It is a misrepresentation that profoundly misconstrues the truth on the ground by adversely affecting decision-makers’ ability to understand the Somali problem. Somalia’s conflict has originated and has been prolonged in part because it is mainly a complex social problem with broad political implications. It is particularly an acute social problem in managing and maintaining a modern state. It certainly is not a just a simple political conflict.
As far back as 1993, the world-renowned Somali affairs expert and anthropologist I M Lewis stressed the importance of recognizing the social clan structure of Somalia. This can also help in understanding the emergence of stable governing structures in the northern regions: Puntland State (the quasi-independent region in northeast), Somaliland (a self-declared independent state in Northwest Somalia). Number of other researchers also pointed out the regional disparities in social cohesion in what some termed order in some regions amidst the disorder that is Somalia.
The fact that many miss that the Somali problem is a social problem with political implications, unique in itself and unlike the dozen or so political conflicts in Africa or elsewhere; Somali society traditionally self organized itself into political orders, often collaborative, occasionally competitive and always independent of each other. This notion is verifiably and empirically confirmed by the political and social realities in today’s Somalia.
In a study titled “Dynamics of Collapse: Emergence of Alternative Forms of Governance” Ahmed and Bearkgaard of Arizona State University presented explanations of how the Somali state collapsed and how did the emergence of stable governing structures in the northern regions materialized over the years since the collapse of the former Somali Democratic Republic. The study concludes that the collapse of Somalia is “irreversible”, restoration of Somalia is beyond mechanistic policy design. The study also explains formation of decentralized regional authorities. (Examples of these are the system of governance used by Puntland and Somaliland; emergence of traditional polities and the formation of alternative decentralized governing structures).
The virtue of decentralized regional system is that it elegantly maps out the country’s segmentary social structure. In fact it allows for a bottom-up approach to governing Somalia, a solution that embraces the traditional social structure, local customs and fosters the Somali traditional, egalitarian democracy unique style of participatory governance that imparts a sense ownership. Some sort of egalitarian democracy may call it pastoral traditions of the Somali ethnic groups.
If empirical evidence is a guide and an authority for devising a solution to Somalia’s problems, then one would most certainly and at a minimum explore a solution based on decentralized, traditional or regional authorities.
Equally, empirical evidence points out that the civil conflict in Somalia is indeed confined to certain areas. For instance Northern States (Puntland and Somaliland) and to some extent Central Regions are far more stable than the chaotic south.
Beyond the question of terminology of what to call stable regions of the former Somalia, or steering the general discourse on Somalia, there is an ample evidence of total and utter failure on the part of the international players including the United States to understand the Somalia’s self-organization to decentralized traditional polities..
International community uses a rather obsolete paradigm based on viewing Somalia as a single entity. In reality Somalia has been single unified entity only for 31-years (from 1960 to 1991). The country has completely been decentralized or more precisely divided to areas with some form of functional government in the North and areas with prolonged civil conflict in the south. Sadly however, the international community failed to recognize the reality on the ground or address the so-called “Somali civil conflict” — a misnomer in itself that should be rather called the “Southern Somali Anarchy.”
There were a considerable effort in creating some kind of acceptable central government; most recently the UN has helped establish the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). While the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia is perhaps the best hope for Somalia, there are some serious issues with the credibility of the TFG. For Instance, the system upon which the TFG has been established is allegedly bottom-up system, however the TFG seems to conduct itself as a central commanding authority for all Somalia without credible ground support from anywhere in the country.
The TFG was supposed to act as a representative Federal Government that brings together quasi-independent states in a federal system. However there is no a independent regional entity that accepts the TFG with the exception of Puntland State of Somalia.
Moreover, the TFG is also alleged to have brought together diverse group of individuals from various clans, some very credible, some non-credible individuals from different areas of Somalia (an amalgamation of “who is who” of Southern Somali warlords, and some unelected personalities from northern and central Somalia).
This is not meant to be a critique on the TFG, indeed the intentions of TFG and those of the international community are well placed but they may just not understand the irreversible facts that what use to be Somalia is hardly restorable to its pre-1991 state. The de facto partitioning of Somalia is a real outcome that may be just irreversible.
At this juncture it may be just appropriate to point out that the TFG was interpreted by most Somalis in the south to be a government imposed on them. Equally Somaliland viewed the TFG as a possible threat. Similarly, Puntland took different stances at different times.
The skepticism of some Somali groups (whether in Puntland, Somaliland or the chaotic south), creates a dilemma for policy designers interested in a viable and effective policies towards Somalia’s problem. The dilemma that a common centralized governing structure could be perceived as a threat by some clans or regional entities and hence defeat the very objective of creating a credible central government. In fact, the very attempt to create a central government in Somalia can be a launching pad for future tensions, if not outright conflict. (just as it did in Mogadishu after the formation of the first TFG)
The temptation to constitute a central government in Somalia and efforts by the international community to concentrate on Southern Somalia could have perhaps been effective if South Somalia had the same mixed-clan demographic patterns that existed prior to the 1991 collapse of Somalia. However, there are new realities on the ground.
The 1990s were periods of massive human migration and self organization of the clans. The former Somalia has practically dissolved into its traditional clan based social and political entities. For instance, many civilians who live in Somaliland and Puntland are refugees from Mogadishu who may have roots in these northern regions. While the residents of these regions deeply believe in regionalism (in part due to their bitter experience), yet the majority of them would like to see the TFG succeed.
The international community must realize that Somali regionalism (whether it is a virtue or a vice) must be acknowledged. It must also be a parameter to consider when devising a policy for reconciliation and post-conflict institutional building. From policy design perspective, .regionalism is an essential element to consider. US, UN and the international community must view the former Somalia as a country that consists of distinct and divided regions.
It is therefore sensible for the United States, United Nations and the EU to abandon the premise of Somalia as a single monolithic entity. The international community will help its goals and help Somalia by establishing direct consultations with quasi-independent states such as Puntland and Somaliland in addition to the TFG on the future of a Somali nation state. This certainly is not a call to re-configure the TFG or to replace it but a realistic view of the state of affairs in what use to be Somalia; A view that encourages using the regional governments as allies to help in accomplishing peace in Somalia and the greater Horn of Africa region.
The United States in particular has a unique opportunity to treat Somalia as decentralized entities without officially affirming the country‘s dissolution. The U.S. must accept the moral and historical imperative of supporting peaceful regions such as of Puntland, Somaliland and hopefully future states in Southern and Central Somalia. Recognizing the importance of regional authorities (as quasi-independent states) is the first step to formulating policies to restore a viable Somali nation-state. For the “Somalia that once was”; the nation state that existed from 1960 to 1991 may not be restorable at all to its original state.
Abdul Ahmed III is a policy modeling specialist; he contributes to research institutions in Arizona, Washington DC and Virginia.
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