New Approaches Are Needed for State-Building in Somalia

first published by the Fair Observer, 19 November 2014

In order to maintain the momentum in Somalia’s transition, policy space needs to be opened up to advance the country’s state-building process.

Having reached a milestone with the installation of the Federal Government of Somalia  (FGS) in September 2012, hope and optimism for a Somali future marked by peace and stability ran high. Bolstered by important military gains the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) had scored against al-Shabab, a jihadist group, since 2011, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud devised policy options that were both coherent and pragmatic, thus deepening confidence among international donors.

In January 2013, the US administration recognized the new Somali leadership, with other foreign governments and international organizations following suit. When the outgoing European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton declared that “Somalia is no longer a failed state,” international donors echoed her optimism by pledging billions of dollars for the reconstruction of the country during aid conferences in London, Yokohama and Brussels between May and September 2013.

Yet just over two years after having taken office, the outlook appears bleak for Mohamud. Al-Shabab is far from defeated and continues to carry out regular attacks; the process of writing a new, permanent constitution has reached a deadlock; and the federalism process has proven to be a source of conflict. Violence surrounding the emergence of the Interim Jubba Administration (IJA) in May 2013 was replicated in Baidoa in March 2014, when competing factions tried to establish federal member states in southern Somalia.

Moreover, as had been the case during the transitional era, corruption continues unabated, and political infighting has weakened the government. After Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon lost a vote of confidence in parliament in December 2013, President Mohamud had to fight for his own political survival when over 100 legislators demanded his resignation in May 2014. Consequently, donor confidence has been dented.

Against this backdrop, there seems to be a real danger that Somalia will fail again. Although some progress has certainly been made during the tenure of Mohamud, his government is a long way from standing on its own feet. In security, economic and political terms, the government appears to be as dependent on its multiple international partners as was the case for the preceding transitional federal governments.

What is more, some of the progress made in the political sphere may have serious repercussions for the development of the state. While the FGS has undoubtedly advanced Somalia’s federal agenda, the ad-hoc nature of this process risks contributing to continued fragility, deepened fragmentation and the reinvigoration of al-Shabab. These challenges, while frustrating, are hardly unusual in the context of state-building, which has historically proven to be a conflict-prone and drawn-out process.

A Rethink is Needed

For these reasons, neither Somali, nor international policymakers should resign themselves to failure. Yet rather than proceeding with business as usual, they should scrutinize and rethink their past and current approaches to state-building. Casting a critical eye over more accomplished state-building endeavors in the region is helpful in shedding light on the broad range of possible alternatives.

In this context, it is useful to refer to the case of Somaliland, long praised by international observers for its remarkable state-building effort. While Somaliland is a complicated example — it is neither an outright “success story,” nor does it “teach lessons” that are readily applicable to Somalia — it raises some important questions for Somali policymakers and their international counterparts to consider.

These questions range from whether to prioritize constitution-writing and democratization in state-building endeavors, to the elite’s need for a “political budget,” to the balance that must be struck between bottom-up and top-down approaches. Definitive answers to these questions are hard to come by, but the Somaliland case conveys a clear message: There is more than one path that leads to Rome. Consequently, international policymakers and their local partners in Somalia might benefit from taking a closer look at Somaliland’s state-building trajectory, which followed an unconventional path compared with approaches in Somalia and elsewhere.

A report by this author, published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies,  traces Somaliland’s trajectory and juxtaposes it with the one presently envisioned for Somalia, arguing that there are a broad range of possible state-building avenues to follow. While Somalia’s state-building framework — the European Union- and Somalia-brokered Somali Compact — prioritizes the passage of a permanent constitution, the establishment of a federal governance system and the holding of popular elections, Somaliland followed a different path, at least during the first decade after its unilateral declaration of independence in 1991.

By proposing that state-building can follow various pathways, this study opens up much needed policy space and encourages Somalis and their international partners to think more flexibly and creatively about the way ahead. In concrete terms, Somali stakeholders and their international counterparts should consider prioritizing the creation and development of livelihoods at the “bottom” over legalistic and procedural aspects of state-building at the “top.” Moreover, the report suggests that greater efforts must be made to enhance social cohesion and national unity, which would not only boost Somalia’s state-building efforts, but would also address the grievances that provide al-Shabab with its recruitment message.

State-building is an inherently conflictive, incrementally evolving, haphazard process, requiring tough choices to be made, setbacks to be accommodated and risks to be taken. If Somalia is to find its own answers to some of the key state-building conundrums Somaliland poses, its leaders need a flexible attitude and a good dose of inspiration. While the “New Deal” framework for aid effectiveness in fragile states, which Somalia embraced with the Somali Compact, is designed to provide Somalia’s political elite with additional policy space, taking a closer look at Somaliland’s state-building trajectory may prove inspirational.

Leveraging State-Building in Somalia: learning from Somaliland’s Non-Roadmap

first published by African Arguments, 19 November 2014

Hope and optimism accompanied the installation of the new Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) in September 2012, but today, the administration appears to be drifting towards failure once again. Al-Shabaab remains far from defeated, social fragmentation within Somalia is on the rise, and while corruption continues unabated, political infighting paralyzes the country. Despite initial progress, considerable international support, and the endorsement of a “New Deal Compact” for Somalia at an EU-Somalia conference held in Brussels in September 2013, the joint efforts of the government and its international partners have been unable to translate burgeoning progress into a more sustainable trajectory away from perpetual conflict and fragility.

Although its record is hardly spotless, the self-declared Republic of Somaliland – which declared its independence from Somalia in May 1991, but has not yet gained recognition as a sovereign state by the international community – has fared noticeably better in establishing basic levels of peace and stability. While it is inadvisable to simply transpose alleged lessons learned from Somaliland to Somalia, the former’s experience provides useful insights for the latter’s state-building endeavour. Somali policymakers and their international partners might benefit from taking a closer look at Somaliland’s trajectory, which followed a somewhat unconventional path.

Thinking Beyond Roadmaps in Somalia – Expanding Policy Options for State Building’ juxtaposes Somaliland’s state-building project with the one envisioned for Somalia. Depicting that there are a broad range of possible state-building avenues to follow, the by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published report argues that the roadmaps devised for Somalia thus far have been both too prescriptive and constrictive. At its most basic, the report aims at opening up much needed policy space for Somali state-builders and their international counterparts.

Subsequent to analysing the TFG’s performance since its inception in 2012, the report investigates the case of Somaliland and synthesizes the insights that can be gleaned from it. It talks to the generally perceived need to adopt a permanent constitution and hold popular elections, two priorities in Somalia’s state-building framework that have come to dominate the scene. Yet, Somaliland’s development shows that neither a permanent constitution nor democratic elections are decisive preconditions for initiating state-building. In fact, it took Somaliland a decade after having established a government to author and adopt a constitution, which, by the way, lacked any prior popular consultation. And it took the polity even longer to hold first elections, witnessing a strong executive with significant traits of authoritarian governance in the interim. Meanwhile, elections to the Upper House of Parliament still need to be conducted.

Another observation that can be made in the context of Somaliland’s trajectory is that peace-building and state-building do not follow a linear succession, nor do they necessarily go in tandem. While aspects of peace-building and reconciliation at the ‘grassroots’ have frequently been highlighted as key components of Somaliland’s state-building project, its state-building progress during the 1990s was at least as much marked by violent conflict. Although the latter frequently upset the newly won peace, it also allowed for the institutionalization of particular ‘rules of the game’. Against the backdrop that dominant development paradigms in general and the “New Deal Compact” in particular assume that peace-building and state-building are mutually reinforcing processes, it might be important to realise that this might not always be the case.

The report provides numerous other insights to illustrate the fact that Somaliland’s trajectory diverged significantly from the one envisioned for Somalia. Certainly, these observations are not to propagate a violent, corrupt, and authoritarian approach to state-building in Somalia, but they carry a powerful implication: namely, that there is more than one path that leads to Rome. In light of such a broad range of state-building experiences, the report encourages bolder policies. Rather than being too dogmatic and uninspired, the FGS and its international backers should adopt greater affinity towards innovation, experimentation, and risk-taking. As there is no ‘playing safe’ when it comes to state-building, the Somaliland case advocates for going beyond the conventional tool-kit.

What does this mean in tangible terms, and how can the insights that emerge from Somaliland be translated into concrete policies to advance Somalia’s state-building endeavour? Among others, the report advances the following recommendations:

First, fighting Al-Shabaab should no longer take centre stage in Somalia’s state-building effort – at least not in its current military form. Besides several other drawbacks, this locks both Somali state-builders and the international community at large into a mind-set in which countering violent extremism is confused with state-building. Yet, they are fundamentally different. Moreover, Al-Shabaab is a symptom rather than cause of fragility and needs to be addressed in socio-economic and political terms as well. And while the extremist movement may well be the most immediate and obvious challenge to stability in Somalia, it is by no means the most important one.

One much greater challenge for Somalia’s immediate progress, the report argues, lies in the continued fragmentation of its society. Somalia not only faces ineffective institutions and a fragile state, but also a very fragile society. As simply building institutions and enhancing their capacity is insufficient for state-building, Somalia and its international partners must do more to augment social cohesion and build national unity. Classical state-building approaches need to be amended by components of nation-building in order to be effective. This would not only boost Somalia’s reconstruction effort, but would also deprive Al-Shabaab of much of its nurturing grounds.

Third, and related, there needs to be a significant effort to establish genuine political parties that run across clan lines. Political jockeying ahead of the 2016 elections has already begun in Mogadishu and Minnesota. But as long as there is a dearth of political parties with distinct, coherent and reliable party programs, rooted in the needs of certain constituencies, political mobilization is prone to run along age-old kinship parameters. In turn, this is likely to spur social fragmentation, enhancing the risk of violent conflict. Building genuine political parties with tangible political programs and a diverse followership in terms of clan affiliation is key not only for holding elections in less than two years and realizing Vision 2016, but also to advance and deepen national dialogue on federalism and other salient issues.

