Somalia’s 20-Year Experiment in Hybrid Governance.

Later this month, Somalia’s eight-year political transition is scheduled to end with the declaration of a “post-transition” government. Casual observers will be forgiven for assuming such a step signals that, after 21 years of complete state collapse, a functional central government in Somalia is now in place.

The reality is that the post-transition government will be unable to project its authority beyond much of the capital, Mogadishu. Most of the country and parts of the capital itself remain under the de facto control of autonomous strongmen, self-proclaimed regional states, clan militias and the jihadi group al-Shabab. Of these, only al-Shabab has demonstrated any will and capacity to impose basic law and order in its areas of control, but the group is losing ground to multiple armed offensives and is focusing its waning energies on war-fighting, not administration.

What this means is that most local communities in Somalia are, or will soon be, on their own when it comes to basic services associated with the state, including security, law and order, market regulation and other basic common goods. For omalis under the age of 30, which means 73 percent of the total population, informal, local self-governance is about the only political order they have ever known.

What does “governance without government” look like in Somalia, and what role might it play in the country’s ongoing task of state revival?

Governance Without Government

The sudden collapse of the Somali central government in January 1991 was accompanied by uncontrolled, predatory militia violence that produced massive displacement and casualties, and a famine that claimed 240,000 lives. Teenage gunmen terrorized communities, and traditional authorities were unable to control them. Not surprisingly, most observers concluded that Somalia constituted a zone of “Mad Max” anarchy.

But in a relatively short period of time, local communities began to forge informal arrangements to provide some degree of predictability and security for themselves. That they were so quick to do so serves as a reminder of a powerful observation about zones of state failure: In many cases, people and communities are not passive victims in the face of state collapse and criminal violence.

The result was that by 1995, when the ill-fated United Nations peace-enforcement mission left Somalia, a patchwork quilt of local political orders had emerged in neighborhoods, towns and villages across much of the country.

This assortment of local arrangements was hardly ideal — it was fluid, patchy, variable in capacity and legitimacy, chronically contested, vulnerable to armed spoilers and illiberal in the kind of justice it dispensed.

But these local arrangements have endured and evolved over the past 15 years and in some cases have provided local communities with better basic governance than exists in neighboring states.

It is commonly believed that the capacity of Somali communities to reassert some degree of law and order was due to the revival of traditional authority and customary law. It is true that clan elders succeeded in regaining some control over their kinsmen, and that “xeer,” or customary law, remains the principal mechanism for resolving disputes, compensating victims of crime and managing interclan relations. But the rise of informal governance in Somalia was more complex than just a revival of customary law. Clan elders could not have done this on their own.

The assertion of order involved a hybrid coalition of actors with a shared interest in establishing basic security and rule of law. These other actors included professionals, who guided elders through the new and complex problems that customary law could not address; Muslim clerics, who set up local, clan-based Shariah courts as a complement to customary law; women market-vendors groups and other civic organizations that were able to mobilize populations, reach across conflict lines and shame militiamen; aspiring local politicians, who saw opportunities to advance their own ambitions by supporting local governance; and an emerging business class, which underwrote local Shariah courts and police forces in order to provide for themselves a more conducive commercial environment.

Potential spoilers, including armed gangs and militias, were sometimes coopted as deputized local police or protection forces. This was not always possible, but in many instances young gunmen were happy to take up a more respectable, salaried job in a local security unit rather than face the dangers and stigma of operating a militia checkpoint.

In other cases, law and order was established by militia leaders who, in order to advance their economic or political ambitions, saw benefits in recasting themselves as “governors” rather than “colonels.” The crudest of these polities were little more than warlord fiefdoms, a reminder that the legitimacy of informal governance systems can range widely from one location to the next.

The capacity of Somalia’s local polities in the post-1995 period also varied significantly. Some were little more than protection rackets, providing basic security for a fee. Others provided more-robust rule of law and dispute mediation — typically parties to a dispute were afforded the choice of customary or Shariah law, so the two were not seen as rival systems.

Almost everywhere, clan elders were relied upon to manage endemic land disputes and provide a critical role as witnesses to property sales, acting as a guarantor that deeds were legitimate. This was a very important role for the emerging private sector. In a few places, informal governance systems pushed beyond security and rule of law into more advanced governance roles. In several towns, committees of clan elders regulated the allocation of all contracts, employment and rentals that international aid agencies introduced into the area, as a means of ensuring proportional allocation by clan and preventing conflict over resources.

Many towns organized fund-raising and volunteer labor in order to provide a public good that, due to its cost, constituted a “collective action” problem, such as a damaged road or bridge. In other locations, committees of clan elders served as regulatory bodies to determine, for instance, the fair price of electricity sold by a local business group that operated a generator and ran lines to customers’ homes.

Source: World Politics Review

%d bloggers like this: