Sunday, June 17, 2018
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The overlooked aspects of the formal state failure in Somalia: the colonial legacy and the incessant international scramble for Somalia

By Bashir Mohamed Hussein, PhD

The (formal) Somali State collapsed in January 1991. Since then, up until mid-2012, Somalia had had no central government and the country symbolised what is called “failed state”. On the other hand, to the surprise of many international observers, Somalia and its people have not failed but instead progressed and (to some extent) prospered amid stateless socio-economic reality. Local forms of governance, based mainly on traditional values and the age-old Somali customary laws (known as Xeer) that were previously suppressed by the colonial administrations and the subsequent formal state, have (re)emerged to take over from the centralised state which had failed to provide essential public services to its citizens long before it eventually ceased to exist.

On the other hand, the negative impacts of the endless internationally organised proxy wars including the cold war, which was not so cold in Africa in general and Somalia in particular, foreign-driven terrorism and highly deregulated “war on terror” have all resulted in massive loss of human lives and livelihoods, devastating destruction, forced displacements of the local population and colossal violation of human rights in Somalia. In this context, Somalia, particularly the southern and central part of the country, has been dubbed by some sectors of the international community as “accountability-free zone” to point out massive corruption and deviation of international aid. However, the accountability agenda in Somalia (and elsewhere) is a two-way process whereby both the local duty bearers and the international actors intervening in the country must be held to account. In effect, it must be said that thus far same terminology (i.e. accountability-free) could be applied not only to fraudulent local war profiteers and corrupt public officials but indeed to all main actors, including many international actors, involved in the long-lasting conflict in Somalia as they almost equally disregarded and violated the relevant international humanitarian law with near total impunity. Obviously, the vulnerable and defenseless civilian population has been paying the highest price.

In this context, over the last nearly three decades, Somalia has not attracted only warlords, various international mafias (including army and human traffickers), buccaneers and other predators but also a myriad of (political) scientists, orientalist, Africanists, anthropologists and other researchers who studied on and wrote prolifically about the causes and consequences of the failure of the formal state in Somalia and how “traditional governance” has filled successfully in many instances the political and socio-economic space vacated by the defunct central government. In other words, Somalia has become an open-sky international laboratory to study the so called fragile societies and failed states.

The divide and rule European colonial legacy

One long-standing and important root cause of the failure of the formal state in Somalia, which most of the said researchers have often overlooked, seems to be the role played by the legacy left behind by the European colonial powers. The few reputable international institutions that have acknowledged this long-standing caveat include the Dutch Scientific Council for Public Policy according to which, during the scramble for Africa:

Somalia attracted the (negative) attention of four foreign colonial powers. As one of the few African countries that (did) have ethnically homogeneous population it was divided into Somalia ruled by the Italians, Somaliland ruled by the British, Djibouti ruled by the Frenchs, Ogaden, formally part of East Ethiopia, and parts of Northern Kenya. This essentially (divide and rule strategy) laid down the foundations of the failure for the future state”   

Below is the original Dutch version (Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het Regeringsbeleid, 2010):

Somalië mocht zich verheugen in de belangstelling van vier koloniale machten. Somalië – nota bene een van de weinige Afrikaanse landen met een etnisch homogene populatie – was verdeeld over Somalia, geregeerd door de Italianen, Somaliland, geregeerd door de Britten, Djibouti, geregeerd door de Fransen, Ogaden, formeel deel van Oost-Ethiopië, en delen van Noord-Kenia: de fundamenten voor een failed state waren gelegd”.

The 21st century scramble for Somalia and related proxy wars

Now, as if the 19th century European dismemberment of Somalia and its ever-lasting negative impact and all the subsequent international proxy wars were not enough, a new wave of international partition for Somalia’s various regions, economic infrastructure and natural resources seems only to have been intensifying. According to a recent BBC report, a new scramble is in fact underway in Somalia. This time, in addition to the traditional usual suspects (i.e. the former colonisers) and their regional allies in East Africa, particularly Kenya and Ethiopia whose troops have been intervening in Somalia both within and outside the African Union Mission in Somalia, a host of new wanna be 21st century “influencers” including a number of fellow Muslim countries such as United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey have been as of late competing fiercely for their respective piece of the Somali bounty. The institutional weakness, widespread corruption, dependency on external aid and inadequate technical capacity on the part of the Somali counterparts have all compounded the problem further.

