Understanding the failure of Somalia as a state requires understanding the country’s complex clan dynamics.
Somalia embodies one of postcolonial Africa’s worst mismatches between conventional state structures and indigenous customs and institutions. The fact that Somalis share a common ethnicity, culture, language, and religion might seem to be an excellent basis for a cohesive polity, but in reality the Somali people are divided by clan affiliations, the most important component of their identity. Repeated attempts to impose a centralized bureaucratic governing structure have managed only to sever the state from the society that should have been its foundation, yielding the world’s most famous failed state.
The Somali population—some 13 to 14 million people, including Somalis living in neighboring states—is divided into four major clans and a number of minority groups (see map below). Each of these major clans consists of subclans and extended family networks that join or split in a fluid process of “constant decomposition and recomposition.” Like tribal societies elsewhere in the Greater Middle East, the clans use deeply ingrained customary law to govern their communities completely independently of modern state structures. Although somewhat weakened in the south from decades of urbanization, violence, and attempts to create a centralized state, these traditional groupings still hold immense influence over society.
Since the failure of the state some twenty years ago, the parts of the country that have achieved the most stability are those that are based on these clans. The Haarti grouping (a subset of the Daarood) created a semiautonomous region in the east called Puntland, while in the northeast the Isaaq clan led the effort to build Somaliland. Many other parts of Somalia have been similarly governed by local groupings, which have used the traditional governing system to resolve disputes and encourage some investment even in the absence of a formal state.
Among these regional entities, Somaliland has been the most successful, declaring itself independent and holding a series of free elections. Despite—or, perhaps, because of—a dearth of assistance from the international community, it has been able to construct a set of robust governing bodies rooted in traditional Somali concepts of governance by consultation and consent. By integrating traditional ways of governance—including customary norms, values, and relationships—within a modern state apparatus, Somaliland has achieved greater cohesion and legitimacy while—not coincidentally—creating greater room for competitive elections and public criticism than exists in most similarly endowed territories.
These dynamics suggest that any eventual solution to the problem of state building in Somalia will have to take fully into account the country’s indigenous social fabric and institutions, and will have to build from the bottom up, integrating communal ways of working together into state structures. The international community will have to abandon its attempts to impose a top-down, centralized, and profoundly artificial state model and begin to work with, rather than against, the grain of Somali society. A central government could be retained, but its functions should be strictly limited in scope and its institutions in number.