Somalia property is situated in the Horn of Africa with a population of some 15 million. They inhabit a territory twice the size of France, approximately a million square kilometers, or 360,000 square miles. Shortly after the Suez Canal opened in 1869, the Somali territory was occupied by four colonial period-Britain, Italy, France and Ethiopia. At the end of the colonial period, the territories then known as Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland joined to form the Republic of Somalia. Thirty years later, in January 1991, its government collapsed and was dismantled, whereupon each of the 60 Somali clans reaffirmed its sovereignty. Clan leaders assumed responsibility for maintaining law and order. It would not be inaccurate to say that private individuals participating in a free market for security services now assure order in Somalia. Several questions arise. How was this market-based political system brought about, what problems arose, what solutions exist, and what has been achieved thus far?
The republic's central government was not abolished by an act of the government itself or through a referendum. It just happened. And it could happen because there was a popular consensus. This consensus started forming 1978, when Somali central government lost its war with neighboring Ethiopia. From the time of that defeat, the people were ready to return to their previous form of governance. Under the former system of government, the clans had provided such laws, judges and police as might be needed to prevent or resolve conflicts. The opportunity to return to clan government arose in 1991, when the people had rid themselves of their dictator. With the government in limbo, the Somali civil and military servants were no longer paid, and since the people in each community regarded them as basically intruders, they fled together with the dictator. Thereupon, the people dismantled all government property. This was done partly in a spirit of opportunism, but partly also as a conscious effort to prevent the re-establishment of a central government.
The transition to a different political system was not easy. As happened in the Soviet Union, bandits, the scrap merchants of Mogadishu took advantage of the temporary lack of authority to commit crimes with impunity. Some former generals and colonels lined up with former politicians and soldiers in an effort to establish central governments on a town-by-town basis. They imposed taxes, and some even established quasi-diplomatic relations with foreign governments and terrorist organizations.
Meanwhile, the clans themselves were faced with numerous problems. In the urban areas, where most modern business is conducted, statutes had replaced customary law. Consequently, the traditional law of the land had not continued developing to meet the requirements of a global economy. The clans moreover, which prior to independence had served mainly to protect the customary law, had now become somewhat transformed into political pressure groups. Many Somalis who had opted out of the customary law system during the heyday of the Republic were unwilling to submit themselves again to the traditional ways. In many places politicians had confiscated land from the clans, and the clans were now repossessing those lands. Foreign reporters as well as Somali intellectuals filled the newspapers with horror stories to support their view that without a central government the nation was doomed, and these stories discouraged people from investing their time, knowledge, money and skills in the Somali economy. As if this were not enough, Muslim fundamentalist wanting to replace the clan system with a theocracy waged occasional small wars to remove perceived obstacles from that path.
Many people thought the Somali government had only broken down and could be repaired. The United Nations, for one, acted on precisely that assumption. It provided food aid, helped repair infrastructure, organized political meetings, trained prospective civil servants, wrote a constitution and sent in an expeditionary force 39,000 soldiers. Several billions of US dollars were spent. But no new government was formed. Other International organizations also tried, and failed. Even purely Somali Initiatives failed. The Grand Bocame conference of 1993, the Grand Borama Conference of 1993 and the Grand Garowe Conference of 1998 each created central governments for a part of the Somali territory, but these mini-governments failed to receive recognition from foreign governments and were largely boycotted and ignored by the local population.
The Rationale for Confederation
The Digil and Mirif clans in the (Southwest) of Somalia established a type of government that was similar to that of the Republic of Somalia in 1960 and also of the Republic of Somaliland in 1993 (Northwest), Ismaamulka Dhulbahante in 1993 (North central) and Puntland (Northeast). All these four local governments experienced a lot of difficulties. A recent report written by 400 Somalis describes these difficulties, which appear to be common to every modern Somali government: a haphazard growth of government offices, bloated staff, multiple layers of taxation, surcharges, scanty public services, widespread nepotism, and corruption. The politicians tell us that they can remedy this situation only if they get more power and more money. But Frank D. Heath, in a lengthy article entitled "Whither Somaliland? The Rationale for Confederation" suggests that not these governments are at fault, but the democratic system on which they base their power.
