“In Somali tradition, the important question is not what happened but rather how did it end?”
Sultan Said Garasse
War entails not only social breakdown but also the transformation of society. It is unlikely that a revived state in Somalia could easily reverse the political fragmentation and economic decentralisation that has taken place.
The formation of Somaliland and Puntland challenge the convention of a single Somali sovereignty. The growth of major urban centres – not confined to Mogadishu – and the fact that populations have become increasingly sedentary have also brought about significant social and economic change. The establishment of a large diaspora has made Somali society more transnational and encouraged the development of new forms of identity and ideas of ‘belonging’.
The rise to power of militant Islamic groups in Somalia underlines the profound changes that have occurred in the course of the war. It has dramatically reconfigured the conflict in Somalia away from a purely clan-based power struggle towards an ideologically influenced conflict with a regional and global dimension.
Al Shabaab, the latest manifestation of transformation in the Somali conflict, represents a particularly pernicious change from the perspective of conflict resolution. Its rejection of the legitimacy of social organisation by clan, generation and established religious practice undermines the scope for using established Somali templates of dialogue and negotiation based on kinship.
International engagement is not perceived as neutral. It has swung between regional states, the UN and the EC, each bringing with them competing interests that shape the nature of diplomatic responses and the policy framework: migration, disease, arms proliferation, transnational terrorism, jihadism, or piracy. Today the Somali crisis is entangled with the West’s ill-defined ‘global war on terrorism’ in a strategy that relies on pro-Western regional powers like Ethiopia to achieve wider counter-terrorism objectives.
The Somali conflict and international engagement in it are organically linked. The major international interventions have been received with hostility by Somalis and have had perverse results. Each intervention has incubated new political forces (warlords in the 1990s and now Al Shabaab) that have become major obstacles to a settlement and have helped to prolong the crisis.
International diplomacy has been unable to foster a vision or institutions of a state (or states) that are acceptable to Somalis. Historically, Somali statehood and nationhood have been deeply problematic – largely a foreign construct sustained by foreign resources, subject to foreign interests and a source of external wars and internal conflict.
International peace negotiations have revolved around different state models. Debates over these have been influenced by a combination of internal clan agendas, foreign security interests and, increasingly, a religious ideological discourse:
- Regional autonomy and decentralised governance provided the basis of negotiations in the 1993 Addis Ababa conference, following the collapse of a highly centralised state. The model was rejected by warlords who saw it as a threat to their own power.
- The emergence of autonomous and semi-autonomous regional polities, like Somaliland and Puntland, and nascent polities in the inter-riverine regions in the south gave rise to the concept of reviving a state through a series of federated ‘building blocks’. Ethiopia favoured the federal model that is similar to its own and which, it believes, will diminish the threat of irredentist Somali nationalism that has historically been a source of insecurity.
- The Arta process in Djibouti in 2000 reversed this trend and revived the notion of a unitary state. The Transitional National Government (TNG) established at Arta explicitly claimed sovereignty over Somaliland. This reflected the concerns of the economically powerful Hawiye clans in Mogadishu, a position supported by Arab states that saw a strong Somalia as a counter-weight to Ethiopian hegemony. This was, naturally, rejected by Ethiopia, which supported the armed opposition alliance, the Somali Restoration and Reconciliation Council (SRRC), dominated by the Darood and other non-Hawiye clans.
- The failure of the TNG opened the door to IGAD-facilitated talks in Kenya in 2002-04, which were tilted in favour of a federal state structure. The debate was heavily influenced by Ethiopia, and pressure on Somaliland and Puntland to participate was lifted. The federal approach lacked support from Mogadishu-based clans and religious groups. The talks produced a Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
- The leadership of the Islamic Courts Union, which emerged in opposition to the TFG, made clear their desire for a unitary Somali state that rejected Somaliland and Puntland autonomy. Militant Islamists have gone further, proclaiming their vision of an Islamic caliphate that incorporates all Muslim communities in the Horn of Africa, a position seen as a clear security threat by Ethiopia.
International mediators have brought to these debates their own models of state and society relations, which are premised on the creation of a state that has a monopoly on legitimate force and is responsible for service provision. The statebuilding approach to resolving the Somali crisis reflects an external analysis of the problem and fails to get to grips with the problematic nature of a Somali state.
First, it does not deal with the apparent contradiction between a centralised state-based authority and a traditionally egalitarian political culture, in which the legitimacy of force is not vested in a centralised institution of a state but in a diffuse lineage system, regulated by customary law and other institutions. Somalis have been experimenting with alternative state models that are a hybrid of Somali and Western democratic traditions. Consequently in Somaliland and Puntland at least, Somalis are experiencing localised forms of government that are more participatory than they have been for decades and will be reluctant to part with them.
Second, the statebuilding strategy assumes public support for a revived state. The examples of Somaliland and Puntland demonstrate a demand for government and the demand is also strong among agro-pastoral and politically marginalised populations in the inter-riverine regions. However for many Somalis the prospects of a revived state over which they have no control is perceived as a potential threat to their interests and an instrument of oppression. Somalis might want law and order and still not want a state. Statebuilding strategies need to find ways to alleviate these fears by providing checks on state power and its control of force.
Third, statebuilding and peacebuilding are not synonymous and are potentially contradictory: the former involves the consolidation of government authority and the latter compromise and consensus-building. The establishment of government institutions cannot be the sole measure of successful reconciliation. In a culture where acknowledging past wrongs and making reparations are at the heart of peacemaking, reconciliation cannot be simply reduced to power-sharing arrangements.
Fourth, there has been a disregard for the appeal and possibilities of the Islamic state, ignoring the importance of Islam and the role of Ulema in conflict resolution and peacebuilding. The violent jihadist response to foreigners has a long pedigree in Somalia and was a predictable response to external military intervention. But alarmist international reactions to the growth of Islamism have given religious militants a new role in political mobilisation. This has an especially strong appeal to the young and dispossessed who have known nothing but conflict all their lives.
Fifth, the conflict has not solely been over the state, a political arrangement of which a growing percentage of the population has no memory. Instead, it has involved numerous armed groups fighting over resources, territory and commercial monopolies that have little care for states, borders or sovereignty. International diplomacy is therefore handicapped by a state-centric approach to conflict and mediation.
Finally, the assumption that state capacity can simply be built through coordinated bilateral and multilateral assistance programmes did not work before the war and has proven not to work now. Notwithstanding internal impediments, the international capacity and political and financial will to actually rebuild a Somali state has always been inadequate. External actors engaged in statebuilding and promoting the rule of law need to understand local processes better, learn from them and develop ways to engage with them.