Why ideas about ‘governance’ matter

When the government of Somalia collapsed in 1991, it reflected widespread popular discontent with the autocratic, militaristic and increasingly corrupt regime of Said-Barre, who had run the country since a coup in the late 1960s. It did not necessarily mean that ‘governance’ collapsed. It is important to understand this distinction, especially as the ‘Arab spring’ unfolds.

The international community equated ‘governance’ and ‘government’ and thus saw a vacuum that it has spent billions trying to fill since 1991, with little success. But there is another view – that in fact, Somalis chose to ‘radically localize’ governance in order to achieve more effective government – an expression of democratic action from the bottom up. Different strategic international choices grow from each one, and these choices can lead to long-lasting results that influence the lives of millions of ordinary people.

State governments are a comparatively recent phenomenon, resulting from the need to raise taxes and organize and fund armies. For much of current western history, states regularly ‘failed’, and were replaced by something else, because some part of the population was unhappy with how the state was run. That is, in fact, how most current states – most notably the United States – came to exist. Thus for a long time, periodic ‘state failure’ was the natural order of things.

Freezing the world map

This changed after World War Two, when the United Nations and a dense web of interlocking organizations were created internationally. States now had an international persona through seats at the UN and membership in those organizations, and effectively, an international credit or debit card. Then African states agreed not to change state borders as they existed at independence, because the result would be chaotic. The effective result was to ‘freeze’ the world map in place; states could no longer fail.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia did not leave any blank spaces on that map. They divided, one peacefully and one not, into smaller states within their former borders. All of these ‘successor’ states negotiated payment of the original state’s international debts and division of its assets.

Something different happened in Somalia – only part of the map was left blank. The liberation groups had planned to work together, after Said Barre was gone, to develop a new government structure. When one group in Mogadishu unilaterally declared a new government, however, Somaliland’s elders feared being dragged back into war. They decided to make the popular, democratic choice to take back the independence Somaliland had given up 30 years earlier in order to help create the state of Somalia.

It was not, however, a choice that the international community welcomed. For a long time, the international community saw Somaliland as a problem to be resolved rather than an opportunity to be welcomed. The question is why – why did the international community not see Somaliland’s achievement as pointing out a different way in which to work with post-conflict states? I think the answer lies in how we think about ‘governance’.

“Radical localization” of governance

One long-time Somali observer describes what happened in Somalia as the ‘radical localization’ of governance – a return to older and more locally effective governance. Before the colonial era, clans managed Somali governance in what one observer called a ‘pastoral democracy’. That underlying clan structure has never gone away and once Said Barre was gone, it began to reassert itself.

Where many Somalis saw new possibilities for locally-accountable governance, however, the international community saw chaos, conflict and famine – a lack of order and governance, to be remedied by restoring control through a central government. Some observers thought UN officials were so used to dealing with government officials that they automatically looked for equivalents, and found them in the leaders of the various armed groups – the war lords – rather than the elders.

Not everyone made this particular choice about how to restore order. Australian troops in Baidoa chose to work with the elders and NGOs to restore policing and governance locally. Initially, the senior UN official in Somalia wanted to work with the elders to lead the peace process, but he was replaced because he was critical of the international approach to post-war rebuilding.

Central governance had never worked

What the international community wanted to restore was a specific kind of governance – central government, from the top – that had never brought effective and accountable governance to Somalia. Parliamentary governance had collapsed early on due to rivalry between the clans over resources. While Somalis initially welcomed Said-Barre because they believed he would bring effective governance, he gradually militarized his state, increased clan rivalries, and tried to destroy the role of the elders.

Instead of using clan strength as a foundation for building something new, as people were doing in Somaliland, the international community’s strategies encouraged the traditional clan rivalry for resources. More than 14 conferences were held in attempts to create a new government, with little success but many bills.

Reflecting on why there was such a strong international determination to restore ‘central government’ to Somalia, one scholar suggested that there is international uneasiness when there is a blank space on the map and no address to which the bills can be sent. Unlike the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, Somalia did not divide up neatly into ‘successor states’, and thus there was no one with whom to negotiate the repayment of the massive debts incurred on Somalia’s behalf by Said-Barre’s government.

The results of two policy choices

It is important to reflect on the lessons of international engagement with Somalia because these same issues continue to arise. Somaliland and Somalia are clear demonstrations of the practical effects of two different policy choices about how to support peacebuilding and rebuilding after conflict.

In Somaliland, international involvement was very limited and where it did occur, focused primarily on restoring local capacity and systems (as in helping two major cities rebuild their systems of property taxation). Many Somalilanders now see that this lack of international interest in the early years effectively allowed them to work out these solutions locally among themselves.

In Somalia, international intervention has been sustained, expensive, and (much like Bosnia) effectively created a shadow kind of internationally-administered governance structure to provide the order that was seen to be lacking. The international focus has been on rebuilding governance from the top down, rather than from the bottom up. Elders have not been seen as a valuable resource in this process. Rather than building capacity, much of the international involvement has sucked out capacity.

Locally-led rebuilding is not easy. Somaliland did it with resources from its diaspora and largely without international help. Led by the elders, they used Somali traditions to resolve conflict at the local level and built on that foundation to create a consensus about state-level governance. In Somalia, however, the international strategy effectively precluded the possibilities for effective new forms of governance that could fulfill the promise offered by ‘radical localization’.