Somalia and the ‘Bottom-Up’ Approach to Governance

Since the end of a horrific civil war that resulted in the total destruction of Somalia’s government, Somalis have struggled to form a national political identity: one that is acceptable to the entire population but also satisfies the international community’s demands for some semblance of moderate democratic governance. The international community has labored determinably in Somalia under the universally-held notion that all countries must have a strong central government. However all attempts at establishing centralized democratic institutions in Somalia have thus far failed, largely because proposed schemes have neglected to properly take into account current political and cultural realities in Somalia. A heavily ethnic-based civil war, compounded by more than fifteen years without formal governance, led to the establishment of xenophobic clan fiefdoms, which came to operate as individual localized governments. In addition, in what have been somewhat successful ventures, particularly in the north, both the northern and central parts of Somalia each formed their own central governments. Although Somalis share a common culture, religion and language, their society is highly factionalized and thus ruled by traditional alliances and rivalries, which unfortunately carry over when forming centralized institutions. Because of the fractured nature of Somali society and the success of localized clan-based government, as well as the gradual establishment of formal separatist states, a highly representative, federalist system of governance with a significantly weak center seems the most feasible in Somalia. The international community must recognize the utility of supporting traditional clan-based fiefdoms and the states of Somaliland and Puntland in achieving relative stability in Somalia. It must focus its efforts on a much more localized level, empowering traditional moderate forces, if it is to counter the extremist threat and prevent further civil conflict.

After Somalia achieved independence in 1960 from its former colonial masters Italy (which controlled Italian Somaliland) and Great Britain (which controlled British Somaliland), it adopted a parliamentary democracy with both a President and Prime Minister at the helm. Somalis’ real first taste of democracy occurred when they voted to adopt a new constitution in a nationwide referendum in 1961. Somalis were quick to accept democratic principles of political and legal equality, as they corresponded to traditional principles of clan equality and representative politics. In addition, during the first several years of independence, Somalis embraced opportunities to engage in political discourse, and political participation was immensely popular, often surpassing levels observed in Western societies. In fact, at the time, a radio was the most desired possession by Somalia’s large nomadic population, as it was the only way to keep up to date on political news. Although it initially seemed as though a democratic system of governance would flourish in Somalia due to the philosophical similarities to traditional cultural practices and the growing popularity of civic participation, a much stronger cultural force proved too challenging a problem to overcome: clan politics.

Unfortunately, the primacy of clan identity in Somali culture meant that in order for any government to be successful in Somalia, it would have to be viewed by the population as being equally representative of each individual clan. Somalis eventually came to reject the parliamentary government formed immediately after independence. Clan disputes over political issues and positions, aggravated by differences in political systems between British and Italian Somaliland, dominated the political landscape and obstructed any attempts at forming an effective integrated government. The demand for a clan-based political system would continue to be an obstacle to the promotion of civic citizenship based on human and civil rights and democratic principles of governance. In essence, the very task of having to form a central government would further exacerbate existing clan divisions, leading to the establishment of ineffective authoritarian rule and eventually culminating into a full-scale civil war (1991-97) that completely destroyed formal governance in Somalia.

The dominance of a centuries-old clan system in Somalia has led to strong kinship amongst clan members that continues to define the Somali way of life to this day. The six major tribes in Somalia are the Darod, Isaaq, Hawiye, Dir, Rahanweyne and Digil; in addition, there are a series of smaller clan families that stem from the six main clans. Clans are interrelated through complex networks of social relationships that actually extend over clan territories, making it difficult sometimes to assess the extent of alliances and rivalries. Within each clan exists a hierarchal social system that governs clan activities and resources. At the top of this hierarchy are the clan elders, who throughout Somalia’s history have served successfully as clan leaders, chosen to enforce traditional Somali customary laws known collectively xeer, which tends to be more compensatory than punitive. Xeer is typically the first recourse in local conflict resolution; it is often enacted to elicit settlement or reconciliation among individuals, businesses and clans; it is applied in almost 80-90% of all dispute and/or criminal cases (2006 figures), and covers everything from marriage issues to property disputes to murder. Interestingly, although Somalis are a highly religious society and will apply Sharia or Islamic law to issues of family and inheritance, when Sharia law conflicts with xeer, the latter seems to almost always take precedence. In addition, religious leaders have never played a direct role in political affairs, which are typically left to clan leaders to deal. Somalis even have a saying that highlights their proclivity for secularism, “One can change his religion; one cannot change the law.”

