Somalia: The Impracticality of Somali Style Federalism


By: Abdinur Mohamud, Ph.D.

Somalilandsun-It has been more than two decades since Somalia failed as a state to effectively preserve strong national cohesion. Consequently, the structure of the state as well as the question of the Somali national identity to this day remains contested, diverged and unresolved. It is no secret that Somalis alone brought down their state and with it the fabric of their national identity without the explicit assistance of hegemonic foreign forces.

The break-up of the nation into clan enclaves continues to seriously undermine its sovereignty and utterly dissolves basic citizenship rights, freedoms of movement and fair political representation.

The purpose of this essay is to examine the suitability as well as the practicality of a constitutional federal structure for Somalia and offers suggestions for improving the hotly contested constitutional process.

Maintaining National Identity

With the fall of the unitary state, which was barely in existence for no more than three decades, Somalis began to consciously deflect blame of their social and political quandary squarely on the shoulders of the state, thus denying agency for themselves and absolving their clans from the collective destruction of the state. Unfortunately for most Somalis, it is always the “others” that caused the mayhem and destruction in the country and continue to destabilize it and rarely do they envision it in any other way.

Responding to the absence of central authority to maintain law and order, the public began to gradually withdraw back to their ancestral communities in order to cluster around each other and perhaps establish rudimentary clan protected spheres of influence and ethnic enclaves. Even politically stable regions such as Somaliland and Puntalnd as well as less stable communities in Benadir, Kismayo, Hiran and Khatumo among others all derive their political legitimacy from clan hegemony and ideology often sidelining if not silencing the wishes of minority communities among them. As a result, Somali communities throughout the nation have been drifting away from one another eventually replacing once cosmopolitan and vibrant communities into primordial clan dwellings that are engaged in a race to the bottom and are bereft of the exuberance of a cosmopolitan community.

With the prolonged absence of a functioning national government to restore public confidence and national identity to allow for unfettered mass mobility and belonging throughout the nation, most Somalis below the age of thirty today identify with, if not take pride in, regional and clan-borne narratives that are antithetical to the nationalist fervor that helped rid the country from colonial powers.

How do you then restore national unity?

Before eflag of somaliambarking on the long journey of state formation, Somalis and their international supporters in hindsight failed to initiate a genuine national reconciliation process to effectively address festering past and present grievances and injustices. It is an undeniable fact that crimes against humanity of unimaginable proportions were committed in Somalia in the name of the state, clan as well as the individual and cannot be kept under the rug for so long if restoration of national unity and the stability of the state is a sincerely shared concern.

One would generally contemplate that genuine reconciliation efforts usually if not always precede strategies to draft a constitution and form a representative national government. South Africa and Rwanda are among nations emerging out of protracted conflicts in Africa that continue to benefit from a genuine grassroots level reconciliation, with South Africa centering its focus on finding the truth of what happened, so that it does not occur again.

Paradoxically, restoring trust and understanding between communities of conflict is an extremely difficult challenge and it may very well be the reason why the international community fell short of this valuable undertaking to cement the foundation of a stable state. Fortunately, the time is not over for a grassroots national reconciliation process to be commenced, with the likelihood of Somali clans to consider burying their hatchets seriously. Without a thoughtful reexamination of the painful past and taking ownership of what happened, the Somali conflict may continue to linger albeit verbally, thus preventing the development of vibrant social cohesion necessary for a stable state. As Professor Michael Weinstein of Purdue University eloquently observed, the development of a strong national identity and cohesion will not likely come from the international community but that it is “only Somalis [that] will be able to pull thempuntland flagselves out of the pit into which they are falling”.

Anecdotally, Somalis are strongly divided on the suitability and practicality of either a federal system or a decentralized unitary state. Former Somali premier and experienced Somali statesman Abdirizak Haji Hussein, for example, wrote and eloquently spoke on the suitability of a decentralized unitary state and the impracticality of a federal system for Somalia. He argues that federal system will not work in Somalia for it lacks the necessary social, economic, political and civic standards that characterize successful federal systems elsewhere. He contends that a clan-based federal system will eventually lead to Somalia’s natural self-destruction. His concern and that of other scholars including Ali Abdirahman Hersi, Ahmed Samatar, Mohamed Mukhtar, Michael Weinstein and Omar Salad Elmi among others is that the current clan-based political dispensation is not only incompatible with the functioning of a modern state, but it will lead to the Balkanization of the country. A federal system for a small sized nation such as Somalia, some argue, is too costly and is bound to exacerbate clan rivalry and animosity that could further divide the country.

