The United States is getting more involved in Somalia, the nation in the Horn of Africa that has been wrestling with violent conflict and political instability for nearly three decades. Since June, the United States has conducted multiple military operations against al-Shabab militants in the country, pledged $126 million in humanitarian assistance, and announced plans to reestablish permanent diplomatic representation in the capital in hopes of helping to stabilize the government.
Somalia’s central government’s failure has continued for years — despite hosting a large African Union peacekeeping force and many international military advisers, and receiving a significant amount of development aid. The nation’s trajectory sharply contrasts with that of Somaliland, a major region of 4 million people that declared its independence from Somalia in 1991. While the rest of the world hasn’t recognized Somaliland as a state, Somalilanders have governed themselves autonomously for decades now. Without significant foreign aid, and through local conferences facilitated by clan elders, Somalilanders rebuilt their leveled capital of Hargeisa and improved access to education, safe drinking water and essential health services. They have even elected their past two presidents through a general vote — something Somalia has yet to accomplish.
Here’s the difference: Somalia’s central government has been propped up by foreign powers with military support and food aid. Somaliland, by contrast, has a decentralized political system that produces leaders who are respected and supported by its citizens. Instead of relying on international charity, Somaliland has relied on revenue generated by remittances and trade.
So what can the United States and the international community learn from Somaliland’s experience?
An imperfect island of stability amid conflict
Somaliland isn’t Switzerland. The latest presidential election has been repeatedly postponed for two years. Citing fears of potential voter fraud and a crippling famine, the electoral commission is projecting this November for the big day. There are growing concerns about corruption, clan-based nepotism and whether minority clans and women can make their voices heard politically.
But when we interviewed two dozen Somaliland leaders in April and May as part of a research project on islands of stability in conflict zones, we came away with a picture of a vibrant polity in which local communities feel invested in the success of the state. According to Haroon Yusuf, director of the Social Research and Development Institute in Hargeisa, Somalilanders have united behind the common goal of establishing a government that is independent from Mogadishu. Somaliland today features all the hallmarks of an aspiring state, with its own currency, courts and coast guard. As a result, Yusuf said, Somalilanders are “happy to invest everything here.”
Somalilanders’ unity and local investment reveal three common fallacies that guide international responses to state collapse.
Fallacy #1: There’s no stability without a strong central state.
Despite a clear pattern of failure, senior U.S. officials and some academics keep aiming to establish a strong central state in Somalia, assuming that only national government institutions and security forces can maintain stability.
But cautiously reinforcing effective subnational authority might be a more promising and efficient approach. Somaliland has benefited from the steady leadership of its own presidents and autonomy from the political infighting in Mogadishu. Somalilanders consider their political representatives in Hargeisa to be legitimate — which is not how Somalis feel about the government in Mogadishu.
A more decentralized political system might help other Somali regions as well.
Fallacy #2: Elder representation and democracy are incompatible.
In societies emerging from conflict, a combination of traditional and democratic governance may provide stability and help more citizens feel included in the political process.
That, at least, is how it’s working in Somaliland, where the parliament combines an elected House of Representatives with a House of Elders known as the Guurti. This ensures that policies are made through negotiations between formal state institutions and the informal clan system.
The system has its challenges. Despite a constitutional term limit of six years, Guurti members have stayed in power since 1997, when a grand conference of the Somaliland communities appointed them. Over the past two decades, this body has become an exclusive club in which membership is inherited. In our interviews, we spoke with leading politicians — including Muse Bihi Abdi, head of the governing Kulmiye party — who said they wished to reform this. The House of Representatives has proposed making the Guurti an elected body. If that happens, traditional authorities could play a meaningful, more accountable role in Somaliland’s political system.
Fallacy #3: Exploring alternative statehood models is dangerous.
Secession is often seen as one of the bad results of state collapse, and much of the international community is strongly biased against changing international borders. But there are many ways to give autonomous entities opportunities to develop without becoming universally recognized independent nations. Consider, for instance, Taiwan and Kosovo. Both lack U.N. membership but are reasonably well integrated in the global economy. Pragmatic alternatives to the full nation-state can sometimes offer a way out of stalemate.
There are limits to de facto statehood. Part of what has worked to keep Somaliland unified and democratizing is that its various clans have been united by their shared hope of international recognition. They’re becoming frustrated, however. “We are stuck,” foreign minister Saad Ali Shire explained to us, emphasizing insufficient access to foreign aid and investment to develop the economy.
With a more secure legal status, whether as an autonomous part of Somalia or as a separate territory, Somaliland could negotiate directly with international financial institutions, gain easier access to trade networks and attract more foreign investors. We found that many Somaliland politicians have quietly accepted this scenario as more realistic than full independence.
“Somaliland has learned to hold its breath … for 27 years,” Edna Adan, Somaliland’s former foreign minister, told us.
That won’t continue forever. If it wants to keep Somaliland out of the trouble engulfing Mogadishu, the United States may wish to offer its people a credible path forward — and encourage its approach of local governance and entrepreneurship across Somalia.
Michael F. Harsch is an assistant professor of practice at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) and a visiting fellow at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation. He is a principal investigator of the project “islands of stability in fragile countries” at NYUAD.
Maximilian M. Meduna is a research associate at New York University Abu Dhabi and a former policy analyst and head of the global trends unit at the International Peace Institute. He conducted the interviews with Somaliland’s political elite in April and May.
Teresa Krug is an international affairs journalist whose work has appeared in the Guardian, Al Jazeera English and Die Zeit.