Post independence, the Italian and British, along with the newly formed central government, tried desperately to eradicate xenophobic tendencies within the population by trying to diminish the importance of clan identity in everyday affairs. Somalis were even asked to refer to each other as ‘comrades’, as opposed to their clan affiliation. Attempts were also made to integrate clan leadership, namely clan elders, into the larger government, but these too failed. Particularly within the South, the Somali government continuously manipulated clan elders, trying to buy their loyalties and consequently, their clan’s support. In addition, in order to increase their influence, politicians and warlords aggravated internal clan conflicts in the South, which led to the splitting of clans into numerous sub-clans; this forced the selection of new clan leaders, who would then pledge their loyalties to the given faction leader. This led many Somalis in the South to view their own elders as corrupt and ultimately threatened to destroy the social fabric there. Manipulating clan politics proved easier in the South than in the North, as the South is much more ethnically diverse. In addition, Northern Somalis were far more politically united than their Southern counterparts, a fact that would later prove most beneficial to establishing political stability and progress in the North with the founding of Somaliland.

The Somaliland System

Northern Somalis had always viewed the post-independence political integration process with deep skepticism. Their political system adopted under British rule was vastly different from Italian Somaliland; in addition, integration meant the loss of significant political leverage. Northern Somalis took advantage of the fall of Siad Barre’s regime and the ensuing ‘91-92 Somali Civil War to retreat from the larger political system and form their own independent state. Somaliland, whose formation was the result of grass root based peace conferences, officially declared independent statehood in 1991. Although not formally recognized by the international community, Somaliland functions completely independent of Central (Puntland) and Southern Somalia, with substantial assistance from the United Nations, and its story has thus far been one of success in terms of incorporating traditional clan politics with modern democratic governance. Somaliland operates as a republic with three branches of government: a presidency, a bi-cameral legislature and a judiciary. Its first president was elected in 2003 to a five-year term, and a second presidential election occurred in June 2010 after some delay, the result of which was a new president, elected from the opposition. Somaliland’s legislature is a hybrid of traditional and modern forces, consisting of a Senate and a House of Representatives; the legislature is only part-elected. Its judiciary is only loosely centralized, with the presence of a Supreme Court; most criminal and civil offenses are still dealt with through traditional means that have been somewhat formalized by way of district and regional courts.

What sets Somaliland’s political efforts apart from those made in the South is its locally-based approach. It was the political will of Northern Somalia’s traditional authorities, combined with the Somali National Movement’s (SNM) democratic ambitions that ultimately led to the formation of a functional, centralized government. No more is this reflected than in its bi-cameral legislature. The Senate, or House of Elders, is comprised of clan representatives, as well as numerous intellectuals and other well-respected individuals in Somali society. Its members are more of a consultative authority to the House of Representatives; they provide advisement on a host of political issues and on legislation proposed by the House. The House, which is comprised of elected officials, exercises sole authority to pass legislation and can override any objections made by the Senate. It also has control over all state financial matters, as well as any constitutional changes, and must approve international treaties. The relationship between the two legislative Houses is cooperative, always maintaining a balance between traditional social forces and modern democratic practices and principles. The structure of the two houses allows for such a relationship to continue through the clear delineation of their respective roles and the continued preservation and proliferation of the legislature’s representativeness. The system is ultimately designed to provide clan elders and traditional forces a national governmental role, without politicizing their positions and subsequently opening them up to the type of corruption that ultimately destroyed the South. The elders maintain their chief role as peacekeepers, serving as mediators at the local level to prevent conflict within clans and between clans over resources and minor criminal and civil issues. The link between official government and traditional societal structures maintains even at the regional and district levels, where traditional authorities are officially recognized and work successfully with locally elected officials to perform a vital role in maintaining security, law and order.

