19 May 2007 04:15


  • Title: [SW Country]( Sources - I.M. Lewis ) the New UN Adventures in Somalia 'will not work'
  • Posted by/on:[AAJ][1 Nov 2000]


New UN Adventures in Somalia ' will not work'

I.M. Lewis

Department of Anthropology LSE

5 June 2000


As the UN contemplates its failure to anticipate or intervene effectively in the disastrous war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, its officials are busy revisiting the problems of Somalia from' which UN forces withdrew ignominiously in 1995. With the endorsement of the EU, the USA and Egypt and other Arab states who seem to be footing the bill, Somalia's neighbouring, ethnically related mini-state, Djibouti, is repeating the efforts it made a decade ago to restore peace and national government to Somalia. This is actually the thirteenth international conference with this objective since Somalia fell apart in 1990-91 when General Mohamed Siyad Barre’s tyrannical regime was overthrown by a rancorous collection of rival militias. The leaders of these groups and their successors, despite so many well-intentioned attempts at mediation, have so far failed to produce anything vaguely resembling a viable national government.

The new Djibouti initiative opened in May and appeared to have degenerated into farce by mid June when it was reported that participants from Baidoa, who had decided to withdraw, were prevented from leaving and placed under what amounted to 'conference arrest!. A Puntland delegation, which claimed to have been lured to Djibouti under false pretences, also had difficulty in recovering their passports in order to return home. An outbreak of food-poisoning, about the same time, could hardly be directly blamed on the organisers.

This controversial conference has the novel aim of establishing a UN-recognised government- in-exile (based in Djibouti) to be chosen by some unspecified process by the 'people of Somalia'. Those assembled with generous travel and per diem inducements are claimed by the organisers to represent Somali 'civil society' (a dubious concept in the Somali context where, by traditional definition, all men who are not religious specialists are warriors). The more notorious warlords who terrorise Mogadishu and parts of southern Somalia have largely been excluded, and in an attempt to 'build peace from below, a wide spectrum of delegates has been assembled from Somalia and Somali refugee communities around the world. These include 'intellectuals' ( as Somalis who have been to university tend to style themselves), ‘artists’, and 'traditional' men of religion and women. As it happens, some of the most influential figures gathered in Djibouti are formed ministers, ambassadors and high officials who served the dictator General Siyad and who have since found political asylum in Europe. With the major role played by Siyad's corrupt dictatorship in Somalia's collapse, their credentials for nation-building are not impressive. Moreover, despite the sidelining of the major warlords, other delegates are closely linked to them, and some are currently themselves minor warlords on the make.

In fact, of course, there is no obvious, objective method of deciding who those assembled in Djibouti actually represent. There is also the more fundamental difficulty that representation always tends to be problematic in Somali politics. With the extreme democracy of traditional Somali decision-making, effective agreements have to be made at large local public meetinqs (Shirs') involving all those male family heads concerned. This cannot happen in Djibouti which by definition is outside Somalia.

The most significant absentees are official representatives of the three locally autonomous Somali states which have so far crystallised in the spontaneous process of state-formation that is proceeding virtually unnoticed by the outside world. These are: the self-declared Somaliland Republic, based on the former British Somaliland; the neighbouring Puntland Somali state in the north-east; and finally, in the arable land between the rivers in southern Somalia the Bay region state, which has only recently regained its freedom by repulsing the rampaging armies of the rapacious Mogadishu war-lord Hussein Aideed. These three mini-states (each more populous than Djibouti), which, more closely than other existing Somali unit exemplify 'civil society', oppose the Djibouti initiative on the grounds that it is unrepresentative and threatens their manifest achievements in building popularly supported peace and security. With an enviable degree of relative peace, both Somaliland and Puntland have elected parliaments and presidents and the former which celebrates its tenth anniversary later this year has repeatedly demonstrated that its population, who have bitter memories of repressive rule from Mogadishu, have little desire to repeat the experience.

Since these three small states opposing Djibouti arguably comprise half or more of the total population of the former Somalia Republic, it is hard to see how the Djibouti project can be seen objectively as widely representative of the Somali people. Sceptical Somalis also naturally question the motives of the ex-security chief recently installed as President of Djibouti. This tiny half-Somali, ex-French state is currently in economic and political crisis, not least because it is losing some of its vital Ethiopian transit trade to the booming port of Berbera in Somaliland. Apart from the attractions of making an impact on the wider international stage, cynical Somali observers point to the advantages for Jibuti of hosting a Somalia government-in-exile, which is the eventual conference’s aim, and of handling the juicy flows of aid that would be assumed to follow a successful outcome. In the case of the EU who so strongly support this initiative, another agenda can be detected. The restoration of the Somali national state would open up the possibility of repatriating Somali refugees whom a number of EU members find great difficulty in absorbing economically and politically.

Within Somalia itself, the Jibuti politicking has already heightened tensions and inflamed local conflicts, threatening existing peace agreements and the fragile stability of the three populist civilian states that have so far emerged from the Somali maelstrom. The President of Jibuti is of course a Somali, but the aim of resurrecting Somalia at a stroke and from the top, via a proxy 'government' in Djibouti, is thoroughly Eurocentric and replicates the ethnocentric miscalculations of previous foreign intervention.

The restoration of statehood in Somalia should not be sought by an all-or-nothing approach, or a single grand gesture. The pragmatic way forward, which however protracted offers better prospects of success, is- through local initiatives within Somalia. This requires recognition and encouragement of what has already been achieved in state-formation on the ground (Somaliland, Puntland, and prospectively the Bay region). If the people in these units eventually wish to re-unite with future groups in a composite Somalia that is their business. 

In the meantime, the destructive power of the remaining warlords, which is not as strong as it once was, can be further weakened by strengthening positive developments in these mini-states. This would be a more productive use of UN and EU resources than supporting the bizarre Djibouti project to re-impose national statehood from above at a stroke. Here, as in previous external interventions, these eurocentric preoccupations and interests (especially on the part of Somalia's former colonial authority, Italy) are a major obstacle to the emergence of peace and civil society in Somalia.

Ten years' bitter experience is surely enough to show that such developments will only flow from authentic local initiatives, which respect the extremely de-centralised character of Somali political institutions. The international community needs to learn to take more account of local cultural realities, to be more patient and more flexible. Whether in Sierra Leone, the Congo or elsewhere, this is increasingly the era of the withering away of the state in its classical, eurocentric colonial and post-colonial form, and the rise of new political formations. In Africa, the gradual processes of state-formation follow the same evolutionary principles evident in other parts of the world. It is utopian to imagine that state political organisation can be dropped from UN parachutes.

I.M. Lewis

Department of Anthropology

LSE 5 June 2000


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