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‘Like a Chicken in a Cage’: Civil Resistance, militant
Islamist Rulers and Traditional Authorities in
Michael W. Skjelderup
To cite this article: Michael W. Skjelderup (2021): ‘Like a Chicken in a Cage’: Civil Resistance,
militant Islamist Rulers and Traditional Authorities in Southern Somalia, Civil Wars, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/13698249.2021.1883335
© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Informa
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Published online: 28 Apr 2021.
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‘Like a Chicken in a Cage’: Civil Resistance, militant
Islamist Rulers and Traditional Authorities in
Michael W. Skjelderup
International Environment and Development Studies Program, Department of International
Environment and Development Studies/Noragric, Faculty of Landscape and Society,
Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Ås, Norway
This article explores civilian agency and civil resistance under Islamist insur-
gents’ rule in southern Somalia in the period 2006 to 2012. After almost two
decades of civil war, local institutions were weakened and the communities
could not resist tight Islamist control. The traditional authorities either ed or
chose to cooperate with the new rulers. However, while treading a ne line,
traditional authorities were still able to raise community concerns and inuence
the Islamist rulers’ behaviour through limited forms of civil resistance. Although
not changing the overall political situation, traditional authorities were instru-
mental in reducing tension and improving civilian life.
Along with military interventions and the rise of self-declared Islamic emirates
and states in areas such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the Sahel and Somalia,
academic interest in encounters between Islamist insurgents and local commu-
nities dominated by kinship loyalties and patriarchal orders has increased (see for
example, Ruttig 2010, Hansen 2013, 2019, Lia 2015, 2017, Kilcullen 2015,
Anderson and McKnight 2015, Dawod 2017, Brandt 2017, Collombier 2017,
Martinez and Eng 2017, Minatti and Duyvesteyn 2020). In Somalia, where social
and political life is largely connected to clan aliation, the Islamist insurgent
group Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, usually only referred to as al-Shabaab
(‘the youth’), has managed to rule substantial territories and populations over
time and continues to do so. In contrast to the many short-lived clan-based
militia groups of the 1990s and early 2000s (Menkhaus 2004, Kapteijns 2013), al-
Shabaab has provided relative social and political order to large parts of South-
Central Somalia by synthesising local authority structures and reformist institu-
tions into a state-like entity (Skjelderup 2020).
CONTACT Michael W. Skjelderup email@example.com
© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-
NoDerivatives License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/), which permits non-commercial re-use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered,
transformed, or built upon in any way.
Micro-level studies of civil war have enhanced our understanding of
combatant–civilian relations in territories ruled by non-state armed groups
(see for example, Kriger 1992, Kafsir 2002, Wood 2003, Kalyvas 2009,
Weinstein 2009, Metelits 2010, Mampilly 2011, La Serna 2012, Arjona et al.
2015). However, with notable exceptions (see for example, Mampilly 2011,
Barter 2014, Masullo 2015, Hallward et al. 2017, Arjona 2017a, 2017b, Kaplan
2018, Avant et al. 2019, Revkin and Ahram 2020), the broader conict litera-
ture has often been largely eclectic when dealing with civilian agency and
resistance, perceiving unarmed civilians as more passive respondents to
armed groups’ behaviour or as potential recruits (Mampilly 2011, p. 66,
Hallward et al. 2017, p. 3). On the other hand, the rapidly expanding literature
on civil resistance clearly shows the potential of civilian agency and demon-
strates that non-violent, collective campaigns may be an eective strategy to
alter established political structures. Yet, this literature is primarily focusing
on a maximalist approach of the phenomena, examining large collective
resistance campaigns seeking to inuence profound political transformations,
typically aiming to overthrow an autocratic state ruler (Chenoweth and
Stephan 2013, Pinckney 2018, Djuve et al. 2020, Thurber 2019). Hence, our
knowledge of micro-level processes and mechanisms pertaining to civilian
agency and civil resistance under insurgent rule is still highly understudied.
This article strives to add a valuable contribution to this knowledge gap by
exploring the role traditional authorities play in fostering civilian agency and
civil resistance to Islamist insurgent rule. The article also seeks to understand
how extensively traditional authorities can challenge and inuence militant
Islamist ruler’s behaviour concerning its civilian population.
Based on extensive interviews in southern Somalia with clan elders, ordin-
ary citizens and former al-Shabaab members, previously living under al-
Shabaab’s rule, and drawing on recent insights from rebel governance and
civil resistance literature, the article discusses the extent to which traditional
clan elders have been fostering civilian agency and resistance to al-Shabaab
in southern Somalia. The paper argues that traditional institutions, spear-
headed by the clan elders, were the main channel through which the civilian
communities fostered and expressed resistance against the militant Islamist
rulers. The local communities were far from cohesive, however, and the clan
institutions earned limited trust across clan groups due to long-time civil war
and local grievances, leaving the civilian population vulnerable to the power
of the Islamist insurgents. Local divisions were also easily exploited during
internal struggles by militant Islamist factions. However, while unable to
change the overall political situation, local clan elders often proved vital in
defending the interests of their communities, and in some instances were
able to moderate the behaviour of the militant Islamist rulers to the benet of
2M. W. SKJELDERUP
The rst part presents the empirical foundation of the article, followed by a
brief discussion of the relevant literature. The second part starts with a brief
background to the case before the main discussion, which draws extensively
on empirical ndings from eldwork in southern Somalia.
A Brief Note on Method
This paper rests on unique oral accounts gathered through interviews with
individuals who either participated in, were eyewitnesses to, or who have
extensive knowledge of the events in Lower Jubba province described here.
While most interviewees were participants in the events that unfolded, some
non-participant observers with insight into the local dynamic in the province
were also selected. To cross-check the stories of the interviewees, the author
has, as far as possible, attempted to triangulate the information obtained by
interviewing persons in dierent positions and from dierent clans and sub-
clans (Brinkmann and Kvale 2015, pp. 285–288). Where available, local media
reports and US ocial reporting have been used to assess the reliability of the
information. The historical narrative rests primarily on 90 semi-structured in-
depth interviews conducted by the author between 2017 and 2020 with a
wide range of interviewees. They include former senior commanders of clan-
based militia groups, regular ghters of clan-based militia groups, Islamist
leaders, Islamist foot soldiers, politicians, a civil society group, a women’s
group, clan elders and Somali academics. Several of the interviews in Kismayo
were group interviews, varying in size from two to 15 people.
