Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain will convene a big international meeting on Somalia on Thursday. The tasks: stopping piracy in the Indian Ocean, uprooting terrorism, relieving a famine and ending a civil war. The approach: Western ships, U.S. drones, African soldiers and international money for the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu.
This is all very laudable, except for one thing: It won’t work.
The transitional government, established in 2004, has no credibility, in part because it could not exist without foreign backing. In fact, many Somalis don’t want a central government. Or, to be exact, they are so embittered by their experience of centralized power that they would rather have no government than the type that their African neighbors and the West have designed for them.
The international community’s insistence on establishing a government — almost any government — in Somalia is based on a faulty understanding of what has gone wrong there. Conventional wisdom has it that the collapse of the Somali state in 1991 led to civil war and anarchy, and then to a famine and a failed American intervention (“Black Hawk Down”). After that came piracy, infiltration by Al Qaeda and another famine, this one exacerbated by the hostility of the newly empowered Shabab fundamentalist militia toward Western aid agencies.
While broadly true, this account is incomplete. First forgotten fact: The most vicious and widespread wars in Somalia happened in 1988-90, before the government of President Mohammed Siad Barre collapsed. That regime was not only a vile dictatorship; it also reduced the army to a coalition of mercenary clan militias whose lawlessness and looting subsequently triggered repeated crises. This was easy to overlook, though: Barre had some airplanes, a bank to print money, a seat at the United Nations — and backing from the United States (the Cold War wasn’t over). And so the West failed to recognize that the misdeeds of an abusive central government beholden to foreign interests lay behind the ongoing anarchy, and it has since adopted a strategy that threatens to repeat history.
Second forgotten fact: For quite a lot of Somalia and for quite a lot of the last 20 years, quite a lot of things have worked. Above all the country has a booming private sector, self-regulating and helped by the country’s simple monetary policy (no one can print banknotes). The efficient, informal hawala system of money transfer allows the Somali diaspora to send money home. And Somalis enjoy one of the cheapest and most modern mobile phone networks in Africa, if not the world.
Somali society has functioned for centuries without a state, on the basis of kinship, customary law and Islam. These traditions survive.
The best results of such politics are most visible in the northern half of Somalia, far from the international community’s gaze. There, Somali elders and businessmen have created a functioning democratic state (the Republic of Somaliland) and, next door to it, an effective self-governing region (Puntland). They did this by turning their communities’ dynamic business sectors and traditional values — the clan system and Islam — into forces for stability. Partly because neither Somaliland nor Puntland is internationally recognized, they don’t get official foreign aid or military cooperation. But they’ve done pretty well relying on themselves. In Somaliland, there have been two peaceful changes in government following free and fair elections in 2003 and 2010.
Yet rather than seek a solution in Somalia’s traditions and proven successes, Western policy has favored pursuing direct action against suspected terrorist threats, recreating a central government based on power sharing among the factions and establishing formal state institutions to solidify security — all Sisyphian tasks.
Today, the Transitional Federal Government controls the Somali capital thanks only to African Union soldiers. Although it contains some honest individuals, most of its leaders are corrupt; they scamper around collecting whatever aid or guns are doled out by foreign sponsors. Their reputation isn’t helped by their reliance on the armies of neighboring states — mostly Ethiopia and Kenya — which are widely seen by the Somali people as eager to dominate Somalia. Somalis are contemptuous of this government that can’t even defend itself and that, like Barre, is manipulating international backers to monopolize power.
For the West, Somalia is first and foremost a security problem, and the solution to it is to defeat the terrorists and let the politics follow. This approach has repeatedly backfired, antagonizing and radicalizing Somalis who have turned to Islam as a framework for rebuilding a moral order. Fundamentalists were struggling to gain a foothold in Somalia until foreign military interventions handed them the banner of nationalist resistance.
The simplest way of rooting out suspected backers of terrorism in Somalia is to publish their names. Once fingered, the men can’t hide, or send or receive money. Somalia is an open society with a thriving business class linked to the rest of the world; it’s impossible to be anonymous there. And so better to work with the grain of Somali culture rather than through distrusted foreign intermediaries. Rather than close down hawala companies and force money transfers underground, better to cooperate with them in order to monitor the remittances from the Somali diaspora (as the U.S. government finally seems to be doing).
After 25 years of getting Somalia wrong, there’s no easy way out of the imbroglio today. There have been six fully fledged international peace conferences and 14 other major peace initiatives, as well as four foreign military interventions, and Somalia is no better off. As designed, the meeting in London is fated to be just another one of those failures.
Instead of gathering Somalia’s discredited politicians and promising them more help, Cameron should support what already functions well in Somalia: the vibrant middle class and Somaliland. Britain, and other donors, should empower Somali businessmen with lines of credit and an improved system to regulate money transfers; Somalia needs a chamber of commerce before it needs a cabinet. Somaliland also needs support: investment partnerships and diplomatic recognition.
The international community can help Somalia function, but only if it takes it cues from Somalia’s own successes.
Alex de Waal is executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.
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