From at least the early 1990s to 2006, if not the present, one stereotype about Somalia held that “clannism” prevents political progress there. In its most essentializing form, this theory says that conflict in Somalia is simply ancient clan feuding conducted with modern weaponry. That’s absurdly ahistorical. But clan allegiances do have importance – one reason for rebellions against Siad Barre, the last ruler of a unified Somalia, was the favoritism he showed toward his own clan. So we shouldn’t forget clans, but neither should we exaggerate their political impact.
In light of that, how should we understand the role of “clannism” in Islamist politics in Somalia? One might say that the primary appeal of the Union of Islamic Courts in 2006 for its supporters, and the appeal of al Shabab in the present for its supporters, lies in the perceived capacity of Islam to provide a way out of the impasses clan rivalries create.
Given that premise, then if Islam’s pan-ethic/trans-clan unifying dimension helps explain Islamism’s ideological appeal, charges of clannism directed against al Shabab become particularly damaging:
[A] former Mogadishu mayor who was also the Governor of Somalia’s embattled Banadir region has lambasted hardline rebel Al-Shabaab group over decision to ban the United Nations WFP from distributing food aid in the country.
Mohammed Omar Habeb also known as Mohammed Dhere accused the group’s leader Sheikh Mukhtar Robow Abu Mansur of twisting the issue to suit his clan while inflicting misery to people from Mogadishu and other southern regions.
“Sheikh Robow banned the aid agencies from operating in between Afgoye and Mogadishu because he wants farmers from his region to sell their grains in high profit,” he said.
Al Shabaab is known as a multi-clan outfit of militants, and some foreign fighters, united by an ideology to establish an Islamic government in Somalia. The group has been accused of clan favors in the past.
I can’t judge the accuracy of Dhere’s statement, but he’s not a propagandist for the Transitional Federal Government; he has harsh words for them too. If true, though, his statement points to a major problem for al Shabab. With rivals, starvation, and turmoil surrounding them, a perception that their political agenda is merely a cover for clan politics as usual would represent another significant blow for the group.