Unraveling Somalia: Race, Violence, and the Legacy of Slavery

Unraveling Somalia: Race, Violence, and the Legacy of Slavery

Unraveling Somalia: Race, Violence, and the Legacy of Slavery

Unraveling Somalia: Race, Violence, and the Legacy of Slavery

Synopsis

In 1991 the Somali state collapsed. Once heralded as the only true nation-state in Africa, the Somalia of the 1990s suffered brutal internecine warfare. At the same time a politically created famine caused the deaths of a half a million people and the flight of a million refugees. During the civil war, scholarly and popular analyses explained Somalia's disintegration as the result of ancestral hatreds played out in warfare among various clans and subclans. In Unraveling Somalia, Catherine Besteman challenges this view and argues that the actual pattern of violence -- inflicted disproportionately on rural southerners -- contradicts the prevailing model of ethnic homogeneity and clan opposition. She contends that the dissolution of the Somali nation-state can be understood only by recognizing that over the past century and a half there emerged in Somalia a social order based on principles other than simple clan organization -- a social order deeply stratified on the basis of race, status, class, region, and language. Unraveling Somalia makes this argument by focusing on those particularly targeted in the recent violence: the people of the Jubba valley Gosha area. The people of the Gosha, whose ancestors were brought to Somalia as slaves, have always confronted discrimination in Somalia on the basis of their Bantu heritage and their history of enslavement. In tracing their struggles to legitimize their Somali identity, Unraveling Somalia reveals the critical significance of racial and class divisions in contemporary Somalia. In addition to offering a new explanation of the collapse of the Somali state, Unraveling Somalia contributes to our understanding of how constructions of raceand class in Africa are related to supposedly tribal warfare on the continent. In drawing connections among race, class, and violence, this book also contributes to the building of a comparative theoretical analysis of the global disintegration of nation-states and the politics of terror.

Excerpt

A letter arrives, telling me that every child under the age of five was now dead in the Jubba valley village in southern Somalia where I had lived several years previously. The collapse of the Somali state in 1991 ended these young lives in starvation and warfare, opening yet another violent chapter in the short history of the Jubba valley. In just the past 150 years, the people of this valley—most of whom were considered racial minorities within the Somali nation-state—had endured a series of violent encounters that shaped their relationship to the state and to regional Somali society. Such encounters—including enslavement, forced labor on colonial plantations, periodic pastoralist raids, kidnapping by the state military, and forceful land dispossession in the biggest political landgrab in Somali history—presaged their vulnerability in the violence of civil war. When the Somali state collapsed, the people of the Jubba valley disproportionately faced genocidal assault, banditry, and widespread rape. Although the valley’s population has been massively reduced through starvation, murder, and flight since 1991, the valley remains one of the most contested areas in the militia wars that continue to plague southern Somalia.

How does a place become so violent? In 1991, journalists, pundits, politicians, and academics groped for metaphors that could simply and concisely explain the warfare. The most persistent and pervasive explanation knit together popular perceptions of “tribalist” Africa with models derived from anthropological descriptions of northern Somali social groups to claim that “ancestral clan hatreds” played out in warfare both caused Somalia’s collapse and hindered future state-building efforts. Since I. M. Lewis’s (1961) classic book on northern Somali pastoralist social organization first appeared, Somali society has usually been described in academic and popular literature as an egalitarian and ethnically homogenous population of nomadic pastoralists who shared . . .

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