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Special Guest Writer for the Somaliland Times, Prof. William Reno, Northwestern University
The Somalis have no indigenous centralized government...the key to Somali politics lies in kinship. Political status is thus maintained by feud and war, and self-help - the resort of groups to the test of superior military power - is the ultimate arbiter in political relations.
- I.M. Lewis
The fact of the situation in Somaliland is that they have elected a government in the most democratic way possible, within the constraints of public finance; they have started the process of demobilization and disarmament; they have restructured customs services in the port of Berbera and introduced an audit system. None of this effort could be attributed to a single United Nations initiative.
- J. Drysdale
Somalia was once considered one of Africa’s few real nation-states, based upon a shared Somali language and single ethnic culture. The five points of the star on its flag were meant as a call to ‘lost’ Somalis in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti left out in 1960 when Independence led to the union of British Somaliland and the UN trust territory under Italian administration, a cause for which Siyyad Barre’s regime (1969-91) attacked Ethiopia in 1977-78. Yet in 1991 Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, hosted forty distinct, mostly clan-based armed groups. Shortly before, the dying regime killed 50,000 fellow Somalis in a failed attempt to repress rebellion in the north. As of 2002, the closest thing to a central government in Mogadishu was a precarious administration that controlled a small area of the city, a result of protracted negotiations in neighboring Djibouti.
In Hargeisa in old Somalia’s north out came a new flag and slogans to celebrate Somaliland’s declaration of independence on 18 May 1991. Heads of clans transformed themselves into a national assembly. Even though no other government extended it formal recognition, its leaders issued currency, kept order with a new police force, and collected revenues to provide citizens with basic public services. In 1999 the president of Somaliland, Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal, upbraided Mogadishu politicians and warlords for their servility to clan interests and seemingly endless fighting. This was the same man who had been a Somali government official, then head of his own clan militia. Neighboring Puntland created a central administration by 1998, but one more a development organization than a formal government. Puntland authorities pioneer a new hybrid organization that contracts out to private organizations, including indigenous ones, essential tasks such as security that are conventionally assigned to states.
Leaders in Somaliland and Puntland contend with international laws and norms that hinder the creation of new polities. The United Nation’s 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (Resolution 1514) declared that self-determination was legitimate only within the context of ex-colonial boundaries, and that historical or new communities outside this framework did not qualify as authentic candidates. Resolution 1514 declared that ‘any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations,’ a sentiment reinforced in consistent Organization of African Unity condemnations of separatist movements over the last four decades. Thus no state recognizes Somaliland or Puntland sovereignty. Furthermore, many scholars cite internal factors such as foreign aid, clandestine rackets, and diaspora remittances that prevent groups from repeating the Western experience of state formation. This gives few incentives to strongmen to bother to negotiate with local people to construct the bonds of reciprocity and control over power that characterized state building in earlier times in Europe. Yet this is what Somaliland and Puntland leaders appear to have done, even as their southern colleagues conformed to expectations.
What explains these radically different responses of similar societies to state marginality and state collapse? Why do they create (or fail to create) such different new polities and identities amidst greater global economic integration that diasporas and clandestine trades bring even to collapsed states? Are Somaliland’s rulers unreconstructed clan politicians, their power undermined by the demise of a radically marginalized Somalia, abandoned by global economic and strategic interests, leaving them to preside over isolated, contentious clan-based enclaves? Or did Somalia’s collapse create in the north a reordered authority that accepts the social power of clan-based organizations, but also finds new, sustainable ways to configure internal politics and relations with a world economy? How do these people negotiate diplomatic norms that recognize only sovereign states and communities defined by clearly delimited boundaries?
I show how Somaliland society, and to a lesser extent, Puntland society reconstructed itself around three axes. The first involves a shift toward greater reliance on solidarity groups such as clans, sub-clans and lineage groups that claim people’s loyalties and resources. This organizing force in Somali society exists in interaction with other social factors. As contrasting statements at the beginning of this work show, it can appear to be an immutable boundary of conflict, but in fact is fluid and within certain limits is socially reconstructed to respond to political and economic exigencies of collapsing central state authority.
A second axis incorporates clandestine and informal economic channels in conflict. It is not true that collapsing state control automatically empowers self-interested predators who grab valuable economic resources. Somalia’s recent experience shows that not all who exercise coercion do so to maximize their personal economic gains. This still leaves unexplained why some pursue short-term personal economic interests and respond to global economic opportunities at the expense of community order, while others in similar circumstances do not, or at least not exclusively. Some who turn their backs on immediate economic gains survive and successfully encourage others to cooperate with them, even amidst predatory rivals. In fact, some Somali war leaders forego fairly easy predation, while others use violence even where gains are marginal. A key variable explaining this difference lies in the extent to which local notables were able to join a presidential clique and migrate into ‘official’ clandestine markets in the 1970s and 1980s to manipulate state policies and grab state assets for personal benefit. Meanwhile, those excluded from corridors of power, especially in the north, had to take refuge in their own clandestine markets in defiance of presidential power. Highlighting differences in this aspect of state collapse is integral to identifying the social control of resources, and thus coercion after the disintegration of central authority in 1991. By extension, the same elements of social control underlie the construction and eventual character of political communities that succeed the collapsed state.
