19 May 2007 04:15


  • Title: [SW Column] (Issa-Salwe) Somalia's Degenerated Authority: Which Way Out?
  • Posted by/on: [AMJ][Wednsday, October 11, 2000]
  • Opinions expressed in this column are those of the contributors and not necessarily those of SW.


    Somalia’s Degenerated Authority:

    Which Way Out?


      *Abdisalam M. Issa-Salwe 


    March 2000



    1. Introduction 1

    2. Undermining the Traditional Authority.... 1

    2.1 The Breakdown of the Sense of Authority.... 4

    3. The Trend of Decentralisation.................... 6

    4. The Essence For the Regeneration of Authority 6

    4.1 The State 8

    4.2.          State Relations...... 9

    5. What the International Community Can Do.......... 10

    5.1 Awareness of alternative Approach.... 10

    5.2 Other tasks which the international community should undertake for Somalia........ 11

    6. The Contribution of the Somali Diaspora...... 12

    7. Conclusion 13

    8. Reference 14 


    1. Introduction 

    Since the breakdown of the Somali state in early 1991, there have been many efforts by the international community to revitalise the Somali state. Instead they were unsuccessful and, generally, counter-productive. The failure lies, first, in the approach as it aimed at the resuscitation of an externally driven state structure where the local people’s say, contribution and involvement were rarely sought. Second, the memories of the dreadful fratricidal war still linger on in the minds of the Somalis, thus, creating major obstacles to peace. Third, none of previous peace processes were based on the reality of today's Somalia and the background of the tragedy. They were all relying on collaboration with the warlords in the attempt to form a ‘government’ based on power sharing between/among the power-thirsty warlords, rather than on confidence building among the people concerned. Fourth, none of these conferences was based on any well-though-of programme or any clear vision for rebuilding from the rubble of the shattered statehood and country. 

    Is there a way out from the current Somalia’s nightmare? What is the basis for the rehabilitation of a central authority in Somalia? 

    2. Undermining the Traditional Authority 

    In spite of the fact, that Somalia’s nightmare came in focus in this decade, it is believed that it had begun in the closing decade of the nineteenth century. This had not only resulted in the partition of Somali territory, but also had left behind a centralised system of government alien to the Somalis. 

    Traditionally, Somali political authority was spread throughout the community, as there was no centre for political control. Clan leaders dealt with people politically on a face-to-face basis, and were responsible for all affairs concerning the clan and its relations with other clans. They claimed no rights as rulers over their people. The clan-leader had a little executive power. "He presided over the assembly of elders (shir), but did not himself make the decisions" (Ugaaska wuu guddoonshaaye, ma gooyo) (Kapteijns, 1993). Somali egalitarianism is encapsulated in the right of every man to have a say in the communal affairs. After lengthy discussion and analysis of the matter concerned, a decision in the shir is decided by consensus. 

    During the late 1930s to 1960s lineage politics were manipulated to serve the political needs of the colonisers. A new form of hierarchy was introduced, and chiefs, called caaqils, were appointed by the colonial administration to represent and speak for the clan lineages. This process was to undermine the local authority (Sadia, 1994).   

    These subordinate caaqils were used as political representatives of colonial authorities as they were paid a stipend by the colonial administration, and given other concessions. These spokesmen were generally, for obvious reasons of convenience and availability, drawn from the urban areas. Although they were in theory representative of clan local interests, they were not necessarily in touch with grass roots issues; they were 'townies', and more concerned with personal interest (ibid.).   As they were paid by the colonial masters, this undermined the traditional source of authority (Lewis, 1980). It weakened the integrity of the clan, and diminished the caaqil's accountability to the clan. Moreover, groups whose caaqils collaborated with the colonial government were favoured, “in order to tempt other groups to acquiesce under the colonial authority” (Sadia, 1994). Thus, the lineages were politicised by the colonisers for 'divide and rule' purposes, and the system was successful in corroding the local institution of shir (assembly) and traditional leadership (Samatar, 1988). Traditional chiefs thus became marginalized. Such social changes, which saw the shifting of influence from traditional (rural) leaders to a new urban leadership was to have an impact on the modern Somali leadership. 

