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The formation of states that cut across clan lines may help Somalia achieve the elusive unity that it has been seeking for more than two decades. With fine tuning, Somalia may finally come up with a solution to end its prolonged mistrust and clan bickering to the satisfaction of all sides.


Federalism, often encapsulated in ‘the federal idea’, refers to the recognition of difference and diversity in its many forms as the driving force of federation – the federal state – which is the tangible institutional expression of this idea. Put simply, then, difference and diversity produce federalism and federalism produces federation. But just as there are several different kinds of state, so there are many varieties of federalism and federation. Indeed, it is perfectly possible to have federalism without formal federation for the simple reason that some forms of federalism do not necessarily achieve fully-fledged federation but instead produce highly decentralized states that allow considerable local autonomy.

Federalism in Africa does not have a positive image. Its record of success is patchy while its failures seem manifest. Currently there are only three established federal political systems among the 54 states in Africa: Nigeria, Ethiopia and South Africa (Samatar 1993). However, the evident paucity of successful contemporary federal systems must not be allowed to convey the impression that federalism in Africa is redundant. On the contrary, it continues to resonate as part of a continuing political discourse about the nature of political authority in many formally non-federal states, such as Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Ever since the world was fed up with the prolonged civil war and anarchy in Somalia, the international community along with Somali leaders came up with “federalism”, a scheme that could hold Somalia together despite the hatred and division inherited from the civil war (Abdirizak 2012). After widespread consultations with Somali politicians and experts, joint effort was made to erect a transitional federal government mandated to pave a way for a friendly environment in which regional administrations could come up, who would later form the Central Federal Government to restore political, economic and social stability in Somalia.

Despite criticism, fortunately the federal system has found a way in Somalia, creating hope for the formation of would-be federal states in which law and order can be restored at the grassroot level. Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government led by Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed and Shiekh Sharif Shiekh Ahmed has taken milestone steps towards implementing the federal system, which is believed could end over two decades of civil war (Abdirizak 2012).

Federal system that cuts across clan lines

The South-West and Jubaland states cut across clan lines and are populated by more than one unrelated clan. Another federal state in the making is the Central State which can potentially unite the old regions of Mudug and Galgudud and bring together different Somali clans that have more in common than their related clans in remote areas such as Bosasso and Banadir.

A dream state would bring together what is left of Puntland after Mudug joins the Central State, Awdal, Khatumo, Makhir and a restructured Somaliland (Spears 2003). Such a state could be the California of Somalia and play a leading role in the country’s politics. It can also end the on-going conflict in these regions over resources and imaginary borders inherited from the colonial period.

As long as Somaliland clings to defunct and imaginary colonial borders and tries to force other clans to join its impractical separatist agenda by force, and as long as Puntland claims the Khatumo state regions by virtue of kinship, it will be difficult for Somalia to achieve stability and unity (Spears 2003). Somaliland faces a new challenge in the recent Awdal uprising which has been in the making for a long time because of inequitable resource sharing and differences over Somali unity (Abdirizak 2012).

Most of the Southern regions seem to be heading in the direction of a federal system that cuts across clan lines. Only Puntland and Somaliland may oppose adopting such an approach (Spears 2003). Unfortunately, the current leaders in these two self-declared enclaves may not have the leadership qualities of Sheikh Zayed, an un-educated Bedouin, who managed to unite the seven emirates with his vision and wisdom.

A north south federal system

If Somaliland renounces its separatist stand, autonomous states including a restructured Somaliland state, Khatumo state including Makhir, and Awdal state can form a federal state that can collectively renegotiate the ACT of Union with a single federal state that incorporates all the autonomous states in the South (Spears 2003). This approach can satisfy some of the demands of Somaliland for autonomy and address most of the grievances it has against the center (Abdirizak 2012). It can also assure the different non-separatist clans in the north of an equitable share of resources and political power.

