by Bryce Bigwood

What is the state of the State in beautiful Mogadishu, aka “Mog”, past (and future?) capitol of Somalia? This essay is based on surfing English language web pages. I have never been to Somalia or spoken to a native Somali about any of this. If any readers have information or analysis that contradicts any of this, please correct me.

Ethnicity and Language

The Somalis are by far the largest ethnic group in Somalia (map), about 6 million out of 7 million. The Somali language has different dialects, with different degrees of mutual intelligibility. In Mogadishu the dialect is “Af-Ashraaf”, which is somewhat different than Standard Somali. There are about 2 or 3 million ethnic Somalis in Ethiopia along the border, and less than a million each in Djibouti and Kenya. Reports of the degree of bilingualism in Arabic are contradictory, but it would seem that knowledge of Arabic can get you around in Mogadishu, but those speaking only English or Italian will have to get a local interpreter. The population of Mogadishu is variously reported as between 500,000 and a million, or even 2 million. The major minority groups there would appear to be Benadiri (lighter-skinned descendents of Arab and Persian traders and land-owners) and Swahili-speaking Bantus.

Clan Identity and Customary Law

Somalis are divided into a number of clans, and sub-clans, and the relationships between the clans are complex. Some of the clans are minority ethnic groups, and language boundaries can cross clan boundaries. There are larger groupings, “clan confederacies”, about six in Somalia, of which the Hawiye is important for Mogadishu. Different clans can have different status within a confederacy, and presumably different subclans can have different status within a clan. Clans follow a customary law, “Xeer”, which which recognizes private property and compensation for victims of violence. It is adjudicated by clan elders, for both inter- and intra- clan disputes. Anyone who has read about Chechnya during their brief independence circa 1995 and their clans and “adat” (customary law for various groups in the Caucasus) will get a sense of deja-vu. In addition both nations are devastated, war-torn areas, almost uniformly Muslim (Sunni) without being fundamentalist, where foreigners are fair game for kidnapping and ransom. Great entrepreneurial activity in the midst of destruction has been described in both Grozny and Mogadishu. But while identity with a traditional clan is much attenuated in modern Chechen society, it is fundamentally important to a Somali. Some ethnic minorities are outside the clan system, which has serious legal and security ramifications for these individuals.

History of Somalia in 500 words or less

After colonialism, with the British in the north and the Italians in the south (including the city of Mogadishu), there was an eight year democratic government, but the dictator Mohammed Siad Barre assumed power over Somalia in 1969 and declared a socialist state. If you look at a map of Mog you will see the “Via Lenin”. (Here is the only other map of Mog I can find). Siad Barre’s government favored some clans more than others. About 1987 internal opposition became militarized. Until 1974, Barre had been a client of the USSR, but then switched to being a US client, who supported him with military aid. By 1990 Siad Barre controlled only Mog, and in January 1991 was overthrown. The two big opposition leaders were Ali Mahdi Mohammed, leading the Abgaal clan, and General Mohammed Farah Aideed, leading the Habr Gidr. Both the Abgaal and Habr Gidr were (and are) clans in the Hawiye clan confederacy. Even before they booted Barre, they started to fight among themselves. In fact, many clans and sub-clans fought in the early ’90s against each other, in some cases pushing enemy clans out of their historic lands. This was the period where “warlords” of clans arose; it would appear as an innovation to deal with collapsing security, and not previously a part of Xeer or clan structure. In the northwest the government of “Somaliland” formed, and claimed its independence, in the northeast, “Puntland” formed, with the position that it will join up with “Somalia” again if and when it becomes possible. The north still has Xeer, though, and as the south has continued to be ruled by the warlords, there is the view that the north is more stateless than the south. (for more history see here, here, and here, and there is the ABC News Timeline for Somalia, and the UN Timeline for Somalia).

Speaking of States

Every few years since the mid ’90s there have been attempts to form a government out of most or all of the warlords, the latest one being the “Transitional National Government” (TNG), aka the “Transitional National Assembly” (TNA), aka “Arta” (the conference creating the group was held in Arta, Djibouti), aka the “Arta group”. This organization is headed by a former minister of Siad Barre’s, Abdiqassim Salad Hassan, a witty and dedicated politician, and has been funded at least in part by the Saudi government. It currently controls parts of Mogadishu, and is in alliance with or in contention with the various warlords and other political figures of Somalia, who have their own views and agendas.