    Here we see the beginnings of the influence of hitherto unfamiliar modern westernised politics - which was to have far reaching consequences on the later-to-be-constituted Somali state. This imposed an alien system and eroded the power of grassroots communal associations. Harmonising relations and enforcement of peace for “the common good among local groups was replaced by a high public political profile of a socio-economic nature” (Sadia, 1994). 

    The civilian government, which ruled Somalia in 1960s, did not change much of what they had inherited from their colonial predecessors. They gave priority and sometimes paid salaries to the “townie” clan representatives. 

    The centralisation of the system of government following independence brought a new type of leadership. The ability of the traditional assemblies to influence decisions grew steadily weaker and power shifted to leaders who were elected to parliament. These new leaders, living away from the communities who had elected them, were free of the traditional pattern of constraints, and became less and less accountable for their actions.     

    This new political culture created a type of leader who was more concerned with personal power and aggrandisement. Such a person, physically and socially removed from the traditional power base, felt free to operate unchecked by the clan, and this lack of responsibility to his constituents was not compensated for by a more general, though essential, sense of responsibility to society that should accompany public service. This degeneration in standards of responsibility would help pave the way for the subsequent leadership crises during the military era, and in the period of disintegration of the Somali nation state.  

    The military regime, which came to power in 1969, followed a similar policy. In addition to that, it created their clan representatives called nabaddoon and samadoon (peace-seekers). Clan manipulation was also a mark of the regime; the policy became a political instrument whose effect on the Somali public was to build up resentment among other clan groupings. The regime set a two-tier system, one which rewarded some sub-clans for their loyalty to the Kacaanka Barakaysan (the Blessed Revolution), and the other to persecute and repress those sub-clans "for their recalcitrance or reluctance to be enthusiastic about the new order imposed upon them." (Siciid, 1993). To create fear among the social groupings, family members and neighbours were encouraged to spy on each other and report to the Guulwadayaal, the Para-military force established which acted as the regime's watchdog at neighbourhood level (Issa-Salwe, 1996). The song “harkaaga laguu diray” (your shadow is watching you) was meant to intimidate people from drifting from the revolutionary path. 

    After the power vacuum created by the downfall of the military regime, the leadership of so called "warlords" which emerged, changed the course of events into widespread clan-based factional warfare of a primitive feudal nature.

     2.1 The Breakdown of the Sense of Authority 

    After over a century of colonial defamation of Somali traditional authority and culture, followed by a decade of feeble governing by the civilian government, two decades of repressive centralised state control involving the manipulation of clan mentality, the exploitation of traditional rivalry and suppression and collective punishment of any form of rebellion, a destructive instinct was created in society against the fabric of the Somali nationhood. 

    Not only has the Somali state failed to replace the clan with a feeling of security for the individual Somali, but it has also become a threat to his/her being. It was a natural regression therefore for the Somali to go to his/her roots, i.e. the clan, which was eroded by the tides of social change and political exploitation. These phenomena created resentment amongst the Somalis, which turned into an instinct for destruction towards the state and its institutions. The destructiveness was assumed to be derived from "the unbearable feeling of powerlessness, since it aims at the removal of all objects with which the individual has to compare himself" (Fromm, 1980).  Life has an inner dynamism of its own and if it is curbed it decomposes and transforms into energies directed towards destructiveness.  The systematic repression of the last two decades by the dictatorial military regime has thereby accelerated the process of destructiveness in Somali society. Destructive political culture has been introduced into the political thinking of the Somalis, changing the positive cultural values of the nationhood (Afrah, 1994). 

    3. The Trend of Decentralisation 

    The civil war, which ensued after the ousting of the military regime, created a situation that forced people to return to their clan "areas". Once in their safe area, these people began to feel the need for some other essential requirements or services. Thus, these requirements and the underpinning social intercourse could not be possible without a regulating body or institute. It was this need which brought the creation of some administrative bodies in some part/parts of the country. It is this same feeling which has pushed Somalis towards decentralisation 

    Adding to the above reason, there are other motives which strengthens this course: (a) The memory of the dreadful fratricidal war, which is still lingering on in the minds of the Somalis, and (b) the failure of previous peace processes, which advocated the top-down approach, and consequently the centralisation of the Somali state is another. The nightmare, which ensued as result of this, created the loss of confidence by the Somali population in their political leaders. This last influence has awakened in the Somalis the need to take part in the political life of their country. 

