The conference on Somalia recently convened by David Cameron and attended by delegates from over 40 states has proposed a new strategy to rebuild Somalia. But while it is easy to see why decades of failure have led diplomats to try a new approach, it is unclear whether the switch from a ‘top-down’ model of state building to a ‘bottom-up’ strategy will result in any progress on the ground. I’ve put down some of my thoughts below, but you can also scroll to the end of the article for a free podcast of Professor David Anderson’s lecture to the African Studies Seminar at Oxford University last week, when he discussed recent events in Somalia including the recent Kenyan invasion and the change of strategy put forward in London.
The old plan to rebuild Somalia was based a fairly top-down model in which the idea was to first establish the framework of government (a Transitional Federal Government and a new constitution) and then to ensure its implementation. The plan faced a number of obvious problems. It is very difficult to establish a legitimate government by imposing a political structure from the top down, especially if a number of key actors are not included in the discussions over what the political system should look like. In the absence of widespread legitimacy, establishing the authority of the Transitional Federal Govermment (TFG) was always going to rely on force — but, to borrow the words of Cameron himself, the engagement of the international community has been too ‘sporadic and half-hearted’ for this to be a realistic proposition.
So what is the new plan? Well, first of all it seems to be the end of the road for the TFG, which will now be replaced by a ‘caretaker authority’ which will face exactly the same difficulty in establishing central control as its predecessor . But although it may sound like the new plan is basically the same as the old plan, it is actually very different. This can be seen in the language of the final communique of the conference which does not feature the words constitution, elections, or democracy once. Instead, there is a new focus on what are called ‘local areas of stability’. Apparently there has been an agreement to ‘increase support to build legitimate and peaceful authorities’ and to then use these authorities as the basis to ‘promote local and regional cohesion’. In other words, the new plan to rebuild Somalia is to create a set of functioning local governments that will then be integrated back into a viable centralized state.
It is understandable that diplomats, having failed with top down strategies for so long, have decided to ‘go local’. But there are a number of major problems with the plan. First, it is unclear exactly which ‘legitimate and peaceful authorities’ the communique refers to. In many parts of the country warlords and militias wield greater power than any civilian authority. Organic processes of state formation have been successful in Somaliland and Puntland, which presumably was part of the inspiration for the new approach, but the conditions in these areas were very different to places such as Mogadishu and Kismaayo. Doing deals with ‘local authorities’ in these areas is likely to involve supporting some pretty unsavoury characters. Second, building federalism from the ‘outside in’ (building a state out of a series of pre-existing units, rather than deciding to divide up an existing centralized state to create a devolved system of government) is a very tricky business. There are not many examples of this process occurring in the modern era and in most cases it results in relatively weak central governments. This is because pre-existing authority structures are likely to want to limit the strength of the central government in order to preserve their own power (think of the United States of America and the European Union). This is even more problematic if the ‘local authorities’ are unaccountable and sustain themselves through corrupt or criminal activities.
Finally, there is a question about how ‘local’ the new localism really is. Without becoming too conspiratorial, it appears that the new plan will involve regional actors and the international community working to support local actors to establish political stability and to deliver services. Exactly what this means is not entirely clear at the time of writing. But it seems to imply that regional countries engaged in Somalia will direct their forces (already in the country currently fighting Al-Shabaab) to empower alternative local leaders to establish effective control in their sphere of influence. If this were to come to pass we might see Ethiopia forming partnerships with leaders along its border, and Kenya forming partnerships in its sphere of activity in South-Western Somalia. Such a plan may well prove an attractive proposition for Kenya and Ethiopia: it would enable them to create ‘buffer zones’ to insulate their countries against Al-Shabaab and would improve their chances of benefitting from the natural resources that many suspect lie beneath Somali soil in the future. But would also create a potentially explosive situation by enmeshing regional players within domestic Somali battles, and in a worst case scenario could result in a set of new proxy wars as regional rivals jockey for control of territory and resources against the backdrop of a political vacuum. In other words, it would risk transforming Somalia into the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This is where Professor Anderson’s talk comes in. Kenya invaded Somalia to wage war against Al-Shabaab in October 2011, claiming that it was acting in self-defence following the kidnapping of tourists close to the Somali border. But most experts agree that there is little evidence that Al-Shabaab planned the kidnappings. Which raises the question of why Kenya was quite so keen to get involved in such a risky and expensive battle. Of course, the government were motivated by genuine concerns over sovereignty and the military has been keen to take firmer action to deal with the ‘Somali problem’ for years. But is it also possible that the Kenyan government got wind of the shift from a ‘top-down’ to a ‘bottom-up’ approach? And if so, might the Kenyans calculated that by sending troops into Somalia, portraying themselves as an active ally of the American government in the war of terror, and demarcating a Kenyan sphere of influence within Somali territory, they would be in a far better position to benefit from the new plan to rebuild Somalia? Listen to Prof Anderson’s talk and make up your own mind.
To download the podcast of the talk, click here