Organization; Somalia’s Achilles’ Heel

A Collage of now defunct organisations.
A Collage of now defunct organisations.


In big cities around Somalia, citizens have formed professional associations such as doctors, engineers, and teachers. These associations, more often than not, descend to bickering over leadership and finally cease to exist. on the other hand, successful organizations, notwithstanding the fact that they provide vital services, have a questionable impact on the state-building agenda. This piece assesses why that is.

Historical Background

 Somalis were organized along clan lines for centuries. The population, predominantly pastoralists, had not often transcended their immediate family interests or shared common goals with others. The demanding environment of the pastoralist caused what Edward C. Banfield called “a moral familism” where everyone only fends for themselves. There were no associations beyond the immediate family that one could identify with. Those from outside were looked upon with suspicion and mistrust. Pastoralists widely believed unknown outsiders would only conspire against them.

Urbanized Nomads

With rapid rural-urban migration, historically nomadic folks started moving to cities, and as a result, cities had grown rapidly. Unlike life in rural communities, in cities, one would intermingle, sit in a class, play sports, meet at the job, create business partnerships, and befriend someone who might not necessarily be from one’s immediate family.

Because of this rapid rural-urban migration, the civil service and other government officials were dominated by a group the late writer Said Samatar called the “Transitional Generation”. This group who were among the first that moved from rural Somalia to the cities had no experience in running a state or mobilizing and orienting a society towards a collective public interest.

The modern state required a complex organization that the “Transitional Generation” lacked. The military government of Major General Mohamed Siad Barre had been able to orient and mobilize society toward self-sufficiency in the revolution’s early years. At the time, there was tremendous enthusiasm among the public to collectively build their country. It was the only time in Somalia’s history that social engineering and rapid modernization were possible, but it was squandered by a myopic military might that was only interested in clinching power. Many schools, hospitals, and government offices were built through self-help (Iskaa Wax u Qabso). However, the spirit and the enthusiasm for voluntary work was short-lived because the common man could not see the benefits of their hard work and soon after realized only benefited a privileged few.

Post-1991 Realities

Somalis have long been helping each other when crises like droughts, floods, or terrorist attacks occurred. Furthermore, there is no shortage of community-based initiatives. Puntland’s Grand Garacad port, a large-scale initiative funded through community resources, is a prime example of a successful initiative. However, there are countless other examples with various success rates. Initiatives such as the ad-hoc Fursad Fund, Kacdoonka Nabadda, and Caawi Walaal failed or short-lived because most of them failed to translate energies and efforts into organized, sustained, and most importantly, public interest-oriented entities. These initiatives fell short of people’s expectations for many reasons, but mainly because many of them are hijacked by a few narrow-minded individuals in pursuit of fame and fortune. 

In the last thirty years, and with the absence of a functioning state, three categories of organizations emerged.

The first category is clan-based organizations. Clans started to organize themselves with support from their kinsmen in the business sector or in the diaspora. Schools were built and tuition fees were paid. Small towns resided predominantly by particular clan members were built out of necessity due to the civil war or simply out of pride.

The second category is the business community and religious organizations. Although they have their own shortcomings, they have managed to successfully operate for a relatively long time.

Unlike other groups that prioritise clan affiliations, religious organizations have formed ideology and interest-based associations. Although they have not necessarily been immune from clan-based squabbles over leadership and resources, their membership is not strictly clan-based thus managing to persevere. Most of the education sector and social institutions are operated by religious groups that produced the post-civil war generation. However, this generation equipped mainly with dogma, have not been able to produce a workforce ready for public service.

The business community have also transcended parochial clan-based interests and formed nationwide businesses across clan lines. These interest-based associations have morphed into other spheres such as politics. For instance, an interest-based association will overlook clan affiliation and may endorse a particular politician to do their bidding in government.

The third category is the non-governmental organization (NGO). These are mostly established through the funding of Western and Arab countries. They all claim to be dedicated to improving people’s lives and livelihoods. As the sector developed, so do the questions over its actual impact on the lives of those it claims to serve. The rise of NGOs has also created a foreign aid dependency and the proliferation of what is now called “brief-case NGOs”. The term refers to the increasing number of addressless organisations that are run by a few individuals out of their laptops.

 Implications on the State Building Agenda

 Somali-led organizations whether religious, in business or community-based have made considerable progress. Some of these organizations have, against all odds, survived and existed for a long time. They filled in roles vacated by the state by providing vital services to those who need it the most, however, the ‘profit-before-people’ mentality coupled with the absence of accountability, regulations, and collective responsibility overrode the common interest.

Many of these organizations, particularly those engaged in telecommunications, logistics and private security services thrived during decades of civil strife and lawlessness and view a strong state as a threat to their interests.  Claire Elder, in her most recent research paper, provides empirical evidence of how, for instance, the dominance of the logistics economy in Somalia, as a system of ‘graft’ endogenous to state-building, has contributed to state failure.

On the other hand, although the Somali state is recovering, it struggles with questions of legitimacy and efficacy and has insufficient resources and technical capabilities to deliver services. Finalizing the constitution or building strong institutions alone do not guarantee strong social cohesion; what is called the social contract, is alien to the Somali society, therefore, the role of the state in society needs revisiting.

Civic education is not taught in Somali schools and is, perhaps, why volunteerism is looked at with suspicion. Introducing civic education to pupils at a young age will create a society where everyone deeply understands their role in society.

Successive governments should prioritize the creation of a just, equal, and merit-based society. The Somali state should be built on a consensus cognizant of our history, culture, and local needs. It must avoid and weed out any trace of “isomorphic mimicry” -a situation where a state gives the impression of being functional to obtain continued donor assistance without necessarily delivering for its citizens.

Empowering and organizing communities to undertake initiatives such as the Garacad Port is a welcome idea, but this needs to be guided by a state-led national vision for equitable growth and sustainability.



Abdiwahab M. Ali researches and writes about Somalia’s governance and post-conflict development. He can be reached at

Abdirahman A. Issa is a researcher of Somali History, culture, society and politics. His interests also include governance and development in fragile and post conflict contexts. He can be reached at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of this publication. 

Abdirahman A. Issa
Abdirahman A. Issa
Abdirahman A. Issa is a researcher of Somali History, culture, society and politics. His interests also include governance and development in fragile and post conflict contexts.

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