Saturday, May 18, 2024
Wardheer News
  • Opinion

Identity, social organization, and governance

By Abdulkadir Osman Farah, PhD

“Yaa ayuha naasu innaa khalaqnaakum min dakarin waunthaa, wajacalnaakum shucuuban waqabaaila litacaarafuu, inna akramakum cindallaahi atqaakum” (Oh humankind! We have created you male and female and have made you nations and tribes so that you may come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you is the most Allah-conscious of you) [Q-49:13].

“Soomaali baan ahay, sanku-neefle ma ogoli in uu iga sarreyn karo” (I am Somali, I do not permit any breathing soul to have superiority over me) [Abdulkadir Yamyam,1978].

“Dad waa kuwii dal ku filan leh, dal milgo iyo maamuus lagu dhex joogo- oo dadkiisu nabad iyo nolol fayow ku heystaan. Dad iyo dal waa labo is buuxiya, oo mid walba ka kale macno ku leeyahay. Waa labo is hanta oo isku heellan, waa labo isku nool oo dayaca iska ilaaliya. Dadka, dalka ayaa wax ka dhiga, dalkana dadka ayaa wax ka dhiga, dowladi waa dan guud, waxay mideysaa dalka iyo dadka” (People are those who have a sufficient country, a country in which they can live in peace and dignity. People and country complement each other, the two are devoted to each other, the two live together and avoid neglecting each other. The people make the country, the country makes the people, the government is for the common good, as it unites the country and the people) [Hadraawi, 2021].

“The Somaliness is the thing that kept me going…There is an ambiguous relationship between me and Somalia…To some Somalis, I represent everything that is un-Somali because of the way I think, the way I write, the way I talk about them. The Greeks divided the world into Greeks and Barbarians. I divide the world into Somalis and non-Somalis.” [Nurrudin Farah, 2023].

“A fierce and turbulent race of republicans” [Richard Burton, 1856].

Personal interest colliding with the public good    

Once upon a time, a disgruntled farmer sued a herder to the nearest traditional court. He complained against a powerful cattle-herder whose livestock transgressed the farmer’s sorghum harvest. After carefully listening to both sides, the judge pronounced a swift decision. By holding a long stick vertically, he ordered “The herdsman must fill the upright stick with a sorghum and compensate the farmer’s loss.” Before closing the case and moving to the next, the assistant hastily notified the judge “sheikh, your livestock equally transgressed the same farmstead.” In responding to the latest information, the judge immediately reconsidered the initial ruling and instead suggested “it is also permissible levelling the stick horizontally and filling it with sorghum” (La joojiyaana bannaan, la jiifiyaana bannaan)

Somalis often refer to this classic anecdote when they witness injustices/misgovernance particularly emanating from people with authoritative decision making. Situations in which personal interests and identities collide with the collective institutional procedures and the wellbeing of the society’s public good. The traditional message is herewith clear: in pursuing narrow ego-centric gains, people should not confuse, or irrationally substitute, the basic identity of personal needs with the principled universal priorities of the society.

Challenging societal organizations

Somali people (particularly elites) whether traditional or modern, confront serious sociopolitical challenges. The first is the task of promoting and sustaining viable integration among the various constituencies of the society. The second is how to ensure such collective aims without sidelining equality within the society as well as the existence of individual group autonomy and self-respect. The third is the efforts of recruiting and organizing qualified sincere cadres who can work independently and sufficiently in a neutral bureaucratic system- dealing specifically with the administrative coordination and the management of the well-being of the society.

When elites seriously concentrate on societal integration, they protect the core identity of the society. This includes the simultaneous combination and diversification of identities including cultural, national, and communal affiliations. The late Somali Djiboutian linguistic scholar Saalax Hashi Carab refers to one such dimension of Somali cultural identity as “hayb”. A term not just characterizing the familial genealogical connections, but also the notion of searching a lost or displaced things or goods.

In the past, before the intrusion of mobile technological innovations, particularly people in rural environments (reer baadiyaha) exhibited stronger manifestations of “hayb” or kinship relationships. They used such affiliations to protect themselves and to produce basic livelihood needs, within a framework of agreed customary governance, rooted in principles of production, regulation, and communal wisdom. A traditional saying assert “Qabiil, meel nin ka joogana kama maqna, meel labo ka joogtana waa ku dhan yahay” (A clan is not absent, when one of their men is present, if two are present, the whole clan seems present). This confirms the significance of clan cohesion and representation before the introduction of imported imperial modern forms of governance that eventually distorted such originally embedded and comparatively credible socio-cultural platforms.

In contrast, the contemporary society grapples with a myriad of challenges stemming from shifting familial dynamics and evolvingly disruptive leadership and institutional structures. Many people find themselves disconnected from historical ancestry or remain marginalized within the current or emerging societal mechanisms and contexts. Despite efforts by diverse internal and external authorities in trying to assert a common identity, most still navigate and negotiate their public and familial (personal identities). They continuously adjust and adapt to different-occasionally competing/diverging regional, national, and transnational social environments.


With the current era of the global trans-nationalization of the society, the situation becomes even more complicated. Trans-nationalization unsettles the presumed origin of static national identity. For instance, Somalis now settle around the world. They gradually inhabit and adjust into approximately two hundred different societies. Many of them could easily speak for about nearly two hundred adopted languages. Somaliness, therefore, in this regard requires a careful reevaluation with expansive multidimensional re-composition.

