Siad Barre and Muammar Qadaffi

I’m not completely new to Africa.  I’ve spent a couple weeks living in a tent in Rumbek, another few weeks (mostly) on the toilet in N’djamena, two or three weeks dying for a beer in Khartoum, a few weeks feeling the closest we Americans can get to post-colonial guilt in Monrovia and enough time in Kenya to understand that the presence of a United Nations headquarters in Nairobi probably brings more money into the country than tourism does.  I’m not an absolute newbie to this part of the world, but I’m far from an expert.

While working in the Caucasus I took pride in being able to hold a credible conversation with my friends Azret and Maga about the security situation in Kabardino-Balkaria, a place many westerners are only vaguely aware of.  I was proud that my Russian was decent enough to maintain informal contact with my counterparts in the local security services.  When I was assigned a post with Somalia responsibilities I knew I was going to be playing catch up.  My Somali is non-existent and my Swahili is solely derived from The Lion King.  I did (cursorily) keep up with news in the region, but that wasn’t going to cut it.  I dove into Horn of Africa literature, starting with a crash course on the tribes and ethnicities in the region. 

Tribal and ethnic tension is a well-documented cause of bloodshed all over the continent, not just in the Horn.  It’s also easy to understand; you hear linguistic differences, a lot of ethnic variances are visible and the cultural distinctions between tribes (even those in close proximity) can be stark.  These differences don’t excuse tribal and ethnic tension, but it does help to explain it.  While Somalia does have a small disadvantaged Bantu-Swahili minority, it is still one of the most homogenous places in Africa.  It is not ethnic or tribal tension that is the crux in Somalia, it is clan.  Blood, honor and justice – encompassed in the Somali word heer, a concept that it is hard for us westerners to wrap our heads around.

The four major (or “noble”) clans in Somalia are the Darod, Dir, Hawiye and Rahanweyn. For outsiders the differences between these clans are seemingly inconsequential; they share a common Samaal heritage and all speak various dialects of the same Cushitic language. 

Long ago, in the desert, nomads in clan societies bound themselves together by family ties, through old lineages that gave them protection and assistance across great distances.  Outside the clan lineage lay danger and chaos, every man for himself.  In a clan society, every kind of human relationship turns on your honor within the clan; outside it there is nothing – you are excluded from any kind of meaningful existence.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Nomad, p 152  
From a strictly anthropological perspective it is fascinating that this nomadic system survived into modernity.  But, the idea of clan is not just some charming throwback to a long forgotten era – in Somalia it is life and, very often, death:

A queue of civilians was huddled at a roadblock before a gang of rebels.  As each person was waved through, another came forward and began uttering a litany of names.  My guide with the flaming red hair said the people were reciting their clan family trees.  The genealogies tumbled back generation after generation to a founding ancestor.  It was like a DNA helix, or a fingerprint, or an encyclopedia of peace treaties and blood debts left to fester down the torrid centuries.  I was thinking how poetic this idea was when bang!, a gunman shot one of the civilians, who fell with blood gushing from his head and was pushed aside on a heap of corpses.

“Wrong clan,” said my flaming-haired friend.  “He should have borrowed the ancestors of a friend.” Aiden Harley, The Zanzibar Chest, p. 184.

In addition to precise rules of blood compensation (in the event of a man’s murder his clan is owed one hundred camels, a woman’s life is only worth fifty camels*), the clan system also accounts for a lot of good old-fashioned nepotism – business, military and government positions are all dished out via the clan.  Old Somalia hands and many Somalis themselves are thankful for the clan system.  In the absence of a functioning government, heer is at least some kind of authority.  And this is the paradox; while clan does represent an authority of a kind, it is also stops Somalia from developing the sense of community needed to achieve true nationhood. 

In the 1970s and 80s General Siad Barre bent Somalia to his will, (partly) by trying his best stamp out the clans.  A common question Somalis ask when meeting one another is “What is your clan?”  Comically, while Barre was in power this question became “What is your ex-clan?”  Barre could be descried in a lot of ways that are not complimentary, but you can’t say the man wasn’t canny.  He understood that clan encourages a separateness that is antithetical to forging a true nation-state.  Ousted from power in 1991, one of Barre’s last public statements was:

When I came to Mogadishu there was one road, built by the Italians.  If you try to force me to stand down, I will leave the city as I found it.

He left it worse.  Today Somalia is a strong contender for the most dysfunctional “state” on the planet and, while Al-Shabaab is grabbing all of the headlines, it is the concept of the clan that that keeps the country this way.

“We need another Barre.” My Somali neighbor in Nairobi frequently laments.  It’s a common refrain: the idea that it takes a despot to govern places with strong tribal and clan roots.


The first thing I read in the Economist every week is the obituary.  My wife frowns on this somewhat macabre habit.  I can’t help it; the obituary is often the most interesting section of the magazine.  Last week’s was Muammar Qaddafi’s.  In the wake of the dictator’s death a lot of people are worried about what role Islamists will play in post-Qaddafi Libya.  But, reading the story of how Qaddafi clenched Libya’s tribal and clan based society in his fist, I found myself asking a different question: do the Libyas, Somalias, Afghanistans and DRCs of the world need Qaddafis and Barres?    

The Arab Spring dispelled many long held (and racist) notions about what type of government people in the Middle East and Africa are “ready” for.  The Libyan revolution’s place within the wider Arab Spring is debatable; the challenges the country faces in overcoming clan and tribal tensions are not.  Qaddafi is dead.  But, the Libyan equivalent of heer is alive and well.  For the Libyan Transitional National Council now is the really hard part.       



  1. So your Somali? If you are come visit my blog at myhajj.blogspot.com if you aint Somali, still come through..

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks, Samia. This is a pretty old post. Please follow and share! All the best...


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