Somalia in a State of Nature

by Geoffrey Clarfield (May 2011)

Sir Richard Burton once called the Somalis a nation of “fierce republicans,” not a bad description for an entire people, for their attitude towards guns makes the most conservative NRA enthusiast seem like a Gandhian pacifist.  If seven million Somalis inhabit the Horn of Africa, with sizable minorities in neighbouring countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, then perhaps it would be reasonable to assume that among them there is a ratio of seven people per one gun, perhaps more, since almost every adult male member in Somalia has access to a firearm.

In the heady days of the nineteen sixties when the winds of change were blowing across the African continent and the Union Jack was lowered from the flagpoles of almost every corner of the British Empire, it was argued that those countries with “racial,” linguistic and religious unity were the ones most likely to succeed.

We must assume that by “succeed” the development gurus of that optimistic era meant that these countries would maintain and expand the infrastructure set up by the former colonial power, expand the area of that infrastructure and slowly but surely, incorporate the majority of its rural citizens into that complex but daily exchange of information, rights and obligations that constitute contemporary liberal democracy.

The last sixty years of independent nations in Africa has seen nothing of the sort. Time after time with little difference as to whether the former colonial master was British, French or Italian, tribally based governments dominated by charismatic big men have as the political scientists have come to call it, “captured the state” and turned its entire apparatus into a well organized system for the enrichment of a particular tribal elite. Only since the collapse of the communist world have some African countries begun to experiment with democracy. The experiment is still in its infancy and the verdict is not yet out, but the results have not been promising.

The arbitrariness and cruelty of the regime of former Somali dictator Siad Barre is well described and evoked in the novels of the expatriate Somali writer Nuruddin Farah who describes the Kafka like intrigues of the Barre regime, where political enemies were thrown in jail indefinitely and languished in prison for so long that those who threw them in jail no longer themselves remembered why they had put them there in the first place. The development gurus were wrong and Somalia followed the pattern of other tribally based dictatorships, despite its linguistic, religious and yes, “racial” unity.

I would like to think that these systems cannot last forever. They often collapse more quickly than one would think. Yet they are often replaced with some variation of an authoritarian regime, whether secular or religious.

In Somalia, eventually the Siad Barre regime was overthrown. Tribal warlords fought to reconstitute or dominate Somali proper but none prevailed. Radical Islamic movements are now trying to reconstitute authority there. But they seem to be less interested in “nation building” than they are in varieties of holy war, for different Islamic and tribally based groups also battle each other for domination of the larger Horn of Africa including a smouldering and not yet rabid desire to destroy the Christian basis of the Ethiopian state.

Perhaps, as empires fall into their constituent pieces so can countries fall apart and return to a state of nature. And so these warring factions struggling for supremacy have reconstituted a religiously tinged Hobbesian “state of nature” in the first years of the 21st century, while turning the Oceans on their coast into a lawless frontier from which they practice unrestricted piracy.

The mass media have ethnocentrically decided that Somalia is engaged in a brutal civil war. The truth of the matter is that there is no civil war in Somalia. There is only a series of inter clan and intertribal conflicts at different levels of what anthropologists call the segmentary lineage, complicated by various forms of imported and home grown fundamentalist Islamic ideology.

The segmentary lineage is the basis of the blood feud. It is and has been found in various parts of the world at different times and is familiar to every English speaking high school student who has ever read Romeo and Juliet. It works simply, logically, hierarchically and is based on the principle of escalation.

If I hit your brother, he or his brother can hit my brother or me. If my cousin comes to my defense he can attack the cousin of my attacker and so on until the vendetta reaches vast proportions and large adjacent groups of families, lineages and clans are living in a state of mutual belligerence.

Not only do such conflicts escalate among their participants but anthropologists, once again, argue that these systems are expansive. One has gone so far as to suggest that  they exist to provide one large and amorphous group of culturally related but independent lineages and clans, all claiming a mythical common ancestor, to effectively enter, conquer and dominate the territory of neighbouring tribes who in the past were not organized according to this ad hoc, yet flexible system.

This is how the Somalis with their various lineages and clans existed before they were forcefully pacified by the British, Italian and French. And, this is the state to which they have returned since the fall of Siad Barre but with two differences.

The first is that the age of mass communications and modern weaponry have turned what were once limited skirmishes of men wielding spears and swords, fighting at close quarters, into lightning quick and brutal encounters that leave scores of men, women and children dead or dying after a few minutes fighting. The technologies of the M-16 and the Toyota Land Cruiser have been grafted onto a system managed by tribal warlords- who are in fact lineage and clan leaders. The second is the penetration of radical Islamic theology among the different groups and it is not uniform in its extent or content.

