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Opinion: Lessons from Somaliland

Reduce Somalia's violence by adopting policies of peaceful Somaliland.

Further, the limited budget might be what has held Somaliland together. In a Center for Global Development working paper, Nicholas Eubank argues that in the absence of foreign aid, Somaliland had to depend on local sources of revenue and thus, it had to consider voices outside the government. Somaliland’s business community has been instrumental in the formation of political institutions; it has lent money to the government, funded the security forces and financed peace conferences.

More than that, it’s possible that Somalilanders have greater trust in their government because it is not the beneficiary of large foreign aid flows. Somalis associate state predation with foreign aid, according to Africa analyst Alex de Waal. When Somaliland’s political institutions were established, preventing a powerful centralized government was very important to the population. As a result, Somaliland has a decentralized governance structure that allows individual districts to retain 10 percent of their customs collection. Districts are also allowed to impose their own taxation.  

Somaliland’s government is still flawed, however. As Human Rights Watch has documented, it is somewhat repressive. Security committees operate outside the formal judicial system and journalists are persecuted.

But Somalia is much worse. The transitional federal government, which is almost completely funded by international donors, has been trying to assert its authority since early 2007, with no signs of permanence. It hasn’t even managed to ensure basic security in Mogadishu. Whether Al Shabaab is growing more powerful is up for debate, but the group has certainly convinced those outside Somalia that it is.

The transitional federal government has not been able to do the same. I recently met a government official from Somalia’s Ministry of Public Works. He was a civil engineer, trained in England, who had returned to Somalia from abroad to take a government position. Was he building any roads, I asked. No, he said. There was no money, and in any case, if he was able to build anything, it would just be bombed. He was on his way to a conference in Kigali about infrastructure development.

Outsiders continue to believe, most likely because of the fear of a more powerful Al Shabaab, that they can influence the messy political situation in Somalia. It’s time to adopt the lessons of Somaliland to Somalia. The formation of political institutions will only work through an iterative process that involves all ethnic groups at the community level. This process should not be funded by the international community. The transitional federal government tried to form a parliament that represented all ethnic groups, and now has an unwieldy and ineffective body of over 500 people. Somaliland shows that the construction of political institutions is a slow process, one that needs local buy-in and most importantly, local funding.

Of course, the threat of Al Shabaab cannot be ignored. In a March report for the Council on Foreign Relations, Bronwyn Bruton recommends that the United States adopt a policy of “constructive disengagement” in Somalia. Such a strategy would focus on limiting Al Shabaab’s influence and containing the flow of money and arms to the organization. Such a policy, in combination with giving Somalis the space they need to muddle toward their own governance structures, is the most pragmatic way forward for the international community.