Again, this approach faces a lot of hurdles given the intransigence of the current Somaliland leaders and the deep-rooted feelings of the Somaliland population of being wronged by the south. There is also the mistrust that Somaliland has created among the unionist clans in the north over the last two decades by their actions (Abdirizak 2012). These actions include the forced occupation of some cities in unionist regions, the murder of more than 300 nomads in the Kalshale conflict, the current mobilization of large armies to invade Awdal, and the labeling of certain clans as minorities in talk-shows. All these actions contributed heavily to the perpetuation of such mistrust.

However, all of this can be overcome with reconciliation and willingness to negotiate in good faith. If it were possible for whites and blacks in South Africa to let bygones be bygones, why would it be impossible to reconcile people who share the same language, color, religion and even ethnicity despite the wrong perception held by some as being the descendants of Arab Sheikhs who crossed the Red Sea from Arabia? Ironically, even those Sheikhs were also related. Okail and Ali were both the sons of Abu Talib after all (Spears 2003).

Federalism amid political and military chaos

Rebuilding the broken state haunts Somalia’s political class, its neighbouring states and, of course, the US-EU-UN-led international community that has been trying to put together the deeply fragmented and, in many cases, warring Somali factions. The latest formula prescribed for Somalia is the 2012 constitution which is still a work in progress—and which lays down federalism as the future form of governance for a fractured society that has not been governed by a central state since 1991 (Abdirizak 2012). Unlike other Horn of Africa countries, state building in Somalia is happening along a diagonally divergent trajectory. For instance, whilst Kenya and Ethiopia have had entrenched, established and highly centralized state structures and institutions for decades before embarking on reform through devolution and decentralization, Somalia has been shredded into pieces since 1991 (Samatar 1993).

The emergence of a Somali Federal Government (SFG) in Mogadishu under the new constitution in September 2012 led to a New Deal Compact agreed in Brussels in September 2013 under the auspices of the European Union and other members of the international community. The deal sets several benchmarks, key among them establishment of regional federating states or regional administrations before the planned 2016 election (Abdirizak 2012).

Political and religious snags

Two Somali prime ministers have been sacked since the emergence of the SFG in late 2012 under a new constitution. In the latest episode, in December 2014, in response to Prime Minister Abdiweli’s cabinet reshuffle in which some of the president’s close allies were removed, President Hassan Sheikh Mahamud nullified the decision, leading to a vote of no confidence in parliament (BBC News Africa 2012). This enabled the president to regain control and appoint a head of government. Regardless of who he picks to be his prime minister, the dual nature of the executive office in the constitution suggests that another showdown between the two will not be far down the line.

Analysts point to a structural problem in Somalia’s political system under the new constitution that seems to accommodate two executive offices. “This hybrid system where you have an executive president and executive prime minister, both powerful offices, does not work,” says Rashid Abdi, a former senior analyst with Crisis Group (Spears 2003). The earlier Somalia makes a constitutional amendment to create a simpler system, where only the president or prime minister has executive powers, the better.

Another Somalia observer notes that the provisional constitution vests executive authority with the prime minister, with the president intended to play a balancing role between the cabinet and parliament. Indeed, President Hassan Sheikh has taken a robust interpretation of his mandate, which donors have tended to countenance, seeing in his civil society background a potential partner with whom they could work, and who would mark a significant departure from the domination of politics by former warlords under the SFG (BBC News Africa 2012).

Unlike in Ethiopia and Kenya, the Somali constitution lays down a state religion, espousing Sharia as the supreme law (Abdirizak 2012). Jason Mosley of Chatham House notes that the sacking of the latest prime minister also underscores the competition between different conservative visions of how the goal of enforcing Sharia should be pursued. There are signs that the motivation for the present infighting is linked to the question of building the judiciary. Competition is fierce between different conservative Islamist visions over how Sharia will form the base of Somalia’s constitutional order, and how the country’s nascent judicial apparatus would evolve to interpret and implement such an order.

