Lessons from Somaliland: appropriate technology for 'Peace processes'

My aim here is not to extole the achievements of Somaliland but to consider how its successful establishment throws light on a number of wider issues. Inevitably, and most immediately, Somaliland’s successful experiment in state formation invites and indeed requires comparison with parallel (if less-successful) attempts in southern Somalia. The non-recognition of Somaliland implies that something is wrong with its claims to legitimate statehood. But, actually, it is not Somaliland but ex-Italian Somalia that is the problem: and, unfortunately, the uninformed outside world does not readily differentiate between the two. It would all be much easier if Somaliland had, like Djibouti, a more distinctive name.

Anyone who knows anything about the definition of states, however, can easily appreciate that Somaliland is a functioning polity in the real world. Somalia, unfortunately, is a fantasy state which now only exists on paper. No matter how many reems of paper in AU and UN documents refer to Somalia, it exists only in theory as a potential state which, may some day, re-emerge into practical reality. For the moment, it exists primarily in rhetoric. This, of course, is a sad reflection on the wasteful failure of so much negotiation and the reckless expenditure of so much money which would have been much better spent had it simply been distributed amongst the needy civilian population.

Comparison with Somaliland highlights how grass roots peace negotiations have generally worked in Somaliland and served as the basis for constructing the state. Of course, this is an example of the importance of the bottom-up approach to building societies from local communities upwards, gradually widening the arena of political agreement and political concensus. This method of widening political concensus is especially appropriate where traditional society is , as in the Somali case, highly fragmented and de-centralised, and does not conform to ethnocentric assumptions about the universatility of so-called ‘civil society’ .

It is not simply that Somali traditional society is atomised and only waiting to be brought together by the benign civil sociey engineer. Nothing could be further from the case. Traditional Somali society is compartmentalised into a myriad of small extended family units which tend by nature to be mutually hostile. True, these units routinely combine and dissolve in wider temporary groupings which eventually reach the level of the ‘clan’, itself an intrinsically unstable unit. But to perform the miracle of bringing these naturally opposed polities together in a wider and more stable framework requires a constantly expanding recognition of wider common interets.

Clearly Islam provides a helpful ingredient of unity here and so, in a way does the absence of traditionally powerful local rulers who could exert a profoundly divisive effect. The traditional ground roots leadership of local headmen, who are essentially representative, and which is part of the decentralised segmentary tradition, does not create fixed obstacles to the mobilisation of wider loyalties. Hence, although traditional decentralised society creates a tremendous challenge to centralised statehood, once this is recognised as an essential political reality, ways can be found of adapting centralised political organisation to meet these demanding conditions. This has obviously not been achieved yet in southern Somalia. But that is not surprising since no one has seriously tried to design political structures appropriate to the existing conditions. It is simply thoughtlessly assumed that the old battered state structure, with the sole addition of a federal dimension ( so far entirely theoretical), can be reimposed on the Maffia turfs of southern Somalia. To seriously meet this challenge requires a much more imaginative and radical approach in state building. Again, the bottom-up perspective is essential here.This is what has been applied over more than a decade, and not without setbacks, in Somaliland . The eventual construction of a pattern of governance based on popular representation through a bicameral system of traditional and modern leaders has permitted an impressive degree of democracy. This as everyone here will know, is being tested again this month in Somaliland’s parliamentary election in which we hope all Districts, will fully participate-including Sool (where I have some camels). It is heartening that a wider range of international observers than previously is expected to witness this process leading to the formation of a new government. We trust that all will go well since, democratic success here, would surely constitute an important step forward in Somaliland’s campaign to achieve diplomatic recognition.

What are the obstacles here?

Let us first survey the position of various obvious interest groups, beginning with the Arab League dominated on this issue by Egyptian attitudes towards Ethiopia concerning the Nile Waters. Following a line of policy which might well have been founded by the ancient Pharoes, now under the banner of Islam Egypt seeks local Muslim allies as a counterweight to Ethiopia, which is historically perceived as a Christian country. This mumified foreign policy regards a strong, united Somalia as indispensable here. In pursuit of these interests, Egypt has consequently sought to exert influence on the outcome of most of the thirteen high profile international Somalia ‘peace conferences’ which have been organised since 1990. Ironically, the latest so called peace conference in Kenya has produced a transitional federal government whose provisional President Col. Abdillahi Yusuf is generally believed to have secured his position with the aid of Ethiopian financial and other support. Whatever its achievements may be, the conference has also certainly not produced a united Somalia capable of reliably serving Egyptian foreign policy interests.

