The Ideological Contest Over Somali State-building Efforts

By Liban A. Ahmad

There is a risk that the Somali federal system could be transformed into a springboard for prebendal politics in Somalia.

The deadlock over the Somali electoral model is a facet of deep ideological contest between two groups  in the mainstream Somali politics. John Levi Martin, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, defines ideology as how political actors view “their own position, the nature of their opponents and available strategies, in a political field”.

One group gives primacy to the role of the state in making decisions about foreign policy and national infrastructures. The opposing group, whose bottom-up approach to reconstituting the Somali state took shape during 1990s, regards the role of clans, represented in Federal Member States, as the guardians of the Somali federal system.

A cartoon by the Somali cartoonist, Amin Amir, on how politics based on clan identity prevents Somalia from standing on its feet again.

The bottom-up approach seemed embedded in the federal system until 2016, when the previous Federal Government of Somalia had squandered state-building opportunities and embraced rival systems of governance that prevented the formation of an inclusive national army, and deepened the marginalisation of social groups whom the current power-sharing system unofficially grants a second class citizenship status.

The two rival camps cite the Draft Constitution. This is not a cause for concern: the experiment of the transition and the creation of the Federal Member States have, to some extent, transformed the Somali body politic. If the Federal Government promotes interests of  cliques, the bottom-up approach to state-building gains ground. When Puntland State was the only properly functioning Federal Member State, its views on the federal system were taken seriously. Puntland interprets the Draft Constitution in a way that gives it the privilege to sign infrastructure agreements with foreign companies or issue fishing licenses to foreign companies. This interpretation could have been a defensible before the end of the transition period (2000-2012).  

Much has changed since 2012. Four Federal Member States have come into existence. Puntland, the founding federal member state, though a bastion of peaceful coexistence for Somalis from different parts of the country, has failed to shake off the image that it is primarily for one social group. Its advocacy for the federal system always falls on deaf ears partly because of the make-up of its institutions.

This image gets amplified when Puntland does not set a good governance example. In 2016 Puntland forces were more professionally organised than the Somali National Army under the Federal Government of Somalia. The adoption of the biometric system as a part of the security reform reflects how committed the Federal Government of Somalia has been to implementing the Security Architecture agreed at the 2017 Somalia Conference held in London four years ago.

Disparities in governance at the centre (Federal Government) and periphery (Federal Member States) result in political crises in Somalia. It is a sign of dynamism and progress, not political stagnation, if political stakeholders differ on how to govern a  country recovering from a civil war. When Somalia was under a centralised, military government the stakeholders pursued the goal to topple the regime through the barrel of gun. The threat to the Somali polity lies not in the reemergence of dictatorship. Political cliques that use clan identity platforms, and rooted in fiefdoms at the expense of the rights of Somali citizens, remain a threat that can undo the political progress made since 2000, when the first post-1991 transitional government was formed.

In 2016 there was no a discernible an ideological contest over state-building efforts in Somalia. Despite underperforming abysmally, the previous government did not have rival Federal Member States challenging its policies. Its underperformance strengthened the case for empowering Federal Member States to act as a counterbalance to the Federal Government of Somalia. The post-2016 Federal Government of Somalia has succeeded to persuade several Federal Member States not to be in competition with the Federal Government of Somalia over lawmaking. Puntland State, for example, raised objections, among other issues, to the national resource revenue sharing.

The fear that the centre may revive pre-1991 underdevelopment and repressive policies is as justified as the fear that political power at the Federal Member States will be concentrated in the hands of politically unaccountable stakeholders. In such a situation many people prefer a government that accommodates diverse stakeholders who do not value clan allegiance as the basis for state-building endeavours. 

Modifying the Somali federal system to make it less vulnerable to becoming a springboard for prebendal politics — the use of the state office for the material benefit of the politicians in charge — remains an urgent task for Somali political classes. The goal to rebuild inclusive political institutions for a country that went through a traumatic state collapse should be the common ground for all political stakeholders. Those institutions will be able to withstand the intense ideological contest threatening to reverse the progress made in Somalia since the end of the transition period.

Liban A. Ahmad