    4. The Essence For the Regeneration of Authority  

    What collapsed in Somalia was not only the central authority, but also “the moral fabric of the society” (Issa-Salwe 1996). The change, which was supposed to come with modernity, never happened as they did not get the support to flourish.  

    How can the Somalis’ political drive be achieved? How can the authority be restored?  

    To revive the Somali authority, which would be the source of social and political stability in Somalia, an environment of confidence building must be created. This course of action is related to issues such as (a) relation between state and people,  (c) public institute building, (d) accountability and transparency, (e) rule of law, and (f) separation of powers. 

    A decentralisation mechanism is possible when there is a system based on regional autonomy or state (canton). The principal based on this system is a bottom-up approach, which maintains procedures built from the grass roots. 

    In late 1992, the United Nations sponsored a national reconciliation conference between the Somali warlords which was held in Addis Ababa. In March 1994 of the following year, another one was held in Nairobi. Although peace talks could be considered a welcome breakthrough at that period, the Nairobi peace accord was a complete turnabout from the previous peace process in Addis Ababa. While the former had adopted a grass-roots approach, by creating district councils before setting up the top levels of administration, the latter one advocated the top-bottom approach (Issa-Salwe, 1996). 

    Since the outbreak of the civil war, the Somali nation has been moving towards a radical decentralised state system. This drive is not only the consequence of the civil strife, but also Somalis’ traditional way of life. To meet and achieve this political course, there must be a state based on a federal system of government (see Issa-Salwe, 1997).  

    The stimulation of political attitudes as a basis for political participation is of special importance in a fragmented society. Political socialisation is a continuous and cumulative process of learning.  

    Peoples’ participation in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the Somali nation-state is essential and crucial. To apply a "pure democracy" a system of bottom-up approach must be applied. 

    4.1 The State 

    5.2.2        State Structure: The country is currently divided into 4 or 5 parts which in turn could be transformed into cantons (waax) or mini-states. The current reality presents an opportunity to create a federal state. It is unrealistic to reconstruct Somalia on the old system (a unitary system of government) which was a factor in the creation of the current crisis.

    5.2.3        Separation of Powers: The separation of the three powers of government, namely legislative, executive and judiciary at both levels, i.e. canton/state and national should be clearly defined. Independence of the judiciary is also highly recommended. This may avoid powers falling into one hand which could lead to dictatorship.

    5.2.4        The Executive (Presidential Council): The issue of who will be the president of the country is a thorny issue in the process of the reconciliation of Somalia. Shifting to regional setting and away from who is going to be the president is a solution to current impasse of the Somali crisis. Therefore, a way out of this dilemma is to create a national executive (or national council or presidential collegiate) whose presidency rotates each year and becomes President of the Federation. This collegiate may be composed of elected members from the canton/state (e.g. one person from each canton or waax).

    5.2.5        Assembly: Each autonomous canton/state has to have its own bi-cameral assembly. Chambers must give both the regions and the district electorate the chance to be represented. At the national level (federal), there should be a national assembly which is composed of two chambers: (a) the Chamber of Elders and (b) The Chamber of the Canton/State Council. The main purpose of the bi-cameral pattern is to ensure that the cantons and the lineages or clans are properly represented in the law making "factory" of the nation. On the other hand, it can be helpful in solving regional differences of interest. Regional interests which might object to a central government are to some extent pacified by the knowledge that they are formally represented at the centre. At this stage is it essential to consider the re-emerging powers of the traditional authority, which still has an influence on the Somalis.


     State Relations 

    5.2.6        People’s Participation and Consensus: People’s participation is essential in the process of the revival of authority and nation building in the Somali nation. Recently, new administrations have emerged in Somalia where stable local administrations/states have been established. Some of these are Puntland, Somaliland, etc. These areas have experimented with some local governance based on consensus. These positively adapted ideas should be encouraged, nurtured and applied to the rest of the country.

