Sometimes African tribalism can work in our favor

I recently wrote about tribalism as a dominant force in Africa and elsewhere, both in terms of anti-terrorist security and the fight against Ebola.  It’s usually a negative factor, from the point of view of the First World.  However, sometimes it works in our favor, too – as in Somalia, where the fight against Al Qaeda offshoot Al Shabaab continues, with considerable success.  Strategy Page reports:

Most Somalis do not trust any armed organization that does not have clear clan ties … Therein lies the core problem with Somalia; clan loyalty is seen by most Somalis, as more important than any other government or religious allegiance. That is why al Shabaab is not as “religious” as Islamic terrorists in other parts of the world. Somalis organize profit-making enterprises, usually under the patronage of a clan or a powerful warlord who knows how to respect and exploit clan allegiance. Al Shabaab is more warlord than religious fanatic … There are over a hundred clan militias and these survive by being clan-based and able to use clan loyalty to recruit and motivate members. While there is a region known as Somalia and people known as Somalis there is no Somali nationalism to unite the nation of Somalia. Clan loyalty is supreme.

Another recent example of this can be seen in the far north where an unexpected failure of the annual monsoon rains has caused severe drought, major crop failures and many people facing famine and starvation. Aid for this is difficult to obtain because of the chronic corruption that often cripples such aid efforts and enriches a few local officials and gangsters. These droughts and famines have always been present in this region but emergency foreign food aid is a late 20th century development that has saved a lot of lives and made a lot of local leaders and gangsters rich. Much of the food never gets to those who need it most (the ones who cannot afford to even buy food) but enough of the food does reach famine victims to make it worthwhile to keep trying.

Part of the foreign aid problem is the nature of Somali culture. It is very competitive, entrepreneurial, violent and resourceful. For most Somalis, al Shabaab is not so much a religious movement as it is an opportunity to make some money. Al Shabaab is very much a criminal organization whose main goal is to make more money so it can recruit more members, arm them and use violence, bribes and extortion to obtain still more power and wealth. This Somali outlook put al Shabaab at odds with al Qaeda and other international Islamic terror groups. In the end, the Somalis won that argument in Somalia.

. . .

Most situations where al Shabaab is having problems doing business it’s because they have run afoul of a powerful (and usually heavily armed) clan. Al Shabaab tries to intimidate clans into cooperating but failing that al Shabaab must either fight, make a deal or move somewhere else. Somalia is a patchwork of areas where al Shabaab tries to avoid because of the powerful clan organizations. These clans are usually the ones with “clan elders” who can negotiate with al Shabaab.

There’s more at the link.

That also explains why piracy was, until recently, a major problem off the horn of Africa and the Somali coast.  The clans in the area did their clan thing, and made a good living out of it.  It took military intervention by the world’s major powers, including a permanent warship presence off the coast, to stop piratical clans in fishing dhows and faster small craft from continuing what has been a centuries-old practice in the area.  It was, and remains, clan-based;  and, to deal with it, the clans responsible have had to be attacked directly, from the sea and from the land.  The Russians and French have been particularly good at this, because the forces they committed to do the job acted ruthlessly and without hesitation.  “You pirate, you and your clan get clobbered, hard.”  They got the message across, and it worked.

Somalia is, in terms of its clan problem, emblematic of the situation in Africa as a whole.  One’s primary loyalty is to the clan, and to the tribe of which it’s a part.  Anything less, and the other clans will eat you alive.  That means efforts by Western aid agencies to get into conflict zones, where clan is fighting clan and tribe is fighting tribe, are often fruitless (and pointless to begin with).  They are owed no loyalty.  They are not a clan or tribe;  therefore, they don’t even have a reason to exist, as far as the locals are concerned.  They’re horning in on a problem that’s none of their business.

That explains a lot . . . and, along with primitive superstition, it’s why efforts to contain the Ebola crisis in Congo are failing.

(By the way, try this exercise.  Compare and contrast US inner-city and prison gangs with African tribes and clans.  The parallels are almost exact, no matter what the race or ethnic origin of the gangs concerned.  In fact, while working as a prison chaplain, I learned to treat prison gangs as just another version of African tribes.  That approach worked very well as far as interacting with them went.  It didn’t stop them being almost primitively [and sometimes very violently] focused on their criminal ends;  but it made it easier to understand them, and therefore deal with them.)



  1. It strikes me that Somalian refugees that we have accepted into our country must have a difficult if not impossible time assimilating into American culture.
    Wasn't it just a week or so ago that a pack of Somali teens went on a rampage at a train station in Minnesota attacking anyone who looked like they might have money with hammers and metal bars?
    Sounds like the same sort of culture that enabled those pirates back off the coast of Somalia, and probably will have to be dealt with in the same fashion.

  2. A blog post comparing prison gangs to Tribes would be great!

    I don’t remember that comparison in your book. It’s an amazing book that helped me a lot in understanding more of the criminal mentality, the us vs them.

  3. In many prisons, those who would not gang have been forced to gang up just in response to the black and latino gang presence. But then again, you see the same thing in many low-income areas, where black, latino and asian gangs have forced a gang response, out of pure survival needs, of the other ethnic groups.

    So much for diversity. Oh, well.

    And of course, richer peoples' response to urban ganging-up is to 'gang-up' themselves in either sub-urban communities or in urban enclaves, protected by walls and security.

    And they say walls don't work…

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