Most of the
interviews were conducted in Kismayo, some in Mogadishu and Nairobi, and
a few in Norway.
Although Kismayo was liberated from the militant Islamist insurgent group
al-Shabaab in September 2012, the frontline between the Islamist forces and
local security forces lies about 50 kilometres from the city. Except for a few IED
attacks and one major complex attack in Kismayo,
the local administration,
with military support from African Union soldiers, has been able to provide a
decent level of security for the population within the zone, making on-the-
ground research by non-Somalis possible. However, substantial risk-mitigating
measures were taken during eldwork, in close dialog with local research
assistants, to avoid putting interview subjects, research assistants or the author
at risk. In light of the still fragile situation in Kismayo and in southern Somalia in
general, the names of the interviewees are either omitted or replaced with
pseudonyms for their own safety (Gallaher 2009, Mertus 2009).
Theoretical Framework: Civil Resistance and Rebel Governance
A vast body of studies on civil resistance, understood as non-violent, extra-
institutional, collective contentious action, seeking political change (Avant et
CIVIL WARS 3
al. 2019, pp. 2–3), demonstrates why and how non-violent collective action
strategies may be more eective than violent ones in fostering political
change (see for example, Kuran 1989, Stephan and Chenoweth 2008,
Celestino and Gleditsch 2013, Dahlum et al. 2019, Thurber 2019). However,
this literature takes a maximalist approach to the term, largely analysing
large-scale collective resistance campaigns against incumbent state regimes,
often overlooking civil war settings (Chenoweth and Stephan 2013, Pinckney
2018, Djuve et al. 2020, Thurber 2019, Dahlum et al. 2019). The eld is
dominated by quantitative methods which largely utilise aggregated data,
making it dicult to reveal local micro processes of civil resistance often
taking place in areas dominated by non-state armed groups (Masullo 2015,
The rapidly expanding body of literature on ‘rebel governance’, a sub-eld
of civil war studies, sets out to explore civil war dynamics in areas where non-
state armed groups rule populations, often by focusing on local micro pro-
cesses as the unit of analysis (Kalyvas 2008, 2012). Although civilian popula-
tions have tended to be viewed primarily as either active participants in
armed guerillas or passive victims of rebel actions by the broader civil war
literature (Mampilly 2011, p. 66, Hallward et al. 2017, p. 3), recent accounts
uncover civilian agency and non-violent strategies that inuence rebel beha-
viour, such as reduction of local violence (Barter 2014, Masullo 2015, Arjona
2017a, Kaplan 2018, Zürcher 2019, Revkin and Ahram 2020)
According to Ana Arjona, in territories controlled by rebels, the relation-
ship between the non-state armed group and the civilian population can
often be likened to that between a ruler and the ruled (2017b, p. 756). Thus,
for rebel rulers as well as any other authorities ruling populations, partial
resistance, ranging from symbolic expressions of discontent and other ‘forms
of everyday resistance’ (Scott 1985) to more explicit opposition to rebels’
commands and actions, would be expected. Partial resistance can occur even
under the most repressive regimes, because there will always be ssures
through which individuals can voice their discontent. No authority can fully
control its population (Arjona 2015, pp. 184–185). However, the extent to
which a civilian community may express discontent and actively resist an
insurgent ruler may often be strictly limited (Zürcher 2019, Revkin and Ahram
2020). Yet, the level of an armed group’s control is not only a result of the
group’s power, but, rather a function of the armed group’s capabilities and of
the community’s ability to resist. Recent studies on civil resistance under rebel
rule suggest that communities which enjoy a large extent of social cohesion
and eective local institutions have an increased likelihood to foster civilian
autonomy and to inuence armed group behaviour vis-à-vis the local com-
munity (La Serna 2012, Arjona 2015, 2017a, Kaplan 2018). Where communities
have what Arjona describes as pre-existing high-quality institutions, i.e., when
the local institutions are seen as both legitimate and eective by the local
4M. W. SKJELDERUP
community, the civilian community would stand a better chance of resisting,
or at least inuencing, rebel behaviour (2015, pp. 182–183). Due to the
possible costs to a rebel group of exerting tight control on a community
that collectively resists it, the armed group may settle for an ‘alliocracy’, i.e., a
minimum level of rule whereby the armed group does not intervene beyond
security and taxation, leaving the community with a certain level of auton-
omy (Arjona 2017a, pp. 28, 62–65).
When a community, by contrast, possesses low-quality institutions, i.e., it is
seen as either illegitimate or ineective, the residents would face challenges
mobilising collective resistance, hence limiting their chances to resist or
inuence rebel behaviour. In such situations, the rebel group would likely
settle for a ‘rebelocracy’, whereby an armed group exerts tight civilian control
(Arjona 2017a, pp. 65–73). Local institutions could be of ‘low quality’ as a
result of several dierent mechanisms, such as internal divisions or lack of
social cohesion (Arjona 2017a, p. 77, 81, Kaplan 2018, pp. 34–37).
According to Arjona, the quality of local dispute institutions is vital in
fostering the community’s capacity for mobilising civilian collective action
to oppose an armed group or at least help the civilians to push for greater
autonomy and to inuence the rebel group’s behaviour. ‘Such institutions
inuence the extent to which community members rely on shared norms of
behaviour and conict resolution schemes, as well as their capacity to coor-
dinate, their interpersonal trust, reciprocity, and social cohesion’ (2017a,
In many civil war situations, civilian communities may not be suciently
strong to counter insurgent dominance. According to Christoph Zürcher’s
observations of Afghan rural communities aected by the resourceful Taliban
insurgency, the forms of resistance deployed by traditional village authorities
would not be sucient to fully protect civilians from harm, given that they
neither transform the conict nor bring lasting peace. However, the tradi-
tional authorities’ actions may still oer some breathing space and positively
aect the safety of the civilian population. Non-violent strategies that have
only a marginal eect may still translate into saved lives (2019, p. 204). This
kind of micro-level resistance is captured in the concept of ‘civil action’,
understood as reluctance to engage in violence and ‘willingness to abide
by a minimal level of respect to maximise engagement with others’ (Avant et
al. 2019, p. 2). In one sense, civil action is broader than the concept of civil
resistance because it includes less conictual engagements with various
actors, institutionally or extra-institutionally. In another sense, the concept
is narrower than civil resistance as it does not include exclusionary action,
typical for civil resistance (Avant et al. 2019, p. 3).
