Decentralized Unitary System: A Possible Model for Somalia


Prof. Afyare A. Elmi

Prof. Afyare A. Elmi

For the last two decades, Somalis and the international community have been working on re-establishing the Somali state. However, there is disagreement as to the most suitable governance system that could regulate the country’s economic, political and social conflicts. This study is part of a wider research project that investigates the question of which governance systems might work for Somalia and its people, and here it looks at the debate around decentralization. In collecting data for this study, select-elite interviews, focus group feedback, textual analysis of constitutions of the Somali government and regions, speeches by politicians, and extensive library and media research have been used.

This article examines the motivations and grievances expressed by Somalis in their desire for decentralization. It identifies four basic grievances that drive the current centrifugal tendencies: trust-deficit; demand for political participation; access to basic services; and equitable share of resources. The article also argues that neighboring countries, the international community, and clan-politicians are each backing the clan-federalism proposal for different reasons. The study explains and assesses different proposals currently available in the literature regarding confederation, federation, consociation and a decentralized unitary system. The article, then, analyses the findings and the literature, and concludes that a decentralized unitary system is the most suitable governance model for Somalia, because it is a flexible toolkit that can keep the country united while addressing local grievances and legitimate interests of external actors.

Domestic Grievances and External Drivers    

Based on published literature, public interviews, media accounts, interviewees, observations, and document analysis, four factors were identified that explain the current centrifugal tendencies in Somalia. The first and perhaps most important factor is trust-deficit.[2] A decade of corrupt government (1960–1969), two decades of repressive military regime (1970–1990), and over 20 years of civil war (1991–present) have created a culture of suspicion among different communities and individuals.  The first civilian government, this view claims, was corrupt and committed injustices when it came to resource-sharing and service delivery. The military regime made things worse as it committed human rights atrocities –attacking villages, killing civilians and displacing tens of thousands of Somalis.

Despite these injustices, different Somali clans lived together in all the major cities, some having settled in major urban centers for centuries. However, during the civil war, Somalia’s warlord-led factions committed multiple atrocities against civilians; killing tens of thousands and displacing millions. They systematically removed families from their homes and displaced whole communities. Mogadishu, Baidoa, Kismayo and other major cities came under the rule of clan militias that targeted citizens because of their clan identity. According to the proponents of the trust-deficit rationale, it is because of this history that many Somalis do not want to take another chance with a dictatorial central government. As one well-respected intellectual said in an interview, “I do not want to see another episode of the experience that my family had gone through in the early 1990s. Whatever system is adopted, we need to make sure that such atrocities do not occur again.”[3] Indeed, people who hold this view argue that each community moved back to its traditional territories because of lack of trust toward others.

Many people who support decentralization also demand genuine political participation. According to the findings of this study, Somalis want to elect their local and national representatives. This demand is not limited to the elites of one region or clan, or even one class (the elite). Rather, it is common to hear Somalis saying, “I do not want Mogadishu authority to appoint the mayor of my town or the governor of my region.”[4] This is a widespread grievance that many Somalis, across the country, have against centralized and authoritarian administration in the capital. This is particularly the case because previous governments appointed governors, mayors, police commissioners, and all other bureaucrats for different agencies. This previous system was so centralized that even the decision to transfer a schoolteacher from one place to another was made in Mogadishu. Reinforcing mistrust of this central force is the newly common practice to organize a political party somewhere and claim a presidency of a given region. For many, the motivation behind this creation of regional states is to join politics at local or national levels. Since there are no elections, political parties, strong think-tanks, or any other mechanism that would-be politicians can use, they try to gerrymander a real or imagined territory of the clan and then mobilize people along that line. This latter practice suggests that each clan or sub-clan has exclusive ownership of a district or region or part of the country.

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By ​Afyare A. Elmi, a Somali-Canadian political scientist, is an assistant professor at Qatar University’s International Affairs Department. He is the author of “Understanding the Somalia conflagration: Identity, political Islam and peacebuilding which is published by Pluto Press.  His research interests include international security, state-building, conflict, peacebuilding and the Horn of Africa. 

[1] This article is part of a wider study on the issue of suitable governance systems for Somalia. The Heritage Institute for Policy Studies in Somalia supported the part of the study that took place in the country. As a result, short policy paper on this issue has been published for public education purpose through the Heritage Institute. The statements made herein are solely the responsibility of the author. See the report at

[2] Many of the individuals interviewed and many of the relevant papers on the subject express this rationale. See also Ali. A. Abdi, “Reconstructing the Collapsed Somali state, and the Promise (and Possible Pitfalls) of Federalism,” Horn of Africa, vol. XXI (2003), pp.20-29; Ismail Ali Ismail, “Federal Structure for Somalia: An upas Tree or Panacea?” Horn of Africa, vol. XVIII (2000), pp.75

[3] Personal communication with Somali academic, October 2012, Lillehammer, Norway.

[4] Somalis, in debates on this subject, often express the desire to elect their officials. Most of the armed opposition to the military government rejected this practice. For instance, see Ismail Hurre Buubaa writing for the Somali National Movement in 1989.

Source: Doha Institute

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