The Prairie Fire that Burned Mogadishu

From the occasional paper by Alex de Waal, The Prairie Fire that Burned Mogadishu: The Logic of Clan Formation in Somalia,  produced as part of the Conflict Research Programme.

Overview:For the last 25 years, Somalis and international interlocutors concerned with state-building appear to have assumed that ‘clans’ are the core identity units in Somalia, bonded by primordial ties. However, the prevalent formula that redefines selected corporate lineage aggregations as political-territorial identity units is a historical contingency that needs to be explained.  Somalia has a segmentary lineage system in which the recognized four major Clans are a level of collective aggregation, both arbitrary and inconsistent, determined by contingencies external to the kinship system itself. This paper presents analysis of the processes that led to the emergence of the Clan-based political-military-territorial units in the period 1987-92. It describes the transformations of pastoralism, specifically rangeland enclosure, and the resulting inter-communal armed conflicts and associated changes in the political significance of the lineage system. It describes the manipulation of lineage politics by Siyaad Barre as he sought to make his regime coup proof and the rivalries among the opposition leaders, which culminated in the formation of Clans as political units for the purposes of capturing state power. Those units proved intrinsically unstable and transient and, even with sustained efforts to find civic representatives of Clans who can share power, it is unsurprising that Clans are unsuited to serve as the basis for the reconstruction of the country.

Access the full paper by clicking the link above.

Alex de Waal is a Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads the WPF research programs on African Peacemaking and Mass Starvation.

Considered one of the foremost experts on the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, pandemic disease, and conflict and peace-building. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and its Alternatives. He is also author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine and The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa (Polity Press, 2015) Following a fellowship with the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard (2004-06), he worked with the Social Science Research Council as Director of the program on HIV/AIDS and Social Transformation, and led projects on conflict and humanitarian crises in Africa (2006-09). During 2005-06, de Waal was seconded to the African Union mediation team for Darfur and from 2009-11 served as senior adviser to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan. He was on the list of Foreign Policy’s 100 most influential public intellectuals in 2008 and Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “brave thinkers” in 2009 and is the winner of the 2024 Huxley Award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Professor de Waal regularly teaches a course on Conflict in Africa at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.  During this course, students should gain a deeper understanding of the nature of contemporary violent conflict in Africa. Students will be expected to master the key theoretical approaches to violence in Africa, and to become familiar with a number of important case studies. The focus is on the origins and nature of violence, rather than policy responses and solutions. The course is inter-disciplinary and involves readings in political science, international relations, and social anthropology, while also touching on economics, environmental studies, and history. 

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