Recent micro-level studies of civilians living under rebel rulers suggest that
the collective term ‘civilians’, broadly understood as non-combatants (Barter
2014, p. 2), is too aggregated. Often, civilians in a locale constitute dierent
CIVIL WARS 5
sociological groups within the same community who react dierently to the
same conditions under insurgent rule. In his study of civilians living under
non-state armed rulers in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, Shane J.
Barter nds that, by disaggregating ‘civilians’ into separate sociological cate-
gories, it become apparent that dierent types of civilians made distinct
choices. Within the same village, religious gures, chiefs, women and ethnic
minorities and shop owners, for example, responded in various ways, due to
sociocultural factors (Barter 2014), thus indicating that some groups of civi-
lians may be more vital than others in confronting and negotiating with
Studies of highly localised violent dynamics additionally propose that civil
action and uncivil (violent) action may interact and co-evolve, an element
largely under-communicated in theories of civil society and violence reduc-
tion (Cox 2019, p. 90). According to Fletcher D. Cox, civil society groups with
strong intergroup relationships and capacity that facilitate eective civil
action may also present useful tools for political entrepreneurs mobilising
for uncivil, i.e., violent, action (2019). In Northern Kenya, Cox points out how
two civic groups, i.e., local nongovernment organisations (NGOs) and tradi-
tional authorities, develop relationships that largely inuence local patterns
of violence. While close cooperation between the local NGOs and traditional
authorities of the Samburu and Turkana tribes reduces local violence, their
close relationship may facilitate violent mobilisation when traditional autho-
rities from the opposing clans opt for violent solutions (Cox 2019). Likewise,
through her studies in south-eastern Nigeria, Kate Meagher shows how civil
society, established in order to prevent and contain violence, instead is
‘hijacked’ by political and military elites and transformed into a vehicle for
mobilising violence (Meagher 2006).
Background: Militant Islamist Rule in Lower Jubba
When a coalition of Islamist forces under the umbrella of the Islamic Courts
Union (ICU) arrived in Kismayo, the province capital of Lower Jubba, in
September 2006, the population of the city and the wider province had
already experienced almost two decades of civil war. After the formal
Somali state institutions nally collapsed in January 1991, Kismayo, having
the only deep-sea harbour south of Mogadishu, witnessed numerous militias
and political alliances battle for control. Taxation of the goods that owed
through the port attracted the militia fractions operating in the area.
When the ICU rose to power in Mogadishu, pushing out the long-running
and despised ‘warlords’, bringing longed-for peace and social order (Samatar
2006, Hansen 2009), many civilians in Kismayo received the advancing
Islamist forces with enthusiasm and great expectations. ‘Mukhtar’, a
Kismayo resident, recalls how he and a large crowd from the city walked
6M. W. SKJELDERUP
several kilometres to meet and greet the militant Islamists who, in their
minds, came to liberate them from warlord rule and bring peace and
However, shortly after the ICU’s arrival, popular enthusiasm quickly
cooled when the population realised that stability and peace came at a huge
price. Strict rules based on ICU’s radical interpretation of shari’a were imple-
mented, such as banning the use of the mild narcotic leaf, khat, popular
among many Somalis; banning women’s presence in public spheres unless
covered in niqabs and assisted by their husband or another close male
relative; and the prohibition of all kinds of sports and cinemas. Any breaches
of these rules were heavily punished, often with arrests or corporal punish-
ment. The limitations imposed on women’s movements and the banning of
khat made life for many local women in Kismayo particularly dicult, as many
secured a much-needed income to sustain their families by selling the leaves
in the local markets.
The rst round of Islamist rule was short-lived. Only after a few months in
power, the Islamist forces were quickly defeated after Ethiopian troops inter-
vened in late December 2006 to crush what the rulers in Addis Abeba
perceived as a build-up of radical Islamists (Williams 2018, pp. 32–40). In
January 2007, most of the Lower Jubba province was cleared of larger militant
Islamist ghting units. In Kismayo, the new and weak government installed by
the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu collapsed after only
a few months, leaving power to the long-lasting militia commander Colonel
Abdikadir Adan Shire, also known as Barre Hiiraale, who had previously ruled
Kismayo through the power of his alliance, largely made up of clan-based
militias. However, neither the Ethiopians, the TFG, nor loosely allied militia
leaders like Barre Hiiraale were able to fully crush the Islamist insurgents.
Instead, they gradually came to increase and dominate the insurgency in
When the Ethiopians nally withdrew in January 2009, a
new militant Islamist insurgent alliance, dominated by al-Shabaab (‘the
youth’) and Hizbul Islam (‘the Islamic Party’), had already recaptured
Kismayo and several towns in southern Somalia (Hansen 2013).
This time the Islamist insurgents, under the increasing dominance of al-
Shabaab, stayed. They quickly established a surprisingly well organised ‘jihadi
proto-state’ (Lia 2015), with relatively strong institutions at both central and
local levels (Skjelderup 2011). By institutionalising and regulating recruitment
and training, taxation, policing and education, the proto-state soon trans-
formed into what Arjona would term a ‘rebelocracy’ (Arjona 2017a, p. 28).
