> Somalia: Don't Force Statehood On Somalia
20 October 2011
The model for Somalia is Switzerland. Don't laugh! Political power in
Switzerland lies in the cantons - the 26 proud self-governing communities.
The state, such as it is, deals with international matters and national law.
Who cares - or even knows - who the president of Switzerland is. The way
people live and are governed is decided locally. The Swiss confederation
means that cantons have joined the state willingly and can leave if they
want to. If they were a simple federation, they could not.
Somalis - unlike the Swiss but like most Africans - are stuck with a
constitution that leaves total power in the hands of a president. Strong
centralised states are the legacy of colonial rulers and unsurprisingly the
inheritor governments have kept it that way. Terrible wars - such as those
in Nigeria, Ethiopia and Sudan - were fought to keep the countries together,
but in the latter two they failed. In Somalia civil war began in the late
1980s and since then fragmentation has continued. Good. Leave it that way.
It suits Somali society.
The odd factor is that Somalia is one of only two sub-Saharan African states
made up of a single ethnic group. The other being Botswana, the most
peaceful country on the continent. But the Somalis are different. I realised
that when I was having dinner with a minister at a restaurant in Hargeisa,
the capital of Somaliland. One of the waiters recognised my host and having
delivered the food, decided to give the minister an earful. In most African
countries the man would have been dragged off to jail - or worse. But not
only did the minister have to listen, he got to his feet and argued back.
This was an argument between equals.
"Every man his own Sultan" is how one Ugandan visitor described the Somalis
in the mid 19th century. Its nomadic tradition makes it a very
self-sufficient, individualistic society bound by complicated codes of
loyalty and rivalry. Within families and clans it is a very hierarchical
society. But between families and clans it is very level, competitive.
Somalis regard everyone as an equal. And they are used to defending
Traditionally disputes between Somalis were sorted out by the clan elders
who would arrange compensation payments after clan or family battles or
theft. In the north of Somalia, Somaliland, British indirect rule left the
traditional leadership of clan elders - collectively known as the Gurti - in
place. During colonial times Somaliland virtually managed itself and the
Gurti retained respect and authority. That has carried through to present
times and Somaliland is stable with political parties and democratic
elections. Twice electoral disputes have reached crisis point in recent
years. Each time the politicians have turned to the Gurti for a ruling which
has been accepted by all. In the Italian-ruled south the Gurti was dismissed
in colonial times but it still exists beneath the surface.
Somalia's civil war began in the 1980s between clans in a winner takes all
battle for total national power. The former British-ruled north west
territory, Somaliland, declared independence. The north east, Puntland, also
declared itself self governing until a proper government was restored. The
centre, Galmudug, is also self governing. The war continues as a battle for
Mogadishu, the capital and for the ports and fertile river valleys of the
south. It has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
Although alliances have shifted, no formula has been devised that can bring
peace at a national level. The only period of peace in the south was in 2005
when the clan warlords were defeated and Islamic courts took over the
administration of justice and kept the peace. Some courts were harsh but
southern Somalia was safe, trade and investment increased and people walked
freely in the streets, A united peaceful Somalia however, especially under
the rule of Islamic courts, was a threat to Ethiopia. The Ethiopians
persuaded the Americans this was Islamic fundamentalism taking over. The
Ethiopian invasion at the end of 2006, backed by the US and - shamefully -
Britain which should have known better, in fact strengthened the
fundamentalists. Three years later the Ethiopians were forced to withdraw
and were replaced by an African peacekeeping force of Ugandan and Burundian
troops. Since then they have managed to hold a small part of Mogadishu on
behalf of a weak ineffective government most of whose members reside in
The rest of the city and much of the south was at the mercy Al-Shabaab, an
Islamic fundamentalist movement. But Shabaab made the crucial mistake of not
letting foreign aid enter the country during the worst drought since the
1980s. That turned the drought into a famine and turned the people against
Shabaab, forcing them out of Mogadishu and other areas to allow food aid to
This presents the government - known as the Transitional Federal Government
(TFG) - with an opportunity to prove itself and deliver food and security to
the people. But this is unlikely to happen according to Professor Ken
Menkhaus, a Horn of Africa specialist. "This is the TFG's best and probably
last chance to do something right and capitalise on Al-Shabaab's weakness by
showing that it can and will govern well" he says. "I wish I could say I am
hopeful it will, but the TFG's track record so far points to the opposite
conclusion - it has never missed the opportunity to miss an opportunity."
The UN now talks glibly about restoring the Somali state and holding
elections. This is the way to continue the war, not end it. Political
parties in Somalia are little more than a cover for clans so an election
simply elevates one clan over the others. Allow the government in Mogadishu
to run the city and port, perhaps the Benadir region, but no further.
Negotiations should then take place region by region about the relationship
between them and the capital, leaving power in local - not national - hands.
The zones should be soft bordered encouraging trade and dialogue between
them. Taxes should be raised and spent locally. To act as the national
security blanket a forum of clan leaders could be formed, joined by traders,
businessmen, religious leaders, poets and musicians (both very important
people in Somalia) - in fact a sort of Somali House of Lords to
counterbalance the inept and greedy political class.
This forum might turn into a body that negotiates between groups and chooses
who should represent Somalia internationally and take the Somalia seat at
the UN and represent Somalia in its diplomatic missions. But neither the
forum nor the government should be given nationwide powers at street level.
That should remain entirely local. Any attempt to create a powerful Somali
state will ensure the civil wars will continue.
That is especially true of Somaliland where the feeling against the south is
still very bitter. Reunification with the south is unanimously opposed. Not
a single Somalilander I know wants reunification. Not a single Somali from
the rest of the country wants Somaliland to stay independent. Unless we are
very careful, peace in the south of Somalia will mean war in the north.
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Received on Thu Oct 20 2011 - 17:47:36 EDT