According to the Failed States Index compiled by the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy, Somalia has been the number one failed state in the world since 2008. The 2011 Ibrahim Index of African Governance rates Somalia an 8 out of 100, making it a state “with no ability to create or implement policies that promote the well-being of people within its borders” (Gordon & Gordon, 2012, p.103). There have been at least sixteen attempts since 1991 to reconstitute the failed Republic of Somalia (Walls, 2009, p.372). During this time no single representative government controlled the entire territory of Somalia or even maintained a prolonged existence. Southern Somalia, the area formerly known as Italian Somaliland, is claimed by several groups, none of which maintains control over more than a few square miles, and in the case of the internationally recognized Transitional National Government (TNG) and its successor, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), only a few blocks of the capital Mogadishu have been successfully controlled (Anonymous, 2002, p.259; Menkhaus, 2006 p.92). For twenty-two years Somalia has been a black hole of government, international aid and efforts at state and nation building. Attempts by the international community to stabilize Somalia have been many, with billions in international aid poured into the region, yet tangible results have been virtually nonexistent. However, there is an example of successful state building within Somalia: the stable yet unrecognized Somaliland Republic in northwestern Somalia.Somalilanders line up to vote prior to the opening of polls in November 2012 elections that were predominantly peaceful

Somaliland’s example provides the most compelling alternative to the failed attempts to implement governance in Somalia from above. Here, voters line up prior to the opening of polls in November 2012 elections that were predominantly peaceful. Photo: Dustin Turin.

Western government models have repeatedly failed in Somalia. Multiple internationally supported transitional governments have been unable to take control of the country’s territory and repeated foreign interventions have done little to provide stability. These top-down approaches to government formation are based on the western assumption that Somalia as a whole is a failed state based on a Westphalian model. According to Max Byrne this narrative of a failed state “occludes the reality of the situation and is harmful to attempt to encourage development from within the country” (2013, p.113).

“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).

The success story in neighboring Somaliland, which has led to a locally legitimate and organically grown government, has largely been ignored by international actors. In states with little or no functioning government there is “evidence that social and political structures are characterized by ‘hybrid political orders’ which blend ‘traditional and modern norms and practices’” (Debiel, Glassner, Schetter & Terlinden, 2009, p.38). Somaliland has used traditional practices to create a sustainable modern government by blending “modernity and tradition” (Jhazbhay, 2009, p.51) into a functioning state.

A Failed Historical Legacy

During colonial rule the Italian and British administrators did not create the necessary institutional foundation for a strong central government. Once independence and unification were achieved in 1960 the resulting government was unable to consolidate its position. Moreover, the decentralized clan and sub-clan pastoral system that defines Somali culture can be seen as fundamentally contrary to a centrally organized state: “During unification very little thought was apparently given, either by enthused Somali nationalists or their international supporters, as to whether the European-style centralized state that was hastily created was necessarily appropriate for the diffuse nature of Somali society” (Pham, 2012, p.10). Due to an exclusion of traditional clan-based governance structures the Somali unification experiment was predestined to fail.

Meanwhile, the local stability of clan and sub-clan structures in Somalia have made top-down implementation of western-style governance excessively difficult. The inability to form a viable government over the past two decades has earned Somalia the “dubious distinction of being the world’s foremost graveyard of externally sponsored state-building initiatives” (Menkhaus, 2006, p.74).


Multiple nationwide elections have taken place with relative peace and calm in Somaliland. Above, a quiet polling station near Salaxley, Somaliland during November 2012 elections. Photo: Dustin Turin.

