Elections In Somalia: Building The State Over Keeping The Peace?

This month the Somali government named its new Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble, after the previous, Hassan Ali Khaire, was voted out of Parliament. Khaire was dismissed for failing to negotiate a one-person, one-vote system for the upcoming elections. The United Nations has advocated strongly for a transition to one-person, one-vote as a “historic milestone” in the country’s journey out of civil war and statelessness. Much of the international financial support to the country is also part of the “state-building” project, which aims to formalize both governance and the economy in Somalia.

From the perspective of a democratic Western nation-state, founded upon the industrial revolution and noble battles for popular votes, this approach is self-evident. However, the territory called Somalia does not function in the same way as the U.K., U.S., or France. In fact, the history of Somalia demonstrates that treating it as a “state” has only served international interests and has sometimes negatively affected the Somali people. In order to make a tangible difference to the lives of Somali people, international donors must embrace a less rigid Western-centric analysis of the conflict and governance in Somalia and take on more creative, non-Western modes of governance, even if they are unpalatable to our worldview.

Following repeated economic crises under a military regime led by Siad Barre, Somalia fell into civil war in 1991. At this point, the international narrative is that the country was beyond hope or help. Large international donors such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund finally suspended loans to the country, after a decade of loan conditions being ignored by Barre’s government. UN military missions in 1991 and 1993 that tried to stabilize the country are infamous for their failures because in the eyes of the international community, the territory was “stateless,” meaning anarchic, lawless and dangerous. This view was intensified by the U.S. statement that the nation was a “breeding ground for terrorists” in 2002.

Yet this is, of course, a gross over-simplification; while the territory has experienced localized armed conflict since the outbreak of war in 1991, the two decades since have also seen the establishment of a self-declared (and largely stable) Republic of Somaliland and the autonomous State of Puntland. Rather than disappearing into anarchy, governance across the rest of the territory became much more localized; sharia and xeer (Somali traditional governance) provided law and community groups with security. Economically the country saw more consistent aid flows than many other low-income fragile states. A booming private sector filled the gap in public service provision, with an impressive telecommunications and transport industry facilitating remittances.

According to the reports of international donors, the turning point in recovering the Somali State was the establishment of a transitional government in 2004. (Re)Established in 2004, it has received renewed loans and debt relief, which are offered on the condition that the state follows a project of economic liberalization and democratization.

Militarily, there have been piecemeal attempts at security sector reform from various Western donors, and Turkey has provided direct military personnel and equipment to the country. However, the internationally-sponsored government of the Federal Republic of Somalia still struggles to control any territory outside the capital Mogadishu.

It is sadly ironic that the war in Somalia did more for diversifying and internationalizing the private sector than the World Bank. The living standards of the poorest appears to have remained dire throughout all of the country’s governance regimes. The World Bank’s first economic reform projects in the 1980s did nothing to change the system of forced labour from colonial times. Now, during the second phase of international economic support to the state, Mogadishu is seeing rapid urban migration into international displaces persons (IDP) camps where residents are powerless to the gentrification associated with the booming private sector in the capital.

Outside the capital, the political side of the state-building effort increases the risk of violence. Local armed power-holders have little interest in stepping aside for the Federal Republic of Somalia to take over and have little to lose from protecting their power by force. The current system, by which a limited number of local delegates elect the national leaders, presents a compromise for these local power-holders, and negotiations of a one-person, one-vote system have been fraught with tensions. The independently governed territories of Somaliland and Puntland, on the other hand, are not internationally recognized as nation-states, but the former, in particular, has been successful in maintaining stability without international political support.

While the security and economic support to the “official” state of Somalia is difficult to match with the improvement of the lives of real people, it is clear to see how it serves the ideologies and political goals of the donors.

First of all, the refusal of the international community to recognize or support the autonomous states within Somalia, despite evidence that life for people in Somaliland and Puntland is far better and more stable, appears counter-intuitive. It is difficult to see how this is anything but a desperate clinging onto the international community’s definition of a nation state (which is, by the way, a concept only as old as the treaty of Westphalia in 1648).

Similarly, the definition of Somalia as stateless, anarchic, and full of terrorists served very well to excuse the U.S. and UN’s utter failure in military intervention there. Turkey’s military support is likely a power-play in its recent attempts to establish itself as a global power, and in its participation in the U.A.E. – Saudi rivalry.

Economic reforms of the international financial institutions have also been consistently criticized for serving western investors more than local populations. In the 1980s, 75% of the profits from the Somali banana industry, which boomed under the World Bank’s policies, were recouped by the Italian foreign investor.

In the current system, delegates from the federal states elect representatives who then elect the president. It is interesting that Al Jazeera described the one-vote, one-person system as “full democratization.” Few political theorists would disagree that voting is not sufficient to achieve “democracy”. For example, an educated population and a good choice of candidates are also necessary. Obviously the system of delegates is not ideal, as those who are chosen as delegates will not be those who are most vulnerable or excluded from society. However, many democratic and stable states make compromises in pure democracy for the sake of pragmatic concerns: the Electoral College in the U.S. or the House of Lords in the U.K.

The task for Somalia is to find a method of governance that represents as much of the population as possible, but it is important to remember that this is for the ultimate goal of protecting and serving that same population. The pursuit of a rigid definition of a state has had several significant drawbacks for Somali people: their own functional systems of governance are ignored, while the foreign-supported Federal State’s attempts to move to a “full democracy” have led to tensions and risk of conflict.

If the international community wants to help the Somali people rather than the Somali State, they must accept that their model of a nation state is not the only one that can exist. Regional and traditional methods of governance, while not perfect, are likely to present more pragmatic solutions than establishing a completely new system.

Sarah McArthur


Leave a Reply