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Opinion

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.

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Therefore, Britain and others trying to help Somalia must focus more on the local or regional level. Clans have helped destroy Somalia's centralized governments, but clans can be instrumental in helping rebuild national governance. Indeed, the few places in Somalia where there is some semblance of workable rule depend on traditional systems of governance rather than on a centralized authority.

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Somaliland, the breakaway northeastern section of Somalia, is the best example. It is an island of stability in the midst of chaos. Somaliland has held a series of free elections unprecedented in the Horn of Africa, and attracts migrants from around the region.

In eastern Somalia, Puntland and Galmudug have established local peace deals and set up self-governing administrative districts. Despite – or, perhaps, because of – a dearth of assistance from the international community, these regions have been able to provide their residents with some public services by taking advantage of traditional Somali concepts of rule by consultation and consent.

Given the realities discussed above, assisting countries and international organizations should follow a multi-pronged approach. 

First, they should focus on strengthening the capacity of the autonomous, self-governing units to maintain order and foster progress within their boundaries.

Second, they  should provide incentives so other groups will form similar entities elsewhere in the country. An offer to empower sub-clans or independent factions would give local leaders – including warlords and moderate Islamists in the violence-torn south – an opportunity to participate in government. Flexibility over who qualifies for such aid might even encourage al-Shabaab's less radical supporters to switch sides.

Finally, they should bolster the foreign forces from the African Union, Kenya, and Ethiopia who are fighting the terrorists.

The violence and chaos that plague the country will take a long time to dissipate. Patience and on-the-ground intelligence are necessary to discern how best to enhance local governance and weaken the opponents of stability. Stitching together even a modest central government will be difficult given the country's limited national social cohesion.

But if the international community aims for slow, incremental progress that builds on Somali strengths, it could play a pivotal role in bringing about change. Somalis certainly deserve – and are ready for – an end to the violence and war that plague them.
 
 Seth Kaplan, author of "Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm Development" (Praeger Security International, 2008), writes and consults governments on state building issues. His next book, on poverty and state governance, will appear in 2012. He blogs on development and governance at the Fragile States Resource Center.

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