Somalia’s Federalism Woes Challenge Stability Amid Military Offensive

Benjamin Franklin’s satirical but serious call in 1754 for unity among British colonies in America

Federalism was supposed to help decentralize power from the Somali federal government (SFG) in order to give more authority to potentially more effective local administrations.

So far, the process has led to a fight among local and foreign elites over power in all its facets and served as an obstacle to short- and mid-term stability.

As AMISOM/Somalia forces seek to oust al-Shabaab from its territories in part in order to create the space for local political processes under the umbrella of federalism,  a contentious federalism process will continue to contribute to political instability (and, therefore, social service delivery) in areas taken over from al-Shabaab.  The matter of who appoints administrations in liberated territories and the nature and length of their mandate will be especially important for legitimacy in these areas.

Additionally, Somalia and its international partners in IGAD, UNSOM, and AMISOM have applied patch-up or unhelpful responses to federalism crises that do not address the causes of the conflict and merely add more layers of complexity.

Of course, regional and international actors are looking to accomplish their respective agendas in Somalia. But among any altruistic overtones that exist in taking the lead, allowing the SFG to be complacent in driving local, regional, and national solutions to crises in the federalism process will only create greater obstacles for finding sustainable and effective answers.

“Jubaland” Deal And Wider Federalism Conflict

The UN-endorsed and IGAD-sponsored negotiation of the Jubaland crisis in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa only involved two factions (Ras Kamboni leader Ahmed Madobe and President Hassan Sheikh’s right-hand man Farah Sheikh Abdulkadir) of a violent and sociopolitical conflict that (has always) involved a much wider group of stakeholders (clans, armed groups, political leaders, etc.) in southern and southwestern Somalia.

The fact that an important moment in the nascence of federalism was decided in Addis Ababa (after a Kismayo-based conference) will not be lost upon al-Shabaab or separately by anti-federalists that claim the federalism process is dominated as much by foreign interests as by too few domestic ones.

The Addis Ababa deal–which divided power between the SFG and Madobe in an Interim Jubba Administration (IJA)–set the stage for a more reactionary and contentious tone to “state-formation” conferences that had already been in the making–albeit at a slower pace than the Jubaland process.

Following the legitimacy granted to Madobe in the Addis Ababa agreement, it became clear that regional elites should convene state formation conferences–if nothing else–to legitimize or protect claims on regions amid an ad hoc federalism process constituted more by power politics than by constitutional measures. (Notably, there is inherent constitutional tension among authority of the parliament “determining” the number and boundaries of Federal Member States and regions having the right to “merge” via Article 49.)

Addis Ababa Deal Reverberates in Baidoa

For starters, the Addis Ababa agreement further emboldened Digil/Mirifle clan elites in Bay and Bakool who rejected the agreement as illegitimate, non-inclusive, and “giving away” lands that are the clans’ traditional territories.

However, more broadly, key voices of the Digil/Mirifle in Baidoa are not unified in their own effort to form a state, which could ultimately compromise its ability to achieve a solution that serves its purposes. One camp dubbed “Southwest 6 “(SW6) wants to form Southwest (SW) state including the Jubba region, Bay, Bay, Bakool, and Lower Shabelle.

Alternatively, “Southwest 3” (SW3) wants to form a politically “more practically-sized state”–as its de facto leader ex-Parliament Speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan has claimed–including Bay, Bakool, and Lower Shabelle.

When SW6 elected ex-cabinet minister Madobe Nunow as its President in early March 2014, the Somali government, UNSOM, AMISOM, and IGAD all did not react favorably to the result because it was perceived as impinging upon the terms of the Addis Ababa agreement. While this may be true, both parties to the Addis deal have been reluctant to fulfill several line items–including the integration of Ras Kamboni troops into the SNA and the handover of Kismayo port to the SFG; equally to blame, implementing partners of the deal have not been able to enforce these key clauses.

The regional and international powers-that-be would insist that the Addis deal remains “in effect,” but its exclusivity by nature and incomplete implementation means that using it as a tool to critique or guide other troubled federalism efforts is not the most persuasive argument for claiming which federalism processes have “legitimacy” and which do not.

UN Special Representative Nick Kay did make an excellent point in calling out the Somali government for not having yet created a consensus and inclusive agenda for the federalism process, as well as figuring out how to ratify and rectify the troubled provisional constitution.

But instead of the SFG engaging local leaders and communities in a genuine discussion of how the federalism process should proceed, it offered up a short-term and impractical solution to the Baidoa crisis that was in fact less helpful than the Addis Ababa agreement: it reportedly proposed to help Baidoa stakeholders built a 3 region state.

This series of events appeared to validate the political instincts of Sharif Hassan’s plans on the “practicality” of SW3 and that he carved a pathway to become “President” of a domestically-recognized SW state with Bay, Bakool, and Lower Shabelle when the selection process is to take place on 27 March 2014–if it is not delayed.

However, the SFG’s response created important obstacles to Sharif Hassan and the SW3 camp’s objective.  The “offer” to build SW3 further project the government’s SW3 bias among the Baidoa stakeholders that could make it more difficult to achieve a negotiated solution.

