State Building in Somalia in the Image of Somaliland: A Bottom-Up Approach

By Kenneth C. Upsall
2014, Vol. 6 No. 03 | pg. 4/4 |


The history of Somali statelessness is also a history of state building failure by the international community. Using a top down approach to construct western style government institutions in Somalia has not worked for over twenty years. “For many Somalis, the state is an instrument of accumulation and domination, enriching and empowering those who control it and exploiting and harassing the rest of the population” (Menkhaus, 2006, p.87). This kind of perception does not lend itself to the creation of a state apparatus imposed by outside sources. The answer is state building based on the traditional Somali clan system, such as in the example set by “Somaliland’s extraordinary indigenous conflict-resolution methods” which “may provide an example to the southern Somalis” (Jhazbhay, 2003, p.81). If state building in Somalia is “approached from the bottom up, evolving in an organic and irregular manner and using existing Somali social and religious institutions” (Menkhaus, as cited in Leonard and Samantar, 2011, p.576) there may be light at the end of the tunnel for Somalia.

Somali state failure has endured for 21 years largely based on a lack of legitimacy of attempted central governments. This stems from a lack of focus by international actors on the unique nature of Somali clan society and politics. Pham asserts:

“Although none are likely to risk the loss of face by ever admitting it, the example of Somaliland’s progress by leveraging the strength and resilience of traditional institutions to build a sustainable polity amid the chaos of the former Somalia has not been lost on Somalis in other regions.” (2012, p.23)

Somaliland has proven to be the only region within greater Somalia able to effectively form a government. Based on proven local methods the Somaliland experiment has yielded an effective formula for state construction.

While clan identity may run counter to modern ideas of citizenship in a Westphalian world, the ideals of clan-society can be conveyed into a stable and successful state model. European state models did a disservice to Africa during the post-colonial period. Badie and Birnbaum see the modern state as “a unique social intervention devised to solve the specific crises of the western European societies at a particular point in their development” (as cited in Barkey and Parikh, 1991, p.529), and therefore not necessarily ideal for other regions at other stages of development. International trade and industrial capacity can be built within Somaliland over time. Michael Van Notten outlines as much in the closing chapter of his book, The Law of the Somalis, where he frames trade centers designed to operate within the boundaries of xeer. “Such traditional development could enable Somalis to assume a respected place in the world by leaving aside their colonial legacy and building on their indigenous institutions” (Lennartz, 2007, p.130).

If Somalia is to achieve stability and success the legitimacy of the government needs to come from the Somali people and not from an outside source. After so many failed attempts, evidence from Somaliland suggests that a locally oriented clan-based approach will be the most likely model to succeed in Somalia.


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