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.

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.

The Wars in the North and the Creation of Somaliland

first published by the World Peace Foundation, 28 Oct 2013

Having enjoyed relative peace and stability since it unilaterally declared independence in 1991, Somaliland’s state-making project has been accorded the status of ‘Africa’s best kept secret’ (Jhazbhay, 2003). Past attempts to disclose its mystery referenced processes of ‘traditional reconciliation’ (Bryden, 1995; Jhazbhay, 2007; Walls, 2009), ‘grassroots democracy’ (Adam, 1995; Othieno, 2008; Forti, 2011), the combination of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ forms of governance into ‘hybrid political orders’ (Böge et al., 2008; Renders & Terlinden, 2010), and its overall peaceful nature (Othieno, 2008). These narratives of Somaliland’s state-making have not only led to the assertion that the polity’s state development was unique (Hoyle, 2000; Kaplan, 2008; Jhazbhay, 2009), but culminated in the erroneous contention that throughout its process of state-making “[n]o civil war occurred” (Sufi, 2003:285).

Yet, Somaliland’s trajectory was not as benign as has frequently been claimed. Not only did its state-making project witness serious traits of authoritarian governance, but it was also marked by episodes of large-scale violence – both prior and subsequent to its unilateral declaration of independence in 1991. While it has been recognized that the struggle of the Somali National Movement (SNM) against dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre during the 1980s was foundational for Somaliland (Huliaras, 2002; Spears, 2003; Bakonyi, 2009), there is reason to argue that also the ‘war projects’ undertaken by Somaliland President Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal in the early to mid-1990s were constitutive of the polity’s state-making endeavor.

Besides challenging the prevailing reading of Somaliland’s state-making history and accounting for some of its bellicose elements, the argument presented in the subsequent paragraphs also speaks to the wider theoretical debate on war and state-making (see e.g. Mann, 1988; Tilly, 1992; Kaldor, 1999; Leander, 2004). While Tilly’s dictum that “war makes states and states make war” (Tilly, 1992:67) needs to be further disaggregated, I propose that the violence in Somalia’s north and the creation of Somaliland allow to argue that war may remain an important component for state-making in contemporary Africa (Herbst, 1990, 2000; Deflem, 1999; Niemann, 2007).

The Somali Civil War and Its State-Making Repercussions: Mass Violence in the 1980s

Scholars such as Prunier (1990/91), Compagnon (1990, 1998), Marchal (1992, 1997), Bakonyi (2009), and Spears (2010) have significantly contributed to our understanding of the early organization of violence and the dynamics of war in Somalia and Somaliland. However, the connection between the decade-long civil war of the 1980s and Somaliland’s state-making endeavor remains under researched to date, not least because most accounts of the polity’s state-making project commence their analysis with the polity’s de facto secession in 1991 at the very earliest.[2] Yet, glossing over the bellicose decade preceding Somaliland’s formal creation is not only proble­matic empirically, but also conceptually, as it silently subjects to the neo-liberal proposition that war constituted nothing but ‘development in reverse’ (World Bank, 2003; Collier, 2004).

After Somalia had lost to Ethiopia in the Ogadeen War of 1977/78, armed resistance against Barre’s rule took root. Officially pronounced in London on April 6th, 1981, the SNM was one of the first rebel groups to form, finding its base amongst the Isaaq clan family. Seeking alliances with other clan militias, the movement waged a guerrilla struggle in the country’s north-west, aiming to overthrow and replace the military government. In the wake of the dictator’s defeat and particular developments unfolding in 1991, the SNM decided to abrogate the union of 1960 and declared the Republic of Somaliland an independent state.

The decade-long armed struggle contributed in several ways to the argument that Somaliland is “very much a product of war” (Spears, 2004:185). For one, the war constituted the birth certificate of Somaliland, as without the military defeat of Barre, it would have been highly unlikely that the polity of Somaliland would have been established in the first place. Thus, Bradbury (2008:5) argues that this self-styled state has “its origins in the war that led to the collapse of the Somali state.” Although true, the role of war in supporting the formation of Somaliland goes beyond this passive and destructive component, as, for another, the war actively aided Somaliland’s state-making project.

First, while the SNM was far from exercising a monopoly over the means of violence, it achieved “outstanding military success” (Adam, 1994:36; Compagnon, 1998) and emerged from war as the “most powerful military force in the north-west” (Bradbury, 2008:79), enabling the movement to make a “legitimate claim to exercise power” (Compagnon, 1998:82). In contrast to south-central Somalia, the SNM’s military supremacy in north-west Somalia prevented alternative armed movements from pursuing “any viable alternative” (Terlinden & Ibrahim, 2008:2f.) to engaging in peace talks. It is in this context of military supremacy at the part of the SNM that processes of ‘traditional reconciliation’, generally judged as having been successful, need to be understood.

Second, the war also left important political and institutional legacies. The guurti, or ‘council of elders’, which has frequently been identified to lie at the heart of Somaliland’s alleged state-making success (Renders, 2006; Höhne 2006; Glavitza, 2008; Moe, 2009; Richards, 2009), is, after all, a creation of the SNM and a direct outcome of the war (Interviews 4, 34, 36, 75, 103). It was created by the young officers who had deserted the Somali National Army for the SNM and who had little knowledge about how the clan system worked (Interviews 103, 113, 135) in order to instrumentalize the ‘traditional authorities’ to help mobilize resources and adjudicate disputes (Adam, 1995; Interviews 4, 36; Compagnon, 1993; Brons, 2001). Although having been a much more unintended and problematic product of the civil war (Interview 113) than attested by some (see Bradbury, 2008:69), it had a major impact on Somaliland’s state-making project (Interview 4).

Third, the war aided the formation of the Somaliland polity by contributing to the development of a nascent national identity, which is indispensable for state-making to succeed (Lemay-Hébert, 2009; Balthasar, 2012; see also North, 2005). Committing itself to sharia law and deciding to rename its fighters mujahedeen (‘holy warriors’; Bradbury, 2008:64), the SNM set itself apart from other armed movements and nurtured a particular identity. By furthermore suffering mass atrocities and reviving the narratives of colonial and cultural differences between north and south Somalia, the struggle “played a crucial role in the formation of a strong sense of identity – at least for the majority of its population” (Huliaras, 2002:174). Thus, the “[w]ar shaped the ‘imagined community’ that later proved essential in providing a government apparatus with the moral basis needed to ensure the willing participation […] of its citizens” (ibid.:159; Omaar, 1994:234).

‘War Projects’ as Tools of State-Making: Somaliland’s Large-Scale Violence in the 1990s

Mass violence continued to shape Somaliland’s state-making endeavor once it had officially broken away from Somalia on May 18, 1991. In fact, the early to mid-1990s were marked by such levels of violence and insecurity that interim President Abdirahman Ahmed Ali Tuur and United Nations special envoy to Somalia, Mohammed Sahnoun, agreed to have 350 peacekeepers deployed to Somalia’s north-west (Renders, 2006). While the troops were, ultimately, not dispatched as Sahnoun resigned from his post and Somaliland managed to broker a peace by itself, it shows that the young republic had hit rock bottom in 1992 and came close to all-out civil war in subsequent years.

Once the interim government under the leadership of President Abdirahman Ahmed Ali Tuur was installed, contestation about the allocation of political, military and economic resources started taking root. The ensuing civil strife largely pitted the SNM’s ‘civilian’ and ‘military’ wings, which had emerged during the decade-long liberation struggle, against one another. Whereas the former was mainly comprised of intellectuals who had pro­claimed the formation of the SNM in London and Jeddah in 1981, the latter largely encompassed militaries who had started the armed resistance on the ground (Interview 113). While enjoying the backing of the ‘civilian wing’, Tuur was eyed with suspicion by the more hardline military elements, referred to as Calan Cas, who were in charge of the most potent SNM militias.

In the absence of a binding, centralized command over the different SNM militias, security regulation was a hard nut to crack and the government’s authority was largely confined to Hargeysa, (Gilkes, 1993; Spears, 2010) resting on those armed units under command of some of the individuals belonging to the new government (Reno, 2003). Tuur’s attempts to establish state-owned security forces provoked tensions within and outside of his administration, and resulted in violent clashes in Burco in January 1992, which left 300 dead. In March 1992, this was followed by large-scale violence in Berbera, when the government attempted to secure the port and its revenues, which had come under the control of the Isaaq sub-clan of Iisa Muse that opposed the Garhajis-dominated Tuur govern­ment, militarily. The subsequent eight months of “extensive death and destruction” (Renders, 2006:207) resulted in presumably 1,000 individuals losing their life (Bradbury, 2008).

Throughout 1992, security continued to deteriorate (Flint, 1994), as every clan established its own militia, turning Hargeysa allegedly more insecure than Mogadishu (Interview 63, 76, 108). With the government far from dominating the means of violence, competing (sub-)clan militias started clashing over control of resources throughout the country (Renders & Terlinden, 2010). During this interim period between 1991 and 1993, governance issues were largely left in the hands of other actors, such as the Calan Cas and ‘traditional authorities’, and, in terms of state-building, came to be considered “two wasted years” (Gilkes, 1993).

