Saturday, July 21, 2018
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Why Clan identity in Somalia should be promoted rather than stigmatised: A short lesson from theory & history

Dr Nuur Hassan


The title of this piece has the capacity to offend, push readers to question motives and at worst make them dismiss my text before weighing its merits. But wait a minute!!, actually the title is by design rather than accident- the overriding aims of its inclusion is to among others; stimulate passion, challenge a long-held belief- that a clan identity (as practiced in Somalia) is wholly incompatible with the country’s quest to build cohesive national identity, which promotes wholeness over partisan, and finally to kick-start critical discourse questioning the prevailing stigma attached to the public promotion of clan identity, while unashamedly privately promoting it.

The conceptualisation of clan in the context of Somalia

Without going too technical, in the context of Somalia, a clan can be conceptualised as a group or groups of people joined by common kingship-mainly through agnatic kingship [1]. To put it simply, a clan is an outgrowth of one’s extended family, mainly from father’s side.

Casual vs intrepid reader of Somali history

A casual (as apposed intrepid) reader of ancient Somali history is often mesmerised by two factors, which have the capacity to uncritically promote national identity, without considering the importance of clan. These are; first, the common language, culture and religion of Somalis- this fools the naked eye as prerequisite ingredients for the formation of nationhood, and second, the perceived and possibly true assertion of the common ethnicity of Somalis(Hamitic) [2].

To the reader, I am here to tell you that this casual readership has cost Somali elites time and effort to establish the elusive unbreakable Somali national identity or simply a sustainable nationhood in Somalia. However, before I start my argument, let us use the literature to provide some definitions about the notion of national identity as well as what constitutes it.

National identity- is defined as a collection of people who feel that they are a nation [3]. This feeling presupposes the existence of shared elements both symbolic as well as physical. If you want to read more about the concept and the theories that led its formation, read on Henri Tajfel and John Turner’s theory of social identity.

My argument for the promotion of clan identity in Somalia- starting self-categorisation to build Affect (leading to sustainable nationhood)

The Lesson from theory failure

To frame my assertions, I will draw on the theory of Social identity postulated by Tajfel and Turner. I will particularly utilise the concept of Self-categorisation and Affect, as I argue that the promotion of strong clan identity in Somalia is and remains the only safest route to build sustainable national identity, hence stable nation-state. In the theory of social identity, self-categorisation is defined as identification with a nation and viewing oneself as a member of that nation.

I will assert, while in Somalia, clan membership is clearly identifiable and there is a palpable bond between clan members, strong self-categorisation is either totally absent or scantily available. There is one main cause for the absence of this crucial ingredient needed for members to identify themselves with a nation.

The cause-due to the perceived stigma attached to the public promotion of clan interests, members and or clan leaders developed over the years, narrow and inward-looking interest to address their specific clan needs. Inward looking and narrowly defined nature of clan interests led (and continuously) lead to the failure of the second component of the theory, which is the affect.

The affect is defined simply as the emotional feelings of belonging to a nation. While in the Somali case, there are (more often than not), public emotions expressed towards national identity and nationhood, I will assert that these emotions are informed by narrow class interest and as soon as members fail to identify their respective class interests within the affect stage, emotions subside and eventually dissipates.

The lesson from historical failure

It would be a naive and counter-factual to suggest that Somali elites over the years lacked the efforts to address the failure of developing a national identity, which could have contributed sustainable nation-state. However, I will argue the issue is not and was not the lack of trying but is and was the suppression of clan identity in public, while unashamedly promoting in private with the view of satisfying narrowly defined clan interests of the groups in power.

To qualify my above assertions, let me throw in three historical references, which due to the narrowly defined (lack of self-categorisation) clan interests caused constant failures in acquiring sustainable nation-state.

I will start with the first coordinated Somali own anti-colonial struggle led by Sayid Mohamed Abdulle Hassan. In the early 20th century, Sayid Mohamed and his Darvis, established themselves as anti-colonial and truly pan Somali resistance to the European empires (namely the British and the Italians).

It is critical to note that, Sayid Mohamed started his struggle in an area that can in the Somali context classified as belonging to clan members that are not from his agnatic kingship, although this was not considered as crucial in the formative years, Sayid’s persistence to disregard the narrowly defined clan interests of the region, he was waging the struggle from (while promoting national interests), led to the failure to maintain his struggle and the eventual defeat by the British in 1920.

