Federalisation of Somalia: from “formalising the fragments” to state formation

At the ripe age of 25 years, I take no pride in my admission that I have very limited knowledge about the history of my people and country, Somalia. I have learned that little from my parents’ oral stories passed down the generations and reading few books and articles.

In the vast land of Somalis from Cape Guardafui in the east to the hills of Harar in the west and the Lorian Swamp in the Northern Frontier Distirct (NFD), Somali and foreign observers alike have noted the prominent racial, linguistic, and religious homogeneity of Somali people. Conversely there is undeniable proof, as we have always been portrayed, in the assertion that Somalis are organised in a tribal system and the land of Somalis is parcelled out among various tribes and sub tribes with similar but significantly diverse dialects, literature, history, traditions, indigenous governance structures and way of life.

In his journey through the land of Somalis, the British explorer Richard Burton (1854) reported that while Somali nomads could freely move with their herds within and outside their allotted area in endless search of water and fresh grass, each territory had belonged to a particular tribe or tribes and even with great territorial changes, the land still had borne its respective owner’s names. I. Dracopoli (1914) described the land stretching from Jubba to Northeastern province and its inhabitant tribes with detailed geographic divisions of the land among the tribes. Some of the tribal territories of yesteryears are the “fragments” or cantons of today’s disintegrated nation of Somalia.

This striking endurance of Somali tribal land ownership through the centuries contrasts with the fact that any Somali irrespective of his clan origin could freely move and inhabit in any Somali territory. Somali tribes coexisted, cohabited, cooperated with and trusted each other, intermarried and had established laws and agreements among themselves. They held dear their traditional virtues of honesty, trust, keeping commitments, generosity, bravery, wisdom, provision of safe haven and reciprocity.

In the twilight years of colonialism in Somalia, the colonial rulers hastily initiated the formation of state institutions and political structures similar to their own forms of government in Somali territories. In the days leading to independence, the two biggest Somali political parties, Somali Youth League and Somali National League, were so anti-tribal to the extent that their members stopped asking each other their tribal lineage but asked rather metaphorically “what was your ex?”

The first post-colonial government in the independent Republic of Somalia could not seriously consider revisiting the Somali history, tribes and social organisation as the bases of crafting an indigenous viable Somali government model. Siyad Barre military regime took a different course, consolidated power in the military, declared the creation of a socialist society from the decentralised tribes of Somalia and at one point banned clan loyalty in the country.

Then came the civil war; state failure, anarchy, starvation, extreme poverty, mass migration, extremism, piracy, foreign intervention, etc. Whereas the harrowing physical destructions of the civil war are visible and quantifiable, its insidious immeasurable effects are manifested in the widespread erosion of trust and security among Somali people and exposure of the existing but subdued clannish cleavages and fragmentations. Not only did it unravel the weak, superficial and autocratic unitary system of government in Somalia but took the clock to 1854. For instance within days of the ouster of Siyad Barre, the struggle against the dictator turned into civil war among the tribes and the inhabitants of the capital city, Mogadishu, were forced to flee to the territories of their respective ancestors. For completion, I cannot resist to add that the belligerent, unrelenting and uncompromising nature of Somali people greatly contributed to the prolongation of the civil war.

At the outset of the civil war, Somalia’s leaders excitably kept themselves occupied to find the elusive solution of, to borrow a famous line from late Professor Said Sh. Samatar (AUN), “what could be done to put Humpty Dumpty together again” and overlooked the more pressing need of getting down to the root causes of the civil strife and the long overdue task of revisiting the structural fault lines of Humpty Dumpty. The most logical question at the time could have been “How was Humpty Dumpty put together in the first place?”

It is obvious that the perpetual mistrust among Somali tribes signalled the death knell for the unitary system of government for Somalia. While we all accept the need for genuine reconciliation to restore trust among Somali people through accountability such as the return of unjustly held assets to their lawful owners, the legitimate aspirations of my generation to achieve self government for the first time and undertake practical and apt state formation can be realised through first “formalising the fragments” into federation.

The inexorable march to federalism as practical system of government for Somalia had began long before its adoption in Embaghati reconciliation conference in 2004. Somalia is now slowing progressing towards the completion of the formation of interim administrations for South Central regions, a precursor to full Federal member state status. We tacitly accept the inevitability of the birth of Federal Somalia as shown by a recent survey of 213 in different regions of Somalia conducted by Heritage Institute on Policy Studies in Somalia (2015), suggesting the majority of those surveyed favoured federalism.

The “formalisation of the fragments” is a kind of the thin edge of the wedge, in that it will not only ensure the fragments to retain their role and independence for the provision of local services and stay engaged in the national political, planning and decision making processes but it will also restore the unity and territorial integrity of our country as well.

Today the debate over federalism and unitary systems of government in Somalia is unhealthy obscured by regional and clan loyalty instead of being based on the rational thinking of the benefits and dangers of the two systems.

