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.


Somalia 2013: ‘New’ Deal, Old Principles

first published by africanarguments, 29 May 2013

While the Communiqué that came out of the 2013 London Conference on Somalia reiterated the formal agreement on the “New Deal” initiative on aid effectiveness, it appears to have ultimately restricted the Somali government’s political room for manoeuvre. This largely results from the summit’s emphasis on outcomes over processes, which not only jeopardizes the ‘New Deal’, but risks complicating rather than facilitating Somalia’s state-making project in the near future.

In light of recent progress and an attendant rise in optimism regarding Somalia, expectations of the recent London Conference ran high. While the UK should be applauded for its continued dedication to keeping Somalia and its challenges on the international community’s agenda, the conference did not fully live up to its potential. For one, the “New Deal” and its proper benefits were not completely embraced. Instead, its underlying core principles, such as granting “country-led and country-owned transitions out of fragility”, were attenuated by the summit’s emphasis on preconceived outcomes.

For another, critical matters pertaining to economic reconstruction and political settlements were apparently neglected. Although it is true that the summit was followed by a one-day conference on trade and investment in Somalia, the complete absence of economic recovery from the main conference’s agenda remains remarkable. Thus, rather than taking a chance on a fresh start, the conference seemingly rehashed old principles instead.

Focussed on outcomes rather than processes

The summit was too firmly concentrated on agreeing particular outcomes, rather than taking a more process-oriented approach. The Communiqué urges the international community to continue its “results-oriented support”, and locks the Somali government and its state-making trajectory in a commitment to form a “fully federal government” and deliver “democratic elections in 2016”. While it is understandable that Somalia’s partners want to see the Federal Government commit to tangible results, the international community’s eagerness to maintain significant political leverage over Somalia’s trajectory reveals the complexities and caution around reducing foreign political influence.

While the Somali government co-hosted the summit, it is not hard to see why it must have felt constrained to demand additional policy space – after all, the Somali government depends on the good will and financial resources of donors.

However, by not handing substantial control over to Somali stakeholders, international actors not only undermine the basic idea of the “New Deal”, but risk jeopardising Somalia’s state-making prospects. For the state-making endeavour to succeed, the Somali government needs substantial policy space to accommodate the evolving and conflict-prone nature of such projects. Yet, this policy space can only emerge by focusing on processes rather than by committing to a rigid set of fixed outcomes largely shaped by external forces. That latter has hindered rather than helped rebuild the Somali state is attested by past decades marked by international interference.

Absent topics, lack of alternatives

The conference overly concentrated on issues of security, justice, and public financial management – aspects that are conspicuously of concern to an international community that feels threatened by Somali extremism, worries about government corruption of donor funding, and prioritises a human rights agenda. This particular focus meant that the summit neglected other pressing topics.

Just as in 2012, the 2013 London Conference avoided the question of whether and how to engage with al Shabaab politically. Given that the Islamic insurgency movement appears to be dormant rather than defeated, and that the causes that led to its emergence and survival cannot be addressed by military means alone, a political solution to the political contestation remains crucial.

Economic reconstruction was also noticeably absent from the conference agenda. However, if recent military and political gains are not bolstered by establishing a productive economy that addresses mass unemployment, and creates livelihoods for the population, these gains might well be short-lived. In light of this and the fact that economic recovery features as the Somali President’s second goal of his six-pillar policy, one is left wondering why this topic did not feature at all during the joint-hosted summit.

As the conference focused so narrowly on specific outcomes, the Somali government’s policy space was significantly restricted. This is shown in the communiqué’s insistence on the establishment of a “fully federal government” – a process that has largely been objected to by the Somali government thus far, due to fears that federalism could weaken its own standing and prospects of state-making. However, the Somali government is now pressed to comply with a greater devolution of power to regional states, which is likely to complicate matters, not least as this leaves Somalia’s neighbours with continued influence to meddle in Somali politics.

Moreover, the question arises whether there are viable alternatives to the charted trajectory, in case the latter should not unfold as anticipated. What is the “Plan B” to which the Somali government and its international backers can revert, if the communiqué’s underlying assumptions – including the success of a federal model and the sustainability of the current security trajectory – do not hold?