Fourth, and finally, the report postulates that the international community should place greater emphasis on enhancing agricultural productivity and manufacturing. As long as there is no productive economy, it will be difficult to establish genuine political parties and other interest groups, overcome social fragmentation, enhance national unification, and counter Al-Shabaab. Rather than focusing on top-heavy, legalistic and procedural issues to state-building as is currently the case, the FGS and its international partners should consider stepping up their efforts of creating and improving livelihoods, which is foundational for an educated and politically engaged citizenry.

State building is a conflict-prone, high-risk, protracted, and haphazard process, in which not all good things necessarily go together. As past approaches to reconstruct a Somali state have had a mixed record at best, we need to think beyond roadmaps and expand policy options for state-building in Somalia.

The al-Shabaab Distortion: Somalia’s Real Challenges Lie Elsewhere

first published by the Fair Observer, 19 July 2014

Given that fighting al-Shabaab does little to advance Somalia’s state-building, other approaches need pursuing.

Al-Shabaab’s attack on the presidential palace in Mogadishu on July 8 is the latest in a string of violent assaults that have afflicted Somalia and neighboring countries. The militant Islamist group’s ability to penetrate the heavily fortified presidential complex is a testimony to the movement’s potency to disrupt reconstruction efforts of the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS).

This is particularly striking against the backdrop of enhanced security precautions the FGS had recently taken, and the military offensive the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali National Army (SNA) had launched on March 5. As with the assault on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in September 2013, there is a risk that al-Shabaab’s “Ramadan offensive” will trigger a predominantly military response by the FGS and its international allies.

Distortion at Play
However, as argued in a study by the Life and Peace Institute, dividing Somali political actors into a binary dichotomy of extremists and moderates has produced a distorted understanding of the conflict. Partly rooted in the prevailing counterterrorism narrative, this distortion goes in tandem with a one-sided perception of al-Shabaab. Yet as rightly pointed out by the International Crisis Group’s latest policy briefing on Somalia, the group is multifaceted and constitutes much more than an armed insurgency. Unfortunately, simplistic portrayals of both the Somali conflict and its most prominent fomenter have significantly hampered the country’s prospects for conflict resolution and state-building.

Simultaneously, there is another distortion at play when it comes to al-Shabaab, namely the ubiquitous proposition that the Islamist movement constitutes the greatest challenge to peace and stability in Somalia. However, this is questionable for two reasons.

First, at the grassroots, al-Shabaab offers practical solutions and benefits for numerous communities, including the mediating of clan disputes, establishing local governance arrangements and providing basic services. Second, despite popular claims to the contrary, defeating al-Shabaab is not a precondition for advancing Somalia’s state-building project. For one, a victory over the extremist movement is likely to catalyze local clan disputes. For another, the historic track record of state-building shows that the creation of governance structures has, for better or for worse, generally been accompanied by violent contestation, particularly during early phases.

Somalia’s obstacles toward peace, stability and prosperity lie beyond the challenge posed by al-Shabaab. Just as has been acknowledged in the case of pirates, the Islamist movement constitutes more of a symptom of underlying discrepancies rather than an insurmountable core problem in and of itself. Consequently, the FGS and its international backers should not exhaust themselves and their scarce resources in hopeless military operations against al-Shabaab which, if anything, have encouraged it. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and the international community should consider devoting more attention toward tackling Somalia’s more fundamental problems, which would allow them to kill two birds with one stone: rebuilding a functioning state and, thereby, draining al-Shabaab of its fertile soil.

Somalia’s Real Challenges
There are four key challenges facing Somalia. First, the fragmentation of clans not only challenges prospects for peace and stability in the country, but also provides fertile soil for al-Shabaab. That this dynamic has seen a revival with the rolling out of a federal agenda is evidenced by the increasing tribal tensions in southern Somalia. Rather than curbing such fragmentation, the military advances against al-Shabaab appear to have furthered it by establishing a power vacuum. While al-Shabaab has frequently exploited resulting clan competition to its own benefit, such fragmentation is poisonous for Somalia’s state-building endeavor. Hence, the FGS needs to successfully forge social cohesion on a national scale, if it wants to establish peace and stability.

Second, the FGS needs to come to grips with the lack of a political vision. As of today, the government has failed to put forth a tangible plan on how to move forward in newly liberated areas or with regard to federalism. Against the backdrop of remaining social fault lines involving clan identity, the recommendation of “facilitating local clan dialogue and reconciliation” is generally advanced. Yet its relevance is not only questionable in an environment of constantly shifting alliances, but it is also backward-looking and divisive in nature. What the FGS needs to come up with is a common vision that paints a tangible and realistic picture of the future. Such a vision could bridge clan divides, implement a political agenda for action, and provide an ideological framework that allows the FGS to mobilize popular support for state-building and, therefore, challenging al-Shabaab’s hegemony in terms of vision.