On the other hand, seasoned politicians such as Mohamed Abshir Waldo and Dr. Yusuf Al-Azhari among other notables contend that federalism is not only good for Somalia but will give each zone (region) in the country its own right to govern itself. Mr. Waldo continues to say that a federal system of zonal self-governing is the best approach that Somali communities could, under the circumstances: a) heal and overcome the fear, hatred and distrust of the bloody civil war; b) offer a middle solution between an autocratic, centralized system of governance and outright secession; and c) that decentralization empowered district and regional communities and offered more balanced and more productive socio-economic development opportunities. Both groups legitimately and vociferously express their views publicly while the general public largely sees them as genuine, clan-inspired or completely oblivious to the realities on the ground. It is important to note that existing regional administrations have been primarily concerned with maintaining law and order and strengthening regional standing and security issues, but have largely done very little to advance social and community development.

What is the difference between a decentralized unitary state and a federal state?

A simple definition of federalism is that it is a system in which there is a constitutionally entrenched division of authority between a central government and regional or local entities. Decentralization on the other hand describes a devolution process, even in a constitutionally unitary state, that gives greater degree of autonomy to regional entities and local authorities.

The United Kingdom is an example of an effectively functioning decentralized unitary state. Much of the functions of government are done at the local, borough and county level governments. However, the real national power belongs to Westminster, the House of Parliament, and the state derives its power and international standing from the economic vitality and the unity of its member communities. On the other hand the United States is a decentralized federal union stemming from pre-existing local entities and culturally and geographically distinct states. There are real limitations on what the federal government can do to the states arbitrated by an independent judiciary. However, member states can amend the Constitution without the approval of Congress (national parliament) to make any and all changes they wish to propose.

Flag of AMISOMTurning to the African context Nigeria and Ethiopia provide good examples of functioning federalism in the continent, while Kenya exemplifies a newly decentralized unitary state. Both Nigeria and Ethiopia have multicultural, multilingual and diverse ethnic and religious communities that necessitated self-rule. In Ethiopia, the country is divided into nine ethnically based states and two municipalities. Each federal state is sub-divided into zones, districts and sub-districts. On the other hand a more populous Nigeria contains thirty six states with capital Abuja reserved as a federal zone. In both countries constitutional mandates for the effective separation of powers and functions do not work as envisioned initially. In the case of Ethiopia it is the meddling influence of the central authority in selecting regional leadership and wields true power while in the case of Nigeria it is a combination of the inability of federal states to maintain effective local finance and administrations independent of the oil rich federal government and the usurpation of constitutionally separated powers by the latter.

Neighboring Kenya on the other hand recently devolved political power of its unitary system of government into forty seven county administrations, each headed by an elected governor and represented in the national parliament by several elected members of parliament. The effectiveness of the Kenyan system remains to be seen.

The reality however is that all of the federal and unitary systems described above including those that are not optimal, maintain central authorities that project national cohesion, power and influence. Unlike contemporary federal Somalia, the citizens of all of these countries pledge allegiance to a national flag instead of a region, state or a borough.

The Question of Somali Federalism

By definition, communities of conflict who did not genuinely reconcile their grievances cannot be expected to build a functioning social order that is unpretentious, stable flag of Galmudugand durable. Which is why even after drafting a national constitution ratified by parliament, Somalis are seriously divided on the merits of federalism. Clan inspired tendencies for federalism earnestly began and failed soon after Somali independence in 1960 propelled by the desire of a few to increase clan/regional opportunities for power-sharing and resources.

Moreover, depending on ones’ ancestral origin, most Somalis generally perceive the question of future constitutional structure from a regional/clan prism, stemming from fierce competition for scarce national resources and increased political representation at the national level, save a few. In addition, a myopic system of groupthink continues to divide contemporary Somalis as well as the intellectual community, each aligning itself with a particular group narrative and all endorsing the continuation of hegemonic claims and counter claims to power, prestige and resources.

Overall, Federalism is legitimately seen in many corners of Somali society as the best option to suppress dictatorial tendencies endemic in the unitary systems of the past that concentrated power and resources in the capital city and exercised total control over the social, economic, and political interests of the larger society. Logically, most Somalis would then agree that due to that abusive past, power and resources must now be devolved and shared between national, regional and local administrations. However, sharp differences arise over the practicality of its implementation.

