SOMALIA is a nation without a state. The country exists as a geographical entity on the African map but there has been no sovereign and democratic authority for the past 25 years.
The last functioning central government running the whole country as single entity was that of president Siad Barre in 1991.
So, while a country like Namibia has been building and consolidating centralised state authority since the 1990s, Somalia has been dismantling state institutions. And there is no indication that the Somalis are close to being a nation state.
Presently, the country is carved up into a number of semi-autonomous political entities or ‘states’ – though none of these ‘governments’ are internationally recognised except the one backed by the international community since 2012. Somaliland and Puntland are self-proclaimed states that run their own affairs.
Some might remember the book and movie “Black Hawk Down” which was based on the Battle of Mogadishu – the dramatic failure of Operation Restore Hope, a United States of America’s adventure in the Horn of Africa that was later turned into a UN mission christened UNOSOM II.
As with so many other conflict situations, the solution must have the blessing of local people for it to work. The locals have to be ready for a political settlement, otherwise outside mediation is not likely to be successful. The cases of Namibia and Liberia on the one hand and that of East Timor and now two Sudans on the other, gave us the contrasting approaches to peace-making.
But attempts to put Somalia together are ever ongoing, now and then bringing a glimmer of hope only to subside, setting in a mood of despair. The Western-backed “central government” and which the AU peace-keeping mission is apparently protecting (basically fighting Al Shabaab) is not recognised throughout the entire country.
This condition, however, has sparked a lively debate among scholars as to what has happened to the once-strong Somali state. Is this another case of a collapsed state on the African continent? Or was this an escape from the state by the Somali people?
There is, however, plethora of terms scholars use to describe what has been happening in places like Somalia or indeed pre-settlement DRC, Liberia, Sierra Leone and now South Sudan, CAR, Burundi etc.
These include: collapsed, failed, quasi, artificial, marginal, ramshackle, overloaded, set-apart, juridical, besieged, suspended, weak, imported, lame Leviathan, shadow, disconnected, rhizome and bifurcated states. These terms are an indication that the scholarly community itself is thoroughly confused and has no handle on the issues that they are trying to make others understand.
But the case of Somalia has important implications for the way we understand issues of statehood, sovereignty and citizenship. The late Ali Mazrui once said that statehood is ultimately a problem of structure, authority and control. That is more or less the sense in which international law/relations define the state in order for it to be recognised as a legal entity.
International law and relations are thus based on highly statist and structuralist assumptions thus leaving out the state’s historical and sociological moorings. Proceeding from that, a state is then recognised as sovereign entity and can have diplomatic ties with other entities within the international system. But on the ground, however, we have witnessed the virtual collapse of some states in Africa or what I would term “an escape by people from centralised state authority”.
The escape from the state or politics is the prism through which I would like to examine the case of Somalia. There are no issues of tribalism or ethnicity here.
Some people point out clan as the one variable that has led to the break-up of the Somali state. But a plausible explanation must be sought within the Somali’s sociological make-up. The Somali are a fiercely independent group of nomads and pastoralists. And that kind of existence doesn’t lend itself easily to the modern-day nation state.
Thus, a centralised polity, in the context of Somali culture, would lack a sense of embeddedness in addition to the usual failure of so many states in Africa to deliver the social and economic goods either because of lack of capacity or due to their corrupt nature.
So, what failed in Somalia are the imported and transplanted political models.
The Somali are perhaps trying to put into place something that is historically and sociologically closer to them. Some of the groups, notably those in the ‘state’ of Puntlant, have been calling for local autonomy while also ready to partake in a new central government of Somalia.
Maybe a blend of Somali traditional political system(s) and ‘modern’ institutional arrangements would be needed to come up with a system that is less centralised and thus responsive to the needs of citizens.
What is needed is a ‘state building’ project because the Somali nation already exists. As for now, we are not sure what path the reinvention and reconstruction of the new Somali state will take or what the end product would look like. But it has to be radical, creative and embedded in Somali’s culture and history.