Third, a fundamental obstacle lies in the void of local administrations. For one, the absence of formal administrative structures has provided al-Shabaab with the possibility to fill this gap. This has not only allowed the extremist movement to establish its presence in rural areas for the past decade. It has also enabled al-Shabaab to become part and parcel of political governance at the grassroots level. For another, it has deprived the FGS of the ability to control territory, provide basic services and gain traction among local constituencies. The arrival of ill-disciplined SNA troops and corrupt government officials in newly liberated areas soured rather than watered the population’s appetite for central government control. Therefore, the challenge of setting up functioning administrative structures needs to be embraced, in order to defeat al-Shabaab and build a viable state.

Fourth, the FGS must tackle concerns combating poverty, reducing vulnerability and providing livelihoods by creating employment opportunities. While poverty remains endemic, warnings of famine are once again on the rise. Yet creating loyal fellowship for its state-building project will be hardly possible in the absence of tangible improvements to popular livelihoods. Similarly, it seems next to impossible to create an engaged citizenship, without a productive economy and the ability for popular taxation.

If the Somali government and the international donor community continue to remain largely unable to reduce the multitude of risks the Somali population faces, the objective of building a viable state and defeating al-Shabaab will remain a distant dream.

Going Beyond Military Approaches
Clearly, insofar as al-Shabaab is an insurgency movement, it needs to be countered militarily. However, this should not lead the FGS and its international partners to become “locked” in a military response. Not only do continued military campaigns against al-Shabaab provide it with nurturing grounds, but they also divert attention from the underlying challenges for peace and prosperity in Somalia. Frequently heeded calls for “political inclusion” of the extremist movement are questionable. Not only do both sides of the table contain elements who reject political dialogue, but such a solution maintains the focus on al-Shabaab as the primary hindrance to stability and development in Somalia. Yet as this seems to be far from the truth, al-Shabaab should be given less rather than more attention.

Given that fighting al-Shabaab militarily does little to advance the fate of the Somali population and the FGS’ state-building project, other approaches need to be found. The most promising way forward appears to be a strategy that hones in on building a functioning state apparatus which, by consequence, renders organizations such as al-Shabaab irrelevant to the local populace. This is a long-term and difficult endeavor. Yet the FGS and the international donor community should consider such a strategic shift before President Mohamud’s term is up, and his empty-handedness triggers the international community’s retreat from Somalia.

Africa: The EU-US Security-Economy Nexus

EU-ISS Alert, co-authored with Cristina Barrios.

Africa has come to rank high on the US and EU agendas this summer. After the EU hosted its fourth EU-Africa meeting on 2-3 April, US President Barack Obama is preparing his first ‘US-Africa Leaders Summit’ for 4-6 August. Meanwhile, French President François Hollande is visiting the Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, and Chad this very weekend. His tour comes only days after France announced its decision to replace ‘Operation Serval’, undertaken in response to the military offensive of radical Islamists in Mali in early 2013, with a wider counter-terrorism operation codenamed ‘Barkhane’. Other EU member states are also redefining their engagement with Africa: Germany, to name one, is seeking closer military cooperation with France in the Central African Republic and is in the process of elaborating a new Africa strategy.

What emerges from this renewed attention towards the continent is that both the US and the EU have subscribed to a two-pronged approach encompassing a focus on security and economic cooperation. Thereby, they converge on a specific understanding of both security and economic aspects. While security is largely framed as countering violent extremism, economic cooperation has primarily come to be seen through a trade lens. However, such confined conceptualizations of security and economic development are problematic. For one, restricting security to military operations in general – and counter-terrorism activities more specifically – risks hobbling ongoing efforts in support of democratic governance and state-building, as a recent study of the Life and Peace institute has shown for the case of Somalia. For another, although trade carries the potential of fostering economic development, this is not a foregone conclusion.

This Alert examines how both the US and the EU have subscribed to a renewed attention on a narrowly defined security-economy nexus. It argues that past international engagements in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and elsewhere have, however, shown that a broader understanding of security is needed, if the challenges emanating from both extremism and underdevelopment are to be tackled effectively and sustainably. Similarly, it proposes that trade is not the ‘silver bullet’ to eradicate poverty, but that it needs to be accompanied by social investments and redistribution policies. At its most basic, the alert postulates that both African crises and opportunities can only be seized to the benefit of all involved, if a narrow focus on security and trade is expanded to include the strengthening of governance mechanisms and build-up of effective states.

To access the alert, please click here.

Somalia: Heading from Fragility to Fragmentation?

first published by AfricanArguments, 26 Jun 2014

Somalia has achieved important progress since the onset of the year of 2014. Most prominent among the positive developments is the push-back of al-Shabaab, realised by a joint military offensive of the Somali Armed Forces (SAF) and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). While security remains precarious, the territorial gains have provided the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) with an oppor­tunity to extend its administrative reach – a crucial precondition for its long-term state­-building project and endeavour to hold country-wide elections by 2016.

