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A New Somalia will be born out of Its Constituents

For many outsiders, the state of Somalia (its political, social, economic and cultural reality) is an enigma. It is a profound puzzle to many non-Somalis that Somalia isn’t constituted today as a modern, functioning state with an administration that has power and authority over the geographical region that cartographers still map as Somalia. Indeed many people not conversant with Somalia do not understand that what is always imagined as one state is actually a collection of regions, with Somaliland, Puntland and Somalia, co-existing, as part of the larger dream of a unified Somalia.

What should be most surprising though about Somalia is that despite the collapse of a central government, war, invasion by foreign forces, drought, migration and instability ravaging Somalia (by which I mean the dreamed-of united nation-state) the idea of a country has never fully died. The Somali people continue to tenaciously hold onto the belief that a greater Somalia will be re-formed one day, in the future. Whether this dream will become a reality or not, only time will tell. But as Markus Virgil Hoehne shows in his study Between Somaliland and Puntland: Marginalization, Militarization and Conflicting Political Visions (The Rift Valley Institute, 2015), even those who don’t see themselves today as belonging to a centralized entity, still imagine themselves as one day being part of a larger Somali family.

Hoehne’s book makes a fascinating reading for someone seeking an elementary understanding of how clan politics is instrumental to the Somalia nation-state. Although there is copious research on how clan is the root of the idea and ideal of Somali and Somalia nationhood and the conflicts that have consumed the country in its postcolonial period, Hoehne’s study, which looks at this issue from around 2002 to 2014, raises the images of how destructive the politics of belonging to and control over clan and territory in its 21st century formations has been.  He shows how the two regions of Somaliland and Puntland exemplify processes of “…state formation in the making after state collapse.” His study “… focuses on a volatile area where these process have become most obvious: the borderlands between Somaliland and Puntland. These border areas pose critical challenges for the experiments in self-government in Somaliland and Puntland. It is here, too, that new forms of autonomy – clan ‘statelets’ – have emerged over the past few years.”

In Between Somaliland and Puntland, Hoehne shows how despite Somaliland breaking off from Somalia, the two regions have created some semblance of peace and progress but have also had to live with the problems that have always bedeviled the larger Somalia: clan suspicions, intra- and inter-clan differences, inter- and intra-regional conflicts, religious influences on militant groups, the role of the Somali diaspora in politics at home, regional influences and interferences, geopolitics and their impact on Somalia etc.

Among the most striking features of Between Somaliland and Puntland is the fact that although Hoehne clearly states that he is ‘biased’ to a degree, because of his sense of affiliation to Somaliland – having entered Somalia through Hargeysa – he still doesn’t necessarily seek to impose a northern Somalia view on his readers. Indeed, he argues that the processes that he refers to in the quotation above, which are dynamics that most define northern Somalia, must be considered by all if the larger Somalia is to rise out of its current divisions. He writes, “These dynamics are not only relevant to the stability of northern Somalia but have implications for the whole of Somalia because it is here that relations between Somaliland and the rest of Somalia will be decided. Even once the city of Mogadishu and the whole of southern Somalia are at peace, the future of the Somali state or states will be taking shape in areas that remain contested. In this sense, the borderlands are central to the future of the Somali people.”

The point to highlight in Hoehne’s book, therefore, is the importance of regionalism in the imagination of a broader Somali state. If a shared language, religion and broadly speaking culture can’t offer immediate conditions for an agreement on the need for a once more stable, peaceful and integrated Somalia, then those who seek a united Somali state must seriously begin to see the country as a federation. The fact that the rulers in Somaliland have ensured a certain degree of peace and stability that has guaranteed its citizens ‘normal’ life, and considering that Puntland too continues to be relatively ‘peaceful’ suggest that there are already in place ideas and practices that could bring peace, stability and progress to the bigger Somali state. The disagreements and conflicts between Somaliland and Puntland, as Hoehne shows, may have perpetuated a state of insecurity and caused immense human suffering of those who live on the border between the two regions, but they may not be as damaging, in the long run, as the continued siege of parts of southern Somalia by the al Shabaab.  

Considering that Puntland, although separated from Somaliland and Somalia, still believes in a federal republic of Somalia, and its central position between the two regions, in many ways suggests that the country hasn’t totally disintegrated. The recent successful presidential elections in Somalia points to some new beginning if a spirit of give and take is generated by it, which should add energy to the efforts to re-make Somalia. This should be the beginning of conversations on how all the constituent parts of Somalia can negotiate for peace in the country, assuming that there can be an agreement between the different groups and regions about the need to have a country.

“…If a shared language, religion and broadly speaking culture can’t offer immediate conditions for an agreement on the need for a once more stable, peaceful and integrated Somalia, then those who seek a united Somali state must seriously begin to see the country as a federation.”

It is pretty much the same people – the intellectuals, businesspeople, the political class, the diaspora and ordinary Somalis – who will create a new Somalia out of its disparate parts. The intellectuals, who have always provided some kind of ideological basis for each of the regions in the conflict; the religious leaders, who carry with them the spiritual energy behind some of the militias and political groups in the conflict; the politicians, who generally fan the interethnic differences and tensions; the diaspora, which continues to offer sustenance to many of their relatives back at home and often financial support to the warring groups; and the ordinary Somalis, who provide the foot soldiers to the different political formations, regional groupings and even private militia, will all have to consider the many policy options such as offered by Hoehne offers in Between Somaliland and Puntland  – on resolving the impasse between Somaliland and Puntland in Dhulbahante territories and the Golis Mountains– in order to resolve the crisis in the country. Among these include: avoiding military confrontation, negotiating with legitimate representatives, having moderate and achievable aims for restoring peace and security, develop a nonviolent approach that addresses structural problems etc. 

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. 

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