Although it lacks international recognition, Somaliland is the lone example of a functioning sovereign state in the Horn. The unrecognized state of Somaliland “has now functioned since 1991 as a self-sustaining state and has repeatedly received positive attention from the international media for the way it has embarked upon post-conflict reconstruction” (Doornbos, 2002, p.95). This is largely due to the bottom up approach at state building that derives its legitimacy from local clan elders and the local ownership of civil institutions, including stable economic, political, security and social welfare institutions. Compared to international attempts at imposing western style government on Somalia, “the Somaliland ‘nation-building’ process was more bottom-up and does function as a state” (Kibble, 2001, p.18). The methods for state formation in Somaliland may provide the best model for stabilization efforts in greater Somalia: at this point, “it is clear that development in Somalia must focus on bottom-up, organic gro


The Clan System in Somali Politics

The ethnic Somali population is divided into six major clan groupings. In the north the Isaaq and Darod control most of the area comprising Somaliland and Puntland respectively while in the south the Hawiya, Rahanwein and Digil occupy the rest of Somali territory ( Djibouti, to the northwest of Somaliland, is home to a smaller Dir clan. Darod and Hawiya clans also occupy areas in Ethiopia and Kenya (Greater Somalia). Steve Kibble writes, “the history of Somalia is impossible to understand without some knowledge of the interweaving of an un-centralized egalitarian political system…with the effects of British, French and Italian formal colonization… and the attempt to create a post-colonial modernist nation state” (2001, p.10). By reviewing the role of clans and clan elders in Somali society and their ability to reconcile violence between clans and sub-clans after the civil war, we see that the single strongest institution remaining in Somali society may be that of clan leadership.

Clan affiliation is one of the most important units of identity within Somali society and is based on patrilineal descent. Somalis, like many Muslim societies, typically trace their ancestry back to the Prophet Mohammad and “an understanding of the political relationships between groups requires a knowledge of their genealogical relationships” (Pham, 2012, p5). Within clans are sub-clans and sub-sub clans known as dia-paying groups and organized so “that families within the group have a collective responsibility for settling acts committed by, or against their members.” Dia groups are considered the most stable unit within Somali culture (Ahmed & Green, 1999, p.114) and interaction of dia groups forms the basis of relations in Somali social order. Richard Posner (1980) sees the connections developed within collective guilt units such as dia as cornerstone of Somali society. Alliances between dia groups “join or split in a fluid process of ‘constant decomposition and re-composition’” typically working through a “diffuse and decentralized decision making process” (Kaplan, 2008, p.145).

Hargeisa Somalilands center of commerce and government is a safe and bustling metropolis when compared to ravaged Mogadishu

Hargeisa, Somaliland’s center of commerce and government, is a safe and bustling metropolis when compared to ravaged Mogadishu. Photo: Dustin Turin.

The civil war saw dia groups and clans battle amongst and against each other in constantly shifting alliances. Continued bloodletting created massive debts between dia groups that could not possibly be paid and perpetuated violence throughout Somalia. The concept of long-lasting conflict in traditional Somali society was rare because dia ideals of collective security and guilt precluded such action. “The principle of collective responsibility enables the society to set a level of compensation higher than the average individual can pay since his kinsmen are liable for the judgment debt” (Posner, 1980, p.46). This traditional system came under duress during the civil war because dia groups were unable to pay the debts their members incurred, while continued fighting exponentially increased the debts owed.

In Somaliland, clan elders were eventually able to reconcile blood money payments by the dia groups in order to counter the detrimental effects of civil war. Clan elders in Somalia carry considerable political and social weight because they are chosen by “virtue of personal attributes,” not simply age (Ahmed & Green, 1999, p.123). Debiel et al. see the “composition and relative strength of local elites” as “decisive factor[s]” in the ability for a fledgling state to develop (2009, p.38). As stated above, the debts accrued between these groups were too large, and quickly became too complex to adjudicate and resolve under traditional Somali contract law (xeer), which is based on the dia groups having to share the burden of compensation between members. Xeer is an “inter-family social contract” (Jhazbhay, 2009, p.57) and based on ad hoc committees of judges who resolve disputes and are well respected within the clan communities. Xeer is centered on property and the understanding that crime can only be defined in terms of property. Therefore “there can only be crimes against individuals, and justice is compensatory, not punitive” (Lutter, 2011).

The reason Somali society reached this breakdown can be traced back to the colonial institutions and post-colonial state that arose after independence. The colonial state did not emphasize the traditional elements of Somali society such as dia groups and xeer. European colonization “did not originate to assist African countries to develop… It originated to benefit European countries” (Gordon & Gordon, 2012, p.119). The institutions that Europeans left in place were the same institutions that would develop into a system based on autocratic, patrimonial rule and predatory systems. These institutions ignored clan structures except for the purposes of extending and strengthening the patron-client systems that became the status quo after independence. During the post-colonial period, there was no emphasis on clan-based governance.

Colonial and State Governments

No stable western-style government existed in Somalia before the Italian administration in southern Somalia, while present day Somaliland was an important link in a Haud, Hargeisa, Berbera, Arabia trade axis. The imposition of artificial colonial borders changed the traditional authority structures and the equilibrium of clan management (Kibble, 2001, p.11) as well as the pastoral society of Somalia. “With the creation of these artificial (colonial) boundaries, cohesive social groups were separated and logical and well-established trading areas were divided” (Gordon & Gordon, 2012, p.64). There was never an effective attempt by British colonial authorities to change the structure of Somali society, as opposed to the Italians who attempted to remake Somali culture and civil society in a more European image. This is attributed to what Fredrick Lugard referred to as “indirect rule” whereby “British rule could be maintained at minimal cost by delegating all local power to existing elites, retaining only the essentials of central authority (in particular the purse strings) in British hands” (Ferguson, 2002, p.175). Somali governance under the British did not entail institution building in any meaningful way. Clan elders retained their power and position in society while furnishing the colonial government the extractive capacity to maintain administrative cohesiveness (Kibble, 2001, p.8). In the case of British Somaliland, continued exertion of social and political power by clan elders lead to the prospect of a more stable government after the ouster of Barre in the early 1990s.

By contrast, Italian administration of southern areas was eclectic at best. Malvezzi contends that “Italy had no (colonial) system” and had “worked out colonial policy on practical, rather than on theoretical lines” (Malvezzi, 1927, p.234). Like the British; administration of Italian Somaliland was designed so “infrastructure development was perpendicular to the coast for resource extraction” (Malvezzi, 1927, p.241). Unlike the British; Italian governance of Somalia was supposed to be more direct, removing the traditional political power of the clan elders in favor of a more centralized system. Where the British “preferred to leave such governance as was needed on a day-to-day basis in the hands of Somali elders” Italy embarked on a policy of attempted cultural change by displacing traditional structures, such as “supplanting xeer and other traditional Somali usages with institutions imported from Italy” (Pham, 2012, p.9). The resulting manipulation of Somali society in Italian controlled territory led to a disjointed and unorganized government. “In no case… did European colonizers invest in cogent, rational programs of development designed to make African states self-sufficient” (Gordon & Gordon, 2012, p.119). The smaller clans of Italian Somaliland continued to have their traditional governance replaced by western imposed institutions in an attempt to ready the territory for independence. As with most African states, “The transition from colonial despotism to liberal democracy was expedited in a few years without any fundamental transformation in the economic, cultural, or bureaucratic domains” (Fatton Jr., 1990, p.457). This subsequently left Somali society with no means to coalesce around a centralized authority upon independence. “As a result, notions that authoritarianism was an appropriate mode of rule were part of the colonial political legacy” (Gordon & Gordon, 2012, p.67) and drove Somalia and many other African states to develop a highly patrimonial centralized government after independence.