At the Boroma Conference in 1993, «Tuur» was replaced by Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal as President. While received wisdom has it that the guurti selected Egal in a smooth process on May 5, 1993 (Bradbury, 2008), it was, in fact, the Calan Cas who propagated him in a prolonged tug-of-war. To the military hardliners Egal appeared to be the ideal candidate, not least because the Calan Cas believed that they could easily manipulate and rule through him (Interviews 14, 143). Yet, during subsequent years, Egal applied shrewd, authoritarian politics and wittingly instrumentalized different factions against one another, not least to free himself from the tight grip of the Calan Cas and contain the powers of the ‘traditional authorities’. Thereby, he did not shy away from instigating two significant civil wars in order to consolidate his power and drive the state-making project forward.

The decentralized character Somaliland had taken during the 1991-93 period constituted a key structural challenge for the young polity and its potential to establish stable state institutions, largely because it favored a situation, in which multiple political actors contested economic and political power. Thus, it was little surprising that, shortly after Egal took the reins of power, the supporters of the previous government went into an opposition as strong as the one that the Calan Cas had posed to «Tuur». Aggrieved by Egal’s choice of ministers and his increasing centralization of control over financial and military means, some of the most prominent Garhajis – made up of the Habar Yonis and Eidagalle – leaders gathered in the vicinity of Burco in July 1993. During their ‘Liiban Congress I’, the burgeoning opposition announced that they were not bound by the laws of Somaliland (Bradbury, 2008) – and even declared Somaliland’sgovernment illegitimate one year thereafter (Spears, 2010; Garowe Online, 2007).

Hence, Egal sought to dispense of this opposition that challenged the government’s authority and constituted a political thorn in the President’s flesh. Equally, however, Egal also wanted to liberate himself of the grip of the Calan Cas, whom he felt being hostage to. As one observer put it, “[i]n 1993, Egal was not a leader, he was a guest” (Interview 142). Being well aware of the historical tensions between the Calan Cas and the Garhajis, who had been side-lined by the former during the 1993 Boroma conference, Egal had politically accommodated the SNM hardliners at the expense of the Garhajis, thus fuelling the friction, leading some to argue that “Egal intentionally ignited the conflict – it was really obvious” (Interview 142). Ultimately, two Eidagalle militias, into whose territory the Hargeysa airport falls, took control of it in the summer of 1994.

Although political issues lay at the heart of the dispute, it also carried economic connotations (Interviews 19, 36), as by taxing and harassing commercial and aid flights, the Garhajis militia interfered in the business of the Habar Awal entrepreneurs living in Hargeysa, who were crucial to Egal’s ability to establish and maintain government capacity (Bradbury, 2008). Thus, in many ways, the challenges Egal faced resembled the conflict «Tuur» had fought in Berbera two years earlier. Rejecting calls for another national conference to resolve outstanding issues, Egal unleashed his eager military officers onto the opposition in November 1994, with the stated aim of securing the airport. Having tasted blood, the government forces led by Minister of Interior, Muse Behi Abdi, and Vice-President and Minister of Defense, Abdirahman Aw Ali – both of whom were staunch members of the Calan Cas – proceeded to attack the Eidagalle village of Toon.

Conflict spread to Burco, when government troops tried to take control of Habar Yonis checkpoints in the city’s vicinity in March 1995. Giving the military leaders plenty of rope and portraying the war effort as an ‘Calan Cas project’, the President managed to wash his hands of responsibility (Interview 14).The resulting war sparked the heaviest fighting since the anti-Barre struggle in which as many as 4,000 people lost their lives, and up to 180,000 fled to Ethiopia (Bradbury, 2008). Although this act of aggression rallied the Garhajis even more against the government, it was functional for Egal. For one the ‘war project’ allowed him to annihilate the organized Garhajis opposition and further debilitating it by bribing certain of its leaders. For another, having been able to portray the war as an act of the Calan Cas, Egal succeeded in politically delegitimizing them (Interview 14, 107, 108, 116).

While Somaliland was in shatters, Egal emerged from these wars not only as winner, but in a strengthened position. Assuring himself of the support of the guurti, whom Egal convinced that the Calan Cas constituted a threat to peace in Somaliland (Interview 112), he incrementally sackedCalan Cas individuals from their ministerial positions, replacing them either with individuals from smaller clans, ‘traditional leaders’, and/or members of the Garhajis (Interview 7, 108). In order to deprive both the Garhajis leaders as well as the Calan Cas commanders of the ability to contest his political maneuvering militarily, Egal accommodated their rank and file by turning them into presiden­tial guards. This not only served the purpose of removing the support base of his competitors, but also signaled other militias that it paid to belong to the state. The conflict was followed by the shrewdly engineered 1996 Hargeysa Summit, which served Egal to consolidate rudimentary state institutions.

