Conflict Trap Prevents Somalia From Economic Development


Postcolonial Somalia is stuck in a conflict trap. Between 1988 and 2008, it experienced three civil wars, and in 2017, a fourth civil war started. The conflict trap cycle poses a serious obstacle to the economic development.

Paul Collier, a British development economist, found a positive correlation between low level of initial income, low growth of a state and the outbreak of civil war. These initial causes indicate high poverty levels, allowing warlords to build armies for cheap from a population with little to hope for. Easy access to human capital leads to competitive armies which then enables the outbreak of armed conflicts. The resulting destruction of social, economic and political institutions, further increases poverty and hopelessness, forming a destructive cycle. Therefore, the countries concerned are very likely to experience a post-conflict relapse.

Some possible solutions have already been implemented to end the cycle by creating a functioning state in Somalia, but most of them have failed their mission. International organisations tend to ignore Somali traditions of governance in favour of implementing Western state building processes onto the country. Foreign involvement in state forming procedures by international organisations, such as the U.N. or the European Union, was hoped to stabilize Somalia. Somalia embraced federalism in 2012, building on the decentralized nature of the country, but no improvement has taken place since then.

The failure of the responses by the above-mentioned international actors stems from various  roots. Under colonialist rule, Somalia was divided among four nations, Great Britain, Italy, Ethiopia and France, resulting in different administrative practices between regions. These regional differences deepened the already existing social and political tensions within the country, particularly the hostile relationship between clans

Clanship has always played a determining role in Somali politics, but prior to colonialism, clans were far not as aggressive with each other as after colonialism. Similar to most African countries, Somalia never had a centralised state before being colonised. Society was organised along clan lines. During colonialism, traditional pastoralism was neglected and the economy lacked new investments. By the time colonisers left Somalia, the peasantry was largely replaced by a drained urban population in an economy that lacked capital and incentives for investment. This resulted in various social groups competing for the remaining resources of the state, which obtained revenue from taxes and foreign aid. Clan leaders have fought for the leading role of the new centralised state with resources ever since independence.

Siad Barre was from one of the largest clans in Somalia, the Darood, which has one million members and is spread across the country. During his dictatorship, Siad Barre favoured his sub-clan, the Marehan, and alienated others. The relationship of clans can be observed through this period, as some Darood sub-clans, such as Ogadeen, were loyal to the Marehan during Siad Barre’s administration until the end of the 1980s, when inner tensions set them against each other. The tensions stemmed from the lack of coherent economic policy from the 1980s, which also contributed to the 1988 civil war.

A civil war can mean the lack of competent governance in a country, like in the case of Somalia before and after Siad Barre’s regime, when the clan leaders were fighting over the right to rule. However, the fourth step of the conflict trap is the destruction of existing infrastructure, trade and political institutions which makes it harder to achieve good governance. Thus, growth in economic activity promoted by good governance could result in economic growth and decreasing poverty, which might prevent the outbreak of an armed conflict.

After the central state collapsed in Somalia, each region introduced its own type of governance system based on their previous experiences. One of the most successful ones in terms of development is Somaliland, which is located in the North-Western part of Somalia, former British protectorate.  Even though Somaliland is currently not recognised as an independent state by international actors and Somalia itself, its reconstruction after declaring its independence from Somalia in 1991 is outstanding. Therefore, it could serve as a role model of effective state building for Somalia to overcome the conflict trap and to promote development. It is worth noting that no foreign influence can be observed in the formation of Somaliland and it is relatively stable compared to Somalia.

The success of the state of Somaliland lies in the adequate combination of traditional practices and “Western-style” state formation. “Xeer” serves as the foundation of the main values and norms along which the society must be organised. Somaliland incorporated the xeer into the modern state administration by giving clan leaders and elders a say in the state building process, and resolving conflict through conferences. They incorporated into the state the traditional “guurti,” the council of elders, which is responsible for an army that prevents armed conflicts between clans. It also implemented checks over executive power and organised legislature branches based on providing fair representation for clans. To avoid conflicts, the negotiations are made through consensus, not through voting, which allows everyone to have a say in the issue.

Due to cooperation, most conflicts have been resolved peacefully through negotiations which led to development of infrastructure, social welfare services and economy. These processes contributed to the breaking of conflict trap. Somaliland is also argued to have better indicators than any other state in the region of the Horn of Africa.

The solution proposed is that Somalia, having similar traditions and experiences as Somaliland, should also include all the clans in the state-building processes and negotiate a system that works best for them. Giving power to the elders by allowing them to control the militia and check the power of other government branches could prevent civil wars. If successful, the country could leave the failing state status and move on to the path of development.

Leave a Reply