While the international community pledged additional financial resources to Somalia and committed to helping the Somali government bolster its security apparatus, the jointly-hosted conference does not appear to have charted a new chapter for this conflict-ridden country. Rather, the summit outcomes seem to largely be a reworking of the international community’s concerns. The ultimate impact of the 2013 London Conference remains to be seen, but for now it appears that the international community is not prepared to fully buy into the “New Deal” and cede too much of its influence to its Somali partners. It remains to be seen how far this bodes ill or well for Somalia and its endeavour to re-engage in state-making.

A ‘New Deal’ for Somalia

first published by Chatham House, 7 May 2013

Having officially concluded its ‘transitional period’, Somalia is set to embark on yet another.  Both Somalia and the international community face a critical test as the country seeks to exert greater control over policy development and implementation in the framework of the ‘New Deal’ initiative. The requisite shift in the nature of international engagements will bring unavoidable risks for all stakeholders – risks that need to be taken, however, if the Somali state-making process is to be advanced.

Optimism over Somalia’s prospects has peaked after an accumulation of changes in the country over recent years and months. Initial hopes arose in 2011, when the African Union Mission in Somalia made military progress against the radical Islamist insurgency of al Shabaab. This was followed by a sharp decline of piracy attacks off the Somali coast during the course of 2012. These security gains were bolstered politically, when Somalia’s eight-year ‘transitional period’ finally ended with the establishment of a leaner Federal Parliament in August 2012, the election of a new President in September, and the formation of a fresh government from October  onwards.

These changes within Somalia were accompanied by important shifts in international engagement. The Somali Federal Government scored significant diplomatic points in early 2013 by gaining the formal recognition of the United States of America and the International Monetary Fund. It also saw a partial lifting of the arms embargo by the United Nations Security Council in March. Furthermore, during the first London Somalia Conference in February 2012, the international community pledged to forge a more coordinated and effective approach in support of Somalia’s reconstruction efforts – a pledge that was demonstrated with the establishment of a multi-donor Somalia Stability Fund.

While the need for better aid coordination had already been emphasized in the 2005 Paris Declaration, the 2011 Busan Conference on Aid Effectiveness stipulates that more policy space should be given to ‘fragile states’. The g7+ group of 19 conflict-affected countries lobbied the international community to allow for increased national ownership over setting and implementing political and development agendas. As Somalia is part of this ‘New Deal’ initiative and given its recent progress, implications of opening the policy space in the country are likely to feature strongly in the upcoming UK-Somalia Conference in London on 7 May 2013.

If taken seriously, the implementation of the ‘New Deal’ would reflect lessons from past, tried, trusted and failed international engagements with Somalia. Approaches shaped by international security concerns related to warlordism, piracy, terrorism, and migration over the needs of the Somali population and their state-making project have thus far achieved little beyond catalysing new political forces and stimulating radical Islam. More generally, it put regional and international actors in the driving seat and restricted Somali governments’ policy space.

This restriction of national ownership has come at a great cost to Somalia, partly because it constrained national attempts to re-establish security and stability, and partly because it led to a neglect of other pressing challenges, such as the revival of a productive economy. Yet, the benefits of allowing for enhanced policy space in support of national development processes can be seen in the internationally much celebrated case of Somaliland, which unilaterally declared independence in May 1991. Although the self-styled republic’s trajectory has not been wholly detached from international influences, constraints and pressures, and even though it continues to face its own state-making challenges, Somaliland had significant policy space to set and pursue its own agenda. Largely due to the lack of international recognition, it had its own, unintended version of the ‘New Deal’ decades ago.

Although giving Somalia more policy space is crucial to resolving long-lasting crises, there are numerous obstacles to realizing this ‘New Deal’. Security concerns remain both for Somalia’s neighbours and the international community at large, calling the latter’s readiness to reduce direct influence into question. Moreover, scepticism remains over Somali stakeholders’ ability to stay on track, not least because expectations placed on past Somali partners have repeatedly been disappointed. Lastly, full adherence to the ‘New Deal’ would require the acceptance at the part of the international community that state-making processes are inherently conflict-prone and that not all good things do and can necessarily go together in the context of state-making – a realization the international community has not yet fully embraced.

Yet, as the Secretary-General of the United Nations recently pointed out, “we must be prepared to take risks for Somalia”. The risks associated with a Somali ‘New Deal’ are likely to test the international community’s resolve as well as the Somali government’s capacity to tackle pressing social, economic and political issues. However, under the condition that international actors are prepared to take risks, and allow sufficient room for some necessary mistakes along the way, then the long-term benefits of increasing national policy space are likely to outweigh the perils.