Menaced by a gang of fellow Somalis on a London bus, Adam Mataan took a stand against the tribalism he fled in his homeland, and emerged stronger for confronting what he and like-minded Somalis see as deadly clan divisions.
The former refugee now wants millions of compatriots to do the same.
Clans form the bedrock of Somali society and identity, but political exploitation of their rivalries has blocked every attempt at peace since Somalia collapsed into war in 1991, Reuters reports.
Mataan is one of a growing community of young Somalis that refuses to believe the country is condemned to clan-based political factionalism and has launched a hearts-and-minds campaign to do something about it.
Their Anti-Tribalism Movement (ATM), which claims 53,000 followers, aims to eliminate the “spitefulness, discrimination and negativity” he says sectarianism breeds in Somali behaviour.
The trans-national advocacy group is based in the diaspora but says most members are inside Somalia. It is not the only organisation calling for an inclusive, nationalist vision — other examples are political parties Hiil Qaran and the Somali National Party — but its explicitly anti-tribal stance, twinned with its emphasis on youth, is rare.
“The older generation doesn’t agree with what we are doing. They say tribalism is our heritage, our DNA, our blueprint. But they’re wrong. We need whoever is most capable,” said Mataan.
Saying it is not against clans but their manipulation for politics, the non-profit group uses conferences, seminars and online forums to try to persuade millions to elevate loyalty to Somalia above clan.
Poems on its website http//theatm.org decry tribal hatred. One, by Ayan Ali, reads: “This thing we call qabyaalad (tribalism) is nothing but a disease, a disease that has made us cripples, this cripple that has left us with no land, no nation and no real people.”
A more concrete programme of action may come later.
“READY FOR VIOLENCE”
Mataan says his convictions about the menace of clannism were hardened by the confrontation on the almost empty double-decker bus as it rumbled from the western districts of Hounslow to Ealing in Britain’s capital in 2008.
Cornered by youths at the back of the top deck, Mataan, now 24, refused a demand to know his clan affiliation.
He braced for an ugly reaction.
“I was ready for violence, for stupidity,” he said, recalling how he gave them a mini-lecture on how clan rivalries were ruining their ancestral land.
“Shame on you,” he recalls telling the youths, who had noticed his Somali appearance and, as he was a stranger, demanded to know whether he was of the “right” tribe — theirs.
In the event, there was no bloodshed. But as they trudged away, the youths said the next time he came to their area he would have to pay a “tax” or “bring your tribal boys” to fight it out.
For Mataan, who fled his home region of Las Anod when he was 13 in part because animosity to his clan made it hard to travel and find work, the incident made him aware that clannism knows no geographical boundaries; a winner-takes-all view of clan competition was alive and well among diaspora Somali youths.
ATM is not overtly political but implicitly seeks to transform the clan-based landscape of Somali affairs. Its work is a challenge to al Shabaab, an al Qaeda-aligned militant group whose name means “youth” in Arabic. Al Shabaab publicly condemns tribalism but critics accuse it of playing clan power politics.
IT WOULD BE NICE TO FORGET
Clans have deep social roots. Most Somalis can recite their genealogy going back several generations.
Yusuf Jama Warsame, a British Somali who fled his home in Mogadishu at the age of four, is one.
At a debate between supporters and critics of ATM at the movement’s spartan offices in the Acton district of west London, Warsame said he thought ATM’s aim was laudable but unrealistic.
“I believe my tribe is there to lead the country,” the 24-year-old personal gym trainer said matter-of-factly.
Gathered around a table in a converted shop surrounded by apartment blocks, participants agreed the older generation had played a big role in perpetuating tribalism.
“It’s our roots. It’s something in our blood,” said Dheg Aideed, a 30-year-old community development worker. “The kids in London, who were born here, know where they are from. It starts with the parents. It’s the way of our life.”
“I’m not saying ATM is bad. It would be really nice if we can forget. But I don’t think it is going to work.”
Somalis say clan solidarity is a survival mechanism in an era of state collapse – your kith and kin will protect you if the government cannot – and must be passed down.
It is also an antidote, many argue, to extremism. Counter-terrorism experts say that al Shabaab tends to have difficulty recruiting from diaspora Somalis who put clan identity ahead of militant extremist ideology.
So powerful is the clan’s hold that foreigners – be they international aid groups, peacekeepers, diplomats or trans-national militants — find their best efforts confounded by the primacy of clan interests in individuals’ behaviour.
Over the past 20 years some peace efforts by the outside world have sought to reflect the importance of clan, for example stipulating government posts along clan lines. But critics say such policies risk entrenching tribal rifts.
“Leave it, it is rotten tribalism,” al Qaeda operative Omar Taj al Bin abd Allah “Abu Belal” reported to his superiors on the state of Somalia’s militant movement in about 1992, according to al Qaeda documents captured by the U.S. military.
“Each member of the movement is fanatically attached to his tribe.”
The warlords who dominated Somali’s political scene until five years ago were adept at exploiting clan loyalties.
In a 2005 interview with Reuters, warlord Osman Ali Atto explained that he could exploit clan solidarity to beef up the number of gunmen at his command at a moment’s notice.
“It can be 500 today, or 5,000 tomorrow if things get out of hand.”
Poverty plays a big role in tribalism’s enduring grip on politics.
Abdul Mohamed, a local government politician of Somali ancestry in the inner-London borough of Southwark, told Reuters clan offered kinsmen a social net “when you haven’t got much. That’s the reason why tribalism is so vital for communities.”
“When you go to a really poor and harsh country like Somalia, the tribal identity is critical, whatever you say.”
ATM’s approach deserved support, prominent Somalis said.
“If we tried to replicate that and get it to soak into the subconscious, well, it would be fantastic work. Funders should be funding this,” Abdul Mohamed said.
Afyare A. Elmi, Assistant Professor, International Affairs Department at Qatar University, said whether the approach would succeed was “another question.”
“I think of the ATM positively since its members are largely young and idealist trying to change their country for the better,” he told Reuters. “I encourage inclusive Somali groups that have organized themselves. This much better than the warlordism and tribalism approaches.”
ATM would have to set out specific goals to survive, however, influential U.S.-based Somalia academic Abdi Ismail Samatar said.
“I am very proud of these young men and women for taking on the challenge,” he told Reuters.