Poetry, nationalism, and al-Shabaab

In Somalia, poets are considered organic public intellectuals.

Women dressed for Eid at Lido beach in Mogadishu, 2013. Image credit Tobin Jones for UN Photo via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed .

In early October 2023, a popular young poet, Nageeye Ali Khaliif, went missing from his home in Mogadishu. Within days of his disappearance, he released online a document containing many of his poems and the immediate contextual background that gave rise to each poem. By the end of this almost 300-page document, he clearly states his decision to join al-Shabaab. The defection to al-Shabaab of this well-known poet (abwaan) has led some people to revisit and re-evaluate his poetry. Unsurprisingly, they saw in it an indication of his ideological affinity to al-Shabaab all along. In this short piece, however, I suggest that this young man’s poetry and popularity reveal the socio-cultural significance of poetry in articulating and mobilizing popular sentiments, while his ultimate decision to abandon poetry and resort to armed struggle underscores the poverty of the political scene and the political choices open to young people in Somalia today. 

It might be helpful to start with some comments on poetry and its place in Somali society. The ubiquity and cultural significance of poetry (traditionally, oral poetry) in Somali society is celebrated by Somalis and noted by outside observers. One of the first Europeans to travel into the interior of the Horn of Africa among the Somali-speaking peoples remarked “the country teems with poets.” Since then, much has been written by academics on Somali poetry. Furthermore, among Somalis, their poetry is ranked as the most cherished of their cultural heritage. A former president once remarked that poetry is “one of the two national assets of inestimable value.” The other is Islam. 

Several characteristics of Somali poetry underlie its continued vitality and socio-cultural relevance. To begin with, poetry in Somali society is neither the activity of an isolated artist nor valued primarily for its aesthetic and artistic value. Though individually crafted, poetry is deeply rooted in the vicissitudes of everyday life, written and valued more for its ability to shape people’s opinions and attitudes than for its detached artistic value. A better way to say this is that a poem’s ability to communicate a deep truth, and through that shape and change attitudes, is very much the essence of its beauty. Poetry is recited in public gatherings with great fanfare, placing the poet in mainstream society and according to him/her with authority and expectation to comment, through verse, on pressing social issues and significant events. The poet in Somali society, therefore, can be considered an organic public intellectual. Some have argued that the social significance of poetry stems from its historical role in a predominantly pastoral and egalitarian society (at least historically) where oratory was key to persuasion and thus to authority.

Second, because of its pervasiveness and cultural significance, poetry is perhaps the most important incubator and carrier of Somali traditions and history. This is partly attested by academics’ utilization of poetry to reconstruct and analyze Somali history and traditions. But more than a historical source for academics, poetry is essential to Somali people’s understanding of their history and the transmission of their traditions. 

Several important features render poetry thus. First, poems are often composed in response to one another in such a way that they form what Somalis refer to as silsilad or “chain.” Such chains can sometimes cover broad geographies and extend over several decades. Second, there is a custom by readers and recorders of poems of providing commentaries in prose, describing the circumstances under which they were composed, explaining obscure passages and allusions to persons, events, or customs that are no longer known to the audience. The process of recording and transmitting poems, therefore, involves historical commentary. The way Nageeye’s document is written is itself informed by this practice. Every poem is presented by explaining its contextual background. Further, the poems are presented chronologically and the contextual background is written in the form of a diary giving the impression that the whole book is a record of the author’s history. It is entirely plausible that this is the case, given the practice of recording the contextual background in Somali poetry. As a result of these features, among others, Somali poetry constitutes an important historical tradition. Third, because of its important role in public and communal life, poetry has been employed throughout history to advance, critique, celebrate, and comment on myriad concerns, from clan feuds to old age and mortality. In more recent times, however, particularly since the onset of colonization at the turn of the 20th century, a major preoccupation of Somali poetry has been pan-Somali nationalism, whether that came in the form of anticolonial struggles, critiques of the postcolonial state, or denunciations of clan-based politics since the fall of the state in 1991. 

Poetry’s significance to Somali nationalism is underscored by the fact that the most renowned, and perhaps preeminent, Somali poet is also the early 20th-century anti-colonial leader, Sayyid Mohammed Abdille Hassan, adopted by the post-colonial state as the founding figure of Somali nationalism, and widely revered throughout the country. This background of poetic discourse in Somali society is critical to understanding how Nageeye, the nationalist poet, turned to armed militancy. Several of Nageeye’s poems provide a glimpse into his thinking. 

The first poem titled Waan diiday reernimo, “I repudiate clan factionalism,” is one of his earliest, written in 2015. There are several important elements to highlight in this poem. First, the poem’s title reflects what in many people’s judgment is the biggest obstacle to Somali unity: clan identity and clan-based factionalism. His repudiation of clan-based factionalism is more significant because Nageeye’s family comes from what used to be the northern region of Somalia, but is now the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. In the eyes of many, Somaliland’s claim to sovereign statehood is symptomatic of that which ails all of Somalia’s politics: clan-based factionalism that masquerades as statehood. This sentiment is captured in the last line of the verses below: “These clans that have woven a cloth; then claimed statehood” referencing the different flags that have been adopted by regional/clan administrations. Moreover, for many Somalis, the division of the country is blamed on the machinations of neighboring countries and the international community, which is accused of institutionalizing such division in the form of a state-building project grounded on clan-based regionalization. The second and third lines in the poem express these views: 