Post-colonial development in Africa focused on “the state, rather than the individual or the market” (Kibble, 2001, p.6). The creation of The Republic of Somalia in 1961 was the result of unification between British and Italian controlled territories; the creation of a strong central government in the south would prove detrimental to traditional clan roles within Somali society. The Republic of Somalia quickly became a powerful central authority, government institutions were concentrated in the southern capital city of Mogadishu and the traditional clan-based pastoral society was supplanted by a southern dominated socialist state. “There were very high initial expectations about the role the state would play as the prime mover in all development efforts” (Doornbos, 1990, p.182) and there was a feeling that the state alone needed to push modernization forward (Barkey and Parikh, 1991). Clan participation in government quickly became a key to economic success through access to the large amount of foreign aid which was pumped into the Somali state. In much the same way social and ethnic cleavages formed the basis of political party formation in other post-colonial states (Gordon & Gordon, 2012, p.72); Somali politics was based upon the clan and which one was favored by Siad Barre. The patrimonial nature of the Barre regime enhanced divisions between the clans in order to increase the power of the ruling elites in Somalia. While Barre was fairly successful in keeping the majority of the foreign aid delivered to Somalia during his dictatorship for enrichment of his own coffers, the distribution of the remaining money from the centralized government became a contest of patronage and loyalty.

By the mid-1980s 58% of Somali Gross National Product (GNP) came from foreign aid (UNDP 1998 as cited in Leeson, 2007, p.14). Ken Menkhaus believes this created a view of the state as, “the primary source not only of power but of wealth-as the catchment point for foreign aid…and as the coercive instrument with which empowered clans and coalitions have expropriated the assets of rivals” (2006, p.80). Barre’s hold on power and the predatory nature of the Somali state under his control has made the idea of a western-style top down government implausible for the Somali people. Douglas North (1990) sees the function of institutions in a society as to “reduce uncertainty by establishing a stable (if not necessarily efficient) structure to human interaction” (p.6). Institutions of the Somali Republic could be seen in the light of other “developmental dictatorships” of Africa. Richard Sklar saw these systems as leading to “corruption and injustices; instead of promoting economic development they fostered material stagnation and decline; instead of establishing viable political order they engendered divisive tendencies, military coups and civil wars” (as cited in Fatton Jr., 1990, p455). The result of Barre’s overdeveloped predatory state was the destruction of traditional societal factors which would have prevented the civil war which ensued after his ouster. North also highlights two points related to the direction of state resources “(1) The institutional framework will shape the direction of the acquisition of knowledge and skills and (2) that direction will be the decisive factor for the long run development of that society” (1990, p.79). Traditional clan structures were too worried about survival in a patrimonial system to create the investments in human capital necessary to develop Somalia. Meanwhile the state was over dependent on foreign aid, used to perpetuate the patron-client systems which had started under colonial rule to develop the physical infrastructure necessary to develop Somalia economically. The result was a total collapse of the state under its own inabilities.


Failure of Western State Building in Somalia

For the past fourteen years internationally backed and aided governments in Somalia have been able to do little more than exist on paper. Various strongmen attempted to fill the vacuum created by a lack of government and gain access to the foreign aid designed to help legitimize these paper governments. All of these attempts lack a bottom-up and clan legitimized approach to Somali government formation. Ahmed & Green highlight that unlike the internationally backed attempts at state building, “conflict resolution in the north has always been the responsibility of elders who have authority to represent their clans” (Ahmed & Green, 1999, p.123). The ineffectiveness of the transitional governments stems from their “willful mismanagement of public resources” which “prevented the state from being self-supporting” (Leeson, 2007, p.8). Western state building attempts did not focus on a clan or local level: “no constructive attempts were made to engage local networks and mosque-related groups… nor were clan elders recognized as constituting genuine historically rooted community conduits; nor was it realized that by strengthening them, peace lords would have been supported” (Ahmed & Green, 1999, p.123).

The overwhelming problem with the transitional governments is that they are not seen as legitimate in the eyes of the Somali people. This deficiency of legitimation stems from the exclusion of actors capable of delivering on a bottom-up approach. Martin Doornbos states, “the issue is neither the provisional government nor the parliament has been recognized by a number of important political groups and stakeholders” (1990, p.93). Byrne believes that a top down solution does not allow for cleavages within Somali politics to be locally reconciled, noting that top down institutions cannot be sensitive to the requirements and structures of society and therefore lack a stable foundation (2013, p.121). In the case of Somalia it can therefore be assumed the social contract between state and citizen is “most likely to occur from the bottom up in irregular forms and with imperfect coverage, rather than imposed from above” (Leonard & Samantar, 2011, p.561).

