In this posting, I sketch an approach for understanding Somalia, based on the framework of the “rentier political marketplace,” which is a political-economic analysis structured around the dynamics of bargaining over rental resources by intermediate elites, both inside and outside the state. I outline how this may also help in understanding patterns of violence over the last thirty years.

My main argument is that the Somali state, along with a number of other countries in Africa and the greater Middle East, underwent a profound structural transformation in the 1980s, and that we have been living with the under-recognized consequences ever since. At the time, this change had two particularly striking features. One was economic crisis, which meant that—in the words of Bob Bates—meant that “things fell apart.” The levels of finance available to governments meant that they simply could not sustain the basic functions of government, let alone build institutional states. The second was the beginning of the end of the Cold War, which meant that—as David Laitin observed—that the coup maker could not count on automatic security backing from one or other superpower. Common to both of these changes was a sharp reduction in the discretionary budgets that rulers used to pay their armies and security services and to pay off intermediate elites. I suggest that this (unmeasured) collapse in the “political budget” (the term is Sudanese political vernacular) was the cause of state crisis in many African countries, of which Somalia was an extreme and illuminating case.

The cashflow to the political budget is the heartbeat of a rentier patronage state. It is this top-down flow of resources, managed by the ruler in accordance with a political-business plan, that determines regime survival or otherwise. Moreover, under a patronage-based regime, the army is not a rule-bound institution loyal only to the state, but rather a patrimonial hierarchy in which orders are not dutifully enforced, but are negotiated. In the 1980s, Somalia was a security rentier state, and because guns were more plentiful than cash, Mohamed Siyad Barre’s business plan leaned more to using violence than financial incentives.

The classic Tillyean model for European statebuilding consists of a ruler, who controls (most of) the means of violence bargaining with agrarian and commercial elites who control (most of) the resources. In Africa’s rentier systems—a characteristic accentuated as the continent began its economic recovery, initially imperceptibly, in the 1990s and 2000s—the ruler commands most of the resources. Also, as provincial elites (tribal leaders, militia and rebel commanders) often control extensive armaments, and as national armies and security services are themselves fragmented with a high degree of command and financial autonomy at lower levels, the ruler does not possess anything close to a monopoly of control over the means of violence. This stands the Tillyean model on its head. Rather than the state as a protection racket, negotiating the terms of taxation, governance became an extortion racket, with armed intermediate elites bargaining for a share of the rents, and commonly using violence as a tool of bargaining.

The “Rentier Political Marketplace”

The rentier political marketplace is an organizing principle to describe and explain how political power functions in these orders. This is specified by four main characteristics.

First, the ruler enjoys and disposes sufficient income from rents that he is the principal economic actor. Some rents derive from facto control of resources and territory, but most accrue to him by virtue of sovereignty. The main forms of rent are from minerals, aid, security cooperation with foreign powers, sovereign privileges, and criminal activities. All the forms of rent mentioned escape, at least partially, formal regulation: they all have discretionary political budgets. Aid is the most regulated, security much less so, and criminal rents of course escape any regulation.

Second, the ruler does not have a monopoly over the machinery of war-making or coercion within the national territory. He has to bargain with rebels, with armed formations in society, and with his own army commanders and security chiefs. As a political tool, violence is cheap and therefore attractive. But in a situation without guaranteed loyalty, violence is also dangerous.

Third, the country is integrated into the global financial, institutional and technological order, on generally subordinate terms, but is in a position to exploit sufficient niches in that global order to establish a viable political order. The states in question are on the margins of Europe, the Gulf and Asia, and are in some respects an outer periphery of these regions.

Lastly, this system is characterized by ongoing political bargaining over allegiances at both national and international levels. Earlier international political orders were determined by imperial orders and the Cold War, and were relatively slow-moving. In the current system, complexity, mobility and facility of communication mean that subordinate actors have the opportunity for negotiating the terms on which they engage with patrons and paymasters. While earlier inter-state systems were anarchic in the limited sense that major sovereign nation-states were ready and willing to violate supposed norms of international conduct when it suited them, the current system has a profusion of regulation but also a shadow order of unregulated bargaining within an internationalized patronage system.

The results of this bargaining are fluid and generate perpetual instability. I call this “turbulence,” in the sense (borrowed from fluid dynamics) that it is a system that changes in an unpredictable manner over short periods of time, but which remains structurally constant over long periods. Thus, the politics of these countries changes from week to week (recurrently encouraging the diplomatic ingénue) but look much the same a decade on.

Somalia in the Late 1980s and Early 1990s

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, I suggest that Somalia represented an interesting variant of this model. The element of particular relevance was the expectation among the political elites that some form of security rentier state was the norm and would be re-established in due course.

The main challenges to Mohamed Siyad Barre arose either from within the army, or from former army officers wanting to replace him as dictator. This began with the SSDF, and continued with the SNM (whose very name is revealing, mirroring so closely the SNA), the USC-Aidid and the SPM. Especially in the aftermath of the 1988 war in the north-west, both the army and the opposition came to resemble clans in arms. The militarization of politics and the growth of clan-based organization went hand in hand. The driving factor in this was, I suggest, the organizational and financial difficulties faced by those trying to fight the war, on both sides. Not only was clan-based mobilization, alongside the often-linked strategy of divide-and-rule, an easier route than the arduous tasks of sustaining a professional national army or a building politicized and disciplined people’s army, but once one faction had taken the clan route, those who did not follow would have been at immediate military disadvantage.

