Clan Cleansing in Somalia by Lidwien Kapteijns

Published in 2013, Kapteijn’s book (available online here) about the period of intense clan conflict in Somalia (1980s to 1993) refreshingly first approaches these bloody events through the lens of poetry and popular culture. She finds a few examples of incitements to violence based on the ‘other’ whose identity is solely defined by clan, but mainly hears voices of Somalis rejecting this mentality, wondering how it suddenly gangrened their culture and destroyed their country.

She then goes on to explore that question through accounts of the clan cleansing, either published or collected by her. Her book has become one of the main English-language documents trying to understand this dark period of Somalia’s history; from the civil war that erupted in the final years of Barre’s reign (1980s), through the collapse of his government in January 1991, until the international intervention in 1993. This subject has received much less coverage than, for example, piracy or Al Shabaab and its international links. The victims could mostly not made themselves heard in this era, before the mobile phone and internet, and most contemporary chroniclers prefer not to dwell on the savage killing, looting and forced displacements.

Somalis I met who read this book (or know about it) seem generally uncomfortable that a foreigner has poked her nose into this painful period. They don’t believe she can grasp what they themselves still struggle to understand. Since all clans and many of today’s political leaders participated in this period of clan cleansing, no-one is scot-free, and any foreign investigation may feel like an ICC-like invasion of Somali sociopolitical space, with potentially negative effects (‘opening a can of worms’). Shame about this period is also still very strong.

In a nutshell, the argument is that the Siyad Barre regime used clan as a tool to divide and rule. This backfired terribly, leading to the establishment of clan-based militias which overthrew the military regime in 1991. These militias, increasingly locked in the dynamics of clan narrative and revenge, then attacked each other, leading to a situation where civilians killed other civilians and looted their property/stole their land: from state vs civilians to civil war. In the process, any other basis than clan on which to reconstruct a Somali state was destroyed.

I heard criticism by Somalis, mainly Hawiye (one of the four main clan families in Somalia, along the Darod, Dir/Isaaq and Rahanweyn), about laying too much emphasis on the USC[1], General Aideed and Hawiye clans as main perpetrators of the clan violence. My impression, however, is that this emphasis is laid by her inadvertently, as a result of preponderantly Darod sources. But she does mention the clan-cleansing by other clans. Also, she cannot be faulted for attributing a main role to Aideed and the USC, if indeed, as she argues, it was under their auspices that clan-cleansing became (to use Alex de Waal’s expression) ‘by force of habit’[2] – when ordinary civilians started accepting it as an expected part of war.

But more importantly, Kapteijns refuses to provide the main agency for the cleansing to the social construct of clan, demonstrating instead that this agency lies with the politico-military entrepreneurs who exploited a clannish narrative (that did exist before the war but was rarely violent, as she shows in her analysis of songs and poetry). She relates examples of individuals saving members of other clans to demonstrate that this clan narrative was often not integrated into personal convictions. However she also describes how clan discourse and the associated politics became predominant among all population groups after 1991, giving clan identities a semblance of autonomous political reality. But, she argues, it remained a symptom, not a driving force of clan-based politics.

Anyhow, it is clear to all that the myth of Hawiye or Darod unity fell apart in 1991, when Habar-Gidir and Abgaal clans among the Hawiye started their period of intense infighting in Mogadishu; while ‘the Darod’ imploded into ‘the Harti’, ‘the Marehan’, the Ogadeni and other clans. These constructs also fell apart, and as today the rift continued all the way down into families (brother against brother, extended family against extended family, etc). Clan remains a fluid concept in Kapteijn’s view, and those who accuse her of essentialising it by laying more blame on Hawiye groups have misunderstood her.

For my research, her book is highly valuable because it shows how minimal the concept of the State was for the warring factions that sought to capture and control it. The common Western view of the State as a set of institutions that provide an essential infrastructure to organise and reproduce society is incompatible with the actions of Somali warlords, as they destroyed all of this, apparently not even attempting to salvage part of what we would deem essential instruments to exercise state power. What, then, did ‘the State’ they were out to capture mean to them?

