Somalia: Failed State and Failing Responses


Sandra Adong Oder, Senior Researcher, Peace Missions Programme, ISS Pretoria Office

That Somalia is a place of anarchy and disarray is one of the few statements on which consensus exists. For years, Somalia has been categorised in terms of its ‘statelessness’, and this in turn has defined how we respond to the situation in that country.

Since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime and the Republic of Somalia in 1991, many have taken it upon themselves to find a ‘state-building’ solution to the country’s woes. Somalia’s anarchy has assumed importance in international peace and security studies for good reason. Weak and failed states pose a challenge and have serious repercussions for their peoples, but they can also hurt neighbouring countries and cause regional instability. The underlying assumption here is that social, economic and political problems are not being dealt with by legitimate and representative state institutions. The prevention of state failure has thus become a pressing and legitimate security concern.

In a report released last month, the Failed States Index placed Somalia at the top of its list, and the country is in no danger of losing this position anytime soon. Broadly, the term ‘failed state’ is used to describe a state that has lost control of its territory or its monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force. This definition suggests that the state has been rendered ineffective and has lost its ability to enforce its authority throughout the whole of its territory, for a variety of reasons.

Produced by the Fund for Peace, the Failed States Index aims at explaining what ‘normal’ states experience and what constitutes a ‘failed’ state. Seeing Somalia in these terms leads to a whole series of assumptions about the situation in that country and how to ‘fix’ it, all based on these pre-defined, highly conventional notions of what a properly functioning state is. However, in effect, two diverging realities exist within the area classified as the legal entity of Somalia. In the north, two state-like entities have evolved, Somaliland and Puntland, while southern and central Somalia is marred by violence and anarchy. There is thus a sharp contrast between functioning de facto states in the north and a non-functioning de jure state in the south.

In our minds, an enduring conviction is that if anything is failing or has failed, it needs to be fixed. By naming the whole of Somalia a ‘failed state’, we then automatically assume the stance of problem solving in conventional, formulaic terms, rather than considering more pragmatic, if alternative, solutions to the anarchy that pervades Somali society. We thus start from a ‘failed’ state perspective and short-sightedly strive to create a modern, sovereign Weberian state, which is seen as a necessary prerequisite for peace, stability and security, with a view of reversing failures. As such, a large number of external efforts have been made to rebuild and reconstruct Somalia, where the international community and regional actors have invested in returning the country to statehood as we know it.

But over the years, a variety of local and smaller governance structures have emerged in that country – as opposed to large-scale actors – which are often to a considerable extent effective in governing smaller parts of the country. In recent times, what has emerged along the coast could be likened to a loose bunch of city-states, where, for example, in Mogadishu, business interests are a key factor in interactions. Regional and community-level initiatives exist, but have one thing in common:  a resistance to the creation of a unitary state. One clear example is Somaliland, which remains committed to its own statehood and is opposed to any resurrection of the Republic of Somalia. But we are not reading into this focus and are still advocating for increasing conventional state-building assistance.

A second and more critical perspective is the lingering conviction that ‘state building’ and ‘peacemaking’ are the same thing. A consequence of this is that responses conflate these concepts and do not take into account the interplay, tensions and trade-offs between them. However, if these concepts are interrogated critically, one could conclude that state-building efforts, particularly by external actors, have the tendency to undermine peacebuilding and may actually increase violence.

A third perspective is to critically understand who the actors are, the nature of their motives and interests, and why they are dead set on prolonging the lawlessness and stateless conditions in Somalia. In 2003, Menkhaus listed three such actors, mainly of an internal nature. The first are those who profit from a protracted conflict; the second are criminal elements; and the third are risk-averse actors, including political and business communities, who stand to lose more from the establishment of a state than from its absence. According to Menkhaus, rather than face uncertainty and loss, they choose the safer option of maintaining the status quo.

An interesting addition to this list is the category of external actors with vested interests, which they will pursue irrespective of their effects on peacemaking or state building. During the Cold War, Somalia was a valuable ally to the West and as a result, security concerns overrode humanitarian operations in the 1980s. While the Cold War is now over, Somalia’s current ‘statelessness’ allows regional actors to freely play their power games in the country, and one can argue that some of the security dynamics in Somalia are actually functions of the wider security concerns in the Horn of Africa. In this regard, Somalia’s ‘statelessness’ may even arguably be a driver of inter-state conflicts in the region.

So instead of imposing a ‘failed state’ category on contemporary Somalia that may merely drive further instability, perhaps we should encourage existing trends and try to shape them in terms of realistic expectations and not engage in ‘state building’, but rather in ‘system building’, and then expect the dividends of ‘peacebuilding’. This may include arguing for the further formation of smaller ‘state-like’ entities like Somaliland and Puntland. Adopting such a mind shift would have consequences for any intervening party, particularly external actors, who will be required to adopt different strategies to achieve political ends.

In conclusion, the Failed State Index’s analysis relies on the assumption that the ‘state’ is the best tool for preserving peace, and in the absence of peace, it is the best response. This may prove to be a tragic misconception that will continue to haunt the continent if we continue to misread its political history. We should rather focus at the level of the capacity of leaders to address their ‘failed state’ projects in alternative ways. Another important consideration is for the leadership, including external actors, to understand that maintaining the status quo is not an option for a weary and overburdened Somali citizenry.

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