The opponents of federalism argue that we Somalis are homogenous society and federalism will widen the frictions and divisions among Somali clans. They warn of some impending danger and proclaim that this system will renew clan rivalry and conflict. The supporters of the federalism explain that the country is already fragmented and emphasise the strong mistrust among Somali tribes. They point out that we are composed of tribes, identify ourselves as tribes and reveal that even those who denounce Somali federalism and call it “clan federalism” do so to support their tribes who may lose out in any future Federal Somalia. They believe that the debate about federalism brought to the fore the struggle between those who are fighting to cling to their tribal lands and those who are hell bent on forcefully grabbing the land of other tribes.

The famous Somali proverb “Geeljire geela waa wada jirtaa, waana ka jirtaa” “Camel herders tend (keep watch of) their combined herd together but at the same time every herder separately keeps close watch of his own herd” summarises the united but loose and decentralized nature of Somali society. Furthermore, the ownership of land by tribes is illuminated in the Somali expression “deegaankaagu ma aha meesha aad ku dhalataye, waa meesha aad u dhalatay” “your territory is not the place you were born but the place you hail from (the territory of your tribe)”.

Although I believe in the suitability of the federal system of government to Somali people today as one may expect from someone who has grown up in the federalist breeding ground of the country, I don’t consider myself as a diehard supporter of federal system of government. That said, I have nothing but contempt for the deceitful political leaders who want to disguise their clannish opposition to the federal system in shabby excuses such as “what form of federalism should we take?”
Federations such as Canada, Switzerland, Germany, UEA, Nigeria, India, USA and etc are all distinct nations in terms of their ethnic composition, language, religion and geography and further differ in the extent of the division of power between their levels of government. The Somali leadership should not expect to indolently copy federal structures of other nations but should strive to lead us to chart our own federal model, which can one day be called “the Somali federal model”. They should be concentrating on the discussion of representation, power and resources sharing, state protocols, delineation of boundaries, laws and jurisdictions and most importantly the cooperation between the federal and regional levels of government. They should not queue to debate the definition of “federal system of government” but to decipher and design it in the most suitable way it could be adapted to our special circumstance.

Whatever definition you use from Wheare’s (Keneth C. Wheare; 1946) definition of federal principle as “the method of dividing powers so that the general and regional governments are each, within a sphere, co-ordinate and independent” to the more recent definition by Law (Jude Law; Jul., 2013) as “a multi-state political system in which there is a division of powers between two levels of government of equal status”, you will come to the same conclusion that federalism means sharing of authority of, and cooperation between two levels of government.

Federalism promotes the equality of the two layers of government (Federal and regional) and makes it imperative to obtain the active cooperation of the Federal member states for some subset of the Federal government’s decisions or activities. In order words, Federal government cannot implement certain policy decisions in the Federal member states without their consent, thus forcing the Federal government to first consult the member states and involve and engage with them in planning, policy and decision making.

Federalism favours the investment and development of the regions as reported in the World Bank report that more than half of the total government expenditure is done in the regions in Federal nations like Canada and Switzerland while in central unitary states this level of public expenditure is less than 4 percent.

Today in Somalia, the Federal government and Federal parliament consider themselves as superior in law and status than the governments in the Federal member states. They pass legislations affecting the states without any consultation with them and take advantage of the absence of an adjudicator in the form of constitutional court and any other forms of mediation or oversight.

Older generation Somalis were used to live under a unitary dictatorial regime and tend to view things in hierarchical order where one level of government must be a subordinate to the other, the power coming down from the top to the regions; regional leaders who are only accountable to the central government but isolated from their local communities and power concentrated in the capital city of the country. It is therefore understandable that they feel unsure of this new experiment called “Federalism”.

My generation adamantly want to forge ahead with federalism but we neither want chaotic federalism where each federal member state can unilaterally dictate policies and plans in its territory without the involvement of the Federal government nor federalism where the Federal government can easily disregard the demands and complaints of the Federal member states.

Federalism does not mean rivalry, separatism behaviour or defending entrenched interests by the levels of government. One of the negative narratives that tarnished Federalism of Somalia is “waxna waa wada leenahay waxna waa kala leenahay” meaning “we possess (share) certain things together and possess other things separately”. It is important to tackle this distorted narrative and show that Federalism of Somalia is neither one where each tribe owns something separately and vehemently resists relinquishing power to the central government nor fixed divisions of power, tasks and resources between the central government and federal member states. Our Federalism should be depicted as a sharing of rights and responsibilities fairly, state building, confidence building, intertwined fiscal and political authority, cooperation and safeguarding the unity and territorial integrity of the Somali nation.

The biggest foes of Federalism in developing world, as Wibbels put it, is the enlargement of public sector and macroeconomic instability (Erik Wibbels; 2000). He attributed these challenges not only to a fault in federalism itself but weakness of the democratic institutions, overspending and resistance to reform in developing world.

In conclusion, as we move forward in our “formalisation of the fragments” as “Federal member states” and delineation of their boundaries, negotiations between the Federal government and Federal member states should explore the definition of spheres of autonomy and where the locum of authority lies in any given task.

Agreements on fair representation and resource sharing between the Federal member states and the Federal government will go a long way in restoring trust among Somali people. It would be worthwhile to discuss the exigency of conflict prevention and lay out an Act of Federation or similar legal instrument separate from the Federation laws enshrined in the constitution. Such Act or agreement, signed by all parties, could re-enforce the constitutional mandates and ensure their compliance.

Abdiwahab Diriye
Garowe, Somalia