By Mohamed F Yabarag
As political campaigns for Somaliland 's upcoming presidential election in the next spring are in full swing, so is tribalism. Clans are jockeying for places and favors. They are changing sides at an alarming speed and some, supporting one political party few moments ago, are changing their wholesale allegiance so rapidly that no political party can take the votes of any particular clan for granted. We have reached a point at which our countless and sometimes callous Sultans, Akils, Kings, Garads, Ugases .etc. can easily manipulate the outcome of the upcoming election to their twisted tribal interests. There is a lot at stake in the upcoming presidential election. Very few people are likely to vote on the basis of their political believes and convictions. Tribalism seemed to be less severe in the first ever presidential election in Somaliland than it might be in the upcoming one. This is all too familiar for older generations who had witnessed the divisive and dirty elections in the sixties in former Somalia , where straying to someone else's tribal backyard was regarded as a trespass and at times resulted in death.
The whole idea of embracing multiparty political system in our country, in addition of course to the advancement of democracy and freedom of choice without offending our noble religion, was mainly to reduce the role of tribalism in our society so that people can have an alternative choice to this vicious archaic system that cost us a lot for generations and made us a laughing stock in the international community. Some may disagree with this statement and say that tribalism had not only served us well for the past 17 years in Somaliland but it also saved us from the kind of anarchy and ruins our brethren in southern Somalia are going through. This may be true from the outset but in the long run, it will achieve us nothing as a nation aspiring to become a progressive state. Tribalism is a system fraught with unknowns. It is littered with social injustice and lacks fairness. Everything that is wrong with us today can be traced to tribalism. It is the root cause of our social ills. No matter how hard we try to progress as a nation, no substantive achievements will be made so long as we rely tribalism to cure our social ills. It may be a quick-fix remedy in the current circumstances, but in reality we are sitting on a time bomb that can explode at any moment's notice to a devastating effect. It is too risky to rely on such a system that can disintegrate so easily and so dramatically as a result of a mere confrontation between two individuals, or groups belonging to different tribes at any given time.
Now coming back to the crux of my argument, Somaliland has been a separate state (at least in the eyes of its citizens) for 17 long years, even though nobody in the outside world has recognized it as a sovereign nation. Even the deceitful Ethiopia is not ready to do that yet. There are several unrecognized countries that did very well in terms of socioeconomic developments and have even surpassed internationally recognized ones, Taiwan being one of them. What is the difference between them and us? The answer is very simple: they are nationalists and we are clannish i.e. we breathe and sleep tribalism. We look at any government institution and if our man/woman is not represented, it is non starter for us. Some may deny this, but it is a common practice in our social system. We can go to a thousand mile journey to farther the interest of our tribes. I am not so sure if we can do the same for the interest of the nation as whole. In our social system, tribalism has overriding priority than any other social tool available to us. It is the engine; everything else is peripheral. It is always us against them and vice versa. The fact that we always depend on tribal chiefs (the guurti) rather than government institutions for almost everything, especially in times of difficulties, says a lot about the shortcomings of the tribal system. Yes, there are occasional harmonies between our tribes, but when big issues are at stake, tribal system will never be a substitute for fair and independent government institutions such as Supreme Court and parliament.
In my opinion, our lack of international recognition is little to do with our lack of progress - both socially and economically – but more to do with tribalism. Tribalism is the main culprit here. In ancient Greek tales, how often you heard “the face that launched thousand ships”. We have a similar situation here, though in a different context. The face of tribalism has the potential of launching thousand men in Somaliland at any moment. The recent expansion of Somaliland regions and towns along tribal lines by the incumbent government to get some favorable votes here and there did not help our cause either. Whoever comes to power in the next election will face the difficulty of negotiating and weaving through a complex tribal system.
