In describing Somalia, “democracy” is not the first word that comes to mind. The international press and the reading public tend to prefer “anarchy” or “chaos” or “terrorist haven” as the choice descriptor for this country in the Horn of Africa. But after years of unrelenting warfare, and despite a worrisome Shabaab insurgency, parts of Somalia are beginning to stabilize. The WSJ reports on Somalia’s unconventional, wayward path to somewhat better governance in recent years:
After nearly half a century of civil war, a jihadist insurgency, and tens of billions of dollars of Western aid, Somalia is for the first time attempting something like democracy—and it isn’t looking pretty.
Instead of the one-person, one-vote paradigm—deemed impossible given widespread insecurity and the absence of a census—135 clan elders handpicked 14,025 delegates, who convened in heavily fortified halls across the war-ravaged nation of more than 10 million to select representatives for Parliament […]
After months of delays and accusations of bribery, manipulation and candidate intimidation, the selection of 347 lawmakers was completed in December. Parliament on Jan. 9 re-elected its speaker, signaling a likely second term for President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud […] as the country’s top offices are traded off among top members of the most dominant clans.
The complex process, which in part aims to move Somalia closer to federalism, is being lubricated with more than $14 million from Western donors. Diplomats say bigger sums are coming in, covertly backed by other foreign powers—including Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates—who are jostling for dominance in the Horn of Africa nation and its strategic perch on the Red Sea.
What this article does well is to draw out competing points of view about the Somali clan system and the way forward for governance in Somalia. Is the clan system compatible with more representative governance? Conversely, can any government be legitimate without somehow incorporating the clan system?
Before digging into these questions, it’s important to have a primer on the clan system. Seth Kaplan, who will soon have a piece in our pages, provides a succinct introduction to the topic in this post from fragilestates.org:
Somalia embodies one of postcolonial Africa’s worst mismatches between conventional state structures and indigenous customs and institutions. The fact that Somalis share a common ethnicity, culture, language, and religion might seem to be an excellent basis for a cohesive polity, but in reality the Somali people are divided by clan affiliations, the most important component of their identity. Repeated attempts to impose a centralized bureaucratic governing structure have managed only to sever the state from the society that should have been its foundation, yielding the world’s most famous failed state.
The Somali population—some 13 to 14 million people, including Somalis living in neighboring states—is divided into four major clans and a number of minority groups (see map below). Each of these major clans consists of subclans and extended family networks that join or split in a fluid process of “constant decomposition and recomposition.” Like tribal societies elsewhere in the Greater Middle East, the clans use deeply ingrained customary law to govern their communities completely independently of modern state structures. Although somewhat weakened in the south from decades of urbanization, violence, and attempts to create a centralized state, these traditional groupings still hold immense influence over society.
Federalism seems like the only prudent path forward for governance in Somalia. Somaliland in the north and Puntland in the northeast already operate as de facto independent statelets. Rather than continue the failed project of building a centralized state in the rest of Somalia, it is better to allow local leaders to reestablish governance on a local level, while building an embryonic federal system on the national level—which is more or less what is happening now with these latest “elections.”
‘Democracy’ in Somalia is looking a lot like oligarchy (135 old guys picking who picks who will govern), but that may not be such a bad thing. The WSJ is right to note that Somali elections won’t exactly be “pretty”—liberal democracy, like Santa’s sleigh, is not bound for Somalia any time soon—but they may be better than the alternative: continued civil war and rampant warlordism.
Two seemingly contradictory ideas can both be true: (1) holding Somalia to strict liberal democratic standards will inevitably result in disappointment and (2) the development of a federal system and somewhat representative institutions marks real improvement in Somalia.
Liberal democracy has had a pretty short run in world history all told, but representative institutions of varying stripes have a much longer history. Governance in Switzerland developed at a local level, with different cantons adopting different forms of government: republic, direct democracy, oligarchy, family rule. The beginnings of democracy in Britain and Botswana alike came with representative institutions that grew out of hereditary rule in barony- or kingdom-level governance. In all three cases, the nation-building project came much later, and the liberal democratic order grew over many years, drawing strength from local exemplars. The same could prove true for Somalia.
For decades, Somalia has frustrated attempts by outsiders to break the back of the clan system and introduce democratic institutions which have no history there. Now Somalia has taken some steps to introduce a federal system and hold limited elections with deference to traditional authorities, the clan leaders. What comes next will not be storybook democracy. There will no doubt be continued violence and endemic corruption. But institutions need legitimacy, and traditional authorities can provide it; popular legitimacy may come in time. These next steps are certainly substantially better than what Somalia has been through for the past 25 years. Democracy promotion should give way to the patient acceptance of “good-enough” governance. It’s time to step back and let the Somalis work out their institutional future.
With this piece, the WSJ has really outdone itself with superb photography, in-depth reporting, and keen analysis. Rather than handing down precise conclusions, it raises important questions. It’s worth reading the whole thing.