Somalia: A Successful Transition in the World’s Most Failed State?

by Nanako Tamaru on October 18, 2012

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This year, for the fifth year in a row, Somalia has topped the failed states index. Plagued by armed conflict, drought, and corruption, Somalis have struggled to establish rule of law uniformly throughout the country. However, over the past few months, Somalis have made tremendous progress in addressing these challenges and have achieved unprecedented gains toward reestablishing the Somali state.

Somalia has lacked a functioning government since the fall of Siad Barre’s military regime in 1991. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was formed in 2004 to instill some sense of central governance after thirteen years of lawlessness and warlordism. Originally tasked with a five-year mandate, the TFG struggled to stay on track and required three extensions of its mandate. But over the past six months, the TFG and other transitional institutions have made sweeping progress toward completing the transition as mandated, albeit several weeks behind schedule. This transition represents a significant departure from the political status quo, exceeding even the most hopeful pundits’ expectations.

On August 20, the TFG dissolved and most of the new parliament convened. Although the transition was officially over, members were still being chosen and sworn in, the speaker of parliament, president, and prime minister all remained unnamed, and critics began to question whether the transition would come to fruition.  But on August 28, parliament elected former labor minister Mohamed Osman Jawari as the speaker, and on September 10 it elected Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as president. The President named Abdi Farah Shirdon Said as prime minister on Saturday.

While these milestones may seem standard and even mundane, they not only represent significant successes for the transition but also illustrate dramatic changes in the Somali political landscape. Leading up to the elections, pundits reflected on rumors of corruption and bribery and predicted the status quo reelection of political bosses from the transitional period. Contrary to these predictions, the election of Jawari and Mohamud, both respected and reputable politicians, marked a significant victory for Somalia’s political progress and may signal an end to the corruption and clientelism that has plagued the upper echelons of Somali politics for decades.

In addition to these political developments, the Somalis have also celebrated recent military advances against the Islamist militant group, Al Shabab, which previously controlled much of south-central Somalia. With Al Shabab now on the run, the Somali government has space and stability necessary to make real progress toward reestablishing rule of law.

Yet the true test of Somalia’s political resiliency still looms on the horizon. Two potentially destabilizing issues remain unresolved and will dictate the overall success of this new Somali government.

First, the Provisional Constitution is a foundational document but is by no means sufficient for governing the future Federal Republic of Somalia. The text largely circumvents any decisive content regarding contentious topics, such as elections, decentralization, and the relationship between the national government and federal states. Yet Somali leaders have so far impressed the international community with their determination and political will. The momentum gained through the successful and largely violence-free elections could provide the impetus needed to push these sensitive issues through, as long as clan-based tensions remain under control.

Second, the secession dispute with Somaliland remains unresolved. Somaliland is a separatist region that declared its independence in 1991 but is not internationally recognized as a sovereign state. Further, Somalia still considers Somaliland a constituent part of the country. In June, representatives of the two entities initiated the first formal talks on the status of Somaliland since the region declared independence. Talks were slated to recommence after August 20 but have not yet taken shape. This issue is particularly critical, as without a sufficient agreement, the resulting conflict could undermine all the progress made over the last few months. However, there is a range of options between the status quo and a two-state solution. If the parties are willing to move beyond their hard-line positions, they could negotiate a solution that accommodates the underlying interests of both Somalia and Somaliland.

The provisional government faces a daunting agenda—it must draft a permanent constitution amid historical clan politics while simultaneously balancing the interests of Somaliland and other federal entities. With the selection and appointment of officials finally complete, the new Somali government will launch into the difficult substance of its mandate. Instituting real change and establishing a viable government are just the first two items on that formidable list. Nonetheless, the fresh political leadership may provide just enough guidance and gumption to usher Somalia into a new era of stability and good governance.

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