Unlike the internationally backed transitional attempts at Somali government consolidation, the Somaliland approach has been organic in nature. There has been little if any international aid given to these state building projects. Clan elders have been the catalysts for ending violence between clans and sub-clans and providing security for and legitimacy to the government in Somaliland. “A major problem with these high profile affairs (the transitional governments) is that legitimate representatives of the affected communities, such as elders, merchants, women’s groups and other genuine stakeholders, are not included” (Ahmed & Green, 1999, p.124). This lack of legitimation can be seen in the structures of the conferences that transitional governments and organic governments have derived from.

By all accounts Somaliland has succeeded where the internationally backed attempts at Somali government have not. The incorporation of Somaliland realized a stable government in the former Somali territory and initiated the building of an organic Somali state from the bottom up. Somaliland has a constitution, a functioning representative government and security forces which protect a defined territory. The population of Somaliland recognizes the government as legitimate and has sent emissaries to foreign capitals, even if those same foreign capitals do not officially recognize the existence of Somaliland for political reasons.

How Clan-Based Governance Can Work for Somalia

Somaliland’s claim to sovereignty stems from the fact that in 1960 it was itself an independent state, which freely joined into unification with Italian administered areas of southern Somalia to create the Republic of Somalia. Somaliland asserts that when the government collapsed in 1991 it returned to its independent status after the Conference at Burao, when Clan elders met for a week in the center of Isaaq Somaliland and agreed to six resolutions which would end the civil war in northern Somalia and establish a separate administration from Mogadishu (Walls, 2009, po.379). The territory of Somaliland would encompass Isaaq, Dir and Darod clans and be exactly the same territorially as British Somaliland was at the time of independence.

Inter-clan conflict after the Burao conference was successfully resolved by delegations of clan elders from the conflicting groups, proving that conflict resolution on a local level was achievable. “The financial and human cost of the fighting had been high, no attempt would be made to calculate the compensation for people killed or property destroyed” (Walls, 2009, p.379), the dia groups would have to reconcile their differences without compensation, which meant the territory would be in a better position to move forward by removing a long and drawn out reparations process which could potentially return the territory to fighting based on perceived wrongs in compensation cases. “It is notable that the principle of ‘forgetting’ grievances rather than calculating and enforcing compensation payments was applied in each of the Somaliland peace-building processes” (Byrne, 2013, p.121). It is also important to note the unique direction reconciliation takes in the case of Somaliland.

The major difference between Somaliland’s reconciliation process and other processes, such as those in South Africa, Northern Ireland, or Guatemala, was the lack of retribution for the victims. In the South African and Guatemalan examples reconciliation followed a course of acknowledgement, giving public recognition to the victims and their families. In these cases the injustices were ostensibly perpetrated under government sanction and acknowledgement was a way of showing government culpability in the infractions against its citizens. The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland took a different approach, providing “only for the release of prisoners, and not for their pardon, the public verdict still stands” (Biggar, 2002, p.177). By allowing for the pardon of criminals the Good Friday Agreement still acknowledges the guilt of perpetrators, but allows breathing room for the healing process by admitting that the prisoners were incarcerated under less than favorable conditions.

In all three cases the political solution to the problem was facilitated by some form of government, which was able to broker and enforce not only peace, but also establish recognition of the problems at hand. Somaliland is a different case because the reconciliation clan leaders arranged occurred out of a lack of government, and with the direct intent of creating an environment for government creation to occur. “In a very real sense, the clan elders have served to guarantee peace and security in Somaliland in that they are the nation’s ultimate fallback as an ‘insurance policy’ against descent into anarchy” (Jhazbhay, 2009, p.58). The elders in this case were also able to create an agreement that all sides were able to consider just as well as politically viable. Biggar (2002, p.168) would see this as a successful resolution tactic because “insofar as people regard a political settlement as unjust, they will not support it; and if enough people regard it as unjust, it will cease to be politically viable.”