    5.2.7        Public Institute Building and Rehabilitation of Authority: As mentioned above, one of the main causes of Somalis’ present dilemma is the degeneration of authority. The rehabilitation of authority can come about only with the participation of the people. The aim of this process should be to create an environment of confidence building which can ensure a smooth transformation of the socio-cultural and political norms.

    5.2.8        Accountability and representation: There must be a way for people to choose their representatives in the government. This will give the people an opportunity to supervise and control their representatives. It will also make their leaders accountable for their actions. This practice would also stimulate a positive political culture which could change the destructive instincts which have affected the people in the last two decades and which caused the erosion of the foundations of the Somali nationhood.

    5.2.9        Rule of Law: At all levels, the government should apply the rule of law. The law should be the official principle or order which guides the behaviour of the government.  

    5. What the International Community Can Do 

    The international community’s help to institute building process in the existing local administrations is essential. However, if this help is mismanaged or routed to the wrong hands, not only may it hamper the peace in the country, but also may perpetuate the conflict. In fact, it has been proven that some of the humanitarian aid has been used to fuel the fighting in Somalia. 

    5.1 Awareness of alternative Approach 

    The Djibouti initiative on resolving the Somali crisis proposed by President Guelleh in his historic UN address, last September, is a groundbreaking step of a historical significance. The proposal has shaken the conscience of the international community to their ‘indifference’ to the Somali tragedy.  

    Consciousness of an alternative approach to the Somali crisis is of utmost importance to the Somali case as it is very complex and thorny. Lessons must be learned from previous peace failures because (a) they were not based on the reality of today's Somalia and the background of the tragedy, (b) they were relied on collaboration with the warlords’, in the attempt to form a ‘government’ based on power sharing between the power-thirsty warlords, rather than on confidence building among the people concerned, (c) none of them was based on any pre-prepared programme or any clear vision for rebuilding from the rubble of the shattered statehood and country. 

    The time needed to process such a bold initiative is an important factor in its success. Too short a time for careful planning was an important factor leading to the breakdown of the previous so-called peace processes. 

    As the Djibouti initiative is at the crossroads between proposal and implementation, care must be given to its practicality, as it lies poised between failure and success.


    What should and what should not be done


    Previous conferences


    Process period

    Quick-fix for solution

    Reasonable process time needed; minimum 2-3 or more years; process should not be an end, but a means to an end.

    Local people’s involvement


    Local people’s involvement is essential

    Restoring civil society


    Civil society is essential

    Type of government

    Warlord government

    Establishment of a national operational body in the transitional stage; Representative federal government at later stage;

    State structure

    Unitary system; centralised

    Decentralised; preferable federal based on waaxo  (cantons); waax made of groups of regions.




    Institute building


    Institute is essential to revival of governance.

    Recovery/rehabilitation plan


    Recovery/rehabilitation fund essential, similar to Marshal Plan;


    5.2 Other tasks which the international community should undertake for Somalia. 

    5.2.2         Aid: Help in rehabilitation and reconstruction should be given to any area where there is stable administration or a community willing to help themselves. This helps local administration/community to rehabilitate the local life.

    5.2.3         Local Administration Performance: Help should be conditional on the performance of the respective local administration or community heads. This should influence the local authority to distance itself from being myopic and self-centred.

    5.2.4        Mandate: Dealing with individuals/groups who do not have clear mandate from their given area has frustrated any attempt towards building local administrations/institutes. It has also created the view that NGOs are simply enriching themselves or individuals/groups. This will contradict the charitable purpose NGOs were created for.

    5.2.5        Reconciliation/Compensation Fund: One of the effects of the civil war is the expropriating of properties such as building, farmlands, etc. Some of these properties might have been ruined or their value might have been deteriorated over the years. Likewise, returning these properties to their original owners may be difficult as some of the occupiers may not have anywhere to go or may not go back to their area because of fear of persecution. In addition, for the original owners it is a tormenting experience to have someone, whom he/she has never met before, occupying one’s property. 

