Somalia: Why Are We Failing the Failed States?

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An abyss for the lost and stolen, and a refuge for the takers, failed states are characterised as the black holes of the international system. Somalia, the archetypical failed state, is condemned by policy makers who maintain that it incubates terror, breeds crime, facilitates piracy and infects regions; with stereotypical images of pirates in tiny skiffs, or an unyielding insurgent and terrorist campaign from al Shabab,  it is seen as a land ruled by dangerous warlords. Their problems are not just their own but a menace to everyone, or so the story goes.

On the 24th of February world leaders convened in London, in a meeting described by British Prime Minster David Cameron as “the largest and most influential gathering that has ever come together,” to seek a lasting solution to the problem of Somalia. This two-day long conference was aimed at ending the civil strife in the country, which consistently tops the ranks of the Failed State Index, and also enhancing its level of ‘stateness’ in order to curb the international ramifications that this deviant threatens. However, it seems that this conference, in labelling the country as ‘failed’, was labouring under a set of misapprehensions rather than focusing on what is actually affecting Somalia itself.

Contesting the Adjective

Since its inception, the idea has been at the center of a conceptual quagmire, has been critiqued and counter-critiqued, and yet continues to cause a stir.  Despite this, at its most basic definition, state failure is defined in terms of how it deviates from the original Weberian model: a territory with a population and government that is capable of providing essential services to its people and, most crucially, can ensure security. In essence, this conceptualization separates the ‘successful’ or ‘strong’ from the ‘failed’ and ‘weak’.

Devoid of centralized institutional structures, international rhetoric regards these areas as generators of insecurity. This argument has gained much ground since the Bush administration regularly warned of the dangerous and destabilizing effects they may have, including when, in 2006, Condoleezza Rice proclaimed that “Today… the greatest threats to our security are defined more by the dynamics within weak and failing states than by the borders between the strong and aggressive ones”. In fact, frequent international discourse has painted failed states as the “sick patients” of the world with this depiction of maladies continuing with calls for their “resuscitation” lest there is a “cancerous” spread of anarchy.

However, how effective is this adjective and its related implications in helping to curb the problems? Labelling states as such feeds into a creation of a binary that implies a devaluation of one term in favour of the other. Through this, a simple binary of adjective is created which gives states the option of conformity and ‘success’ or deviation and ‘failure’.  As a result, employing the term ‘failed’, while it may be argued that this is simply a factual representation of the condition of stateness, can never be truly neutral.  There is a rejection of anything that is an alternative of the Weberian model. States can only be a success or a failure, without any option of creating a synthesis of old and new governance that deviates from the norm.

Ironically, the notion of failed state does not erode the concept of state at all but enshrines it at the core of policy dimensions.

The characterization of a state as “failed” brings with it the justification for intervention through ‘state-building’ initiatives on the basis that limited state structures promotes unlimited lawlessness. However, blanket terms such as this  cannot appreciate the nuances of each situation and generates a misleading image which accentuates symptoms, rather than the causes. These preconceived notions bring preconceived policies that may oversimplify and distort issues.

Failed state or failed paradigm?

Indeed Somalia, which claims its title as the longest-running area in a state of failure, is a testament to the difficulties associated with understanding these regions.

Following the decline of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, Somalia quickly turned from a state building operation to an international lost cause when 18 U.S. soldiers were killed during a mission in the capital in 1993. Not only did this set the pretext for a reluctance for further engagement in conflict in sub-Saharan Africa (indeed causing a slow and ultimately late engagement with the Rwandan genocide), but it has helped construct an image of total anarchy; a characterization that has remained unchanged since its creation.  Piracy, warlords and terrorism have become synonymous with Somalia and, as such, set the agenda when it comes to state-building engagements.

The Republic of Somalia, formed in 1960, was initially designed to take on the traits of a Western liberal democracy. Despite this, political institutions failed to operate as such due to the network of indigenous institutions that pre-existed the state. The Transitional Federal Court, bourn of the Nairobi Peace Accords in 2004, has been the latest attempt to create a centralized government. However, as it faces internal splits and widespread defections, its future is not bright. As there has been little of a Weberian precursor, there is little incentive to adopt such a system now.

Despite this, it does not inhibit structures that have been saved and created since 1991. Somalia is compiled of a system of clans who adhere to heers, or agreement between clans, and answer to the Guurti, the interclan council which enforces sanctions if agreements are violated. What has resulted is adaptation, rather than deterioration. There have been several manifestations of subnational governance – or self declared administrations such as those in Somaliland and Puntland. Somaliland is most remarkable, having broken away from Somalia in 1991 and built itself  up from a distressed war-torn region into what could be described as the most democratic polity in the Horn of Africa.  There it gives authority simultaneously to clan elders and representatives elected by the public bridging the gap between traditional structures and those advocated by the Liberal North.

On an economic front, despite consistently topping the Failed State Index, it is widely regarded as expanding. With a relatively stable currency, it is also surprising that one should expect a phone call from Somalia to be cheaper and clearer than anywhere else in Africa, as it has a model telecommunications industry.  This is added to a thriving export industry in livestock as well as buoyant Khat industry. In fact, academic Peter Little, having analysed Somalia’s stateless economy and highlighted the diverse array of trades that take place, characterises the Somali economy as one of “a freewheeling, stateless capitalism”.

What is therefore being witnessed, according to academic Ken Menkhaus, is a development that is being driven by the evolving role of coalitions of business groups, traditional authorities, and civic groups in promoting more “organic” forms of public order and rule of law.

Adapting the international

In the wake of the London conference, some Somalis were perturbed about the amount of time that was spent on the issue of piracy. It seems that, despite internal progression, it is difficult for the global community to move beyond stereotypes which it has created through the label of “failure”. Indeed, the EU has just announced a two-year extension on its Operation Atlanta; it’s anti piracy initiative, saying “fighting piracy and its root causes is a priority of our action in the Horn of Africa”.

On July 20th 2011, the UN issued a formal declaration of famine in Somalia. Though it has since been declared as over, there seems to be a misaligned emphasis paid to perceived threats to international security. While exact data and statistics in the country are rare and unreliable, poverty is rife, leading to low life expectancy, high levels of child mortality, poor sanitation facilities and extremely high rates of internal displacement.

It is thus clear that these states are a threat mainly to themselves. At the global level there is a stubborn commitment to the idea of the state and with this comes a fear of the unknown. The international community needs to adapt to this change and allow itself to imagine authority structures beyond Weber. In Somalia this could take the form of a ‘mediated state’ in which the government relies on partnership with a diverse range of local intermediaries and rival sources of authority to provide core functions.  It is in doing this that the global community can move beyond the false stereotypes associated with such states, implement development polices suited to these regions and ultimately stop failing the failed state.

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