Insurgent Rule and Clan Elders
The militant Islamists’ ‘rebelocracy’ (Arjona 2017a, p. 28) brought relative
peace and stability to the Lower Jubba province, but also radical social and
political changes. It installed strict regulation of the civilians’ social life and
CIVIL WARS 7
brought profound challenges to the local clan elders’ authority. Several
Islamist leaders likely held revolutionary visions to radically transform
Somalia into a utopian shari’a state (Hiiral Institute 2018, p. 1). Yet, after initial
challenges, facing vast territories and populations, the Islamist insurgents
soon made a pragmatic political turn to coopt and work through established
traditional authority structures in order to manage and control the popula-
tion, a move not uncommon for rebel rulers (Mampilly 2011, p. 72). This was
probably a wise decision by the Islamist leaders as it could be costly for the
armed group in the longer term to ght and suppress local institutions and
networks of power. Instead, to nd ways to extend its own system of govern-
ance and, simultaneously, to manage pre-existing societal forces may give
the armed group obvious material benets (Olson 2000, pp. 6–9, Metelits
2010, Barter 2015, p. 228, Arjona 2017a, pp. 45, 58–60). Cooptation of the clan
elders without doubt proved to be benecial and practical in many regards
for the Islamist rulers. For example, clan elders were often ordered to collect
taxes and recruits, and the use of elders provided a certain level of legitimacy
to the militant Islamists’ state project (Skjelderup 2020).
The relationship between al-Shabaab and the elders was, however, far
from symmetric. Like that between a ruler and the ruled (Arjona 2017b, p.
756). And the Islamist leaders showed limited respect for the clan elders or for
local, traditional institutions. Its traditional role as main brokers and dispute
mediators within and between clans was for instance dramatically limited
when the Islamist rulers instituted its own qadi courts (Skjelderup 2014,
2020). Right after the fall of Kismayo in August 2008, the Islamist leaders
summoned the elders of the town and demanded their support and coopera-
tion. In many respects, the kind of ‘cooperation’ implied was more a matter of
blindly following the Islamist leaders’ demands. In return, the Islamist leaders
promised law and order, and asserted they would not intervene in internal
clan aairs. When the senior elders demanded consultation and involvement
in the new city administration in Kismayo, they were abruptly denied any
According to the new rebel social contract (Revkin and Ahram
2020) oered by the Islamist insurgents in Lower Jubba, the clan elders were
clearly subordinate to the Islamist leadership and administration.
While the traditional clan elders in Lower Jubba were largely inferior to its
new and often quite young Islamist rulers, they cannot be portrayed as mere
victims. Although many had been involved in the TFG initiated administration
after the fall of the Islamic Courts Union in late 2006, quite a few had also lent
support to the emerging Islamist insurgency throughout 2007 and 2008. And
when the insurgents attacked Kismayo in August 2008, the clan elders were
divided, various clan groups supporting the political faction, Islamist or TFG
aliated, they thought would best maximise their local clan interests.
for several of the local dominant clan groups, like the Ogadeen clans, the
initial support for the Islamists was largely directed at the Hizbul Islam sub
8M. W. SKJELDERUP
faction, Mu’askar Ras Kamboni, which was mostly comprised of Ogadeen clan
members, not al-Shabaab, which, at that time, were dominated by larger clan
groups from outside of Lower Jubba and minority clans. When most of
Mu’askar Ras Kamboni fell out with al-Shabaab and retreated to Kenya in
October 2009, the position of the Ogadeen clan elders in Jubbaland
detoriated, while the position of other clan groups improved.
extent, the level of support and potential for inuence on the Islamist rulers
were partly shaped by local politics and clan dynamics, and in many ways,
represented a continuation of pre-existing local power competition, follow-
ing Mampilly’s emphasis on pre-conict patterns and civilian preferences as
vital factors shaping rebel behaviour and governance (2011, pp. 67–68).
The emerging Islamist administration were intertwined with the local
population in Lower Jubba in many ways. In addition to cooptation of the
local clan institutions, several al-Shabaab leaders, at least after the split with
Mu’askar Ras Kamboni, came from local clans, including Ogadeen. Also,
soldiers, police ocers and bureaucrats were a mix of ‘foreign’ clans and
local recruits. While several young recruits were not necessarily voluntarily
recruited, many youngsters from a wide range of local clan groups enlisted,
often based on quite opportunistic reasons.
A former al-Shabaab military
commander from one of the local Ogadeen clans, for example, explains how
he joined Mu’askar Ras Kamboni because he wanted a gun and a job. When
al-Shabaab defeated Mu’askar Ras Kamboni in 2009, he was oered a military
post in al-Shabaab and complied, continuing his ght for the Islamists for
However, while the new Islamist regime were heavily embedded in local
politics and closely related to its civilian population, the elders’ authority
without doubt experienced a serious blow under its rule and the elders
themselves, not surprisingly, largely describe al-Shabaab’s rule as a burden.
Whenever the Islamists rulers conceived them as opponents and a threat to
their authority, they knew the militant Islamists would not hesitate to kill
them, as had happened to several elders after al-Shabaab’ capture of the
Ugaas ‘Hussein’, the senior elder within one of the larger clans in
Kismayo, describes his position under al-Shabaab’s rule as being ‘like a
chicken in a cage’.
Like civilians in other civil war conicts (Masullo 2015), the clan elders
broadly responded to militant Islamist rule in two ways: eeing or staying put.
The elders throughout Lower Jubba largely ed, mostly to Kenya, out of fear
for their own lives. As the militant Islamist rulers had shown little mercy to
those elders voicing public deance or those considered to be oppositional,
many saw no choice but to ee.
Some ed as soon as the militant Islamist
forces conquered the areas, while others ed when the internal conict
between al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam escalated into open ghting in
September and October 2009. Elders from clans supporting the losing
CIVIL WARS 9
Mu’askar Ras Kamboni faction of Hizbul Islam, including several of the
Ogadeen clans, felt they were suspected by al-Shabaabs of being secret
supporters of Mu’askar Ras Kamboni and might be targeted.
While several elders decided to ee Kismayo and the wider province, most
elders chose to stay and accept some level of cooperation with the Islamist
rulers. Such a strategy of non-resistance would roughly correspond with what
Juan Masullo terms ‘cooperation with armed groups’ (Masullo 2015, p. 20).
This strategy should not, however, be read as voluntary or active support, nor
even sympathy with al-Shabaab or its ideology. Rather, as Arjona points out,
lack of resistance or ight may primarily reect massive obedience from the
civilians to the non-state armed groups’ rule, not active support (Arjona
2017b, pp. 756–757). When an armed group has a high level of control within
that territory, cooperation is often the dominant civilian strategy, as this
would not provoke a violent response by the armed rulers (Arjona 2017a, p.