In this respect, Turkey, whose significant aid and highly visible infrastructure projects in the war-ravaged capital city of Mogadishu are highly appreciated by many Somalis, as well as the UAE have already secured strategic economic and military “concessions” in Somalia as they have taken over key ports and airports in such strategic coastal cities as Mogadishu, Berbera and Bosaso along the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. To lesser extent, another equally preoccupying proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been playing out in the background. This, too, has affected Somalia. Although less visible than other international proxy wars, Somalia has been also involved in this middle-eastern proxy war, which has worsened following the Yemeni civil war, by reportedly siding the Saudi government when the former President of Somalia had suddenly cut off the diplomatic relationship with Iran allegedly under enormous political and financial pressure from Riyadh. Apart from the middle-eastern-driven proxy wars, the Somali population is also particularly concerned about what seems to be an open-ended terrorism and counter-terrorism wars fought with deadly drones and suicidal attacks.

Against this background, and particularly in relation to the sudden takeover of the Somali ports and airports by foreign countries, there are many important and outstanding concerns on the part of large sections of the Somali society. These include but are not limited to:

  1. a near total lack of transparency when it comes to “terms” of the concerned contracts, i.e. who gets what at what terms and for how long?
  2. lack of clarity in relation to the (in)convenience of these long-term lease contracts for such strategic public infrastructures in economic terms for Somalis. For example, no known cost-benefit analysis for the takeover of such strategic public assets has ever been undertaken prior to signing of the said lease agreements between the parties;
  3. perceived or real (immediate or future) negative effects for the Somalia’s sovereignty. For instance, according to Somali media and other highly credible sources, Somali troops trained by these foreign countries do not always obey to Somali authorities. It also appears that Somalia would partially lose the control of its leased ports and airports;
  4. the not-so-remote or feared possible “doom scenario” whereby the real intension of some of these international investors would be to block a potentially booming international business and global logistical hubs along the strategically located Somali coasts. According to some analysts, in this (for Somalia) doom scenario, for example, the UAE intends to prevent possible future competition from Somali ports for its own ports and also for her other (apparently more important) strategic investment in the region such as Djibouti ports; and
  5. a second, even more frightening (again for Somalia), doom scenario stemming from a host of new security threats following the new military bases and the ever-intensifying international proxy wars in the country.

Concluding remarks

If anything, to their advantage, Somalis are said to be sometimes highly unpredictable. For instance, nobody expected the enormous political, economic and social resilience that the stateless Somali society has exhibited in the past quarter a century. However, at the face of monumental natural and man-made disasters, the renowned Somali resilience will be tested once again to its limits. Nonetheless, this time around, the basic tenants of the typical Somali resilience, including the traditional Somali social solidarity, the remittance and the livestock export industries and, above all, the traditional Somali governance mechanisms might be insufficient to avert the impending multi-dimensional threat posed by the ever-intensifying 21st century international scramble for Somalia. These foundations of the (past) Somali resilience have been to some extent put under severe pressure; hence, undermined and eroded.

On more positive note, despite its disadvantaged starting point and weak “contractual power” vis-a-vis powerful international partners and predators alike, the new Somali Government seems to be well-aware of the said threats and related present and future risks. Yet, a new vision and effective strategy is needed for the Somali government to deal properly with a multitude of threats, both internal and external, by mitigating significantly the inherent risks while at the same time taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the 21st world. In any case, the earlier the Somali government minimises its unsustainable financial and security dependency on foreign powers the better. Meanwhile, at the home front, the Somali government, both at federal and regional levels, needs to be as transparent as possible for the Somali citizenry to understand fully the costs and the benefits of the foreign investments in the country. Likewise, clear and fair ground rules and regulations for all kinds of foreign interventions and investments, transparency, accountability, serious fight against corruption and convincing cost-benefit analysis, which demonstrates a net flow of significant benefits from the leased public assets that outweigh the involved costs and externalities over the years to come, are all key to the epic battle in Somalia not only to win the hearts and minds of the general public but also to defend the sovereignty, security, natural resources and other strategic interests of Somalia.

Bashir Mohamed Hussein, PhD.

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