    This problem proves to be one of the main obstacles to peace in Somalia. However, to overcome this obstacle, there should be a Reconciliation/Compensation Fund which helps the present occupiers of land to give up the property they are occupying or holding and set up their own properties in different area of the country. Moreover, the Fund should give opportunity to the original owners to get back their original property or to set up their properties in their preferred areas if they wish to do so. 

    6. The Contribution of the Somali Diaspora 

    During the last twenty years, Somalia has been experiencing a brain drain. This began with the advent of the repressive rules of military regimes in the early 1980s. However, with the outbreak of the civil war in 1991 the exodus of the Somali intellectual class reached its peak.  

    To refill the gap in the country, efforts should be given to the development of human resources. However, this process should go concomitantly with the other developments such as that of setting up public institutions or helping communities across the country.  

    6.1 Injecting the Know-how: The Diaspora should return to their respective area and inject their expertise and intellectual prowess to the rehabilitation/reconstruction process in the country.
    6.2 Think-tank: The international community should help to establish an international Somali Diaspora Think-tank. This think-tank could contribute to the reconstruction of the Somali-nation state.


    7. Conclusion 

    Any solution, unless it is based on today’s reality, is prone to fail or possibly to complicate and intensify the conflict. One of the main causes of Somalis’ present dilemma is the degeneration of authority. This began as consequence of the colonial manipulation of the traditional authority followed by the failure of the opportunity to facilitate a smooth transformation of the socio-cultural, political norms and institution. 

    Now there is an opportunity to create structures of governance which balance the various communities throughout Somalia. We must now reject the old centralised rigidities which led to the chaos from which we all suffered. Only a fully federal system which allows the people to govern themselves at the most local level appropriate can give us and our children the promise of a peaceful and prosperous future. 


    8. Reference

     Afrah, Maxamed D.; "The Mirror of Culture: Somali Dissolution Seen Through Oral Expression" in The Somali Challenge: From Catastrophe to Renewal? Ahmed I. Samatar, (ed.), (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1994).

    Fromm,  Erich; The Fear of Freedom, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paule, 1980).

    Issa-Salwe, Abdisalam M.; The Collapse of the Somali State: The Impact of the Colonial Legacy, (London: Haan Associates, 1996).

    ------ “The Welfare State of the Somali Nation: A Possible Solution to the Somali Dilemma”, in Pour Une Culture de la Paix en Somalie, in Mohamed Mohamed-Abdi et Partice Bernard, (eds.), (Paris, Association Européenne des Etudes Somaliennes, 1997).

    ------ “Towards Decentralisation Structures: Puntland Experiment”, April 1999.

     Kapteijns, Lidwien; "Le Verdict de L'Arbre (Go'aanka Geedka): Le Xeer Issa, Etude d'une Democratie Pastorale" by Ali Mouse Iye, Hal-Abuur, Vol.1, No.1, Summer 1993.

    Lewis I. M.; A Modern History of Somalia: Nation and State in the Horn of Africa (London: Longman, 1980).

    ------  Understanding Somalia: A Guide to Somali Culture, History and Social Institutions, (London: Haan Associates, 1993).

    ------ A Pastoral Democracy, (London: Oxford University Press, 1961).

    Sadia Muse Ahmed, "Transformation of Somali Marriage System and Gender Relations: Rhetoric and Realities," MSc dissertation, University of London, 1994.

    Samatar, Ahmed I.; Socialist Somalia: Rhetoric and Reality, (London Zed Books, 1988).

    Siciid Faarah Maxamuud, "Prisoners of Siyadist Culture", Hal-Abuur, Vol.1, No.1, Summer 1993.

    Waterlow, Charlotte; What is Federalism? An Outline of Some Federal Constitutions, (London: A One World Trust Publication, 1994).


     * this working paper was presnted by Abdisalam M. Issa-Salwe, participant of the technical consultative somali peace process symposium.

    For comments on this paper, one can reach Mr. Issa-Salwe at:

    168B Grafton Road

    London NW5 4BA

    Kentish Town

    United Kingdom

    Phone: (44 20) 7813 1105

    E-mail: binsalwe@aol.com


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