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Does the Key to Somali Capacity Building Reside in Clans?
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Dr. Theodore Karasik, Director of Research and Consultancy

Given that piracy off the coast of Somalia is dwindling down to a few isolated incidents with no successful captures in well over a year, the international community, regional actors, non-governmental organizations, and other pertinent stakeholders are focusing on capacity building initiatives in Somalia itself.

On the sidelines of the September 11-12, 2013 Counter Piracy Conference held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the Capacity Building Coordination Group (CBCG) met to discuss key issues for the near future. The CBCG, which works under Working Group 1 of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS), besides other topics, focused on the need for the international strategic positioning of the CBCG to be and remain the central mechanism and platform for efforts in the field of capacity building in Somalia. The CBCG called upon all stakeholders to work through the CBCG and ensure that projects and needs are identified and given to the Capacity Building Coordination Platform for the synchronization of their capacity building programs.

The work of the CBCG is an important first step in the transitioning of what has been a purely maritime-based police and military action to land-based solutions for ending the causes of piracy. Somalia indeed is ready for such international and regional activity now that there is a federal government with regional government structures. Yet the problems and issues that remain, at the very root, are based on Somali clan structures.

A Brief Review of Somali Clans
Somalia is a complex traditional country based on clan structures and loyalty networks. Somali clans are divided into four groups with sub-clans underneath. The Somali clans are the Darood, Hawiye, Dir, and Rahanweyn. There are also minorities such as the Bantu and Benadiri who are for the most part marginalized by Somali clans. The Haarti sub-clan of the Darood exists in Puntland, while the Isaaq clan is found in Somaliland. Clan chiefs can be hereditary, or these leaders can be elected by a council comprised of heads of tribal “sections.” They are supported by a Council of Elders who acts as an advisory council. The religious sentinel, or Waddad, plays a role in resolving conflict between different clan groups and within the clan itself. As a matter of fact, clans and contracts are an important component of Somali politics. Known as heer, which is defined as “customary procedure founded upon contractual agreement” the concept is widely applicable to defense and security matters but is possibly applicable to commercial affairs. While academics can easily identify Somali clans and their sub-clans plus the minorities, knowing the complexity of power relations remains a bit of a mystery to cultural anthropologists. In order to help unlock the mystery, it is always important to remember the famous Somali saying: “My cousin and I against the clan; my brother and I against my cousin; I against my brother.”

These clans, similar to tribal societies that stretch from Africa through the Middle East to Central and South Asia, are based on identity and ethos. Their legal systems supersede any notion of nation-states and are emboldened by their own right. So powerful are Somali clans and their subunits that they transcend almost all aspects of a greater Somali society, especially in Western concepts of statehood and politics. In the business arena, and especially in investment, knowing who’s who and from which clan and/or sub-clan, becomes critical. The same idea applies to acknowledging which partners are best for capacity building in Somalia.

Focus on Somali Clans for Capacity Building
The dynamics of Somalia based on clan structures is that any capacity building in the country will need to be done from the very foundations of the society. Simultaneously, stakeholders will also need to work from the top-down in order to facilitate governmental support.

Somali clans need the appropriate place in capacity building in order to contribute to policy making and strategic priorities. Engaging clans and understanding their interrelationships and political and legal structures will be a positive influence to reconstruct the country in the fields of healthcare, education and horticulture just to name a few. Stakeholders’ focus on community engagement via clan elders, with a full knowledge of the legal norms via heer, might very well find a welcoming environment in today’s Somalia. Consequently, capacity gains will be measureable and manageable.

If cultural anthropologists, as noted above, are unable to make sense of the power relationships, then certainly the international community, regional states, and stakeholders need to re-evaluate exactly who to work with in Somalia to deliver the appropriate packages and assistance for capacity building. A possible remedy may be for the convening of an expert panel consisting of foremost cultural anthropologists, Somali intellectuals and academics specifically focusing on a bottom-up approach and identifying pertinent clan leaders for successful capacity building in a step by step fashion. Such an approach should be pursued vigorously and sooner rather than later. Of course, the flexible and fluctuating system of Somali clan life will need to be fully appreciated and updated under the current Somali government.


Power, participation and government are critical to grasp and understand in the Somali context. What is more important is where the clans fit into these categories. Although direct investments in capacity building is the usual model to follow in rebuilding a failed or failing state, in Somalia, the terms of engagement are unique and opaque. Significantly, Somalia is not Iraq and not Afghanistan where tribal engagement policies focused on military solutions to political reconstruction. So lessons-learned in Baghdad and Kabul may not be applicable and thus a unique approach to Somalia is warranted. To be clear, Western templates for capacity building are likely not to work in Somalia and a new approach needs to be thought out that gives a point by point boost to specific clans and their unique attributes based on the requirements within their locale. Although government to government relations are a plus, which is where the international community is focusing upon in Somalia for political development and ultimately capacity building, the clan system resides above the state level and needs consideration by policymakers and practitioners. Clans reside at the highest levels of government but they also are at the very roots of Somalia. A Somali-driven knowledge management system in conjunction with public-private partnerships may be the driver that is missing from current capacity building efforts.

Overall, the significant benefits for development and improvements in delivery of aid, materials, and training are likely to require a dual track approach with clan engagement a critical necessity. A series of broad, multi-stakeholder approaches via the CBCG into Somalia via clan networks would provide perhaps a better guarantee of success more quickly while at the same time engaging federal and regional governments. Ideally, community engagement programs via clans would likely provide viable results as Somalia begins its recovery.

(The above is part of a series of papers from analysts in INEGMA’s Counter-Piracy Program. The INEGMA Counter-Piracy Program is set up to provide the public and private sectors with various services related to piracy. This initiative aims to fill the needs of risk mitigation at sea for the merchant community and shipping industries with various tools and to provide expertise and recommendations for a long term strategy for countering piracy on shore. For more information contact the Program Director, Dr. Soraya Sidani, at

Any party interested in publishing or quoting this study is welcomed to do so but with the condition of giving full attribution to the author and INEGMA. All Copy Rights reserved.

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