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Federalisation in Somalia: It takes strong bricks to build a state

14 June 2016 - Joanne Crouch

Taking into account political violence, the formation of Federal Member States in Somalia has made clear progress on governance reform. Joanne Crouch asks whether this could prove a model for a bottom-up approach to statebuilding?

Since the creation of the Federal Government of Somalia in 2012, the country has embarked upon an ambitious agenda of stabilisation, transition to a devolved constitutional system of democratic governance and formation of Federal Member States (FMS). When Saferworld’s research into federal state formation in Somalia was conceived in 2013, the process of federalisation was still vague and its subsequent impact uncertain. The announcement of Jubaland as a new FMS in 2013 precipitated political violence resulting in the deaths of 71 people, and in turn, deep questions as to whether this new political process could create the stability that Somalis desired and meet their governance and reconciliation needs in the long term.

Too often the aspirations and needs of the Somali people have been subordinated to the pursuit of stabilisation through elite driven political interventions. After 2012, many in Somalia feared that the federal statebuilding project would be another hugely expensive enterprise that would, like past political processes, achieve minimal successes at best. At worst, others predicted it would lead to renewed violence, deepening the fractures in an already divided Somali society. In addition, the process of creating new governance structures offered new opportunities to fatten the pockets of political elites who could reap the spoils of an unregulated and ungoverned economy.

Both Somalia and the international community hailed the progress made after 2012 at the national level in Mogadishu, and that a civilian from a civil society background, Hassan Sheikh Mohamed, had been appointed president. Some international community members went so far as to claim that Somalia was no longer a failed state (Catherine Ashton EU) with others, such as the US, committing to recognizing, for the first time in two decades, the Somali government. In October 2013, Vision 2016 was announced, a five point action plan that outlined the goals of completing the constitution, creating federal member states and holding democratic one-man-one-vote parliamentary elections in 2016.

Clear progress has been made on at least one of those goals—the creation of federal member states. For instance, Jubaland had formalised itself, with a Parliament and cabinet that was inclusive of a broad spectrum of clans in the region. In addition, a Saferworld-supported survey found that the population of Jubaland is highly supportive of federal state creation: 90% of those surveyed (961 participants) were in favour of it, and in addition, many of those surveyed had seen direct benefits from this process. Participants noted improvements in everything from education to health, but most impressively, they pointed to better security and attributed this to the Jubaland Administration.

Despite the deep political divisions that precipitated violence in the aftermath of Jubaland’s birth, and that have persisted throughout political negotiations around clan inclusion, representation and power-sharing, leaders within the Jubaland administration have continued to make efforts to negotiate with their political opponents. Although imperfect - there have been clear instances of political repression by the Jubaland administration - solutions were found. Whilst governance challenges persist, the research found that inroads are being made, especially around instigating police and security sector reform, public financial management and a level of community consultation ahead of political appointments. Additionally, Jubaland has already shifted to a district-based parliamentary appointment mechanism that strengthens the state-society link and representation of constituents on the basis of geography as opposed to clan.

Meanwhile, other FMS are also making notable progress toward effective governance. Puntland proactively embarked upon democratisation with the appointment earlier this year of the Transitional Puntland Electoral Commission, and it is learning lessons from its failed 2013 attempt at elections. Additional FMS administrations are steadily improving in Galmudug and South-West. All of these achievements should be commended. However, it is the juxtaposition of such progress against that of the Federal Government that is most notable.

The objectives articulated in Vision 2016 are largely unachieved. The constitutional review process has been long-delayed and is now stalled amidst a political impasse over how best to complete it. The 2016 parliamentary transition, originally intended to be Somalia’s first democratic election since the 1960s, looks increasingly likely to be postponed and has reverted back to a clan selection mechanism using the much-maligned 4.5 clan power-sharing[1] formula in lieu of a feasible alternative. Though the international community, notably the UN, is working with the Federal Government to lay early foundations for democratic elections in 2020, the reality is that early optimism for a shift in Somali politics towards more democratic ideals has turned to resignation that the clan, at least in the immediacy, will continue to be the primary vehicle for national political representation in Somalia.

Comparing the political advances being made at the FMS level, in terms of security, policing and governance, with the lack of progress at the Mogadishu level, raises  the question as to whether sustaining heavy investment into Mogadishu and national politics is the most appropriate means of achieving political stability and cohesion.

Somalis have long demanded to re-build from the bottom up, yet they still aspire for national unity. A common perspective from interviewees during Saferworld’s Jubaland research was that federalisation was a transitory step towards unification: For Somalia to reconcile and come back together as a singular cohesive nation, federalisation was essential. The federal government in Mogadishu has so far been unable to drive forward constitutional and political reforms that can successfully meet the democratisation and statebuilding aspirations of society, while at the same time the FMS have achieved early successes in building stability, governance and a semblance of community participation in the appointment of representatives.

Given this dynamic, it may be time to move away from statebuilding approaches that start from the top in Mogadishu, and to re-orientate toward building federal member states from the bottom that can ultimately come together into a coherent national whole. Somalia’s fragmentation has long been viewed as a conflict between the centre and the periphery; however, if the periphery is moving forward more effectively than the centre,  the most fruitful investment into state building in Somalia in the near term, may be to help mould the FMS into the best bricks with which to build the Somali state.

[1] The 4.5 formula for sharing power distributes political representation amongst Somali clans. It distributes seats in a way such that the 4 major clans, Dir, Digil-Mirifle, Darood and Hawiye proportionally receive one seat each, whilst the marginalised clans collectively receive .5 of a seat. For example if there were 18 seats in parliament, the four major clans would receive 4 seats each with the marginalised clans receiving 2.

Joanne Crouch is Manager of Saferworld's Non-State Actors Project in Somalia and Somaliland.

To read more about Saferworld’s research into the federalization process, see Forging Jubaland: Community perspectives on federalism, governance and reconciliation.

Find out more about our work in Somalia/Somaliland.

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It may be time to move away from statebuilding approaches that start from the top in Mogadishu, and to re-orientate toward building federal member states from the bottom that can ultimately come together into a coherent national whole.

Joanne Crouch