It is necessary to call on all the stakeholders including the political elite, intellectuals, influencers, women and youth organisations to engage in constructive dialogue with the aim of discussing past wrongs
As we celebrate on the 59th anniversary of our independence, it is important, at this point in our history, to look back and try to understand what has gone wrong with the national principles and objectives that our founding fathers anticipated.
When the British and the Italian colonial flags were lowered and our blue flag with white stars was raised on June 26 and July 1 1960, respectively, there was jubilation throughout the country and all Somalis were elated to witness the birth of a new independent sovereign nation. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost that outward-looking sense and spirit of “Somalinimo”, which had inspired and bonded our people during the liberation struggle against the colonial powers.
Many countries that struggled with issues of diversity within their populations with regard to religion, language, culture and/or ethnicity, envied Somalia after independence for its socio-cultural homogeneity. The Somali Nation was identified as people who are from the same ethnic group, speak the same language and share a common religion and culture. Foreign scholars and travellers were the first to perceive this homogeneity, which in later years was incorporated by the Somalis themselves during the years of their independence struggle.
Coexisting with the national identity of “one and the same” there has also been a second strongly internalised Somali identification, that of clan and sub-clan identity. Throughout the nation’s history, this latter affiliation has at times shifted to the forefront of individual and communal awareness and to become the primary identity. This dynamic (which had critical implications for the future of the country) has created parallel socio-political discourses.
The first discourse, based on sameness, begins with the mythical same ethnic. This is the cornerstone of Somali identity “Somalinimo”, ever present in the first response given by any Somali to a stranger, “I am Somali”. This identification was later symbolised in the Somali flag.
The second discourse can be illustrated by a uniquely Somali interpretation of George Orwell’s famous observation: “We are all equal, but some of us are more equal than others”. This observation accurately pinpoints the fact that Somalis identify themselves at any given time within the context of a sub-national identity mindset.
The duality within the Somali identity became difficult for many foreigners and particularly for Westerners to understand because their view of the person and/or the self is rationalistic and follows a movement toward “self-definition” which goes from the internal to the external. In essence, from the Western perspective, a person develops his/her independent identity, while to Somalis, the reverse is true: a person is primarily a social being and his/her identity is defined at a particular time in terms of the prevailing set of social circumstances.
During colonial times, the quest for independence and unification heightened feelings of nationalism among Somalis and has created a hierarchy in the existing duality of identity, bringing the discourse around nationalism and Somalinimo to the forefront and making it the manifest discourse. The use of the word “ex” to substitute for clan was evidence that the Somali youth liberation leaders devised ingenious and creative strategies to bring all Somalis together and to persuade them to subscribe to the ideology of liberation. Their task was made easier by the common cause that served all and the word clan disappeared for a while from the Somali vernacular, in particular among the educated elite and freedom fighters.
However, after independence one of the major issues that made the clan identity so pervasive and powerful was the fact that the very political elites who were expected to forge strong national identity were at the mercy of their clans: their political careers depended upon the support of their clan members at election time. The subsequent years right up to today have seen the relative balance of power among clans become a subject of daily interest for the average citizen because administrative decisions, up to and including recruitment in the civil service and political appointee positions, are still based upon the decisions of balancing clans.
While various factors led to Somalia’s civil war, the conflict itself has forged polarised clan identities. The view that conflict creates identity and distrust was so apparent in our case that the agreed post conflict institutional structures and subsequent power sharing arrangements cemented clan/regional identities. Federated clans and the clan-based power-sharing formula became the only socio-political protection policies on the table. While these might have seemed short term solutions then, we cannot expect to succeed in moving Somalia forward if our political system continues to encourage and to exploit regional and clan differences to the detriment of national cohesion, unity and integrity of the nation.
With this in mind, what political structure and system would best serve the unity of our society and the cohesiveness of our nation?
To reach such conclusions, it is necessary to call on all the stakeholders, including the political elite, intellectuals, influencers, women and youth organisations to engage in constructive dialogue with the aim of discussing past wrongs; mapping out a genuine reconciliation process; developing guidelines for the protection of every individual’s human rights; devising new strategies for the safety and security of all Somalis and providing a new political vision that resuscitates the spirit of ‘Somalinimo’ to eventually reunite our strength in the larger interest of the nation.
These alternative platforms for genuine exchanges will immensely benefit the search for the right fit, but more importantly will provide long term solutions to our children who are by far the most vulnerable victims of a divided and fragmented nation. In the end, it is worth reaffirming that our unity should be based on tolerance, political inclusion and consensus in the decision-making process. These should remain the hallmark of our democracy.
By: Amal Abukar