Yet the war of all against all is not an unmitigated tragedy for everyone. Like lords during the European middle ages, warlords cut deals with those with whom it is in their interest to do so. At a diplomatic dinner in Nairobi that I once attended the ambassador of a Western State told me about a recent visit to Somalia, just before 9/11.

She was flown to a private farm covering many thousand of acres far away from the capital of Mogadishu where she and her husband were wined and dined by the Italian managers of a vast private estate in the middle of the Somali hinterland.

Over a dinner that included Parmesan from Rome and wine from Tuscany my diplomatic friend diplomatically asked her hosts if the civil war of the late nineties had not caused them any hardship or affected the profitability of their farm. Her hosts laughed and replied that on the contrary, now that the civil war was on and the government having effectively closed down, they had no problems with bureaucracy. Once a week, a large plane or jet landed on their private runway, loaded up with agricultural produce and flew without hindrance directly to Italy.

I suspect that these gracious expatriates were dealing with more than fruit and vegetables and recent news out of East Africa has confirmed this hunch. The region is now a major transit point for the smuggling of hard drugs to Europe from the Far East.   

That money in turn supports Islamic terror.

For more than five hundred years the Somalis have been moving inward, from their desert coastal lands on the Gulf of Aden and the shark infested Indian Ocean coast, into the green interior, the highlands and grass lands of East Africa. Despite the violent nature of their society, in evolutionary terms they are a success. They have grown in numbers and have taken over much territory that previously was inhabited by other tribes. Much of Ethiopia is now in essence Somali territory (another brutal war goes on and off with US and Ethiopian support over this much-lamented social fact and it is complicated by Ethiopian/Eritrean hostility).

Somalis have also occupied much of northeastern Kenya. Yet before 1900 they were barely present in what is now a large area of that country that is occupied and dominated by Somali pastoral nomads. Within twenty years they numbered in the thousands and during the 20th century grew to hundreds of thousands in the Kenyan districts of Wajir, Mandera and Isiolo.

One British District Commissioner recorded a Somali raid into the heartland of agricultural Kenya near Mount Kenya itself, just before W.W.I, in what later came to be Kenya Colony and the stomping grounds of the likes of Karen Blixen.

During my ten years living and working in Kenya I met two kinds of Somali – city based and country based. The city based Somalis were those whose families had moved to Nairobi. Most of them (as Somalis tend to be) were handsome, intelligent and worldly holders of degrees from various foreign Universities. They seem to put their hopes in the multicultural mix of modern day Kenya where they could carve out a niche for themselves as urbane, Kenyan citizens of the Muslim faith pursuing their individual and family interests in the national chess game of divide up the spoils, called the Republic of Kenya. (The remarkable secular Somali writer Ayan Hirsi Ali is one while the super model Imaan is another.)

I worked very closely with a number of these success stories. They were intelligent colleagues, fearful adversaries and always landed on their feet. They had that streetwise ability to negotiate anything, maintaining their poker face all along. At the same time they had the intellectual smarts to play the international game of research, development and enterprise by the rules of expertise and merit. In truth, they were more than a match for this somewhat naive and Anglicized resident of the Province of Ontario. I never got on their wrong side.

The country based Somalis are located in all the small trading centres spread across Kenya’s vast, arid and pastoral northern districts and which make up two thirds of the land surface of that Republic. They are shopkeepers and traders who live and intermarry among the various tribes, among whom they settle, bringing the products of the modern economy to their pre industrial clients-tea, sugar, malaria pills, cloth, beads and to the chagrin of international development workers, long term credit against the fluctuating uncertainty of the pastoral economy.

When all the aid organizations disappear, as they tend to do for various periods, (until the next drought)  the Somali  dukka (shop) men are there insuring that their clients do not go without the basics – food, tea and sugar, even if their  rates are usurious in the eyes of outsiders.

The other kind of Somali, the traditional camel pastoralists and who form the mainstream of the nation, are continuously searching for greener pastures. They have been described by and documented by scores of anthropologists. However, there is a fourth kind of Somali that I never met face to face and feel grateful for the fact that I never had the pleasure. These men are called Shifta.

On my drives through northern Kenya, on the dirt roads of Marsabit and Isiolo districts, far from the center of any effective national authority, I would see traditional Somali herders wandering across the plains, with their camels, sheep and goats, constantly on the move and in search of better pastures.

During the last sixty years various individuals have hived off from these groups pushing into the edge of other tribal territories and have earned the name of Shifta, an Ethiopian word for bandit, yet with a Robin Hood like connotation of taking form the rich. I had always identified with Robin Hood as a boy and dreamed of joining his merry men in Sherwood Forest, but it never dawned on me that one day I would be the object of such rebellious activity. Ever since then I have had a greater sympathy with the Sheriff of Nottingham and felt uncomfortable watching Kevin Costner's and Russell Crowe’s politically correct version of the story of the men in lincoln green.

