The UN and Somalia's Invisible Minorities


Somalia is a nation without minorities - at least that is the prevailing wisdom. The prominent Somali professor and advocate of U.S. intervention in Somalia, Said Samatar, commissioned to write about the subject, began:

It should be said at the outset that Somalia does not have racial/ethnic and religious minorities to speak of with the exception of clusters of Bantu communities who are not seriously involved in the present cataclysm. Somalia is essentially a homogenous nation of constituent, segmented clans in which political forces are carefully balanced to share power in normal times.

In fact, there are significant minorities in the country which have systematically been excluded from power since Independence in 1960. These minorities may not have played a major role as fighters, but they have suffered more grievously than any other group from the famine and turmoil of the recent years. The apocalyptic television images of Somalia of 1992 were in fact pictures of the plight of the minorities - the starving children were chiefly members of the Rahanweyn minority, the destroyed historic centre of Mogadishu was a Hamari neighborhood, another minority. The U.S.-UN military occupation of southern Somalia (including the areas where almost all of the minorities live) was a unique opportunity to provide some protection for these people. Unfortunately, the benefits have been meagre.


The Somali majority belong to the four principal clan families: Darod, Dir, Hawiye and Isaak, tracing their descent from a common ancestor, Samaale. They share a religion and language, a tradition of pastoral nomadism, social organization based upon segmentary lineage, and a common set of political institutions. Politicians from these clan families - and notably from the Darod clans of Majerteen and Marehan - have dominated political office since Somalia achieved independence in 1960.

Somalia's minorities fall into three main groups. The largest are the members of the Rahanweyn-Digil clan family, a cluster of agro-pastoral peoples who live along Somalia's two rivers, the Jubba and Shebelle, and in the region between. They trace their descent back to a mythical founding ancestor, Sab, who is said to be related to Samale. Their language, generally known as Af-Maay, is not mutually intelligible with standard Somali - the difference has been compared to that between Spanish and Italian.

A separate subgroup of the Sab are a caste of artisans - chiefly potters, leatherworkers, blacksmiths and hairdressers - in the north of the country. Divided into three subgroups, Midgan, Tumal and Yibir, these Sab have traditionally been bondsmen of their Isaak and Darod neighbors. Although the status of clientship was formally abolished after independence, the stigma still remains.

A second minority category includes the diverse group of farmers who are not ethnic Somalis, living in much the same areas as the Rahanweyn and Digil. They include remnants of indigenous peoples, some of them originally speakers of the Cushitic languages (such as the Shebelle and Gabaweyn) and some Bantu. These peoples are mostly culturally assimilated to the Rahanweyn. The other groups are descendants of former slaves who established enclaves in the 19th century, chiefly in the Lower Shebelle and Lower Jubba valleys. Originally having retreated to the tsetse-infested woodlands on the riverbanks where no pastoralists ventured, they are often collectively known as WaGosha, "forest people". Many of these communities retain Bantu languages.

Two subgroups of the Bantu minority deserve special mention. One is the Bajun fishing people of the southern coast, an indigenous minority, and the second is the former slave communities on the northeastern coast.

The third main minority group is the people of the coastal cities, primarily the old centre of Mogadishu (Hamar and Shangaani), Merca and Baraawe. This is an unusual, cosmopolitan minority. These cities are ancient trading centers, part of the distinct Islamic Indian ocean trading culture, with ties to Yemen, Muscat, Mombasa, Zanzibar and further afield. The communities are multilingual in Somali, Arabic and a distinct dialect of Swahili. Highly literate members of the Hamar, Shangaani and Baraawe groups achieved prominence as traders, judges and administrators under both colonial and independent governments.

Each minority has its own story of marginalization and abuse, both under successive governments and during the civil war. The people of the coastal cities, relatively privileged before 1990, have since suffered some of the most horrendous abuses of rights, including widespread rape and the systematic looting of their neighborhoods. This article will focus on just one minority, the Gabaweyn people of the Gedo region in the upper Jubba valley, whose story illustrates many of the elements of abuse against minorities, and the missed opportunity to redeem their situation.