Discounting Djibouti which, on grounds of trade rivalry and other business interests, largely opposes Somaliland’s case for recognition and has frequently tried to secure the restoration of Somalia in its old inclusive form, the other main opponent is of course Italy. This policy has been pursued both directly and through the European Union so forcefully that Britain, the other EU state with direct historical interests, has hesitated to openly show support for Somaliland. Motives for the Italian position seem complex. There is undoubtedly an element of nostalgia for a former colony where some people still speak a little Italian.Is there also still a financial motive? Italy loyally supported the oppressive regime of Siyad Barre and the Italian aid budget was subject to corrupt misuse in Italy as well as Somalia. The Italian political parties were well known to have an arrangement whereby they received shares of this budget for their own use. Prime Minister Craxi, it may be remembered, had to flee to Tunisia (where he died) to escape the anti-corruption Italian legal process.

The Africa Union, whose politicians and senior officials are generally ignorant of, and uninterested in, political conditions in Somaliland and Somalia, simply oppose Somaliland on the dubious basis of the sacred inviolability African state boundaries. One motive is to avoid creating precedents which might help to unseat corrupt authoritarian rulers at home. Perhaps, also they do not want to encourage the kind of democracy that flourishes in Somaliland.

With equal ignorance of both Somalia and Somaliland, and perhaps more arrogance, the UN leadership and bureacracy, undeterred by their ignominous record of intervention in Somalia seek to avoid rocking the African boat. Mr Anon’s Akan origins have unfortunately not facilitated his understanding of complex African issues. His functionaries would prefer to maintain political fictions which are manifestly hostile to the spread of real democracy and the improvement of the lot of powerless peasants. Closer to home, despite its rhetorical commitment to the promotion of democracy in Africa, HMG similarly prefers to avoid the possible African complications, exaggerated though these probably are, of recognising Somaliland. FCO officials sometimes claim further, without citing any evidence, that if Britain recognised Somaliland, it might be attacked by Somalia. The notion of Somalia being sufficiently politically organised to attack anything seems a little far-fetched. This I think is merely a convenient British sophistry when taking some new action is more difficult than simply letting things stand as they are.

The British further argue that Somaliland must negotiate with Somalia and if agreement is reached on independence, then they and presumably other EU states, would follow suit. This is tantamount to arguing that an abused wife should seek her husband’s blessing before setting up on her own! The reality is, of course, that the former union with ex-Italian Somalia has fallen apart in response to the atrocities inflicted by the Siyad regime on the civilian population of Somaliland.Independence has been regained by the SNM freedom fighters. Surely it would be racist to claim that this was not a legitimate liberation struggle on the grounds that the southern Somali oppressors were not white-skinned.It is also worth pointing out, that to call Somaliland ‘self-declared’, as its detractors do, is unwittingly to compliment Somaliland’s democracy. Sadly there are currently no comparable democratically elected bodies in Somalia which could express a convincingly concerted opinion on the issue.

Like the founders of the USA, the Somalilanders have chosen to go their own way in defiance of their former rulers, and with similar popular legitimacy. Their state is no more or less ‘self-declared’ than the USA. Unfortunately,the US which has not shown much direct interest in these Somali problems, and probably does not understand this point, seems to have chosen generally to follow the British and EU line here. Current terrorist issues may require serious re-appraisal --something to which I shall shortly return.

As far as local governments are concerned, the most interested is self-evidently the local super-power, Ethiopia, with its substantial Somali population in Region Five.The current unrest, with the delayed elections in the region, gives added piquancy to Somali issues, particularly in the light of the Somali/Ethiopian war of 1977/8 which is still very much alive in the memories of both sides. Thus Ethiopian involvement in the southern Somalia imbroglio is not surprising, and it may indeed be, as is often asserted, that Ethiopia would prefer to see Somalia remain divided. It is not inconsistent with this that Ethiopia, which desperately needs port facilities to replace those formerly enjoyed in Eritrea, has developed its own policy of friendship with Somaliland, with trade agreements, airline connections, and cordial relations which only just stop short of formal diplomatic recognition. Indeed Ethiopia has closer actual relations with Somaliland than with many other states it officially recognises. It may well be that having already achieved what it wants from Somaliland and its port at Berbera, the Ethiopian government may judge that it is not worth the diplomatic hassle with the Africa Union which full recognition might entail. The Ethiopian position, however, is not totally discouraging their formula is : if someone else takes the first step we will be immediately behind them. ‘After you Claud’.