It was a perfect day. I arrived in Isiolo town, the gateway to the northern frontier from Nairobi without incident. My jeep was in perfect repair and I was getting ready for the grueling four hour run to Marsabit town, along the unpaved road that starts at Isiolo town and doesn’t stop until the Ethiopian border.

Five minutes out of Isiolo, the telephone poles disappear. Soon afterwards the electricity lines disappear altogether. Forty minutes into the safari one reaches Archer's Post, a small trading post which is the northern most limit of any tourist tramping around the desert game parks just outside of Isiolo. It took me a couple of years to finally register the simple fact that after Archer's Post the effective authority of the Kenyan government is non existent.

Southern, Bantu and Nilotic tribes wrested independence from the departing British and have inadvertently inherited this northern desert area, a region filled with a million warlike pastoral nomads-Turkana, Samburu, Arial, Rendille, Boran, Gabra and Somalis called Adjuran, Garre and Degodia. British administrators had had a tough time keeping the peace during their forty-year occupation of this vast area of deserts, punctuated with forested mountains. Now that they were gone. It was as if they had never been there.

A few years after Kenyan independence the tribesmen of the north resumed their old habits, one tribe attacking another, killing men, capturing women and children, taking over the family herds and occupying other tribe's territories. Since independence in 1964, (I was eleven years old at the time) the Samburu tribe has lost up to thirty five percent of its traditional homeland  to migrating and attacking Turkana, a pagan tribe of Nilotes with an ethos similar to Attila the Hun. One anthropologist that I met (not surprisingly a German) called them the Mongols of Northern Kenya.

I must have done the run from Marsabit to Isiolo twenty to forty times during my four-year stay in Kenya’s Northern Frontier. Every time I passed Archer’s Post, despite the magnificent scenery that looked like the pictures from the Arizona based Marlboro country cigarette ad posters, I would be gripped by a general unease that did not pass until I reached the town of Loglogo in the foothills of the Marsabit range.

The area between Archer's post and Loglogo is known for its many shifta attacks on lone vehicles and even convoys. Long-term residents advised me never to take armed guards (which the government graciously offered foreigners like myself) because they claimed that they drew the fire and were frightened and ineffective against these desert hardened bandits.

A Norwegian family that we came to know told us that one day on a secondary road near the Ethiopian border, while inspecting a Church funded agricultural development project, they were shot at and held up by a group of shifta. The bandits handled them roughly, forced them to strip and hand over all their clothing, kept on yelling at them not to look them in the eye (that would prevent identification) and kept them standing naked in the sun while they tried to start and abscond with their jeep. For some reason they could not start the car and after a few minutes gave up and in panic left the scene of the crime.

My Norwegian friends could not start the car either and it took them some time until they walked back to a friendly village to report what had happened and to regain their composure. These and many other stories like them were always in the back of my mind when I traveled that route.

As a result I took a “Pony Express” approach. I drove like the wind, did not slow down at corners, did not listen to the radio and maintained a tense but highly focused state of full alert. It was always worse when I had passengers and even worse when the passengers were my wife and son. The only consolation was that my wife and I would share the driving, and she drove faster than I. Fear gives good mileage.

This time it was different. I had been asked to give a lift to the District Officer's young fiancée, a good looking girl from Meru whose husband to be was as good looking as Harry Belafonte. They were the ideal modern Kenyan couple. He was a former officer in the Kenya African Rifles and now an upcoming administrator. She worked for a United Nations research and development project based in Marsabit town. While resident in Marsabit they had befriended us and whenever strings needed to be pulled or favors done, they were there to help.

This time I took pleasure in the fact that at both ends of our route, at Isiolo and Marsabit towns, the radio calls had gone out informing the authorities that we were on our way. It was an unusual day, just after the rainy season. Instead of burning hot sun and bleached landscapes all was green. There were acacia trees that could be seen for miles around, of various types with their umbrella like green tops and the occasional wild animal that you could see from the road-zebra, giraffe, gazelle and mountain ranges that looked like half submerged dinosaurs.

It was as if we were looking at the landscape through tinted spectacles and would soon arrive at the gates of Oz. Ahead of us was a jeep of Catholic fathers and nuns who left ten minutes before us and who gave us the feeling that at least we were not the only car making the run that day.

It was too good to be true. Everything went smoothly. No frightening tire bursts that forced us to stop on the side of the road, repairing our vehicle like some sitting duck. No puddles of slippery mud and no broken down vehicles blocking the road that could have just as well been decoys before an attack.

