Identity and the inclusive Somali state: Reconciliation in Somalia Part 2.

By Emil Gundel

This is the 2nd article in our series on Somalia and Reconciliation. In this article, our Intern Emil Gundel discusses the issues of identity and statebuilding in Somalia. There are many challenges facing the peacebuilding process in Somalia. Most issues are not given the necessary focus or priority by either the international or the national actors. An under-prioritized question is that of identity and the perspective of inclusivity by the state, which is an essential component that if addressed correctly significantly can improve the chance of creating durable peace in Somalia. Adversely if this issue remains unaddressed, it will only contribute to continuation of conflict in Somalia.

One of the key elements of a healthy relationship between a state and its citizens is the acceptance of the existence of plurality of different identities amongst the citizens. In other words, the more accepted and included a given identity position is by the state, the more the members of that group will tend to view the state as being legitimate and worth supporting.

It is along the lines of this reasoning that you find the link between the degree of homogeneity in the population and the stability and strength of the given state. This does however raise some questions about Somalia. Generally perceived to be both ethnically and religiously homogenous, and therefore considered an exception amongst the post-colonial states in sub-Saharan Africa, Somalia cannot in good consciousness be categorized as having a strong state, nor should it be claimed that the state, is perceived as legitimate by a majority of the population.

However, the idea of the homogeneous hegemonic Somali nation is, as those things tend to be, just an idea. While the dominant story about what constitute the Somali identity is largely based on two foundations: the Pastoralist way of life, and Sunni Islam, these two points of cultural focus fails to include large portions of the population as well as important nuances and differences. The dominant story is in many ways mostly a representation of the powerful elite in Somalia – both before and after the collapse of the state – and the decades of conflict and civil war. But, Somalia contains a far wider range of ethnical, cultural and religious identity positions, which needs to be accepted and included to stabilize Somalia and legitimize the state.

The pastoral population groups, such as the Darood, Hawiye, Dir and Isaaq clans, dominates the Somali discourse. But, as mentioned, there are several other groups that differ noticeably in terms of culture and ethnicity. These groups include, but aren’t limited to, the agro-pastoralists Digil and Mirifle (Rahanwein), and the far more marginalized agriculturalist Gosha, Makane and Shiidle, who are often collectively referred to as “Bantus”. Other more decidedly minority groups include the Benadiri, Barawaani and Bajuun, who have mixed Arabic descent and heritage, as well as the artisanal groups who refer to themselves as “Gaboye”. It is illustrative of the point that the pastoralist clans primarily speak af-Maxitirii, while the Rahanwein speaks Af-Maay which isn’t interchangeable, and the Benadiri speaks Arabic while the Bantu groups speaks a variety of languages. Somalia is clearly quite far from being a culturally uniform nation.


The other major cause of cultural tension in Somalia is religion. While the Somalis primarily are Sunni, the question of what constitutes Sunni Islam is one of major division lines in Somalia. Traditionally and somewhat oversimplified Somalia used to be predominantly Sufi. But, this dominance has been more than challenged since the 1970’s with the emergence of what will here for simplicity’s sake be referred to as Wahabism.

These are of course rough categories, but they are nonetheless descriptively correct in representing a cultural division line, even if the political reality is far more nuanced. The Sufis, traditionally regarded as the more mystical branch of Sunni Islam, are very diverse in their interpretations of Islam as well as traditionally decentralized although the prolonged conflict, as well as persecution of Sufis, has seen the development of Sufis into both political and military organizations.

The Wahabi, often interchangeable with the Salafi interpretation of Islam, is both conservative and literal in its understanding of Islam. The school is divided into two different kinds of organizations in Somalia, and it is important not to box them together. The first is the more moderate, and noticeably represented by the Muslim brotherhood. The second is often referred to as the jihadi, because they claim the right to wage holy war, and through the practice of takfir to have the right to define what constitute Islam. This second branch was first represented in Somalia by Al-Ittihad and later by the Al-Shabaab.

While the Wahabi ideology is relatively new to Somalia, as least as a major power, it does appear as though it is there to stay. Beyond the question of persecution and war, lies the real reason for the strength of the Wahabi position. Since the outbreak of the civil war and the state collapse, the various Wahabi factions have provided or even enforced their ideology through education. Consequently, it can be argued that much of a generation of Somalis have been raised Wahabi. This is quite problematic since the aspirations of the Wahabi is to be the one face of Islam, and although only a minority claims the right to wage holy war, it still ensures an foundation for the more radical parts, currently represented by the Al-Shabaab.

The point of this article is to underline the need for an inclusive state. A state that accepts, includes and empowers the different variations of Somali. Unless the state institution is perceived as being for the people, by all the various kinds of people, the cultural diversity will remain a continuous point of conflict, which will certainly continue to undermine and complicate the state-building process. The same applies to the religious divides, although the religious question too should be resolved through a reconciliation process.