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A sympathetic world at first greeted news in late August of successful political negotiations in neighboring Djibouti with pleasure. Judging from news reports, Somalia seemed at last on the path toward national reconciliation and recovery — long overdue after a decade of violence and suffering. But closer examination of the agreements signed at the conference and of the persons chosen to form a parliament and lead a new national government revealed serious flaws that, in the opinion of some, doomed these negotiations to failure. They may even make matters worse: in the present essay, a leading Somalia expert suggests they will surely deepen the political rift between northerners and southerners and could ultimately lead to full-scale fighting. ~ Pub.

LMOST HIDDEN in the chorus of high-pitched voices rejoicing the recent election of a president for Somalia, there are some less promising aspects that have remained outside the media focus. To raise doubts is a little bit like swearing in church; how can anyone seriously be against peace in Somalia? A country whose suffering has prompted so much world-wide distress, generated so much aid, and contributed to an entirely new form of peace-keeping labeled “humanitarian intervention,” surely it’s nothing more than academic hair-splitting to object to the peace believed to be under way. Now that this country that has been without a central government since 1991 finally has set up a parliament in neighbouring Djibouti and that parliament in turn has elected a president, and now that vast numbers of Somalis eagerly await this president’s appointment of his first cabinet — doesn’t this mean that peace has finally come?


The objections do not primarily focus on the extraordinary format of the rise of this yet-to-arrive government. While there are ample reasons to question a “parliament” with so many members living in exile, and while one may wonder what’s in it for Djibouti — a country that has lost valuable parts of its transit trade to a self-proclaimed independent part of Somalia, an independence now challenged by the very conference that Djibouti has initiated and hosted — let’s at least temporarily leave such issues aside.

The more substantial objection is instead that the current process is out of phase with the realities in Somalia. It could perhaps have been a good idea to assemble in Djibouti back in 1991, just after the former regime had been toppled. In fact the major political leaders did precisely that — twice — and they even elected a new president who became the first in a series of rival presidents who have since emerged. Admittedly it’s been a few years now since the last appointment of a president claiming to operate on the national level; but the point is that having someone named for that position is nothing new, and it has not helped to solve anything in the past, just created new rivalries and more instability.

The Somali political landscape

What is the political landscape in which this president is going to operate? It is certainly not a uniform structure merely lacking some key persons whose appointment will end the conflicts and mend the Somali state. On the contrary the conditions created by ten years of statelessness are to a large extent irreversible. Most notably, two large territories of the former Somali republic have formed their own independent states with their own governments, parliaments, and heads of state. The former British colony in the northwest of Somalia declared its secession already in 1991. While political leaders in Somaliland, as it now calls itself, may want to hold a door open for some form of future merger with the rest of the country, the popular support for independence is enormous. Slightly less determined to pursue independence, Somaliland’s eastern neighbour, calling itself the Puntland State of Somalia, was formally launched in 1998 but was preceded by a number of regional administrations. Somaliland and Puntland arguably comprise about a third of the Somali population and both governments have refused to play any role in the Djibouti process. They regard the appointment of a national level government as a direct threat to the stability they have established locally. In the case of Puntland, the Djibouti conference has served as a forum for the internal opposition to the current leadership seeking to apply nationalist rhetoric to their own, very local, power ambitions.

Fragments and stability

It is important to emphasize that Somaliland and Puntland, while perhaps the most stable ones, are not the only regional governments with a de facto control of more or less autonomous areas. It could be argued that the whole country consists of a patchwork of such locally formed polities of various sizes, with varying internal stability and with highly varied life spans. Increasingly, the leadership of these polities is based on local political histories involving commercial elites, militant Islamists, former politicians, traditional leaders, wealthy returnees, and militia and military leaders. While the infamous “war lords” of the early 1990-92s are still around and here and there form part of the local competition for power, the last five or six years have gradually seen their power diluted and their range of influence reduced. In this process, which some have termed the “radical localization” of Somali politics, the goal of restoring a national government has diminished to nearly empty rhetoric, fashionable among some exiled intellectuals and, now and then, forming the theme for internationally sponsored conferences.

The point is that many of these small polities are doing fairly well. Or, more correctly, a good number of people with influence within these polities are doing fairly well. Rampant capitalism reigns, and businessmen are always willing at least to consider exchanging some of their profits for protection of their investments, thus ensuring a small but steady trickle of “taxation” into the hands of “politicians” to allow investments in public services and increased political goodwill. Thus an unholy alliance of business interests and political entrepreneurship forms a kind of centripetal force creating relative stability and a climate that allows the delivery of at least rudimentary social services.