Concluding Remarks

While neither a necessary nor sufficient condition,[4] the diverse episodes of mass violence appear having been instrumental for state-making in Somaliland. Although the SNM-led struggle did not exactly produce the outcomes Tilly describes for historical Europe – i.e. a tight administration, coherent army, etc. – it has been considered “formative in creating a ‘political community’ of shared interests” (Bradbury, 2008:50) and perceived as having served as a “cruel university in the arts of political mobilisation and popular leadership” (Bryden, 1999:137). Similarly, also the post-1991 civil wars are thought having “served to consolidate public support for the territory’s independence and to strengthen central govern­ment” (Bradbury, 2008:123), leading Huliaras (2002:159) to conclude that “[i]n sum, as happened in the case of medieval Europe […], warfare had played a central and indeed essential role in the process of nation-formation in Somaliland.”

Hence, war can be constitutive of state-making processes, even in sub-Saharan Africa and in the present day. While war is surely neither a panacea nor an ‘angel of order’, in historical and macro-societal terms it appears to be more than a mere ‘daemon of decay’, or, as Enzensberger has it, a “political retrovirus […] about nothing at all” (ibid., 1994, as in Cramer, 2006:77). Thus, the central question appears to be less whether, but rather what kind or components of mass violence can be constitutive of state-making, or under what condition war may enhance rather than inhibit state-making. Thereby, a key aspect seems to be in how far a particular war contributes to or precludes the standardization of commonly accepted institutions and identities amongst a territorially defined population. In contrast to south-central Somalia, the violence in Somaliland seems to have established at least a modicum of such common institutions and identities.


