Somalia- Social Perspective
On the east cost of the African continent lays a strip of ground surrounded by the Indian Ocean, on one side and by exotic lands like Kenya and Ethiopia on the continental side. This is Somalia and, when hearing about it, most of us would be tempted to refer to the present situation and attributes that best describe this part of the Earth- poverty, hunger, illiteracy and its given qualification as a “third world country.”
Yet, what one does not know about Somalia is the fact that it is part of one of the oldest cultures in the world, with the presence of humans being attested from around 9000 before our age and with a dynamic history which relates to the existence of the Punt Kingdom in this space, in the Ancient period of time, the presence of Muslim population in the Medieval Age and the interference of European states such as Italy and Great Britain, in the modern history of the nineteenth century.
The Somalis are, by tradition, a migratory population. The earliest theories regarding them defines these people as not being similar to other Africans and therefore, as being the result of their ancestors who crossed over from Asia and mixed with the natives in pursue of food, water and pasture for their herds of sheep and goats.
This view is sustained by the common European point-of-view of the nineteenth century, according to which African inhabitants are a monolithic group. More modern approaches admit the existence of certain differences among people as part of the African mosaic.
Though, the most popular theory related to Somalia’s beginnings is the “Theory of Migration,” according to which ancestors of today’s Somalis who expanded from their original coastal homeland used to live in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia until the beginning of the first millennium. Their migratory process seems to have been continuous between 1000 and 1900 and their settlement was finally dictated by the sea barrier, together with the Christian Kingdom’s expansion. The major factor which determined this constant migration was the search of better living conditions for an increasing population. Later, their adoption of Islam increased their tendency of relocating, as they were also propagating their faith.
A Greek document written in the middle of the first century a.D. refers to the Somalis as traders with Egypt and with the inhabitants of Arabia and also, as great sailors who would cross the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden for commercial purposes. One names them “Barbaroi,” a name which would be later met in Arabic medieval writings which recall Somalis under the name of “Berbers.” Also, these constant contacts with the Muslim world would further determinate their embracement of this religion.
Regarding Egyptian trades, mural engraves standing in the Valley of the Kings illustrate accounts in the fifteenth century B.C between a so called Punt population and the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut, with the formers giving supplies of myrrh and frankincense which were commonly used for the religious purposes of the latter. Moreover, linguistic similarities between the two nations are proofs of ancient and constant connections among them.
The medieval period of Somalia is characterized by a prosperous Muslim population, represented by Adal and Ajuuraan Empires and by a strong development of the coastal cities and cities-states. On the other hand, the European Crusades’ impact was being felt in Africa too and was leading to local conflicts among Christians and Muslims. During the fifteenth and the sixteenth century, the Portuguese landed in the territory and managed to rule for a short period of time a certain amount of lands, until being defeated by the Muslims, a conflict that remains representative for the local African history.
The modern history of Somalia begins in the late nineteenth century, in the context of the interest that great European powers of the time expressed towards this region. With the British gaining control over the northern parts of Somalia and forming “the British Somaliland” and with Italy obtaining commercial advantages in the area and undertaking the southern part in almost the same time, a division in the Somali’s culture obviously derived. Moreover, a third European state managed to get the extreme north area of the territory, further known as the French Somali coast and which consists in the current state of Djibouti.
It is to be remarked the fact that Somalia’s shorts moments of unification came as Muslims and not as Somalis. It was only in the 1960 when nationalism led to proclaiming the British Somaliland as being independent, on June the 26th. A few days later, simultaneous with Italian’s colony gaining independence, the two unified into the formation of the Somali Republic, a union which is mostly the result of the northern nationalism, as the south is recorded as to not being particularly interested in this unification. The president, the prime-minister, the capital, the currency and the flag were all conditions imposed by the southern part in order to accept the formation of Somali Republic. And yet, even though the convention was accepted, practice admits the fact that the two parts continued to function separately after the theoretical union.
This inconsistency has lead to a chaotic further period. In the context of the general population’s dissatisfaction regarding lack of development, poor quality of life and corruption, Major General Mohamed Siad Barre imposes a regime based on violence, political and military rules. Said Barre’s reign over Somalia would host a ten-year Civil World and would hardly come to an end in 1991, leaving behind a territory characterized by economical, social and political crisis.
Unfortunately, this state of generalized crisis is still present in today’s Somalia and becomes more and more difficult to cope with. For the purpose of trying to achieve an explanation and maybe, to find possible answers for this situation, it is necessarily to deeply search into this state’s characteristics. One will further discuss three major features, each of them corresponding to the three defining areas of a state: politics, economy and social.
Let us take politics for the start. To begin with, Somalia does not have a central Government, which allows the north and the south to continue to function separately. At the end of the Cold War, “the new world order” facilitated the appearance of supranational and sub-national entities which would interfere with the internal, already weak and transitory governments. The support of outside forces like Ethiopia, Dijbouti, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya for different actions inside Somalia have lead to political instability, weakened internal institutions and furthermore, have driven the state towards collapse.
What makes the case of Somalia so interesting is the fact that, in spite of the absence of a government, the Somalis people manages to withstand, not as a state, but as fragmental organization. They have found ways of living by forming combinations of subs-state entities which would respond to their needs and which are independent from state’s institutions, as they can provide no real sustain. In other words, the lack of the government has been filled with small and various organizations that have undertaken the functions of a central authority in the territory.
The situation presents a few significant differences between regions from north and south. In the northern region of Somaliland, a certain type of stability managed to be imposed, providing even the possibility of a first district council and multi-party presidential elections. The authority of the Government remains weak and the state is not internationally recognized, but even though Somaliland is able to sustain a poor system of public finances for education and health, to exercise control of public goods and to manage public utilities such as electricity or water. In comparison to the situation in north, these are small, but significant progresses and a major improvement of the quality of life.