It is critically important to remember short-lived efforts in Somalia’s past aiming at devolving national authority in the first civilian administration. In that process, the national government mandated for the creation of political subdivisions and elected municipal authorities that have full control of local administrative powers. Its shortcoming, however, was that regional governors and district commissioners were not locally elected but appointed by the central authority. The charge for local municipalities was primarily the collection of taxes and the provision of basic governmental services such as improvement of roads, street lighting, garbage collection and etc., while the central authority managed port and airport revenues to pay for national obligations. Unable to collect adequate revenues to meet their mandate, many municipalities opted to have the national government retain its taxing authority and pay for municipal services as well. Ironically, only two metropolitan municipalities were able to meet their financial and management obligations and those were the metropolitan towns of Mogadishu and Hargeisa. The barriers to establishing viable local authorities of the 1960’s remain to this day to which the Samatar brothers aptly described as the absence of necessary “local educated talent fit for the vagaries of complex times and the collective wisdom to identify and thrust a political entity forward. Without this, they contend “any community is bound to wallow in the muck of mediocrity”.

In retrospect, what the advocates of a constitutionally mandated federalism fail to acknowledge is the critical need for human capacity to effectively fuel the engines of effective regional and local entities as well as cultivate a sound and reliable tax base necessary for economic vitality. Otherwise, the responsibility to meet basic governmental demands throughout the nation will naturally revert back to the central authority.

Viable and sustainable regional states and municipal authorities cannot be erected from a vacuum with pride and emotions alone; it requires a balanced mix of complex ingredients including clan diversity, human capacity and economic vitality.

Moreover, contemporary clan-based regions do not guarantee legitimate ownership of land and property to other citizens living in the region, while their returning kinfolk living elsewhere in the country or abroad can instantly claim their ancestral origin and get easy access to the privileges of their membership.

Flag of jubalandAdditionally, supporters of a unitary system of government fear that a weakened central authority characteristic of Somali style federalism may render an effectively functioning Somali union impossible. Many see clan-based federalism as a zero-sum game in which power gained by the states creates powerful clan hegemonies that exact a hefty price on the honor and overall standing of the national government. They contend that a critical review of existing regional authorities would clearly show centralized quasi-autocratic entities that are not much different in design, scope and appearance from the centralized unitary national systems they vehemently oppose.

• A viable Somali state, they believe, can only survive in the politically volatile region of the Horn of Africa, if it is able to project the collective will of the Somali people and can coexist in equal hegemonic terms to the strong authorities in Nairobi and Addis Ababa.

• Given the above and the inability of the proposed regions to attract necessary human capacity and economic vitality, it is impractical if not impossible to establish any sound federal or decentralized unitary system in Somalia today in the absence of the following:

• Authentic census of the Somali population;

• The creation of political subdivisions (region, municipality, village, township etc., based on population size and free from clan-based gerrymandering;

• Equal representation of all citizens in the regional and national parliament and ridding the nation of the disgraced 4.5 system;

• Limited number of parties at the national level so as to discourage clan inspired political rivalry;

• Limited number of federal regions of–say maximum four to five super regions, with clearly defined boundaries, clan-diversity, economic viability, access to sea and water resources and genuine grassroots participation among all inhabitants; and

• A sound strategy to devolve power and resources from regional capitals to municipal authorities and smaller locales.

Given the constitutional mandate that Somalia is a Federal Republic, even though this is by no means a fait accompli in the absence of a national referendum, and given that a return to a unitary state at this stage is unlikely even though it is much more practical and suitable for the country, I would then put forward the following compromise proposal as an alternative to clan-based federalism for all sides to consider which is the establishment of super regions within the federal mandate. The creation of super regions instead of clan-based regions will help bring back necessary societal cohesion, coexistence and collaboration in the reconstruction of a robust and stable region and state. Super regions will naturally encompass vast territories of land inhabited by diverse communities with full access to sea and water resources and are as follows:

My future is in Somaliland• South : Lower Jubba, Middle Juba, Gedo, Bay and Bakol;

• Central: Lower Shabelle, Middle Shabelle and Hiran;

• Short North: Galgadud, Mudug, Bari and Nugal;

• North: Northwest, Awdal, Togdheer, Sool and Sanag.

• Mogadishu: Federal Zone.

Acceptance of such a proposal requires a genuine national reconciliation effort that paves the way for the collective desire and readiness to heal past wounds and forge ahead a new social compact that is fair and just for everyone.

In accordance to Article 49 of the constitution, the Somali parliament is mandated to undertake the process of developing such criteria. The sooner the parliament fulfills its constitutionally mandated responsibility the better the opportunity for striking a middle ground and establishing viable regions that can function effectively and meet the aspirations of the entire Somali population.

Abdinur Mohamud, Ph.D.


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