Adam, H. (1994). Formation and Recognition of New States: Somaliland in Contrast to Eritrea. Review of African Political Economy, 21(59), 21-38.
Adam, H. (1995). Somalia: A Terrible Beauty Being Born? In W. Zartman (Ed.), Collapsed States – The Disintegration and Restoration of Legitimate Authority (pp. 69-90). Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Ali, M. O., & Walls, M. (2008). Peace Mapping: Somaliland Overview. Academy for Peace and Development (APD). Hargeysa.
Bakonyi, J. (2009). Moral Economies of Mass Violence: Somalia 1988-1991. Civil Wars, 11(4), 434-454.
Balthasar, D. (2012): “State-making in Somalia and Somaliland: understanding war, nationalism and state trajectories as processes of institutional and socio-cognitive standardization.” PhD thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
Balthasar, D. (2013): “Somaliland’s Best Kept Secret: Shrewd Politics and War Projects as Means of State-Making“; In: Journal of Eastern African Studies, 7(2): 218-238. Battera, F. (2003). Some Considerations on State Building in Divided Societies and the Role of the “International Community”: Somaliland and Somalia Compared. Northeast African Studies, 10(3), 225-247.
Battera, F. (2004). State- and Democracy-Building in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Case of Somaliland – A Comparative Perspective. Global Jurist Frontiers, 4(1), 1-21.
Böge, V., Brown, A., Clements, K., & Nolan, A. (2008). On Hybrid Political Orders and Emerging States: State Formation in the Context of ‘Fragility’. Berlin: Berghof Research Centre for Constructive Conflict Management.
Bradbury, M. (2008). Becoming Somaliland. London: Progressio.
Brons, M. (2001). Society, Security, Sovereignty and the State in Somalia – From Statelessness to Statelessness? Utrecht: International Books.
Bryden, M. (1995). Somaliland and Peace in the Horn of Africa: A Situation Report and Analysis. Addis Ababa: United Nations Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia.
Bryden, M. (1999). New Hope for Somalia? The Building Block Approach. Review of African Political Economy, 26(79), 134-140.
Collier, P. (2004). Development and Conflict. Centre for the Study of African Economies. Oxford: Department of Economics.
Compagnon, D. (1990). The Somali Opposition Fronts: Some Comments and Questions. Conflict Quarterly, 13(1-2), 29-54.
Compagnon, D. (1998). Somali Armed Units – The Interplay of Political Entrepreneurship and Clan-Based Factionalism. In C. Clapham (Ed.), African Guerillas (pp. 73-90). Oxford: James Currey.
Cramer, C. J. (2006). Civil War Is Not a Stupid Thing: Accounting for Violence in Developing Countries. London: C. Hurst & Co.
Crone, D. K. (1988). State, Social Elites and Government Capacity in Southeast Asia. World Politics, 40(2), 252-268.
Deflem, M. (1999). Warfare, Political Leadership, and State Formation: The Case of the Zulu Kingdom, 1808-1979. Ethnology, 38(4), 371-391.
Enzensberger, H. M. (1994). Civil War. London: Penguin and Granta.
Flint, J. (1994). Somaliland: Struggling to Survive. Africa Report, 39(1), 36-40.
Forti, D. (2011). A Pocket of Stability: Understanding Somaliland. ACCORD Occasional Paper Series(2).
Garowe Online. (2007, 22.11.2007). Somalia: The Bo’ame Declaration of Dhulbahante Clan Elders, Garowe Online.
Gilkes, P. (1993). Two Wasted Years: The Republic of Somaliland 1991-1993. London: Save the Children Fund.
Glavitza, R. (2008). “Doing Things the Traditional Way” – Ressourcenkonflikte und Lösungmechanismen am Horn von Afrika [“Doing Things the Traditional Way” – Ressource Conflicts and Solutions in the Horn of Africa]. In G. Leitner, R. Glavitza, T. Roithner & A. Elbling (Eds.), Schlaininger Arbeitspapiere für Friedensforschung, Abrüstung und nachhaltige Entwicklung. Wien: Österreichisches Studienzentrum für Frieden und Konfliktlösung.
Helling, D. (2009): “Anatomy of a ‘Political Chameleon’: Re-Examining Fluid Shapes and Solid Constants of Nationalism and Nation-Building”; Crisis States Research Centre (CSRC) Discussion Paper No. 17 (series 2); LSE: London.Herbst, J. I. (1990). War and the State in Africa. International Security, 14(4), 117-139.
Herbst, J. I. (2000). States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Höhne, M. (2006). Traditional Authorities in Northern Somalia: Transfromation of Positions and Powers. Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology Working Paper, 82.
Hoyle, P. (2000). Somaliland: Passing the Statehood Test? IBRO Boundary and Security Bulletin, 80-91.
Huliaras, A. (2002). The Viability of Somaliland: Internal Constraints and Regional Geopolitics. Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 20(2), 157-182.
Jhazbhay, I. (2003). Somaliland – Africa’s best kept secret, A challenge to the international community? African Security Review, 12(4), 77-82.
Jhazbhay, I. (2007). Somaliland: Post-War Nation-Building and International Relations, 1991-2006. PhD, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
Jhazbhay, I. (2009). Somaliland: The Journey of Resistance, Reconciliation and Peace. African Safety Promotion: A Journal of Injury and Violence Prevention, 7(1), 50-76.
Kaldor, M. (1999). New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Kaplan, S. (2008). Fixing Fragile States – A New Paradigm for Development. Westpoint, Connecticut and London: Praeger Security International.
Katzenstein, P. J. (1985). Small States in World Markets. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Leander, A. (2004). Wars and the Un-making of States – Taking Tilly Seriously in the Contemporary World. In S. Guzzini & D. Jung (Eds.), Contemporary Security Analysis and Copenhagen Peace Research (pp. 69-80). London and New York: Routledge.
Lemay-Hébert, N. (2009). Statebuilding without Nation-building? Legitimacy, State Failure and the Limits of the Institutionalist Approach. Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 3(1), 21-45.
Mann, M. (1988). States, War and Capitalism: Studies in Political Sociology. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Marchal, R. (1992). La Guerre a Mogadiscio [The War in Mogadishu]. Politique Africaine, 46, 120-125.
Marchal, R. (1997). Forms of Violence and the Way to Control It: the Mooryaan of Mogadishu. In H. Adam & R. Ford (Eds.), Mending Rips in the Sky, Options for Somali Communities in the 21th century. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press.
Migdal, J. (2001). State in Society: Studying How States and Societies Transform and Constitute One Another. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Moe, L. W. (2009). Flexible Approaches to State- and Governance-Building: Combining Traditional Leadership and State Authority in Somaliland; Draft. Paper presented at the Post-Crisis State Transformation Conference, Linkoeping.
Niemann, M. (2007). War Making and State Making in Central Africa. Africa Today, 22-39.
North, D. C. (2005). Understanding the Process of Economic Change. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Omaar, R. (1994). Somaliland: One Thorn Bush at a Time. Current History – A Journal of Contemporary World Affairs, 232-236.
Othieno, T. (2008). A New Donor Approach to Fragile Societies: The Case of Somaliland. Opinions, 103.
Pham, P. (2012). The Somaliland Exception: Lessons on Postconflict State Building from the Part of the Former Somalia that Works. Marine Corps University Journal, 3(1), 1-33.
Prunier, G. (1990/91). A Candid View of the Somali National Movement. Horn of Africa, 13/14(3/4), 107-120.
Renders, M. (2006). ‘Traditional’ Leaders and Institutions in the Building of the Muslim Republic of Somaliland. Ph.D., University of Ghent, Ghent.
Renders, M., & Terlinden, U. (2010). Negotiating Statehood in a Hybrid Political Order: The Case of Somaliland. Development and Change, 42(4), 723-746.
Reno, W. (2003). Somalia And Survival In the Shadow of the Global Economy. Queen Elisabeth House Working Paper Series (QEHWPS No. 100).
Richards, R. (2009). Challenging the Ideal? Traditional Governance and the Modern State in Somaliland. PhD, University of Bristol, Bristol.
Samatar, I. M. (1997). Light at the End of the Tunnel: Some Reflections on the Struggle of the Somali National Movement. In H. M. Adam & R. Ford (Eds.), Mending Rips in the Sky – Options for Somali Communities in the 21st Century (pp. 21-48). Asmara: Red Sea Press.
Spears, I. (2003). Reflections on Somaliland and Africa’s Territorial Order. Review of African Political Economy, 95.
Spears, I. (2004). Reflections on Somaliland and Africa’s Territorial Order. In R. Ford, H. Adam & E. Ismail (Eds.), War Destroys: Peace Nurtures – Somali Reconciliation and Development (pp. 179-192). Asmara: The Red Sea Press.
Spears, I. (2010). Civil War in African States: The Search for Security. Boulder and London: FirstForumPress.
Sufi, M. A. (2003). The Future Political Order for the Federal States of Somalia. Northeast African Studies, 10(3), 281-288. Terlinden, U., & Ibrahim, M. H. (2008). Somaliland – A Success Story of Peace-Making, State-Building and Democratization? Manuscript.
Tilly, C. (1992). Coercion, Capital, and European States, A.D.990-1990. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.
Walls, M. (2009). The Emergence of a Somali State: Building Peace from Civil War in Somaliland. African Affairs, 1-19.
World Bank. (2003). Breaking the Conflict Trap. Washington, DC: World Bank.


