Aug 8, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Will Somalia’s New Constitution Bow to Old Behavior?

In what many hope will be a milestone moment in Somalia’s political recovery, the 825-member National Constituent Assembly (NCA) in Mogadishu approved a provisional constitution one week ago designed to replace the Transitional Federal Charter of 2004. You can read about the contents here.

The new constitution was endorsed by a remarkable 96 percent of the 645 representatives that were present at the time of voting, and the NCA — whose membership includes an assortment of politicians and traditional leaders from around the country — will now move to select 275 Somalis to serve in a session of parliament that will elect a new president on August 20, the date when the 2004 Charter expires. At least three prominent government officials have already announced their intentions to run for executive office. Many others are expected to contest the election as well.

While a number of domestic politicians and international actors, including the UN Secretary General, are hailing this moment as a tremendous achievement, it should be noted that this new constitution is hardly the final word on Somalia’s impossibly protracted transition. Since the civil war of the late 1980s bled into the overthrow of President Siad Barre and the total collapse of the Somali state, there have been well over a dozen attempts to reconcile the disparate actors and interests, both formal and informal, with all achieving either partial or total failure. Largely characterized by intense competition over clan representation for even the initial stages of negotiation, these efforts became less about holistic political solutions to unify Somalia and more about securing an arrangement of power to benefit one’s particular group or clan community.

A preliminary reading of the new transitional process reveals that despite a democratic and highly ambitious constitution, little has changed in these fundamental political behaviors. Of the remaining NCA responsibilities, two of the most consequential include publishing a public list of traditional elders and, of course, selecting the membership for the new parliament — which may in turn draw heavily from the traditional leader list. These actions not only recognize the importance of clan politics, they institutionalize clan influence during a formative (and some would say determinative) period where the choices about representation, electoral systems, and participation all leave legacies that may predict, in part, the future character of the state.

But much of this was entirely foreseeable. And in the end, conceding the reality of clan influence rather than cutting against the grain to engineer alternative political identities may be the only way to generate enough political agreement to unify the country under one constitution and a single, if decentralized, political system. If unity is in fact the goal — one which most international actors seem to desire — then the expedient use of traditional institutions could yield short-term gains. Traditional leaders carry with them large constituencies that are often inclined to support agreements made by elders on behalf of the community. Yet questions remain about the long-term viability of a democracy whose institutions and offices are seen as a reward for parochial interests, rather than an opportunity to promote national growth and development.

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8 Comments

  • Well, it’s not a democracy and is unlikely to become one anytime soon. The question I think we need to ask is what kind of state and government is realistic that represents something better than the status quo? Historically, the evolution of the state was from decentralized violence to centralized violence to domesticated violence (i.e., roving bandits to the stationary bandit to the police). There seems to be a lot of interest in having Somalia skip the middle step. Is that realistic or does Somalia need a Kagama or Musevini-type figure to create authoritarian order out of a disorganized and violent mess?

  • The status quo for the past 20 years has been almost no government, in large part because all of the actors/clans/regions couldn’t agree on a centralized approach that made everyone happy. Based the many failed peace attempts that fixated on central power, I’m not so sure a Somali Kagama is the best path. I’m also not sure the clans would support it. Somaliland has been pursuing their own path to independence for some time, albeit largely unrecognized. Puntland’s own parallel transition, though not aimed at independence, certainly hopes to provide serious leverage for a federal system that grants regions enormous autonomy. From conversations, many Puntlanders want to remain part of a unified state, but resent the decades following 1960 independence when the government centralized power in Mogadishu and shared few resources with outlying regions. They probably won’t accept a similar strong-man system. If a Kagama did emerge, it’s possible Puntland might adopt Somaliland’s approach, and the central government could end up in conflict against not one, but two regions that no longer wish to remain a part of Somalia. In a society where everyone has a gun, this path seems dangerous.

    I’m not sure what the best option would be. AMISOM will likely stay in Somalia for some time to provide security against al Shabaab. With a weak economy and strict US laws against remittances, it also may be unlikely that the new government will have the resources to significantly strengthen and expand its own military. So the path that might keep all groups supportive of the process (decentralization) also might be the one pursued out of necessity, since the various regions might be in a better position to provide for their own security. Puntland currently has its own police, and has been comparatively stable for some time. Somaliland as well. South/Central remains the bigger challenge. I guess we’ll see how shabaab responds to the new government, and vice versa.

  • [...] the overall compatibility of this system with the new Somalia constitution that I wrote about earlier this week. For now, it will be interesting to watch as new associations register, and to observe how all [...]

  • I agree with your assessment. Isn’t “decentralization” just a code word for letting every clan do what it wants?

  • Privately, most might admit that. But within Puntland/Somaliland, the larger clans break down into an incredible number of sub-clans, all of which compete with each other for political voice as well. So giving those regions more power will also raise the stakes among all sub-clans. And depending on what that power looks like, and how the system treats participation, that might either lead to intense conflict, or negotiated pacts among many clans to accrue enough power to contend on a national scale. Maybe both?

  • More power compared to what? More power than they currently have according to some worthless pieces of paper that everyone ignores or more power than they currently possess de facto?

  • More power compared to what? More power than they currently have according to some worthless pieces of paper that everyone ignores or more power than they currently possess de facto?

  • [...] ongoing challenges that stand between Somalia and genuine political change in a couple of previous posts. The short version is that the method of selecting the new government has institutionalized the [...]

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