Somalia Is Not a State

Most think of Somalia as a single entity, but it needs to be conceptualized in terms of three distinct regions: Somaliland, Puntland and southern Somalia. The first two are functioning states in northern Somalia, whereas the rest of Somalia is an anarchic region allegedly governed by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

The TFG is not actually a government, and the state it purports to govern does not exist. Both are fictions perpetuated by the United Nations and its member states. By doing so, the international community is impeding peace, development and anti-piracy efforts in Somalia.

In the strictly legal sense, the TFG is the internationally recognized government of the Somali state. But by every other measure, the Somali state ceased to exist in 1991, and no government has effectively administered all of Somalia since. The TFG exists only because of financial and military assistance from foreign supporters. It does not have domestic authority or control outside of Mogadishu, and if it tried to assert any claim over Puntland or Somaliland, it would be rebuffed by the established authorities in those states.

Puntland has governed itself as an autonomous region since 1998, but it has not officially broken ties with the rest of Somalia. Somaliland declared independence in 1991 and has since become one of the most robust democracies in Africa. Southern Somalia remains anarchic and stateless.

The TFG has never enjoyed much support among Somalis. Created in 2004 after a peace conference in Mbagathi, Ethiopia, it could not even enter Mogadishu until the Ethiopian invasion of 2006-2007. Backed by the United States, this invasion routed the Shariah-based Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). Before the invasion, the home-grown UIC had defeated warlords and was establishing a rudimentary government. It brought the greatest level of order to southern Somalia since 1991.

After destroying the relatively moderate UIC and implanting the unpopular TFG in Mogadishu, Ethiopian troops went home, leaving the task of supporting the TFG to a few thousand African Union soldiers operating under a UN mandate. Known as AMISOM, this primarily Ugandan contingent has been fighting hardline Islamist militants who emerged from the shattered UIC. The main militant group is familiar to many: al-Shabaab.

Although the TFG’s mandate was set to expire in August 2011, it was recently extended for another year at a UN-sponsored conference in Kampala, Uganda. This was a mistake. Conferences held outside Somalia that attempt to graft a government onto Somali society have failed for 20 years. Instead of embracing and learning from indigenous Somali successes in the north, the international community undermines them by supporting the TFG.

Somaliland and Puntland were created by Somalis through extensive clan-based consultation, incorporating traditional leaders and culminating in local peace conferences. They have achieved levels of peace and stability unknown in the south.

Puntland initially flirted with democracy, but it has moved toward a more authoritarian model. Puntland’s first president was Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed. Though criticized for his strong-arm tactics, he strengthened the state apparatus and helped build institutions. However, he soon became focused on leveraging his position to become the head of the TFG, and Puntland started to languish.

Yusuf led the TFG from 2004 until 2008. He was succeeded by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who had been a prominent leader in the UIC.

Puntland still has a functioning government, but it has not lived up to its early potential. Piracy has flourished in Puntland because of corruption and lawlessness. Had the international community offered institution-building assistance in the early 2000s instead of trying to artificially reconstitute the Somali state, Puntland probably would not be the pirate haven it is today.

Somaliland is a stable democratic state that respects the rule of law (it even has a pirate prison), but its economic growth has been hampered by its lack of international recognition. Investors, aid agencies and Somaliland’s diaspora have been deterred by Somaliland’s ambiguous legal status.

Last year, the Obama administration implemented a “dual-track” approach toward Somalia, engaging both the TFG and the governments in Somaliland and Puntland. This is a good first step, but the TFG should be taken out of the equation as soon as possible. The international community should find a way to combat al-Shabaab without supporting the TFG. Military assistance in southern Somalia should be geared toward providing security while locals are encouraged to build their own government from the ground up.

Meanwhile, Puntland should be given incentives to root out corruption and enhance the rule of law. Assistance should be offered to help build its institutions and professionalize its security apparatus. Whether it declares full independence or someday forms a state with southern Somalia is Puntland’s decision to make.

Somaliland should be recognized as a sovereign state. It is a model of effective self-governance in a chaotic region, serving as bulwark against terrorism and piracy. The politics of international recognition are complicated, but South Sudan shows that they are not insurmountable.

Recognizing the reality on the ground and adjusting our policies would do much to help the Somali people. Continuing to pretend that Somalia is one state governed by the TFG will bring more of the same.


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