For too many Somalis, the federalism project seems to be a foregone conclusion. The Federal Republic of Somalia was proclaimed almost exactly three years ago and we have had transitional federal governments for years before that. So what is federalism? Why is federalism presented as the only option for Somalia? Who chose federalism for us? I’ve been ruminating on these questions for a while and I shall explore them in this post today.
Looking into the history of state building in Somalia, you will quickly realize that federalism as a concept is not new. In the 1940s, a political party from the current southwest region of Somalia known then as Hizbia Digil and Mirifle (HDM), later Hizbia Dastuur Muustaqil, called for what is similar to federalism. They felt that others had disposed them of their land and that if Somalia were to be independent, they would continue to be sidelined from political power. At its core, federalism involves power being shared by the center and the periphery, the capital and the provinces. Thus, HDM viewed federalism as a way for them to hold power over their own region and to be at the center of decision-making that affected them. It is likely that they were the first Somalis to call for federalism.
Ultimately, federalism was not the system of government chosen for and by Somalis at the time and Somalia went on to have a highly centralized system with power being held in the capital city, Mogadishu. Over time, power became even more centralized with the military dictatorship and was held by only a few people—namely the president and those close to him. This system failed for obvious reasons and, excuse my cursory overview of What Went Wrong in Somalia, the civil war broke out.
During the war, people began to retreat to what they believed to be their ancestral land. This led to what could almost be referred to as the proliferation of clan enclaves, with each group governing their area through force and fighting those deemed to be alien. Somaliland and Puntland formed their own states early while others fought tooth and nail in turf wars until recently.
External actors such as Ethiopia soon realized that what was happening in Somalia could lay the foundation for the beginnings of clan federalism and that this may be in their favor. This idea was associated with terms like “building blocks” or consociation; these two phrases appear in literature about Somali politics as early as the 1990s. While fighting was happening, conferences organized by the international community (see below) were tasked with coming up with a state building outline for Somalia. What would be best for the country considering its political and socioeconomic conditions? As seen from the table below, this question was never raised in Somalia, always abroad, and there was no real public debate among most Somalis on what would be the best form of governance for their country. Admittedly, this could be because of the war that was raging in their country but the point remains that Somalis had little ownership of these processes. This was a precedent that was set in the conferences of the early 1990s and continues to this day. Federalism was chosen for Somalia but most Somalis were not consulted.
When Somalis are consulted by the government or the international community, it is usually only done as a legitimizing exercise. The federalism process is in fact being spearheaded by the federal government and the international community rather than the people. For example, the South West and Jubbaland interim administrations were established under dubious circumstances. Despite now receiving overwhelming support from the federal government and the international community, neither Sharif Hassan nor Ahmed Madoobe were elected to their positions through the will of the people of their regions.
It is painfully ironic that federalism is intended to be a political system where power is distributed more evenly and that it is instead being imposed upon people with little reference to their wishes. In the ideal world, federalism—if that is what Somalis choose for themselves—should be bottom up with groups choosing to come together and transferring power to a federal entity. In fact, this is what is required in the provisional constitution and in the outcome papers of all of these visions and conferences that the government promotes. In reality, this is far from the case. Sadly, Somalia is a post conflict country where there a great deal of unresolved conflict and tension. Clan federalism could easily ignite latent conflicts, as it did in the case of Galdmudug and Puntland. Maybe it is time to think about other forms of political power sharing that do not focus on our differences but rather emphasize our commonalities. Unfortunately, since Somalis were not consulted about federalism in the first place, it is unlikely that we will be allowed to change the course that Somalia is on today.