67). Following Stathis Kalyvas’ point that civilians in zones of rebel control
tend to collaborate with the ruling group in order to maximise their security
(Kalyvas 2009). Hence, in such instances, resistance to, not cooperation with,
an armed group is the quintessential collective action problem (Arjona 2017a,
The clan elders who decided to stay under al-Shabaab rule did not do so
because of deep-felt sympathies or material benet.
They stayed because
they were expected to work for the clan and defend the clan’s interests.
According to ‘Mohamed’, a senior elder in Kismayo, ‘to stay and help your
people, that is what the elders do’.
Joshua Barter shows how village chiefs’
behaviour during the civil war in Ache, Indonesia were inuenced by local
sociocultural expectations. ‘In times of war, the most important thing for a
chief is to be neutral. If they are not neutral, they cannot be a chief” (Barter
2014, p. 70). While neutrality was a central expectation of the role of a village
chief in Ache, southern Somalia, the key expectation of the clan elder was to
act as a conict mediator and to defend the clan group’s interests.
The elders knew that if they escaped, al-Shabaab would likely replace them
with someone else with limited regards for the clans’ traditional election
mechanisms. A replacement, known as a ‘bush elder’, would exert less
authority and respect from the clan and would probably leave his clansmen
more vulnerable to al-Shabaab’s encroachments.
‘Ahmed’, a former
Mu’askar Ras Kamboni ghter, recalls the situation in Afmadow, one of the
larger cities in Lower Jubba, after al-Shabaab had crushed the rebellion by
Mu’askar Ras Kamboni. Three nabadoons were killed and several of the senior
Ogadeen elders escaped to Kenya. With most senior elders absent, al-
Shabaab’s leaders in Afmadow appointed one of their own soldiers as naba-
doon for one of the larger local clans. Although the local clansmen did not
approve of the decision, they felt they could do nothing about it out of fear of
Several elders from Lower Jubba who ed to Kenya after the
10 M. W. SKJELDERUP
conict with Mu’askar Ras Kamboni describe how people from their clans
involved in disputes reached out to them by phone, asking them to mediate
on their behalf instead of al-Shabaab’s bush elders. A number of cases were
settled in Kenya after discussions between elders who were located far from
the actual perpetration within al-Shabaab territory.
Local Institutions and Civil Resistance
The clan elders’ cooperative strategy and lack of open resistance could partly
be read as weakness of local institutions. Recent literature on civil resistance
points out the ability to mobilise and sustain collective action as paramount
to foster political change (Chenoweth and Stephan 2013, Dahl 2019). And, as
emphasised by recent studies of rebel rule, the extent of legitimacy and
eectiveness of local institutions, especially local dispute mechanisms, is
vital to mobilise resistance and gain some level of autonomy vis-à-vis a
non-state armed group ruler (La Serna 2012, Arjona 2015, 2017a, Kaplan
2018). When the local institutions lack sucient legitimacy and eciency,
due to internal divisions or lack of social cohesion, the community would be
vulnerable for armed group dominance (Arjona 2017a, p. 77, 81, Kaplan 2018,
pp. 34–37), in line with Arjona’s concept of ‘rebelocracy’ (Arjona 2017a, p. 28).
In Lower Jubba, traditional institutions managed by the clan elders consti-
tuted the dominant system for dispute resolution in Lower Jubba when the
militant Islamist groups emerged. The formal state institutions had evaporated in
the late 1980s, whereby the clan institutions experienced a kind of renaissance.
As most other networks failed to give sucient security and provide for basic
needs, even urban elites and ardent Islamists ed to the strongholds of their clan
groups throughout Somalia (Gundel 2006, pp. 124–126, 153–155, Le Sage 2001).
However, the sudden pressure on local clan institutions in Lower Jubba and the
rest of South-Central Somalia represented an enormous challenge to the largely
localised dispute resolution mechanisms inherent in the traditional system. The
level of atrocities that skyrocketed during the rst years of the civil war, such as
mass killings, rape, looting and destruction of property, was unprecedented in
Somali history. Hence, the elders were incapable of settling and resolving
through customary law, xeer, and through traditional modes of consultation, all
these far-reaching oences, often conducted by militias from opposing clan
groups (Gundel 2006). Extreme politicisation of clan aliation during the 1980s
and early 1990s, whereby clan aliation became the common denominator for
political loyalty, also had a negative impact on the clan elders’ standing and
authority as ecient providers of peace and reconciliation. In many instances,
elders threw their support behind politico-military leaders with kinship ties to
their own sub-clan, which facilitated the recruitment of militia ghters and
therefore made them partly responsible for violence against other sub-clans
(Abdullahi 2018, pp. 153–154, Gundel 2006, Kapteijns 2013).
CIVIL WARS 11
In August 2008, when al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam conquered Kismayo, a
complex hierarchy of clan elders within each clan group remained (and
remains) intact. The head gure of these entities in Lower Jubba was usually
called a suldan or ugaas. In some of the clans the senior position was
inherited, while in others he was elected among the lower-ranking elders,
in Lower Jubba referred to as the nabadoons, within the same clan group. The
suldan or ugas was the main authority when dealing with other clans or
political entities, such as al-Shabaab. However, whenever a dispute arose, it
was usually the nabadoons that dealt with the case. Only if nabadoons on
successive levels were unable to resolve it would the suldan or ugaas become
involved. Typical cases within and between clans included everyday issues
and disputes related to grazing rights, land and water issues, killings and
injuries, and how to collect and distribute blood money, diya. However, the
clan elders did not exercise unlimited power within the clans and might be
dismissed by their clan group if deemed unsuited to represent the group. The
elders should be seen more as representatives of their clan groups rather than
as per the famous anthropologist Ioan M. Lewis’ reference to the
‘pastoral democracy’ (Lewis 1999).