Warlords and Militia

Prior to the fall of Barre, (this is probably very oversimplified), Mogadishu, in Benadir province, was inhabited (exclusively?) by the clan Mudulood, and the “people of Benadir”, the Reer Xamar. In the fallout of war between Aideed (Habr Gidr) and Ali Mahdi Mohammed (Abgaal), Mogadishu was overrun and divided, creating the “Green Line” (a la Jerusalem), with Ali Mahdi in the north half and Aideed in the south half. (This may cause a bit of confusion because the Abgaal are normally described as a “southern” clan of the Hawiye and the Habr Gidr a “northern” one). This boundary has remained more or less stable since. Today, Ali Mahdi Mohammed is still around. General Mohammed Farah Aideed, the bad guy (his clan may not have seen it that way) in “Black Hawk Down”, died in 1996 and was succeeded by his son, Hussein Aideed, who is (or was?) a US citizen, a former US Marine, and former student at a high school in California. One other important warlord is Osman Hassan Ali, aka “Ali Atto”, who had been a financial backer of General Aideed. The journalist Thor Valdmanis of USA Today has made reference to a fourth unnamed warlord in Mogadishu. Finally, there are the forces of the TNG, with about 18,000 militia. Mogadishu is of course surrounded by other warlords, probably with similar numbers of troops. For example, one warlord recently boasted he could raise up to 50,000 men, and it was reported that at the end, Siad Barre’s army was about 35,000 strong.

The warlords are (or can be) commanders of clan militia, but what this means is not exactly clear. They seem to have to politic a lot with clan elders, but are required to find their own financing, which is often done by monopolizing lucrative businesses such as bananas or charcoal. There is probably some sort of deal where the elders give the warlords a free hand in certain areas in exchange for promises of emergency defense services against other clans. The warlords (other than the TNG) do not attempt to monopolize the use of force, and there are other militia specifically associated with sub-clans, and some militia are controlled by businessmen. Who the “business community” as a whole supports is a never ending, ever changing, story.

Recent shocks

In the vicinity around Mog the economy and security situations improved from the famine period in 1993 until 2000, with civil society re-organizing. Setbacks from weather and external shocks since then have included a livestock epidemic, followed by a ban on imports of Somali animal products in neighboring nations (a bit of good news). Another major drought crisis is now forming to the west of Mogadishu. Because of 9-11, the US government pressured the United Arab Emirates into severing Somalia’s only internet link, and the US shut down the bank al-Barakaat’s financial links, which has crippled the ability of the Somali diaspora to send remittances back home. The recent attempt of the TNG to create consensus around a formation of sovereignty has polarized some of the other players. In addition, the TNG ran into a cash flow problem that has caused more destabilization of the security situation, when they couldn’t pay their own militiamen..

So what is the quality of life like in Mogadishu today?

Some views are relatively positive:

The City of Mogadishu (Banadir Star) 1999

Organisation amid chaos in Somalia (BBC) Thursday, 25 November, 1999

Somalia thriving despite war and neglect (BBC) Friday, 25 August, 2000

Ayn Rand comes to Somalia (Atlantic Monthly) May 2001

Somalia: The land of opportunity (BBC) Thursday, 15 November, 2001

Others are more ambiguous:

Most Somalis ensure personal security by residing in clan “home areas” (Global IDP) November 2000

Somalia: Country Without Rule – No restrictions, no tax and no basic services (Newsday) December 26, 2001

Some are scary:

Somalia: A population stretched to its limits (AFP) December 21, 2001

Some are depressing:

Eight-year-old shoeshine boy shot dead in Mogadishu (AFP) June 17, 2001

The Mysterious Death of Ilaria Alpi (Postcards From Hell) (from early ’90s)

And any search for Mogadishu or Somalia on ReliefWeb will find bad news.

From what I have read on the web, pretty much everybody longs for a “stable” and “transparent” government that will solve the security problem first, and bring choice goodies from the international community second. This is understandable as long as “public goods” are not seen to be available.

But there has been some private development of infrastructure, where it was clear that a profit could be made. But there are areas that have not been exploited. Let’s look at money, courts, title registration and security.


Since 1991 the “Somali shilling” has continued to circulate, with a high inflation rate. Counterfeiting is a major problem , with major influxes of fake notes in April and September of this year. Before September the currencies circulating were reported as:
50% US Dollars
25% Somali Shillings
20% United Arab Emirates Dirhams
5% Saudi Riyals
Gold is certainly available on the market in Mogadishu, but no one has been coining on their own, or issuing a gold-backed currency.

Sharia courts

In the early 1990’s, a court system implementing sharia law was established by the Hawiye clan. There were five court sites under the same administration – these were not competitive between themselves or anyone else, there not being any other courts established, as far as I can tell, even in the business community. The sharia courts had their own militia to apprehend criminals. The courts would not attempt to deal with inter-clan cases, only intra-clan ones, and this was considered a weakness of the courts. They were given some credit for reducing crime. The sharia courts have now been “nationalized” by the TNG, with the cooperation of their chairman, Shaykh Hasan Muhammad, who became a member of the TNG.

