Minorities and Tribes in Somalia
The majority of Somali traditionally were, and still are, nomads and herders keeping flocks of goats, black and white fat-tailed Somali sheep together with herds of cattle and camels. Over 60% of the world’s camels are to be found with Somalis and are used for meat, milk and as beasts of burden but they are never ridden. I was told the word Somali has its origins in their language and means ’go and milk’, or comes from Arabic and means ‘wealthy owner of animals’. In either case the nation has a name that has origins in the people’s dependence on livestock.
As in many such people an hierarchical tribal system is to be found and when Siad Barre was in power his clan, the Marehan, were the top echelon with regard to power, wealth and the top jobs. At the other end of the scale were the Jerar people, (jerar meaning ‘kinky hair.) This minority group had their origins in south east Africa and were good farmers and freshwater fishermen. The Jerar people had been enslaved by the Sultan of Zanzibar over 200 years ago, and they continued to suffer in Somalia, were often victimized, and their crops could be devastated as herdsmen released their animals onto their crop. I always tried to help them with seeds, tools and chemicals as they were good farmers and I had sympathy for them as I was from a minority myself where the top echelon were the Tikriti of Saddam’s family and I was from the minority, the victimized Faili Kurds of Iraq.
The Jerar trusted me and told me something of their suffering. During the years of the civil war the suffering of this minority increased and the rape of a Jereer girl, or the killing of a Jerar for no reason, was a common occurrence. Many of the Jerar elders and their families used to visit me in the FAO office in Hamar Jeb Jeb and opened their hearts to tell me their problems. The Jerar elders with their beards dyed red with henna were a common sight around my office and I firmly believe that they are the best farmers in Somalia.
I was limited in what I could do to help them because FAO worked within the remit of development and was highly centralized and program orientated, as are most UN organisations. However helping the Jereer and the poor Somali nomads was really an emergency aid situation and I was accused by FAO Rome of ‘going native’ when I directed what available assistance I could to these people. I believed then, and still do, that providing good farmers and herdsmen with the seed and tools they need to produce food was the right thing to do in the situation but I could not get this across to the bureaucrats in Rome, the majority of which had no experience in the field, or indeed outside their offices. In all the years I was there with FAO the only visit by any individual from the Rome headquarters was when the Chief of OSRO (FAO’s emergency unit) came to the country. On one occasion we received a visit from consultants on a strategic mission but there was no positive outcome from their visit. Ironically I met most of the DG’s of the international organizations who had offices in Somalia, George Bush Snr and two UN Secretary Generals and worked with five representatives of the latter. A visit of a chief of service was the limit of FAO HQ support.
I was dealing with the catastrophic situation in the country and dealing each day with issues that were not really under FAO’s mandate but were part and parcel of the daily life in Somalia and required a sympathetic and humane approach. I could not make my colleagues read between the lines and fully appreciate the conditions that existed there, and especially the suffering of the Jerar and the poor nomads.
There are very few nations in the world as homogenized as the Somali speaking nation. Virtually all of them are from the same religion and sect and historically were herders and nomads with many similar physical features as opposed to the tribes of Kenya who show physical differences and tribal languages. Nevertheless the Somalis are divided to the extreme on tribal lines. Throughout history nomads have never been country makers in their ancestral lands, whereas farmers settle and establish themselves. As I mentioned previously my first task with FAO was to train nomads in primary animal health care and, from the start, I wanted to know something about the tribes and clans of the regions where we were to work with the nomads. My Somali counterpart started to fill me in with the necessary information and I even got a map and marked on it the locality of the clans. My office was in the Ministry of Livestock, Range and Forestry and I stuck the map on a board behind my desk.
Early one morning I was called to the Office of the Minister, who I had never met before, and he bluntly asked me what was the map in my office. I was taken aback by his tone and why the map should generate such interest. He told me that I should understand that in Somlia there was no such thing as tribes, clans and regions and that all of Somalia was the same and united. He then abruptly changed his tone and asked me to sit and take tea with him! I was about to drink when he asked if I had a secretary. I told him that I was running a small FAO project and there was no budget available for the employment of a secretary. Budget or no budget I had a secretary when I left his room! The secretary and the minister were from the same tribe that had come to Somalia after the Ogaden (Ethiopian Somali war). Within a year Somalia had succumbed to the strife caused by tribal fiefdoms and it has yet to recover.
In 1960, the colonial powers of Britain and Italy, who ruled north and south of the country, decided to give independence to the people and the north and south formed Somalia. This was an African country gaining full independence without a single act of violence. Now, half a century later, the land has been divided into 10 tribal defacto states. The promised future that was there in 1960 has wasted away and the tribal leaders should recognize the role they must play to regain a chance of a future for the country as a whole. The Somali people deserve a better future.