Yet the flip side of the coin is the centrifugal force of the clanship system. The fragmentation of the state has its close parallel (some would say reason) in the fragmentation of clan identities. Clans are really tiny groups of people bound together by obligations to pay blood wealth and other forms of legal compensation. In times of peace such groups merge and large-scale kinship-based clans emerge. In times of war these clans fall apart, sometimes even the blood wealth groups have to split up. For political life this means that trust — one of the most essential aspects of any society — becomes an increasingly scarce commodity. And as clans fragment the social basis for the tiny polities erode, forcing leaders to start all over again, on a smaller scale, a narrower geographical scope, and a diminished social catchment area. This is a good recipe for economic disaster. When a “state” becomes a few blocks in the bombed-out former capital, there is simply nothing left to fight over.

Somaliland and Puntland have been able, for different reasons, to maneuver themselves free from these disastrous developments.

     • In Somaliland, the armed struggle against the Siyad Barre regime from 1982 and onwards formed a point of departure for an impressive process of localized peace conferences that eventually embraced all groups in the former British colony and resulted in the decision to secede. This decision also gained impetus from the first Djibouti conference in 1991, where yet another southerner had been proclaimed president. Somalilanders felt that they had suffered under the patronage of southern rule for 20 years and were not willing to try a new such constellation.

     • The reasons why Puntland has been able to avoid the southern fragmentation has much to do with the fierce battles fought against southern militias back in 1992. These battles (some count them as the bloodiest in the entire Somali civil war) forced the emergence of a series of attempts to establish regional and interregional administrations. The large stream of capital and migrants from the south to Puntland has also given the area a good number of social and economic reasons to stay clear of the muddle in the south.

Recent political history of southern Somalia

The southern part of the country has had a rather different history that has produced a broad set of factors that undermined political loyalties. It was the fierce battles in and around the capital Mogadishu that really marked the beginning of the full-scale civil war. The dispatch of political and economic resources, not least by the UN and other agencies, to Mogadishu unfortunately served to increase the economic basis for fission. The potential spoils on the national level were enormous, but in Mogadishu you could do rather well with much less.

Today the UN and most others have left. The harbor and airport are closed. Most of the essential agricultural resources are far inland. The main export outlets are in Somaliland and Puntland. The only safe way of getting an income is to set up yet another checkpoint, blocking off an even smaller area than before. And so the southern fragmentation continues. It is in that context that a “national conference” comes in so handy. The political culture of Somalia has a built-in shortcut to overcome fragmentation and division: Identify a common external enemy, and you will pull together the many strands of a fragmented polity. As Machiavellian as it may sound in its simplicity, this device formed an essential part of the toolbox that kept Somalia’s overthrown dictator Siyad Barre in power for more than twenty years. So who will play the role of enemy now? The obvious choice throughout the past ten years has been to appeal to “nationalism” and to condemn seccessionist tendencies, in hopes of reviving the nation-state fervor that united Somalis at the time of independence. In that light Somaliland’s secession and Puntland’s autonomy become indigestible disobediences that must be put straight.


The Northern “enemies”

There are few issues in the south that have created the amount of concerted opinion as has the animosity against the secession of Somaliland. Nearly every one of the twenty or so “peace agreements” that southern factions have signed throughout the war starts off with the phrase, “The unity of Somalia is sacred.” The implicit reference to Somaliland (which never took part in any of these conferences) couldn’t be made clearer. That Somaliland’s economy has gradually improved and its politics are admirably stable has not impressed many southerners. With the former capital in ruins, and in a political climate of increasing fission among even tiny fragments, there is at least the common enemy in Somaliland to bemoan. It is as if the declared secession was to blame for all the disasters that the south has suffered. And while Puntland does not officially claim anything else than its willingness to be part of a future federal Somalia, it too is seen as a threat to the reemergence of a united Somali republic.

It is in this context that we should view the Djibouti conference, the parliament and the president it selected. It is in the possibility of confrontation between Puntland/Somaliland and the south that the real threats lie. And to be fair we must allow the thought that Djibouti has not invested in this huge conference out of unselfish interests in bringing about peace in the very distant southern Somalia. Djibouti is a barren desert that survives on generous French aid and the Ethiopian transit trade. Recently France has reduced its support substantially, and a small but increasing share of the Ethiopian trade now goes through Somaliland instead. To make the point very clear, one should also be aware that the part of Somaliland that borders on Djibouti comprises some excellent farming land.

A cargo cult

So what is going to happen? Well, it has already started. The new president has gone to the south where a veritable cargo cult has exploded. Congratulatory telegrams from heads of state all over the world are mixed with local signs of appreciation like awarding the president with gold medals for different sport accomplishments. This is now thought to be the decisive turning point that will reopen all the international checkbooks and ensure that the stream of foreign aid comes back. Of course, nothing of the sort is going to happen, and it is at that point that real danger emerges. When the celebrating crowds in the streets of Mogadishu realize that they’ve been let down once again, some really good strategies will be needed.

Given the backing of Djibouti, it will be tempting for the new president to use the nationalist angle to maintain his momentum. One can foresee a number of different scenarios that all involve some combination of Djibouti’s more obscure interests and those of Somalia’s most recent president in creating for himself and his cabinet a larger polity than that offered by any of the southern fiefdoms. It is probably only by very explicitly targeting the northern secessionists that the southern power base can expand. Put in slightly different words: the road to political success in the fragmented south is to attack the stable north.