[1] For a more elaborate account of the effects of the civil war on Somaliland’s state-making project, see Helling (2009).
[2] In fact, it is generally argued that the 1991-1993 period was characterized by peace-building and that state-building did not set in until 1993 (Bradbury, 2008; Ali &Walls, 2008). While Battera (2004:7) suggests that “[t]he [1991] Burco Congress represents the beginning of the state-building process in Somaliland,” Pham (2012:19) proposes that state-building in Somaliland did not start before 2001. A notable exception is I.M. Samatar (1997).
[3] For a more detailed account on the wars of the 1990s and their effect on Somaliland’s trajectory, see Balthasar (2013).
[4] See e.g. the case of Puntland, which “was unaffected by the civil strife that accompanied the collapse of the Somali state” (Battera, 2003:230), but nevertheless formed a similar polity.

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.

‘Failed States’ and ‘Failed Policies’: Two Global Public Policy Challenges at Eye Height

first published by global policy, 25 Jan 2013

‘State fragility’, with its repercussions on national development and international security, re­mains one of today’s most pressing global public policy challenges, partly because this phe­no­menon is considered “the source of many of the world’s most serious pro­blems” (Fukuyama 2004:1). The topic’s centrality is reflected by the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee agenda, was pivot to the 2011 World Development Report, and has been evi­denced by long-drawn international engagements in Bosnia and Kosovo, Iraq and Afgha­nis­tan. Yet, while foreign military contingents have incrementally left these war zones, ‘state fragility’ is cer­tain to stay, both, in these polities and the world at large. One central reason is that, “[f]rom a his­to­rical perspective, much of the developing world today is characterised by states in the pro­cess of formation” (CSRC 2005:2), a process that is inherently prone to cri­ses, conflict and fragility.

Whereas ‘fragile states’ pose a central challenge to the ‘international community’, the latter’s failing policies constitute a vital defiance to the respective states and their popula­tions. This is not only because current approaches to state-building are heavily militarized, but also because they utterly fail to bring about the envisioned stability and prosperity. International military engagement in Iraq has left its society with a significantly diminished GDP per capita (UNDP 2012), and Afghanistan is not only far from having reached acceptable levels of security and resilience despite an ‘investment’ of approximately USD 2.5 trillion by the US federal govern­­ment alone (Costs of War 2012), but also continues to have the highest infant mortality rate in the world (Global Health Facts). Similarly bleak is the international community’s state-building record in polities such as DR Congo, Sudan and Somalia, as these countries not only remain a far cry from achie­ving the MDGs, but continue to feature amongst the top ten ‘failed states’.