We arrived in Marsabit in record time and as we delivered our friend into the loving arms of her fiancée he looked as if he had lost all his color. Over a cup of tea he explained to us that the car in front of us had been attacked, had been shot at close quarters and that until we had arrived ten minutes after the nuns and priests, they had no idea whether we were all dead or alive.

The priest driving the vehicle thought that he heard his tire burst. He slowed down and stopped the car. He got out and checked each tire carefully. He couldn’t quite figure it out. He kept on looking at the tires but saw that nothing was wrong. After five minutes of frustration he noticed that there was a small hole in the side of the car and it dawned on him that he had been shot at. As he tells it he thought he heard the sound of another bullet as he was getting back in to the car. He then drove as fast as he could until he reached Marsabit town. Immediately he reported what had happened to the authorities but all they could do was wait to see if we would arrive.

Days later we found out that the administrative police had dispatched a group of armed commandos to the spot of the incident but by the time they got there nothing was to be seen. We also discovered that despite the almost uncanny tracking abilities of the tribesman who inhabit that region, Rendille and Samburu, tribes loyal to the government, they were not employed to track down and bring to justice these solo artists who preyed on innocent desert travelers like ourselves. I later learned to my growing alarm that the incidence of these incidents is worse during the rainy season because the irregulars have no trouble finding water in the desert.

It was obvious that the government did not have the will to defend its own territory, that the soldiers did not have the motivation to pursue them, and that in the long term the bandits had the upper hand. They had adapted to desert conditions over a period of many decades. They felt at home in the terrain, knew it better than any temporary soldier shipped up from the south and, who knows what support they got from the incoming Somali nomads.

It is not widely known that during Kenya's colonial period there were two administrations-one based in the green highland south where the mainly agricultural Bantu and Nilotic tribes lived and among whom the European settlers carved out their estates and one in the north inhabited by Cushitic and Nilotic pastoralists whose territory began at Isiolo town and which stretched to the borders of the Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia.

This area was called the “The Northern Frontier (NFD)” and served to effectively buffer Kenya Colony from the Kingdom of Ethiopia to the north and from Somalia in the East. The peace was kept by a small group of hardy Englishmen who with native levies (usually Somali) managed to maintain tribal boundaries and enforce the peace of the King.  It was almost as if a small group of Roman officers had been given the task of keeping the peace beyond Hadrian's wall. When the Romans finally pulled out (as the English settlers and administrators did in 1964) the southerners could not control the wild pastoralists of the north.

Such has been the case of Kenya since it gained its independence. Within a few short years the anglicized Bantus who inherited the two territories from the British quickly lost control over the north, and have ever since at best only managed to secure the main communications routes between government administered towns throughout Kenya’s desert lands.

The two areas are as opposite as opposites can be. The north is mostly flat desert with mountains here and there inhabited by gun toting wandering nomads. The south is a fertile, well-watered agricultural paradise inhabited by tribes that do not wander. Ecologists would explain that the social organization and culture of the differing peoples is a direct function of the two environments. They are textbook examples of the fact that ecology often determines the nature of social organization and culture.

So in truth the Republic of Kenya ends at the town of Isiolo, the gateway to the northern frontier. The Government in Nairobi and its military representatives cannot enforce the peace in an area that covers more than two thirds of its national territory. Thus northern Kenya has returned to a state of nature where the war of all against all proceeds as it did before the British arrived, which is often the case when there is no sovereign or central authority that exerts coercive force over a designated territory.

When the Somali “civil war” is over, and they reconstitute some form of national authority it would not be unlikely that, given a period of unrest and instability in Kenya, the Somalis would ask for a referendum among the peoples of northern Kenya in the hope of constituting Greater Somalia, a movement which was quite active in the early nineteen sixties. If by peaceful, or by other means, the Somalis incorporate their cousins in Kenya into one state, then a cleavage which is already de facto will become de jure. For a short period of time radical Islam may hold the tribes of Somalia together, but we can also assume that their ideology of Jihad will unite the Ethiopians, the Kenyans and their western allies to oppose them in any way they can.

The now mostly agricultural and Christian south of Kenya will find itself part of sub-Saharan Africa, connected in economics and culture to newly created state of the Southern Sudan as well as other sub Saharan African states with their mixture of indigenous and European cultural styles. To the north, starting in Isiolo town, the Somali, and Somalized tribes of the desert will link themselves with the markets and values of the Middle East and Arabia. At that point the tribes of the northern frontier will no longer be living in a state of nature. The sons of the desert shall finally rule the empty wastelands while the sons of the plow shall rule only over their well-watered farms.


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