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July 15, 2011 / calebdresser

Lessons From Anarchy: Governance in Tribal Societies

Many of today’s greatest political challenges revolve around finding a way to govern tribal societies. In Afghanistan, difficulty doing so has become a problem with global implications. Elsewhere, in places such as Burma, South Sudan, Papua New Guinea, and much of sub-Saharan Africa, conflicts resulting from interactions between tribal societies and state governments cause tremendous problems for local populations and regional security.

It is in the worst example of a tribal failed state –Somalia– that we find a controlled social experiment with remarkable implications. In an internally homogenous region, we can examine a home-grown multiparty democracy that sits side-by-side with a brutally violent land that has become synonymous with anarchy. The factors that let to the brilliant success of democratic governance in Somaliland and to its abject failure in Somalia provide tremendous insight into possible solutions to tribal conflicts elsewhere in the world.

Before examining the factors that affected political outcomes for each region in Somalia, it is essential to understand the process and the region into which they fit. Somaliain tres partes divisa est. To the south lies Somalia proper, a wide and until recently arable swath of land running along the Indian Ocean that includes the capital, Mogadishu. North of this, at the very tip of the Horn of Africa, lies the semi-autonomous state of Puntland. Finally, the independent but unrecognized Republic of Somaliland occupies the north-western corner of the country along the Gulf of Aden.

Somaliland, Puntland, and the South emerged from the same witches’ brew of tribal wars, guerrilla wars, civil wars, proxy wars, and famine two decades ago. However, their stories since then have been radically different. The South, which has been the focus of most Western aid and peacekeeping efforts, remains mired in interminable religious and tribal warfare. Puntland, which is not much better from a security perspective, is rumoured to accept international aid intended to improve its anti-piracy efforts while simultaneously providing a staging area for groups that hijack shipping just off its coast. Somaliland, however, has succeeded in setting up a multiparty democracy, reducing clan violence, and pushing back the twin spectres of piracy and militant Islam.

The great question, of course, is why Somaliland’s path has differed so much from that of the other two regions. All three are populated almost exclusively by ethnic Somalis who practice a variant of Sunni Islam and share a common language, culture, and worldview. All three regions consist of a variety of tribes and sub-tribes whose traditional economic focus is herding, and all three regions have small but vocal elites that were educated in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Up until the 1970s, most people in all three regions dreamed of a unified Greater Somalia that would include ethnically Somali portions of Djibouti, northern Kenya, and the Ogaden plateau in Ethiopia. Clearly, there was – and is – a great deal in common between the people of Somalia’s three regions.

It was random chance, colonial history, and a lone madman that ultimately broke the region apart. When Siad Barre came to power and declared a Marxist state, it was by chance that he came from a specific mid-southern tribe, many of whose members were to occupy high positions in his regime and contribute to the factionalization of Somalia. Later, political scheming led the Soviet government to redirect military assistance from Somalia to Ethiopia at the height of the Somali invasion, leading to a crushing defeat on the Ogaden plateau. In the aftermath, Siade Barre began to lose his grip on the country, providing an environment in which local and trans-border insurgencies could flourish.

Principal among these insurgent groups was the Somali National Movement or SNM, a pro-independence group of Somalilanders based in Londonand later Ethiopia. Many of its leaders had received their education abroad, and it had strong ties with expatriate Somalis in the U.K. Over time, it transformed into an Ethiopia-backed armed movement seeking independence from the totalitarian military dictatorship of Siad Barre.

After nearly a decade of low-intensity conflict, Siad Barre arranged a ceasefire with Ethiopia, and both parties agreed to withdraw support for the insurgent groups they had been using as proxies. Rather than wait to be eliminated, the SNM began an all-out offensive, capturing most of the northwest. Siad Barre’s crumbling regime responded with a military offensive, mass killings of men, women and children from the Isaaq tribe, and an aerial bombardment that left Somalia’s second largest city, Hargeisa, a smouldering pile of rubble. Soldiers used flares to mark the last buildings left standing so that they could be bombed more easily, and thousands of civilians disappeared into mass graves in the desert. Nonetheless, by May 18, 1991 the SNM had won a bloody victory, captured 15,000 soldiers from the Somali Army, and declared independence.

On Independence Day, the fate of Somaliland hung in the balance. The region was filled with thousands of young men – traumatized, armed, and angry. While the SNM had an international veneer, most of its members had never left the region. More importantly, tribal elders held tremendous power over their clans. It would have been easy – very, very easy – to shoot the prisoners and establish a military state. Throughout the history of post-colonial Africa, most successful revolutions have ended by replacing one strongman with another. However, this was not to be. A butterfly flapped it wings in the desert, the prisoners were given safe passage back to Somalia, and the winds blew in favour of democracy.

