Change is on the horizon in Somalia, or so the international community would have us think.
In recent years we have seen a shift in Western policy away from prioritising the imposition of a centralised governing structure – in the form of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) – towards focusing on local power bases.
With Western governments admitting at the London conference in February that the TFG is discredited beyond repair, a new caretaker government will be set up until representatives from local power bases can join together to create a constituent assembly. In effect, this ad hoc and as yet undefined vision amounts to a quasi-federalisation of Somalia.
On the surface, this ‘locally-based’ approach may seem positive in that it purports to recognise the importance of a Somali-led, organic process driven by the dynamics of local politics. But it is uncertain whether this idea is actually matched by the reality of the proposals. Indeed, it is questionable whether much has really changed at all in understandings of, and approaches to, Somalia.
Accusations are being made that there has been no real Somali involvement in designing the plan and that the Somali presence at the London conference was little more than a PR exercise to ‘rubber stamp’ a solution designed by international actors. Such suspicions were hardly allayed by the leaking of the draft communiqué over a week before the conference which many saw as revealing that there were “clear signs of a predetermined direction” prior to the proceedings.
It is not in itself problematic or surprising that outcomes might have been developed in advance, but the issue is of whether Somali voices were properly included in the build-up or if the plan was simply a Western design with superficial Somali overtones grafted on to give it credence.
This is a crucial question especially given the failure and perceived illegitimacy of the TFG, which at least partly derived from the feeling it was ‘externally imposed’. Many Somalis saw the TFG as a ‘satellite government’, and if such sentiments carry forward to any new system, it is likely to suffer from deficits of popular legitimacy and authority too.
The proclaimed motivation behind the new approach is to work with local power structures rather than resist them and to allow Somalis to define their own governing units. These local groups will then form a constituent assembly to pass a new constitution and decide on the key outstanding issues. The hope is that this will enable the formation of a new government which is more stable, inclusive and representative of all ‘peaceful’ elements of Somali society (where ‘peaceful’ can be taken as a thinly veiled code for ‘not al-Shabaab’, the militant radical Islamist group operating in the country).
But securing representation in Somalia is no easy issue. Somalis have incredibly complex, cross-cutting identities and multiple loyalties at different levels of clanship.
At the most basic level, the clan system in Somalia can be seen to consist of four major groups existing in fairly distinct territories alongside a number of minority groups. However, this structure is overlaid with many more layers of affiliation to sub-clans, sub-sub clans, religious groupings and extended patrilineal ties. These groupings can split and reformed with great frequency, with allegiances and animosities fluctuating and often leading to disputes within and between clans.
And the issue is not just one of complexity, but also of fluidity. The idea that there is a fixed delineated ‘clan system’ onto which a political configuration can be mapped misrepresents the political reality. Any solution which seeks to institutionalise territorially coherent sub-units is seeking to freeze in time one particular configuration of a highly mercurial network of alliances. Any fixed institutional structure is likely to become ill-suited within months.
Further concern has been raised over the proliferation of small sub-groups claiming to be political entities in the lead-up to the conference, most probably motivated by the prospects of large streams of donor aid to be made available to local governments. The legitimacy of unified claims and the ability of leaders to genuinely speak for a group need to be assessed rather than taken at face value.
And the eventual design of Somalia is not just an identity issue. There are also countless practical implications regarding issues such as taxation, central banking institutions, and how to share the oil revenues from the soon to be flowing Puntland oil reserves.
Many believe that this quasi-federalising solution is putting the cart before the horse. An institutional design has been suggested before a political solution and before indigenous reconciliation has been reached on which it can be based – a political solution will almost inevitably have to involve al-Shabaab in some way.
The influence of regional players over the new state formation is also of mounting concern. It seems that the neighbouring state of Kenya and Ethiopia will have an input into the setting up of the new regional bodies. And they have good reason to want to exercise this influence.
Kenya is under enormous strain from refugee flows from Somalia, housing Dadaab, the largest refugee settlement in the world. Kenya also has a considerable Somali community living in its north-eastern province. Elements of al-Shabaab have been causing havoc on the shared border, which was further aggravated by their suspected involvement in the cross-border kidnappings that Kenya used to justify its October invasion into Somali territory.
Speculation is rife about Kenya’s ongoing interests in the country beyond their immediate stated goals of the expulsion of al-Shabaab and the securing of the port of Kismayo, particularly once the African Union mandate expires in October 2012. Kenya is being accused of working towards a “Project Jubaland”: the creation of a buffer zone on the southwest Kenya-Somalia border in the administrative regions of Gedo, Lower Juba and Middle Juba. Ethiopia is also likely to want to create its own zone of influence around its extensive borders.
With Ethiopia and Kenya already having troops on the ground, and having a strong vested interest in the situations in the border areas, it is highly unlikely that either government will allow an organic process of local government formation to occur in which Somali’s are completely free to define their own leadership.
As with the regional players, Western governments are soon likely to find that if they allow a truly free process of leadership formation, it is likely to contain elements that they find unsavoury. The US is claiming to be working towards the creation of an inclusive, unifying solution but despite the rhetoric of the Somali-driven nature of this new approach, they have consistently refused to consider the inclusion of al-Shabaab in talks.
No one is advocating for the inclusion of extremist al-Shabaab sniper gangs into government, but point blank refusal to engage with the group in any form cuts off the possibility of attracting its more moderate elements into political negotiations, a move which could offer a deal of legitimacy to the new governing structures.
For all its faults and shortfalls, the general move towards a Somali-led approach should be recognised as at least a small step in the right direction. The shift in focus away from an ill-suited centralised government with little ability to govern, towards one with at least the semblance of being rooted in indigenous structures should be welcomed.
But the lingering concern is that in their eagerness to distance themselves from what has gone before (hardly a difficult choice given its unequivocal failure) the international community has not sufficiently problematised the issue.
The adoption of a new logic does little to hide the fact that nothing much else has changed: the same international actors with the same interests in the region and the same policy priorities continue to design externally-imposed systems without adequate consultation of Somali society and with a continued refusal to engage with key political forces in the country that are not to their liking.
It is difficult to put it into better words than Barbara Stocking, CEO of Oxfam GB, who said of the London conference: “What we had hoped for was a recognition that 20 years of internationally imposed solutions have failed. However, what we’ve seen once again are externally driven solutions that haven't worked, aren't working and will not work. What we got was the rhetoric of Somali inclusion but you cannot go ahead … in such a troubled country without a wide and inclusive political engagement within Somali society.”
Far from being a radical reassessment of policy based on an understanding of the political realities in Somalia, the decentralising approach, it seems, maybe a case of ‘plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose’.
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