The Gabaweyn (Gabwing in their native Af-Maay language) are an indigenous people, originally speakers of Cushitic languages, numbering perhaps 30,000. They are farmers who have lived on the banks of the Jubba river during recorded history. Before the colonial occupation of the area, their political masters were the Rahanweyn-dominated sultanate at Baardheere and the trading centre at Luuq, and the Marehan nomads of the western hinterland. Culturally, economically and politically, the Gabeweyn have assimilated to their eastern Rahanweyn neighbours.

The Gabaweyn were historically disadvantaged in their access to political power, at all levels. Very few acquired an education or served in local government, none obtained an office in the national government. Their defense was invisibility; rather than organizing to form political parties, cooperatives or other institutions to try to capture the benefits of the state, they preferred political quietism, hoping that powerful political forces would leave them undisturbed.

The Gedo region was an economic and political back water until 1969, when General Mohamed Siad Barre seized power. Barre was a Marehan from Gedo, and his fellow Marehan came to dominate the machinery of government.

Unfortunately for the Gabaweyn, their source of sustenance - their land - was also the source of their vulnerability. In a semi-arid country, irrigable land is scarce. In the colonial period, plantations had been carved out by dispossessing indigenous farmers in the lower reaches of the Jubba and Shebelle valleys; in the 1950's and '60's this process continued with Somali entrepreneurs buying or seizing prime farmland. Wealthy and well-connected men would decide on the piece of land they wanted, and try to cajole or coerce the local farmers into selling cheaply. Unable to obtain credit to buy water pumps or other inputs to improve their land, an ignorant of its real value, many smallholders sold up. Those who resisted ran the risk of imprisonment or beating by the police until they submitted.

Under "scientific socialism" in the 1970's, the government set up several huge schemes - mainly state farms and projects - to resettle drought-stricken nomads and refugees. The land was taken from indigenous farmers, and compensation was rarely if ever paid.

Remote Gedo was unaffected by land grabbing until the 1980's, but then the Gabaweyn suffered with a vengeance. Sometimes using the provisions of the nominally-progressive 1975 land reform law, but often circumventing them by payment of bribes, army officers, politicians and businessmen became huge landowners. Reflecting their domination of the government, most were Darod; in Gedo, all were Marehan, Arm-twisting, threats and forcible confiscation were all used. Thousands of farmers saw their parents' and grandparents' land seized from under their feet, sometimes with standing crops, as bulldozers and gunmen moved in.

The new landowners had Ministry of Agriculture land registration documents to prove their ownership. Small farmers could not afford the bribes necessary to register their land, or did not understand the process.

The land-grab was dressed up in progressive language. "The right of every Somali to live where he likes" is code for the right of the elite to acquire and own land in areas historically occupied by the minorities. "Cooperative farm" is code for a big farm acquired according to the cooperatives act, which enables the acquisition of unlimited amounts of land outside the normal registration process.

Some farms were used for plantations (chiefly for export crops such as bananas and sugar cane). Other land was bought simply as an investment or for speculation, and left idle. Landowning also brought social prestige; wealthy Mogadishu families would take their friends for weekend picnics under the shade of the mango trees in otherwise unused farms. In Gedo, one reason for land grabbing was that the area was due to be innundated when a huge dam was build at Baardheere: those with registration documents would pick up the compensation, and also the right to new land title in a prime irrigable area further downstream.

The new landowners often regarded the local people as an outgrowth of the land - part of the asset they had acquired. Indigenous farmers were reduced to smaller and smaller plots, or to the status of wage labourers.

By the time civil war broke out in 1989-1990, the Gabaweyn were already reduced to the brink of famine.

The flight of Siad Barre from Mogadishu in January 1991 brought hopes of a new, democratic Somalia. General Mohamed Farah Aidid, at the head of the United Somali Congress (USC) promised "liberation" from the former rulers. Many minority peoples took his side and took up arms against their Darod masters and landowners. Briefly, they secured a triumph: Darod forces were defeated in April 1991 and then, more comprehensively in April-May 1992. In the second round of fighting, a number of Gabaweyn men allied with the USC against the Marehan.

