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What a protracted social fatigue and incompetent political elite are besetting an uncertain Somali era

By Adan Ismail

It is written in the book of nature that nothing lasts forever and changes are as inescapable as nature itself. Problems confronting nations are responded to in two ways: the tender wisdom of statesmen or the sweeping tides of desperate masses with the consequences of each shaping the future of those nations and their societies. Where the wisdom of leadership fails and the rage of desperate masses takes charge to fill the vacuum, the result is nothing but ruins as in some countries where wisdom-deprived rigid leaders sunk their countries into the abyss. Contrastingly, many thriving nations stand on the full measure of the wisdom of past and present leaders.

Beneath the surface of the constitutional crises unfolding in Somalia and the brawl of the political elite, seismic currents of social discontent are building up underneath. Undercurrents generated by long-standing despair coupled with numerous other ills which the Somali society has been grappling with for more than three decades of statelessness. A protracted social fatigue compounded by the lack of saviours to chart a new pathway is dreading the Somali future. Four dire background conditions are particularly causing social jitters and which lately, have caused unusual social trends.

The Veering Somali Vehicle

Understanding the intricate history of Somali society and what defines their existence can be summarized in the Somali Vehicle Theory. A hypothetical four-wheeled automobile, its wheels being Islam, spacious living space, nature and anti-Ethiopianism. Islam and living space make the frontal wheels – the most cherished – while nature and the Ethiopian factor form the rear, the most hated.

The choice of these four wheels in theorizing Somali affairs is particularly significant. Of the infinite things that constitute the Somali being, individually or socially, these four remarkably stand out as the things persistently preoccupying the Somali psyche. And whose behaviour towards the society always triggers their reactions. Each of these four has a unique place in the long Somali history spanning centuries.

Islam makes the bones, flesh and blood of the Somali body irreversibly embedded in their souls. The significance of Islam in Somali life is so great that it is central to every activity and a solution to every problem. In conflicts, Islam is a sword of deterrence for the Somali people against foreign intruders beginning with the ancient wars with the Christian Ethiopian Empire and later European colonialists.

Ethiopia, which metamorphosed from the defunct Christian Abyssinian Empire, is considered a natural Somali enemy attempting to conquer them for centuries. Enmity rooted in historical faith polarization. Nature is another enemy of Somalis with its devastating impacts of drought, and diseases, impoverishing them and causing occasional clash with themselves and their neighbours. Nature which forced them to migrate has left a deep cultural imprint to make Somalis a mobile race. Irrespective of under which sovereign jurisdiction, the expansive Somali living space is considered a unique pride only possessed by Somalis in the entire Africa. The best wealth the society inherited from past generations.

While these wheels of the Somali vehicle have faced considerable danger since colonial times, the situation worsened following the collapse of the Somali state and the dissipation of a central authority that protected common interests.

The first of the frontal wheels, the Islamic religion which is the most cherished thing and the sword of deterrence has been contaminated with ruinous fractions. There came a steady permeation of numerous ‘heretic’ sectarian snippets that have been slowly displacing the oldest form of Islam which the society has known for more than a millennium when Somalis wholeheartedly embraced Islam. Among them is Salafism which bears a bloodletting trademark and birthed a barbarous child, Alshabaab.

Al Shabaab has proved to be the greatest disaster that ever struck the Somali people. Their transnational ideology that posits inviting all Muslims into Somalia under the guise of global Jihad sets a very unpleasant shadow of re-Islamization with the impression that no Islam exists on Somali soil. Such ideological underpinnings have reduced Somali soil into every man’s territory, a battleground for foreign powers and a hideout for criminal adventurists. The very existence of Al Shabaab serves as a pretext for the influx of foreign forces whose presence, with each passing day, bleaks the Somali future.

