The EconomistAT THE end of the colonial era Somalia was arguably in ethnic terms
the most homogeneous country in sub-Saharan Africa. The nearest to it
was probably Botswana, which is four-fifths Tswana—and turned out to be
peaceful and prosperous, suggesting to some that countries populated and
run by a single big tribe have a better chance of stability than those
with a hotch-potch of smaller ones.
Friday, May 10, 2013
Somalia, however, became a byword for conflict, poverty and
ungovernability. Yet its ethnic homogeneity is misleading. Despite also
sharing a single language and religion, it is divided into more than 500
clans and sub-clans, who are notoriously fractious and competitive.
This, as well as their largely nomadic way of life, has made many
Somalis fiercely loth to accept the edicts of a central government.
The last man to exert real authority from the capital, Mogadishu, was
a military dictator, Siad Barre, who was ousted in 1991. His downfall
was the cue for two decades of civil war. Can the country’s latest
president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was elected by parliament last
September, do any better, while using democratic methods?
So far, so good. An uneasy peace holds in much of Somalia, thanks
largely to a promise of federalism and decentralised power. Under the
prodding of Britain, which has been leading a foreign push to put
Somalia on its feet again, the new government accepts that the half a
dozen or so of Somalia’s fiefs that enjoy a measure of autonomy should
be given their head—and should be only gradually drawn back, if
possible, into accepting central authority. So far the mosaic of clans,
with their shifting alliances, have mainly held back from openly
challenging Mr Mohamud’s government while they wait to see how resources
and authority will be shared.
But Mohamed Omar, the foreign minister of Somaliland, a northern
breakaway from the rump of Somalia, says the government in Mogadishu has
achieved little despite its international backing. Both Somaliland and
Puntland, a semi-autonomous north-eastern region, cold-shouldered a
grand international conference on Somalia in London on May 7th. “The
days when Somalia could be governed from the centre are over,” he said.
“Anyone who brings them back will not bring peace.”
A former university dean and civil-rights activist, Mr Mohamud is
well liked by foreign governments. In London they pledged $300m in aid
in return for his promise of a “new Somalia”. But at home his writ only
runs in the areas controlled by forces (mostly Ugandans, Kenyans and
Ethiopians) under the aegis of the African Union. He is being closely
watched for any signs of breaching his federal pledge.
Some worry that big tasks, such as completing a new constitution,
outlining how power will be shared and setting up commissions to define
boundaries and electoral systems, have yet to begin. Matt Bryden, a
Canadian who runs Sahan Research, a Somali-oriented think-tank in
Nairobi, notes that “none of the work has been done towards federalism,”
letting critics allege that the government is more centralist than it
admits. They fret that the new security forces and police will be
dominated by Mr Mohamud’s powerful Hawiye clan.
Abdi Aynte, the head of the Heritage Institute, a think-tank based in
Somalia, complains that too many conspiracy theories abound. The
president has no hidden agenda, he says, and “an incredibly hard job”.
Still, some of Mr Mohamud’s opponents in rival clans are still backing
the Shabab, the armed Islamists linked to al-Qaeda that previously
dominated the country, to destabilise him. In the past month, scores of
people were killed in two Shabab suicide-attacks in Mogadishu.
The United States, which has spent $1.5 billion channelled through
the African Union to bring better security, and Britain, which promised
another $280m in aid this week, are keen to take credit for gains in
Somalia. “Somalia has begun a rapid recovery in the last year,” said
Justine Greening, Britain’s development minister, at the conference.
“But this will be put at risk if the Somali government cannot manage its
own public finances properly, avoid future famines or tackle terrorism
and piracy.” Quite so.