath, have been characterized as "bordering on genocide". His wholesale attack on several of the main clans, coupled with his support of none but his own political party, led to an even larger civil war, which broke out in 1986. After Barre's government was finally deposed in 1991, Somalia degenerated into an anarchic state which has not seen peace since. It has remained in this anarchic state primarily by virtue of the fact that petty clan rivalries still dominate the nation, with each clan struggling for national political power. Further, due to the cultural tradition of revenge killings and retaliation, any murder, assassination, or battle may swiftly turn into a nationwide struggle. More recently, peace has been achieved in several parts of Somalia through clan consolidation of power in specific regions, which is then followed, as in the case of Somaliland, by declarations of independence and autonomy. While these regions are not officially recognized as separate countries by the international community, 3 exist at present date, each controlled by strong clan government. Much of the strife between the clans still exists upon the same basis that it has since Somali independence: the northern clans, which are primarily pastoralist, are constantly trying to avoid domination by the more agricultural and, now, urban, south. This is seen as one of the chief reasons why northern Somaliland was one of the first areas to declare its autonomy within the Somali state.