The Somali Society in general is strictly aligned along clan lines. This is the same for all Somalis wherever they live in the five Somali territories defined by the colonial powers. However, the role of the clan leadership varies from territory to territory. By and large, the clan chiefs' political role remained the most significant in the British Somaliland. This active role for the traditional leadership explains Somaliland's relative peace and stability after the Somali Republic collapsed in 1991. In the following lines, I try to shed some light on the historical role of the clan chiefs in Somaliland and the current trends.
The Historical Role of Clan Chiefs in the Somaliland Society
In the British Somaliland, the political role of the clan chiefs remained the most significant relative to the other Somali territories. Before the British arrived in Somaliland, the territory was inhabited by several clans who were ruled by clan chiefs. When the British arrived, they negotiated with the clan chiefs. The Somalilanders accepted the arrival of the British only after the British occupiers agreed to the treaty that was dictated by the clan chiefs. This treaty was written not on paper but on camel hides, since the clans feared that the paper would fade sooner and the treaty would be forgotten.
Unlike the Italians who invaded southern Somalia, the British were considerate enough not to try to by-pass the clan chiefs' authority during their rule over Somaliland. The British administrators preserved the traditional rule of the clan chiefs and ruled Somaliland through the clan chiefs; since they believed that it was the best way to govern the pastoral society. The clan chief had authority over his clan's territory and he was responsible for any "wrong doing" committed by any of his subjects against the British administration. On the other hand, the British favored some clan chiefs over the others. This could be considered as a source of administrative corruption on the part of the British rulers. Such a corruption led to tensions among the Somaliland clans and occasional clashes among them.
The British also introduced modern administrative structures into Somaliland by training and appointing Somalilanders into this system. The British could as well try to use this modern system and eliminate the role of the clan chiefs, but they did not do so. They knew that the tribal nature of the Somali society necessitated the institutionalization of the clan chiefs' role. They even paid the clan chiefs for being part of the modern-cum-traditional system of governance that they chose to rule Somaliland. I believe that the British did a favor for Somaliland, at least, in terms of their introduction of this unique system of governance. This system is dominating Somaliland to this day.
The Situation over the Last 22 Years
The clan chiefs were the backbone of the movement that started in Somaliland in the early 1980s against the dictatorial rule of General Mohamed Siyad Barre. The Somali National Movement (SNM) was established by intellectuals from Somaliland both from the Diaspora and from within. However, SNM could not have done anything, had it not been for the collaboration of the clan chiefs. The clan chiefs took SNM mission as their own and they acted to recruit personnel for the movement. They also mobilized resources from internally and externally for the SNM.
The clan chiefs declared Somaliland as independent nation in their meeting in Buroa in May 1991. The Somali National Movement (SNM) only approved their decision. Hence, they played a catalyst role in the birth of Somaliland as a nation. The SNM was not a coherent organization and, therefore, after overseeing the birth of Somaliland, it did not last as an effective ruling party for long. Its chairman at the time, Mr. Abdirahman Ahmed Ali ruled Somaliland as president for about two years only. The clan chiefs organized a meeting in Borama town and Mr. Abdirahman was forced out of power in this clan chiefs' congress. The clan chiefs appointed Mr. Mohamed Ibrahim Egal as Somaliland's president.
The clan chiefs established Somaliland's upper house of parliament, which is the most important political institution in Somaliland. Every clan chief nominated his clan's representative into this house.
However, one aspect of the Somaliland clan chieftain over the last 22 years is not a positive development. The clan chiefs (or Suldans) simply became too many over the last 22 years. If their number was about 30 in 1991, currently they are around 100. Every sub-clan appointed several chiefs. As a result, their authority became diluted enormously. Clan problems that used to be solved by the Suldan within days are now taking months if they are resolved at all. Each chief would like the decision to be made by the other chief out of fear or out of respect for the other.
The Role of the Clan Committees
Somaliland now has all the modern state institutions that are required for administering the affairs of the state. However, the nation remains to be deeply tribal like other Somali societies. Critical issues affecting the relations among the different clans or the clan's relationship with the state are not decided without the involvement of at least some of the clan's many chiefs. The political decision makers might go along with their business in normal times, but in the event that anything goes wrong the clan chiefs become the critical players or problem resolvers.
On the other hand, the proliferation of the clan chiefs tempted most the clans to organize their own committees for the proper management of their clan's affairs. The educated clan members and businesspersons are usually appointed into these clan committees. Some clans created their committees much earlier than the other clans, while the other clans are catching up in the process. The clan committees might have existed in the past in the rural areas in an ad hoc manner to come together based on the appointment of the clan chief to assist him to decide on a particular clan issue. However, the modern day clan committees are not necessarily appointed by the clan chief. The current clan committees are urban in nature and the members come from either educational or business backgrounds. They are usually selected during a clan congress. The politicians are not usually welcome into these clan committees. The influence of these committees on the clan is stronger than the influence of any other structure, be it modern or traditional. These committees decide about the clans' social and political development.
Moreover, these clan committees are presumed to contribute to the peace and stability in Somaliland in general. Unlike the individualistic nature of the clan chief's decisions in the past, the committee's decisions are pluralistic in nature. Due to the fact that business people are represented in the clan committees, they are not supposed to decide in favor of violence or conflicts. In this way, the clan committees contribute to the peace and stability of their respective localities in particular and to the Somaliland nation in general. Similarly, these clan committees are expected to contribute to the socio-economic development of the country, since one of their prime responsibilities is to contribute to the educational development of their clans. Because Somaliland society is composed of clans, the educational development of one clan will contribute to the overall development of the country.
Abdirashid Ahmed Guleid