On the domestic level, the group’s operations contradict every aspect of Somali customs and the religious principles the society has known since time immemorial. Alshabaabi’s indiscriminate killings flout the golden rules of Somali cultural traditions that give unquestionable immunity to specific groups in the society – women, children, elders and religious leaders. Over centuries of inter-Somali wars, these groups were designated as Biri-mageydo or rather, the spared ones and before Al Shabaab, has been a cardinal rule in the Somali doctrine of warfare with attempts to flout only attracting social contempt and ostracization.

Al Shabaab retards Somali society’s quest for modernization. Like Boko Haram of Nigeria, it forbids secular education branding it as a ‘Western tool.’ Not only in Somalia but also in the Somali region of Kenya, the group has left a disastrous mark. It conducts kidnappings of teachers, torches schools, bombs educational facilities and abducts doctors and other service providers ensuring that part of the country trails behind the magical pace of Kenya’s development and modernisation. In July 2022, the group launched a daring incursion into the Somali region of Ethiopia and although they were repelled by local security forces, their motive was none other than social sabotage which they are best at. 

In 2017, the Somali government signed an agreement with Qatar to fund a development project to revamp the country’s broken system of infrastructure. That included the construction of a modern highway connecting Mogadishu city to its surrounding towns of Afgoye and Jowhar. Alshabaab opposed this for unknown reasons and it took nearly five years to complete the project at the cost of a large number of dead security personnel, Turkish engineers and Somali workers killed by bombings.

Worse still, the group’s system of tax extortion that parallels the government’s taxation system impoverishes the society and stagnates the country’s economic recovery. A 2023 report by the Africa Centre For Strategic Studies has estimated an annual revenue of $100 million extorted by Al Shabaab which compromises the country’s financial system. Additionally, Alshabaab has put a generation of Somali youngsters to waste as brainwashed boys and young men forced to abandon education are used as suicide bombers, murderers, drug traffickers and cannon fodders.

Lately, as reported by Somali government officials citing evidence from captured territories, Al Shabaab went further to drive the last nail into the coffin of desecrating the Somali culture and the Islamic faith. In what is tantamount to sexual transfers and the promotion of promiscuous practices which are greatly abhorred, the group resorted to compelling men to divorce their legally married wives and then remarrying them through ‘a halal marriage procedure’ meaning Alshabaab does not recognize any form of Islam in Somalia that preceded them.

Orly Stern in her Married in the Shadows notes the ‘annulling marriage’ policy where non-Alshabaab men are forced to divorce wives to remarry men in their ranks. Without the consent of parents, young women and underage girls are married to their militiamen, many of these men foreigners of unknown roots. Such actions contravene the established norms of racial purity which Somalis have uniquely fought to preserve for centuries. To this date, the society abhors interracial marriage.

On the global stage, Al Shabaab has stained the society’s image subjecting them to ethnic profiling everywhere. As far away as the United States where Donald Trump repeatedly slurred Somalis, a person of ethnic Somali irrespective of which part of the Horn of Africa he or she comes from gets despised because of the nasty shadow Alshabaab casts over the society.

In recent years, a spate of kidnappings and disappearances of prominent Somali individuals and ordinary people accused of connections with Al Shabaab made the news headlines in Kenya. Because of alleged connections with Alshabaab, Somali property and wealth are being preyed upon subjecting Somalis to perpetual economic stagnation. In March 2024, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned 16 Somali business networks and individuals for “lending financial backing to Al-Shabaab.”

By and large, a general Somali consensus holds that Alshabaab represents the greatest menace that the Somali society and the peninsula have ever seen, worse than European colonialism. The most striking similarity between white colonialism and Al Shabaab is that both are foreign-conceived with brutish dealings. The only difference is that Al Shabaab falsely uses religion to justify this barbarism.

The second front wheel – spacious space – is also at risk of slipping away from society’s hands. Covering the most expansive landmass by any single ethnic group in Africa, Somali living space transcends Somalia’s national boundaries and is considered a sacred property for the whole ethnic group. This living space has however been steadily shrinking from the peripheries, especially on the Ethiopian front.

Read more: What a protracted social fatigue and incompetent political elite are besetting an uncertain Somali era

Adan Ismail
Email: [email protected]

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