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Providing for the Public: The electric power business in Somaliland

A collaborative research project University of Hargeisa, Technical University of  (2014-2017)

Across Somalia in the years since 1991, private companies have taken up many functions formerly claimed by the state, sometimes through public-private partnerships with local or municipal governments, at times through cooperation with a range of local elites and at other times through their own initiative. Private hospitals, universities, and schools abound. Electricity is mainly provided by private companies. In some towns, private companies run the water supply systems. What political negotiations and conflicts have accompanied this flow of private capital into service provision?

In my research, I examined the politics of one sector where private companies have filled the void in service provision left by the collapse of the state in 1991: the electric power sector in urban Somaliland and most particularly, in the capital Hargeisa. When people returned to the ruined city of Hargeisa during the early 1990s to try and rebuild their livelihoods, those who had sufficient savings installed diesel generators to light their properties and provide power to their nascent businesses. In response to demand, they distributed extra electricity to relatives, friends and neighbours, creating micro-grids around the city. Power provision soon became a business in its own right for these entrepreneurs: electricity supply companies grew out of construction supply firms, hotels, cafés, telecommunication firms, and fuel stations. Over the next two decades, these companies expanded their grids to provide power to thousands of customers.

These new firms sought to make a profit but were also embedded in local communities and responded to the needs and demands of people around them. Many provided free or discounted lighting for poorer families living around them, as well as free lighting for some streets, police stations, mosques, and health centres. Their history demonstrates not just how private business filled in for the collapsed state – but also how those businesses was affected by and responsive to local context. The limits of the market for electricity were negotiated and contested, and commodification was resisted to a certain extent. Business dynamics – profit-making, competition, and patterns of distribution – were influenced by social relations and the norms arising from these relations

However, Hargeisa in the 1990s and 2000s was not just part of a mosaic of localized governance arrangements: it was a capital city at the centre of a state-building project, a project to unify economic and political space across the newly declared Republic of Somaliland. The private power companies found themselves embedded not just in local neighbourhood communities or even transnational networks of trade and finance tying them to the wider Somali diaspora, but also a project of building a state. This political context affected how they commodified their service, managed competition and legitimized their market share – especially as the Somaliland government attempted to broadcast its power over the market

In the early 2000s, for instance, the Somaliland government launched its own system of power provision, claiming that it was the government’s responsibility to provide affordable power. In response, local electricity companies came together to insist on their right to provide, pointing to the capital they had sunk into reconstructing the infrastructure of their local neighbourhoods. When, more recently in the early 2010s, the Somaliland government embarked upon a project to create a regulatory framework for the electricity sector, companies again asserted their right to provide and demanded protection in exchange for the investments they had made. They argued that although they needed to make a profit to survive, they also made important contributions not just to local neighbourhoods, but to wider society, to the public. Alongside this discourse of public commitment, companies also worked to create larger, merged companies with a stronger claim to provide not just specific neighbourhoods but large swathes of the city.

Power companies’ efforts to protect and expand their market share reveal not just a ‘filling in’ for the state but a highly contested politics of service provision. In seeking to secure their own position in the market, companies have engaged not just with questions of functionality but with questions of social obligation. They have worked to portray themselves not only as profit-making enterprises but also moral entities committed to their local community. As Somaliland’s state-building project has proceeded, companies have also engaged with the language of statehood, contesting the government’s right to provide and calling on it instead to support and protect private business.

The lights of Somaliland’s capital are the product of post-war reconstruction, the growth of a trade and service economy, and a commitment to keep the peace. However, they are also the product of a history of competing efforts to legitimise profit and power – an ongoing struggle that continues to shape the intertwined processes of market-making and state-building in Hargeisa and beyond.

This is a guest post by Emma Lochery, who recently completed her doctoral thesis at the University of Oxford. Her thesis focuses on the politics of electricity provision, market-making and state formation in Somaliland.