Title Registration

If some parts of the economy are so strong, why are there refugees living in hovels? In Rule by the gun in Mogadishu again:

“At one end of Mogadishu society, businesspeople do more than justice to the Somali reputation for commercial acumen. In the most freewheeling market in the world, they buy gold from the Middle East, trade everything from electronics to weapons, and annoy neighboring countries by sending cheaper, duty-free items across the border.

At the other end of the spectrum, thousands of Somalis – displaced by the fighting – crowd into camps across the city. They live in shelters patched together from rubbish, and eke out whatever living they can by doing menial jobs.”

The article also says that jobs are scarce for young men. Other articles contradict one another about the extent of new construction. Why aren’t the young men getting construction jobs? We know that a “Pepsi Plant” was built in a residential area of Mogadishu. Somebody feels secure in his property rights (or do they?).

In an article by Dr. Abdi Ulusso, he says that the Mudulood clan should handle government functions in Mogadishu, according to customary practices, including handling land registration. He then goes on to complain about people getting rich off “speculated land”, cheating on land deals from the Barre days. It would be interesting to get a better sense of where in the city construction is going on, and to understand who is claiming what land and why.


It eats up 30% of profits. “Roofs” in Russia were skimming only 10%-20% in the mid 90’s in St. Petersburg. The population of Mogadishu is terrorized by twice over, first by young, underemployed males with guns and time on their hands and no money in their pockets. This was worse in the early to mid-nineties, with banditti, in a very spontaneous and entrepreneurial way, setting up “checkpoints” on roads and extorting money from passers-by. One truck driver recently said that the new government (TNG) checkpoint was not so bad, it only charged half of what the “business man” checkpoint charged. But a few years ago he had to deal with 50 checkpoints on his route. The business community and/or sharia militia cleaned this up, but random armed robberies and rapes and murders by small groups are still a big threat.

Second, there are militia battles. The story of “Two Battles of the Pepsi Plant” encapsulates the main problems of security institutions in Mogadishu: My take on this article is that costs of battle are externalized onto civilians; militia cannot be sued for collateral damage. There is no separation of rights of a possessor from the rights of an owner, and adjudication is inefficient, because of the number of adjudicators.

Improving the Situation?

Transferable Restitution

The number one thing that needs to be taken care of, and the conventional wisdom here is correct, is the security situation, both in terms of reducing petty and heinous crime and the spontaneous eruptions of rivalrous, battling militia. The easiest and quickest way to do this would be to get transferable rights to restitution implemented. Xeer is halfway to this concept, but the victors at court are expected to collect restitution themselves. It would take two subclans in Mog to make a bilateral agreement to accept that rulings by their clan elders could be sold to third parties. Sections of the business community may be suggestible to this scheme. Minority ethnic Bantus, women, and foreigners may support this after it starts working (those who have low or no status in the clan system). If it works, more and more subclans will be making such deals, and it may become the dominant system.

Evolving the role of clan elders.

I think we need to go all the way “down to the ground”. Xeer on the one hand good because it recognizes property rights, but it is bad because it is so inefficient at adjudication – many clan elders must discuss everything, and it’s really inefficient for inter-clan disputes. We should take a page from American History, where some western pioneers resolved disputes by having side A pick a judge, side B picks a judge, and then the two judges pick a third judge, keeping it simple. To get it started in the context of clan culture, the first judge will be an elder from A’s clan, the second judge, an elder from B’s clan, and they will pick a third, whether elder, imam, foreigner or businessman. Since all three get paid, there will be an incentive for already influential clan elders to put their mark of approval on this, and this will also raise their negotiating power vis-Ã -vis the warlords.

Here is an interesting quote:

“In Mogadishu, everyone knows everyone, especially when cars are involved. I would drive around town with my crew and Osman, my driver, would know who owned every vehicle on the road. He could tell from 100 feet away when an approaching car was possible trouble. The guys I traveled with could eyeball almost anyone in the city and link him via three or four degrees of separation to someone else who could then be identified as friend or foe. In a city where everyone was armed and loyalties were divided along the lines of extended families, survival depended on that kind of information…

It was always my experience that whenever a crime was committed in Mogadishu, if the people in power wanted to find out who did it, all they had to do was spread the word. The criminals generally turned up.”

The right people can be found, if incentives are correct. This would create the stick against crime, that someone will come after criminals. What about a carrot?

Title means property, property means jobs

Part of the security improvements in Mogadishu has been organization of neighborhood groups. These groups could start drawing up their own rolls of property claims, and then start agreeing to recognize each others’ lists, and to the transferability of title. Knowledge of security of title, coupled with actual increased security, would mean more jobs, not least of which would be construction. This would reduce the marginal attractiveness of working as a militiaman, thus increasing the wages of remaining militiamen, and make battle that much more expensive.