However, it remains questionable whether the govern­ment of Prime Minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed will succeed in reaping sufficient benefits in order to be able to propel the country’s state-building process. Although advances against the terrorist organisation are crucial, the fight against al-Shabaab constitutes only part of the equation. Another basic element lies in the process of erecting functional structures of governance in the context of Somalia’s federal agenda. Yet, recent quarrels at the sub-national level raise the fear that Somalia may be heading from fragility to fragmentation.

The EU-ISS policy brief ‘Somalia’s federal agenda: From fragility to fragmentation?’ takes a closer look at this proposition. The paper critically assesses the recent trajectory the country has embarked upon, putting a particular focus on Somalia’s federalism process and its implications for the state’s endeavour to establish lasting peace and stability. The paper shows that the political ‘transition’ that Somalia officially terminated with the formation of the FGS in September 2012 is in full swing, and that this process carries centrifugal tendencies that risk renewed conflict.

A key challenge Somalia faces lies in the ad-hoc nature of the process that underpins the formation of federal member states. While the evolution of regional tensions had to be expected, the resulting tug-of-war among Somali actors has hampered political progress. It also led to increased factionalism, propelling local tensions and clan-related cleavages. Somalia’s history provides ample evidence of the dangers this trajectory entails. Apart from compromising the state-building progress achieved to date, increased fragmentation could also lead to a reinvigoration of al-Shabaab, which has always been effective in exploiting local grievances and national disunity.

In order to prevent Somalia from sliding from fragility to fragmentation, the policy brief proposes that Somalia’s international partners may contemplate strengthening the central administration vis-à-vis the federal member states and supporting a just process by which federal polities are established. In part, this could be done by helping the FGS to institutionalise the process that underpins the formation of federal member states, and bolstering the Boundaries and Federation Commission that the Provisional Constitution tasked the FGS to create. This could be achieved by making it clear that international development funding to regional administrations will hinge on their prior approval by the FGS.

Moreover, the international community needs to ensure that its support towards Somalia’s national process of federalisation does not fuel internal conflict. One possibility lies in adopting a flexible process that provides the FGS with sufficient room for political manoeuvre, and hands ownership over the state-making process to the Somali people. Consequently, all donors should strongly adhere to the Somali Compact, as it continues to be the most suitable framework to assist the FGS in rebuilding basic and durable state functions. Even though the Somali Compact is not the silver bullet that will turn the long-time ‘failed state’ of Somalia into a stellar democracy, its principle tenets constitute an important step in reconstructing Somalia – not least by coordinating its international supporters.

More challenging, but of even greater importance, is the unification of the Somali people. For its part, the EU, in addition to its already significant contribution to the country’s security sector, might also consider the possibility of providing support for the establishment and the promotion of national political parties. Genuine political parties with convincing party programmes and an active followership that extends beyond a handful of Mogadishu-based politicians could prove to be valuable vehicles in attempts to transcend the sub-national purview of political entities, overcome age-old clan-based disputes, and provide viable platforms for national dialogue. Ultimately, a democratic trajectory for Somalia will be hard to achieve in the absence of both a unified national constituency and genuine political parties.

Not entirely unexpectedly, the advancement of Somalia’s federal agenda has proved to be a contentious process. The resulting fragmentation it has experienced, particularly in recent months, risks perpetuating and even exacerbating its fragility. In order to move forward constructively and overcome political instability, the country needs to start building institutions and identities that span regional and clan divides. Only then will Somalia stand a chance of achieving the ‘Vision 2016’ that the FGS devised last September.

Somalia’s hydrocarbon potential: Oiling or spoiling its future?

first published by AfricanArguments, 09 Jun 2014

Constituting the petroleum sector’s latest ‘frontier region’, Somalia constitutes not only one of the most promising, but also most challenging potential oil exporting countries. Whereas international enterprises face risks with regards to political fragility, legal ambiguity, and physical insecurity, Somalia looks down the barrel of the negative political, economic, and social effects of the ‘resource curse’. Moreover, the country also has to confront a variety of additional challenges that are certain to arise from oil exploration and production in the context of its nascent state-making endeavour. One key risk is that the development of its petroleum resources is likely to catalyse an already tense situation, enhancing the danger for violent conflict in the war-ravaged country. In order to oil rather than spoil ongoing processes of state-making and development in Somalia, all stakeholders involved need to exercise utmost caution in further developing Somalia’s hydrocarbon potential.

The recent resource bonanza in East Africa has not stopped at the borders of one of the most fragile states in the world. Instead, Somalia finds itself canvassed by a range of international oil and gas companies, which are attracted by the large profit margins that accrue from developing the fragile country’s hydrocarbon potential. Ever since the first well in Somali soil was drilled by Sinclair in 1945, a total of about seventy wells have been sunk in Somalia. After major oil companies had declared force majeure and abandoned the country in the years surrounding the end of the Cold War, newcomers have embarked on exploring the country’s hydrocarbon potential in recent years. Although information about Somalia’s fossil fuel endowments remain scant, they are estimated to be as high as 110 billion barrels, putting the state at the Horn of Africa at eye-level with Kuwait.