Restricting and classifying such heterogeneous identity into a single unitary one- seems therefore almost futile. Under such transnational connections, traditional kinship identities might gradually lose significance, or reconfigure under new forms of contextualized priorities and purposes. With the advent of globalization and hyper digital connectivity, Somalis search for both opportunities, but also remain subject to transnationally protracted disruptions and uncertainties.

Transforming the society

As an old wisdom suggest “Sida ilmaha uu dhabarka abihiis uga soo baxo ayuu maamulku uga soo baxaa bulshada” (As the child emerges from the father’s back, governance emerges from the society). Obviously, social identity and governance, remain in a tight, almost inseparable connection. However, since the beginning of human civilization, a conflict raged between what is personal (informal) and what is common (public). What belongs to the “life world” and what categorically fall under the “system world.” People often try to reconcile with the simple straightforward bonding of familial/kinship affinities to the complex bridging of interactions and connections with varieties and multiplicities of peoples and networks. So far, such long-term tension, and even contrast, persist. The institutionalized part of human life often clashes with the lesser formalized and bureaucratized dimension of human flourishing.

Following historical changes and global influences, Somalis grapple with modern governance, troubled with controversy of adjustment and adaptation. Modern contemporary governance systems trace their origins to the formation of European nation-states, a process further catalyzed by events such as the French Revolution. Suffering from their own forms of devastating kinship and religious conflicts for centuries, elites in western European societies, centralized identity, and authority. Initially they did this in the hands of royal rulers or a group of elites, often at the expense of cultural diversity and individual autonomy. As Eugin Weber research showed France consisted of different competing tribes with diverse languages and distinct customary traditions. Then elites at the time bureaucratically decided to assemble fragmented peasant communities into a collective formal Frenchmen.

In contrast to the Frenchmen, whose experience formed a collective society, the Somalis (the elites) preferred to adopt imported modernization, within the context of colonial encounters and subsequent nation-building endeavors. European colonization left therefore indelible marks on the identity of Somali society, influencing socio-political structures and cultural narratives. Explorers such as Richard Burton and I. M. Lewis, while offering partial insights into Somali hospitality towards strangers also juxtaposed traits of primitiveness, arrogance, and narrow-mindedness. Apart from referring to the existing irrational kinship rivalries, imperial voyagers classified the Somali society as consisting of pastoralists versus agrarians. Herewith excluding Somalis with alternative lifestyles and production methods.

Inheriting such external reductionist delineation, Somali elites integrated such alien conceptual framing into the nascent attempts of governance and state-building. A process marred by internal tensions, rivalries, and external pressures. On their part, subsequent military elites further engendered upheaval, marked by political turmoil and excessive societal fragmentation. Then the collapse of central authority precipitated a period of statelessness and humanitarian crises- with comprehensive societal divisions and vulnerabilities.

Searching and coping with potentialities

In experimenting with nuanced approaches to nation-building and social cohesion, Somalis (particularly those in diaspora) seem to have increasingly realized that society is a collective enterprise driven by public issues and carefully thought and designed public policies. As “Far keliya fool ma dhaqdo” (A single finger does not wash the forehead), the collective nature of addressing simple tasks as well as larger demanding societal challenges, necessitate a public unity and collaboration.

Eventually, the society must learn the link between public issues, often requiring vision combined with scientific expert considerations/solutions (cilmi iyo caqli) and aspects related to the domain of private troubles, including sentiments and intuitive actions (shucuur iyo dhaqdhaqaaq). The contemporary Somali society, when it comes to the issue of governance, often rely on distorted kinship relations to address systemic institutional shortcomings. Due to successive elite miscalculations and mismanagement, over the years, on particularly the formation of common fairer social organization and governance, Somali collective identity, currently struggles with the “bitterness of multiple forms of humiliation and dispossession.”

Building a society is not just about the present or the past – but equally also about the future. Society is about planning and strategizing. The public must prepare and cope with the looming threat of actualities as well as potentialities. As a Somali wisdom proposes “Qofka geesiga ah wuxuu libaaxa ka baqaa 3 jeer. Markuu raadkiisa arko, markuu reenkiisa maqlo iyo markuu run ahaan u arko” (Three times a man is scared by a lion: when he sees its tracks, when he hears its roar and when he sees it in reality). Herewith, traditional Somali wisdom implies that societal and institutional vigilance safeguards prospective social improvement and consolidation.

Dr. Abdulkadir Osman Farah |
Email: [email protected]

Dr. Abdulkadir Osman Farah teaches at Copenhagen University and is associate of Urban Sanctuary, Migrant Solidarity and Hospitality in Global Perspective with Aalborg and Ryerson Universities. Dr. Farah is also currently associate researcher of Tswane University of Technology, Pretoria, South Africa .


[1] An extract from a brief online talk to a session organized by researchers and students at HIPAD institute, Xamar (Mogadishu)

We welcome the submission of all articles for possible publication on WardheerNews will only consider articles sent exclusively. Please email your article today . Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of WardheerNews.

WardheerNew’s tolerance platform is engaging with diversity of opinion, political ideology and self-expression. Tolerance is a necessary ingredient for creativity and civility.Tolerance fuels tenacity and audacity.

WardheerNews waxay tixgelin gaara siinaysaa maqaaladaha sida gaarka ah loogu soo diro ee aan lagu daabicin goobo kale. Maqaalkani wuxuu ka turjumayaa aragtida Qoraaga loomana fasiran karo tan WardheerNews.

Copyright © 2024 WardheerNews, All rights reserved

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.