In the end, the tribes saved the country from the SNM and the SNM saved the country from the tribes. It is unlikely that either could have held the country together on its own. Flush with victory, SNM provided a sense of national unity and possibility, but faced the task of building an unrecognized government from the ground up while trying to control armed and historically independent-minded tribes.  The tribes, for their part, were well equipped for controlling their members and their territories, but were too diverse and individualist to have any hope of running the country on their own. Nonetheless, it was their cooperation with the new government that ensured a smooth transition to multiparty democracy and the rule of law. Over the course of twelve years the politicians and the clan leaders arranged councils, policy changes, and new laws and institutions. During this period, the tribal leaders came out in favour of a unifying national government, and the government made every effort to respect and work with the tribal power structure.

The result was a tentative bicameral success shepherded to fulfilment by a combination of tribal elders from the clans ofSomalilandand internationally educated politicians working within the government. Somaliland has now seen three democratic elections, the most recent of which resulted in the peaceful transition of power from one political party to another – a rarity among fledgling African nations. Altogether, Somaliland’s experiment with democracy has been a resounding success, bringing stability and a better life for its people. Today Somaliland is calm, orderly, and functional. Non-profits are working with the government to improve conditions, educational systems are being set up and improved, healthcare is increasingly available, and businesses are busy rebuilding the capital city. The rest of Somalia has not been so lucky.

There are four principal reasons for the tremendous present-day differences between Somalia and Somaliland. While Somalia has been a zero-sum game of every man or clan for themselves, Somaliland was forged in a cooperative spirit on the basis of strong unifying forces that went beyond clan loyalty. It was also relatively free of international meddling during its formative years, which gave the nation a self-directed character and removed the temptation of skimming aid money from the political calculus of its leaders. Finally, it benefitted from a cadre of highly educated nationals that returned from expatriate lifestyles in western countries to help build and lead the new country. Alone, none of these factors would have had much effect, but together they provided an ethos and an environment that allowed the government to integrate the dual values of tribal loyalty and democratic governance into a workable whole.

Throughout the process of insurgency, independence, and nation-building, the people of Somaliland have benefitted from the powerful unifying effects of a shared vision and a common enemy. The initial vision was simply independence, although that vision has expanded to include international recognition, trade, and development. The common enemies have changed over time as well. While Siad Barre provided a unifying symbol during the bloody civil war, new enemies have emerged to fill his shoes. Principle among these are whatever issues could result in bad press for the country and interfere with the process of recognition; these include terrorism, piracy, and the violent forces at play in Somalia. Somalilanders are fiercely proud of their democratic government and the peacefulness of their country, showing an emotional intensity that goes a long way toward explaining how the people of Somaliland have been able to unify and govern their country against tremendously long odds. While the specific issues have changed over time, they have forced people to cooperate in a way that they would not have had to otherwise. This cooperation has been essential to the establishment and endurance of Somaliland’s democracy, although cooperation alone would never have been enough.

A large proportion of the credit goes to the leadership of the SNM and eventually Somaliland. Thanks to their relatively low level of corruption and their firm commitment to improving the country, Somaliland has benefitted from a remarkably practical series of leaders who have been genuinely interested in solving the country’s problems. In addition, the dynamics of the Somali diaspora meant that most of these leaders received a high-quality education abroad but maintained strong ties with their home country. This impacted the dynamics of the new country in two important ways. First of all, it ensured that most of the leadership had firsthand knowledge of what they were working toward – a peaceful multiparty democracy – and understood the benefits and drawbacks of such a system. When it came time to draft a constitution, these people were able to make a powerful argument in favour of democratic ideals, while at the same time understanding, respecting, and integrating the tribes. Secondly, the availability of home-grown experts who could return to Somaliland meant that the SNM and later Somaliland’s government did not need to rely on foreign advisers and backers.

The self-directed nature of the Somali National Movement and the Republic of Somaliland had a profoundly beneficial effect. Unlike the puppet governments set up in Western nation-building attempts, Somaliland’s government had a profound legitimacy in the eyes of the local population – after all, they had struggled to help create it. The Westernized leaders were all ethno-culturally Somali, and while many had been out of the country for decades, their reintegration into local life was relatively seamless. In addition, the tribal elders working with the fledgling government were highly respected traditional leaders; their stamp of approval meant that the vast majority of the population was bound to support the new government on the basis of both national pride and tribal loyalty. Thanks to the completely local nature of the country’s leadership and the backing of the tribes, those opposed to the government could not claim that it represented outside meddling or was otherwise illegitimate. In addition, because the political and tribal leaders were Somali, they were able to reach a locally appropriate compromise position on the makeup of the government. The inclusion of an upper house of parliament composed of tribal elders helped ensure the lasting support of the tribal power structure, while the provision of a democratically elected president and lower house ensured that the majority of political power would lie with the people.

