Thursday, August 16, 2018
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Somalia’s Protracted Conflict: the Mistrust Factor

By Hassan Mudane

Clans in Somalia have many causes to mistrust each other. Between 1991 and well into 2006, the Somali conflict was mainly based on clan warfare. However, after 2006, the conflict became religiously motivated. Since the emergence of the militant Islamist groups, it has been widely seen as the most serious threat to peace and stability in neighboring countries.

Somalia has been without an internationally recognized government since 2012, the longest recorded in Africa’s postcolonial history. Since its recognition, it has been characterized by clan suspicion, politics, fear of clan dominance rule and distrust among Somali clans. Put it another way, it has been mistrust between Hawiye and Daarood clans. Consequently, it was deemed necessary to divide the country into several mini-states in order to satisfy local clan demands.

Therefore, to understand the cause of such mistrust and clan suspicion in Somalia’s protracted conflict situation becomes an urgent work. I will begin with the reason behind the longevity of the Somali conflict, and then I will discuss the dilemmas of security in the Somali conflict, and finally wrap up with a convincing conclusion.

The reason behind the longevity of the Somali conflict 

Since I am interested in the correlation between the lack of trust among Somali clans and the longevity of the conflict in the country, I will limit my analysis to the overlooked mistrust factor which gets us to the result we are witnessing today.

My main point in this article is to argue the absence of trust and security dilemma among the local tribes such as the Hawiye, Daarood, Isaaq and Rahanweyn which helps to explain why the conflict in Somalia is so protracted. Likewise, I want to highlight why these tribes are seeking to increase or maintain their state power positions relative to each other. The condition of the Somali conflict is usually accompanied by mistrust and fear among the major tribes in the country.

To ponder over the two points noted above, one should ignore the over-researched factors, in other words, the external factors, thus whatever remains will be the overlooked mistrust factor in Somalia’s protracted conflict which is regarded as the empirical reality on the ground. Arthur Canon Doyle once remarked, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how impossible, must be a truth.” However, I don’t want to invent the wheel again but I will have to add some little argument to Somalia’s protracted conflict literature. Thus I will proceed to the mistrust factor to explain the longevity of the Somali conflict and the absence of long-term political solutions.

On the other hand, the causes of the Somali civil war are a matter of debate, and it’s not my intention here to discuss any of these arguments. But I want to dig deeper and let my fellow Somalis know the fundamental cause of their prolonged conflict in the country since 1991. To better understand our political misfortunes and the social illnesses that have become common defining factors require thorough thought and reflection.

It must be noted here that the clan-based political conflict in the country has been caused by several factors; however, I could argue that it mainly evolved from domestic commotion. In Somalia’s current political environment, there is a very high level of clan suspicion, distrust, and fear of clan dominance rule that resulted from the lack of trust among the Somali clans. Based on the analysis above, the mistrust factor in Somalia’s political environment produces negative consequences such as security dilemma and zero-sum mentality.

I have cause to argue that the demand for clan suspicion and mistrust kept rising, and the more clan politicians got involved in its production skyrocketed to greater heights. The continuous distrust among Somali clans and the negative competition for state power is enough to make the Somali conflict the most protracted one in the world.

The Mistrust Factor

Definition of mistrust. Mistrust in the Oxford dictionary means a “Lack of trust; suspicion.”

This article argues the longevity of the Somali conflict stemmed from one source: mistrust. Moreover, in analyzing the role of mistrust factor in Somalia’s protracted conflict since 1991, I observed that major Somali clans, namely the Hawiye and Daarood have been engaging in a relationship built on mutual distrust. As a result, Somalia became a place where good people (Birimigeydo) go hungry while the crooked politicians with zero-sum attitude run the affairs of the government.

Clan politics in Somalia cultivates suspicion and distrust among Somali clan actors over state power and its resources. These distrust and clan suspicion began during the reign of Siyad Barre’s regime (1969-1991), which led the country into deep-rooted conflict. His exclusionist policy against certain clans (Isaaq, Hawiye, Majeerteen clan) and his psychopaths that shot their ways to state power, created clan suspicion and mistrust. However, it has never recovered.

Security Dilemma in the Somali Conflict

So far, I have focused on the mistrust variable. I now move to the security dilemma which I have widely seen as a product of fear, mistrust and suspicion among the major tribes in the country.

