Comment & analysis

“Inclusion is a process, not an event”: federalism and inclusion in Somalia

15 June 2020 Abdi Ali and Zahbia Yousuf “Inclusion is a process, not an event”: federalism and inclusion in Somalia

Somalia Programme Adviser, Abdi Ali, and Senior Research Adviser, Zahbia Yousuf, reflect on our new research ‘Clans, consensus and contention: federalism and inclusion in Galmudug, Somalia’. They explore why federalism was adopted, whether it has contributed to more inclusion and its future in Somalia.

Somalia adopted federalism in 2004, with the creation of Federal Member States. What were the driving reasons behind the move to federalism?

Abdi: There was a concern from many communities that they were excluded from previous governments, and that feeling contributed to the collapse of the state in 1991. Centralised governance failed because some were gaining more than others from it and people lost trust in one another. There was a desire for federalism to address the basic concerns of all groups in Somalia, to move towards a system of state formation and power-sharing that involves everyone. But the big question is, is everyone involved? From the outside, you might assume that at the national level, things are more inclusive. But it’s difficult to see the same at the sub-national, federal member state level.

What does inclusion in Somalia mean?

Abdi: This is the big question and where the problem lies. The definition is tricky in Somalia. In our language, we don’t have the word ‘inclusion’. We have an interpretation of the word. There are five main clan groupings at the national level. If you ask people if they are included in political institutions they will look to see whether their clan is present, because the clan is one of the, if not the, most important structures that guides people’s everyday lives. There can be tensions when a different definition of inclusion is perceived as imposed from outside. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything about it. It is important to be aware of exclusion, segregation and separation. One of the positives of federalism is that it’s helping people to accept the starting point of inclusion.

How has federalism allowed for more inclusion in Somalia?

Abdi: I think inclusion is improving. In the region of Galmudug, in central Somalia, which our research focused on, the state was formed by negotiations between eleven clans and sub-clans. If we compare this to previous government systems it is significant that almost all the clans in the area were involved in the state formation process, everyone was around the table. Every clan and sub-clan is represented in the parliament. So you could say that there has been an element of inclusion, and this has had a huge impact on security and the ability to move freely across the region. It has created a safer space for minority clans that previously may have even been afraid to reveal their clan identity for fear of being attacked.

But inclusion is a long process, not an event. Different groups have political positions at district, state and national level but there are some groups including women and minority clans that still face stigma and discrimination. Galmudug, and Somalia as a whole, has a large number of internally displaced people that, despite living in an area for many years, cannot benefit from the same rights or benefits as the so-called natives.

Whenever you hear the word inclusion, there is always an implicit exclusion on the other side – and this might create friction if some reject the share of benefits they have gained.

The report looks at how federalism is being implemented in Somalia and whether it has improved people’s security, access to services and inclusion in politics. What are the main findings?

Zahbia: First, we found that federal member states are being built from the ground up; clans and sub-clans coming together to negotiate the terms of the new states rather than it being imposed by the centre. This is good because it means people accept the new institutions, but it also means nothing is ever decided and needs to be continuously re-negotiated. This creates tensions – between the federal government and the member states, but also within Galmudug between different political factions. In Galmudug we have seen a lot of political instability as a result.

Second, we found that people still rely heavily on their clan for services and security and justice, and federalism’s institutions are also shaped by this. There are cultural tensions between forms of inclusion. Women’s participation in political processes is linked to the clan structure, and there can be resistance to opening up this issue. So it’s important to think about how to approach these issues and how to link with organisations and networks already trying to talk about the challenges of federalism. International NGOs have to create awareness of inclusion, but we have to be careful.

What challenges did you face when doing the research?

Abdi: Talking about federalism is not easy. Many people assumed that we were assessing federalism – whether it is working or not – but we wanted to differentiate this from its effects. We met people who were opposed to federalism and, because of the misunderstanding of what we were researching, they talked about the negative sides of it, rather than its impact on inclusion.

Another challenge was that a lot of research has already been done, and Somalis have been asked a lot of questions. They have reached a point of being suspicious of being asked questions and have reached a state of fatigue. Many people thought that we were advocating for something through our research. As one area of focus was the minority clans, people thought we were advocating for their rights. Navigating these challenges was difficult, but we managed to overcome them by working with researchers from the region, being clear about what we were asking and why, and also ensuring that we tested and validated the findings with participants and the researchers. Despite the current challenges raised by COVID-19, we hope to share the final findings at national level with policymakers and civil society, as well as in Galmudug over the coming months.

What are the future priorities for Somalia’s federalism?

Abdi: People have more or less accepted federalism as the way forward. But the problem is how federalism will be implemented. The main challenge is a lack of understanding and clarity both at the national and sub-national levels about how federalism is meant to work.

Will the possible elections due to take place later this year change anything?

Abdi: It’s good to have elections, but the term ‘elections’ is controversial, because holding elections for elections’ sake – is that the way? Elections have to aim to improve or solve a problem.  There are tensions between the centre and the federal member states. And the elections are becoming a way for the centre to try to impose itself – the more it does, the worse things will become.

Zahbia: This links back to the confusion federalism has created – there is a lack of clarity on the relationships between the government and federal member states, and their different roles and responsibilities under the federal governance structure. The current novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic might give the government a reason to justify delaying elections and lengthening its term of office, which will create a lot of tensions. There is a real fear of more disintegration that could lead to violence.

This blog was produced as part of the Peace Research Partnership, which is a joint three-year research programme spearheaded by Saferworld, Conciliation Resources and International Alert. The full findings from our research in Galmudug, Somalia are available here.

Photo: Electoral officials register a delegate during the electoral process to choose members of the Lower House of the Federal parliament in Cadaado, Somalia. (Credit: AMISOM).