Southern Somalia and the ‘Bottom-Up’ Approach

Although the Somaliland government must improve it human and civil rights record, particularly with regards to freedom of speech, assembly and the press, its overall structure has thus far proved successful in overcoming clan-related political challenges, demonstrating the practicality of using a grass-roots approach to establish a government in Southern Somalia. The success of Puntland’s endeavors is also worth noting, as the independent region has also managed to establish its own form of democratic governance, although much more heavily influenced by clan elders and far less developed than its Northern counterpart. Currently in Southern Somalia, there are several forces battling for political control of the country; the most infectious and dangerous of these forces is of course Al Shabaab, comprised mainly of impoverished and uneducated young males, easily manipulated by external forces seeking to exploit political voids to establish a safe base from which to operate a global terrorist campaign. The inconsistent meddling of foreign countries in Somali affairs, coupled with little economic opportunity in Somalia, has facilitated a growing extremist movement in Southern Somalia, which unfortunately has eroded traditional social structures and marginalized clan elders’ overall authority. The restoration of this authority is key to re-building traditional social structures within Southern Somalia that could ultimately serve as the basis for a highly decentralized but functional system of national governance. In order to be successful, the process to achieve such a government would have to emulate processes implemented in the North, in what could be called the ‘bottom-up’ approach.

All attempts at forming a central government for Southern Somalia have thus far centered on a ‘top-down’ approach, but the problem with a ‘top-down’ or ‘schema-driven’ approach in state-building is that it already assumes the end goal and often without the consent of the people. In the case of Southern Somalia, a government (Transitional Federal Government or TFG) was created without the direct participation and approval of the population, and as a result, it has been rejected by a significant portion of the population and is now entirely reliant upon the international community for its continued survival. Although attempts were made initially to make the TFG representative through multiple peace conferences that included the major clans and parties of the South, efforts to maintain the civilian, grass-roots nature of the TFG seemed to subside shortly after its formation, even as political in-fighting threatened its legitimacy. In addition, support of the TFG by the Somali population eroded as support of the TFG by external forces, including the United States (US) and Ethiopia, increased. Somalis began to view the TFG with increasing suspicion, particularly after Ethiopian forces, with support of the US (CIA), deposed the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). Of course, a major hindrance to the formation of a legitimate, civilian government in Southern Somalia remains the existence and power of the warlords and clan militias, whose interests have also obstructed attempts at reconciliation. However, the main problem is that the TFG now functions almost completely within a tiny isolated bubble, and not just because its control is limited to a small area of the country, but because it lacks a significant political and social connection to the larger population.

Constant fighting between TFG members and their respective clans demonstrates the lack of unity within the current regime and the need for a considerable change in strategy. What is needed is a major overhaul of government that includes a massive effort to re-establish clan elder authority over extremist leadership, peacefully disarm and disband extremist groups and promote inter-clan (and sub-clan) dialogue and cooperation. Realistically, the TFG is not now, nor has ever been, a functioning government, and its ongoing attempts to govern in this impossible environment have proved futile. Instead of pathetically trying to hold onto an already irrelevant government, TFG members should shift their role from ‘politician’ to ‘mediator’, and implement widespread and inclusive negotiations throughout the South, with the ultimate goal of developing more localized governmental infrastructure. Somalis should implement a ‘bottom-up’ approach through the organization of extensive peace conferences at the sub-clan, clan, district and regional level and work towards returning primary authority to traditional clan elders, while simultaneously negotiating the disarmament of violent extremist groups. To retain legitimacy, these efforts must be perceived by the population as being entirely indigenous, so the international community must take only an auxiliary role. In addition, political progress cannot be made without a corresponding increase in economic opportunity, especially for Somalia’s youth, whose idleness has been easily exploited by fundamentalist groups.

There must be unity amongst the various clans, sub-clans and other factions over how Southern Somalis will be governed. Achieving consensus is no easy task, but a grass-roots approach, modeled after Somaliland’s system, may be the only way to stymie growing extremist elements, rebuild trust between clans and sub-clans and counter the politicization that has plagued the TFG. Although a grass-root, clan-based political system is not ideal, especially for those seeking real democratic reform, it is a practical and ultimately necessary first step towards achieving stable governance in Southern Somalia and preventing the further spread of extremism there. Somalis have a unique traditional system of social governance that is rooted in religion but not dominated by it; the international community must recognize the utility of empowering this system. In addition, it must also lend greater political and logistical support to Somaliland and Puntland authorities, as their continued success is instrumental to achieving stability in all of Somalia.