Despite the traditional system’s renaissance and importance for managing
social and political life in Lower Jubba, it proved not to be suciently strong
to resist militant Islamist rule. Its rst attempt to resist their rule was made
during the short reign of the Islamic Courts Union between September 2006
and early January 2007. Despite the initial enthusiasm by many civilians in the
town when the militant Islamists arrived, the mood quickly changed. Strict
social regulations were unpopular, and many civilians, especially women from
poor households, were heavily aected by the ban on the khat trade, as
The elders were also frustrated by the militant
Islamists’ lack of consultation and by being excluded from the new adminis-
tration. The elders gathered and agreed to mobilise their clans to carry out
non-violent protests in order to demonstrate their dissatisfaction.
hundred people gathered in the square in front of the new Islamist admin-
istration and shouted slogans against them, demanding political change.
Initially, the militant Islamists remained calm, and one of the Islamist leaders
approached the crowd demanding that the protesters follow the new rules.
When the protests continued, some of the Islamist soldiers started shooting
into the crowd, killing several people.
In the course of the ensuing days,
several of the elders responsible for the mobilisation were arrested and
threatened, and the civilian mobilisation quickly faded out.
The rst and
last mass mobilisation of civilian resistance to militant Islamist rule in Kismayo
When the militant Islamists re-emerged in 2008, the clan elders never
attempted collectively to mobilise civil resistance. The population clearly
remembered the heavy consequences from the last attempt only two years
12 M. W. SKJELDERUP
According to ‘Mohamed’, a senior elder living in Kismayo at the
time, the elders were also more divided this time about how to respond to
the militant Islamists.
Most senior elders had been involved in the short-
lived attempt by the Transitional Federal Government to set up a local
administration in Kismayo. However, when this failed after only a few months,
and the city saw the return of the infamous faction leader Barre Hiiraale from
the Marehan clan – perceived by many locals as a ‘foreign’ clan – some clan
elders lent some support to local militant Islamists, especially Mu’askar Ras
Kamboni, a local sub-group of Hizbul Islam, who had recruited widely from
Hence, local clan institutions were unable to withstand the
power of the increasingly powerful militant Islamist insurgents, who soon
had tight control of local institutions and dispute mechanisms.
Clan Elders and Everyday Resistance
When militant Islamist ‘rebelocracy’ was installed in Kismayo and the wider
province, the relationship between the administration and the elders was
largely dened by obedience and cooperation, as between a ruler and the
ruled (Arjona 2017b, pp. 756). Yet, while outright opposition and public
resistance were not tolerated by al-Shabaab, the elders found ways to actively
resist them in order to safeguard their clan members. These forms of non-
violent resistance would fall outside the scope of studies on large-scale civil
resistance campaign (Stephan and Chenoweth 2008), being closer to Scott’s
concept of ‘everyday forms of resistance’ (Scott 1985) and show similarities to
Zürcher’s descriptions of traditional village authorities exercising ‘civil action’
to enhance the safety and wellbeing of their fellow village members in
Afghan rural communities (2019).
Even smaller acts of resistance to militant Islamist rule in Lower Jubba were
associated with risk for the clan elders and the wider civilian population. For
the clan elders, to balance the demands from al-Shabaab and at the same
time promote the interests and well-being of their clan members was far from
easy, even impossible in cases, such as forced recruitment of youth, a fre-
quent demand from al-Shabaab. In such cases the elders were clearly caught
between a rock and a hard place. However, while executing orders to collect
young recruits from their clans demonstrates the weak position of the elders,
these incidents also show that the elders had some level of agency and room
to manoeuvre in resisting al-Shabaab. ‘Hussein’, who was nabadoon in
Kismayo at the time, describes how his clan’s ugaas and suldan were ordered
to hand over a certain number of recruits to al-Shabaab. However, both
refused to do that and said ‘We cannot collect recruits for you. You have to
do that yourself.’ Al-Shabaab’s leaders did not punish them for defying the
orders and allowed both elders to keep their positions.
While deance of al-
Shabaab’s demands shows that elders had some room to resist and signal the
CIVIL WARS 13
clan community’s dissatisfaction, it probably had limited eects on the
families who nevertheless were forced to hand over their children to the
rulers for military training.
One of the areas where elders were most able to make a small dierence
was in the shari’a courts. Al-Shabaab’s courts were formally headed by a qadi,
appointed by the militant Islamist administration. He would try all kinds of
court cases, from local disputes to serious oences such as homicide and
adultery. Cases assessed by the qadi to require the infamous huduud punish-
ments according to classic Islamic doctrine tended to turn political and gave
little room for elders’ inuence (Skjelderup 2014). However, in less serious
cases, such as physical assault or disputes over grazing rights, the elders of
the clans aected would often be allowed to intervene. If the elders of both
parties were able to nd an agreement outside the court, the qadi in Kismayo
would often abide by the elders’ decision and sentence accordingly.
Adan’, a senior clan elder from Kismayo, recalls how local elders, after insisting
on solving a homicide case outside of the court, were allowed by the qadi to
settle their own agreement according to xeer,
meaning payment of blood
money, diya, instead of possible execution of the perpetrator, which often
was favoured by al-Shabaab qadis in homicide cases (Skjelderup 2011).
There were also episodes in Kismayo of more direct resistance to militant
Islamist rule. A common complaint often brought to the elders by fellow clan
members were cases where al-Shabaab members forcefully occupied prop-
erty and houses belonging to civilians. ‘Ahmed’, a senior elder from Kismayo,
describes an episode where he and some other elders from the clans aected
met to discuss the incident, whereupon they agreed to bring a complaint to
the city administration. They all gathered at the city administration oce and
sat down with some of the al-Shabaab leaders in town, demanding that the
administration hand the property back to its rightful owner. In this case, al-
Shabaab’s leaders supported their claim and handed the property back,
without any negative reactions against the civilians involved in the case or
As these examples illustrate, civilian strategies of cooperation and resis-
tance are not necessarily dichotomies but can be combined in dierent ways
depending on the context (Arjona 2017b, p. 763, Masullo 2015, Barter 2014).
