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  • Understanding the Somali Conflagration: Identity, Political Islam and Peacebuilding
  • Anna Simons (bio)
Understanding the Somali Conflagration: Identity, Political Islam and Peacebuilding, by Afyare Abdi Elmi London: Pluto Press, 2010; pp. 224. $35.00 paper.

Afyare Abdi Elmi is to be commended. He pulls no punches in Understanding the Somali Conflagration: Identity, Political Islam and Peacebuilding. Even better, he gives us a book that is easy to read and helps make sense of the recent past, as well as some of the present. I write "some of the present" because the manuscript clearly went to the publisher before the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) was fully underway and before the recent drought devolved into yet another famine. Unfortunately, piracy receives less attention in this account than readers might expect, but that may only further reflect the challenges that inhere in writing books (rather than blogs) about contemporary events.

A second reason for my cautionary note—that this book can only help make sense of the Somali situation—is that, as with all things Somali, one point of view will not suffice, and Elmi has a particular point of view. That being said, his point of view is well worth paying attention to. He convincingly condemns Ethiopia's meddling in Somalia, is highly critical of the United States, favors peace building that includes Islamists, and is much more realistic than many about the tensions that inhere in nation- or state-building when clans and Islam both continue to hold sway—which, as he points out, they do, both in Somalia and beyond Somalia in the diaspora.

Elmi builds on others' work to offer a compelling definition of peace: "peace is understood as the presence of skills and processes for dealing with conflicts non-violently" (12). In other words, he does not assume away rivalries, factionalization, or the fighting that is always bound to occur over the levers of power, or over vital assets like ports, airports, [End Page 131] import-export licenses, and the like. As he points out, in the Somali instance, clan affiliations have long been instrumentalized; indeed, thanks to clans and to decades' worth of clan-based conflict, factions come to politicians and/or warlords virtually ready-made.

Meanwhile, only three "institutions" can effectively cross-cut clans and thereby appeal to all Somalis: elders, provided they use heer (traditional methods of arbitration) to settle disputes; Islam; and the nation. None, of course, are institutions per se. But neither are they mutually exclusive.

The weakest of these three identities is clearly Somali national identity. No robust sense of nationalism exists. Presumably, if such a thing had been developed, Somalia would not have dissolved into so many competing pieces and parts. Governance stopped being good back in the 1970s, and it took a real turn for the worse, according to Elmi, when President Siad Barre demonized members of the Majertein clan in the wake of Somalia's defeat by Ethiopia in the Ogaden War. Clan-based militias, and not just clan politics, have riven Somalia ever since.

Consequently, anyone who thinks it possible to reconstruct a Somali state by appealing to Somali national identity is chewing more than just qat, while building a functional Somali state that can infuse a sense of nationalism will not work either, without first reaching enforceable agreements about power-sharing, which means determining who gets to discuss who gets to share power, which in turn depends on who is invited to the talks, which itself depends on who is holding them and why. Or to put it differently: examine who has been invited to peace talks in the past along with who has been left out. This generally explains who becomes a spoiler—and why peace never holds.

Elmi finds it particularly egregious that no one ever invites all the players to the table and that discussions are never left up to Somalis alone, though he also acknowledges that if outsiders were not involved, peace talks might not be held at all—which presents just one of the conundrums this slim book elucidates.

External actors loom large in Elmi's account, as well they should. As Elmi makes clear, Somalia's two most...


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pp. 131-135
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