How do you fix a problem like Somalia?
This week, 52 heads of state are meeting at a conference in London to attempt a step-change in the international community’s approach to Somalia.
Since the collapse of the Mohamed Siad Barre regime in 1991, Somalia has been without a state. This is despite numerous attempts by the international community to reconstruct one.
In his Sussex Development lecture, IDS fellow Professor David Leonard examines the causes and consequences of statelessness in Somalia, and discusses routes back to security and stability.
Professor Leonard also analyses the causes of piracy originating in Somalia in the African Arguments Politics Now blog. He argues that piracy can only be solved by dealing with the flows of money that support it. Solutions cannot be found within Somalia alone.
Professor Leonard has written extensively on issues around governance in Somalia and has recently published a journal article on Somali piracy.
Rebuilding from the bottom-up
Somalia covers a huge area, is sparsely populated and encompasses a number of autonomous regions. Two of these regions, Puntland and Somaliland form 50% of the territory in Somalia. The governance structures that currently exist in Somalia reflect the pastoral livelihood systems of a population which is constantly on the move. Professor Leonard highlighted how governance is organised around dia-paying groups which are small groups made up of approximately 100 adult males. These groups provide security, protection and a degree of order. It is a relatively egalitarian system where nothing happens quickly because consensus is essential.
Professor Leonard highlighted how understanding and building upon this social fabric was fundamental to reconstructing the Somali state. He argued that this was something that the international community had failed to grasp in previous attempts at reconstruction, which have been characterised by a top-down approach. Any successful initiatives at state building in Somalia have been achieved through a bottom-up approach and Professor Leonard used the example of Somaliland to demonstrate this point. The creation of Somaliland took place over a number of years and involved a protracted set of negotiations between representatives of different clans.
Professor Leonard also proposed that a better understanding of the role that Islam plays in Somali societies is essential to developing a more successful approach to state building in Somalia. Islam provides a strong unifying force in Somalia, and previous attempts to unite Somalis around other forces such as nationalism, culture and language have failed. Commercial contracts in Somalia also tend to be enforced through Sharia courts. Islam and Islamic law are central to the way in which Somali societies are organised and have provided a degree of stability and security over the last twenty years. Recognition of this factor will be crucial to ensuring the success of future approaches to state reconstruction in the country.
Professor Leonard also argued that using mechanisms such as UN Trust Funds to provide assistance to those authorities that have established order in their local areas, no matter how small those territories and incomplete their coverage might be, could prove very effective in rebuilding order and security in the former territory of Somalia. It would mean that local efforts to create good governance could be rewarded and become contagious.
The piracy problem
Professor Leonard was clear that there were no shortcuts to rebuilding the state in Somalia and that tackling the separate problems of piracy and terrorism presented particular challenges for Somalia and the international community. Piracy off the coast of Puntland provides a significant income stream which has replaced revenues lost from the fishing industry. That industry has been damaged as a result of EU nations using waters off the coast to dump toxic waste. Piracy also outperforms taxes as a revenue generator. Given the sums of money involved and the fact that leaders of piracy groups are often based in Nairobi or further afield, it is unlikely that a solution to the problem will come from within Puntland.
Professor Leonard suggested that one possible answer to the piracy problem would be better coordination between NATO navies and commercial interests. The waters off Puntland are very heavily used by a large number of ships. Navies are only able to provide effective protection to ships if they are restricted to certain corridors. However there is currently no incentive for ships to stay within these particular corridors as insurance premiums cost less than the time and fuel expended to keep within specific 'safe' routes.
Professor Leonard also concluded that there was no clear solution to the problem of terrorism. Kenya and Ethiopia both have an interest in the issue being resolved, however Professor Leonard argued that military action by either country was unlikely to be successful. He also suggested that the efficacy of American use of drones to attack terrorist camps was uncertain. While this method metes out short term punishment, it does not offer a more positive long term solution. He suggested that acknowledgment by the international community of Islamist systems of governance in Somalia may enhance their ability to negotiate with Al Shabaab. However Professor Leonard acknowledged that this was by no means a cast-iron solution to addressing what is a complex and ongoing challenge.
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