During al-Shabaab rule in Kismayo, the extent to which clan elders could defy
al-Shabaab’s rule seems to be contingent on the local context, especially on
which clan they were aliated with. This point becomes apparent in cases
where clan elders had to undergo religious ‘re-education’ by al-Shabaab’s
da’wa ocers. ‘Roble’, sultan of one of the larger clans in Kismayo, was early
on forced by al-Shabaab to participate in a three-month religious training
course in Kismayo alongside senior elders from other local clans. They were
taught basic Islamic texts and interpretations supporting al-Shabaab’s view
on religion. However, some time before the course had been completed,
14 M. W. SKJELDERUP
‘Roble’ decided to defy al-Shabaab’s orders and simply quit the course
because he thought it was a waste of time. Despite his open deance of al-
Shabaab demands, the administration in Kismayo did not force him back to
the course or punish him in any way.
Al-Shabaab’s lack of sanctions in this
case is probably related to ‘Roble’s’ clan aliation, representing clan groups
that were not seen as a local threat to al-Shabaab’s administration. From a
local perspective, ‘Roble’s’ clan groups were not portrayed as a major political
player in Kismayo or the wider province. Nor had they actively supported
Mu’askar Ras Kamboni in the militant Islamist rivalry in 2009.
who worked as an al-Shabaab da’wa ocer and arranged several religious
courses for the elders in the southern and central parts of Lower Jubba during
that time, explains how elders from clans that had little to fear from al-
Shabaab often were less eager to participate in his courses. By contrast, elders
from clan groups that had reasons to display their sympathy participated. For
example, the Ogadeen clan elders were afraid of being suspected by al-
Shabaab of cooperating secretly with Madobe’s Mu’askar Ras Kamboni, who
was located right across the border in Kenya. Marehan elders, as well as some
of the minority clans, were also eager to show their support to al-Shabaab by
participating the courses, but for other reasons. According to ‘Mohamed’,
they feared that Madobe and Ogadeen militias would return to Lower Jubba
and retake power from al-Shabaab, as several people from these ‘(. . .) clans
were empowered by al-Shabaab and given money, weapons and inuential
Thus, to what extent the clan elders could resist and
what strategy they could apply depended on the local political context.
Civil and Non-civil Action
As with cooperation and resistance, civil and non-civil (violent) action are not
necessarily dichotomies and can often be intertwined. Some actors may be
vital in enhancing local peace yet in other situations favour violent responses
(Cox 2019). Reminiscent of traditional authorities’ dual roles concerning local
peace-building and as facilitators of violence in northern Kenya (Cox 2019),
clan elders were involved in both civil and non-civil action during militant
Islamist rule in Lower Jubba. While the relationship between al-Shabaab and
the elders in Lower Jubba was dominated by cooperation and limited forms
of resistance, some elders became heavily involved in the rivalry between al-
Shabaab and Hizbul Islam in 2009. The initiation of the conict had little to do
with clan aliation or traditional dynamics; it was rst and foremost an
internal power struggle between the two main militant Islamist factions.
However, as often in Lower Jubba, conicts tend to play out along clan lines,
with each side exploiting the potential inherent in the prevalent social
structures and local dynamic to mobilise local clan militias. Because the
emerging strong man within Mu’askar Ras Kamboni and many of his followers
CIVIL WARS 15
were from dominant Ogadeen clans, the strongest clan group in Lower
Jubba, several local elders chose to support them and mobilised recruits
and weapons from their clan groups. Although al-Shabaab’s local anchorage
in Lower Jubba was weaker, they managed to attract the support of several
local clan elders who feared that the Ogadeen clans and other local compe-
titors would increase their local power base.
While not constituting the
primary driving force behind the conict that erupted in open ghting in
September and October 2009,
the clan elders’ contributions were vital in
escalating the level of violence through mobilising clan militias on both sides.
Thus, to understand why and when clan elders, who largely strived to
improve conditions for their communities through civil action under militant
Islamist rule, would under certain conditions support violent action, one
needs to analyse the clan elders’ role in light of micro-level changes within
the local political context.
Militant Islamist insurgents quickly established tight institutional control in
southern Somalia when they re-emerged as the dominant politico-military
actor in the course of 2007 and 2008. Facing communities that were far from
cohesive, and with limited trust among its dierent clan groups, the militant
Islamist ‘rebelocracy’ co-opted local traditional elders in order to manage the
population. Local divisions along clan lines were also easily exploited during
internal struggles when the initial militant Islamist alliance split in 2009.
However, although the elders had to tread a thin line so as not to provoke
violent responses from the militant Islamist rulers, they were able to express
community concerns and, in some cases, inuence the militant Islamist rulers’
behaviour through civil action and limited forms of civil resistance. In contrast
to the elders’ rst and largely unsuccessful attempt to push for changes
through larger popular mobilisation, the enduring strategy used by the elders
to pressure the rulers was a combination of cooperation and limited resis-
tance through dialog. Although unable to change the overall political situa-
tion, local clan elders were often vital in defending the interests of the local
communities and in moderating militant Islamist behaviour to the benet of
1. Most of the interviews were conducted in Somali with the help of English
speaking interpretors. In most cases, the local Somali research assistants, who
knew the author and the project well, acted as interpretors during the
16 M. W. SKJELDERUP
2. The author’s Somali contact network has been established through long-term
engagement with Somalia, including initial eld work in Nairobi in October
2010. However, locating interview subjects and facilitating interviews in
Kismayo and Mogadishu would not have been possible without substantial
help and support from a few highly skilled and dedicated Somali research
assistants, with profound understanding of local dynamics and a wide network.
3. Improvised Explosive Device.
4. On 14 July 2019 an al-Shabaab suicide attack team launced an attack against
one of the newer hotels in Kismayo city, killing at least 26 people, including
several politicians and journalists.
5. Interview with ‘Mukhtar’ in Kismayo, February 2017.
6. Interview with Kismayo residents, February 2018, October 2018, July 2019,
7. Interviews with Somali politicians in Nairobi, October 2017, July 2018; Interview
with Somali politicians and former faction leaders in Mogadishu, July 2018;
Interviews with former senior Islamist leaders in Mogadishu, July 2018;
Interview with former senior Islamist leader in Kismayo, October 2018.
8. Interview with clan elders in Kismayo, October 2018, February 2020; Interview
with former al-Shabaab members in Kismayo, July 2019.