Democracy is an authoritarian system. Its politicians dispose of awesome powers over the population. They amass these powers by first establishing a standing police force and army and then turning them into a monopoly. Thereafter they monopolize the law-making process and the courts of justice. Invariably, they restrict property rights and freedom of contract. As a result, the people are hampered in their efforts to obtain knowledge and they are made to suffer innumerable misuses of power. In such a society, conflict prevails. If the economy of a democratic nation is robust, the productive people will find enough ways to dodge the politicians and their servants and continue producing wealth, albeit at a slower pace. In a poor country, on the contrary, the economy is fragile. A few misguided government policies are enough to obstruct all economic activity. In such a country, democracy is a sure way to even more poverty. It will achieve little else beyond mutual hate among the people, chaos and the tyranny of the politicians.
In a clan-based society, on the contrary, the people are free to make their own decisions provided they respect the customary law, particularly property rights and freedom of contract. The policing, judicial, and law-making powers of the clans are dispersed among the population. This arrangement takes good care of the people's need for knowledge and it neutralizes their propensity to pursue their self-interest and misuse legal force. As a result, the people are free to produce. In short, the clan system is in principle perfectly geared to foster peace and prosperity.
When democracy is introduced in a clan-based society, the most numerous clans are bound to win the popular elections and to seize and misuse all the powers of government. The other clans will then form a coalition to dethrone the majority clan by force. If they are successful, they can exercise their newly acquired powers only by establishing a dictatorship themselves. This shows that democracy is not a viable system when a population consists of several close-knit ethnic groups such as clans. Some politicians understand this fundamental weakness of democracy and propose to dilute democracy and to mix it with the clan system. One might as well try to mix fire and water because democracy is all monopoly and the clans are all competition. They are each other's opposites. Whoever proposes to establish a mix of democracy and clan in Somalia will achieve nothing but a complete destruction of that society.
The Republic of Somaliland (Northwest), just like Ismaamulka Dhulbahante, Puntland, Southwest and the Republic of Somalia, failed for two major reasons. One is that one cannot mix two incompatible systems, a command society and a free society. The other is that the politicians of these two governments had neither the skills for establishing a free society nor the intention to do. They levied taxes wherever they could and wasted their revenue on salaries for their civil and military servants. They scared off local and foreign investors. They also sought to obtain financial aid from the United Nations and promised in return to refrain from uniting the entire Somali nation. The government that was created a year ago in Arta is suffering from these same defects.
The proper foreign policy of any Somali government should be to pursue a Somali confederation of sovereign clans, taking Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates as a model. This confederation should be based on customary law, not on democratic law.
The Somali nation has always been based on customary law and there is no reason to change that. The Somali customary laws are basically sound and can easily be adapted to the requirements of the present population and the global economy. By letting these laws develop, the Somalis would soon see that independent insurance companies establish themselves in their nation. These companies would relieve the clans of most of their heavy insurance burden. That would take away most of the disadvantages that are presently associated with the clan system.
Many politicians think that the clans are just clusters of families. In reality, a clan is a complex political, legal, economic and social system that has rendered highly valuable services to the Somalis during the past millennium. The clans' customary laws generally respect property rights, without which no wealth can be created. The politicians, in their quest for money and power, seek to abolish the customary laws and institutions. They say that the Somali nation will prosper only by introducing democracy. They ignore that a nation that is divorced from its own political and legal culture cannot prosper. Also, the politicians ignore that Europe and North America became prosperous not because of democracy, but despite democracy.
The Somalis can attract the foreign skills and investment they need for jump-starting their economy by establishing freeports. These are large industrial parks adjacent to seaports and airports that cater in particular to foreign investors. They are excellent environments for stimulating co-operation between foreign and local business people. Such freeports will not be viable, however, in a democratic context. African democracies do not respect property rights. All foreign investors know that.
There is only one way in which the Somali can achieve peace and prosperity and spark off a movement towards establishing a nation-wide government. That is by disregarding the various Somali states and republics and aiming for a confederation of sovereign clans. That is not a policy that will appeal to politicians who favor democracy. Indeed, only the traditional leaders of the Somalis, the sultans and the other elders, have the skills and the authority to lead the Somali nation to a better future. If the participants of the meeting at Garowe, Bocame and Borama realize this, they will see an opportunity for leadership. By establishing a confederation of Horn of Africa clans, they may well set in motion similar movements among the other part of Africa. And ultimately that may enable them to bring about a confederation of Somali clan confederations and Horn of Africa. In the Somali culture, a leader is not someone who exercises force, but someone who sets the right example.
Faisal Ahmed Hassan.
Updated: Nov, 23, 2002
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