This method of forgetting grievances may not be transferrable to the rest of Somali society, but Walls points out that “it is an option in situations where conflict has been so complex or devastating as to make calculation of dia compensation impossible” (Jhazbhay, 2009, p.177). In order for this kind of tactic to be adopted by southern Somali clans and dia groups there has to be an understanding that the conflict is in fact over, and no return to violence should occur based on previous grievances. This kind of stability enhancing measure is precisely what is needed in the still fractured south. Byrne states that in order “to be stable, any state building in Somalia must account for the devolved nature of Somali society, something less possible with a centralized development focus” (2013, p.120). The development of structural institutions has been at the heart of transitional governments and western interventions for years instead of placing emphasis on clan and dia reconciliation.

Somaliland has a twenty-year plan to modernize and solidify government function. A key element of this plan that could be applied to the entire territory of Somalia with great success would be that of decentralization. “Grassroots and civil society participation in the decision making process will be assured through a decentralized system where local communities will decide on the issues that affects them most” (Somaliland National Vision, 2011, p.8). Decentralization of the state government in favor of local districts has worked extremely well in the clan based system. In fact early proponents of Somaliland independence envisioned a future dispensation where power was devolved to the regions (Pham, 2012, p.13) and the structure of the government would be as simple as possible while elevating xeer to establish traditional law and custom to a national level (Jhazbhay, 2009, p.57). This decentralized government allows the clans to retain a level of autonomy which was common under British rule, and present in the south before Italian colonization. Decentralized government would also end a trend started by the Italians of attempting to bring together disparate parts under a strong central government. Advocates of some form of decentralized, federal or even confederal systems claim only a decentralized approach can guarantee to local communities protection from a central state dominated by another lineage (Menkhaus, 2006, p.83). By giving the clans more responsibility in local government, ownership of projects and their results are shared by the communities on a local level. Focusing the ownership of projects at a local level creates strong local government institutions, which become reactive and sensitive to what the citizens need when compared to a top-down western style government imposed by the international community.

Decentralization does not come without risks and past evidence of difficult implementation can be found in several examples throughout Africa. In many cases decentralization has proceeded slowly in the wake of overdeveloped post-colonial states which “highly favored centralized systems of government” (Barrett, Mude, and Omiti, 2007, p.1). Proponents of decentralization will argue that it brings government accountability, community empowerment, and efficiency in the use of public services as well as improved local and national governance (Garcia & Sunil, 2008, p.8). The goal in Somaliland is to achieve these objectives while creating a hybrid government sensitive to traditional clan structures. In order for decentralization to be effective, infrastructure; political, social and physical, needs to be in place. Ethiopia has seen federal spending increases going toward basic services in order to effectively implement decentralization accounting for six-percent of the federal budget (Garcia & Sunil, 2008, p.59). Gordon Crawford and Christof Hartmann analyze four decentralization case studies in Ghana, Uganda, Malawi and Tanzania and conclude that none achieved greater government accountability (2008, p.240) and three out of four had generally negative results, only in Tanzania were “outcomes perceived more positively” (Crawford & Hartmann, 2008, p.234). These findings are not exactly a glowing endorsement for the decentralization Somaliland is attempting to undertake. Susan Steiner emphasizes the point that “decentralization is a highly complex reform process” requiring comprehensive changes in political, administrative and fiscal structures (as cited in Crawford & Hartmann, 2008, p.235). It is precisely because these changes occurred within an existing government that they prove to be so difficult and often have less than desirable results. In the cases of Somaliland and the lack of functioning government should provide an excellent point of embarkation for an attempt at creating a stable, functioning and decentralized government.