9. Interview with clan elders in Kismayo, October 2018; Interview with clan elders
in Kismayo, February 2020; Interview with Kismayo residents February, 2018;
Interview with former Mu’askar Ras Kamboni and al-Shabaab members in
Kismayo, July 2019.
10. Interview with former Ras Kamboni and al-Shabaab members in Kismayo, July
2019; Interview with Somali politicians in Nairobi, February and July 2019.
11. Interview with former al-Shabaab members in Kismayo, July 2019; Interview
with Kismayo residents, February and October 2018.
12. Interview with ‘Mohamed’, a former al-Shabaab military commander, in
Kismayo, July 2019 and February 2020.
13. Interview with clan elders in Kismayo, February 2018, October 2018, February
14. Interview with Ugaas ‘Hussein’ in Kismayo, October 2018.
15. Interview with clan elders in Kismayo, October 2018, February 2020; Interview
with residents in Kismayo, February 2018, October 2018, July 2019, February
2020; Interview with former al-Shabaab member in Kismayo, July 2019.
16. Interview with clan elders in Kismayo, October 2018, February 2020.
17. Interviews with clan elders, ordinary civilians, civil society groups, women
groups and former jihadi members in Kismayo indicate that some clan elders
received a certain level of payment or other material benets for their coopera-
tion with al-Shabaab. It seems that a usul practice was to provide some benets
to ‘bush elders’, who did not enjoy support or legitimacy from their clan group.
There are also indications that some ‘ordinary’ elders as well was given some
level of material benets by al-Shabaab. However, these benets do not seem
to be a vital motivator for the work of the elders, neither did it seem to inuence
the civilian communities trust and condence in their elders.
18. Interview with clan elders in Kismayo, October 2018, February 2020; Interview
with Kismayo residents, February 2020; Interview with former al-Shabaab and
Mu’askar Ras Kamboni members in Kismayo, July 2019, February 2020.
19. Interview with ‘Mohamed’ in Kismayo, February 2020.
CIVIL WARS 17
20. Interview with residents in Kismayo, February 2018; Interveiw with clan elders in
Kismayo, October 2018, February 2020; Interview with former al-Shabaab mem-
bers in Kismayo, July 2019.
21. Interview with clan elders in Kismayo, October 2018.
22. Interveiw with ‘Ahmed’, a former Mu’askar Ras Kamboni member, in Kismayo,
23. Interveiw with clan elders in Kismayo, October 2018.
24. Interview with clan elders in Kismayo, February 2018, October 2018; Interview
with clan elder in Nairobi, October 2018.
25. Interview with Kismayo residents, March 2020; Interview with clan elders in
Kismayo, February 2020.
26. Interview with clan elders in Kismayo, February 2020.
27. Interview with clan elders in Kismayo, February 2020; Interview with residents in
Kismayo, February 2020. See also ‘Somalia: Protests after Islamic Courts take
Kismayo’, Reliefweb, 25 September 2006, https://reliefweb.int/report/somalia/
somalia-protests-after-islamic-courts-take-kismayo, Gettleman, Jerey,
‘Demonstrations Become Clashes after’, The New York Times, 26 September
28. Interview with residents in Kismayo, February 2020; Interview with clan elders in
Kismayo, February 2020. See also ‘Courts Take Kismayo’, The New Humanitarian,
25 September, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/report/61170/somalia-
29. Interview in Kismayo with ‘Ali Adan’, an elder who was arrested due to his
participation in the protests, March 2020.
30. Interview with residents in Kismayo, February 2020.
31. Interview with ‘Mohamed’, a senior clan elder in Kismayo, February 2020.
32. Interviews with residents in Kismayo, February 2018, October 2018, February
2020; Interview with clan elders in Kismayo, February 2018, October 2018,
February 2020; Interview with former al-Shabaab and Mu’askar Ras Kamboni
members in Kismayo, July 2019, February 2020.
33. Interview with ‘Hussein’, senior elder in Kismayo, October 2018.
34. Interviews with residents in Kismayo, February 2018, October 2018, February
2020; Interviews with clan elders in Kismayo, October 2018, February 2020.
35. Interview with ‘Ali Adan’, a senior clan elder, in Kismayo, February 2020.
36. Interview with ‘Ahmed’, senior clan elder in Kismayo, February 2020.
37. Interview with ‘Roble’, senior clan elder in Kismayo, October 2018.
38. Interview with residents in Kismayo, February 2018; Interview with former
Mu’askar Ras Kamboni and al-Shabaab members in Kismayo, July 2019;
Interview with clan elders in Kismayo, October 2018.
39. Interview in Kismayo with ‘Mohamed’, a former al-Shabaab da’wa ocer, July
40. Interviews with Kismayo residents, February 2018; Interview with clan elders in
Kismayo, October 2018; Interview with former al-Shabaab and Mu’askar Ras
Kamboni members in Kismayo, July 2019.
41. Interviews with Kismayo residents, February 2018; Interview with clan elders in
Kismayo, October 2018; Interview with former al-Shabaab and Mu’askar Ras
Kamboni members in Kismayo, July 2019; Interview with Somali politicians from
Lower Jubba and Gedo in Nairobi, June 2018; Interview with Somali politicians
from Lower Jubba and Gedo in Mogadishu, June 2018.
18 M. W. SKJELDERUP
42. ‘Somalia – Madobe Displaced al-Shabaab in Kismayo; Relationship with TFG Tenous’,
09NAIROBI2042, 28 September 2009, https://archive.org/stream/09NAIROBI2042/
09NAIROBI2042_djvu.txt; ‘Somalia – TFG President on Recruitment in Kenya and
Political Outreach’, Wikileaks, 21 October 2009, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author(s).
This work was supported by the Norwegian Ministry of Defence.
Notes on contributor
Michael W. Skjelderup is a PhD Candidate at the International Environment and
Development Studies Program, Noragric, Norwegian University of Life sciences, Ås.
He has worked extensively on Somalia and the wider Horn of Africa region in govern-
ment posts. His research interests include conict studies and state building, with
specic interest in non-state armed groups, rebel governance and civilian agency. He
has previously published several articles on militant Islamist groups in Somalia.
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