In exploring the difficulties experienced by the traditionally politically uncentralised Somalis in establishing a stable and effective state, based on their ethnicity, this article compares ethnicity, nationalism and lineage identity. In this case, ethnicity and nationalism are local products, influenced but not created by the colonial experience. They have had to contend with the intractable force of segmentary lineage identity, which has proved extremely difficult to adapt and accommodate to the requirements of modern statehood. In its cultural context, agnation is all the more pervasive and powerful in constituting an ‘invisible’ bond, conceived by Somalis as a biologically based distinction like ‘race’. Unlike race, it is almost infinitely elastic and divisible. Ethnic identity, which rests on external distinctions such as language, culture and religion, cannot be broken down into a series of formally equivalent segments, but is less binding as a social force. Today, after the collapse of the state of Somalia in 1991, following protracted grass‐roots peace‐making between clans, two parts of the nation—the former British Somaliland, and the north‐eastern region of Somalia (‘Puntland’, based on the Majerteyn clan, and other closely related clans)—have developed separate local states. Although Somaliland claims complete independence, which Puntland does not, both polities incorporate parliamentary institutions that accommodate traditional, and modern political leaders and processes. The ex‐Italian residue, Southern Somalia, still without any form of government, is in what appears to be the final throes of its long‐running, fourteenth grandiose international ‘peace’ conference in Kenya. Thousands of delegates, in various configurations, have already spent over eighteen months in these talks. Although its embryonic constitution now recognises ‘clans’ as constituent political units, this attempt to re‐establish Somalia is based on the usual ‘top‐down’ approach, rather than on spontaneous local negotiations amongst ‘stakeholders’ on the ground, such as those on which Somaliland and Puntland are founded. With contingents of foreign ‘experts’, the whole process seeks to reinstate a familiar Eurocentric state model, unadapted to Somali conditions.