The causes of my agony; is hidden to the obtuse, 

Our country seized and land; devoured by the enemy, 

Our people divided; fenced off from each other,

These clans that have woven a cloth; then claimed statehood,

This poem reveals Nageeye’s advocacy of Somali unity even in his early 20s when he was based in a region, Somaliland, where such sentiments are discouraged by administration officials who prosecute proponents of Somali unity. His commitment to unity, no doubt, partly explains his relocation to Mogadishu in 2017. In Mogadishu, he became a public figure. His poetry during his years in Mogadishu (2017-2023), is entirely reflective of his commitment to advancing the cause of national unity through verse, as in the 2017 poem titled “Gurmadkii Minimada” (“Upholding Unity”):  

Aniguna waxaan goobayee; gama’ii diiday,
Xaqiiqadu ninkii ay gubtaa; aamus garan waaye,
Duruufahan is wada gaadhaybaa; gooni ii helaye,
Gobannimo abwaan doonayiyo; guurti baan ahaye,
Inta golahan joogtiyo intuu; gaadho hadalkaygu,
Inta ila gedda ah baan fariin; guud u dirayaaye,

That which I seek; and denies me respite, 

He who is burnt by reality; is denied silence,

These unceasing upheavals; do singularly agitate me,

A poet in search of liberty; an emissary I am,

Those in the region and those; whose ears my voice may reach,

A dispatch for those who share my pursuit; I am sending,

This poem captures themes that inundate his poetry: the idea that the country and the people are on the verge of disappearing from history as a unified nation, and that poetry is key to rousing the people to this reality. In articulating these sentiments, he captures a widely-held pessimistic mood about the direction and politics of the country. T. The chief threats to Somali unity that his poetry articulates time and again are the presence of foreign troops in Somalia and the self-serving politicians who dominate the political scene. This clearly comes through in tanother 2017 poem, “Baraarug,” (“Encouragement”)

‘Ma beenbaa’ in Soomaalinimo; maanta laga baydhay?
‘Ma beenbaa’ in xeebaha badhkood; beec la kala siistay?
‘Ma beenbaa’ in qarankii burburay; nacabku boobaayo?
‘Ma beenbaa’ in Baydhaba Tigray; ‘bases’ laga siiyay?
AMISOM ‘Ma beenbaa’ in ay; dhaqankii baabiisay?

Is it false that Somaliness; has been cast aside today?

Is it false that some of our coasts; have been bartered?

Is it false that the nation is dismantled; and the enemy looting?

Is it false that in Baydhaba, the Tigray; have been given bases?

Is it false that AMISOM; has obliterated tradition? 

Although the first three lines suggest the consequences of factional politics and self-serving politicians, the last two directly address the presence of foreign troops in Somalia. The “Tigray” mentioned in line 4 is a reference to Ethiopia, given that the Tigray ethnic group dominated Ethiopian state politics until recently. The line is, therefore, referring to the heavy presence of Ethiopian troops around Baydhaba, a city in southern Somalia. 

The  African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM, and recently renamed African Union Transition Mission in Somalia, or ATMIS) is the UN-mandated AU force in Somalia. In accusing AMISOM of obliterating Somali tradition, he is likely referring to the sexual exploitation of Somali women by AMISOM forces that were documented by Human Rights Watch, and much commented on locally. 

While there is strong condemnation and criticism of the entire Somali political scene, including the involvement of neighboring countries and the international community throughout his poetry, it is not until 2021 that one sees a clear indication of the embrace of armed militancy and of al-Shabaab, in particular. Several lines from a 2021 poem titled “Dibagwareeg” (“Wandering the Wilderness”) capture some of his reasoning in this transition. 

Gobannimo daraaddeed markay; digasho ii gaadhay,
Waxaan daydayaayiyo markaan; ‘dawladnimo’ waayay,

Dirir iyo col mooyee markay; hadal ka soo daashay,
Anigiyo duruufaha markay; dani walaalaysay,
Waxaan ‘duurka’ awgeed u galay; waa daliil adage!

Waa ‘Dibadwareeg’ wiilashii; daacadda ahaaye,
Waxa dhiigga loo daadiyaa; daw kalaan jirine!
Aniguna filkay kama duwani; qaatay daabaca’e,


On account of liberty when; I was besmirched,

The object of my quest when; I despaired over statehood, 

Except for enmity and war when; talk grew tiresome,

Conditions and I when; necessity has rendered us companions,

That which has driven me to the jungle; unshakable is the evidence, 

Wandering in the wilderness are the lads; who are sincere,

Blood is spilt because; there is no other remedy,

And I am no different than my peers; to heed revelation. 

He begins with lamentations at the personal cost he suffered on account of his commitment to Somali unity, and despair at the shortcomings of poetry in advancing national sovereignty and unity. These remarks serve as rationalizations of what comes in the last three lines, which is his unmistakable embrace of armed struggle and of al-Shabaab. The lads “wandering in the wilderness” clearly points to al-Shabaab, and the line “blood is spilt because; there is no remedy” is at once a response to the critique often made of al-Shabaab’s violence, as well as his own conclusion that talking and poetry has failed. It is worth noting that in the document he published online in October 2023, he states that he decided to join al-Shabaab two years ago. This makes this poem a record of his transition from a poet to an armed militant.

In the document he published online, Nageeye provides numerous photos of himself with prominent figures and constantly references conversations he had in Mogadishu, with Prime Ministers and Presidents, as well as intellectuals and media figures. Clearly, he was a popular figure on account of his poetry. His decision, therefore, to give up on poetry and turn to armed struggle demonstrates the poverty of the political scene today, dominated by politicians bereft of political vision capable of giving voice to the popular sentiments that Nageeye’s poetry articulated, and the reality of a population caught between atrocious national leadership and al-Shabaab.

Further Reading

Poetry as design

Collapsing the binaries hard-wired into the logic and narrative of “uber-gentrification;” the latter representing the conquest of science over art, technology over soul and innovation over old.