It seems to boil down to what De Waal calls the drivers of ‘the real politics of the Horn of Africa’: money (resources) and power (control of armed forces). Such a ‘statesman’ may feel accomplished sitting among the ruins of a capital city as long as he has eliminated his rivals and has looted more than they have. He need not feel burdened by expectations to get this city up and running again.

Among the resources one can count, of course, the international community’s injections of humanitarian aid and funds/materiel. The presence of peace-keeping troops, rather than guaranteeing a minimum of social infrastructure (peace and typical reconstruction projects such foreign troops often engage in, such as law&order, opening ports and airports, repairing the infrastructure) is then seen as a threat to the power (monopoly of violence) of the warlord, or ‘politico-military entrepreneur’ as Kapteijns more accurately calls them.

There was a constituency in Somalia that may have envisaged the State differently, as Westerners would: in terms of a social contract, the guardian of a collective identity, and the provider of essential infrastructure to society. That was the urban middle class. But on one hand it was still a small percentage of the population, on the other it had been thoroughly delegitimised by Siyad Barre, who had instrumentalised that discourse for his own benefit, and that of his family and cronies. It is easy to imagine that for disenfranchised rural youth this section of society was assimilated to the regime. In any case it was the one of the first groups wiped off the Somali map (killed or fled). Kapteijns brings sufficient evidence to indicate that rather than spontaneous outbursts of clan-rivalry, jealousy or class warfare, this elimination was orchestrated purposefully by the warlords, which thus removed the one group of potential ‘state-entrepreneurs’ that could have undermined the principle of their rule.

For example, Kapteijns quotes contemporary and local US and NGO sources that clearly understand that the massacre of about 100 Harti middle class people from Kismayo (8-19 Dec 1992) by SNA-Aideed/Colonel Jees[4] was a measure taken to prevent this group allying with the incoming UN/US mission (due to arrive on 19 Dec). The strategy worked even though the internationals, not wishing to deal with Jees and warlords, decided to form local committees of elders and respectable people. All those potentially opposed to SNA-Aideed had been silenced or had fled already, so the Belgian peacekeepers and US troops ended up working with Jees’ and General Aideed’s cronies anyhow.

When the international community sets about (re-)building a state in a conflict zone or otherwise fragile state, they naturally seek out partners who share the same vision of what such a state should be. This is usually called ‘civil society’. The interveners also seek to integrate all main power-holders such as warlords, religious and tribal chiefs, which often seems to crowd out civil society; but it is clear that in the long run they hope/expect their efforts to lead to this civil society class taking over the state.

In Somalia this civil society was weak, and what was present in embryonic form was purposefully destroyed by the faction leaders, thus preempting state-building efforts by the international community and ensuring the warlords’ continued dominance.

Since the international community soon (after the country’s resources had been plundered) became the main source of revenue for those who sought to control the Somali state (with the exception of ICU/Al Shabaab) it was necessary to play along with them, so gradually power-brokers adopted the state discourse prevalent in the West, and had to make some concessions in return for continued international resources. The prime example of such concessions might be elections, but allowing the re-emergence of some kind of civil society was also part of the deal.

Twenty-five years after the beginning of the international intervention, it is far from clear whether civil society and the institutions of state it supports will eventually be strong enough to take over from these politico-military entrepreneurs.

[1] The United Somali Congress was the mainly Hawiye political and military alliance that, together with other clan-based alliances such as the Darod SPM and the Isaaq SNM, caused the fall of Barre. They immediately turned on their allies and grabbed power in Mogadishu, leading to bloody clashes all throughout South and Central Somalia, and later also deadly clan battles in the capital. It was directed by the military commander Aideed, the warlord of Black Hawk Down fame, and the political Ali Mahdi.

[2] De Waal (2004: p724) uses it in the context of genocide in Darfur; quoted in Kapteijn’s note 152 on page 191

[3] The Somali National Alliance was a temporary regrouping of military forces, including the USC (see note above) and other clan-based militias. It immediately split into two groups, one headed by Aideed (who allied himself with the Marehan SPM commander Colonel Jees then in control of Kismayo), the other by Ali Mahdi (who had allied himself with the Harti SPM commander Colonel Morgan).

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