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Published On: Tue, Aug 11th, 2015

Why it’s difficult to effect political change in Somalia

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By Liban Ahmad

Almost a quarter century ago, Somalia experienced a nationwide political change that turned out to be a false dawn. It is was not an anomaly either in terms of political outcome or continuity compared to the other two major political changes in Somalia: the 1960 union of the North and the South that made Somalia a parliamentary democracy for nine years, and the military coup in October 1969. Civilian leaders replaced foreign colonial rulers but undermined the nascent parliamentary democracy and unwittingly paved the way for a coup d’etat led by the then-Commander of the Somali Army Major General Mohamed Siad Barre, who later reneged on the promise to return to barracks and introduced a brutal, 21-year military dictatorship.

Opposition groups overthrew the military regime in 1991, but did not establish a unity government, permitting state collapse to fill the void.

Unlike Somalia’s founding fathers from the North and South in 1960 or the group of military officers who took advantage of public disillusionment with squabbling parliamentarians to overthrow an elected civilian, armed rebel groups did not share unity and governance objectives, beyond toppling the military dictatorship.

If Somali political elites do not begin to share common political goals for state-building, the country will continue to disintegrate  into clan-ruled fiefdoms

But the situation is not as hopeless as it sounds. The debate in Somalia is less about who should be president in Somalia; it is about which political system suits this country best. The history of Somali state for the first three decades of the nation-state (1960-1991) suggests leaders concentrated socio-economic development in Mogadishu and some surrounding southern regions near the capital. Regions on the periphery did not only experience underdevelopment under the civilian and military regimes but people in those regions were at the receiving end of political repression by the military regime through the army and the dreaded security services (nabadsugidda and hangash).

This is why the former United Somali Congress (USC) leaders in Mogadishu disbanded the Somali army in 1991 to rely on clan militias to expand its writ in southern Somalia. In addition, this is why Somalia has armed militias for major clans who could defy badly planned integration efforts due to the Somali political elites’ conflicting political goals.

In 2012 Somali political leaders agreed to end the transitional period and to form a permanent government.

The Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) came to office with the perspective that building on existing institutions and political capital was not as worthy of government attention as the desire to “begin from scratch”, formulated by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in his Six Pillar Policy.

The “begin from scratch” idea suits some regions in the south as it reflects a bias towards centralization, although the FGS had inherited institutional inadequacies of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

Will Somalis adopt a system that concentrates power in hands of a group of leaders at the centre or will they adopt a system that prevents the central government from squandering hard-won achievements of regional administrations?

Agreeing on either system will lead to a political change in Somalia but the ultimate question is: which political change will ensure that Somalis can live with each either and with their neighbours peacefully? In an atmosphere of pervasive inter-clan mistrust, a political system least susceptible to misuse by a major clan or an alliance of clans is appropriate for state building.

It is not only the  dictatorial regime’s record that should be taken into account to answer questions about state building; the brazen attempt by former opposition groups, under different guises, to impose mono-clan rule on other clans should be factored in as well. And perhaps, this is the main reason why it is difficult to effect nationwide political change in Somalia.

Liban Ahmad


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