The integrative, compromise-based efforts of the early leadership were successful precisely because they were genuine. Local people had gone out and brought back ideas; hence, the ideas had certain legitimacy to those who had not left the country. The reverse dynamic would not have worked; had outsiders arrived bearing new concepts about democracy, it is very likely that the tribal leaders would have balked and the local population would have risen up against them, as has happened in Afghanistan. Thankfully, this is not what happened, perhaps because nobody outside the Horn of Africa knew or cared what was happening in a strip of semi-arid rangeland along the Gulf of Aden.

Being ignored can have its advantages. In many ways, Somalilandbenefitted from an almost complete lack of outside interference. In the political sphere, this ensured the local legitimacy of the new government. When the dust settled, the situation had stabilized and did not need foreign aid or peacekeepers to maintain its balance. In the economic sphere, the effects were even more profound. The total lack of outside aid money for the government has forced it to remain responsible in its handling of the limited funds it has. Much of the government’s revenue is based on taxes, and as a result Somalilanders feel a certain level of “buy-in” with respect to the government. This has helped create an environment in which the citizenry wants to hold the government accountable, and the government has to work toward the goals of its citizens if it hopes to remain in power. Some observers have gone so far as to argue that Somaliland’s experience demonstrates that aid money is a uniformly destructive force in developing African countries, and should be curtailed in the future. While this libertarian argument probably goes too far, ignoring the changing needs of a nation as it develops, there is a fascinating seed of truth at its core.

None of this is to say that Somaliland deserves a continuing place on the sidelines. The dynamics that helped it in its early years – enforced fiscal discipline, self-direction, and a tiny income – are not a sustainable plan for a developing nation. While they were beneficial during the formative decades after independence, these aspects of the country’s situation are quickly becoming more of a hindrance that a help. What Somaliland needs today are better roads, public health initiatives, and some sort of plan for curbing population growth and finding access to a reliable supply of fresh water. None of these things come cheap, and it is in the interests of Western governments seeking to prevent the rise of militant Islam to do what they can to support the continued development of Somaliland. That said, if Somaliland does eventually receive recognition, it will be interesting to see whether the political dynamics in the country change as aid money begins to pour into the government. Foreign donors might do well to direct the bulk of their efforts into the non-profit sector here, which has developed rapidly in the absence of significant outside funding for the government. Much of Somaliland’s present-day success depends on its diffuse but delicate power structure. With luck, it will survive the transition to full-blown statehood.

From an American perspective, the dual experiences of Somaliland and Somalia carry powerful lessons for our foreign policy and international aid efforts. Most profound is the simple fact that we cannot always expect to build a new nation in our own image. We have provided a tremendous amount of military, civilian, and monetary aid to the Somali government over the years with no discernable result, while Somaliland has set up a democratic, capitalist system in the northwest without any help at all.

Somaliland’s experience also indicates that governing a tribal society is a complex but feasible prospect. Thanks to unifying national issues, the leadership of foreign-educated locals, the organic nature of the movement, and lack of outside meddling, Somalilandhas forged a locally appropriate system of government that integrates democratic ideals with tribal power structures. In a different nation or culture, a different system of governance may be more appropriate. However, if a new government is to forge a unified nation from a tribal society, it is hard to imagine it doing so without the influence of these four factors. People need a reason to cooperate. They need leadership that understands what they are working toward. They need to come to their conclusions themselves, rather than have them handed down by a foreign power. Most of all, they need to build the country themselves. The resulting sense of ownership born through the cooperative act of creation goes a long way toward forging a durable sense of national identity.

As we hurtle into the second decade of the twenty-first century in an increasingly networked world, we should expect that issues of local governance will loom larger and larger in our view of the world around us. The asymmetric nature of today’s threats means that an increasingly large proportion of the balance of power rests in the hands of individuals and non-state actors. One of the most powerful ways to curb the destructive influences of these forces is to support strong local governments. Given that tribal areas also tend to be hotspots for groups following radicalized adgendas, it is essential that we absorb the lessons taught by the Somali experience. The course of our future may depend on it.



Leave a Comment
  1. Kate / Jul 19 2011 4:27 am

    As for “some sort of plan for curbing population growth”, educate the women!! Educated women wait longer to have children, and as a result, have smaller families. Educate women, invest in women (e.g., through microfinance), and provide access to contraceptives and comprehensive sexual education for everyone.

  2. Yuna / Jul 30 2011 4:17 pm

    WOW this was extremely well written and incredibly informative. I learned so much about the development process of Somaliland. Your analysis corroborates what I’ve been reading in The White Man’s Burden in so many ways. If you haven’t read it, it’s a great resource. Thank you for posting!

  3. Deng Madut Akec / Dec 31 2011 1:37 am

    Many countries in Africa still searching for good leaders and how do we get them? Nobody born a leader but leaders are made as they grow up learning the styles of leadership. I personally praised Somaliland leaders for working toward a better future of all citizens in their own land. They have seen the badside of bad leaders and what they are made up of in Africa.

    I thanked the analysis for taking his times to elobrate on African issues and changings in Somailand.

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