Somalia in a State of Nature

by Geoffrey Clarfield (May 2011)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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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