Somalis - Sociopolitical Organization



Somalia, constitutionally a socialist republic, is divided into regions, districts, and subdistricts. At each of these administrative levels, there is an elected body of officials and a parallel assembly of members of the Socialist party. The traditional form of sociopolitical organization, based on clan membership, was formally abolished and condemned as "tribalism" in 1971, yet clans and agnatic groupings remain the focus of articulation of all important societal matters. The modern administrative system is in many parts of the country only superimposed upon the old system of segmentary lineages, and it has by no means replaced that system.

Social Organization. The Somali people are divided into six major clusters of patrilineal clans, usually labeled clanfamilies, that are internally segmented. For most purposes, the largest social unit is a clan ( qabiil ) or a subclan that may vary in size between a few thousand and a hundred thousand members. Based on the reckoning of agnatic descent, clans are internally divided into lineages and sublineages, the size of which rarely exceeds a few hundred to a thousand members. In the north, there are additional small scattered groups of despised artisans and serfs that are collectively known as sab. In the south, there are large numbers of such small groups of people—some of whom are descendants of former slaves—who are frequently called in as farm labor. Known collectively as boon (inferior), they are regarded and treated as second-class citizens. Marriage with members of these groups is not permitted. In the southern regions of Somalia, it is possible to be "adopted"—given full membership—in a clan, even though one is the descendant of another clan. The sedentary villages in the south often have a leadership that is independent from that of the clan.

Political Organization. Interclan and interlineage affairs are handled by committees of clan elders, supervised by the clan chief, the suldaan or ugas. In the north, there exists a system of contractual agreements between different agnatic groupings, and the fines that are to be exacted for different breaches of customary law are specified. These agreements also specify the range of solidarity within the different contracting segmentary lineages. In the south, the lineages that constitute a clan are less likely to contract such agreements on their own, but the clan as a whole will agree on blood-wealth size, grazing rights, and other arrangements with other clans. Political life in rural Somali society has always been marked by negotiation, counseling, and free debate—features that inspired Ioan M. Lewis to title his major work on the northern Somali "A Pastoral Democracy" (1961).

Social Control. The traditional means of social control are closely linked with the clanship system. Lineage elders and chiefs are expected to ensure that the conduct of lineage members conforms to customary law, both in internal dealings and in affairs with other agnatic groups. Traditional cooperatives and associations, such as water-hole (war) maintenance groups, have their own sets of rules to guide their internal affairs, and they elect headmen to be responsible for doing so. Nowadays the police force is involved in most rural affairs and will often act together with local leaders. The guulwada, or "victory-carriers," a paramilitary militia, are frequently relied upon to implement government decisions. Another government agency, the National Security Service (NSS), has also had a high degree of presence, even in remote rural settings.

Conflict. Feuding and armed conflicts over grazing and water rights are not uncommon. In the past, conflicts often emerged following cattle or camel raids. In the war zones in the north of the country and along the Ethiopian border, a considerable supply of submachine guns and other light weaponry exists.


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