[Dehai-WN] TheEastAfrican.co.ke: Somalia does not need a powerful state; this would perpetuate the war

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Tue, 29 Nov 2011 13:53:46 +0100

Somalia does not need a powerful state; this would perpetuate the war

By Richard Dowden, Royal African Society ( <javascript:void(0);> email the

Posted Teusday, November 29 2011 at 14:42

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. At one time they could
leave if they wanted to.

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
more or less made up of a single ethnic group. The other is 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.


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 northwest
territory, Somaliland, declared independence. The northeast, Puntland, also
declared itself self-governing until a proper government was restored. The
centre, Galmudug, is also self-governing. The civil 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 was in 2005, when the
clan warlords were defeated and Islamic courts took over the administration
of justice and kept the peace.

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 Nairobi.

The rest of the city and much of the south was at the mercy of Al Shabaab,
an Islamic fundamentalist movement. But Al 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 Al Shabaab, forcing them out of Mogadishu and other areas to allow
food aid to arrive.

This development, together with the Kenyan military incursion in the south,
presents the government - known as the Transitional Federal Government -
with an opportunity to prove itself and deliver food and security to the
people. But this is unlikely to happen, according to Prof Ken Menkhaus, a
Horn of Africa specialist.

"This is the TFG's best and probably last chance to do something right 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."

Meanwhile, holding elections 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 the various regions 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.
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.

Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society in London

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