Key actors mapping: Somalia

This report provides an overview of power-holders in Somalia. It finds that power is heavily concentrated in individuals rather than formal institutions. Though Somalia now features a nascent central government as well as regional polities and one secessionist government, government institutions are not the sole or even primary locus of power. Most power continues to reside in actors who may operate outside the government, or who may hold a position in the government but act autonomously.

After a period from 2006 to 2011 when Islamist movements and other interests partially eroded clan as the main organising principle in Somalia, clanism has made a vigorous return and today is the most powerful driver of political calculations and group behaviour . Though clans and sub-clans often have clear interests in certain political outcomes, they do not act as an organic unit. Rather, clans’ positions and actions are the result of individual leaders and opinion shapers, and it is for that reason that individual elites in Somalia should be the principal focus of an actor analysis. As such, it is not necessarily the person’s official position which lends power, but their connections, their ability to mobilise their lineage, and to forge alliances in pursuit of common goals.

Important actors in Somalia are those who possess some form of power or influence to shape political outcomes, mobilise communities, or to block developments they deem undesirable. More than in most settings, Somali actors have limited ability to drive positive outcomes, but ample capacity to exercise ‘veto power’. Put another way, Somalia is rich in potential spoilers, due to high levels of clan distrust, the ease with which clan alliances can unravel, ready availability of small arms, and extremely weak capacity of governments to make defections costly . This power to shape or block political initiatives can be derived from multiple sources, including one’s position of respect in a clan, financial resources from private business wealth, shaping public opinion via the media or other outlet, a position of power in government, control over an armed militia, a strong social network, and perceived access to powerful international actors and their resources.

The situation in Somalia has been undergoing rapid change, making it nearly impossible to profile all the power-brokers. By this study’s reckoning, at least twenty actors hold strategic influence in the country . People on the ground are able to identify current power-brokers more effectively than a literature review.

Most commentators agree that the country needs stronger institutions, but nearly all reports show a strong desire from Somalis not to be ruled by outsiders, which they define not only as Western, Ethiopian and AMISOM influence, but also perceived dominance of the diaspora members in governments. Given the prevailing atmosphere of mistrust, citizens are also wary of any government perceived to be dominated by clans other than their own, and are quick to threaten to defect from any such government. State-building which appears to be driven by external aid and agendas or which appears to enshrine the interests of one clan at the expense of others risks mobilising Somali spoilers. Armed rejectionists such as Al-Shabaab exploit this by attracting clans aggrieved at their marginal status.

Several militias, religious groups and clan structures are as important to engage with as those with formal political power. Within the fragmented context of Somalia, a region by region approach may be the most appropriate , and in some cases village by village, as different regions feature very distinct and autonomous local actors.

This report reviews some of the current main actors in the region and provides descriptions of their activities and power bases. There is considerable overlap between many groups in Somali society (and thus between sections of this report) as, for example, individuals switch allegiance. The report tries to focus on actors powerful in 2013 and so does not include some of the previously powerful figures from the last decade.

The report starts with a brief overview of the clans and ethnic groups in Somalia to provide some context. It then covers the main internal actors in Somalia, including the various political figures and parties, militias, and civil society actors. The next section looks at piracy in some depth, examining its dynamics and effects on Somalia. Next, a brief review of diaspora contributions is presented, and the final section reviews the international actors involved in Somalia.

Suggested citation

Browne, E., & Fisher, J. (2013). Key actors mapping: Somalia (GSDRC Rapid Literature Review). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham