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.

AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh
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.

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.

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.

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.

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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