Does the international community have it all wrong on Somalia?
After 17 years, 14 transitional governments and more than $8 billion in foreign aid, the country is as violent and lawless — and many say hopeless — as ever.
Early this month, a man who had been running an orphanage for 18 years was fatally shot in the head. A few days before that, 20 women sweeping the streets were blown up by a bomb buried in a pile of garbage. No one is safe, and perhaps no place on earth more closely resembles Thomas Hobbes's description of a state of nature in which life is "nasty, brutish and short."
Nothing seems to be able to lift Somalia's curse of anarchy. And part of the problem, a rising number of Western academics and Somali professionals argue, is that the bulk of outside efforts have concentrated on standing up a strong central government, which may be anathema in a country where authority tends to be diffuse and clan-based.
The United Nations and donor countries are plowing millions of dollars into the Transitional Federal Government, an entity essentially created by the United Nations, with the idea of bringing order to Somalia from the top down.
But the transitional government is essentially on life support. Its presence in Mogadishu, the capital, is limited to a few blocks that are constantly shelled. It is unpopular and, by extension, weak. Its leaders are consumed by yet another round of infighting.
President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, a former warlord, is enraged that Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein, a former Red Crescent official, had the gall to try to fire Mogadishu's mayor, another ex-warlord — the "ex" being a term of art because the mayor is widely accused of running an extortion ring.
Ken Menkhaus, a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina who specializes in Somalia, likened the transitional government to an hourglass, with no professional class or civil service at its core. Instead, there are "a whole bunch of ministers at the top, a whole bunch of soldiers at the bottom and nothing in between."
But there may be another answer: going local.
Many Somali intellectuals and Western academics are pushing an alternative form of government that might be better suited to Somalia's fluid, fragmented and decentralized society. The new idea, which is actually an old idea that seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance because of the transitional government's shortcomings, is to rebuild Somalia from the bottom up.
It is called the building block approach. The first blocks would be small governments at the lowest levels, in villages and towns. These would be stacked to form district and regional governments. The last step would be uniting the regional governments in a loose national federation that controlled, say, currency issues and the pirate-infested shoreline, but did not sideline local leaders.
"It's the only way viable," said Ali Doy, a Somali analyst who works closely with the United Nations. "Local government is where the actual governance is. It's more realistic, it's more sustainable and it's more secure."
Technically, the current transitional government is a federal system that is supposed to share power with various regions, but it is unclear, even to the people in the government, what exactly that means.
Somalia has always been a tricky place to rule. On the surface, it seems like one of the most homogeneous countries on the planet: almost all of its estimated seven million to eight million people share the same language, religion, culture and ethnicity. But, in fact, it is one of the most fragmented. In Somalia, it is all about clan.
The Italians and the British colonized separate parts, but their efforts to impose Western laws never really worked. Disputes tended to be resolved by clan elders. Deterrence was key. "Kill me and you will suffer the wrath of my entire clan" — that, to many people, was social order.
The places where the local ways were disturbed the least, like in British-ruled Somaliland, seem to have done better in the long run, with less fighting today than in areas where the Italian colonial administration supplanted the role of traditional elders.
Many Somalis have grown suspicious of a strong central government, especially after the dark years of Major General Mohammed Siad Barre, the dictator who ruled from 1969 to 1991. "The state has never had any legitimacy," said Tobias Hagmann, a Somalia scholar at the University of Zurich.
Clan-based warlords toppled General Siad Barre, then turned on one another. In some places, limited local governments sprouted to fill the authority vacuum. They called themselves "administrations" and provided some services, like resolving property disputes or trying theft suspects in courts based on Islamic and customary Somali law.
By the early 2000s, several of those local courts began to gain strength, and in 2006 they united under an Islamist banner to fight warlords being paid by the Central Intelligence Agency. The Islamic courts won and disarmed and pacified much of south-central Somalia, following their own version of the building block approach. But the United States and Ethiopia considered the Islamic courts a terrorist threat, so the United States helped Ethiopia invade Somalia.
The result today is an ascendant Islamist guerrilla force, a wounded and divided transitional government and an increasingly impatient Ethiopia. Stir in Somalia's war profiteers, including gunrunners and importers of expired baby formula, and the country seems to be a recipe for long-term disaster.
Aid officials say Somalia may be headed toward another famine, with nearly three million people dependent on emergency food aid, 1.5 million displaced, and aid workers being killed. Despite all this, local government has not been stamped out. In one area, a group of Somali-Americans has used its own money to set up a police force and a rudimentary court system based on clan ties.
"You can't start from the top down; that's a waste of energy," said Mohamed Aden, 36, a health care manager from Minnesota who risked his savings — and his life — to set up a local administration in central Somalia.
He explained: "You have to start from the grass roots. People don't trust each other. You start small, and when people see that it's working, they will want to join."
But the building block approach has its challenges. The United Nations tried to encourage representative district councils in the early 1990s, but the warlords in Mogadishu felt threatened and torpedoed the effort.
There are "always going to be spoilers from the center," said Hassan Sheik Mohamud, the dean of a small college in Mogadishu. "Ideally, bottom up is very good for Somalia. But the problem is the warlords. To make any government work, they have to be included, in some way."
There are also bureaucratic realities. Western diplomats, foreign donors and the United Nations prefer to deal with one government, not 26.
"I don't think the transitional government is so effective," said Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the top United Nations envoy for Somalia. "But it's what we have."
6 months ago