Changes in global economic norms and practices since the 1970s constitute a third axis. Some of these changes reinforce connections between state collapse, greater marginality and seemingly endless conflict. Other changes give some social networks chances to reconfigure economic ties to the rest of the world to their advantage. To the extent that northern elites can fake adherence to global norms, or convince outsiders that clan and community business networks ought to be treated as a state, or claim that they are something that they really are not (such as a development organization or a business enterprise), they acquire resources and political tools to build a new, post collapsed identity and political community. This ‘beyond state collapse’ possibility suggests that the contemporary world economy and state system tolerate greater heterogeneity in strategies of engagement from the periphery than normally supposed. This tolerance is unintended. It arises out of the capacity of local leaders to represent their organizations as what outsiders may wish to see, to recruit external assistance for covert purposes, and to utilize norms and practices in ways other than what those who created and use them intended, much as Somalia’s president did when he destroyed his state. Where this process occurs, it is central to understanding how globalization affects the construction of identity and the formation of political authority on the margins of world economic and diplomatic transactions.
I argue that the nature of state collapse in the 1970s and 1980s, especially the distribution of social control over violence and markets, unintentionally left Somaliland leaders with more social raw material to reconstruct a single polity after 1991-to ‘self-determine’-compared to southern counterparts. Northerners had some flexibility to experiment, to tie nominally private businesses to the maintenance of central authority and order, and exploit norms in international commercial and diplomatic practice created for other purposes. Lessons of Somaliland apply wherever communally based solidarities (as in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and southern Nigeria) connect people to global economic networks in a context of weak or absent states. Subsequent political arrangements in Somaliland differ significantly from state-building models that privilege clear distinctions between public and private spheres of activity and centralized bureaucratic hierarchies. Somaliland authorities preside over a hybrid organization-not exactly a state in a conventional sense-but state-like in the more basic sense of preserving order, as a pole around which citizens establish a shared identity, and able to manage the community’s conduct of relations with outsiders, all integral elements of self-determination.
Political and institutional variation among Somalis occurs despite the fact that people in Somaliland and Puntland shared with the rest of Somalis similar economic constraints and historical experiences of state rule. All Somalis lived under the cold war era nationalist governance. All experienced its irredentist project in the 1970s. Especially important, all fell victim to the dramatic weakening of state institutions and faced fear, uncertainties and predations of political entrepreneurs attending the collapse of the state during the 1980s. All regions face risk factors for fragmentation such as exploitable grievances and intermingling of communal settlements, with high potentials to create opportunities for political entrepreneurs. In fact, northern Somalia, declaring itself the Republic of Somaliland, historically has been more marginal to world strategic and formal commercial concerns than the south and experienced greater violence in the late 1980s. Distant from the capital, it was short-changed in earlier efforts to build state institutions, a situation rooted in a British colonial policy emphasizing minimal administrative intervention. It is shown below that colonial administration had a disruptive impact upon local social organization. Taken together, these factors make the emergence of an autonomous Somaliland capable of defining a political community and organizing its relations with the rest of the world even more baffling.
Instrumentalist and rational choice approaches have a hard time explaining this outcome with reference to conventional calculations of group fears and individual gain. Somaliland especially suggests other instances of non-occurrence or early cessation of war in other places. While a rational choice model for post state collapse violence and persistent conflict may explain the violent warfare and the collapse of states in Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it fails to account for the relative absence of violence in places like Georgia’s Ajaria and Abazhidze regions. Likewise, Dagestan and Ingushetia attract little attention for their absence of wars. Yet they are among the most ethnically diverse polities of their size, sharing borders with war-torn Chechnya, and are targets of numerous provocations of ethnic entrepreneurs eager to create security dilemmas among these communities. Meanwhile, Chechen neighbors fight Russians, and when not facing invaders, they fight each other.
One could attribute good sense and foresight to political actors, ex post. Doing so glosses over highly unpredictable, violent and threatening environments and erratic decision making processes that characterize even those cases that avoid massive conflict and communal competition. It downplays the salience of variables such as ethnically defined units that served as the basis of Soviet administration and that should have heightened ethnic tensions during periods of uncertainty, much as the first quote at the front of this work attributes continuing Somali conflicts to pervasive clan affiliation in politics there. As throughout the Somali space, entrepreneurs in all these cases exploit clandestine commercial networks in niche sectors of regional economies and play a major role in controlling external financial resources to these societies. People throughout the margins of the world economy, whether they fight or peaceably reorganize their communities in some different fashion, contend with the breakdown of old economies, declining subsidies from former colonial powers or superpower patrons, and fighting nearby that exposes them to the risk of contagion of disorder and fear. Furthermore, Somaliland’s diaspora represents a larger percentage of total population and contributes more to societal income than any other major region of the Somali space. According to Collier this manner of economic and social externalization should lead to a greater likelihood of conflict, when in fact it is compatible with the opposite.
What these cases, and Somaliland and Puntland in detail here shows is that state collapse and shifts in the global environment can be compatible with the formation of orderly multi-communal polities that are able to manage their connections with the global economy, even as they are extremely marginal to it. While it is not a formula for organizing polities that will have great weight in the economic or political councils of global society, these conditions are compatible with the more modest claim that the destruction of states amidst economic globalization need not spell the end to local political order and peaceful economic engagement...
To be continued next week...