Despite political pledges by the contesting national parties (Kulmiye, Udub and Ucid) that they will deliver a quality government to the public, they have no chance in hell of streamlining government portfolios as every tribe wants to feature in any future government. Fresh from winning the presidential election in 2003, Mr. Rayale, current Somaliland president, promised to form a small quality government to an enthusiastic Somali Lander audience (including myself) in London only to backtrack on his pledges later in the face of fierce tribalism back home. Who would blame him? The whole psyche of Somaliland is based on tribalism. Although this article is confined to Somaliland , the subject matter is applicable to all Somali-inhabited lands. No day goes by without the mention of Reer Hebel (tribe so) led by their Sultan, Akil, Ugas, etc. visiting the presidential palace or any other public office in search of tribal favors, often at the expense of another. We cannot afford to call ourselves a state and then allow Akils to dictate for our elected governments. Almost half of government programs are wasted by trivial tribal disputes and arguments every year. In all honesty, tribalism is sniffing life out of Somaliland people and its stranglehold is severe. Tribalism and Kat-chewing, another evil habit, are the worst two things to happen to our society.
Now, the question begs how we can overcome this devastating and ruinous age-old system we found in our midst. First and foremost, whoever comes to power in April (barring another election postponement) should strike a fine balance between the current system, which is based on tribal power-sharing and institution-building based on meritocracy, allowing the two systems to work in tandem until such time we reach social and political maturity sufficient enough to enable us to rely on the latter system and abandon the former. Strong public and civil institutions are the hallmarks and solid foundations of any democratic society. Building such institutions in our country could minimize the severity of tribalism in our society.
Secondly, any government that comes to power should mobilize the whole nation and spend a large slice of its meager budget on national campaigns against the tribalism in our society. In doing so it may be out of pocket, but it will make a big difference in future generations. Civil societies and government institutions should take similar steps nationwide to bare the ugliness of our tribal system to the open for everyone to see. Through regional and nationwide campaigns, we may be able to make headways in reducing the negative effects of tribalism in our society. The fact that we have access to the international media, unlike yesteryears, may help our endeavor too. A nation whose wealth and resources as well as its public offices are shared on the basis of tribalism will never be a viable nation.
In the sixties and early seventies, direct racism was prevalent in all government institutions in the Western world, particularly in America where blacks and whites were segregated along the color of their skin in public institutions and in all walks of lives. Forty four years on, the US has elected the first non-white president in Barak Obama, hence set a historic precedence. A first generation black man of mixed parentage is now at the helm of the most powerful job in the world in the US presidency. Amazing! Today, the subject is taboo in the West and other progressive nations (at least in public), and any aspiring politician associated with racism or any form of discrimination can kiss goodbye to holding a public office. The late prominent MP from the conservative party in the UK , Enoch Powell, had fallen from grace following his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech against the influx of immigrants to the UK in the sixties. His speech was deemed to be too racist and too divisive. Eventually, he paid the ultimate price a politician can pay: political oblivion.
In conclusion, tribalism has made our lives a living hell. It cannot unlock the potential of our sons and daughters. Democracy can. The spread of this social malaise in our society can however be reduced (if the will is there) by building solid democratic public and civil institutions that empower the individual citizen instead of tribe/s. Our intellectuals, who are the worst offenders on this subject at the moment, should take the lead in campaigning against this evil system. Another definite way of reducing it is the limitation of roles currently played by our burgeoning Akils, Sultans, Ugases, Garaads, and etc. and empowerment of civil society groups. This lot (Sultans, Akils, etc.) has created more problems than they were meant to solve. They are the dividing factor of our society. Their vices outweigh their virtues. They are simply incompatible with a modern state. In good old days, we had a very few Akils in every constituency whose roles were restricted to social mediation and peacemaking only. Nowadays, they are masters of all trades and their sheer number alone makes their roles in our society almost meaningless, if not redundant.
Despite being homogeneous (same culture, same religion, same complexion etc.), Somalis are still at each others throats largely because of their tribal affiliations. These days we are regarded as the most backward society on earth because of our non-stop fighting along tribal lines to the extent that a Kenyan lawyer had recently heaped scorn on us and called for our demise. He did not distinguish Somaliland from other Somalis.
For almost two decades, we are on the international media for all the wrong reasons. Some may argue that Somaliland is not the same as proper Somalia but in the eyes of the international community, we are just the same people. Certainly there are other forces conspiring against us, but this is largely of our own making. We are confused and lost our sense of direction because of tribalism, with no sight of our misery ending in the foreseeable future. It is entirely up to us to rid this image. If we have to regain our place in the international community and spare scorn and embarrassment from our future generations (a mammoth task), it is time to kick tribalism to death and give the bloody thing a decent burial. Otherwise we are doomed forever.