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Visible and Invisible Differences: The Somali Paradox

  • Ioan Lewis


In exploring the difficulties experienced by the traditionally politically uncentralised Somalis in establishing a stable and effective state, based on their ethnicity, this article compares ethnicity, nationalism and lineage identity. In this case, ethnicity and nationalism are local products, influenced but not created by the colonial experience. They have had to contend with the intractable force of segmentary lineage identity, which has proved extremely difficult to adapt and accommodate to the requirements of modern statehood. In its cultural context, agnation is all the more pervasive and powerful in constituting an ‘invisible’ bond, conceived by Somalis as a biologically based distinction like ‘race’. Unlike race, it is almost infinitely elastic and divisible. Ethnic identity, which rests on external distinctions such as language, culture and religion, cannot be broken down into a series of formally equivalent segments, but is less binding as a social force. Today, after the collapse of the state of Somalia in 1991, following protracted grass‐roots peace‐making between clans, two parts of the nation—the former British Somaliland, and the north‐eastern region of Somalia (‘Puntland’, based on the Majerteyn clan, and other closely related clans)—have developed separate local states. Although Somaliland claims complete independence, which Puntland does not, both polities incorporate parliamentary institutions that accommodate traditional, and modern political leaders and processes. The ex‐Italian residue, Southern Somalia, still without any form of government, is in what appears to be the final throes of its long‐running, fourteenth grandiose international ‘peace’ conference in Kenya. Thousands of delegates, in various configurations, have already spent over eighteen months in these talks. Although its embryonic constitution now recognises ‘clans’ as constituent political units, this attempt to re‐establish Somalia is based on the usual ‘top‐down’ approach, rather than on spontaneous local negotiations amongst ‘stakeholders’ on the ground, such as those on which Somaliland and Puntland are founded. With contingents of foreign ‘experts’, the whole process seeks to reinstate a familiar Eurocentric state model, unadapted to Somali conditions.

En examinant les difficultés rencontrées par les Somaliens, traditionnellement non centralisés sur le plan politique, à fonder un État fonctionnel et stable sur la base de leur ethnicité, cet article compare l'ethnicité, le nationalisme et l'identité du lignage. Dans ce cas, l'ethnicité et le nationalisme sont des produits locaux, influencés mais non créés par l'expérience coloniale. Ils ont été aux prises avec la force irréductible de l'identité du lignage segmentaire, qui s'est révélée être extrêmement difficile à adapter aux besoins du statut d'État moderne. Dans son contexte culturel, l'agnation est encore plus répandue et puissante à constituer un lien “invisible”, conçue par les Somaliens comme une différence à fondement biologique comme la “race”. Contrairement à la race, elle est quasiment infiniment élastique et divisible. L'identité ethnique, qui repose sur des différences externes comme la langue, la culture et la religion, n'est pas divisible en une série de segments formellement équivalents, mais elle a moins de pouvoir liant en tant que force sociale. Aujourd'hui, après la chute de l'État somalien en 1991 puis l'instauration d'une paix prolongée entre les clans au niveau local, deux régions du pays, l'ancien Somaliland britannique et la région du Puntland (des clans Majertine et autres apparentés) au nord‐est de la Somalie, ont créé des États locaux séparés. Tandis que le Somaliland revendique une indépendance totale, ce que ne fait pas le Puntland, ces deux États possèdent des institutions parlementaires qui concilient les responsables et processus politiques traditionnels et modernes. Le sud de la Somalie, ancienne colonie italienne toujours dépourvue de gouvernement d'aucune sorte, semble arriver au terme de sa longue et grandiose quatorzième conférence de paix internationale au Kenya. Depuis dix‐huit mois, ces discussions mobilisent des milliers de participants de configurations variées. Bien que sa constitution embryonnaire reconnaisse désormais les “clans” comme des groupes politiques constitués, cette tentative de rétablir la Somalie repose sur l'approche descendante habituelle, plutôt que sur des négociations locales spontanées entre “parties prenantes” sur le terrain, telles que celles sur lesquelles sont fondées le Somaliland et le Puntland. Assisté de contingents d'“experts” étrangers, le processus global cherche à réinstaurer un modèle d'État eurocentrique familier inadapté aux réalités somaliennes.



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Visible and Invisible Differences: The Somali Paradox

  • Ioan Lewis


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