Getting ‘Failed States’ Wrong

Consequently, the state-building policies pursued by the ‘international community’ can con­fi­dently be judged as being ineffective at best. While a myriad of factors can be cited to ac­count for why Western policies towards ‘failed states’ have themselves largely failed, I argue here that the central underlying problem is not a practical but conceptual one. ‘Fragile states’ have usually been conceived of as pathologic deviations from the contemporary moulding of Western states with their free market economies and liberal democracies. Hence, it have invariably been neo-liberal interpretations of the state that have guided the inter­national community’s handbooks on how to supposedly ‘fix’ fragile states (Ghani/Lock­hart 2008; Kaplan 2008), even though “[t]he inadequacies of neo-liberalism have spawned a wide­spread questioning of this dominant worldview” (Sandbrook 2010). While the Washing­ton Consen­sus, which had seen the state as an obstacle to development, has offi­cially been abandoned, the underlying paradigm has largely remained intact (Stiglitz 2004).

Although the Post-Washington Consensus witnessed an apparent volte-face to main­stream thinking of the 1980s and 1990s in that policymakers ultimately realized the need for ‘Bring­ing the State Back In’ (Evans et al. 1985), the state is still not taken seriously as a vital partner in development and state-building processes. This is evidenced by the latest con­cep­tual varia­tion of the neo-liberal ideology that emerged in the scholarly literature as the post-2001 decade drew to a close. Concepts of ‘twilight institutions’ (Lund 2006), the ‘negotiated state’ (Menk­haus 2007) and ‘hybrid political orders’ (Böge et al. 2008) have come to praise earlier negative interpre­ta­tions of non-state orders (e.g. Jackson 1990; Zartman 1995; Rotberg 2003) as au­toch­thonous ways of state-building. Whereas it is true that ‘fragile states’ are marked by a competing plu­ra­lity of different actors, the concepts’ underlying proposition that a hybridity of ‘political orders’ is desirable for the advancement of developing states is highly problematic.

Inadequacies of Current Conceptualizations

First, the promotion of pluralism as constituting both the means and ends of state-building can only be sustained by a form of historical amnesia. While the advertisement of pluralism sits well with the deeply engrained ‘diversity myth’ that the West entertains regarding its own history, Schwartz (1995) shows that ‘Americanization’ had been “a process of coercive conformity” and that the United States “was characterized by ethnic dominance, not ethnic pluralism.” Hence, while Americans preach an adherence to liberal pluralism throughout the world, their own state and national unity was not founded on pluralism, diversity and tole­rance, but homogeneity, conformity and dominance. That it is processes of unification and standardization that have constituted the lynchpins of state-building throughout history has similarly been argued by intellectuals ranging from social contract theorists of the 17th centu­ry to contemporary scholars such as Anderson (1983), Connor (1994), and Levene (2000).

Second, also when viewed from a theoretical perspective, the unapologetic advancement of pluralism in contexts of fragility appears to be much more of a ‘tragic’ than ‘magic bullet’. Regarded through the analytical prism of institutionalism, neo-pluralist concepts, which em­pha­size problems of allocation rather than ones of rule and control (Nordlinger 1981; Lind­blom 1977), can be debunked as asserting a situation of ‘institutional multiplicity’. Al­though a diversity of ‘rules of the game’ (North 1990) can be desirable or even necessary to keep states functional in the long-term – partly because it offers “the possibility of switching stra­te­gically from one institutional universe to another” (CSRC 2005:8; North 2005:42) – the parallel existence of institutions is problematic in early stages of state development, as it defies the larger purpose of institutions themselves, namely to “reduce uncertainty by provi­ding a [clear] structure to everyday life” (North 1990:3).

Third, the neo-pluralist concepts remain wholly inconclusive regarding the question under what conditions or what kinds of ‘hybrid political orders’ are constitutive of rather than inimical to state-building – where runs the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘too little’ and ‘too much’ hybridity? Unable to answer these questions, the concepts are little helpful to under­stand, for example, the divergent trajectories of Somalia and Somaliland, both of which are marked by a hybridity of ‘political orders’. Moreover, just like previous approaches, this allegedly new thinking similarly reduces state-building endeavours to questions of institu­tional capacity. Yet, as “[g]overnance is about the relationship between the state and socie­ty” (Brinkerhoff 2007:18), and as “it is in the realm of ideas and sentiments that the fate of states is primarily determined” (Holsti 1996:84), I argue in a manner analogous to the dictum of Evans et al. (1985) on the state, for the need of ‘bringing the nation back in’ (Helling 2009).