Consequently, stakes are high and the development of its natural resources holds significant potential for Somalia. To be sure, the geological formations that show striking parallels to those of oil-rich Yemen across the Red Sea, provide an opportunity to lift the destitute Somali nation above a per capita GDP of about USD 112 (current US Dollars; see UN Data). Yet, such a positive trajectory is by no means assured, as the development of Somalia’s hydrocarbon resources faces a host of serious challenges that could not only jeopardize the country’s oil production, but its very state-making. One challenge lies in the ‘resource curse’, others in the political competition among Somali stakeholders as well as legal ambiguities. Hence, the central question is whether and how the country’s natural endowments can be developed in a way that bolsters rather than thwarts its progress towards peace and development.

A recent policy brief entitled “Oil in Somalia – Adding Fuel to the Fire?” published by the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies in Mogadishu aims to address this question. Although the conundrum whether Somalia’s hydrocarbon endowments will ultimately be a boon or bane for its trajectory hinges on a multitude of variables and evades simple projection, the paper cautions against a ‘business as usual’ approach. Shedding some light on Somalia’s political, legal, economic, as well as social conditions, and assessing their preparedness to cope with the shocks and challenges that will accompany the development of hydrocarbon endowments, the policy brief points towards some of the central obstacles Somalia faces with regards to the development of its natural resource wealth. At its heart, the report argues that Somalia is ill-prepared to embrace the challenges posed by the extraction of oil, and that major progress in the political, technical, and administrative spheres needs to be made, if hydrocarbon production is to oil rather than spoil the country’s future.

Somalia: Challenged by Oil Production

One key challenge the production of oil and gas holds for Somalia lies in the economic realm. As is the case for many other developing countries, Somalia faces the risk of the ‘resource curse’. Yet, in the Somali context the challenges accruing from this phenomenon are exacerbated due to the extraordinary infancy of the country’s formal institutions and legal framework. Moreover, Somalia’s administration remains feeble and lacks a well-trained cadre of technocrats to appropriately deal with oil production and revenue management. And in the absence of a sizeable non-hydrocarbon economy, the country is unlikely to beneficially counter the adverse effects of the ‘Dutch disease’, which results in wage increases across the economy that hits tradable sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing particularly hard. Thus, from the perspective of economic development, the production of oil and gas seems to constitute a real danger for Somalia.

Another central defiance – and one that is more particular to the case of Somalia – lies in the socio-political sphere. Prospects for hydrocarbon discoveries have spurred a ‘resource race’ in which different political actors have started to carve up oil blocks in order to enhance their politico-economic bargaining power vis-à-vis political competitors. Consequently, this race for oil is likely to catalyse both existing and burgeoning rifts and political tensions at the sub-national level – particularly in an environment in which demands for federal state structures have gained momentum, and one which remains marred by significant legal ambiguities. The border clashes between security forces from Puntland and Somaliland in eastern Sanaag Region in April 2014 could prove to be but a first taster of the significant tensions and violent contestation that come in tandem with the exploration and production of Somalia’s hydrocarbon wealth.

But there are further obstacles to the beneficent development of Somalia’s natural resources that the report identifies. For one, hydrocarbon prospects are likely to attract the attention of other states, whose interest might not be well aligned with Somalia’s state-making endeavour. Kenya’s interest in Somalia’s oil resources appears to have been a key driver behind Nairobi’s 2011 decision to militarily intervene in Somalia, and the US government demanded its Somali counterpart to recognize the rights of US oil companies that had declared force majeure when the regime of dictator Mohammed Siyad Barre crumbled in 1991, prior to extending recognition in 2013. For another, the development of Somalia’s hydrocarbon endowments may also spark local tensions and undermine the Somali government’s endeavour to facilitate reconciliation at the local level. Finally, the study highlights the significant legal challenges and lack of clear constitutional framework, which might result in entrenched conflict among leaders of different political entities within Somalia.

Addressing the Defiance

In light of such challenges, the report concludes that it appears that oil exploration and production is likely to exacerbate an already difficult process of forging a functioning elite bargain and setting up transparent and reliable institutions in order to advance the country’s state-making endeavour. Consequently, the paper urges all actors involved in the process of hydrocarbon development to exercise a great deal of caution, in order to avoid adding fuel to the fire. More concretely, some of the recommendations voiced are:

First, the Federal Government of Somalia needs to address existing legal ambiguities and political points of contention. For one, Somali legislators should revise the country’s legislation that regulates the exploitation of natural resources. For another, the FGS must find a politically viable and binding solution to the question of who has the right to enter into – and the responsibility to honour – contracts with oil companies. Moreover, Somalia must investigate how to best acquire and sustain technical expertise and administrative capacity in order to effectively negotiate and manage oil agreements with international companies.

Second, Somali authorities, assisted by its international partners and oil production companies, should devise a strategy to actively manage public expectations emerging in relation to natural resource exploitation. Possibly, an interstate commission on natural resources could take on this task. By acting as a knowledge platform and drawing on experiences from other oil-producing countries with federal state structures, such a commission could also mediate among different levels of government and advise them on how to best move forward.

