- Written by Abdi I Samatar
From Bildhaan Vol. 10
Debating Somali Identity in a British Tribunal: The Case of the BBC Somali Service
Abdi Ismail Samatar
The Somali Peace Conference sponsored by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), held in Kenya in 2003–05, was dominated by warlords and partisan mediators.1 It endorsed a political strategy whose objective has been to recreate Somalia as a clan-based federation. Advocates of this approach claim that such a dispensation will approximate the society’s pre-colonial tradition and therefore has the best chance of restoring peace. An argument put forward in support of this agenda is that Somalia’s former governments, particularly the military junta, misused public power by favoring and rewarding
certain genealogical groups.2 Proponents contend that formally and openly using genealogical divisions as a basis for distributing public appointments and resources will prevent future clanist favoritism. This approach to political reconstruction mimics Ethiopia’s seemingly novel political project, which divided the country into nine “ethnic provinces” in 1991.3 In the case of Ethiopia, the presumed rationale for this political strategy was to overcome past domination of the state by one ethnic group, rather than to revert to an old tradition. The imposition of Amharic culture and language on Oromos, Somalis, Afars, the people of the southern region, and other groups throughout the state—and the denial of their human rights—rationalized re-engineering the new order. The challenge for Ethiopia post-1991 has been how to undo past subjugation without reifying cultural differences politically.4 Dividing each country into administrative units based on ethnic belonging, the proponents argue, will promote democracy and produce a civic order in which no one ethnic group or clan dominates others.