Realist theory presents that the anarchic condition makes security the primary concern of states. Likewise, the anarchic condition of the country made survival the first concern for Somali clans. Each clan competes and struggles for the key to state power in order to spearhead and ensure physical security and survival. Moreover, each of these clans face a self-help situation in which it is dangerous to place one’s own security in the hands of another. Giving an understanding of the absence of trust among the local tribes, one more easily craps certain dynamics of the security dilemma. However, all the Somali clans involved may sincerely desire peace, but the mistrust factor leads to the tribes’ suspect of one another.

The mistrust among the Somali tribes produces a reasonable fear. Put it another way, it produces a security dilemma.  Moreover, it often affected relations between Somali clans, as it affected relations among states. For example, Galmudug or Somaliland may either unintentionally or under pressure carry out actions that magnify threat to Puntland. As Puntland observes this, it will do the same–tit for tat.What a fair game!

As a result of the zero-sum game among Somali tribes, the peace building projects in Somalia have become a matter of seamanship and less one of navigation, staying afloat rather than going forward. In other words, one step forward, two step backwards (Jugjug meeshaada joog)–unnecessary and tiring leapfrogging practice that never cease to end.

The failure of national reconciliation conferences and state-building efforts in the country proposed a set of deeply puzzling questions.  Somali scholars such as Afyare Abdi Elmi and Dr Abdullahi Barise (2006) came to the conclusion that “Ethiopian’s meddling, the absence of a major-power interest, the warlords’ determination to maintain the status quo, and lack of resources continue to haunt the Somali peace process.” All these four factors are present in the Somali case and have merit. But Afyare and Barise overlooked the underlying variable which advances our understanding of Somalia’s protracted conflict.

However, the reason that the peace-building conferences failed was the absence of trust among the Somali clans, particularly the long-standing mistrust between Hawiye and Daarood. The result of this clan suspicion and distrust ended the dreams of the Somali nation as a whole.

What all these fruitless national reconciliation conferences had in common was the absence of trust among the local tribes in the country. All Somali tribes have a desire to get the presidential position status to run the country and so as to pursue more privileges that compare with each other. Since they are playing the same zero-sum
game, mistrust and clashes are inevitable. The power struggle among them may manifest into serious inter-clan conflicts in the future.

The undressed distrust of the local tribes restricts the political will to address the domestic problems that are the prerogatives of the federal government such as security, the economy, education, public service, the state-building process, etc. Furthermore, it also poisoned the overall atmosphere that required remedial measures and serious negotiated settlements.


The main conclusion that follows from the preceding analysis is that the mistrust factor has considerable explanatory power to explain the longevity of the Somali conflict and the failure to achieve sustainable peace. It also predicts the probability of future clan warfare from the mistrust among the Daarood and Hawiye in the south and Daarood and Isaaq in the northeast of the country.

As the analysis of this article has shown, the mistrust factor seems to play an empirical role than other external causes in determining the longevity of Somalia’s conflict. In addition, the long-standing relationship of mutual mistrust between Hawiye and Daarood cultivated zero-sum game. It also proved that the 4.5 formula by itself is not enough.

If the international community wants to understand and solve the Somali conflict, they must assess the distrust and fear among the local tribes. Somalia needs a strong institution to manage the political conflict found in their minds and hearts. Otherwise, the mistrust factor will likely continue to be a dominant factor in Somalia’s politics that could result in the outbreak of renewed political violence.

Unless the Somali clans overcome their mistrust of each other to form common needs, the protracted conflict will most likely continue. Furthermore, the failure of the International Community and Somalis to focus on the mistrust between Hawiye and Daarood, Isaaq and Daarood, Rahanweyn and Hawiye in the protracted conflict in the country could be a time bomb with devastating consequences.

All Somali clans must remember this, that a national constitution is a balancing act in which trust is also important for the federal government to address domestic problems. In other words, common needs must prevail. On the other hand, the federal government should use its little annual revenue into creating an environment of trust and support instead of extortion and bribery for political gains. Finally, promoting democratic principles (term limits, regular elections, checks and balances) and the reinvigoration of the customary and traditional laws (Xeer) may provide the possible political solution for Somalia’s protracted conflict. In terms of long-term political solutions, I will discuss further in my upcoming article “Reviving a lost legacy: the traditional Xeer.”

Hassan Mudane

The writer is an Author and an Analyst with interests in Africa’s armed conflicts. He is currently working on his Master’s degree in African Studies and International Relations at the Istanbul Ticaret University. 

NB: This article is in no way aimed at discrediting, defaming, or tarnishing the names of the tribes mentioned herein.

Related articles:

I.M.Lewis and Somali Clanship: A Critique



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