Thursday, April 17, 2014

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Somali Nationalism: A Dead Concept?

What are the prospects for urgently needed national unity?
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Grand Mosque in Garadag district, Somaliland

Nairobi, Kenya:

Since 1991, Somalia has undergone a tumultuous process of geopolitical reconfiguration. Some have termed this the ‘balkanisation’ of Somalia, where regions and states have sought varying degrees of autonomy from central government in Mogadishu. After Somaliland’s unilateral declaration of independence in 1991, other regions followed, such as the Puntland State of Somalia, which declared its autonomy as part of a federal State of Somalia in 1998.

At first glance, these moves have been vindicated. By fencing themselves off from the wider environment of political instability, Somaliland and Puntland have been able to create internal environments of relative peace. Without the spectre of Al Shabaab that the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has had to compete with in South and Central Somalia, the Somaliland authorities have successfully expanded their capacity, and developed their economy, largely due to the healthy state of livestock exports from the northern port of Berbera. Next door, in Puntland, post-conflict reconstruction has likewise benefited from internal stability, and the more effective state apparatus which that has allowed.

Social mechanisms for ending conflicts within these societies have remained strong. Elders, religious leaders and politicians notably came together towards the end of last year to end conflict in Galkacyo, Puntland. That is not to say that the regions are without serious problems. As security concerns related to armed conflict fade away, other more social and cultural concerns have arisen in these areas, such as gender inequalities, urban poverty, and the plight of the large numbers of internally displaced persons who have fled the south.

However, as Puntland and Somaliland move towards reconstruction and development, South and Central Somalia has been left behind. Caught in the mire of insurgency, famine, and now foreign invasion, many Somalis in the region can only dream of the peace that their northern brothers and sisters have been able to secure.

Echoes of nationalism

For many Somalis, the concept of reunification is out of the question. The inter-clan warfare that precipitated the fall of the Siyad Barre regime, and continued long afterwards, remains embedded in the country’s social memory.

Despite this, for some intellectuals national identity, and some kind of nation-state remain the most logical and practical ways for the betterment of the Somali people. In his 2010 book Understanding the Somalia Conflagration, Afyare Abdi Elmi argued for a national federal system, but which would be flexible enough to accommodate regional autonomy and clan differences.

Such a prospect looks extremely unlikely when one looks at the current situation, and yet more than ever Somalia requires the strength that a national identity, and national political structures could bring. In his book, Abdi Elmi continues to advocate for the unity of Somalia, and its need to defend itself against neighboring powers such as Ethiopia and Kenya.

There is no doubt that the state has failed in Somalia, and that the Somali people are divided by clan, and ethnic identity. However, these divisions see some Somalis prosper, whilst others must live under foreign occupation.

The Kenyan invasion of 2011 saw the international media abound with talk of the creation of a buffer zone, a move that would further divide Somalia, and render it a pawn of other regional and international powers. A fundamental way of reversing this process would be the realisation that Somalis from all regions and states have a common identity and a related duty to protect one another. The politicisation of clan identity at national level has thus far hindered this, but a change needs to occur. Northern regions cannot sit by whilst the South is torn up according to the interests of other regional powers.

The need for national identity, national politics

Islam will always provide a unifying identity for Somalis, and it is in this spirit that a national identity ought to be resurrected. Prior to the collapse of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) government in 2006, its chairman, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, stated that: "We will leave no stone unturned to integrate our Somali brothers in Kenya and Ethiopia and restore their freedom to live with their ancestors in Somalia."

When faced with foreign occupation, and incursion, the need for Somalis from the north to assist their brothers and sisters in the south has become more important than ever. Whilst clan identity remains potent, Islam can provide the blueprint for a wider concept of Somali identity that can include the protection of all Somalis, especially those living in the South.  

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