The Horn of Africa: The Anatomy of the Somali Civil War and Famine

By Gorman, Robert F. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 31, 1993 | Go to article overview

The Horn of Africa: The Anatomy of the Somali Civil War and Famine


Gorman, Robert F., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


The Horn of Africa: The Anatomy of the Somali Civil War and Famine

Cardiac disease, we are told, results mainly from heredity, poor diet, bad habits, and environmental factors. A study of the anatomy of the Somali civil war and resulting famine reveals a striking resemblance to a patient with circulatory distress.

Somali society is culturally and historically prone to civil conflict, although traditional mechanisms for conflict resolution also exist. The country, though very poor, is awash in arms after three decades of Cold War politics. This has exacerbated traditional interclan strife and made it more deadly. In addition, during the 1980s the Siad Barre regime played a game of divide-and-rule politics that further destabilized a conflict-prone society. Historical tendencies and recent bad habits set the tone for Somalia's current civil war.

Throw in a drought, the collapse of traditional markets, and the additional collapse both of central government power and of the traditional clan-elder moral authority, then add the rise of banditry and hoarding, and the result was a country with symptoms of cardiac arrest. Somalia, a nation of proud and independent people, was dying. Its heart beating weakly and irregularly, it was in dire need of defibrillation.

Enter U.S. and U.N. forces and Operation Restore Hope. If they are what the doctor ordered, it is prudent to examine the patient's history. Even in the best of times, Somalia is not an easy place to live. Semiarid and prone to extended drought, it lends itself mostly to nomadic life. Some 80 percent of Somalis are nomads, belonging to four large clan families, the Hawiye, Darod, Isaaq and Dir. These are further subdivided into clans, subclans, and multiple family and kinship groups of a hundred to more than a thousand people who compete or cooperate in exploiting pasture and water resources.

The loyalties Somalis feel toward these social subdivisions are inversely related to their size: The most intense loyalties are to the smaller and immediate kinship groups, with decreasing attachments to the subclan, the clan, the clan family, and the Somali nation. This explains why General Aideed and Ali Mahdi Mohammed, both from the Hawiye clan, cannot really guarantee that their subclans will follow their orders. Even when leaders have moral legitimacy, which is dubious in the cases of both Aideed and Mahdi, clan subunits may ignore them. Somalis are notoriously and fiercely independent.

Episodic but low-intensity disputes among all these groups are therefore pervasive aspects of Somali society. Also present under normal circumstances, however, are mechanisms of conflict resolution, clan elder reconciliation, and the unifying forces of Islam, shared ethnicity, and a common Somali language.

Among the 20 percent of Somalis who are not nomads are the Sab peoples of the Rahanweyn and Digil clans and other small groups. They are cultivators who live in the relatively fertile inter-riverine region of southern Somalia, the breadbasket of the country, which bore the brunt of the most intense fighting and devastating famine. Although viewed by the nomadic Somali as inferior, the Sab produce the country's grain. The nomads rely heavily on these resources in time of drought, sometimes trading for them and sometimes seizing them by force.

There also are hundreds of thousands of Somalis, most still tied to the rural clan structure, who live in such cities as Mogadishu, Kismayu, Zeila, and Hargeisa, the historic trade centers and outlets to Asia and the Middle East. Such urban dwellers, affected by Western and secularizing influences, are more likely than their rural counterparts to resent elder clan authority, to sneer at the tenets of Islam, and to ignore traditional norms.

Somalia, unlike its neighbor, Ethiopia, fell completely under the colonial sway of Britain, France and Italy. Indeed, Somalis claim that Ethiopia joined in the colonial land-grab of the late 1800s when it seized the Somali- populated Ogaden region.

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