African Arguments

Reading Richard Dowden’s piece for African Arguments ‘Don’t Force Statehood on Somalia’, stimulates me to reflect on an insight, largely drawn from my examination and understanding of Somali society as a direct and participant observer. In his analysis, Dowden states that the nomadic tradition renders Somalis ‘a very self-sufficient, individualistic society bound by complicated codes of loyalty and rivalry’. He comprehends the Somali state, not as a type of concerted concord inspired by a shared version of Somaliness, but a permanently fragmented pattern that he recommends to the international community to ‘leave it that way’ since ‘it suits Somali society’. He contends that ‘any attempt to create a powerful Somali state will ensure’ the continuation of the previously aggravated Somali clan wars. By constructing his argument as such, Dowden visualises the Somali state in a Eurocentric form of which he suggests that ‘the model for Somalia is Switzerland’.

Contra Dowden, Saadia Touval, writing in 1963, prophesied in his book Somali Nationalism: International Politics and the Drive for Unity in the Horn of Africa, that Somali clan-based statehood would be a ‘potential threat to the peace of the Horn of Africa and with international involvement, even to world peace’. Touval was prophetic in his prognostication. Today, Somalia, epitomised as the most failed state in the Westphalian world system, constitutes an enormous challenge to global security. Given the literature on failed states, Somalia contrasts penetratingly to other failed states of recent years, i.e., Afghanistan, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Liberia, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe. This is so mainly because since time immemorial, conflict over economic resources, pursued on the sole greedy basis of living a good life, has been inherent within Somali society; hence, state as a concept has become an ambivalent practice.

The Somali Republic as a state is often seen as a myth, for it was the product of European colonialism. Even the term ‘Somalia’ is an Italian invention. Before Italy named its colonised territory of eastern Horn of Africa as Somalia Italiana, the territory had been considered as a country of clans or, in the words of the British adventurer Richard Burton, as a ‘fierce and turbulent race of republicans’, with each sub-clan having its own chief, not to mention its own territory and what Professor Quentin Skinner would consider as a ‘mytho-historical tales’. As such, there existed no central authority that coalesced Somalis, as contrasted with the case of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Uganda and several other pre-colonial states in Africa. In the case of Somalia, no concerted harmony amongst rival clans had existed before colonial experience. Read more…