Rethinking State-building in a Failed State

Posted on 15/06/2010


As warships from a dozen nations patrol the waters off Somalia, trying to stem the piratical tide, the international community is once again trying torebuild a centralized government in Mogadishu capable of dealing with the country’s myriad woes. Today’s efforts are only the latest in a long line of attempts by outsiders to build a national authority in the world’s most anarchic country. Since 1991, the international community has launched at least fourteen peace initiatives in Somalia and spent more than $8 billion on efforts to create a
strong state.1 All have failed.

The spillover effects are already reaching U.S. shores. The children of Somali immigrants to the United States are being radicalized by the conflict, and senior counterterrorism officials believe that several dozen youths have left the United States to fight in Somalia, including one who earned the horrific distinction in the fall of 2008 of being the first American suicide bomber.

Somalia is, in short, a nightmare for its own citizens and a source of grave concern for the rest of the world. Ironically, however, the international community bears much of the  responsibility for creating the monster it now fears. Previous attempts to help Somalia have foundered because they have been driven by the international community’s agenda, rather than by Somali realities. The UN, Western governments, and donors have tried repeatedly to build a strong central governmentthe kind of entity that they are most comfortable
dealing within defiance of local sociopolitical dynamics and regional history.

Instead of repeatedly trying to foist a Western style top-down state structure on Somalia’s deeply decentralized and fluid society, the international community needs to work with the country’s long-standing traditional institutions to build a government from the bottom up.

The fact that Somalis share a common ethnicity, culture, language, and religion might seem to be an excellent basis for a cohesive polity, but in reality the Somali people are divided by clan affiliations, the most important component of their identity. The Somali populationsome 13—14 million people, including Somalis living in neighboring statesis divided into four major clans and a number of minority groups. Each of these major clans consists of subclans and extended family networks that join or split in a fluid process of ‘‘constant decomposition and recomposition.’’5 Like tribal societies elsewhere in the greater Middle East, the clans use deeply ingrained customary law to govern their communities
completely independent of modern state structures.

The Haarti grouping (a subset of the Daarood) created a semiautonomous region in the east called Puntland, while in the northeast the Isaaq clan led the effort to build Somaliland.

With or without UN and U.S. support, many statesamong them, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Italy, and Yemenhave since tried to bring Somalia’s factions together. Various conferences aimed at promoting national reconciliation, disarmament, and elections have been convened. The 1993 Conference on National Reconciliation in Addis Ababa saw fifteen groups sign an agreement to work together, but fighting continued and the accord was never implemented. The 1997 National Salvation Council, organized by the seven country Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), was boycotted by a number of key Somali groups. Representatives from twenty-five clans attended the December 1997 Cairo Peace Conference, but many factions rejected the results. A conference scheduled to be held in Baidoa in 1998 was postponed indefinitely and then cancelled. The 2000 Somalia National Peace Conference, the 2001 National Commission for Reconciliation and Property Settlement, and the 2002 Somali Reconciliation Conference similarly produced sparse results.

In the latest attempt to form a national government, the UN essentially established the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in 2004. Until Ethiopia invaded in 2006, however, the TFG never controlled more than a small area around one city near the Ethiopian border. Deeply divided, the TFG has no budget, no functioning civil service, and almost no control over the security forces that act in its name.13 The TFG, nonetheless, is recognized by the international community as Somalia’s legitimate government. (Ironically, not a single
government recognizes Somalilanddespite its far greater success as a state.)

Indeed, according to the New York Times, none of the numerous factions seems ‘‘powerful enough, organized enough or popular enough to overpower the other contenders and end the violence.’’ The inability of any group to unify the various factions or create even a semblance of stability in any part of the south has inspired ‘‘a general and frantic retreat of individuals to their sub-clan affiliations.’’

Its unimaginative approach to state-building seriously misreads the Somali sociopolitical context, showing little understanding for how a top-down strategy impacts the state’s fluid, fragmented, and decentralized clan structures. To make matters worse, the mistakes of the past are constantly being repeated, thanks to weak institutional memory (made worse by high turnover in embassies, aid agencies, and international organizations within the region); an unimaginative, uncritical, and template-driven approach to state-building; and a lack of accountability on the part of external donors, defense agencies, and aid organizations for the consequences of their failed policies.

Somalia calls out for a new approach to state-building, one that takes fully into account a country’s indigenous social fabric and institutions, and that attempts to build from the bottom up, integrating communal ways of working together into state structures. Much of Somaliland’s success can be traced to its ability to build governing bodies that are rooted in traditional and widely accepted Somali norms, values, and relationships. The ICU’s rapid expansion likewise owed much to its readiness to cooperate with indigenous institutions, which made many local groups willing to work with it despite a dislike for many of the religious norms it sought to enforce.

The post-1991 anarchy has, in fact, seen several examples of autonomous substate self-governance, where clan-based coalitions have managed to exert a degree of authority over certain regions. Working administrations and stability were established first in Somaliland, then in Puntland, Southwestern Somalia, Jubaland (in the south), and most recently in Galmudug (in the center). Except for secessionist Somaliland, all theseareas indicated an eagerness to be part of a federal Somalia.

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