Britain and other EU states have been quite substantially involved financially, and in terms of staff support, in the latest IGAD so-called ‘peace-process’ By them as by the UN, this has been treated as just another standard ‘peace process’ requiring financial and administrative support, as well as diplomatic influence, to prove successful. Many technical advisers and assistants—the usual so called ‘international experts’ have been employed for varying periods of time in the two and a half years it has taken to formally deliver a provisional federal government with the usual complex apparatus of legal and administrative provisions. That the maffiosi warlords, who are officially the main protagonists this time and whose main shared interest is mutual mistrust, have not actually made peace with each other, or with any of the few civilian participants, means of course that the ‘government’, they have been bribed into forming, has little chance of ever functioning as an organisation of effective governance. Indeed, as two recent commentators (Terlinden and Hagmann) shrewdly observe in their article ‘Faking a Government for Somalia’, the outcome here as with the previous Arta conference, is a ‘virtual government’ or a ‘letter box government’—open for donations of aid if nothing else. I would go further to say that it is not even a letter-box government, but rather a ‘poste-restant’ government, with a mail address, when it is not at home itself.

As most people here today will know, despite costs which have been reported at some $20 million, the theoretical government produced in Kenya is now split into two main camps—that of the TFG president, Col. Abdillahi Yusuf and his allies, vers. the Mogadishu gangster warlords (rather improbably re-cycled as government ministers) who, despite their many personal and kin-based divisions, all belong to the Hawiye clan-family. Tension between the two sides seems to be steadily mounting as each builds up its military power in men and munitions and Abdillahi has made no secret of his intention of moving from his present camp at Jowhar to Baidoa and thence to Mogadishu. In these circumstances it is self-evident that the power blocs in Abdillahi’s TFG are too busy squaring up to each other to consider sensibly the question of Somaliland’s de facto existence. So on the Somalia side the issue is shelved, which, presumably suits the EC foreign affairs mandarins.

It would truely have been a miracle if such an ill-designed and ill-executed conference, following on from thirteen previous failures, could have had a successful outcome. In the first place, the war-lords who were the chief protagonists at no time gave any convincing sign that they were ready to abandon their inveterate distrust of each other, or that they sincerely sought to find a way of sharing the resources which they had largely stolen in southern Somalia. There was no indication at all that they saw any need to form a common administration for southern Somalia, let alone Mogadishu, to actually implement the laws and regulations advised by the foreign ‘experts’ in the course of their prolonged debates. Contrast the local lineage headmen in Somaliland, who came together to discuss terms of settlement, because they saw no profit in endlessly continuing the state of war between clans. The Somaliland negotiations built up from local meetings across the whole country, which often took weeks and sometimes months to reach agreement, before the peace debate was taken by their delegates to wider assemblies. These were typically not high profile affairs such as those which have proved so ineffectual in Somalia.

There was also the additional advantage that, in comparison with the south, there were few posturing war-lords and other distructive figures who lack any demonstrable concern for the well-being of their clansmen, save in the most narrow sense. The fact that all these negotiations took place inside Somaliland, moving as indicated from local to ever widening levels, was I think crucial to the success of the whole enterprise. This enabled the claimed representative role of elders to be constantly tested and demonstrated in a way that has been quite impossible in the southern Somali Kenya conference.The most that might be said of delegates to Kenya was that there was a mutual understanding that very few of those present actually had the status of bone fide representatives of the groups for whom they claimed to speak. This widespread cynicism was, naturally, even more widely spread outside the meetings among the general Somali public. The Somali protagonists, with their customary arrogance and appreciation of the dolche vita, especially when it comes free, are primarily to blame for not acting in better faith and for so outrageously exploiting the naivete of their foreign interlocutors. The latter seem, largely unwittingly, to have been led to connive in the make-belief of the conference and the sweet-talking Somali ‘intellectuals’ who act as ambassadors for the various war-lords. The international officials and their ministers should, however, have pondered the infamous record of fourteen years of failed Somali ‘peace conferences’ before embarking on another episode in the non-existant ‘peace-process’. It would have been, equally, prudent to make a wider appraisal of African peace-making models and above all, and most obviously, of the Somaliland model of successful peace-building and reconstruction.

With this local model, something positive might have been achieved, rather than the ‘virtual’ peace-deal which has come out of Kenya, which is simply another milestone in the long record of southern Somali failure. Instead, because no one involved in the process seriously raised the question of what a viable southern Somali government might look like or how it might be built up, we are again left with another absurd waste of effort and money. The hopes of ordinary Somalis are again dashed as they are condemned to further years of chaos and poverty and, if they can secure the means, of seeking asylum where they can find it.