Ascendency of religious movements

A report by the Life & Peace Institute (LPI) concluded that, while none of the original Somali protagonists in the civil war had an ideological religious orientation, the political landscape in south-central Somalia is now dominated by Islamist organizations and movements of various hues. For example, three of the seven political groups covered in the study, namely, al-Shabab, Al-Islah and Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jam’a, are avowedly Islamist and make religion the main plank of their ideology and an Islamic state and society their ultimate goal (Abdirizak 2012). The federal constitution also pledges to establish an Islamic state. The Jubaland administration, whose President Ahmed Mohamed Islam Madobe is the leader of Ras Kamboni Brigade, is also Islamist in its orientation and was part of the Islamic Courts Union which ruled south-central Somalia from June 2006 to December 2010. Even other organizations not covered by this project such as Hizbul Islam, Ala Sheikh and al-Ictisaam are religious movements (Spears 2003).

Diversity within ‘political Islam’

The above scenario challenges the notion of a monolithic Somali movement of ‘political Islam’. Whilst LPI’s research clearly draws out a number of similarities between these movements in terms of organizational structure, modus operandi and strategies for socio-political transformation in Somalia, the fault-lines that divide these Somali Islamist groups are so deep to the extent of being a source of violent conflict. In addition to divergent religious orientation and sectarian differences, these groups also have different political agendas and sometimes rival foreign sponsors.

Unlike 2006 when 17 Islamist groups of all strands, including al-Shabab, had come together to form the Islamic Courts Union and ruled south-central Somalia for a rare six months of stability and peace, the LPI research shows that the gaps and differences between them have widened to the extent that a reunion seems unlikely in the near future (Abdirizak 2012). While the international community and regional powers back so-called ‘moderate Islamists’, both at the centre in Mogadishu and in the regions such Jubaland, the extremist fringe has been further radicalised and broadened its recruitment base as well as sphere of activities.

Regional and clan markers

Despite their ostensible approach to transcend clan and regional boundaries, and promotion of Islamist-Somali nationalism, political groups in Somalia tend to get associated with a specific regional span or dominated by a family. That is true of almost all the groups interviewed for this project except al-Shabab which retains a cross-clan—and even a non-Somali, international - base. All established and emerging regional administrations are associated with particular clans (Abdirizak 2012).

The dichotomy amongst these groups’ nationalistic and, at times, universal outlook and, on the other hand, the imperative of clan dynamics emerges as one of the key features of the struggle for political power in the new federal setup.

The idea of regionalization

After over a decade of disengagement from Somalia, the United States resumed a robust diplomatic and military engagement as part of the war on terrorism. Especially since the emergence of al-Shabab as the main protagonist in the Somali conflict, the goal of countering and containing the threat of extremism and terrorism has shaped American and, to a large extent, European policies towards Somalia (Abdirizak 2012). The so-called ‘dual-track’ approach to put Somalia back together as a state was first enunciated in 2010 as a policy for supporting the central government in Mogadishu in addition to Somaliland, Puntland, and other emerging entities in Somalia (Spears 2003). Since then the US recognition of the Somali federal government and support for the Djibouti process has given further impetus to the idea of installing regional states in south-central Somalia as constituent units of a federal setup.

Both steps in the process bringing together different clans and factions under one regional authority and making the relationship between Mogadishu and regional authorities work have thus far proved to be a source of political tension and, in numerous cases, armed conflict. Leaving aside the northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland both claiming independence and autonomy from Mogadishu the process to form regional administrations in south-central Somalia, the main theatre of conflict, has exacerbated the existing conflicts among clans controlling, or laying claim to, certain regions.

This perennial clan dilemma has been further complicated by the peculiar religio-political and military context in which the federal project is being laid out in Somalia. In political terms, as the following discussion argues, religion and control of internal and external resources prevent the possibility of a wide-ranging and durable political settlement among the various political and armed factions. From a military perspective, the role of al-Shabab, most of its Somali armed rivals (that also have feuds among themselves) as well as the multi-nation African Union force (AMISOM) are the key actors whose actions directly impinge upon the processes of building a Somali federation (Samatar 1993).

