Jul 24, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Puntland’s Democratic Transition: The Legacy of Clan Politics

Puntland, an autonomous state situated directly on the Horn of Africa in northeast Somalia, today finds itself in a unique position. Less than three weeks ago, Puntland President Abdirahman Mohamed Farole signed into law a political party act that formally, and finally, established the system envisioned by Puntland’s 3-year old constitution — multi-party, electoral democracy. The law was the first step in a series that will culminate in elections next year. First, for district councils within Puntland’s eight regions. Then, for state-wide parliament. These polls will be the first of their kind in nearly 50 years.

Taking after its neighbor to the west, Somaliland — which instituted a similar multi-party system years ago and has since held two relatively successful elections in 2005 and 2010 — Puntland appears poised to outpace the internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu on the path toward democratic reform.

At least, on paper. While Puntlanders are excited about the opportunities presented by this historic transition, the new political system is being dropped into a society with no memory of electoral participation, dramatic disparities in wealth (often between those with experience living abroad, and those without), a non-industrialized, largely pastoral economy, and most importantly, deeply set and respected traditions of clan politics. These clan lineages extend back for hundreds of years. Traditional leaders, empowered by clan communities to negotiate on their behalf and reconcile inter-clan disputes, act to preserve the security and welfare of their particular lineage. Although Puntlanders all belong to the same meso-level clan, the Harti, the network divides into a seemingly endless number of sub-clans that may be as big or as small as an individual’s personal sense of identity. Some align with large communities. Others, perhaps, only with a few families. For many, the terrible security situation throughout Somalia since the late 1980s has only made clan loyalty more paramount, since the primary responsibility of any traditional leader is first and foremost to provide for the physical security of the clan community.

Fortunately, Puntland has been spared much of the worst violence seen throughout parts of South-Central Somalia. But the relative stability in the northeast corner of the country has in no way diminished clan influence. Since the establishment of Puntland State in 1998, traditional leaders have played a large role — perhaps even the primary role — in appointing members of parliament. Those undemocratically selected members, 66 in all, then choose a president to lead the executive branch, who fills out his cabinet only with parliamentary approval. All of this power derives from one source: traditional leaders. Although these men likely solicit some input from their home communities as well, per the longheld Somali culture of consultation.

Apart from their primary purpose of security and welfare, all clans value prestige, which can be accrued through a number of sources: political representation, economic success, and even sheer population. All of these factors make identity a powerful determinant of political choices and government behavior, particularly in a society where half of the population lives on less than $1 a day and generally fills their basic needs through informal networks cultivated through these basic identities.

But the consequences of clan and identity politics extend beyond immediate resource distribution and government disposition. In the course of securing and expanding the welfare of their communities, traditional leaders participate in judicial tracks that run parallel to, and often supersede, the state. These may include relatively benign cases of reconciliation, where a minor crime by a member of one clan against another is expunged and forgiven as part of a compensatory agreement by both clan leaders. However, they may also — and often do — include more questionable forms of dispute resolution. Gender-based violence, for example, often goes unpunished because traditional leaders assign a monetary value to the crime and give that sum to the victim’s family, with the family’s clan claiming a healthy commission as well. And even if a rape victim chooses to pursue criminal action through the government, once her family or clan has settled the dispute informally, the state will drop the case and release the alleged perpetrator.

All of this has a rather perverse effect on the administration of true justice. Clans prioritize stability and security over other considerations, and these choices can manifest in, among other things, a distorted political and judicial system. Of course, Puntland’s constitution and political party law have laid out a new framework for political participation and democratic governance, which many hope will set a new course away from clan influence and toward issue-based politics. Yet the important question, it seems, is not whether the system institutes elections, universal suffrage, and reconfigured government processes — but rather, how will previously entrenched interests and traditional actors respond to the new rules, and how does the system’s design propose to mitigate a few foreseeable scenarios: monopolization of power by larger clans, subjugation of smaller clans, electoral violence and manipulation, boycotts and a lack of investment in the new system, and the use of elected office and state resources to serve provincial rather than national interests.

I’ll try to address some of these issues in an upcoming post. The Transitional Electoral Commission has submitted prospective electoral laws to parliament, and a final version should be passed and submitted to the president for his signature in the next couple weeks. Once the system is signed into law, political associations will be allowed to begin the registration process for a place on the 2013 ballot. The design of these initial laws will inevitably influence the shape and character of Puntland politics for quite some time. Stay tuned…



  • This is a great post, Josh. I preface my comments with that remark because I am going to push you a bit on it. You use the phrase “true justice” in your post. I am not sure what true justice is, but my sense is that you mean it in the context of a modern, western, democratic, sovereign state. Now while I might favor this form of government over all others I have seen, calling it a system that delivers true justice is not only a bit over the top, but also a bit biased and myopic. There is an implicit bias that Puntland should follow the Western model because that is the best system. It may or it may not be best for the people of Puntland at this time and they are going to have to figure it out for themselves. In particular, outsiders will not be able to impose a modern, western, democratic sovereign state on the people of Puntland against their interests.

  • Yikes! The comments regarding women’s (human) rights makes me ill. It’s good that the crimes of rape and GBV are addressed (as you know in some places they aren’t even considered crimes) but the fact that the perpetrators aren’t sent away from the victims, and the possibility that they still may be in roaming in close knit communities makes me uneasy. I’d love to read another post about the judicial system in Puntland.

  • I agree, Barak, and probably would have done well to word that phrase differently. While I personally feel that this traditional system at times doesn’t deliver a sense of justice for individual victims, the system itself was constructed for very different reasons than systems in the west, and delivers very different results to those ends. The clan culture emphasizes collective security and collective responsibility. A crime committed against an individual is also considered a crime against that individual’s clan, and the negotiations and compensation therefore get raised far above the individual to ensure inter-clan stability.

    The politics of the transition aside — which I also agree will be difficult considering the tension between western-style liberalism and traditional forms of clan politics and identity — my biggest concern with traditional, clan justice is that it can leave victims vulnerable to future attacks or exploitation. If a perpetrator goes unpunished for a crime, he or she returns to live in society among the alleged victims. While clan culture would claim that the sometimes heavy price for a crime itself serves as a deterrent — since clan leaders may internally punish or rebuke a member of their own for causing the larger clan to pay a steep penalty — the lack of a transparent process to try and punish an individual for his or her crime may prevent future victims from reporting crimes at all, particularly if they see no benefit in doing so or fear retribution from the perpetrator or his family.

    It is perfectly understandable to me why this traditional system evolved and has endured for so long, in a historically nomadic society with weak or non-existence formal systems of governance. The constitution aims to somehow incorporate traditional methods of dispute resolution into the state judicial process, though it’s unclear exactly how that might play out. Perhaps the new government, once elected, will negotiate some sort of pact with traditional leaders to assign specific areas of judicial coverage. Though more to your point, the clans might not sign onto such a system if they believe it will undermine their own community’s security or leverage. Perhaps much depends on the nature of clan representation in the first elected government, and how the political party coalitions are organized.

  • […] provisions serve their intended purpose? Time will tell, but the toughest of the three concerns, not surprisingly, will likely be clan and traditional sources of influence. Despite 500-member rule, two other […]

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