Clans Make Reconciliation in Somalia Improbable

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Ramadan Mohamed, who had spent a career riding atop a crudely customized Toyota truck that was mounted with a .50-caliber machine gun, was feeling cheated.

Sitting idle in the courtyard of a large residential compound that houses the headquarters of his leader, Mohammed Farah Aidid, Ramadan expressed bitter regret that a final victory had eluded his militia and now might slip away forever.

“Everyone knows that Aidid is the power and cannot be stopped,” he told a visiting reporter. “We must get our fair share of power.”


Several of his companions, all cradling worn combat rifles of varying national origins, nodded approvingly at the words. Their view of the results of two years of civil warfare is disputed by other militias and gangs that have collectively ravaged most of the southern two-thirds of Somalia. But for young men such as these, their own clan can do no wrong.

These armed movements have fancy high-sounding names. Aidid’s group, for instance, is known as the United Somali Congress. But make no mistake, this is family business.

The number of clans and the confusion of alliances and rivalries make reconciliation in Somalia an improbable task. The United Nations has scheduled a peace conference Monday in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The meeting is designed as a first step toward bringing Somalia’s warring sides together. The United Nations has seized a moment of relative stability in Somalia’s suffering to launch a move toward finding long-range solutions.

Gathering together representative groups from this fractious society has already been a problem. For the moment, Aidid, head of one of the most powerful militias in the country, has stopped short of authorizing delegates to go to Addis Ababa. And even if Aidid’s group does attend, it is virtually impossible to ensure that the conference is all-inclusive.

“Take the politics of Chad and Lebanon and combine them and you might reach the level of complexity in Somalia,” said a U.S. official, comparing Somalia with two other convoluted trouble spots.

Politics is too mild a word for the brand of warfare that has scarred Somalia. Until the arrival of the U.S.-led peacekeeping soldiers last month, the country subsisted in a kind of brutish state of nature, with ancient enmities and barbaric practices repackaged into a quest for national power. The scale of deaths, pillage and rape will never fully be calculated. Tens of thousands have died of starvation alone, much of it provoked by the tactics of the warfare.


“Let’s be frank. We are in a position of having to deal with war criminals. No flower arrangements at the conference table can obscure that,” said one U.N. official with extensive experience in Somalia.

It was once thought that, because Somalia was a country with a single religion--Islam--and a common language, it was immune from the kind of tribal strife common in many countries in Africa.

This view ignored the rivalries among extended families that can be traced back to Somalia’s nomadic origins. In this harsh, scrubby region, frightful conflicts over scarce water or grazing land are no rarity. Memories are long and tempers short. “The interests of the clan is still the most important thing for Somalis. It is as powerful as any tribal identification in Africa,” said Seifulaz Milas, a U.N. expert on Somalia.

Somalis have an enormous range of relatives and believe they can count on clan members even if they have never met them.

The system has helped ease the suffering of the war; clan members have been able to rely on distant relatives for housing and food when driven from their homes. The clan system also means that groups compete fiercely for resources and strike back hard when threatened by other families. When death through violence strikes, the clan is available for revenge.

“My father was killed in a battle. All my friends here, we are like brothers. We avenge him together,” Ramadam said.


In any event, clan militias are not under the control of the traditional elders of a pastoral society but of men who have made war a vocation. In the West, these leaders have become known as warlords, and their power has eclipsed any tradition of mediation.

Clan values merged with ideas of modern government shortly after Somalia gained independence in 1960, and especially during the two-decade rule of Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, which ended early in 1991. Siad Barre became notorious for launching debilitating wars against neighboring Ethiopia and for a sensational reversal of Cold War alliances when he abandoned the Soviet Union in 1977 and cozied up to the United States. Washington rewarded him with military aid.

In Somalia, he is also known for his harsh crackdown on opponents (he once herded civilians into Mogadishu’s stadium and had them massacred) and for generously funneling public money to members of his own clan. He treated government like a desert water well, meant only to nourish his own relatives.

“Siad Barre taught Somalia the nasty means and big benefits of holding national power on behalf of a clan,” said Mohamed Rajis Mohamed, a lawyer and opponent of the ousted regime.

There are six major clans in Somalia, and each is divided into smaller family groups that sometimes compete among themselves. Siad Barre, for example, belongs to the large Darod clan, but he favored his own Marehan sub-clan. Once, he was challenged for power by members of another Darod faction, but he put down that revolt and executed many of the leaders.

His disastrous conflict with Ethiopia ended in 1988 without Somalia gaining its objective, the Ogaden desert region where Siad Barre was born. The result--numerous clan frictions--spelled the end for him.


Clan-based political parties, each with military wings, rebelled throughout Somalia. Siad Barre successfully crushed some of the uprisings, and he virtually destroyed the northern city of Hargeysa in order to rout opponents there. But his enemies sensed the end was near. A northern clan seized the opportunity to break off territory from Somalia and declare independence. Aidid, a former army general and member of the large Hawiye clan, marched against Siad Barre’s troops in central Somalia.

In classic clannish fashion, the two sides, the Darod and Hawiye, fought not only against each other but spread misery among passive clans caught up in the fighting--in many cases, settled farmers whose cattle and crops were looted and who were driven off their land. Famine in widespread parts of Somalia is a result of that pillaging.

Aidid seemed to be on the verge of victory when a branch of the Hawiye led by Ali Mahdi Mohamed revolted in Mogadishu, the capital. Siad Barre, under pressure on numerous fronts, fled the country in January, 1991.

Although both Mahdi and Aidid are Hawiyes, their sub-clans are different. And that is all that was needed to engender a ferocious conflict between the cousin clans that has endured to this day.

Mahdi’s militias took up positions in the northern part of Mogadishu, Aidid in the south. Both managed, as did other militias, to loot military stores for weapons and ammunition. They rained artillery on one another and randomly shot civilians in the streets.

The Mahdi-Aidid conflict was mirrored in numerous other towns and villages. In addition, clans not necessarily vying for supreme power took up arms to protect themselves or to ensure a strong position when the day for negotiation finally arrives.


The war was like an old-time heavyweight boxing match in which the combatants were left to fight until someone dropped. Fatigue led to efforts to reach a truce even before the U.S.-led troops arrived. But the efforts were complicated by the designation of Mahdi as interim president of Somalia during a peace conference in neighboring Djibouti, held in July last year. Aidid, predictably, was furious.

His lingering fear that Mahdi will be treated as a national leader feeds his reluctance to attend the planned Addis Ababa peace conference.

Last month, U.S. envoy Robert B. Oakley brokered a truce between Mahdi and Aidid that has largely held. It did not unify the city or end fighting in many parts of the country where American and allied troops are absent. Followers of Aidid, even noncombatants, never venture into Mahdi’s northern neighborhood and Mahdi’s partisans never travel south.

Youths still brandish rifles at checkpoints along the so-called Green Line, a no-man’s-land that divides the city in half. An intense artillery duel broke out between militias of the north and south Thursday, and some fighting has taken place in the two days since.

Some Somalis and foreign observers imagine a political system that can encompass all Somalis despite the brambles of clan rivalry. They construct in their minds a federal system for Somalia that would divide up the country into territories controlled by clans that traditionally held sway in each area. Representatives would meet as a coalition government in Mogadishu to divide revenue and coordinate services.

“Some sort of federal system is the only solution,” according to Mike McDonagh, director of Concern, an Irish relief organization.