An overcrowded military landscape

Another major factor to be taken into account with the federalism enterprise is the presence of dozens, if not hundreds, of clan militia scattered across south-central Somalia, thousands of soldiers from other African countries and several other militaries from round the world maintaining a direct or indirect operational capability for strikes inside Somalia. Amid this chaotic and busy military activity, the process to form a Somali National Army—critical to state building - has yet to make much progress (Abdirizak 2012). Furthermore, direct foreign military interventions are all grist for al-Shabab’s propaganda mill.

At present, military contingents from six African countries are clubbed together under AMISOM—the African Union Mission in Somalia. However small, the mission has political and humanitarian components as well. Authorised by the UN Security Council Resolution 2124 and first deployed in March 2007, AMISOM now comprises 22,126 soldiers in addition to 540 police officers, with troops drawn from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Ethiopia who are deployed in six sectors carving up south and central Somalia (Spears 2013). Kenya and Ethiopia were not originally part of the AMISOM contingent and their troops had had an independent operational presence, mainly in regions along the Somalia border, before formally putting on the AMISOM hat.

According to AMISOM authorities, the “military component has been instrumental in helping Somali National Security Forces push the Al Qaeda-affiliated terror group, al-Shabaab, out of much of southern Somalia including most major towns and cities. It has created a relatively secure environment which has allowed the Somali peace process to take root, allowed local population the opportunity to…establish accountable local governance institutions that can begin to deliver services as well as rebuild the local economy and create linkages to the national economy and government (Abdirizak 2012).


If the Somali government in Mogadishu believes in Somali unity it should come up with innovative solutions for the creation of states that can enhance that unity and allay the fears and concerns of the people in these states. It should also refrain from entering into talks that can potentially undermine such unity. The recent Djibouti declaration may have been interpreted by some as being an agreement between equal and sovereign states. Such cloak and dagger negotiations that skirt around the core issue of resolving the obstacles facing Somali unity will only prolong the status quo.

The formation of states that cut across clan lines may help Somalia achieve the illusive unity that it has been seeking for more than two decades. With fine tuning, Somalia may finally end up with a solution to end its prolonged mistrust and clan bickering to the satisfaction of all sides.

Our worst nightmare is for the current situation to continue with the country languishing under the mercy of foreign troops that may not have the best interest of Somalia at heart. Such an atmosphere will make it very difficult to get rid of the extremist elements among us and delay the withdrawal of foreign troops from Somalia. It is like being caught between a rock and a hard place.

The only way we can overcome this prolonged nightmare is to start talking to each other instead of talking over each other. Talks between the top leaders of the Federal Government and Somaliland should be transparent and should include all stakeholders. The fate of Somalia cannot be decided by Hassan Sheikh and Silanyo alone (BBC News Africa 2012). The traditional leaders of Somalia must have a say in these talks. The educated elite must have a say in these talks. The political leaders of the various Federal States must have a say in these talks. Short of that, Somalis will interpret these talks as a conspiracy to undermine Somali unity.

* Abdi Tawane is an independent writer on the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes regions. He studied international relations and diplomacy at the University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University in Kenya.


Samatar S Said, The politics of poetryAfrica Report, Sep/Oct 1993, Vol. 38 Issue 5, p16, 2p

Jason Mosley, The Pitfalls of Power-sharing in Somalia”, Chatham House, 19 November 2014. 

Abdirizak Haji Hussien, The Future Constitutional Structure of the Somali Republic: Federal or Decentralized Unitary State? Available at, mali_republic_federal_or_decentralized_unitary_state.aspx Accessed Dec. 21, 2012. Abdirizak Haji Hussein was the Prime Minister of the Somali Republic, 1964-1967.

Ian S. Spears, Reflections on Somaliland & Africa's Territorial Order, Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 30, No. 95, (Mar., 2003), p. 89

Kenning, D., “Somalia and Somaliland: The two edged sword of International intervention”, Federal Governance, vol. 8 no. 2, (2011), p. 67.

BBC News Africa, Somalia Election: Hassan Sheikh elected as President, Available at, accessed December 21, 2012.



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