This difference among the two sides of the territory leads us to the economical features that characterize Somalia as a whole. Sociologists agree that, beyond political crisis and anarchy, the lack of a central authority best reflects in the economy. As detailed above, even the presence of a weak form of central authority managed to lead to changes for the Somalis living in the auto-proclaimed Somaliland.
In the southern region, the absence of a governmental administration has lead to the appearance of a group of elites which would drive the state towards massive privatization. For services of education and health (which are most urgent for a population) the average Somali individual does not have either the option of a public finance or the one of an international aid mean, as they are also limited. The state remains poor and economically marginalized and it is lacked by international protection and security. In 1993, the UN retires from the zone, as a result of violent actions and the huge failure of foreign interventions in the area.
If anyone wonders about the opinion of the large masses of population about not having a government, the answer is that, in fact, the general assumption is that it would bring an improvement in people’s lives and therefore, one stands for the existence of a central power that would bring stability in the society. This idea is also strengthen by the example of the inhabitants from the northern region. Yet, the idea is not completely tolerated. There are, of course, groups which benefit from the current context, like the elite groups that one would furthermore refer to when analyzing social stratification.
Along with the political context of Somalia, which is the principal factor of the economical failure of the country, another significant reason consists in Somalia’s vulnerability and lack of defense in front of the world’s biggest states which transformed it, at the beginning of the 1990s in a sort of testing ground for all the issues they confronted with.
For example, one knows the fact that a significant amount of the local economy before the 1990 stood in natives’ activity of fishing, as both the Aden Gulf and the Indian Ocean are known as being rich in piscicultural resources. After becoming independent in 1991, but with the given political context, this activity was abusively stopped because of the toxic waste products that were being thrown in the area by different states and because there was no governmental law to protect this.
Practically, there are no principles that rule Somalis’ economy and there is no economy in the sense one usually attributes to the word. The levers of free market are being replaced with kinship and violence as regulatory principles. Furthermore, Somalia’s inexistence as a real state with a central power and with institutions that would represent it makes the option of an international loan impossible for this region.
In fact, international aid had to adapt to Somalia’s special situation, either by reducing the amounts of provisions and resources donated or, a solution which comes in Somalis’ advantage, to offer help of any kind through nongovernmental institutions and organizations. Whereas the reduction of aids is practiced regarding Africa since the 1980s, shifting from government to NGOs is the modern and most recent response that developed countries have found and which goes round the laws that promote market as being superior to the state.
Similar to a domino game, where politics hits economy, this, in its turn, has a strong impact on society issues. First of all, the appearance of a small, but resourceful economic and social group leads to a social stratification among Somalis classes of population: on the top is situated the group of elites, which holds the economical power and therefore, the authority over the average individuals.
The population situated at the bottom of the stratification pyramid is represented by the large masses of Somalis people who find themselves almost at the extreme line of living. Agriculture is approximated to provide livelihood for a percentage of about 80% of the population. Stratification in Somalia is accentuated by extremely opposed groups and gives a new perspective on what richness and poverty means and as one can see, the percentage of the bottom class is approximately four times higher than the elite situated on top. The widely spread humoristic sallies regarding the Somalis people unfortunately arise from a dramatic truth: parts of the region are doomed to living on the edge of hunger and despair.
Furthermore, the impossibility of benefiting from a proper health system consequently leads to the appearance of numerous diseases in the area. Dying is a common word in citizen’s everyday life. Similarly, the non-existence of public funds for education has lead, during the past recent time, to an increased rate of illiteracy.
Another significant and urgent effect that one must mention is the one that refers to individual’s security. Without a well defined law system, Somalia has become an easy target and a preferred region for crimes of any kind, like the traffic of drugs, robberies, murders, violent protest movements or others of the kind.
How does the sociological perspective change the view over a country like this? What the concept refers to is not a different point-of-view on the above presented facts, as they come from a documented history and from a reality one can neither change, nor ignore.
The sociological perspective has the benefit of analyzing issues from a more profound and meaningful sight. The common sense tells us that Somalia is a region inhabited by African people and dominated by poverty, misery, illness and criminality, with no perspective of significant improvements by her own resources in the following future. The sociological sight refers to these as the results of a history of fragmentation and political and social turbulences which made Somalia the instable and vulnerable society we know today.
Whether this is going to help this region or it is only going to serve as a negative model for other states is a fact no one can say, at least for the moment. In a modern and changing world, the response should be in favor of Somalia. The super-state and trans-state organizations usually have on their working agenda issues that refer to the concept of “third world countries” and their rich financial and human resources provide them with the instrument of supplying their ads and degree of implication.
However, until further improvements, statistics say that Somalia is rated as being one of the least developed countries in the world, placed as 161 out of 163 assessed countries. As a comparison, the situation of Somalia in 1990, in the times of Barre’s fall, was ranked as 123 out of 130 countries.
Mubarak, Jamil Abdalla (1996). From Bad Policy to Chaos in Somalia: How an Economy Fell Apart. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Abdullahi, Mohamed Diriye (2001). Culture and Customs of Somalia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press
Feldman, Stacy, Slattery, Brian (2003). Living without a Government in Somalia: An Interview with Mark Bradbury: Development Processes in Somalia Exist Not as a Result of Official Development Assistance, but in Spite of it. Journal of International Affairs, 57 (1), pag 1.
U.S Department of State- Bureau of African Affairs (2011). Background Note: Somalia [January 3, 2011]. Retrieved from http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2863.htm
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