Somalia does not need a powerful state; this would perpetuate the war
Political parties are little more than a cover for clans, so an election simply elevates one clan over the others
The model for Somalia is Switzerland. Don’t laugh!
Political power in Switzerland lies in the cantons — the 26 proud self-governing communities. The state, such as it is, deals with international matters and national law.
Who cares — or even knows — who the president of Switzerland is? The way people live and are governed is decided locally. The Swiss confederation means that cantons have joined the state willingly. At one time they could leave if they wanted to.
Somalis — unlike the Swiss but like most Africans — are stuck with a Constitution that leaves total power in the hands of a president. Strong centralised states are the legacy of colonial rulers and, unsurprisingly, the inheritor governments have kept it that way.
Terrible wars — such as those in Nigeria, Ethiopia and Sudan — were fought to keep the countries together, but in the latter two, they failed. In Somalia, civil war began in the late 1980s and since then fragmentation has continued. Good. Leave it that way. It suits Somali society.
The odd factor is that Somalia is one of only two sub-Saharan African states more or less made up of a single ethnic group. The other is Botswana, the most peaceful country on the continent. But the Somalis are different. I realised that when I was having dinner with a minister at a restaurant in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. One of the waiters recognised my host and having delivered the food, decided to give the minister an earful. In most African countries, the man would have been dragged off to jail — or worse. But not only did the minister have to listen, he got to his feet and argued back. This was an argument between equals.
“Every man his own Sultan,” is how one Ugandan visitor described the Somalis in the mid 19th century.
Traditionally, disputes between Somalis were sorted out by the clan elders, who would arrange compensation payments after clan or family battles or theft. In the north of Somalia, Somaliland, British indirect rule left the traditional leadership of clan elders — collectively known as the Gurti — in place. During colonial times, Somaliland virtually managed itself and the Gurti retained respect and authority. That has carried through to present times and Somaliland is stable with political parties and democratic elections. Twice, electoral disputes have reached crisis point in recent years. Each time, the politicians have turned to the Gurti for a ruling, which has been accepted by all. In the Italian-ruled south, the Gurti was dismissed in colonial times but it still exists beneath the surface.
Somalia’s civil war began in the 1980s between clans in a winner-takes-all battle for total national power. The former British-ruled northwest territory, Somaliland, declared independence. The northeast, Puntland, also declared itself self-governing until a proper government was restored. The centre, Galmudug, is also self-governing. The civil war continues as a battle for Mogadishu, the capital, and for the ports and fertile river valleys of the south. It has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
Although alliances have shifted, no formula has been devised that can bring peace at a national level. The only period of peace was in 2005, when the clan warlords were defeated and Islamic courts took over the administration of justice and kept the peace.
A united, peaceful Somalia however, especially under the rule of Islamic courts, was a threat to Ethiopia. The Ethiopians persuaded the Americans this was Islamic fundamentalism taking over. The Ethiopian invasion at the end of 2006, backed by the US and, shamefully, Britain — which should have known better — in fact strengthened the fundamentalists. Three years later, the Ethiopians were forced to withdraw and were replaced by an African peacekeeping force of Ugandan and Burundian troops. Since then, they have managed to hold a small part of Mogadishu on behalf of a weak, ineffective government most of whose members reside in Nairobi.
The rest of the city and much of the south was at the mercy of Al Shabaab, an Islamic fundamentalist movement. But Al Shabaab made the crucial mistake of not letting foreign aid enter the country during the worst drought since the 1980s. That turned the drought into a famine and turned the people against Al Shabaab, forcing them out of Mogadishu and other areas to allow food aid to arrive.
This development, together with the Kenyan military incursion in the south, presents the government — known as the Transitional Federal Government — with an opportunity to prove itself and deliver food and security to the people. But this is unlikely to happen, according to Prof Ken Menkhaus, a Horn of Africa specialist.
“This is the TFG’s best and probably last chance to do something right by showing that it can and will govern well,” he says.
“I wish I could say I am hopeful it will, but the TFG’s track record so far points to the opposite conclusion — it has never missed the opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
Meanwhile, holding elections is the way to continue the war, not end it. Political parties in Somalia are little more than a cover for clans, so an election simply elevates one clan over the others. Allow the government in Mogadishu to run the city and port, perhaps the Benadir region, but no further. Negotiations should then take place region by region about the relationship between the various regions and the capital, leaving power in local — not national — hands. The zones should be soft-bordered encouraging trade and dialogue between them. Taxes should be raised and spent locally. That is especially true of Somaliland, where the feeling against the south is still very bitter. Reunification with the south is unanimously opposed. Not a single Somalilander I know wants reunification. Not a single Somali from the rest of the country wants Somaliland to stay independent. Unless we are very careful, peace in the south of Somalia will mean war in the north.
Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society in London