The SFG also made an offer that it could not back up in reality–if nothing else–because of the reaction that the SW state conferences had caused among some stakeholders in the Shabelle regions who wanted their own state.

Baidoa Crisis Reverberates In Lower Shabelle

As conferences in Baidoa were competing to form an administration in which Lower Shabelle would on paper be in either domain, a group of Lower Shabelle and Middle Shabelle delegates held tentative discussions about merging to form “Shabelle state,” quickly approved a constitution, and selected a (Digil clan) president Abuukar Cabdi Cusmaan and (Abgaal clan) vice president Muxuyadiin Xasan Afrax by 10 March 2014.

The idea of the Shabelle regions merging was not new, but the text of a Shabelle state press release stating that the delegates intended to seek a “resolution” with the Baidoa conferences was a huge sign that the process was in part in competition with–if not in reaction to–the fight over Lower Shabelle in Baidoa.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the legitimacy of the Shabelle state process was contested by Deputy Middle Shabelle governor Ali Osman Ibrahim, who rejected the outcome of the conference.

So, the SFG’s half-hearted plan to offer a way out of the Baidoa crisis fizzled out as quickly as it was offered up. The reality is that no solution to any of these crises can be resolved [1] at a brief and non-inclusive negotiation outside Somalia or [2] at a brief conference in Somalia with only a few stakeholders.

President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s inability to work with Prime Minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed and his cabinet on a vision, consensus, and process for federalism will continue to fuel the perception that Mogadishu is looking for federalism to fail as to not empower regional governments over a struggling central administration.

But putting this side, there are countless other issues that warrant discussion that are as important as this overly discussed polemic narrative.

Risk of Entrenched Positions

The longer that there is not a comprehensive solution to the federalism process, the more time that the current factions have to entrench their own political claims on territory that in many cases no one stakeholder really has “control” in any other sense.

It also means more conferences will pop up and continue to compete over borders, the organizers’ credibility, and the conference’s inclusivity.

Foreign Federalism Deals Don’t Work and Fuel al-Shabaab Propaganda

As noted many times before, non-inclusive deals struck in foreign countries have not contributed to locally legitimate and effective political solutions in Somalia.

Even worse, narratives that the federalism process is controlled by Kenya, Ethiopia, IGAD, and UNSOM and that these parties seek to accomplish their own interests (e.g., access to natural resources or ability to influence appointment of Somali officials sympathetic to respective foreign interests) are what in part fuel al-Shabaab propaganda against federalism.

Each step the international community takes in controlling the federalism process and letting the SFG off the hook in dealing with the crisis genuinely is a step in the wrong direction and one that al-Shabaab will say validates its claims.

Who Has the Right to Form A State? 

There is no consensus or constitutional clarity on which “local” parties have the authority to initiate state-formation processes–which in addition to natural rivalries is why competing conference keep forming.

Also, there is no metric for determining what is an “inclusive” state formation process; each state formation conference has been cast with allegations that is has excluded certain clans and sub-clans in some way.

Equally important, if Federal Member States are not to be simply clan “mini-states,” what role should clan representation play in the state formation process that does not guarantee the same clan dominance/marginalization dynamics that helped prompt the call for federalism in the first place?

Who is a Federal Member State (FMS)? 

State-formation processes are being initiated and “completed” with the presumption–either in the media or by officials themselves–that they are Federal Member States when in fact no such entities can exist (including Puntland) until a long constitutional process takes place.

What does a Federal Member State Do? 

As political observer Mohamed Ibrahim recently stated: Would-be FMS want the benefits of federalism without the sacrifices.

While regions legitimately complain that the SFG has inadequate protocols for sharing responsibilities, weapons, and resources, there is as much concern about the roles that regions play in a federal capacity (e.g. how Puntland and Ras Kamboni currently have a willfully negligible role in the Somali “National” Army) and a local capacity (e.g., has IJA in Kismayo delivered significant social services to areas throughout Lower Juba?)

The idea of federalism is so nascent that it so far only exists as a means to [1] serve as a venue for clan politics or [2] offer an opportunity to stake questionable claims on an important resources or line of boundaries–and not toward a genuine discussion of how to institutionalize and implement local social service delivery, create effective links between district and regional administrations, and move toward one person-one vote/non-clan oriented electoral and political party systems. Puntland has shown how difficult this can be to implement.

On one hand, the former are unavoidable and expected precursors to the latter.  On the other hand, at what point does the former end and the latter begin and what mechanisms facilitate this transition toward the institutions that drive federalism?

But without a doubt, the intra-region and inter-region conflict over the federalism process shows that core problems that contributed to unstable politics and ineffective social service delivery in the past have not been addressed sufficiently in the present. Therefore, the same legitimacy and efficacy problems that have hampered the central government could easily inhibit regional administrations–which have much less resources to gather revenue and implement programs.

This is all not to say that federalism cannot work in Somalia. But like a knife, it can be used either skillfully or with lethal results depending on the intent of the wielder, of which there are a growing number.

Categories: Jubaland, Kismayo, Somali Government

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1 reply


  1. Africa in Transition » Al Shabaab, AMISOM, and the United States

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