A far-fetched conspiracy theory? Maybe. But one must remember that the new president served in vital cabinet positions for Siyad Barre during more than a decade. Djibouti’s president is himself related to others in the same sphere of politicians. And key members of the parliament include people like the former military commander of Siyad Barre.

One must also point out that an “attack” in this case may not necessarily involve military means. There is enough harm to be done in diplomatic and aid circles to cause serious blows to both Puntland and Somaliland. The international offices in and around Somalia offer a number of potential allies for someone willing to shoulder the task of putting a unified Somalia back on the track. The family of Nairobi-based UN organizations involved in Somalia — often internally fragmented in bitter fights over increasingly meager resource flows — have a number of actors willing to put their weight behind a fresh political force in Somalia. Indeed, the most senior UN diplomat, David Stephen, directed the entire Djibouti process, and the UN aid coordinator, Randolph Kent, promptly pledged that the new government (although there was not yet one appointed) was going to have a tremendous impact on the work of aid organizations. It is also an inauspicious sign that the Italian envoy to Somalia hurried to Djibouti to attend a human rights seminar with the newly appointed MPs. If it comes to a point where the UN, the EU, and other organizations have to make a choice between working for something that purportedly could lead to a reunification of Somalia, or to go on working with increasingly minuscule local administrations, the choice will be rather easy.

Disastrous effects

But the aid organizations are not the only international actors involved in Somalia. A number of other African and Arab countries also have vested interests in Somalia or play very high-profile roles in the politics of reinventing the country. Yemen is rumored to have delivered arms to the new government while also attempting to persuade the rival warlords to recognize that government. Libya has given financial support to every actor in the current conflict. Backing both Puntland and southern politicians, Khadaffi seems to have established future friends no matter how it all ends. However, even Khadaffi’s generous recent offers to the rival warlords in Mogadishu were not enough to buy the new president their support. Despite extensive meetings in Tripoli, Hussein Aydiid has simply declared that he recognizes his new rival as another “local leader.”

Postponing the appointments for the cabinet initially served to ward off the growing swarm of critics at home and abroad. The idea was of course to make everyone believe that there eventually would be a position for them. This kept the more serious local opponents calm for a while. But with some of the more famous crooks of the Siyad Barre era now appointed as ministers in the new government, even the more insignificant warlords appear to feel that there is more to lose by joining than by simply resisting. The appointment process itself has created a rift between the president and the parliament (of which some 60 percent bothered to show up in the capital). More seriously, the president has lost the support he initially had in the former famine zone around Baidoa, where the local militia now refuse to allow entry to anyone associated with the Mogadishu government.

Among the many outlandish figures appointed is the prime minister who in 1982 ran off in a private airplane with a good part of the state’s finances in his pockets. The minister of defense is a person who failed to become elected as Puntland’s president two years ago and who was also forced to abdicate from the traditional leadership position he held up to that point. The more serious political observers in Mogadishu, like those of the Dr. Ismail Jumaale Human Rights Centre, have throughout the Djibouti process argued that a truth commission was needed in Somalia and that persons known to have committed war crimes and other criminal offenses should be blocked from participation in the political process.

So will there be peace in Somalia now? The question answers itself. Is it good policy to establish an exiled government whose only chance of success lies in attacking those parts of the country that, through their own efforts, have reached stability? Whose interests are really served by this?

Less then a year ago, the word of the day among the international organizations was the so-called building bloc approach to Somalia. It was widely argued that the only road ahead was for other parts of Somalia to follow the examples set by Somaliland and Puntland. With what first appeared to be a quick-fix solution within reach, those plans were buried. However, the first telltale effects of the Djibouti process are already at hand: Trading in the Mogadishu area has significantly decreased and food prices have surged unexpectedly for the season. Exiled Somalis who normally pay regular visits to the country have canceled their trips. Even more serious are the bands of ex-militiamen who now roam the city center demanding to be employed by the police force the new president has declared he is going to set up.

The short answer to the peace question is no. But unfortunately the more serious issue that observers all over the world now confront is how to limit the damage done in Djibouti. Will the effects of this latest disastrous move simply go away as the name of the new “president” is forgotten in the coming months? That seems unlikely, now that the international stakes have been raised high and a number of bureaucratic careers are deeply invested.



Bernhard Helander, Lecturer in Cultural Anthropology, Uppsala University, Sweden, was the editor of Somalia News Update. He begun research in Somalia in 1982 and served in the early 1990’s in the UN think tank headed by Mohamed Sahnoun. His most recent publications are “The emperor’s new clothes removed”, American Ethnologist, 1998, 25:489-491; “Power and poverty in Southern Somalia” in (Anderson & Broch-Due, eds.) Oxford: James Currey, 1999; “Getting things done in Somalia,” Antropologiska Studier, 2000, 66/67: 128-140.

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