Although the military dynamics were more pronounced, the financial stratagems of the Siyad regime demand scrutiny. As the challenges multiplied, the rulers looted the state, both for personal enrichment anticipating future exile, and also to pay for a patronage-based war machine. The cheapest way to pay a militia is in kind, giving its leaders and foot-soldiers a license to loot.

I further suggest—and here I have a different emphasis to Lidwien Kapteijns—that these same organizational imperatives were the driving factor in General Aidid’s use of clan, pillage and violence against civilians in his dash for power in January 1991. Aidid was, I believe, a putchist and he was thwarted when the Saleban militia, allied to Ali Mahdi, seized control of Radio Mogadishu before his forces got there. He was ruthless in using clan identities as an instrument for building a power base and trying to destroy the power base of others, in doing so fuelling a Darood-Hawiye divide that had disastrous repercussions for ordinary residents of Mogadishu and beyond. He licensed his fighters to loot, pillage, rape and kill, with particularly damaging consequences in the context of mobilizing clan identities and demonizing the Darood. The key incidents in 1991-92 that led to the worst fighting in the city were all associated with the two rival USC leaders’ respective attempts to claim key symbols of sovereignty and the associated powers. Clan-based mobilization reached new heights.

However, in a political marketplace system, as was emerging in Somalia at that time, the instrumental calculations of political entrepreneurs trump any ideological or ethnic allegiances. Thus, despite the horrific episodes “clan cleansing” of the years 1988-92, reaching depths in 1991, coalitions were regularly reshuffled during and after these years. After Aidid’s failure to take power in January 1991, and his subsequent failure to dislodge Ali Mahdi in November that year, the focus of political contestation shifted from state power to control over ports, airports and riverine farmland, and political alignments were reconfigured in accordance with circumstance. Many clan militia leaders switched sides, some of them several times. The U.S. Operation Restore Hope and the subsequent UNOSOM II recentralized politics, briefly reviving the dream of a centralized state with generous international support.

Somalia Since the mid-1990s

After the collapse of the U.S.-U.N. intervention in 1993-94, even without a state, the concept of a state and the mechanisms for state-based rent still cast a deep shadow over Somali politics. The same rents that have sustained other “political marketplace” states such as Chad, Sudan and Yemen, are also present in Somalia—rents for security cooperation with the U.S. and neighboring states, criminal rents, aid rents and some (reduced) sovereign rents, in this case mostly associated with participation in international negotiations.

What explains Somaliland? I suggest that its economics dictated cooperation more than competition among both the business and political elite. The key elements included the much smaller anticipated state rents and the structure of the livestock export trade, which was the main source of finance for the regime at its critical moment of establishment in 1993, and the speed and comprehensiveness with which the SNM had fragmented over the previous two years. This made for an unusually benign elite bargain in 1993. However, what has resulted is not a traditional polity or a democracy, but rather a well-regulated political marketplace that allows for the production of limited public goods. Somaliland is prone to the same pressures as its neighbors, and is just as likely to succumb to the logic of rentierism and armed bargaining over the price of loyalty, as it is to develop a mature institutionalized democracy.

In southern Somalia, I suggest, the major change over the last twenty years has been the gradual intensification of Somalia’s integration into African and global economic, political and security orders. Somalia’s patronage networks are now thoroughly regionalized and globalized.

In the mid-2000s the Mogadishu merchants recognized the necessity of collaboration across factional lines. This was facilitated by the growth in the commercial sector, though important issues of urban and rural land ownership remained unresolved from fifteen years earlier. Another factor was the apparently-final collapse of the rentier-security order associated with the factional leaders of the Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, aligned with Kenya, Ethiopia and the U.S., who had so outraged ordinary citizens that it was not difficult to mobilize public opinion against them. In contrast to the Taliban in Afghanistan, with whom they were sometimes compared, the UIC’s economic base was an international trading and financial system. However, rather than utilizing Somalia’s societal and economic globalization as a starting point for engagement, the regional and international response was driven by security concerns—Ethiopia’s paranoia over the presence of Eritrean elements and the U.S.’s militarized counter-terrorism strategy.

The African-international coalition against al Shabaab and its dependent Federal Government has led to a rentier marketplace regime in Somalia. Governance in Somalia is now thoroughly internationalized. Security is provided by troops from African nations backed by the U.S. The state is mostly funded by European and Middle Eastern donors. Services are provided by international NGOs. The legitimacy of the government with its international sponsors is little more than its readiness to comply with foreign demands in these areas: it is a latter day form of indirect rule. Among some Somalis, similarly, state legitimacy is bound up with its role in facilitating international service provision. But the patrons do not hold all the cards: Somali leaders can dupe them, obstruct them and prevaricate, or play them off against one other. The idea that a state suspended in this way, perpetually bargaining at all levels, will create public goods including institutions, development and the rule of law, is fanciful. But if such a governance regime is indeed the future for Somalia, we should study in carefully so as to understand how it can, at least, do the minimum of harm to the prospects for Somalis.

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One Response to Somalia: The Logic of a Rentier Political Marketplace?

  1. Bashir Yusuf says:

    An interesting analysis of politics in Somalia.

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