Building Somalia to Last

by Matt Hoisington

After more than two decades of turmoil there is finally hope in Somalia. The armed group al Shabaab is in retreat and Somalis are emerging from cover to create “Somalia 2.0.”  In order to capitalize on this window of opportunity and provide lasting solutions to the country’s problems, the international community and Somalia’s transitional leaders must avoid the impulse to throw together a centralized government before the population is ready. Instead, they should focus on devolving power to local actors and fostering a state-building process from the bottom up.

Somalia is often described as the paradigmatic example of state failure. Since the fall of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 the numbers are striking. Persistent conflict has displaced more than 1.5 million people and resulted in an additional 800,000 refugees. Life expectancy is among the lowest in the world. Famine and drought wreak havoc throughout the countryside. Over the past two decades, the toll on Somalis has been staggering: between 450,000 and 1.5 million have died. The economy is in tatters, with an average GDP of only $600 per capita. Proliferation and nonexistent law enforcement have precipitated the rise of dangerous armed groups, such as al Shabaab and Hizbul-Islam. In the absence of a functioning economy, pirates torment the coastline, operating unfettered and terrorizing both the population and international waters in search of sustenance. It is T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land meets Mad Max’s Thunderdome.

As a result, many policy makers see the country as hopeless and ungovernable absent the formation of a strong, centralized state. However, since 1991 a number of devolved mechanisms and institutions, including cross-clan collaborations, regional groupings, ideological federations and business alliances have emerged to close the governance gap. Somalis are known for their pluck, resilience and entrepreneurial spirit. They are also devoted to clan affiliations as well as the informal rules and juridical-political structures that govern the order, including membership in mag-paying (or blood payment) groups, the application of xeer (customary laws), the authority of shir (open councils that serve as the locus for dispute mediation and political debate) and the preeminence of Suldaan (clan elders).

In the territories of Somaliland, which declared independence shortly after Siad Barre’s demise, and Puntland, which has operated autonomously since the late 1990s, traditional clan-based structures were the basis for the emergence of peace, stability and economic development. Elsewhere in the country, these informal, local forms of governance also present unique opportunities for peacekeeping, peacebuilding and development. To capture the possibilities of the informal order the international community should embrace the politics of devolution and tailor its policies to fit the complex, fragmented and interdependent reality of Somali society.

Unfortunately, international engagement strategies to date have been driven by a single imperative: to revive the central government. It has bordered on a fetish. Despite the expenditure of more than $55 billion dollars, thirteen separate incarnations of centralization have ended in failure. The fourteenth and most recent attempt, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), has struggled to gain legitimacy among the population. The current roadmap process for ending the transition coordinated by the UN Political Office in Somalia (UNOPS) sets ambitious goals for constitution-drafting, security, reconciliation and good governance, but its problems are manifold. It operates on an unrealistically condensed time-frame and entrenches the same artificial power disparities that have undercut projects in the past. For example, the Garowe Principles adopted as part of the roadmap process envision initial appointments to political posts rather than direct elections. This will result in the formulation and ratification of a constitution by the elite, rather than a participatory process that includes contributions from the common Somalis who will be expected to adhere to the new rules.

Moreover, the successes currently being trumpeted by international and TFG officials are inflated. The TFG most resembles the government of a city-state with Mogadishu as its only area of effective control. It is essentially powerless absent the extensive and continuous counterinsurgency action carried out by African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces against al Shabaab. And as the recent suicide attack on the Somali national theater indicates, the security situation remains precarious. By artificially propping up the TFG and rushing the state-building process, both the AU and the UN exaggerate form at the expense of substance. The long-term implication of such misaligned strategies is the continuation of the present cycle: another failure for centralized governance and more suffering for the Somali people. Any gains will be ephemeral unless the population is enfranchised in support of the state-building project.

The time has come for more enlightened perspectives. A period of relative calm exists in Somalia, and in order to capitalize the international community must move beyond its stale centralization policies and embrace alternative approaches. By realigning engagement to take account of local and informal governance arrangements, peace, stability and economic prosperity may yet be achieved.

About the Author

Matt Hoisington is an LLM candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where he focuses on issues of peacekeeping, governance and the use of force.

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