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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


International engagement in Somalia: lessons from Somaliland?

By Michael Walls, on 29 February 2012

Alex de Waal, writing in the NY Times on 21st February, argued that instead of focusing on the negative, international policy-makers should recognise the remarkable achievements of many in Somalia, and most particularly those of the self-declared Republic of Somaliland. [http://nyti.ms/zP0L4T] His comments were timed for two days before a major international conference on Somalia held in London and hosted by the UK government on 23rd February. But in the run-up to the conference, William Hague repeatedly used the phrase ‘Somalia is the world’s-worst failed state’, suggesting that the focus on the negative is here to stay. This is in spite of conference talk about ‘supporting local initiatives’ and the need for the process to be ‘Somali-led’. Taking a rather more cynical line, respected French academic Gerard Prunier described the conference as ‘Alice in Wonderland Goes Imperialist’, and ridiculed the organisers for calling for Somali-led initiatives while inviting few Somalis to the conference itself. [http://bit.ly/whCEH3] So how do we pick our way through the myriad of viewpoints?

While I agree with many of Prunier’s points and even much of his argument, I have to say that I am not as cynical about the process as he is. And while I wholeheartedly support the tenor of much of de Waal’s article, we need to take considerable care if we are to chart a constructive engagement that recognises positive achievement. The conference was welcome in many ways in that it raised many important questions and suggested a new sophistication in some of the discourse amongst the international donor, diplomatic and civil society communities. However, there is no consensus yet on what that sophistication means in policy terms.

And what of Somaliland? They have certainly achieved an immense amount. Meaningful elections, the transfer of power from a standing incumbent to his opposition challenger … these are remarkable advances, as is the durability of peace throughout most of the country. Indeed, Somaliland is seen by some as an object lesson in how Somalis will succeed if they are just left alone. But that fails to recognise the fact that Somali society has always been based on links, particularly through trade but also religion and politics, with the outside world and between different Somali clans. That model relies precisely on not being ‘left alone’. But Somaliland also clearly shows us that the nature of engagement is vitally important. Heeding that observation, many people are talking about the need to support locally-based initiatives. But there is great risk there too, because it means having to find a way of picking who to support. Somaliland has achieved a lot, and Puntland has also made some progress, but what about the burgeoning number of smaller entities who are claiming ‘local legitimacy’? Individuals were even handing out business cards at events in London during the week of the conference declaring them to be President of some hitherto unknown Somali state. Which ones are real and worth supporting?

As complicated as the situation is, there are some lessons we can learn as outsiders. There seems little doubt that there is a need for local disputes to be resolved before there is a move to form a ‘national’ government, whatever that might look like. That is the process that occurred in Somaliland. It means that there needs to be a great deal of discussion amongst Somalis and led by Somalis about how they will settle the complex web of grievances and counter-grievances that have built up over the past two decades of conflict in the south. International actors can support the process by allowing it to take place, by insisting that resolutions are agreed before the process moves on, and by providing small amounts of material support where there is a demonstrable need. But those interventions need to be proportionate. They must not dominate the process, which needs to succeed or fail on its own terms. In other words, there has to be real reward for local groups who succeed in agreeing a peace deal with their neighbouring antagonists, but they must also bear most of the cost of achieving that deal, and also the cost of failing to do so.

That also means that an early focus on elections would be counter productive. For many Somalis, representative democracy in which individuals are elected to make decisions on behalf of a populace is less democratic than the patriarchal but otherwise egalitarian (for men) system of discussion and debate that is employed under Somali custom. So elections are not a process of ‘democratisation’ but rather the opposite: a retreat from the slow and unpredictable process of consensus-building to a less egalitarian but more efficient form of decision-making. Now let’s not get this wrong: it is very likely that representative democracy will eventually be needed in some form in the Somali territories in order to facilitate the establishment of a reasonably legitimate state. That is, after all, the transition that Somaliland has gone so far towards achieving. But in the southern areas of the erstwhile Republic of Somalia, the time is not yet right for that transition. And in the meantime, external actors need to be prepared to go along with an unpredictable and probably fairly slow process of consensus-building.

The most remarkable thing about Somaliland is that, whatever the claims to the contrary, it was founded as a genuinely multi-clan polity, and no other multi-clan Somali political entity has been so successful and with such genuinely local involvement. The simmering tensions between the different clans represented within Somaliland’s colonial borders represent a significant challenge, but it is important to remember that those who are currently most dissatisfied with the Somaliland administration were intimately involved in the formation of the state between 1991 and 1997. The fact that Somaliland was founded as a multi-clan political union with broad local support should not be forgotten by anyone.

Part of the lesson is that political nationalism is not the same as cultural, linguistic or religious unity. The political nation-state is a construct that requires a great deal of compromise. Somali society is remarkably vibrant and, in many ways, successful. The measure of economic performance that would pass for GDP per capita if reliable data were available almost certainly surpasses that of neighbouring countries. The telecoms, finance and trade sectors thrive. Just about everywhere, not just in Hargeisa or Bosaso. But business unity and cultural, linguistic and religious commonalities have not formed a good base for nationhood elsewhere, so why should they here? The dream of a unitary state based on either one or other sub-clan grouping or, at the other extreme,  a Greater Somalia, just don’t make sense.

As the various actors who met in London on 23rd February move to develop a new approach to supporting stability in the Somali Horn of Africa, they would do well to build on local initiatives, and to support the successes that are already evident. But that needs to be done with caution and patience. Hurrying the process is likely to worsen security for the UK, US and Somalia’s neighbours and prolong the crisis for locals. But facilitating a process which is Somali-led requires a willingness by international actors to step back and let Somalis agree for themselves: first of all, the terms under which they’ll coexist with other clans and sub-clans; and, secondly, what their state will look like. That will test the patience and commitment of international actors, regardless of how sophisticated their dialogue. But it’s a test that they need to pass just as Somalis themselves must negotiate difficult compromises.

One Response to “International engagement in Somalia: lessons from Somaliland?”

  • 1
    Susan Maina wrote on 28 September 2018:

    Just my thoughts, a greater Somalia doesn’t make sense and is not helping the situation in the Horn of Africa. It is high time the international community acknowledges and support the locals to negotiate between the rival clans. As the International community supports development, it needs to be careful not to be lenient on any side but support the right course and advocate for the bigger picture.

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