Somalia’s failed state is not a failed society: many things in Somalia work, including a remarkably effective integration into the global order. In a recent column for the BBC, Mary Harper described a typical day in Dubai harbor, with dhows being loaded with goods for Mogadishu. Merchants said that, after Iran, the second biggest importer of goods from Dubai was Somalia. The Somali business sector has adapted with spectacular effectiveness to the absence of government: the country possesses an exceptionally efficient financial system based on remittances from across the globe, and some of the best telecommunications in Africa. Politically, Somaliland republic—the self-declared independent territory in north-western Somalia–works as well as, or better than, most African states. It has a booming economy and has handled two democratic power changes.

Addressing Somalia’s successes and failures from different vantage points—especially the perspectives of the Somalis–Mary Harper’s Getting Somalia Wrong? is a foreign correspondent’s writing at its best. It is vivid, insightful, and sympathetic. Her book provokes us to ask some fundamental questions about the nature of the Somali polity, and how it relates to the global economy and foreign governments. Let me pose one such question: why does it matter so much to have a government in Mogadishu?

A central government under international tutelage and, where necessary, protection is one of the many things in Somalia that don’t work. For the last 21 years the chief objective of mediators, from Africa, the UN and U.S., has been to establish a conventional national government. There have been six fully-fledged national conferences aiming at a peace agreement among the Somali factions that would lead to the (re-)constitution of a government, and at least six other less ambitious efforts. Albeit with more sensitivity than before, the London Conference in February was the latest such effort, aimed at moving from the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of today to a permanent system of governance.

Another approach has not only failed but accelerated the very processes it aims to curb is foreign military intervention. The biggest ever exercise in “getting Somalia wrong” was the 1992-93 military intervention. It descended into a military humiliation for the U.S., and the tactical mistakes in the “Black Hawk Down” operation have been closely scrutinized. But, almost twenty years on, the strategic errors in the design of the operation have still not been properly analyzed, and the lessons remain largely unlearned. An operation intended to end hunger and anarchy ended up helping to perpetuate both.

Similarly, the 2006 Ethiopian-U.S. intervention is widely recognized as having created an outcome diametrically opposite to its intention—it generated a battle-hardened extremist group affiliated with al Qaida, able to play the Somali nationalist card against foreign invaders. Again, only tactical military lessons seem to have been learned, and unevenly applied by the current African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the supporting operations by Ethiopia, Kenya and the United States.

No serious scholar of Somalia believes that current TFG-AMISOM initiative will achieve the objective of a legitimate and effective government that brings peace to Somalia. Judging by their actions, neither do the TFG leaders themselves, who quite logically treat international sponsorship as a fleeting opportunity to obtain cash and other resources from gullible foreigners.

Why have two signature international approaches to Somalia—installing a central government and military intervention—failed repeatedly? What explains the persistence of the international community in efforts that have so little hope of success?

Perhaps the root of the problem is a simple intellectual failure. This lies in the routine diagnosis of Somalia’s crisis as the absence of a state. In document after document, the UN, African Union and others date the onset of the Somali crisis to January 1991 when the last recognized president, Siad Barre climbed into a tank to flee the encroaching rebels, after which there has been no recognized government. The prescription that follows such diagnosis is, first build the state (almost any state) and then deal with all the governance and development challenges of the country.


History reveals the elementary error of analysis: the country was deep in crisis from the late 1970s, and arguably the most vicious years of the Somali wars were in the 1980s. By 1989, the government ruled little more than Mogadishu. It was the abuse of state power, not the absence of state power, that generated the crisis. Somalis certainly want a state, but not a state that in any way resembles the experience of the 1980s. One reason why national conferences fail is that, as soon as a putative ruler is identified, his rivals fear that he would allocate sovereign rents, and direct the security forces to suppress his rivals. Better no ruler at all than a repeat of dictatorship. And for many Somalis, the downside of an absence of government can be managed with a robust business class and social system—which Somalia possesses. Repeated efforts to create or impose a state are not the beginning of a solution, but are instead a central part of the problem. Meanwhile, Somalia’s political elite has adapted to statelessness, and benefits from the continuing circus of peace conferences and international aid.


What drives this error is a security first strategy. African and western governments manage Somalia primarily as a security threat, with Africa deploying ground forces and Europe and America providing ships and drones, as their principal instrument of diplomacy. The targets are Islamist extremists, pirates and (for Ethiopia) Eritrean proxies, and the foreign powers each have a zero tolerance policy. For these intervening powers, the first function of any Somali governing institutions is to act as the domestic arm of these security interests. They assume that while Somali society and business are hospitable to these threats, a Somali state would be inhospitable. It’s a dubious assumption. But the fatal step in the logic is that a Somali state could achieve legitimacy when its first task is to implement the objectives of foreign powers.

Another instance of getting Somalia wrong.

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