Debate: Clanism in Somalia

Political representation is a complex issue in Somali society, which has been devastated by several decades of civil war causing distrust between people and disillusion with the ‘state’.

The clash between clanism and nationbuilding

Somali citizenship broadly derives from the concept of u dhashay (born to a family/group/clan/nation). This ancestral understanding of citizenship stresses the blood relationship of all Somalis, who claim descent from a common forefather.

Before the outbreak of the civil war in the late 1980s Somalis were commonly perceived as a homogenous ‘nation’. The military regime of Siad Barre demanded loyalty to the state above the clan.

Yet behind the nationalist facade clientism and nepotism continued. In their struggle for power later Somali governments as well as factions in the civil war have used notions of clan loyalty to mobilize support.

The difference between nomads, farmers and the people living in the city 

Different Somali communities have separate perceptions of belonging:

  • Nomads or camel herders: stress family relations. For raiding or in defence, groups of relatives unite.
  • Farmers in southern and central Somalia: stress territoriality, because they depend on land and cooperation for survival.
  • Urban communities: give religious authorities and leaders a strong influence. Here notions of hierarchy and loyalty is key.

In addition, many members of the diaspora have developed a transnational understanding of belonging, and are simultaneously engaged in their country of residence and the homeland.

The Somali diaspora and issues of representation

More than a million Somalis live outside Somalia, either in refugee camps or in countries such as:

  • Italy
  • Canada
  • USA
  • Denmark

Over the last two decades, political representation and participation in peace talks in Somalia has been based on a mixture of clan, military and financial power. This has often strengthened the prestige of warlords and political elites from the diaspora.

Many delegates at national reconciliation conferences fly in to meetings held outside of Somalia. They are paid by international donors and can simply return abroad if things do not ‘work out’ back home.

Representativeness cannot be created from outside. It has to come from within and to be accountable to those who supposedly are being represented: ordinary Somalis.



From Somalia to Denmark and back

I have long wished to visit Somalia for three main reasons: It is my place of birth, I am a journalist and I sense great opportunity. Somalia is in the midst of forming a government and I for one would love to witness the process first hand.

My place of birth

The inevitable first question that Somalis ask one another when they meet is: “What is your qabil?”. Qabil means ‘clan’ and it has nearly always been the defining charateristic for Somali people.

Whenever I am asked this question, I always respond with: “I was born in Mogadishu”. In my opinion, the question of qabil in my case is utter nonsense. I have nearly spent 22 years in Denmark. And so my clan means absolutely nothing to me.

Instead, I like to say, that my mom is related to the popular singer Ahmed Nagi. Or that my grandfather worked for the Somali government in Mogadishu back in the 80s. Or that I once lived in the city of Medina, not far from where you could buy or sell gold.

My mother and I, age 3, in the woods of Afgooye

I am a journalist 

I might as well admit it. I have aspirations of becoming a foreign correspondent. I am passionate about exploring new ways of communication and interacting with people of different cultures.

As the only Danish journalist of Somalian descent (that I know of), I have a personal stake in the crisis Somalia is engulfed in. I have a remarkable opportunity to gather valuable information about the conflict that might advance the Danish policy in Somalia.


With my multicultural background I have the ability to take the reporting of the conflict to a whole new dimension. The Danish journalist population is still very homogeneous and can only benefit from this.

I sense great opportunity

Under the rule of former president Siad Barre, which my mom wholeheartedly supported, it was considered anathema to the purpose of a modern state to ask questions about ones clan. Somalis began to pointedly ask, “What is your ex-clan?”

On a symbolic level, the sort of transformation that Siad Barre envisioned for his people was to abandon clanism – that “whom do you know?” be changed with “what do you know?”. This sort of reasoning is much more in line with my frame of mind.

With the new roadmap in place, there is a great opportunity for the Somali people to overcome their differences in terms of clanism. Many might argue qabil did not cause the crisis in Somalia, but the question of qabil should never be an issue for any Somali. Period.




HornAfrik tells the untold stories

The difficulties and dangers in reporting from areas controlled by militias such as Al-Shabaab and where there is no government or embassy to turn to in a case of emergency is maybe best illustrated by the case of the TV and Radio station HornAfrik.

A private enterprise

HornAfrik was founded by three Canadian Somali refugees; Ahmed Adan, Mohamed Amin and Ali Sharmarke in 1999. Their story is documented by the UN in their 21st century television series.

In the documentary, Ahmed Adan states that many years of ongoing conflict in Somalia has created: “A situation, where no one is sure about their neighbours, families or communities.”

Ahmed Adan adds that news coverage by HornAfrik gives: “An opportunity to create environment, where we know about what is happening in every part of Mogadishu. (…) Who is killing whom and what is the basis for that.”

Voice of the people

HornAfrik provided ordinary people the opportunity to phone in and voice their opinion and explore ways to solve conflict. As the warlords realised the popularity of HornAfrik, they tried to take over the radio and TV station by force.

Ahmed Adan says that the station stood steadfast upon its principles: “Do not try to silence us, we will give you airtime, but the people will have to challenge you as well [by phoning in]. We are not a propaganda machine for any particular group or person”.

