By Liban A. Ahmad

In Somalia seaport competition is the latest political fad. The fact that predominantly nomadic social groups have laid claim to national infrastructures points to a belated attempt to make up for lost economic opportunities due to the collapse of state in 1991. It is difficult to foresee what economic goals can be attained through the control of key infrastructures such as seaports by subnational entities.

From clockwise: Hobyo jetty, Kismayo Port, Bosaso Port and Berbera Port.

 Economic development takes off in a post-conflict context when the state exerts full authority in its territories. The case of Ethiopia between 1991 and 2014 provides an example about what an institutionally strong national government can implement and how it can liaise with donors and multilateral organisations.  “World Bank has invested more than $2 billion since 1991 to help Ethiopia address its infrastructure gap? This investment has helped Ethiopia to improve the quality of its roads and increase the size of the road network from under 20,000 km in 1991 to over 144,000 km in 2020” the World Bank Ethiopia office tweeted in 2020. The 620% increase in Ethiopia’s road network has translated into economic opportunities in the form of direct foreign investment and remarkable growth between 1991 and 2014.

The collapse of state deprived Somalia of economic development opportunities. The self-help-based reconstruction that people, who fled to one-time backwater parts of the country, have embarked upon is commendable, but should never be used as a reason to valorise the weak state argument that liken Somalia to a polity of clan mini-states operating without a sovereign authority.

For the last five years Somalia has been positioning itself as a potential exporter of fish to Ethiopia — all from Bosaso, Mogadishu, Kismayo and planned Hobyo, Eyl and Heis fishing ports.  Additionally, Ethiopia has bought shares of the DP World Berbera Project. There is only so much fish that Ethiopia can buy from Somali authorities

Without a national economic development strategy, Somalia’s seaports will become white elephants consuming resources that could be channelled into other productive sectors. If a subnational entity (Federal Member State) devises economic development plans without harmonising it with other central stakeholders, the outcome will lead to lost economic opportunities and wasted resources.

National seaports will lose their economic potential if their ownership structure becomes synonymous with clan ownership. Bosaso Port gives an example about what can happen when questionably communal seaport ownership replaces state ownership.  Puntland claims that the Federal Government of Somalia opposes the agreement that the Garowe-based administration signed with DP World in 2017. Only when Somalia ended the transitional period (2004-2012), have Somalia’s seaports paradoxically become vulnerable to take-over by foreign companies without the imprimatur of the Federal Government of Somalia. 

State control of key infrastructures such as seaports in a country recovering from a civil war is premised on two principles: 1- infrastructures were built in the name of Somalia, and 2- all Somali citizens have equal rights to collective ownership of infrastructures through the state in the absence of credible privatisation programme.

Getting all political stakeholders to sign up to these two principles will lay the foundation stone for an accountability-based approach to running national infrastructures.  To attain this goal political mistakes made by Somali leaders after the end of the transition must be rectified. In 2012 Somalia formed a fully recognised government with powers to sign agreements with foreign companies without its writ running in all parts of the country. Limiting the powers of the Federal Government until Somalia develops politically accountable institutions would be a first step towards achieving the abovementioned goal. Political authority is inseparable from political accountability. Any Somali government that exercises the privilege to sign an agreement with a foreign company must be accountable to Somali citizens through institutions that enjoy wider political legitimacy domestically, not solely recognition from foreign countries. 

The state-building model that Somalia adopted after 2011 had yielded unsavoury political outcomes that undermine the sovereignty of Somalia and make the nation state dependent on foreign peacekeepers indefinitely.  Does this mismatch between the sovereignty and lack of state control of national infrastructures result from political myopia or donors’ conflicting interests? Whatever the cause of the lop-sided, post-conflict economic development initiatives in Somalia, it is important to figure out whether Somalia needs to put in place measures to prevent post-conflict reconstruction programmes from further deepening anti-state and anti-sovereignty sentiments espoused by some Somali politicians.Somalia needs a state-building model that forges a common stand on collective ownership of national infrastructures in place of the fiefdom-based attitude towards post-war development initiatives. 

Liban A. Ahmad