Third, international oil production companies need to take great caution not to upset the little progress towards state-making and development that Somalia has achieved throughout the recent past. Apart from strictly abiding to Somalia’s national laws, international companies should await the conclusion of political and legislative proceedings at the part of Somali authorities, before production initiatives forward. Concurrently, the international donor should consider investing much more strongly into the establishment of a productive economy in Somalia, and explore possibilities of using aid funds in such ways as to smoothen out volatile government budgets that are certain to fluctuate if Somalia becomes increasingly dependent on oil revenues.

For Somalia, the road towards the development of its hydrocarbon potential is winding and full of challenges. The country’s fragile political situation, weak institutions, legal immaturity, and host of further obstacles raise doubts as to whether it is well-prepared to embrace the obstacles that come with hydrocarbon development. In order not to add fuel to the fire, but to make greatest use of the country’s hydrocarbon potential, a great deal of caution is required from all parties involved. Only if oil exploitation is seen as a means to the end of establishing a viable state, rather than an end in itself, can Somalia’s hydrocarbon endowments possibly oil rather than spoil its future trajectory.


State-Making in Somaliland: Exhibiting the Other Side of the Coin

first published on Seth Kaplan’s blog, 09 Jun 2014

The de facto state of Somaliland has featured prominently as constituting an exceptional case of state-making in both academic and policy communities. Consequently, the case has not only come to be considered a ‘success story’, but has been elevated to constituting ‘Africa’s Best Kept Secret’. Three key reasons appear to account for this widespread conception. First, Somaliland has indeed fared significantly better in terms of governance and development as compared to its closest counterpart, south-central Somalia. Second, international observers have frequently emphasized the peaceful, bottom-up, and democratic elements of its trajectory at the expense of other traits. And third, these alleged hallmarks of Somaliland’s state-making project have fallen on fruitful grounds as they are well in line with the pluralist and liberal conceptions of state-making that largely dominate international development approaches.

Somaliland’s Trajectory: Not all Roses, Though

Yet, in an article entitled ‘Somaliland’s Best Kept Secret: Shrewd Politics and War Projects as Means of State-Making’, published in the Journal of Eastern African Studies, I provide evidence that suggests that Somaliland’s state-making project has not exclusively been signed by benevolent traditional authorities and grassroots democratic governance. While neither dismissing the polity’s achievements, nor neglecting the important role played by elders and civil society, the paper scrutinizes the rather one-sided picture of Somaliland’s trajectory that has emerged over the years. At its core, the article argues that the Somaliland case entails important insights with regards to state-making. Although respective ‘lessons’ might not be fully in tune with popular international development approaches, they need to be taken serious, if we do not want to fall prey to the blinders inflicted by reigning development paradigms.

By scrutinizing the overly rosy picture that has commonly be painted of Somaliland’s state-making trajectory of the 1990s, the article argues at its most basic that not even in the remarkable case of Somaliland have all good things gone together. To be sure, the self-styled republic’s development has not only showed considerable traits of authoritarian leadership, but was significantly perpetuated by the civil wars encouraged by late President Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal during his first term in office. Hence, if focusing on the second idiosyncrasy of Somaliland’s Janus-faced trajectory, one comes to realize that shrewd politics and ‘war projects’ have constituted at least as much an integral part of the polity’s state-making endeavour, as have processes of reconciliation and consensus-based governance.

In order to make these and related arguments, the article embarks on an analysis of Somaliland’s state-making trajectory of the early to mid-1990s. By and large, the paper juxtaposes the state-making endeavour of President Abdirahman Ahmed Ali ‘Tuur’ (1991-93) with the first term of President Egal (1993-1996), which is widely acknowledged as constituting a key era of the polity’s state-making project. Against the backdrop that both leaders faced similar challenges to their respective state-making endeavours, the difference in performance is astonishing. While both presidents and their relevant administrations had to come to grips with poor resource bases, abundant military fragmentation, and staunch political opposition, amongst others, the state trajectories could hardly have been more divergent, ranging from state-breaking (1991-93) to state-making (1993-1996).

Somaliland’s Secret: Neglected Traits of State-Making

Thus, a central conundrum is why President Egal was able to succeed in erecting a rudimentary state apparatus, while his predecessor had been unable to do so. Asked differently, a key question emerging from Somaliland’s state-making process is what the hallmarks of President Egal’s state-making endeavour have been. In what follows, I highlight a number of traits that have frequently been glossed over in the prevailing literature, but which appear to have been constitutive of the polity’s state-making process. At least two things should be noted, however. First, the key argument is not that the subsequent traits constituted irreplaceable, and not even necessarily the most informative factors of Somaliland’s state-making. Second, I do consequently not claim that these traits should guide international approaches to state reconstruction. Rather, they simply constitute empirical observations that scrutinize the prevailing narrative of Somaliland’s trajectory, and question the hard and fast proposition that states can be founded on peace and democracy alone.

