Reconfiguring the Somali Nation: Changing conversations, shifting paradigms, a review.

Reconfiguring the Somali Nation: Changing conversations, shifting paradigms, a book by Abdirachid M Ismail.
Reconfiguring the Somali Nation: Changing conversations, shifting paradigms, a book by Abdirachid M Ismail.


|Gorfayn Reviews

Author:      Abdirachid M. Ismail
Publisher:  Adonis & Abbey Publishers
Pages:       144
Publication date ‏: ‎ 2019

Since the collapse of the central government in 1991, Somalis and foreigners have been looking for answers to the causes of the demise of the Somali state and how it can be resurrected. Perhaps the search for answers befits the Somali saying: ninba Dahab lumay, si u doon doon (everyone searches the lost gold in their own way). The dominant narrative holds that the Somali state collapsed due to ‘clannism, corruption and dictatorship’ and Abdirachid M. Ismail’s book ‘Reconfiguring the Somali Nation: Changing conversations, shifting paradigms’ argues that these are symptoms of what he calls the failure of the “Somali Union Project” which, he believes, was dead on arrival at its inception in 1960. Abdirachid offers an alternative perspective on the debate on state failure and proposes fresh ways the country can be reconstructed from the bottom up, as the Somali saying goes: haani guntay ka tolantaa (a wooden bucket is sewn from the bottom up).

Devoid of local context, Caddaan theoroticians of state building have, for thirty years, used Somalia as a petri dish to test out their theories. However, Somali academicians are turning the page and have started to untangle Somalia’s governance challenges. Localised perspectives are offering fresh takes that are contextually and historically suitable. Abdirachid Ismail is one of the few scholars who turned away from the conventional wisdom of blaming clannism on Somalia’s ills and provides new insights into the Somali state collapse, which he argues, is rooted in “culture”.

In this book, Abdirachid provides a historical background of the evolution of the ‘Somali Union Project’ and the causes of its failure. He differentiates the ‘Somali unity’ which he describes as a people who share a common language, culture, and way of life and the ‘Somali union’, which is a political project to unify Somali people into one state, president, and parliament. He argues that ethnic unity is an established fact, but the political union project was imported and a colonial construct.

He contends that Sayid Mohamed was the first Somali to appeal to the Somalis to transcend the clan and tried to form a trans-tribal project to fight the colonialists, but his project was dealt a fatal blow when most clans refused to follow him and toe his line. Sayid Mohamed was defeated, he maintains, not by the British but inadequate support from Somalis and their rejection of the “trans-tribal power of the Sayid”. The project was continued, he adds, by the Somalis who travelled to the Muslim and Western world and were “strongly influenced by foreign conception of state building”.

He states that the social organisation of Somalis was incompatible with the union project. Somalis have been under clan chiefs who administered through consensus and had no experience in a highly centralised system. Therefore, the foreign conception of state-building was antithesis to their mode of organisation. The inherent structure of the society was that every man is for himself and never recognises any authority above him except that one of almighty. Somalis were not accustomed to the complex organization required by the modern state. The colonial and post-colonial leaders have disrupted Somalis’ way of life and imposed a system ill-suited to their context. Unlike Europeans, Somalis were refused the privilege to draw from their tradition and experience and to gradually morph into the modern State.

The Somali Youth League (SYL) and the nationalist movements succeeded, to some extent, in raising the consciousness of Somalis to free themselves from the yoke of colonialism causing nationalism and self-determination to spread like a wildfire in all Somali-inhabited regions. However, the post-colonial leaders could not reconcile Somalis’ tribal way of organising themselves and the imported system of centralised governance inherited from the departed colonialists. The State ended up operating only in the urban centres, while the vast countryside was left to traditional leaders to govern through time-tested customary laws.

Mohamed Siad Barre’s repressive regime worsened the situation after imposing Marxism-Leninism ideology and criminalised clan identity, while he and his military junta practiced it in secret. Mohamed Siad Barre further centralised the system and became “the absolute Sultan of Somali clans, but without the legitimacy given by the customary clan laws”. Abdirachid notes that post-colonial leaders were transforming society at a fast pace incompatible with the natural progression of society. Ironically Barre’s socialist rule prompted all clans to rise and overthrow his regime. The clan reasserted itself as a potent force and reigned supreme to the extent that each clan returned to and regrouped in their ancestorial turf creating the modern-day federal member states.

During colonisation, he says, Somalis were separated and divided into five, but now, the two entities that united in 1960 are no longer together and the core in the south is also fragmented and this, he argues, is due to the imported Western system of governance. Abdirachid calls Somalis to come to terms with the Somali Union Project’s failure and recommends the use of Xeer, Somalis’ centuries-old customary law, to reconstruct the state. He advocated for how Xeer can be used to reconstruct the Somali nation. He recommends adopting a loose system of federalism based on kinship.

The author criticises the Somali intelligentsia, who argue that the clan is divisive and unsuitable for modern times without proposing an alternative.

There is a disconnect between the Somali individual and their state. The state is still alien to most Somalis who rarely interact with it. The Somali individual interacts with three unreconciled legal systems: secular, customary law (Xeer) and Sharia law. The Somali customary law is the most original tool Somalis have ever devised to solve their problems. However, the Xeer is negatively affected by urbanization, education, internal migration, political corruption and general moral decadence1. The Xeer suffered from a lack of adaptability to the ever-changing and complex modern world but still is the most useful tool for conflict resolution, even in the urban centres in Puntland and Somaliland. He mentions how Somalis in the North have been able to achieve and sustain peace due to their time-tested traditional ways rather than contemporary conflict resolution methods.

Furthermore, the Justice system in Somalia is broken and mired by corruption, and lack of enforcement, thus the People of Somaliland and Puntland still rely on traditional elders for conflict resolution through Xeer.

Abdirachid argues that the only way Somalis can be reconstituted is by returning to basics and their clan-based customary laws.

The author refutes the notion that the more the state is centralised, the more the clan diminishes, and the more the state is decentralised, the more the clan becomes prominent. The author does not provide a plausible explanation for this argument and contends that clannism should not be looked through the “restrictive lens” of the West but should be situated in its “sociological, historical, and geographical reality”.

Abdirachid’s argument is not fully developed in the book as he does not adequality address the incompatibility of the customary law and the modern state or how, since the clock can’t be turned back to the old system, to reconcile the two.

Abdirachid does not discuss the increasing role of politicised Islam in the last three decades and what the role of religion would be in reconfiguring the Somali nation. Nevertheless, the book warrants to be widely read and discussed by intellectuals and policy makers who, I doubt, has the appetite or inclination to find a system that is suitable to the Somali experience.



  1. Ismail Ali Ismail. (2009) Governance: The Scourge and Hope of Somalia (Trafford Publishing). p.490.
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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