The "liberation" was to prove illusory. First, the spoils of conquest were taken by the USC. Aidid's followers seized the plantations, businesses, tractors, and anything else of value, and behaved with even greater cruelty towards the local people than their predecessors. There are well-documented instances of self-styled "liberators" shooting on sight any starving people who attempted to help themselves to mangoes or maize cobs from "their" plantations. The USC militia extorted or looted food from aid convoys destined for the local peoples.

Secondly, the USC abandoned the minorities when the military tide turned. Darod forces recaptured many areas and took vengeance on the minorities that had supported their enemies. Poorly armed and ill-organized, the minorities were easy prey.

By the end of 1992, the Gabaweyn lands were almost completely deserted; the people had all fled under the onslaught of famine, the caprice of the "liberators" and the revenge of the Marehan. They lived in refugee camps in Kenya, Ethiopia and elsewhere in Somalia.

Very little international aid has reached the Gabaweyn. Their strategy of invisibility, and their flight, meant that the administration of Gedo region has been exclusively in the hands of Marehan. Controlling the flow of information to international agencies, Marehan aid workers and administrators have ensured that they have monopolized aid to the region - and have in turn used this to facilitate the final stage of their land grab. Deserted Gabaweyn villages have been taken over by Marehan, who now request assistance to "re-establish" cooperative farms there. With no accurate land register, their claims pass unchallenged. The Gabaweyn, if they return, will find little land left for them. Unsurprisingly, some are opting to settle in Kenya - an option similar to that followed by several thousand Bantu refugees from lower down the valley, who have requested resettlement in Tanzania, believing that it is the country of their ancestors.

Elsewhere, minorities have usually received more assistance, but any benefits this may have brought have been undermined by the political strategy followed by UNOSOM (the United Nations Operation in Somalia), which was to forge an alliance with some of the former elites who held power before 1991.

These elites hid their ambitions in progressive phrases. For example, "return of the land to its legitimate owners" means dispossessing Aidid's "liberators" and handing back farms to the former owners - not to the indigenous farmers. Another example of self-interest dressed up in progressive language in this context is: "Settling the issue of land ownership in a legal and democratic way". De-coded, this means leaving the issue until a central government has been re-established. But if the land issue is neglected in the current political process, then the government will be dominated exactly by those with a vested interest in ensuring that the landowners regain their land.

UNOSOM's most acclaimed success, the Jubbaland Peace Agreement of August 1993, dramatically illustrates this problem. The conference started with the agenda of settling a dispute between different Darod clans over the port city of Kismayo. The conference participants were the elders of the contending clans - who shared common economic interests as businessmen and big landowners. In the course of their deliberations they expanded their mandate to cover the whole of the Jubba valley, an area that includes numerous minority peoples, such as the Gabaweyn. None of the minorities were represented at the conference - a decision defended by UNOSOM on the grounds that it would complicate and delay the proceedings. The land issue was scarcely mentioned, all delegates agreeing on return of land to "legitimate" owners.

Ironically, the one political organization to give the Gabaweyn some cause for hope is the Islamic Unity Association, a "fundamentalist" group that controls Luuq and its environs. Formerly, the Association controlled the port town of Merca, where the coastal peoples welcomed them as a disciplined, multi-clan organization. But hostility from the U.S. and UNOSOM forced the Association to move to Luuq and the nearby town of Bulo Hawa. In Bulo Hawa, UNOSOM snubbed the Association by setting up a rival administration exclusively of Marehan, headed by the former District Commissioner under Siad Barre. In Luuq, UNOSOM has simply refused to recognize the administration, despite its local successes in establishing law and order, encouraging the return of refugees, and treating all peoples equally. Only around Luuq are the Gabaweyn able to return to their villages, and resume cultivation. But it remains to be seen if this will last.

Representatives of Somalia's minorities were the most enthusiastic supporters of Operation Restore Hope, anticipating that it would end their domination by more powerful factions, particularly Aidid's militias. But both the U.S. and UNOSOM lacked any policy towards the minorities other than a vague recognition that they had the greatest need for protection. This concern rapidly evaporated in the face of the political and military priorities of confronting General Aidid, patching up a deal between the most prominent Somali politicians, and leaving with minimum casualties. The minorities' hopes for lasting protection have been betrayed; their future looks no brighter than the past.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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