Doubtless, the European countries who supported the Kenyan performance, hoped that by re-establishing Somalia they would diminish the number of asylum seekers and reduce Somali immigrant populations. This concern also affects the growing danger, to Europe and America, of Islamic terrorism. Until now from its military base in Djibouti, the US seems to have found that if the chaotic conditions in southern Somalia offer propitious conditions for terrorist cells, they also make it easy to conduct covert operations against suspect terrorists by striking deals with individual warlords. However, it is not clear how long this pattern of anti-terrorist engagement will prove satisfactory given the different priorities of the war-lords. The more stable conditions provided by a functioning state would seem likely to offer more predictable anti-terrorist cooperation in the longer term—as long, of course, as the local authorities were not themselves fundamentalists. In the longer term, it would seem that as long as no real state exists in southern Somalia, Europe and the West would benefit from the presence in the area of a friendly, democratic, functioning state: and what better partner than Somaliland?

The Somali political manoeuvres sketched here, raise wider conceptual issues: what, for instance, is an effective ‘peace-process’ ? International organisations such as the UN and some NGOs, of which more common sense might be expected, seem to unthinkingly suppose that all conflicts are the same, and consequently require the same type of ‘peace process’. In this simplistic approach, one suit fits all customers, and the undiscerning mantra ‘peace-process’ is applied without discrimination to all cases. This logic treats the southern Somali situation in the same terms as the Palestine problem. According to this absurd UN model, all cases vary in intractability, but all are susceptible to solution by the same methods. According to this simplistic approach, for success all that is ultimately required is direct pressure on the protagonists in the form of threats by internationally famous political figures.

This type of intervention assumes ethnocentrically that all disputing parties have a similar hierarchical structure which respects international figures because of their position elsewhere. Somalis, however, are so individualistically democratic that they are not in awe of such political personalities whom they regard as no more important than themselves. By definition, and for better or worse, Somalis simply do not respect authority. Thus, those pundits who have claimed that the Kenya performance failed because the Americans or the EU failed to exert sufficient direct pressure, do not, I think, sufficiently understand the decentralised character of Somali political institutions. Even more fundmentally, like horses which refuse to drink water, those who fundamentally do not want to make peace cannot realisticaly be made to seek it. Successful peace-making, as was clear in Somaliland, depends on those concerned sincerely desiring an end to conflict.

So, fourteen years and fourteen international ‘peace conferences’ after it collapsed, southern Somalia is as far from general peace and state reconstruction as ever. Indeed the situation is worse now than it was before Operation Restore Hope. The War-lord maffia leaders, who now enjoy the make-belief title of ‘minister,’ have built up and consolidated their power bases, especially in and round Mogadishu, where they defiantly confront their virtual ‘President’, Abdillahi Yusuf.

The repetitive failures of the misleadingly titled ‘peace-process’ in southern Somalia should give dispute--analysts pause for serious thought. They need to appreciate the limits of their ethnocentric ‘top-down’ approach, and to widen it to include such cases as the present, where extreme democracy rubs shoulders with anarchy, and political leadership is as segmented as its social base. How to mobilise and retain grass-roots support is vital here as Somaliland demonstrates.

Although the presence of so many intractable gangster war-lords and their maffia economy, complicate the problem in southern Somalia, those seeking social reconstruction there should have carefully examined the Somaliland experience, and so should the international community whose ill-informed interventions so far have, by legitimising the war-lords, only served to complicate matters further. Whatever its relevance elsewhere, as a model of African governance, combining modern and traditional authority, Somaliland’s most obvious application is to southern Somalia.

Rational appreciation of this by southern Somalis is unfortunately hindered by their treatment of Somaliland as a ‘phantom limb’, still part of Somalia. However, refusal to accept Somaliland’s existence in the real world and attempts to diminish it as ‘self-declared’, only serve to further consolidate the fantasy that the virtual state of Somalia actually exists. This inevitably hinders the development of a more realistic approach to the problem of southern Somalia. As I have argued before, I think that diplomatic recognition of Somaliland might shock the southern Somali Rip-van-Winkles out of their fantasy world of slumber, and help them to reappraise themselves more realistically.

Before independence in 1960, as I saw myself, political progress in Somalia spurred on the independence movement in Somaliland. Now it is time to return the compliment, and for the Somaliland pattern of progress to inspire the southern Somalis to recover their lost political independence from the hands of the oppressive gangsters who have contributed so much to the merciless destruction of their country.

Ioan M. Lewis FBA
Emeritus Professor of Anthropology
London School of Economics

September 1, 2005. 

Paper presented by Professor I. M. Lewis on the first day of the two-day conference of the 1st Somaliland Societies in Europe (SSE) conference held on 1st -2nd September 2005 at The Royal Institute of International Affairs 10 St James’s Square, London SW1Y 4LE