1)    Shrewd Elite Politics at par with Benign Grassroots Governance

‘Grassroots democracy’ and ‘bottom-up governance’ have frequently been identified as the hallmarks of Somaliland’s process of state-making. While these elements surely played a role, Egal’s rule also carried significant traits of authoritarianism and top-down governance. Amongst others, this is evidenced by the fact that Egal postponed and forestalled processes geared towards constitution-writing and democratization for years, while repeatedly extending his mandate. Ultimately, it took Somaliland a decade, before a constitution was adopted and first elections were held. Moreover, it needs to be acknowledged that Egal only embarked on a process of democratization once this path constituted his best bet to secure his political survival at the helm of the state. The fact that Somaliland’s state-making trajectory has at least as much been shaped by ‘top-down’ policies and elitist power politics, rather than grassroots democratic governance, furthermore shows in the fact that Egal successfully co-opted the traditional authorities, who became increasingly partisan to the state, forfeiting much of their popular legitimacy.

2)    Centralization rather than Devolution of Power and Control

Although decentralization is a common proscription articulated by international development handbooks for countries that find themselves in contexts of fragile statehood and post-war reconstruction, empirical evidence indicate that state-making in Somaliland was rather marked by the contrary. Once Egal took power in 1993, when Somaliland had come to be fragmented into little more than the sum of its parts, his rule was marked by a slow but steady resurrection of central state domination. Although the 1993 Somaliland Peace Charter had laid out provisions for decentralization, Egal gradually centralized the means for security provision, resource mobilization, and administration. For one, the President dissolved illegal roadblocks and established government control over both the lucrative khat trade and sea port of Berbera. For another, he created a national army, despite legal provisions to the contrary. And also the administration did not escape his tendencies for centralization, resulting in the fact that between 1993 and 2001, each and every district or regional administration had been nominated by the President, rather than local constituencies.

3)    Violent Conflict  as Precursor of a Fragile Peace

Having enjoyed relative peace since its unilateral declaration of independence in 1991, a predominant narrative of Somaliland’s alleged ‘success’ lies in the proposition that it was peace that underpinned its trajectory. Yet, not only has this peace been very fragile up to this date, but also has Somaliland witnessed serious traits of violent conflict throughout the 1990s. To be sure, Egal did not shy away from instigating civil war. By, thus, eliminating internal and external challengers to his power he sustained his power, and even emerged from conflict in a position of strength. While neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for state-making (see e.g. the case of Puntland), the diverse episodes of mass violence appear having been instrumental for state-making in Somaliland for a number of reasons. Thus, several analysts concluded that the civil wars of the mid-1990s not only consolidated public support for the territory’s independence and strengthened central government, but also played a key role in nurturing a burgeoning national identity.

4)    A ‘New Deal’ Already in the 1990s

Either way, whether emphasizing ‘established’ or ‘neglected’ traits of Somaliland’s state-making trajectory, it remains undisputed that the polity enjoyed significant policy space when charting its way towards reconstruction. In light of the fact that international attention chiefly focused on developments in Mogadishu, Somaliland largely escaped a situation in which the international community meddled with its political agenda. While this partly seemed a doubtful benefit in light of significant funding restrictions, it meant that Somaliland’s decision-makers were left with much needed room for manoeuvre. For better or for worse, this allowed for much experimentation and liberty to make and learn from mistakes. Consequently, Somaliland could ensure an autochthonous state-making process that added much legitimacy and ‘institutional grain’ to the process. Principally, Somaliland had its own version of the ‘New Deal’ already in the 1990s. Thus, the Somaliland case constitutes a forceful argument for taking the ‘New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States’, and its principle tenet of ownership, serious, when aiming to rebuild a state – both in Somalia and beyond.

Concluding Thoughts

While peaceful reconciliation, grassroots democracy, and bottom-up governance played an important role in Somaliland’s state-making trajectory, it is undeniable that elitist and authoritarian governance, processes of centralization, and violent conflict have – for better or for worse – been equally inherent to its accomplishment. This insight bears important implications not only on how we read Somaliland’s history, but also with regards to the ‘lessons’ it entails for other state-making endeavours. Obviously, the lessons to be learnt are not to foster authoritarianism, centralization, and violence. Yet, what a more comprehensive reading of Somaliland’s trajectory seems to suggest, is that the international community might need to revisit some of its fundamental state-building assumptions and policies.

In this regard, the necessity for speedy democratic elections, as well as the prioritization of constitution-writing over other urgent state-making components that Somalia’s international partners have demanded can somewhat be called into question. The international donor community may well need to adopt even more flexible approaches, and ones that convey even more ownership to the Somali people, as has been the case to date. While the Somaliland case remains instructive, distilling the right lessons from it and possibly translating them to the context of south-central Somalia remains a hard nut to crack, not least due to the inherent peculiarities of both cases. Yet, against the backdrop of the fact that Somalia has embarked on the ‘New Deal’ and that Somaliland has just concluded the celebrations of its 23rd anniversary, an attempt to crack this nut could probably not be any timelier.