Hope for Somalia?

Mogadishu, Somalia

Mogadishu in wilder days, prior to the African Union peacemaking mission. Photo credit: ctsnow (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Al-Shabab is in retreat. The country has a new president respected by many at home and abroad. Foreign donors are pledging significant new aid. Peace is taking hold in larger portions of the country. This is a season of hope in Somalia. Or, at least it seems that way to outside observers.

But what are Somalis envisioning for their future? Are ordinary people eager for a federal system held together by a Mogadishu-based central government? The new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has impressed Britain, America, and other key states with his rhetoric about a decentralized political system. No significant tasks have yet been completed on the path to a federal Somalia.

Like Afghanistan, Somalia does seem to be an appropriate candidate for shared power between local and national governments. Both countries have long histories marked by intense political loyalties rooted in local communities. Both countries have cultural foundations in pastoral lifeways.

In the case of war-ravaged Afghanistan, federalism is the road not taken. The Hamid Karzai era has been one of centralized political power, backed by foreign military might and international aid.

In Somalia, President Mohamud may yet prove skeptics wrong by pursuing and constructing a democratic federal system in this failed state. Developing a federal structure is hard, even in more favorable environments than Somalia. To succeed, federations need strong momentum in favor of democracy and the rule of law. And decentralized systems require particularly strong courts, in order to sort out power struggles between local governments and the central government.

Putting all of these challenges aside, it is still not clear that most Somalis want a modern state—federal or otherwise. Western governments, the African Union, and the UN may all desire a reconstructed Somali state. Perhaps most Somalis continue to see the modern state taking more than it gives. If that perception continues to hold sway at the grassroots level, maybe the latest state building effort in the Horn of Africa is just old wine in new wineskins. I welcome feedback from those on the ground in Somalia.

The Fall of Bangui: State Failure in the Central African Republic

On the Sudan - Central African Republic Border

The Central African Republic is located in one of the most conflict-prone regions of Africa, which includes Sudan, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo credit: hdptcar (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Over the weekend of March 23-24, the brittle government of President Francois Bozize was finally overthrown. A coalition of rebels known as Seleka has now seized control of the capital city, Bangui. Bozize and many senior figures from his government have fled the Central African Republic (CAR). This new development re-confirms the country’s status as a failed state. Here are two key indicators of that status.

  1. Limited rule of law. The ousted president, Bozize, came to power through a military coup in 2003. Despite CNN’s designation of last weekend’s change of government as a “coup,” the successful rebellion has led to another unconstitutional change of government. In response to the illegal action, the African Union has suspended the membership of the Central African Republic. And, not surprisingly, the new Seleka government has suspended the country’s constitution, promising free and fair elections within a few years.
  2. A stark core-periphery pattern. As I have previously written, the divide between the CAR’s capital city and its hinterlands is immense and longstanding. The core region around the capital has been the main focus of government authority, while the outlying regions – especially in the North and the East – have largely existed outside national government influence. In the past decade, these “ungoverned spaces” have been regionally important as fighters and weapons have flowed across porous borders with Chad, Sudan, and the DRC. If the rebels are successful in retaining control of the capital, will they be any better at forging a geographically unified, well-functioning country?

Outside of obvious concerns about an intensifying humanitarian crisis in the CAR, it does not seem that the international community is all that concerned about the situation there. Notably, France did very little to oppose the fall of Bangui. Yet, we should applaud the African Union (AU) for quickly acting to suspend the CAR and sanction the country’s new leaders. For all of its dysfunction, the AU has at least created a regional political culture that stigmatizes unconstitutional changes of government. If only the AU would get tougher with African dictators that run sham democracies.

Kenya’s Intervention in Somalia

On Monday, the Islamist group Al-Shabab withdrew from Kismayo, its last major stronghold in Somalia. The Al-Qaeda-affiliated group has been under pressure from an armed African Union force, working in partnership with the fragile Somali government. Though this military victory is a critical milestone for the Mogadishu-based government, it is remarkable how this victory occurred.

In October 2011, Kenya – without international blessing – invaded southern Somalia. Though the full motivations of the intervention are still a bit murky, the core explanation seems to be Kenya’s desire to bring stability to a neighboring failed state. Somalia’s problems go back to the 1980s, and the clan chauvinistic and repressive rule of the Mohammed Siad Barre government. With the close of the Cold War and massive reductions in Western aid, the Barre government fell in 1991, and most of Somalia has struggled mightily since. Because of Somalia’s collapse, Kenya has long hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees, suffered from depressed economic performance, and the weathered the scourge of maritime piracy.

In 2007, the United Nations gave its support for the creation of the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM. Though the mission only gradually mobilized military resources to support the Somali central government, AMISOM was granted a muscular “peace making” mandate. However, it was not until August 2011 that the AMISOM mission (of around 9,000 soldiers in mid-2011) helped push the anti-government group Al-Shabab out of the Somali capital.

Kenya’s entry into Somalia – and the integration of Kenyan soldiers into AMISOM in mid-2012 – is the main reason the mission has grown to around 16,000 personnel at present. Crucially, Kenya’s forces are focused in the southern portion of Somalia, where AMISOM did not previously have a presence.

What is remarkable about the Kenyan intervention is how commonplace these actions were in the pre-United Nations era. Before the UN, failed states were frequently conquered in whole or part, or otherwise controlled by stronger (neighboring) states. The United Nations era norm against conquest does have real benefits, but, as Kenya recognizes, it can also allow the problems of failed states to fester and blight whole sub-regions.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.