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.


One thought on “State-Making in Somaliland: Exhibiting the Other Side of the Coin

  1. Pingback: State-Making in Somaliland: Exhibiting the Other Side of the Coin | garyaqaan2007

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