The Somaliland Guurti, or House of Elders, which represents the major clans and ensures balance within the clan system is cited in the Somaliland Constitution as being responsible for “review (of) the legislation passed by the House of Representatives before it is forwarded to the President; and shall have special responsibility for passing laws relating to religion, traditions (culture) and security” (Republic of Somaliland Constitution, 2006, p.21). This places significant power back into the hands of clan elders – members of the Guurti must be 45 years of age or more – who have the experience of the civil war and peacemaking behind them. In 1993, as part of the overall strategy of decentralization of the Somaliland government, the President deferred to the Guurti to assume responsibility for mediating disputes between the government and opposition groups. Walls points out that, “in taking this action, he effectively transferred responsibility for negotiating a transition to civilian government to a traditionally based (and civilian) Guurti” (2009, p.383). The ceding of executive power showed clans that the Somaliland government was not going to be a system similar to previous Somali regimes.

Seth Kaplan (2008, p.144) states, “Somaliland’s evolution shows that states should look inward for their resources and institutional models and adopt political structures and processes that reflect the history, complexity, and particularity of their peoples and environments” also Walls (2009, p.386) asserts, “only moving to issues of future conflict management and governance when issues relating to the past have been dealt with or agreement had been reached” allows for a precedent that creates trust and honesty between negotiating groups. These “pragmatic first-level principles” were the basis for clan negotiations in Somaliland and carried a lot of weight toward establishing peace in Somaliland and ending the civil war there. The approaches are also reflective of “traditional concepts of Somali governance by consultation and consent” (Kaplan, 2008, p.144). Joel Samoff uses Tanzania, as an example of the same kind of first level principles at work in creating a consultative and sensitive government in Africa. Coffee revenue in the Kilimanjaro region is extremely important to the markets in a way which gives the region almost outsized influence in the Tanzanian government. This influence stems from educational advantages resulting from high earnings in the area which “enabled its citizens to assume prominent roles and have substantial influence in the national leadership” (Samoff, 1980, p.13) and enabled the proliferation of values and ideas of development beyond the regions borders.

Clans are the most important element in Somali society that endured repeated attempts at state building in the wake of colonization and independence. “Different types of local polities have emerged in Somalia, but the most common manifestation has been a coalition of clan elders, intellectuals, (and) businesspeople.” (Menkhaus, 2006, p.85) Consequently clans are the logical unit from which to build a bottom up Somali government. “The principle that each clan should take responsibility for the actions of individuals within that clan’s territory similarly represents a pragmatic application of an established principle of responsibility” (Walls, 2009, p.386) which seems to be lacking in modern Somalia due to the failure of the central state and the failure of the international community to build a new one in its place. “The important distinction” according to Bradbury is that state-building in Somaliland has been “rooted in a popular consensus and embedded in society rather than imposed from above” (as cited in Byrne, 2013, p.121). The reliance on traditional societal norms helps to bring legitimacy to the Somaliland government and fosters a sense of ownership of that government among the people through the power of the clans.

Political parties are limited to three by the Somaliland constitution. Some western critics see this as a limiting of the opposition voice and an attempt to centralize the political system in favor of a few clan elites. This is not the case. “Significant political differences encouraged a proliferation of parties to the point where Somalia had more parties per capita than any other democratic country except Israel” in the last multi-party elections in 1969 which were contested by over 60 parties (Ahmed & Green, 1999, p.116). By limiting the number of political parties to three the Somaliland government is adapting to the local realities of Somali politics. Having a three party cap is politically beneficial because it limits the effects of fracturing sub-clan and dia alliances and forces groups to ally themselves in a focused manner. This still allows for dissention against the government, but in a focused way which allows for the development of liberal institutions through political competition. The political parties need to be sensitive to their members in order to be successful. If they are not, the allegiances will shift from one party to another that is more receptive. The number of political parties is roughly reflective of the number of regional clans; in a southern Somalia state-building effort this structure could be mirrored, or even broken into a slightly greater number of parties reflective of a sub-clan structure in order to give greater voice to the population and create a greater sensitivity to local issues and to support a greater base of political needs.


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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  1. i agree. well researched. i hope somaliland will be even more united as thats what we need to be a more successful nation. i wish peace and stability to our brothers sisters of somalia.