Subsequently, HornAfrik has experienced a number of attacks, censorship and has even been shut down. The dangers culminated in August 2007, when one founder, Ali Sharmarke, was murded along with presenter Mahad Ahmed Elmi.

Is any story worth dying for?

Many Somali journalists prefer to work undercover. At the very least, pseudonyms are used and more often than not, radio pieces are voiced over in studio to protect identities. The increasingly common practice of hiring local armed security guards to accompany reporters on assignments presents a risk of becoming a target.

When traveling with military or with one side in a conflict, there is a risk of being mistaken for a soldier or considered associated with military. Further more, when traveling with the military, you have to do what the military tells you to do.

HornAfrik is still operating to this day, but throughout the years the conflict has resulted in many media houses being closed down, and their journalists fleeing the country. Adan himself believes that his partner died for a worthy cause. He argues that Ali Sharwake was not “just a journalist, but a peacemaker”.



Who does the reporting?

Most of the time, most of what we read, hear and see from Somalia comes from Somalis. Local reporters work for all major news outlets, but they are usually not entitled to any of the protection offered to ‘regular’ staff members.  

Local reporters at risk

There are hundreds of journalists with varying degrees of skill scattered though out Somalia, practicing their craft under extremely dangerous circumstances. Major news agencies and media houses such as Reuters, AP, Al Jazeera, and BBC employ these workers.

In many cases, the risks of using foreign correspondents as opposed to local reporters are considered to high. This results in a preference for local reporters by international news organizations in Somalia.

The statistics show that it is mostly local reporters which are being attacked and wounded if not killed, arrested or threatened by the militia as well as the Transitional Somali Government.

Implications for coverage

Ever since the fall of former president Siad Barre’s government in 1991, there has been ongoing outbreaks of inter-clan violence throughout the south of Somalia and especially in Mogadishu. Puntland, the Horn of Africa, is a region with its own government.

Puntland supposedly provides a more secure environment in which journalists can report without the same danger that their colleagues encounter further south. And then there is Somaliland, which considers itself a separate country, despite not being recognized by either the African Union (AU) nor the United Nations (UN).

It is also supposedly safer to practice journalism in Somaliland than in other parts of the divided country, although local reporters here protect their position by shying away from reports on sovereignty and relations with Mogadishu.

Foreign journalists travel in flak jackets and armored vehicles 

Major African news outlets such as the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and Radio France Internationale are regularly taken on tours by African Union Mission in Somalia’s (Amisom) PR people.

The journalists travel in Casspirs (landmine-protected personnel carrier used by troops) through the parts of Mogadishu under the joint control of the African Union and Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

In grave contrast to the local reporters, these journalists are protected by soldiers, flak jackets and armored vehicles, but they only get a limited view of the situation. They also get to leave once their short assignment comes to an end.

Not just a journalist, but a peacemaker

The many dangers faced by journalists in conflict areas such as Somalia force us to consider whether it is worth the risk to cover these areas. Nevertheless, the role of the journalist as a peacemaker demands assignments to war and other danger zones.  

Why travel to Somalia?

Since 1992, 34 journalists have been killed in Somalia in direct relation to their work, making this conflict-ridden country one of the deadliest countries in the world for reporters. But does this mean that reporters should stop reporting from Somalia?

One important argument is that news media play a key factor in conflict resolution efforts. One first needs to be aware of something before public opinion is created and the proper authorities are compelled to ‘do something’.

This argument is closely related to the ability of journalists to investigate and report. A trait which is often referred to as ‘freedom of the press’. Without it, the public is deprived of their right to know and therefore of their ability to excise power.

Reporting global issues

Events such as terrorism, humanitarian disasters and war in other parts of the world impact national security in such a way that global agendas are created. Some push for global solutions. Others look for regional solutions and some prefer national or even local solutions.

The issue of piracy off the coast of Somalia hits home, when Danish ships cannot pass the sea without fear of being taken hostage. As it recently happened for a Danish family of sailers. The armed Islamic group, Al-Shabaab, becomes our business, when our humanitarian relief is hindered by them.

The issue of piracy has caused Danish Navy to guard the sea off the coast of Somalia. However, other issues relating to the plight of the Somalia people and the atrocities committed on land are often under-reported. If we want to promote responsible global reporting than we need to cover these issues.

Map showing the extent of Somali pirate attacks on shipping vessels between 2005 and 2010.

Promoting safe journalism

In countries such as Somalia, the situation is one of permanent chaos. Somalia remains in the midst of an ongoing violent crisis that has seen the nation without an effective government for nearly twenty years.

A culture of violence and impunity causes an environment in which the press is deliberately targeted by warring parties. Reporting in Somalia therefore requires research, planning, observation and reflection. Professional safety training courses, first aid and emergency aid courses are essential.

Even the best stories and pictures are only of value when they are read, seen or heard – the best journalists are better alive than dead. And while no one can remove all dangers from the profession, journalists, their organizations and their employers, all have a critical function in reducing the unacceptable rate of death and injury in Somalia.