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Nations must learn from past mistakes in helping Somalia

This week Britain led another international attempt to help Somalia, a dysfunctional state plagued by piracy and terrorism. Nations must learn from the past that trying to build up a central government in Somalia won't work. It's the regions and sub-clans that need bolstering.

By Seth Kaplan / February 24, 2012

Somalis listen to news from the London conference on a radio in Mogadishu, Somalia, Feb.23. Nations pledged to help with piracy, terrorism, and humanitarian aid. They also insisted on a permanent, inclusive government. But the real focus should be outside the capital, writer Seth Kaplan argues.

AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh


New York

Another noble attempt was made this week to help what is arguably the most dysfunctional country on the planet, Somalia. But until the international community honestly faces why past efforts have failed, it is destined to repeat its mistakes.

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British Prime Minister David Cameron hosted this week's effort, an international conference in London on Feb. 23. The 55 nations and international organizations that attended the one-day summit promised to help Somalia fight piracy and terrorism – but also insisted that a stable, inclusive government replace the provisional one in this country at the Horn of Africa's tip.

Somalia has been without a central government since 1991. Confronted with terrorism, famine, piracy, corruption, and inter-clan conflict, Somalis may have the least enviable lives on Earth.

Why this latest attempt by the British? It may be a response to recent reports that 50 British citizens, most of whom are of Somali origin, have joined al-Shabaab, the Islamist group terrorizing the southern and central regions of Somalia. The fact that 250,000 Somalis currently reside in Britain in one of the world's largest diaspora communities has pushed it to take a pro-active role in the affairs of the African state. However, with at least 14 unsuccessful international attempts to put Somalia back together since 1991, this latest effort may suffer a similar fate.

To avoid the sins of the past, Britain – and the international community generally – must recognize why earlier efforts have failed, and then develop a realistic agenda and goals for its efforts. Most importantly, the world needs to acknowledge that international actors are greatly limited in what changes they can expect to achieve as outsiders in the country.

Past initiatives, led by the United States, the United Nations, and other members of the international community, have repeatedly attempted to impose a centralized bureaucratic governing structure on the country, a structure ill-suited to Somali society. Such efforts have never been effective and have only aggravated domestic tensions.

Decentralization is the key.

The population of Somalia is divided into four major clans and a number of minority groups, all of which consist of sub-clans and extended family networks. Loyalty to these groups overrides any sense of a common identity. Although these ties are not as strong as in the past, social relationships and customary law still have much greater relevance to Somalis than any government in Mogadishu.

While the country would benefit from some central institutions – such as a central bank and a mechanism to resolve disputes between clans – Somalis have no successful experiences working with these entities.


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