The Somali Political class and the struggle over Form of Government


The political conflict is centred on two forms of government – federalism and centralised unitary state, and one political goal, secession, argues Liban Ahmad

Somalilandsun – The political conflict in Somalia is no longer characterised as a conflict between clans vying for the presidency. The conflict is over the form of government Somalia would adopt to be become a viable state again. There are many factors that contributed to this transformation. One of them is the international community’s renewed interest in and commitment to helping Somalis to end the ‘failed state’ status of their country.

Another factor is the threat of transnational Islamist movements in Somalia. This essay argues that clan narratives form the undercurrent t of an intractable political conflict. What makes large-scale, inter-clan conflict less likely in many parts of South-central Somalia for now is the presence of African Peacekeeping troops.

The former armed opposition fronts that brought to an end the military dictatorship in 1991 shared no post-dictatorship political goals. After successive attempts at reconciliation conferences, two transitional administrations were formed before the current Somali Federal Government based , in theory, on federalism, had come into existence in 2012. Twenty two years after the overthrow of the military dictatorship in Somalia the political class in Somalia are divided on not only how federalism would be applied but how power would be exercised at the centre as well.

The political conflict is centred on two forms of government – federalism and centralised unitary state, and one political goal, secession. The proponents of federalism have in common with proponents of centralised unitary state the goal to safeguard the political unity and territorial integrity Somalia.

Unlike the 1990s political conflict the current political conflict is shaped by individual experiences of the three groups of supporters for federal Somalia, a centralised unitary state, and secession (Somaliland).

Somalis share the bitter experience of living under a military dictatorship and being let down by armed opposition movements that squandered the opportunity to put Somalia on the road to democracy again. Somaliland’s desire to secede from Somalia is partly based on the human rights violations against supporters of the former armed opposition outfit (Somali National Movement) and the destruction of northern towns by the former Somali Army after Somali National Movement (SNM) forces captured Burao (Burco) and Hargeisa in May 1988.

There was contradiction in the manner the military dictatorship had dealt with armed opposition groups. It viewed each opposition group as a political platform for one clan and yet the regime indiscriminately targeted clans whose political leaders formed opposition movements based outside Somalia. Arbitrary detention, torture and extra-judicial killing turned out to be measures that alienated clans and swelled the ranks of armed opposition groups. Since SNM was the most organised opposition group to wage a war against the regime inside Somalia, clans and sub-clans in districts thought to be traditional supporters of SNM suffered at the hands of the government troops. More than 100,000 people sought refuge in Ethiopia in 1988. Those experiences form some of the core arguments of proponents of secession. Somaliland has held three two presidential elections and have political parties but the case for secession has weaknesses (see table 1.)

Proponents of federalism cite post-1991 massacres and dispossessing of thousands of people in Mogadishu for sharing clan affiliation with the late dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre. Puntland, the major proponent of federalism, was formed in 1998, ” as a choice between… secession [ in the North] and …civil war in the South.” Fifteen years after the establishment of Puntand, the regional administration created Transitional Puntland Electoral Commission (TPEC) ahead of local elections to be held in June. Many people view the Puntland model as a recipe for clan-based regional administrations.

Supporters of a Somalia based on centralised unitary state hail from powerful clans traditionally associated with Mogadishu and have not experimented with self-rule in the form of a regional administration after state collapse. Warlords ruled Mogadishu and neighbouring regions for fifteen years until the Union of Islamic Courts defeated the Alliance for Counterterrorism formed by a group of warlords in an attempt to rebrand themselves to keep their grip on Mogadishu and nearby regions.

Supporters of centralised unitary state, federalism and secession live or control in 16 of Somalia’s 18 regions. Roughly 89% of Somalis are divided into three groups in disagreement over the political future of Somalia. In other words the three groups are three of the five major clans under the new power-sharing arrangement ( Hawiye, Dir and Darod). The other two clans are Digil iyo Mirifle and the Fifth clan (formerly 0.50 clan). This does not mean Digil iyo Mirife and the Fifth Clan have no political aspirations. Mogadishu-based centralism proponents use seat of the government and associated advantages as an organising principle for centralised unitary state; Puntland and Somaliland supporters use their self-rule achievements as organising principles and bulwark against a centralism-based government. This makes federalism and secession proponents an alliance of convenience.

Table 1: Inter-clan struggle over Somalia’s political future

In Understanding the Somalia Conflagration , Professor Afyare Elmi argues that reestablishment of “the coercive capacity of the state” will lead to peace. Such an emphasis “will shift the agenda of the Somalia debate from organizing peace conferences to building the capacity of the state.” For a country to function a strong a state is vital. The question is : does the goal of ‘re-establishing the coercive capacity of the state’ come before or after helping Somalis to agree on a viable form of government for their country as a part of genuine political reconciliation? Somalis have coined a verb: dowladee meaning ” ( Of clans) to act like or pretend to be a government)”. It shows the extent to which Somalis are disillusioned with coercive power of the state and liken it to a property waiting to be looted. If , as Rothberg argued, the raison d’être of the nation-state is to give, among other public political goods, security of persons and property , the pre- and post-1991 Somali state has failed to deliver the goods.

Liban Ahmad