What Next?

Despite the failure of the international community’s past policies towards ‘failed states’ there are no indications that global policy towards state fragility is about to change. Even after the failed state-building interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, a para­digmatic shift in conceptual thinking about ‘fragile states’ and possible international responses does not appear to take shape. NATO’s military operation in Libya and France’s most recent single-handedly intervention in Mali are proof of the West’s apparent immunity to learn from past mistakes. Just as has been the case in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military engagement in Mali is more likely to contribute to a further political fragmentation and institu­tional ‘fragilization’ than to bring about peace, prosperity and stability – parti­cularly as France’s current policies are not suggestive of going beyond a few military objectives.

Yet, in the absence of a more comprehensive and politically defined long-term strategy of how to assist polities such as Mali in achieving a transition from fragility to resilience, the international community is more likely than not to continue defaulting to its plan A, marked by a largely military and technical approach in the framework of the neo-liberal paradigm – a plan that already failed (in) Afghanistan and Iraq. If the international community is, however, truly concerned with facilitating stability and development in ‘fragile states’, it needs to thoroughly rethink its conceptualization of states-in-the-making and seriously scrutinize its approach of liberal pluralism. Only if the dominant (Western) actors appreciate that what is required to sustain states should not be confused with what is required to initiate them, can the international community adequately deal with the challenges arising in and from fragile states, and help prevent a country like Mali from becoming another Somalia.

Dominik Balthasar is a fellow of the GG2022 program and a post-doctoral fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in the framework of the Transatlantic Post-Doc Fellowship for International Relations and Security (TAPIR). This column is part of a series from the GG2022 fellows. For more information on the GG2022 please see here.


Anderson, B. R. (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.
Böge, V., Brown, A., Clements, K., & Nolan, A. (2008). On Hybrid Political Orders and Emerging States: State Formation in the Context of ‘Fragility’. Berlin: Berghof Research Centre for Constructive Conflict Management.
Brinkerhoff, D. (2007). Governance Challenges in Fragile States: Re-Establishing Security, Rebuilding Effectiveness, and Reconstituting Legitimacy. In D. Brinkerhoff (Ed.), Governance in Post-Conflict Societies – Rebuilding Fragile States (pp. 1-22). London, New York: Routledge.
Connor, W. (1994). Ethnonationalism: The Quest for Understanding. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Crisis States Research Centre (CSRC). (2005). War, State Collapse and Reconstruction: Phase 2 of the Crisis States Programme CSRC Working Paper Series (Vol. 1). London: London School of Economics and Political Science.
Evans, P., Rueschmeyer, D., & Skocpol, T. (1985). Bringing the State Back In. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fukuyama, F. (2004). State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Ghani, A., & Lockhart, C. (2008). Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
Helling, D. (2009). Anatomy of a ‘Political Chameleon’: Re-Examining Fluid Shapes and Solid Constants of Nationalism and Nation-Building. Crisis States Research Centre Working Paper, 2(17).
Holsti, K. J. (1996). The State, War, and the State of War. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Jackson, R. (1990). Quasi-States: Sovereignty, International Relations and the Third World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kaplan, S. (2008). Fixing Fragile States – A New Paradigm for Development. Westpoint, Connecticut and London: Praeger Security International.
Levene, M. (2000). The Limits of Tolerance: Nation-State Building and What It Means for Minority Groups. Patterns of Prejudice, 34(2), 19-40.
Lindblom, C. (1977). Politics and Markets. New York: Basic Books.
Lund, C. (2006). Twilight Institutions: Public Authority and Local Politics in Africa. Development and Change, 37(4), 685-705.
Menkhaus, K. (2007). Governance without Government in Somalia – Spoilers, State Building, and the Politics of Coping. International Security, 31(3), 74-106.
Nordlinger, E. (1981). On the Autonomy of the Democratic State. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
North, D. C. (1990). Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rotberg, R. (2003). Failed States, Collapsed States, Weak States: Causes and Indicators. In R. Rotberg (Ed.), State Failure and State Weakness in a Time of Terror (pp. 1-28). Washington, DC: The World Peace Foundation.
Sandbrook, R. (2007). Alternatives to Neo-Liberalism in the Third World. Renewal – A Journal of Social Democracy, 15(2/3), 46-57.
Zartman, I. W. (Ed.). (1995). Collapsed States: The Disintegration and Restoration of Legitimate Authority. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.