Another key historical reference can be taken from the heydays of the SYC and its successor SYL in the 1940s. While the Somali Youth League neither suppressed clan identity nor promoted (at least in public), they nevertheless failed to formulate a policy that could cultivate self-categorisation of members of Somali clans who supported the league’s political agenda.

The final historical reference that (due to the suppression of clan identity) failed the realisation of sustainable national identity, is the one led by Siyad Barre. In 1969 in what was supposedly an army mutiny over the shambolic governance under SYL, the army led by Barre overthrew the government, and brought in a revolutionary culture, which not only stigmatised clan identity to a level never seen before, but also enacted legislations prosecuting anyone doing so.

It is critical to note- that (at least) the last 15 years of Barre’s regime, while clan identity was publicly banned, it was excessively promoted in private. The result of this seemingly contradictory policy, brought to bear the most narrow-minded clan division ever witnessed in Somali history-not to mention, the civil strife that followed and subsequently led the complete destruction of the Somali state.


In this piece, I have attempted to critically point out that, because of Somali elites’ continued effort to stigmatise the promotion of clan identity in public, though privately advocating it, has pushed the development of narrowly defined and inward-looking interest by clans. These narrowly defined interests have resulted in divergence between what clans see as their interest and the one they see as the national interest.

I have used both historical references as well as theory, to highlight the missing components required for the establishment of stable and sustainable national identity- (i.e. Self-categorisation and Affect). Self-categorisation is required, because the clan members must feel that, their interest are better served at the national level and Affect is needed because clan members must develop permanent and positive emotions such pride and love for their country.

Before I submit a new theory to study clan-nation divide in the context of Somalia, let me briefly discuss the concept of clan interest and its components in the context of Somalia. Based on my personal observation as well as lived experience, I will assert that in Somalia, clan interests are constructed on two cardinal pillars; Security and Resources. Security is the feeling held by members of a clan that they are either totally safe from external threats (real or imagined) or able to withstand the elements through internal or externally enhanced defensive capacity.

Resource is the second pillar that forms clan interest, this is the acquired and to be acquired materials (disposable or none-disposable) essential for existence in Somalia. Resources are acquired through land-none-disposable (cultivation, grazing, etc.) and trade-disposable (selling and buying and movement of merchandise etc.).

My proposed new theory

I want to submit a new theory that can be used as a framework to understand clan-nation divide in Somalia. My theory “The Theory of Clan-Nation Disjoint” is based on the following three problematic premises, which I will argue are first, the root cause of the failure to acquire all serving and all-encompassing nation-state. And second, an urgent reminder why the Somali elites need to rethink about the role of clan identity in their quest to build nation-state.

The premises

  1. There is internalised perception (by the clans) of persistence divergence between clan and national interests.
  2. Clans developed and internalised (over the years) their own interest based on two pillars; Resource acquisition and availability of Security for their members.
  3. There is widespread disapproval (among Somali elites) of clan identity promotion (publicly) though they privately approve it-to serve specific interests of the clan either in power or one closer to power.

As in all theories, this one is not a tool to solve a problem, but it is a framework to understand a problem with view of finding a solution.

Final thought  

As causally tossed around (among Somali elites), the existence of strong clan identity is not wholly incompatible with stable nation- state in Somalia. The problem is the way it (the clan) treated in public and in private. Publicly it is portrayed as the malady that stands between stable nation-state in Somalia and sooner it is cured the better. However, and somewhat ironically, the same elite zealously promote their clan interests in private. I will conclude, until this contradictory is addressed, the search for nation-state in Somalia may continue for a long time!

Dr Nuur Hassan


Gundel, Joakim (2009)[1] ‘Clans in Somalia’, Austrian Red Cross, Vienna, available online at 20091215.pdf.

Lewis I.M(1955)[2] A Modern History of the Somali: Nation and State in the Horn of Africa( new ed). Ohio University press.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986) [1979].[3] “The social identity theory of intergroup behaviour (pp. 7–24)”. In Austin, William G.; Worchel, Stephen. Psychology of Intergroup Relations (2nd ed.). Chicago: Nelson-Hall. ISBN 978-0-830-41075-0ISBN 0-83041075-9.

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